New painting incorporating neon sign by Peter Illig. The Nuts and Bolts, 42×54″, oil on wood, with neon sign, 2016.
New painting incorporating neon sign by Peter Illig. The Nuts and Bolts, 42×54″, oil on wood, with neon sign, 2016.
Peter Illig is a staple in Denver’s art scene. Having aggressively worked for the last twelve years as an artist, in “Full Fathom Five,” Illig exhibits new works that epitomize his signature style. Known for his use of monochromatic imagery, realist style and surrealist composition, Illig has created five new large-format oil paintings for this exhibition.
This series of work explores Illig’s interest in appropriation and in paint-on-paint pastiche. He has incorporated various images of pre-existing work – including Gericualt’s “Raft of the Medusa” and Winslow Homer’s “Gulf Stream.” Atop these underpaintings, Illig inserts seemingly incongruous images. The effect of this is simultaneously unsettling and intriguing. The exhibition’s title was also taken from seasoned artists, both Shakespeare and Sylvia Plath have used “Full Fathom Five.” Illig sees the process of appropriation as a means to build on the art and ideas that history has provided, in new visually and intellectually challenging ways. This method allows him to show how ideas, events and art of the past and present are all connected –a prominent idea in Illig’s work.
Known for his monochromatic paintings, Illig believes that the monochrome, specifically black and white, offers a documentary quality to the work-presenting ideas honestly and truthfully, where the seductive nature of color can distract the viewer from the ideas presented in the work.
Illig’s canvases are saturated with images and loaded with metaphor which creates a very active viewing experience-the eye is pulled back and forth across the work, and eagerly searches for the answer to the puzzle Illig presents. Illig takes inspiration from quantum physics, philosophy and theory to develop his work. He also aggressively addresses modern issues and themes. This series is heavily dependent on the imagery of water, a metaphor for deeply felt emotion.
An older painting from 1996. Peter Illig, 45×62 in., oil on canvas.
The studio which we see in the picture is not even Matisse’s but loaned to him by an American woman, a sculptor, who worked in the South of France. So the painting has many generations of removal from a genuine, actual experience. An artist working in a borrowed studio, borrowing ideas from the young woman’s body, is photographed in black and white but the photographer, Brassai, who (in a sense) borrows the image and prints it on photographic paper. it is then printed in a book by a publisher. An artist (me) borrows the book from a library. The photo is borrowed (or appropriated, if you will), drawn on canvas and painted translated into color. Now it is produced on more time in this paper and may be borrowed for exhibition in the future. The image has a lot of miles on it and it becomes hard to say who owns it. It is a promiscuous image.
I was struck by the resemblance of the older Henri Matisse to Sigmund Freud. His white coat seemed to easily translate to a scientist’s lab coat – Freud carrying on research.
This is a rare viewing experience: a show of artworks made by artists painting over other painters’ work. I know, sounds like a novelty stunt but it’s much more than that. Denver artist Doug Kacena, along with the help of Mike Wright, the director of Mike Wright Gallery in Denver, arranged to acquire paintings by twelve Colorado artists — highly respected and accomplished artists at that — who work in a representational style that is often called “contemporary realism.” The artists are all known for excellence in landscape, still-life, and portrait subjects. Even one of Colorado’s A-list artists, Don Stinson, graciously agreed to contribute a large drawing. Kacena himself is an abstract expressionist painter; his work (found in many art collections) does not contain recognizable subjects. Kacena’s own canvasses are characterized by bold, direct, painterly applications of thick impasto oil paint, often in black, white, and gray, with touches of color. It’s tempting to picture a huge divide between realist and abstract art, but at the end of the day, it’s still painting. The combination of these two styles seems unlikely and that’s where it gets (very) interesting.
Kacena took twelve paintings, one from each of the participating artists, and then gave one of his own abstract paintings to each of those artists to work over. At first it sounds like collaboration, which is not uncommon for artists, two working on an art work cooperatively. But in this case, a finished painting was to be painted over, changed, modified and made into something new, without any direction from the original artist. There is an unwritten law in the art world, and that is, you don’t paint over another artist’s painting. So with that rule smashed, the artists got busy. What resulted is nothing short of astonishing, and widely varied. For example, a realistic still-life by Robert Spooner has been drastically altered by Kacena’s bold white brushstrokes. Conversely, Jeff Legg paints a handsome still-life on top of one of Kacena’s abstract paintings. Amazingly, the two synthesize and it all works. Some of the paintings are severely transformed, others show much more caution.
The artists attempted to paint over the other artist’s work without completely obliterating the original. Partly this is out of respect for the original artist, but also trying to create a synthesis of the two styles. Some of the original will be forever lost but what will emerge as a result? The hope is, something visually exciting, walking a line between realism and expressionism. And they do: the paintings are full of terrific surprises. The original painting is shown next to the final hybrid in a small print adjacent to it so the viewer can compare.
Authorship of the works becomes problematic, but that doesn’t seem important. It is often jarring to view these paintings. Both viewer and artist have to be comfortable with unclear origins, processes, and whether such a work is actually finished. Knowing many artists and how they work, I find this a remarkable deflection of egos, and attainment of a level of trust. They surely could not have approached this project knowing that their art work would be “ruined” or negated but instead, transformed. The paintings are a kind of mash-up of two distinct styles. It fits well into our pluralistic art world, where every historical painting style co-exists simultaneously. Art is a big house and there’s room for these sorts of experiments. Furthermore, the boundary between realism and abstraction is an illusion, since both styles, fundamentally, have paint applied to a flat surface; they only differ by degrees. Doug Kacena must be commended for reaching out to artists so different from himself, and the other artists as well, for bringing a cooperative and friendly attitude. This reinforces my belief that diverse artists have more similarities than differences.
Supplementing the gallery experience is a short film being shown in a side room with interviews of the artists, and shows some of them at work in their studios. It is produced by David and Beverly Schler, and illuminates some of the behind-the-scenes workings of the project.
One comes away from the show having seen a completely original art experience. Each piece in the show invites close inspection and ultimately, reflection on how art processes function as an extension of human personality and perception.
Through January 21, 2017.
The artists: Doug Kacena, Ron Hicks, Quang Ho, Jill Soukup, Edward Aldrich, Ed Kucera, Terrie Lombardi, Don Stinson, Dave A. Santillanes, Mikael Olson, Jeff Legg, Robert Spooner and Kevin Weckbach.
Structured vs. sensual, rational vs. emotional, classical vs. baroque: these are common dichotomies in the world of art-making. I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that nearly all of past Western art is split between these poles, and perhaps can even be perceived as a battle between them. On the one side is our intellect and our need for order, which we can trace back to the philosophies of the ancient Greeks; on the other, the emotional, sometimes chaotic, side, coming from the sensual life of the body. The German art historian Heinrich Wolfflin divided all Western art into two impulses: Classic and Baroque. While Wolfflin was referring mainly to European painting, American critic and author Clement Greenberg applied this dichotomy further to include 20th century American painting. He suggested that abstract expressionism, often called “action painting,” still carried on the traditions of the Baroque impulse, while geometric abstraction and Constructivist formalism continued the rational, classical aspect of Western art. Sarah McKenzie’s paintings fuse the two, in beautiful and exciting ways.
McKenzie’s show at David B. Smith Gallery is entitled “White Walls” and is comprised of masterfully-painted, realistic depictions of the interiors of art museums. The clinical well-lit museum spaces, populated only by abstract paintings, are cool and serene. McKenzie, who has a history of painting architectural spaces, has painted views of museums that you might not normally expect: an angled view down a stairwell, or the furniture one often finds in large galleries, allowing visitors to sit in contemplation. People are conspicuous by their absence. The paintings are ordered with precise linear perspective, defining the space with convincingly real depth. Edges are sharp, geometric, and as I have alluded to above, follow the classical organization and rationality that Western art has possessed for centuries.
But look deeper, and the viewer will be rewarded with much more. Various details of the museum interiors, in particular the floors, glimpses of nature through windows, and expressionist paintings hanging in exhibition, are painted in surprisingly lush, painterly brushstrokes. (In fact, Wolfflin coined the term malerische, which roughly translates to painterly, to describe Baroque art.) These sensual, richly painted surfaces are a strong contrast to the clean interiors and eponymous white walls. The contrast of a faithfully reproduced, large, brushy DeKooning painting in the Whitney Museum, for example, is startling against the monochrome white and subtle violets and grays of shadows on adjacent blank walls. The paintings blend these two painting methods seamlessly and eloquently. In a sense, the artist has encapsulated the history of painting in a few remarkable works.
I came away from the show trying to decide how much was instinct on the part of this experienced and talented painter, and how much was conscious. Interpretations are problematic, but this theory suggests the artist is saying that the rich, textured brushstrokes as painted in the floors of the museums, and in views through windows, which I am calling the “sensual” and “natural,” are the foundation upon which the rational, architectural, ordered, “superstructure” of culture is built.
That’s a lot of philosophy for one series of paintings. But whether intended or not (and I’m sure it is) these paintings combine two seemingly opposed aspects of art and do it in visually stunning and articulate ways. The paintings are more than illustrative, they are language, well-crafted and intelligent.
I am going to talk about how artists might use the figure to express ideas in paintings, and how some artists move from IDEA to Images. Art ideas come from inside, in your mind, or outside, through your eyes. For me, nearly always the latter. I absorb images, I collect them, and ideas begin to form. Painting the figure will never disappear, not just because it’s historically important, but because it’s always about human experience. I’m not so interested in accurate psychological portraits; the figures that populate my paintings are metaphors or analogies, like actors playing a role. Historically, artists often painted what they were commissioned to paint, such as saints or nobility, but always managed to include their own ideas and personal stamp. Art historians have discovered a lot of the personal backstory found in great renaissance paintings that were ostensibly painted for religious reasons. This example, a painting from after the renaissance in the North entitled “Bathsheba”, is of Rembrandt’s common-law 2nd wife:
Painting the human figure got its start in Western art from paintings of saints in the Middle Ages. In my paintings, the saints are replaced with secular, everyday people.
Artists tend to get an urge to say something in their paintings, either a commentary on society or vivid personal response to the world. I am speaking of representational figure painting here since delving into pure abstraction is outside the purview of this talk. I envy abstract artists, who may often start a painting directly on a blank canvas. I depend on photographic reference a lot and it can slow me down considerably. Much research and hunting for the right images is involved. I work out compositions in small pencil drawings. I write down phrases that suggest art ideas. Frequently I take pictures of models and objects and use those. But lots of artists respond to or borrow images from other artists; I’ve done that as well. Here’s an example of an artist no less than Picasso who borrowed from several artists of the canon: Delacroix,Velasquez, and here Edouard Manet:
Picasso is using the Manet painting as raw material for his own experiments, but he’s still starting from Manet’s painting.
For me, reading literature, philosophical works, and books about psychology generates ideas. If I read something I feel strongly about, there are images that come to mind that seem to “illustrate” the idea. Words become visual for me. I don’t think I’m unique in this. For example, I was fascinated for a long time by the films of German director Wim Wenders, who would frequently make reference to windows, screens, TVs, lenses, optical devices — in other words things that influenced or framed our vision. That’s important to artists as well. After the advent of the internet, the ‘screen’ became a much larger topic of conversation. The screen was the window into cyberspace. Cyberspace became the new film space, but much more complex, with a hugely diverse source of images.
When I was in school I was completely immersed in the study of Art History. So much so that I felt compelled to include art historical examples in my paintings.Finally I had to push aside the past to find my own images.
This painting shows an artist sweeping out her studio but what she’s sweeping out are examples of art history. Here’s a far more extreme example of an artist obsessed with art history: the incredible and epic painting ‘Cockaigne’ by Vincent Desiderio is 13 x 9 feet and working sporadically, took Desiderio 10 years to complete – But there’s more – apparently Desiderio started with a sketch that borrowed from Willem DeKooning’s painting ‘Excavation’ (one of my favorites by the Ab-Ex painter). Desiderio filled the canvas with layered squares, then slowly turned the shapes into art history books opened to some of his favorite paintings of the past. This process supports a theory of mine, that abstract painters frequently do have a real subject in mind (we know DeKooning did this with his abstract Women series). Abstraction and realism are two sides of the same coin. Here’s an older painting of mine that places a copied B&W Franz Kline abstract painting next to a realistically depicted female figure. In a painting like this I’m asking the viewer to consider the possibility that abstract art is never far from the observable world.
I still use art historical references in paintings. For example, Winslow Homer:
Here’s another local artist that venerates the past using Northern Renaissance styles and figures similar to Pieter Breughel or Bosch, mixed in with images borrowed from Japanese art, Ravi Zupa:
I have borrowed heavily from popular culture and I was influenced by James Rosenquist. Like him I juxtapose images to reveal new meanings. This is the crudely assembled collage, made of pictures from magazines that became his masterwork, House of Fire:
The artist Mark Tansey is brilliant as far as making illustrations of ideas. Here’s two older paintings of his that I love:
Clearly, he sets up scenes and uses photos for his paintings. Likewise, a painting by the American master Alfred Leslie, seen below. The painting is one of several he did that addresses the unfortunate freak accident that killed the avant-garde poet Frank O’Hara in 1966.
I was fortunate to attend a school that also had the Creative Studies Institute on the campus and I was able to take courses in creativity. We learned a 5 step process for creative problem-solving, but before you think it was only a series of structured steps, it had a lot of allowance and emphasis on deeply mystical processes, sort of Jungian inward-looking creative connections. One was making ‘forced associations’ of widely differing things. This becomes visual in ‘juxtaposition’, a huge part of my art work.
Other times, I see images that I like and want to somehow use in a painting. I don’t always know why, but I decide to trust my intuition. Later as the painting is in progress, the meaning begins to reveal itself. By the time the painting is complete, the unconscious reason that the picture was selected and not others is usually clear. An unconscious choice. It’s almost like how the Tarot works. In the hands of a really good Tarot reader, the cards reveal the desires and inclinations of the subject.
I think a lot about dreams and dream interpretation. We know that all technology is an extension of a natural aspect of humanity. Like a hammer or a pair of pliers is an extension of our hand’s power, a machine does what people do, only amplified. As technology, a computer is an extension of the human mind. So what technology is an extension of the human capacity to dream? It is film and video. Images moving in time. While I don’t make films I do use stills from films and digital sources. In 1991, Wim Wenders made a film
about a man who invents a camera that can record images so a blind person could see images in their brain. As it turns out, in the story the camera can also record images of dreams from a sleeping person. Seeing their own dreams drives people to obsession and madness. I have never forgotten about that movie and I imagine many of my paintings as being illustrations of dreamlike situations. The paintings can have the same psychological meaning as dreams from the unconscious.
I also think a lot about the conflict between the rational mind and the emotions. In part because this battle has often been won by emotion, to the detriment of various aspects of my life. How does one ‘illustrate’ this struggle? Literally dividing the painting into sections is one way: or in this case, in a painting that I am just now completing, and has never been seen:
If I were to summarize here, I would have to say that making paintings, for me, passing from Idea to Image, would be like dumping all the ingredients, the processes I’ve mentioned, into a big pot and stirring it til a painting comes about. It’s not that random, of course, but the analogy isn’t far off.
The Gang, Eric Fischl.
The drawing is a narrative of an implicit dream, a pastiche of images of emotional turmoil and crisis, creating a two-way dialog between past and present, order and chaos, art and everyday life. Like changing channels on a TV, or surfing the web, images move like a sliding puzzle, the drawing presents a series of cultural meanings — elusive, oblique references, innuendo, erotic symbolism, implications, metaphors, unclear boundaries, non sequiturs, incongruities, romantic ideas.
The Logic of Dreams may be seen as a metaphor for the outward appearance of the rational, observed world that surrounds us. Is the world operating only on scientific principles, or is it more like a dream, drifting from image to symbol….an illusion of “cause and effect”? Physicists find matter and the cosmos hard to measure and explain. The Uncertainty Principle, quantum mechanics and Chaos Theory point to a world where matter cannot be proven to exist, where subject and object cannot be separated, and (pay attention here) consciousness may be determining reality.
We participate in the creation of our world by the act of observing. This has important implications for artists. But we can seek the spiritual, not by avoiding matter, but by immersing ourselves in it. The charcoal I’m drawing with was once a living thing. Everything is related to everything else. Thoughts are things. And so are dreams.
The drawings are the incomplete narrative of love and existence, metaphors for sensations and thoughts.
The “sleep of reason” leads to another plane.
It’s not machinery, but magic.
– Peter Illig, 2010