Winter Lessons

Snow at the Edge, 8 x 8 inches, oil on panel.

Diebenkorn tends to have in his work what Proust says about memory. You don’t quite know where everything came from. In the Ocean Park series… if you go down, see his studio, walk along the beach and see the ocean, concrete bunkers, freeways, even a little transom window you look out of — he get that into the work. He takes something and essentializes it in an oblique way. — Wayne Thiebaud, California Landscapes: Richard Diebenkorn / Wayne Thiebaud

I have a preference for summer. I don’t think that’s outrageous. But I don’t hate winter, and any indication to that affect is pure theater. In relation to winter painting, I’m torn by the wisdom of two friends. Patti always reminds me of the diversity of color in the winter landscape. And Mary, speaking to the art market, once quipped, “Winter doesn’t sell.” I’ve found both things to be partly true.

Snow no. 4, 12 x 12 inches, oil on panel.

To be honest, I’m less interested in the earth tones in our winter landscape than I am in the play of light on the lush blue-green fields of summer color. I suspect, if I’d been born more squarely in the era of abstraction, I’d have emerged a color field painter. But I’m interested in depiction, which David Hockney proposes is the central concern of contemporary painters — a proposal with which I fully agree. The trick, of course, in addition to focusing the eye on content is in developing a personal language of depiction. This winter I‘ve learned that depiction — both in the sense of growing my language of painting and in telling a story of this place — requires that I see beyond the earth tones. I’ve embraced snow.

I’ve located myself here — I‘ve chosen to be on Cape Cod in a way that’s more discerning than how I landed in Providence — not as an artist of identity or other big narratives, but as an artist of the particular, the local. I need to look beyond my preferences and understand that there’s life and possibility in things that aren’t my ‘first choice.’ And with humility, I need to consider that ‘choice’ isn’t even at the heart of the matter.

Wish You Were Here no. 86, 4 x6 inches, oil on panel.

Maggi Hambling is fond of quoting her teacher, Yvonne Dreary, who told her, ‘The subject chooses you, you don’t choose the subject.’ Jennifer Ramkalawon in the her monograph on Hambling’s drawings, Maggi Hambling: Touch, quotes Hambling as expanding this idea:

As far as I’m concerned, the subject must be in charge of every mark. In a Constable drawing, for instance, you can smell Suffolk mud, feel the hide of a cow, touch the side of a cart, hear the wind charging through the leaves of native Suffolk Black Poplars. What moves me in drawing , what moves me in any art form, is how much the artists has been taken over by the subject and become a channel for it. Brancusi said it wasn’t difficult to make a work of art, the difficulty lay in being in the right state to make it. I try to be a conduit, get rid of all my own baggage, in order that the truth of the person, animal, wave (or whatever it happens to be) can be discovered. (P.10)

Maybe winter found me?

Wish You Were Here no. 86, 4 x 6 inches, oil on panel.

I’m over the idea of art being ‘centered’ in big cities or institutions. I’m more interested in what emerges from everywhere. In this way, I feel kindred to Diebenkorn. He didn’t go to NYC and in his lifetime was regionalized as a ‘California painter.’ He’s now clearly one of the greatest American artists of his generation. But his work is infused with California. 

There’s aspiration and a dash of conceit in my ruminations. More than anything, though, is a search for purpose and eating in the work. What does it mean to paint here? To paint here now — untethered from some idea of genealogy or history of painting in this place? I’ not connected to the ‘Provincetown tradition’ — it’s not the tradition that informed my education, nor am I much inspired by it. 

This place is a nexus of meaning for so many people. It represents an untethering from the everydayness of life, and also connects us to the sublime — in that big sense of awe (and dread) of nature. For those who come here to escape various cultural and political oppressions, this place enacts a sense of freedom — which I suspect is felt by all visitors who pay attention. But to know this place, you need to experience its seasons. It took me almost a decade to understand how little I knew of Cape Cod — and how the meaning I took from this place was a conflation of historical fragments and psychological projection. As they say, the beginning of wisdom is to understand one’s ignorance. I’m, perhaps finally, ready to learn what this place has to teach me. 

One thought on “Winter Lessons

  1. I would argue that you are/have become connected to “the Provincetown tradition” just by sheer dint of living and working on the Outer Cape – particularly as a landscape artist as the light and scenery is what pulled so many here at the start. You are following in the footsteps of all those who’ve come here and done the same before you for over 100 years now. And as provincial as the entire Cape can be in many ways, many artists started there and migrated further back up Cape but still connect to it. I’ve always live further from the “epicenter” on the Lower Cape but living here and studying both the colony and the natural world for over 36 years, I feel a deep connection to it and take my inspiration from it.


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