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Abstracted Directions

Following is the statement I have written for the exhibition titled above. It will be shown at the Yucca Valley Visual and Performing Arts Center from March 4 through May 20, 2023.

As I continue my lifelong fine art painting process I constantly think about how my work has progressed and where it is going next. For this statement, I am compelled to give a brief overview of where it came from and how things progressed early in my journey. As a teenager In boarding school I made the decision to be some kind of designer. I considered architecture, and when I got to college, Stanford, I began to study the subject. I soon discovered I was not inclined to primarily follow clients wishes, and I pivoted to fine art, free to follow my passions wherever they took me. Concurrently, as this realization was sinking in, I was required to study Urban Design. Fair enough, as I appreciated both buildings and cities, and was interested in how cities evolved and how they might be designed in the future. What happened to me, inadvertently, is that a tool in the Urban Design curriculum, the scrutiny of satellite images, revealed a new world that was just being invented and would decisively help shape the world we live in now. When I graduated from Stanford, in 1977, it was the space based images from satellites that became my main interest. I had decided to become a painter and photographer, not an architect. Using satellite imaging technology to make fine art paintings would drive my vision.

When I decided to get a graduate degree in painting and drawing, I picked a school, San Francisco State University that had instructors, principally Robert Bechtle, versed in photo realism. Again, the unexpected happened to me. Sure, Bechtle and the photo realists used photographs to make paintings, often taking months to finish large works. I came to the conclusion I had no tolerance for such a tedious process and imagined I could harness painterly expressionism to create something similar but different. I experimented interpreting satellite images using palette knives, thick modeling pastes and quick gestures. In my defiant youth I had rejected the usual path to becoming a painter, which was to paint what you could see in front of you or across the landscape. Instead, my approach became making dimensional models of the locations depicted in the satellite image and/or maps I was using. To do this I built miniature topographies, that were quickly and expressionistically painted. From a distance they did appear similar to the satellite source images, but they were not photo realistic. For years I wrote statements about how I was combining photo realism and abstract expressionism, two almost diametrically opposed tendencies in visual art. Nonetheless, that is who I was and that is what I did. Forty years of painting using this approach has followed.

Here I am now in 2023, and after such an exhaustive investigation into landscape, I am looking for new ways to paint and other subjects to tackle. Certainly the progression of my oeuvre is a good example of the very typical arc of a lot of long-term artists. That is I started out tighter and truer to my source images and gradually experimented with ever looser and more abstracted interpretations. "Abstracted Directions" is an exhibition about the relatively new additions to my ever increasing abstracting focus.

In this exhibition you will see paintings of military battles, stock charts, scientific diagrams, and music influenced abstractions. What they all have in common is that they use the natural propensity of visual artists to abstract from what they see and what they learn from the subjects that they investigate. Of course, when I make my stock chart paintings, I abstract what is already an abstraction. The same is true of my satellite and map works. Maps are excellent examples of diagrams that are already abstractions. If you are interested in military battles, you should always look at a map for a fuller understanding. It's not surprising how satellite technology is so important to military operations. Topography, a long enduring fascination of mine, is also always a contributing factor. Certainly, the new Ukrainian works are an outgrowth of my landscape process described above. I have been painting historical battlegrounds for some time. The big difference is that since February 2022, I have been following the Russian Invasion in real time, rooting for a Ukraine that insists on it's own freedom, and determined to document in my abstracted battle paintings as best I can the cities and villages of scorched earth and brutal Russian tactics. Also, new for me, is the use of glitter. Being a modernist at heart, I have usually avoided irony. The Russians have made me change my position. The pretty red heart shaped glitter made for crafters is unexpected, and the bombs and missile strikes that are hard to paint but easy to depict by randomly dropping glitter into wet paint are perhaps analogous to the Russians indiscriminately attacking civilians and infrastructure.

Music can also be considered an abstract language of sound. Pursuing this aspect of my work, something I have really concentrated on for the last four or five years, has opened up some very different ways of working. I find myself absorbed by the advanced level of improvisation in doing this new unpredictable work. In these music works the glitter is used to represent musical notes. As myriad types of glitter has entered my practice, I have also taken up glue guns. They are akin to caulk and caulk guns, a material I adore and have used for some time now. As I experiment, I have been learning not to over work paintings. I am discovering paintings can have their own inner logic and can create themselves to a surprising degree with my free-form approach to using paint and materials. The less I try to brush exact edges, the more I let liquid enamel flow around and eat into impasto oil, the more I feel I am getting somewhere I haven't before seen. I find myself as an inventor, letting fractals form in fluid paint. Very importantly, I have discovered techniques that create patterns and textures not paintable with normal brush work. I empirically discovered a few years back that thickly applied enamel wrinkles as it dries in our arid climate. Even thicker enamel wrinkles even more. Now I deliberately use too much enamel, not knowing yet how much it will wrinkle. I have instigated using "poring panels", that because of their raised edges, keep the paint from poring over the sides of the panels, and can therefore build up even thicker enamel paint deposits. It may take a few more years to understand when these works will stop changing. The desert is now my accomplice. These new works, may take two, three, even four years, to fully wrinkle and deform. As I observe how they age, I am always considering how I can modify my process next to create undiscovered forms in painting.

Spelman Evans Downer, Jan 19, 2023


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