Personal Essay | Visual Arts

The Path is Rarely Straight

by Jean Arnold

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“Encroachment,” 2002, mixed media on paper, 35” x 52”

For those pursuing creativity, the path of development is rarely straight. What can seem like a sudden, dramatic change may actually be years in the making, and the result of much trial and error. So it has been with my work. This summer, I had a show at the Salt Lake City Arts Council’s Finch Lane Gallery of semiabstract urban landscapes (see left).

In my work for the Utah Arts Council’s autumn Fellowship Exhibition I have pushed the abstraction further, and added elements of surrealism. This new artwork integrates the recent urban landscape work with explorations of surrealism and organic abstraction that I was involved with while in graduate school in the mid-90’s. Since this new work is a sudden departure from the work shown at Finch Lane, I wanted to describe how I arrived at this new direction, and give readers an example of how artists often combine different explorations into something new.

Rediscovery and Assimilation

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“View From Assisi,” 1998, pastel on paper, 42” x 116” (diptych)

For three years, I have been visually absorbing the urban landscape, primarily through drawing. In the spring, as I completed the work for the Finch Lane show, I realized that my fundamental interest was less about capturing actual appearances, and more about the interrelationship between humans and nature, and the give-and-take between the human psyche and our surroundings. My work has been through several distinct phases, but consistently I have been interested in these themes.

I knew I had not been tapping into my strength in the arena of invention and immediacy that I had discovered in graduate school, and I was now ready to allow impulse, memory, and process to re-enter the work. I pared down color to maximize progress in other ways. Instead of painting, I drew — for me drawing is more immediate, and in my art, it often leads the way. This new work contains the gesture, process, and mark-making of abstract expressionism, while exploring the spatial and imagery ambiguities of   surrealism. As I allow myself to work in this way — letting the surrealistic and abstracted organic elements enter again — I find myself engaged in the issues of relationship- between psyche and surroundings, humans and nature more powerfully and personally.

Reverse culture shock: the transition back to America

As part of my MFA program, I studied art in Italy in 1997 and 1998. In the Umbrian hilltop town where I stayed, I painted the patchwork fields of the nearby hills from a distant and floating viewpoint in an abstract way. Back in Salt Lake, I continued by doing a series of large studio drawings of this landscape that evoked notions of ancient harmonies between humans and nature.

My transition back to working with the American landscape was difficult. I resisted my surroundings, and longed for the Italian farmland with its fascinating contours and patterns. I wanted to find direct inspiration in my surroundings here in Salt Lake, yet my attempts fell flat. I tried to work with the expanse of the valley from a high viewpoint as I had done in Italy, but it just looked like a big, brown bowl. I decided I needed to descend down into the valley to a more human scale. This raised important questions: where was my vantage point, and what sort of space was I looking at? For a time, I did linear contour drawings of my neighborhood, and sketched from a car, which helped make the shift in scale and vantage point that I needed.

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“VFM 31,” 1998, pastel on paper, 42” x 60”

 

Relinquishing the grip of the pastoral myth     

 

I came to realize that I was idealizing the Italian landscape, and denigrating my own urban settings. I recognized that the “pastoral myth” was a strong element in my Italian work, and to embrace my urban surroundings, I needed to release myself from its grip. I delved into examining the myth’s origins, its continuing hold on our societal consciousness, and its paradoxes. The pastoral theme is the notion of man and nature living in harmony and abundance, a nostalgic longing to return to a more harmonious state. Interestingly, its development originated in Italy, in the work of the painters such as Giorgione and Claude Lorraine in the 16th-17th centuries. It took hold as an antidote for urbanization and is more about what the countryside means to the city than about the countryside itself. This theme runs deep in our American psyche, and acts as a filtered lens through which we view the landscape, yet it is ripe with contradictions. The pastoral landscape tradition gained force in America simultaneously with the encroachment of civilization on pristine wilderness. In the early 19th-century, Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole witnessed the destruction of forests and the intrusion of trains cutting through the land. He was outspoken about what he saw, yet his lushly forested paintings make only subtle inclusions of tree stumps and trains. I recall my own hesitation in 1998, while creating the large panoramic drawing of Italian farmland “View From Assisi,” using photo reference: “Should I include the telephone pole in the foreground, or exclude it?” Ultimately, I included it.

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“Journey to the Vista,” 2002, mixed media on paper, 42” x 120”

Why this hesitation and censoring of what I saw? The pastoral tradition — the hope of a harmonious middle landscape between wilderness and developed land — is a closed artistic convention that repels whatever disturbs its premise. On one hand, our American consciousness hopes for progress and a subdued nature, and on the other, treasures a paradise of God and nature intertwined in the uninhabited landscape. When we see beauty — in both art and life — we often want to possess it; so pastoral art depicts that which is about to be captured by our relentless sprawl.    Is this artistic tradition a vital force to incite us to protect our surroundings, as many artists today believe? Or does it actually cast an illusion over us, preventing us from seeing what sort of world we are creating for ourselves?

My thinking became clearer when I saw the work of Utah artist Mark England. At the time, we were both doing large panoramic landscape drawings with floating viewpoints. There were certain similarities, so the differences were obvious, too. In my work, olive groves and vineyards harmoniously blended with the contours of the Italian landscape. In his, urban artifacts permeated his maplike scenes — telephone poles, wires, roads, and buildings were strewn across the land. These anti-pastoral drawings intrigued and challenged me, and helped release my own work to go beyond the pastoral convention.

This nostalgic yearning still seeks expression in my art, but now I am free to dialogue with its conventions by introducing elements that contradict it, bringing the work a richer and more complex meaning. For example, the drawing “Encroachment” contains a beautiful inner glow, yet ironically it emanates from a housing development surrounded by undeveloped land.

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“Just Passing Through,” 2002, mixed media on paper, 32” x 53”

Transformation of the mundane
I had a different turning point when I saw an exhibit of drawings at the Salt Lake Art Center by James Castle, a deaf mute who lived in rural Idaho. As a self-taught artist, he used whatever he could get his hands on — envelopes and scraps of paper with pencils, soot, spit, etc. In his isolation he remarkably transformed the most “commonplace” scenes and interiors, using basic materials, into something visionary. He saw with lucidity and yet interpreted with personal force. His inability to communicate on more than a basic level kept him from making distinctions about what art should look like, about what he should depict, and even about what the world around him looked like. As with other artists who transform the mundane into the extraordinary, the power of their work does not reside in the “subject matter,” but in their own internal vision of it, and in their capacity to work with the physical materials.   

Embracing my surroundings
After seeing Castle’s work, I began to embrace the philosophy of really noticing and accepting my surroundings, rather than judging them and mentally retreating in a nostalgic yearning for something lost. I started looking at the quality of the space I inhabit here in an American city. Amid the urban clutter and chaos, I noticed the layers upon layers in space — all the stuff of humans mixed with trees, set against the mountain backdrop. The intense variety of scale, shapes, and rhythms fascinated me. My “seeing’” became turned on all the time when I was out and about; it turned into an unrelenting hunger to depict and really drove me to create new work.

This practice of seeing led me on a quest for soul-consciousness amid the human-made. What is “natural” and what is “artificial?” Are such definitions located in the mind, or are there actual differences between pine-groves and parking lots? Of course there are differences … or are there? Why did carefully cultivated fields in Italy appeal to me and not seem artificial? Are we a part of nature, or are humans and the things we make separated from it? Through “seeing” the city and responding in my art — even in forlorn places — I found these categories and dualities blurring together, as I felt a connection between my soul and my surroundings.  

In this new work, organic and human-made forms are integrated in a dynamic relationship between plants, architecture, landforms, and the urban clutter of signs, poles, and roads. Using a variety of mark-making and materials, such as charcoal, pastel, pencil, watercolor, and ink, I intermix the “artificial” and the “natural” elements in an undifferentiated field.

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“Point of Access,” 2002, mixed media on paper, 32” x 53”

A fluid viewpoint
Inseparable from “seeing” my urban environs with new clarity, I also began sketching while riding in a car on errands around Salt Lake. For years while on road trips, I’ve sketched to capture the essence of mountains, valleys, and clouds. In Italy, I fleetingly drew the contoured fields as I zipped by on buses and trains. I had a hunger to record what I saw. Over time, these sketches became more cohesive, and I now combine elements to create images of abstracted, notational urbanscapes. This practice leads me to absorb a tremendous amount of visual information into my consciousness. I began looking at my sketchbooks as a valuable resource for other work, and now invent large works in the studio using quick, linear sketches as a starting point. “Moving car sketches” from recent travels inspired much of the work in the Fellowship Exhibit.

I began to consider how car travel has changed our perceptions and experience of the land. We always have an ever-shifting viewpoint simply by having bodies that move about. In our autos, we now have a hyper-fluid viewpoint as we quickly cross vast stretches of land. An endless strip of gray stretches out in front of you, things are zooming by on either side, and the view is always changing. For me, this experience is a metaphor for our current situation — the enormous changes occurring in our lifetimes, our physical and philosophical rootlessness, and our frenetic pace of life. In my work, I began to seek a sense of flux, impermanence, and motion.

New perspectives
Now I am after a sense of ambiguous spaces, multiple viewpoints, and journey as an alternative to the traditional fixed, static, one-point Renaissance perspective. I use dynamic compositions, the layering of forms, and merge elements together to create a subtle sense of motion and passage. Some of my work continues to have a sense of stillness, but spatial ambiguities help it elude traditional one-point perspective.

The Renaissance pictorial convention goes almost unquestioned — we believe it captures the look of the world, even though it is only one perceptual system among several. No one visual system can truly depict outward appearances. One-point perspective is reassuring — it gives you a place to stand and a separate identity from what is “out there.” Paul Cezanne broke the Renaissance convention in the late-19th century, by creating simultaneous multiple viewpoints and shifting spaces in his paintings. In the 20th century, these spatial inventions were pushed further and further. Post-Renaissance space is ambiguous, it can engulf the viewer, it makes interrelationships primary, and it finds space as important as the objects it contains.

During my graduate studies in Vermont and Italy, I was shown these alternative ways of depicting space, and was instructed to work with the visual complexity of the classroom’s furniture, students, and model in a pared-down, interwoven way. Abstract expressionist and renowned art teacher Hans Hofmann taught these concepts in the mid-20th century. Several of my instructors studied under Hofmann, and so I was given this influence.

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“The Blood of a Poet,” 2002, mixed media on paper, 44” x 53”

I am now taking this investigation into the landscape, and exploring its relevance for the 21st century. The Renaissance artists believed they stood on solid ground, that the space before them was measurable, and positioned themselves to be neutral observers of a stable world. We now understand the world is not fixed, not solid, not stable, not secure, or “objectively” perceptible to the observer. The boundaries between the “artificial” and the “natural” are becoming increasingly blurred. As never before, humans are causing fundamental changes to the deep structures of reality on an imperceptible level, but with dramatic effects — through genetic engineering, environmental toxins, nuclear technology, etc. In my immediate life, my father witnessed the atomic bomb in Nevada as an Army soldier, and was marched to ground zero when it was cool enough to walk on. He died of radiation-induced leukemia some 40 years later. The consequences of our actions are increasingly ambiguous and elusive.

I find that our world is getting stranger and stranger. Yet, as I explore the strangeness of my own inner life, I find a rich source of strength and inspiration for both living and creating. Abstraction and surrealism offer me fertile ground to express my own unease with the current planetary situation, and to express my own inner processes while I search for meaningful connection with this world, such as it is. To me, the urban landscape is a relevant metaphor for the high level of complexity, uncertainty, and human density we now live with. City life may be disturbing and test our reserves, yet I still find it alive and beautiful.

Although these issues are often on my mind, I do not pursue an overt agenda in my art. My interest in the human/nature relationship feeds me with a certain type of imagery, yet formal visual issues are still important in my work. I do not preconceive the results. When I step up to the canvas or paper, intuition, curiosity, impulse, and gut reaction take over, and I immerse myself in visual decisions. It is still a wonderful mystery to me how a white expanse turns into a work of art, and how all experiences in my own life can contribute to its expression. I am excited that my previous explorations have led to these ambiguous landscapes, and I welcome interpretations that are multiple and open-ended by the viewer. Through my own actions of seeing and depicting, I hope my art will bring a heightened awareness and experience of life to others, as it has to me.

Jean5SJean Arnold earned an MFA in Painting in 1999 from Johnson State College in Vermont. She has attended studio residencies at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont, and the International School of Art in Umbria, Italy. In 1983, she received her BFA cum laude from Utah State University, and continued her art studies at the University of Utah from 1991-94.

This article appeared in the September 2002 edition of 15 Bytes.

 

Categories: Personal Essay | Visual Arts

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