MORE THAN JUST A LANDSCAPE
Essay by Brian Cobble
First Published in Pastelagram Magazine, Winter/Spring 2009
Used by permission of the Pastel Society of America
I once had a professor, a very good painter himself, who suggested that all artists should have their lips sewn together—that more often than not talking about one’s own work tends to diminish rather than explain or enhance. I’ve always been a great believer that the work should speak for itself: that an artist should simply make pictures that he or she likes looking at and allow the viewer to provide whatever narrative they might find. However, since I’ve been asked to write something about my work, it’s time to walk that fine line between pretentiousness and hooey.
I am mostly a “landscape” painter, if you use the term broadly, running the gamut from pristine wilderness to crass suburbia to the absolutely artificial settings of city store windows and interiors and state fair midways. The American landscape is so varied and unique it is no surprise that there are so many different ways to approach it artistically. As captivated as I am by the American scene, I have been equally fascinated by the artists who have depicted it—George Inness, Charles Burchfield, Maynard Dixon, Daniel Garber, Samuel Colman, to name just a few who have inspired me. Probably most people have a chauvinistic feeling, a special tie to their native land—but the United States is so large and so diverse, has such a unique (and often sordid) past, and in many places is still relatively empty, that one is often both awed and spooked by its landscapes. This has always made me approach landscape painting with a sense of respect, and with an eye out for the surreal, the mystical, or the just plain quirky, things not hard to find if you’re looking for them.
As a result of having lived or spent time in several parts of the country, I am schizophrenic in the landscapes that inspire me. Recently most of my work has its origins in the Southwest (New Mexico, Colorado, Utah), the Midwest (Nebraska and Kansas), or New York (NYC and Long Island). In the western work, I often concentrate on depicting the interplay of the man-made and the “natural” world, the past and the modern, that can at times be jarring or disconcerting. The urban scenes are more voyeuristic in feeling, figures alone in a crowd or in the bizarre and artificial surroundings we have created for ourselves. Perhaps we all need a reminder from time to time that we don’t need to seek out beauty—with a little imagination it is everywhere. The songwriter Rodney Crowell has called it “chasing poetry” and I think that applies to painting as well.
Pastel is often thought of as a medium of spontaneity and speed. Unfortunately for me my working methods are the opposite—my paintings are built very slowly. When I find a possible subject, I usually take a number of photos, capturing different angles, lighting, weather conditions, and time of day, using the camera almost as a sketchbook and recording (hopefully) more information than necessary. It is not unusual for me to mull over a subject for months, if not years, working the composition in my mind, rearranging, adding or subtracting, borrowing elements from somewhere else (or just making them up), composing “by a process of imaginative reconstruction in which both observation and memory” play part (as Lloyd Goodrich wrote of Edward Hopper). Often I will work out a composition more fully with a large charcoal drawing. Once the design is worked out, I then do an underpainting, over which pastel is applied layer upon layer, starting “with a broom and ending with a straw: in the words of Grandma Moses.
An example of how this all works can be seen in the drawing “310 W 7th”. The initial inspiration for this work was an arrangement of houses in Lexington, Nebraska. One of the focal points of the drawing was the porch of the closest house, which was mostly missing (I returned to this house several times over the course of several years, and the porch was never finished). So I borrowed a porch from some photos I had of houses on Long Island. The wooden tulips came from memories I had of Long Island yard ornaments. The small spruce was based on one I sketched here in New Mexico, and the dog on the porch is drawn from one of mine. Other elements such as the hose, the bushes, and the landscaping rocks were simply made up. With luck, the scene feels real.
I think I first became aware of the power of landscape upon moving from the lush green of Delaware to the stark, rugged desert of southern New Mexico as a child. The light, space, land forms, and sense of history were overwhelming to someone who’d never been west. This part of New Mexico is not the high, cool, mountainous desert of the Taos painters, or the sensuous badlands of Georgia O’Keefe, but something brighter and harsher and perhaps a little harder to get to know. It took years (and some time away from it) to really appreciate what a beautiful and spiritual place it can be. Perhaps my first successful works from here were a series of paintings from the little town of Hatch. Set against a small range of rugged hills in the Rio Grande valley (and famous for its chile), Hatch is a farming town with an odd mixture of silos, railroad warehouses, quasi-Victorian homes, and a downtown that feels like both the old west and northern Mexico. “Hatch Alley”, which was my first entry into the Pastel Society of America show is an example of my New Mexico work. Other examples would include “Rio Grande Thunderbird” and “Departure”, very different in feeling, but both inspired by New Mexico.
I also spent about seven years in NYC and its environs, an amazing experience for someone from the desert, moving from a place where nature predominates to one in which the world is constructed by man. While there I worked on street scenes and store windows, as well as suburban scenes of Long Island. “Beach House/Winter”, “Lafayette”, sand “11 AM” are typical of my New York work.
And lately, I’ve done a number of paintings of Nebraska and Kansas. My wife’s grandmother until recently lived in the small town of Lexington, Nebraska. It didn’t take me long to discover that the town was reminiscent of Hatch, with a similar mix of houses, commercial and agricultural buildings, and railroad infrastructure thrown together in close proximity, only with a slightly unsettling “anywhere in America” feel to it. It has been a visual gold mine—“”310 W 7th” and last year’s PSA entry “Lexington Alley” are typical of this work.
Often it is not untouched nature that attracts me as an artist as much as the raggedy places where the “natural” overlaps the man-made, the darkness on the edge of town—those places in the American landscape that have been altered by a civilization that can look shockingly out of place, like it was dropped from the sky last week into the wilderness. Yet even in these most mundane of places, light and shadow can elevate the ordinary into something almost profound. When we attempt to make art out of this amazingly diverse country, with its vibrant (and often violent) past, and its uncertain future, is it any wonder that landscape painting is sometimes more than simply that. Perhaps we are seeking (as the writer Kim Alexander wrote) to paint our “own psyche in landscape form”.