My first pastels...

stlukesguild

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Some 15 years ago I lost my studio much like today. At that time I was making large figurative paintings in oils. Reduced to working in my house , I found that even small oil paintings 3x5" caused the whole house to smell of turpentine, linseed, damar varnish, etc... and so I stopped painting altogether. Around the same time, I attended a professional development meeting with other art teachers for which we were expected to bring some materials: old books, old papers, old photographs, etc... At the meeting we were prompted to create our own collage from our materials. This was the result:

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-Sonnet (for Emily)

I hadn't made any collages since right out of art school when I sent a couple to a few girlfriends:

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-New York Valentine

I liked the result of the collage, Sonnet (for Emily) and as a huge fan of Joseph Cornell and an unabashed bibliophile I realized that this media was one that I could explore while forced to work off my dining room table. For about 5 years, these collages were my sole artistic output.

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-Tense and on Edge

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-The Nightingale Approaches

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-Ghost Sonata

125- J.S. Bach SuiteThe Poetry of Perfumed Letters.JPG

-Poetry and Perfumed Letters

Around this time, my collages were noticed by a number of other artists who were active in the National Collage Society and was invited to publish an essay I had written in defense of collage as an artistic medium:


In Defense of Collage

“I loved maudlin pictures, the painted panes over doors, stage

sets, the backdrops of mountebanks, old inn signs, popular

prints, antiquated literature, church Latin, erotic books

innocent of all spelling, the novels of our grandfathers,

fairytales, children’s storybooks, old operas, inane refrains,

and artless rhythms.”

-Rimbaud


Recently a question was put forth by a fellow artist challenging the continued relevancy of collage. “Was not collage,” it was asked, “with its collected bits and pieces and bric-a-brac, an inherently sentimental medium?” Originally educated/trained as a painter, I often had similar doubts about the relevancy of such a dated, slow medium as painting in this age of computers and Photoshop. Still, I don’t believe that either painting, nor collage can be quite so easily pigeon-holed as to being no more than media of the past.

The very nature of collage/assemblage… constructed, as it were, from fragments of diverse imagery and materials, is open to a plethora of interpretations: It might stand as a metaphor for the speed of our modern world and the impossibility of a single linear narrative. It might an allusion to the fragmentation and collapse of our society… our culture… of art itself. It might exist as a metaphor of mortality… or of rebirth… physical or spiritual (through recycling?). It might be used anachronistically: the absurd combination of the new and the old. It might represent the urge to preserve the past… as a diary or reliquary of memory. It might reveal through its very form, the cacophony of our world. It might even speak of other art forms: of toys, books, furniture, the theater, architecture, and more… All of this I am aware of and intrigued by.

At the same time, it must be admitted that there’s a cultural history with assemblage and collage. Collage and assemblage seem to have been perfectly tailored to the United States. America, after all, is a country of melded and recycled cultures, constructed of fragments of older beliefs, systems, and values. What could be a better metaphor of this than an art equally composed of merged fragments?

continued...
 
Beyond this, there’s an argument to be made for creating art from one’s native resources. Thus, the Italians frequently use the marble quarried in Carrara , while the Germans prefer wood cut from the Black Forest. The United States is a country overflowing with refuse… the discarded remains of our consumer culture… the idyllic(?) resource for the American artist. Can we imagine the art of Robert Rauschenberg as having been born from any other culture than that of urban America? It also must be admitted that the methods of the collage/assemblage artist have much more to do with American culture (the work of artisans and craftsmen: woodworkers , carpenters , builders ,limners , engineers , and architects) than the virtuoso “fine art” of painting or sculpted marble. I think here of the still-life paintings of William Harnett and John Peto who fetishized the mundane in a manner that stands as the spiritual precursors to Joseph Cornell and Robert Rauschenberg.

Undoubtedly, it must be admitted that certain approaches to collage… those which consciously utilize the aged and weathered materials, flirt with sentimentality… yet is not collage by its very nature, in the manner in which fragments of refuse… of abandoned, discarded, and cast off images, materials and objects are miraculously transformed into new works of great beauty and poetic resonance… inherently a “romantic” endeavor? Yes, there’s a danger of “sentimentality” in collage, but there’s always a “danger” in art. For the big painter, there’s a danger of pretentiousness. For the artists utilizing the latest technologies and images, there’s the danger that a few short years later such works will be no more than embarrassing “period pieces.”

Personally, I find that collage and assemblage allow me to explore a vast range of interests. Yes, I have to admit that there is something of an attempt to capture memory… the past… history in my work. There is also something of a meditation upon the transitory nature of life… of mortality. But there is a lot more, as well. I must declare that my own work in the genre draws inspiration from numerous other sources.

The structure of my assemblage works often owe quite a bit to architecture and furniture. I have long studied buildings (especially the ecclesiastical) from various eras: Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance, and Victorian. My works also owe something to medieval reliquaries and icons. I also draw inspiration from the structures and the mood or atmosphere of music… I am always imagining Bach’s “geometry” given concrete form. In theme and concept my assemblage and collage owes as much (if not more) to books and literature as it does to anything else.

Like the surrealist poets ,T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Marinetti, I often draw together fragments of language and text. In fact I am profoundly fascinated by the possibilities of an art form which combines the visual arts with text or paint. If there is a predecessor to collage in my mind, it is clearly the Gothic cathedral in which so many arts were wed in the service of a single (spiritual) goal.

Just recently I was at a conference given to public art school teachers which dealt with the issue of collage. I was surprised that a good number of art teachers started to ask questions about the legality and even the ethics of using someone else’s images. Hadn’t they ever seen Kurt Schwitter’s or Joseph Cornell’s work, I wondered. More shocking, was the response. The lecturer stated that such appropriation of imagery (if the original was not one’s own) was open to use by educators, for educational uses… but if it was to be sold or published proper permission should be acquired. Collage, it seems to me, is not a medium trapped in the past, but rather it is at the edge of current technologies (Photoshop editing, music “sampling”) as well as current controversies of Intellectual Property Rights… (for better or worse).

There’s a truly intriguing and beautifully written (and very slim) book by the contemporary poet, Charles Simic, entitled, Dimestore Alchemy. The book is a beautiful series of meditations upon the work of Joseph Cornell, whom Simic sites as inspiring his own approach to poetry. In one meditation, Simic suggests that the use of collage/assemblage/ montage… fragments of pre-existing imagery… might just be THE most important innovation of modern art. In a similar literary manner, Hermann Hesse’s “Glass Bead Game” or “Magister Ludi”, prophesied a future in which new art, as once created, would cease to exist. Instead, what we would have was a “game” of reassembling fragments from the past. Of course, this “game,” I would argue, has led to some of the most beautiful “original” art of the last century.

*****

In spite of these "inspirational" words on the art of collage, I would only complete a few more collages prior to my return to painting/drawing. I had become frustrated and somewhat dissatisfied with my work for some time. A studio partner pointed out that while I was making these abstract collages, my walls were covered in reproductions of favorite paintings... every one of which was figurative:

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Around the same time, I traveled to Washington to see an exhibition of paintings by Anselm Kiefer at the Hirshhorn Museum. While I was there, I naturally went to the National Gallery. They had a exhibition of paintings by the masters of the Venetian Renaissance: Giorgione, Bellini, Titian, Veronese, etc... and “that was all she wrote.” I realized I could no longer avoid my passion for drawing… especially for drawing the human figure… and my obsession with color.

As I returned to oil paints, I found myself struggling at first. After some efforts painting small still life of simple objects (books, empty bottles, rolls of toilet paper, etc...) I thought I should focus upon drawing first... and slowly bring color into play. I had made a good many large charcoal drawings during my time in art school... and these were among my most successful work of that period. So I thought, why not explore pastel? It's just colored charcoal, right? And besides... how hard could it be? 😆

My first efforts were mediocre at best...

1. Annunciation1.700.jpg

-Annunciation

2. Visitation.jpg.jpg

-Visitation

The architectural settings weren't bad... but the figures were miserable. I ended up taking some figure drawing courses to polish up on this aspect of my work. I also found myself absolutely fighting with the media. I would soon discover that no one should ever use cheap pastels. I was using a couple of those sets that cost around $20 for 30 or 40 different colors... and I got what I paid for. I was also fighting with the scale. Visitation, for example, was nearly 6 feet tall. No one had ever told me that pastels on such a scale were literally unheard of.
 
Your collages are fascinating David! I particularly like the first one and Poetry and Perfumed Letters.
 
Shortly after these earliest works I moved toward the format that I have continued to work in until recently. I employed a tall, narrow format 80" in height. I began to combine acrylic with the pastel... and following a joking comment by a studio partner, I began to also use gold leaf. Initially, I was uncertain how the pastel and acrylic would work together. Acrylic, after all, has a shiny, plastic sheen. But I was using a type of acrylic that was very matte and worked well with the matte pastel. Amazingly, the gold left worked equally well... although I feel the earlier efforts with the gold leaf were quite heavy-handed:

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-Adoration

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Annunciation3-Detail2.s.JPG


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Around this time, I really began to recognize the importance of seeing works of art in person. All my collages were 8.5x11" and could be scanned on my scanner at actual scale. But my pastels look far different and IMO far better when seen in real life. When an 80" tall painting is shrunk down to a 5" tall reproduction you loose a hell of a lot of the subtle details and nuances.
 
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