Thursday, May 6, 2010
What is Real?
Josephine Halvorson, "Coral", 2009, 18" x 23", Oil on Linen (image courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.)
Anne Sherwood Pundyk, " A Little Kiss for Me", 2009, 10" x 8", Oil and Acrylic on Panel
Flesh or living matter is not a subject in Josephine Halvorson’s trompe l’oeil paintings. All of the materials, objects and substances she chooses to paint are inorganic or formerly organic at the time she paints them. Nothing alive can be found in her modest-sized paintings. So why do her paintings have such a palpable presence?
I turn to my own work to help me think through the answer. Several years ago, as I was sorting out an approach to painting, I decided that objects, landscapes and people were three distinct conceptual categories. The way I used paint when approaching each category would have to be completely different. With objects, I felt comfortable painting them. They were known entities and I could use a type of mimicry. With the brushwork I could construct with paint, more or less, how the object itself was constructed, situated and lit.
Landscape, I understood, could be painted (not represented, but conjured in paint) through a dance-like process. Landscape is everything beyond the object or outside the skin. Movement, as orientation, not mimicry, was the key to landscape. And then there was flesh. I studied traditional portraits; I looked extensively at other figure paintings. Sargent, Manet, Vermeer, Morisot, Cassatt. Time passed. My obsession with finding the alchemical formula for painting flesh continued. And it wasn't merely the flesh I wanted to paint. It was the resemblance, the form, the anatomy, the skeleton, the movement, the breath, the expression, the person, and the presence. Cecily Brown's work seemed to point the way -- other artists, too, including Amy Sillman, Francis Bacon, and even almost purely abstract work such as Joan Mitchell's.
Immanual Kant's Critique of Judgment provided the key. His methodological, categorical approach to the mysteries of beauty and the sublime opened a door. I became aware of the correspondence of the painter's body (and consciousness) to the world and the same correspondence shared between the artwork to the audience. I think it is just in my most recent work that -- by not trying to contain the notion of flesh, but paint the spirit contained in the flesh -- I can paint a living presence and world.
Now, back to Halvorson’s work. She has a clear-eyed, stripped down approach to both selecting her subjects (does she find them or do they find her?) and painting them in situ. Her choices appear to be the universe of the inorganic -- the breath, life and growth of her subjects are no longer present. But then it occurred to me what was happening. Her paint is the flesh. The act of painting her “overlooked subjects" (as she describes them) gives them their life.
Halvorson has linked her work to the children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit: or How Toys Become Real by Margery Williams (with illustrations by William Nicholson.) An inert toy rabbit grows conscious of the possibility of becoming not only beloved by the boy he belongs to, but a real flesh and blood rabbit. The toy rabbit must gain the boy’s love while surviving a lifetime of wear and tear. Another toy tells him, “…Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand." Halvorson’s planks, embers, gravestones, twigs and bricks have weathered several lifetimes and through her understanding they are resurrected in paint.