About 25 years ago I visited with Leon Golub in his studio, when he was painting his great “Mercenary” series. Standing in front of gigantic men of war, we fell into a conversation about the unusual painting process he had developed. After drawing the rapacious figures and giving them heft with broadly defined areas of light and shadow, Leon would pull the canvas to the floor, saturate the surface with solvent and scrape the paint with a meat cleaver. The scraping took the paint down to the weave of the linen, leaving the figures clearly visible but distressed. Although aware of the aggressiveness of the abrading and its tragic implications, Leon talked about the process with self-aware humor. Laughing, he said something like, “If they live long enough, all artists grow into their own strange ways of working”.
Now, painting in Saint John, I’ve been thinking about Leon’s comment. He was talking about the connection between making an object and living a life. Over time, he suggested, the elements of an examined life -- the values, the psychic habits, the social relations -- find expression in the process of making art. One would expect the subject of an art work to reveal the motives of the maker, but Leon was noting that the process of making the thing was just as illuminating.
Currently, I’m working on windy, Haulover beach under a canopy of sea grapes, making pictures from shadows cast by the sun as it rises. It’s an exciting process, since the sun and the wind have become active collaborators.
The beach fringes the north shore of a narrow, flat isthmus, which divides the open water of Sir Francis Drake Channel from the shelter of Coral Bay. Slaves once hauled the boats of the Danish plantation owners across this narrow strip to save the masters the trouble of sailing around the east end of the island to get to open water. Hence, the name, Haulover Bay.
I arrive at 7:30 AM, more than an hour before the sun rises over the mountain that shades the bay from the east. Sea Grapes line the shore and at one spot they have grown so tall and thick that they make a shelter. Someone has dragged an old timber that floated ashore into the cover to make a convenient bench. After setting up the easel in this fresh air studio, I take a look around to see what’s new, which is usually a lot of plastic crap that has washed in from the boats. But in a few minutes it’s possible to pick up the worst of it and get back to searching for colors and forms.
First, I mix up little pools of paint to match the color of the water, which changes from minute to minute in response to the sun and passing clouds.
The shades of turquoise are intense, so I balance the palette by adding the neutral colors of beach stones.
And to this cool collection of colors, the copper of a fallen leaf is included for warmth.
Once the palette is set, I look for interesting forms to paint. The shapes of light on the water made by the wind are often inspiring. The sun will soon be rising over the hill, so I have to work quickly to make an interesting ground.
On this particular morning I choose to start with the sky, which is pale and dotted with peach-hued clouds, which I paint upside down as an inconsequential poke at convention. To this up-ended skyscape a few blobs of sea and chlorophyll green are added as well as the ochre of a coral that I observed while snorkeling the day before. Abruptly, the sun rises above the mountain and the strengthening light intensifies the action of the wind and the water so that everything seems to expand and contract, as if caught in an elastic net. On the panel ovals and bars of light shoot across the picture plane and undulate to the rhythm of the wind in the sea grapes. I trace the edges of the waving shadows and let my hand move to the rhythm. Sometimes I use a knife and scrape out ovals of light. There is no lag between the provocations of the sun and the wind and the response of the brush and the knife. Stimulus and response become one thing and the experience is transcendent, like a moment of shared belief.
When the sun first rises, the shapes are slashing diagonals. But as the morning progresses and the sun circles behind the sea grapes, the shapes become rounder.
To check on progress, the panel is turned away from the light and rotated. If one looks at a picture sideways, it’s easier to ignore the subject and study the scaffolding of lines and the repetition of motifs that make a well-built composition.
The picture is complete, when it asks for nothing more.
I love and admire Leon Golub for his life and work and over the years I have felt myself respond to his accomplishments. His mercenaries-in-action are good representations of violence, but they are great paintings because they are convincing demonstrations of violence. His pictures embody the human capacity for destruction because of his actions, which are to use a mighty size, to overwhelm with big gesture and to flay the surface as if it were alive. In life Leon was far from being a violent or destructive man, but in his art he could conjure brutality and show it nakedly. Like Leon I’m interested in human potential, but I’m working on the flip side of the same coin. Playing with the light and wind and water on Haulover Beach is an attempt to demonstrate the human capacity to embrace.