Tag Archives: landscape

monument

Sarra monument

monument, 56″x 72″, oil on canvas, 2014

Tonight we are expecting to receive between 5 and 8 inches of snow, and it is in the context of this unusually long and cold winter that I have finished this long and cold painting, monument.  But the painting started under different circumstances two years ago when we had a rather warm and snowless winter.  In February of 2012 we had a single significant snowfall, and a day or so later the temperatures rose sufficiently to melt it away.  As I drove past Metcalfe Park on the day of the melt I saw a large snowball slumped in the middle of a muddy field.  Grass and leaves protruded from the snowy mass.  It was a striking image, and I kept thinking about it for the next few days.  At some point this meditation on the memory became a call to action, and I made this sketch of the scene as I remembered it:

snowball study (memory), 8.25" x 11.5", pencil on paper, 2012

snowball study (memory), 8.25″ x 11.5″, pencil on paper, 2012

Having made the sketch, I began to rework the composition directly on the canvas.  As the snowball began to take shape as a stark contrast to the muddy field of dormant grass, I became painfully aware of the painting’s limitations when it came to expressing important aspects of the context that had qualified my initial experience.  The object appeared so strongly dislocated from its season that it took on what seemed to me as an inseparable association with Andy Goldsworthy’s Midsummer Snowballs.  I added a few patches of snow to reclaim a more plausible scene.  Eventually more snow fell in the world that I was creating, and although it pulled the image farther from my actual experience it had the ultimate effect of establishing a more credible stage upon which other events might unfold.  Here’s an image of the painting in September, before so many of the characters were removed from the scene:

studio view of monument, September 2013

studio view of monument, September 2013

For many people, even many artists, it may seem strange to start making a picture without a clear vision of what the final image (and meaning) will be.  In my process this is a relatively normal thing.  I rely upon an inspiration to get things started, but it is the unanswered questions and unforeseen problems that drive the work.  The finished painting is as much a product of surprise and discovery as anything else.  It requires that I be willing to experiment by adding and removing elements.  The process is inefficient but rewarding.  The painting begins to accumulate histories, and the surface becomes a tangle of what was and what is.  Some of these events leave marks of discernible character, others become inscrutable.  This piece required a lot of “un-painting”.  I was cutting down trees, knocking down buildings, rolling in clouds, and dropping snow in order to find that moment where the painting fully contained the justification for its own existence.

glove study, 11" x 15", pastel on paper, 2013

glove study, 11″ x 15″, pastel on paper, 2013.  This was one of the objects that I thought might be incorporated into the painting, but it never made the cut.

It was at this point that the object of my painting shifted from subject to stage and orchestrated the completion of the piece.  As the atmospheric silence overtook the painting, it brought me back to a childhood memory.  It was winter in Maryland, and my parents had taken me out to shop for boots.  I was probably about nine years old.  It was snowing furiously, and on the way home our vehicle stalled in the left lane on a busy road.  Before long we were struck, by another vehicle, and then that vehicle, too, was struck due to the poor visibility and accumulation of snow on the ground.  It was late at night by the time my older brother was able to walk from our house to the accident scene in order to escort me home.  As we set off, the transition was magical and immediate.  We crossed over into the ball field between the high school and the elementary school, and the light/noise/stress of the road was replaced by muffled stillness and by calm.  The world seemed lit from within as we high-stepped through the snow and across that field.  It was snowing hard enough that as we gained the middle of the field it became a world without edges, a room defined by its thick floor and the soft collapse of its ceiling.  Perhaps it was this semblance of privacy, this feeling of being lost in a  little piece of wilderness while still in the midst of the metropolis. Perhaps the scene presented a blank canvas so compelling, so self-evident that it demanded action even from a child.  Perhaps we were just suffering from full bladders.  Whatever the reason, we took that opportunity to draw with streams of our steaming medium in the snow.

It would have been impossible for me to interpret that act as anything but necessary at the time.  It was visceral and unpremeditated.  But as I now reflect upon that moment I see it as characterizing much of my life’s experience with the landscape, with family, and with the action of creation that I define today as “art making”.  In this painting a signature appears with a vandal’s brazen delight.  It claims the land like a flag planted in soil already bearing evidence of another’s passage.  It is an expression of desire and of necessity, acutely aware of its ethical dilemmas.   Philip Guston described this problem during a conversation with Joseph Ablow in 1966 while describing what he saw as the revolutionary impulse of the New York School.  He said, “…you felt as if you were driven into a corner, against the wall with no place to stand, just the place you occupied, as if the act of painting itself was not making a picture– there are plenty of pictures in the world, why clutter up the world with pictures– it was as if you had to prove to yourself that truly the act of creation was still possible.”

New Work at The Chapel

 

orange lips and fingertips, acrylic and oil on canvas, 56"x62", 2012

On Sunday orange lips and fingertips (pictured above) made its debut at The Chapel, a gallery that operates in association with Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, MO.  I’m showing four recent paintings alongside folded paper works by Marguerite Corey and photographs by Sylvester Jacobs.  If you missed the public reception, you can catch the show again on November 11 or by appointment (info@johnsarra.com).  Each of these paintings addresses concerns of gain and loss by way of memory, consumption, and death, reflecting upon what we take and what we leave behind.

smoke-shaped forest, ink, shellac, and oil on paper, 22"x30", 2012

I thought that I had finished smoke-shaped forest back in May (see the post from May 8, below), but ended up reworking the painting in early October.  The rising embers seemed to resonate with the blowing/falling cheese puffs, and as a result this piece edged out the competition for inclusion in the exhibition.  It’s another meditation on gains and losses, a depiction of cleared land with irregular trees and stumps scraped into a burn pile while the city throws its own light up over the horizon.  I’ll need to post a future image including the frame, which I made out of reclaimed quarter-sawn red oak.  The distinctive medullary rays provide a contrast to the starkness of the image, and its reclaimed nature (made evident by a few nail holes) is intended as an argument on behalf of both use and preservation.

 

recent paintings

smoke-shaped forest, 22x 30, ink, shellac, and oil on paper, 2012

Last week I finished smoke-shaped forest, which continues a series reflecting on the simultaneous gains and losses associated with 200 acres of land being cleared adjacent to my parent’s property outside of Charleston, SC.  In such cases waste wood and plowed stumps are often stacked up and burned, and they create an eerily beautiful sight at dusk in that thick southern air.  Anyone who has ever sat around a campfire knows the seduction of staring into the coals, a kind of primal reverie of thought and thoughtlessness, comfort and fear, and the clear insistence of a light in the darkness.

broadleaf plantain with clover, 10 1/4" x 13 7/8", oil on panel, 2012

broadleaf plantain with clover is the first in what I believe will be a series of edible wild plant paintings, most of which can be quickly located in urban environments.  These are works about the act of foraging, which is another way of seeking a depth of experience outside of the dominant culture.  But they also raise questions regarding patterns of recognition and the problems associated with the indirect transfer of knowledge.  One of the classic problems of depicting plants is the method of depicting a “representative sample”.  That is, the collection or photographic documentation of a single plant does not account for the inevitability of variation, and this creates a reservoir of doubt.  Paintings are effective in communicating some types of specificity, but often at the expense of others.  The payoff of this more “scenic” method, in my mind, is that it describes more fully a set of relationships within a given habitat.  And just as my front lawn establishes criteria for fruitfulness, so does the limited context of my panel.

grackle with smartweed and clover, 14 1/4" x 17 1/4", oil on panel, 2012

grackle with smartweed and clover keeps up the thematic approach to ground-cover, and the act of looking down as a move out of the demands of the body and into the life of the mind.  Because the bird’s eye is denied to the viewer as a point of reference, the grackle straddles a space between life and death.

Show, don’t tell

landscape 1 blog

frog 1 blog

landscape 2 blog

On Monday I stopped in Forest Park between errands, and it was so beautiful that I went home for my camera.  With the temperature hovering around twenty degrees and a stiff breeze, I had to alternate between warming my hand, warming the camera batteries, and trying to take photos without having the camera drop from my frozen fingers.  I ended up with  an expansion of my collection of “miniature landscapes” in which the act of looking down becomes a means by which to seek or to create a meditative space.