I recently re-read Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, the classic guide to writing. E.B. White gives us an image, "Will [Strunk] felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, a man floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get his man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope." The book's rule number 13 for saving the reader is: "Omit needless words."
Josephine Halvorson's still life paintings save us from the swamp by omitting needless paint.
I was not familiar with Halvorson until I ran into her work at the Perception as Object exhibition opening, January 8, 2009, at Monya Rowe Gallery. I saw a row of five, modestly sized, immaculate trompe l'oeil paintings. Fortuitiously, Alyssa Pheobus, a draftswoman I know, was at the opening and is friends with Halvorson. We were introduced and talk about her work. Halvorson offered that I can see more paintings down the street at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., but the exhibition closes soon.
There is suspense and stagecraft in the presentation of the objects in Halvorson's still lifes -- a whiff of Hitchcock. I am intrigued by the way they are structured and by the paint itself. Each of the five works at Monya Rowe Gallery: the envelope, the boarded window, the puzzle, the math worksheet, even the farm machine have a finite space you could measure with a ruler. Within these shallow spaces, however, there are puns and jokes embedded into the paint strokes. A playfulness abounds. The colors are somber, humble, as if from an earlier, more simple time, but the compositions are sophisticated, witty and dry.
Halvorson paints each work in one sitting and in situ. Her method is exacting and it is not always easy or straightforward to locate her subject and finish the work. I hear from her about one of the paintings, "Farm Machine (Squeeze Chute.)" Sitting in front of the machine, in a barn on a farm she "thought she had permission" to visit, she is interrupted by the farmer. An inquisition ensues. It goes both ways; the artist secures permission to paint and learns what the machine does (it holds the cow in place during vaccination.)
Another painting at the Monya Rowe Gallery is "Envelope Back." The painting was made on the first day of January, 2009 -- we know because the date is written on the painting -- just days before we are standing in front of it. There is a story about the envelope, but I don't know what it is. I can only guess. It has been openend two ways, slit open at the bottom with an opener, and also at the top. But is has been taped shut. I surmise one scenario: what is inside has been sealed, opened, resealed, sent and opened by someone else. Or was it returned after opening, did it come "back?" What is inside the envelope? What does the year ahead hold for us?
Several days later, I take in nine of Halvorson's paintings at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. They are the same modest size. The list of titles reads like a poem" "Batterie Allemande," "Chateau Souvenir," "Dirty Window," "Hot Coals," " Crumbs," "Three Photo Albums," "Momento Mori," "Meter," "Fireplace Farm." Unexpectedly, Halvorson walks into the gallery, I've been speculating about if she works larger? There is a restraint in her work, and I wonder if it ever takes flight. Halvorson offers that the work is intentionally small (in "relation to the body") and in keeping with still life tradition -- it is portable work originally intended for a middle class audience.
Halvorson emphasizes that she often selects subjects that are "inconsequential." The drama and commitment to the act of painting has consequences that imbue the overlooked objects with a presence. I feel it is not so much that the subjects she paints lack consequence -- the farm machine certainly has consequences for the cow, the envelope for the sender and the receiver, the tombstone in "Memento Mori," for its owner -- it is that the consequences are "off stage." The audience is eavesdropping on the main characters, piecing the story together.
I don't think I needed to have met Halvorson to have connected with her work. But her emphasis on being with her subject and finishing it in one sitting is now tied to my experience of meeting her twice -- and of being with her and her work. It feels like a balanced equation, the prerequisites for transferring experience and meaning. The paintings don't have figures in them, they are strictly still lifes. But, they have the evidence of people's actions, their presence imbued by Halvorson's disciplined approach to their creation.
"Envelope Back," 2009, 14" x 17," oil on linen at Monya Rowe Gallery courtesy of the artist
"Josephine Halvorson", by Litia Perta, The Brooklyn Rail