Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A painting kindred spirit: Phil Durgan

Phil Durgan, a very talented Buffalo artist, died so very young a couple of days ago.  I feel somehow guilty in writing about him; I'm not particularly good with death or emotion associated with it.  But as a fellow painter, I will want people to write about my work when I am gone.  Phil's work is definitely worth writing about -- it is full of nuance, observation, rhythm and the lights and darks of life. Phil and I admired each other's paint; I think we saw strengths in each others work that we wished we had.  Phil's work has a natural rhythm; he guides you through a piece to music that he knows intrinsically (he loved Jazz). Phil brought MOAB (the painting above) to an exhibit I coordinated in 2011 at Statler City.  It was the first time we talked and the first time I saw the really big painting seen above.  The prospectus indicated that all the work in the exhibit be related to Buffalo's architecture and/or communities.   This piece resembles a street map of the city; an inviting, familiar, yet possibly dangerous location.  The shimmering pavement flows throughout - letting you move through and around the sharp corners, bump over squiggles and seek out sanctuary in small nooks.  When I see the scissors I think immediately of Diebenkorn, they are open but non-threatening --I get the feeling that Phil's scissors are kid's scissors.  The eye is also the sun is also a light bulb -- this could be a wonderful metaphor for how opening our eyes to our surroundings allows us to view our world through both intelligent realism and optimism.  There is also a dark undercurrent woven into the canvas.   The skeletal figure with the large red dot covering most of his skull is very ominous, and the sun's rays could simply be dangerous spikes.   Phil mentioned in an interview with ELAB that he liked to read artists bios including those of Basquiat, Pollock, De Kooning, Picasso.   One can see the conversation his work has with these artists on canvas as well as to other artists he admired including Jean Dubuffet, Cy Twombly, Joseph Bueys.  His material usage is often identical to Basquiat -- acrylic paint and oil sticks.  Basquiat said that every line had meaning -- this is true of Phil's work.  I certainly don't know the meanings, but you can feel their purpose.  

His artist statement is brief, but true.  He wrote: "I am always amazed by the little things in life and equally impressed by the daring. My paintings seem to always encounter the ideas of: Bebop jazz. Cigarette smoke. Road maps. Women. Beat literature. Mid-century colors. Hymnals. Sumatra. The Gospels. Raconteurs. Drag queens. College radio. Women. Street musicians. Nag Champa. Fireflies…and my children."

More of Phil's words about his work at Buffalo Rising.  Phil's obituary in the Buffalo News.
Phil's poem on FB that accompanied this painting:
"I hear cars racing down my street
Neighbors yelling 27yr greetings
Cat dogs plows mufflers bottle breaks
I hear love being made
Deals broken
Taxis on flat tires
Children escaping school buses"
The association between jazz music and the cacophony of sound that accompany the day to day is striking and it makes complete visual and auditory sense. 
The colors and brushwork in this piece are sensual and confident.  It contradicts the the text... "No. 8 Pathetic."

This is my favorite Phil Durgan painting.  The broad bands of off-kilter color clash with the pale centered woman.  Her face is worn, seen both as in the process of being created and in being deconstructed.  the paint of her body and dress is so full of life and movement when compared with the flat, unyielding, yet unbalanced bands of color.  Phil had said he wanted to trade work with me... I always thought we'd get around to it eventually... now that Phil has passed away I regret that I never got around to the "trade." But his paintings, along with his friendly smile and energy, will live in my memory always.   Especially this painting -- for me she is a reminder that I need to keep painting and that I need to enjoy my children and husband cause it could all be over too soon -- there isn't always a tomorrow -- a lesson I first learned from my dad who passed away when he was only 28.   I can't get stuck in routine, but need to be fresh and full of life and keep things off-kilter.   I don't want to sad or stress (she looks both); I want to be like the paint that creates her -- joyful, spontaneous and layered.  I don't know what Phil intended with this painting -- but it has taken on a lot of significance for me on how to move forward with my own existence.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

On Philip Guston

Voyage, 1956 by Philip Guston

I was in Baltimore a few weeks back for just a day, but I stopped into the FREE Baltimore Museum of  Art and was reminded just how influential Philip Guston has been to my thought process as I paint.  A long while ago I read a book, Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations , and I think that it should be required reading for all painters.  Before reading the book, I had enjoyed the above piece at the Albright Knox for it's palette and brush work, but I didn't realize the depth of thought behind Guston's painting process over the course of his career.  Guston's eradication of color or marks or subject matter from his canvases make his work about the journey -- the history of paint is on the canvas.  He thought in-depth about paint, what makes a painting, the purpose of paint and the place of painting in modern art.  He repeatedly went back through the history of painting to inform his work, including Piero de Francesco, Mantegna, Goya, Manet and Cezanne.  Guston's book sent me on many investigations into the same subject matter and helped me solidify paint as a medium I will utilize and defend as relevant.  As a representational artist who believes that great representational art is also abstract art, I find that erasures and letting the picture live it's own life are really important to me.  I think reading the Guston book helped me articulate, both in words and paint, my own process of working from a plan to abandoning the plan to allowing the picture to form itself -- sometimes it even returns to the plan after seeking other ways first.  Guston shares a metaphor of having the plan of climbing Mount Everest and almost reaching the top, then thinking "I forgot some supplies," turning around, but finding new paths down the hill, making new discoveries; the experience of the climb wasn't about reaching the top even though that was the plan -- it is about all the things that happen when we change direction.  I find it intriguing that two of the abstract painters I admire most, Guston and Diebenkorn, both returned to figuration and representation at some point in their careers.  While in Baltimore, I saw "The Oracle" from 1974.  It is part of a series of work that uses the KKK as characters in a story -- Guston states that he was interested in evil, but wanted to think about what evil did when it wasn't planning evil thing -- evil having dinner, looking art, etc.   As an artist whose work has been socially conscious, I find this narrative intriguing.   His distance from activism and his humor are important elements to this work. 
The Oracle (the colors in this photo do not do it justice!)

This video is an amazing example of Guston's thoughts on painting as he paints!!! 

Evidence 1970 (click for video)