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Sharing the Excitement of an Artist's Work....
I have just discovered an artist, unfortunately recently deceased, that fills me with excitement and hope for the language of art that I explore. The art of Bill Lynch is a continuum of the philosophy towards art and nature of that of Morris Graves and of the Sung Dynasty Chinese in their art and philosophy. I hope you share my enthusiasm.
by Jessica Holmes, October 3, 2014
WHITE COLUMNS | SEPTEMBER 12 – OCTOBER 25, 2014
The danger of the art world constantly searching for the “next big thing” is that quieter, more introspective work, like that of painter Bill Lynch is easily overlooked. Thankfully, he has just been given his inaugural—and posthumous—New York exhibition at White Columns. Lynch, who died last year at the age of 54, had been painting since his student days at Cooper Union, in the late 1970s. Other than a memorial leaflet penned by Michael Wilde (available at the gallery), almost nothing has been written about Lynch, and though it appears that his output was prodigious, he was known to only a small coterie of other working artists and friends.
Bill Lynch, “Untitled (Waterfall and Pink Flowers),” n.d. Oil on wood, 541/4 × 34 × 1/2 ̋. Image courtesy of White Columns.In the wake of the artist’s death, one of these friends, fellow painter Verne Dawson, with the support of Lynch’s family, has finally seized an opportunity to organize this formidable show. The 45 paintings assembled at White Columns present a lucid body of work that draws on a wide variety of sources—from nature to folk and indigenous art to Asian calligraphic forms to religious and mythological motifs—to create a singular and absorbing world. Lynch worked in a simple and immediate manner, applying fluid strokes of oil directly onto unfinished wooden planks (he mostly eschewed canvas). The different grains of wood emerge through their painted surfaces not by accident. Rather, they contribute to the humble, organic quality of Lynch’s work.
The results are multifaceted. Some paintings, like “Untitled (Waterfall and Pink Flowers)” (n.d.) are dense and lush. A cascade of blue spills vertically down the center of the board, partially obscured by the verdant green of fauna and the saturated reds of tropical flowers. The work is alive with the thick, humid air, the redolence of wet peat, and the raw, fertile energy that pervades a jungle. Likewise, “Untitled (Blue Vase)” (n.d.), painted in deep blues, greens, and black on a dark wooden slab, exudes the murkiness of an impenetrable night. A skull, strange animals, and brooding, moonlit tree branches surround the blue Ming-style vase central to the painting. As with so many of the works on view, it bears close scrutiny for the reward of further symbols and images surfacing in the enigmatic paint.
Lynch had a sophisticated, unflinching color palette that is evident even in the sparer works, and which was highlighted by his deft brushstrokes. From across the room, the eye is drawn to works like “Untitled (Deer)” (n.d.), a depiction of an abstracted deer bounding through tall grass, glancing back jauntily over its shoulder. It’s one of the few panels whose surface has first been washed entirely in white (giving the impression of canvas from a distance), and its lightness stands out, especially as it is installed amongst much darker works. The animal’s insouciant facial expression and the minimal brushstrokes that make up its body and the tall grass are reminiscent of fine Japanese calligraphy.
In the early 1990s, Lynch once wrote to a friend, “I realized that the art of the 20th century is the fruit of personal revelation, while ancient art is the product of mystery initiation.” It’s this notion that seems to set Lynch apart from so many other contemporary artists. His work is neither big, nor explosive, nor self-absorbed. It is an antidote to the Jeff Koons and Gerhard Richter-inspired “entertainment art” audiences have almost come to expect (or perhaps have resigned themselves to) when visiting a gallery. Lynch’s work is hushed, contemplative, and therefore easier to lose in the noise of the world. To let it go is a mistake. His paintings ask the viewer to do the work of unveiling their many potential meanings, and implore with a whisper to consider the mysteries of what they have to offer. It is not that Lynch’s work is out of step with the times. Rather, it is timeless.
Ripples of Our Existence. Oil and Charcoal on Canvas - Collage. Hart James@copyright 2016.
The first time I came to the Pacific Northwest to live, I was driving in my Pinto station wagon with my cat; stopping at Howard Johnson’s for chocolate ice cream cones to share with her; letting her out at rest stops to walk about.
We were driving somewhere in the bleakest part of the route, somewhere between Wyoming and the upper corner of Utah. The color of dust as far as one could see: the dogs, the people, the sagebrush: all the same dusty color.
The terrain had just gotten a little bit more interesting. Some dusty mountains and hills, a few rocks. The road was windy. I realized that I knew what was going to be around the next corner: a wooden mining structure, a building of sorts on stilts leading into the rocky side of the mountain. I drove around the corner to see exactly what I knew to be there. I had dreamed about this very scene before my trip.
The second time I moved to the Pacific Northwest , my son and I were driving through the dusty part of South Dakota. The part that looks like an old Western television show; the old dusty, weather worn wooden buildings with the flat store front architecture; old rusty 1940s cars and car parts lying everywhere in the fields. I looked over and pointed to something in a field. I asked my son, “What’s that?”
His answer was perfect. “A time machine.”
It was a contraption that some industrious, bored, creative (or all of these) South Dakotan had welded together. All the rusty pieces that were lying around the field worked into one monstrosity, one creation. It was identical but slightly smaller than the one I had dreamed about the week before our trip.
I had dreamed that there was an old Western town; pretty much like the ones in the old black and white movies. The dream was in black and white. A giant blimp, or rather a dirigible, was in the sky to the right. It appeared to have a raku-ish finish: all burned greys and molten colors. A tall man with goggles and a long khaki trench coat walked down the middle of the main street of the town and pointed up to the dirigible. It blew up into flames. Then an enormous transformer-like apparatus with all of his parts moving up and down began to slowly inch its way down the streets of the black and white Western town, turning rhythmically at the corners. The thing was made of old rusted machinery parts re-constructed into this THING. The THING in my dream was practically identical to my son’s ‘time machine.’
When I paint I strive to paint using my intuition. Where does the color go? What colors should I use? How will the shapes evolve?
When one paints one is right up on the painting. Whether it be a large painting or a ten inch painting. It is hard to focus on it. Impossible to focus on the whole. I paint with my intuition. Putting a color here. Another stroke over here. One here.
The process becomes rational when I step back from the painting to study it and rationalize it: the composition, the depth, the color, each tiny section…is it working?
I recently was awarded a two week artist’s residency with the Morris Graves Foundation at his “Lake” home in Loleta, California. The president of the Foundation and his wife treated me with the respect that one would give a sage or a religious figure. It was the first time that I have ever had this experience, as ours is a culture that gives artists very little respect or prestige, even among the artists community. Our society asks the artist for their art for free, free for donations, for charitable events, free for the walls of businesses, free classes. Even many large charitable arts organizations designed to ‘support’ the artists ask for their free art for their fund raisers.
The position of artist as sage is an old one, interlaced through our cultures, history, and religions. The sage works from a higher place within.
Alfred Steglitz (Ground breaking photographer, husband of Georgia O’keefe, organizer and supporter of some of the early 1900s American artists): ‘People think that I am only interested in art. That is not true….whether it is scrubbing a floor or painting a picture …only the best work that a man is capable of will finally satisfy him…Only work born of a sacred feeling… and what interests me is whether a man will fight for the opportunity of doing the best work of which he is capable. It seems to me that people will fight for almost anything except that right, and yet nothing else will fulfill in the end.’
Henri Matisse: 'I do not literally paint that table, but the emotion it produces upon me.'
Lisa Fischer, musician, ‘when in that higher space with musicians, it is a higher calling.’
Bob Dylan says of his earlier works, they ’ ….sprung from the waters of the well.’
Art doesn’t come from war or fighting. Intuition is not enriched by war, fighting, or monetary gain. Where does it come from?
The Cave Paintings of Lascaux seem to be possessed with the actual spirit of the animals depicted, possessed with the 'wild.' When viewed by the light of an open flame, as they would have been viewed, the animals seem to move. They have a power, a presence. These are Paleolithic paintings, estimated to be 20,000 years old.
Alexander Pope (1600s-early 1700s) “Essay on Man”: ‘All are but parts of one stupendous whole …that changed through all, and yet in all is the same. Great in the earth ….warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze, glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees, lives through all life….all nature is but art.….’
Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘There can never be deep peace between two spirits, never mutual respect, until in there dialogue each stands for the whole world.’ This is the role of the artist.
Mai Mai Sze, 1963 “The Tao of Painting”: ‘The first canon of painting (the breath of Heaven and Earth, the spirit) stirs all nature to life…and that if a work has ch’I it inevitably reflects a vitality of spirit that is the essence of life itself…through developing them, a painter not only nourishes that part of Heaven in himself but possessing it…creating it…the spiritual aspect becomes a tangible expression.’
Mai Mai Sze “The Tao of Painting”: ‘….unceasing activity of the Tao through the complimentary action of its dual forces (Yin Yang)…the Tao of painting…should describe the ever-changing processes of nature and the Tao. …in observing the way a bud opens into full flower, eventually to shed its place, the painter is exploring an aspect of the Tao…see it at every stage and as a whole…himself….same pattern of movement and change beyond his own limited horizon, on the scale of the whole earth…the whole universe. ….the art of painting is the magic skill or the art of delineating the mysterious.’
Returning to Morris Graves…he painted many paintings with the symbol of a chalice. All his work was autobiographical. The chalice is, as Bob Dylan said, the well of the flow of the waters. The chalice is the vessel holding the heavens. The chalice is our physical body that holds our spiritual powers, that holds our intuition. …and thus we have the artist as the sage.
…in closing, this is not to expect others to get down in praise to artists, but to understand art a little more and, in essence, it is about finding the spirit/the heaven/ the flow of waters from your well. …within yourself. If we all strive to find this place and, in process, respect that place in others, we have indeed made a better world.
Many people can’t fathom why there is no technology at the Morris Graves residency.
The presence of technology would be an affront to the sensitivities of the place.
The Morris Graves Estate, where I recently spent a two week artist’s residency, is a sacred space. It is 167 acres of primordial forest surrounding a lake high in the coastal mountains of Northern California, an area considered to be part of the Redwood Forest. Morris Graves chose the property for its inherent qualities. He set about to develop the land into a space where he could live and work and enjoy the beauty to its fullest with Buddhist sensibilities.
His home, designed by the well-known Seattle artist, Ibsen, rests inches above the water line of the ‘Lake.’ The front room steps down three steps to access this experience of being afloat on the water. The wall of windows on the front of the house frame the views as a Chinese painting frames the views of mountains in mist or as a Japanese painting frames a view that is partially covered in mist of a moon gazing pavilion, the occupant floating in meditation out into the mist suspended over the lake.
Golden lotus hug the shallow area near the home. Across the water one can see the Tea House, designed by Morris from a dream he had. Robert Yarber, Morris Graves’ assistant for thirty years built the building, a miniature version of the main house. Surrounded by yellow iris, this second building on the ‘Lake’ does indeed have a moon gazing pavilion.
Morris Graves was adamant about not encroaching upon the primordial forest surrounding his home. His attitude was one of living in harmony with the surroundings as opposed to the imperialist attitudes of domination over nature that has ravaged our planet.
His home was literally in the primordial forest with trees surrounding it just feet away from the structure. After Morris’ death, Robert did remove the trees from the immediate area as a fire buffer zone. Practicality and function meet idealism and the sacred.
Bear, lynx, and other native creatures shared the property harmoniously with Morris and now with Robert Yarber and his wife, to whom Morris left the property. During my two week stay, I saw signs of bear three times. The first was my first day. The nine inch in width, four to five inch in depth pile of scat, left dead center in the wide path to the Yarber’s home, was, I was told, left two days before my arrival. The second siting was during my walk up one of the largest coastal mountains on the property, the path up to see the eight hundred year old Redwoods on the property. The trail was spotted with small bits of bear scat. At one point shortly before the crest, I smelled a foul stench, just a glimpse of the strong odor. I stepped back a few steps to return to where I caught the scent. Off to the right was evidence that a large animal had left the trail and scrambled over the incline and off through the dense overgrowth into the wildest part of the property. The scent must have been the bear’s spray or mark, as were the scat droppings, warning of his presence. My third sighting was on my final day. I had done two gouache and walked several trails on the estate, in an attempt to take in as much as I could. I set out to do one more gouache and enjoy the trail and view out to the Pacific coast. Dead center in the path that I had been on yesterday and had earlier that day stopped feet before was another large mound of bear scat. I turned around and walked/ran back to the shelter of the four walls of the studio.
Land becomes the person. Unfortunately few understand this. Wendell Berry writes of this. He writes of the connection and the dysfunction that arises from the lack of connection with the earth. Here is one quote from Berry taken from an article by Sarah Leonard in ‘Dissent’ magazine in the spring of 2012. "“Wonder” is a word that applies. To live and work attentively in a diverse landscape such as this one—made up of native woodlands, pastures, croplands, ponds, and streams—is to live from one revelation to another, things unexpected, always of interest, often wonderful. After a while, you understand that there can be no end to this. The place is essentially interesting, inexhaustibly beautiful and wonderful. To know this is a” guiding life force. It dispels the myth that your “life is not good enough.” A sense of contentment is carried with a person by “living watchfully and carefully the life uniquely granted to you by your place.”
This land, this primordial forest became me. When, I wasn’t painting, drawing, or writing in my journal, I was watching the birds. And the birds watched me. The birds watched the other birds. The birds watched the turtles. Their day was spent in a natural meditation of their presence; their existence; an instinctive and constant stilling of the mind. They would sit on a branch or float on the water simply observing. Sometimes they would be joined by other birds of different varieties. Sometimes they were solitary. Sun, insects, and stillness of heart.
Their utter contentment with the space of the moment becomes apparent in this place.
“In painting, the painter…must first still his heart. ‘Stilling the heart’ expresses beautifully the quietness necessary for creative ideas, an inner quietness related to the silence of the Tao…similar to the stillness of deep waters…equate stillness with purity of heart…In stilling the heart…can become one with …elements of nature…true meaning of wholeness…aim of painter to identify with the object depicted.” Mai Mai Sze , “The Tao of Painting.”
Observations and happenings that amused me and gave me a sense of peace during my stay at Morris Graves home in Northern California:
The Flicker came pounding on the roof of the studio on several mornings. His call for a mate translates to human intellect as mischief and made me laugh.
The pair of Stellar Jays introduced themselves on my first morning. They communicated their intent clearly. From their first introduction on, I was expected to give them a morning snack. I would save my apple or pear core to toss out on the deck for them every morning. One morning when the fruit was all gone, I forgot my expected duty. One of the Jays sat on the high back of the old wooden chair outside the kitchen window. The chair was butted up directly against the glass of the window. He sat with his beak pointed down and his eyes parallel to the glass, his head with his top notch of feathers pushed up against it, looking in, through the glass for me and for his morning snack. They made me laugh. From then on each day after, until I departed, I obeyed the Stellar Jays. I would throw bits of my Swedish rye crackers in lieu of fruit scraps, onto the deck for their morning munch. This they found satisfactory.
The Anna Hummingbirds zoomed outside the studio during the days. Like tiny fighter jets zooming, zooming, zooming up 200 feet in seconds and then down. Then shooting straight off at a direct right angle…zzzzoom, and gone. They would return to do speedster loops. Around. And around. And around. Zoom. Zoom. Zoom. Their energy was astonishing. Areas of their activity were scattered all over the property; centering on the red blossoms of the deciduous huckleberry. Their territories were decided by food source as each male hummingbird tried to attract a female with his antics and feats of aerial astonishment.
These were my companions. They filled my being with their joy, their humour, and with their meditation. They ‘stilled my heart.’
There was no need for technology in this sacred space. The natural web of activities was too dense.
Clouds. Oil on Canvas. Hart James@copyright 2017.
The View from the Tea House on opposite side of Lake. Looking at Graves home and studio.
An Artist Residency
I’m just back from the time of my life (or one of the absolute top ten); an artist residency with the Morris Graves Foundation. It entailed two weeks of uninhibited access to Morris Graves’s studio, his home, and the 167 acres of primordial forest on his ‘Lake’ property. It was complete with panoramic vistas of the Pacific and the drive in through California’s famous beautiful rolling green hills sprinkled with happy bovine. In short, it was heaven.
Robert and Desiree Yarber who own and manage the Foundation treated me like an esteemed sage/ seer, a position that artists have held in bygone societies. One that is rarely experienced by artists in this culture.
Robert Yarber, as a young man in his twenties, found his life path unfolding when hitchhiking on US 101. Morris Graves gave him a ride. With no agenda, Robert was taken to Morris’s house. An incredible architectural beauty (designed by Seattle architect, Ibsen Nelsen) sitting practically at water level on a lake surrounded by pristine, untouched forest. For the next thirty years, Robert was Morris’s companion and helper. Robert built many of the additional buildings. He cleared the paths and maintained the property. In essence, as Morris himself pointed out, Robert gave Morris Graves more time to concentrate on his art. They led a life woven with the spiritual, Buddhist philosophies, art, and nature. The relationship seems very much like one of guru – disciple, with Morris Graves as the teacher, and Robert as Morris’s disciple.
When Morris passed in 2011, he left the property and all to Robert. Now, Robert is the guide/ the teacher, in that he supports the artists that are selected for the residency by giving them everything that he can during their stays to produce great art.
Primordial Forest © Hart James 2015
Robert and Desiree minimized their social contact with me, respecting my time and privacy to create. They checked in daily, bringing the most delicious meals and always asking about my comfort and needs. Did I have all my art supplies? Had I run out of something? Did I still have food for the other meals of the day (Robert and Desiree brought one meal. I was responsible for any other food consumption needs.)?
On the third evening Desiree offered that Robert would take me across the lake in the boat the next day. This would shorten my trek with huge palette, bag of oils and canvas. It would also give me the dock as a flat surface on which to work.
The next day Robert came and boated me across in the accompaniment of their beautiful little black dog. The dog, Annie, had the graceful feet and nose of a deer and the bushy hair and mane of a lion and the intelligence of an obedient three year old human.
I immediately left the dock and moved into the woods to paint the trees with my eight by four foot roll of canvas paper. There I was again on my knees reaching out as far as I could on my canvas-paper with large sweeps; running around to the other side of the paper to be sure to work on all sides; reaching; crawling; jumping up and down; craning my neck up to view the trees that I was painting; fighting mosquitoes; dealing with the incline of the paper’s surface going down away from me as opposed to the usual slope of an easel towards the artist. My style of plein air painting was/ is a full body work out. After getting the image that I had chosen down with charcoal and my oils, I gave up and went to the dock. At least there it was a flat surface.
Robert returned after the allotted three hours. We quickly realized that my eight foot oil painting was not going to fit in the aluminum row boat. I had seen Robert and his young helper using the dock as a raft when they cleaned the lake out; removing two invasive species, parrot feather and sponge weed. It intrigued me. This was my opportunity! A lifelong dream of being on a raft like Tom Sawyer! I suggested the dock. Robert tied the row boat behind the raft, put sweet Annie in it, and we proceeded to row the dock across the lake. My two paddles for each of Robert’s experienced one paddle. No matter. I was gleeful and declared Annie to be Becky in our adventure!
Back at the studio I managed to get the canvas paper on the long expanse of wall opposite the wall of windows overlooking the lake. This wall had an extra layer of dry wall specifically designated for pinning art work. How I managed to get it on the wall I don’t know. Pure exhilarated energy I guess. I worked on the piece into the dark hours. The next day, I worked another eleven hours on the piece. Never had I had the opportunity to work on anything of this size. There were moments of feeling overwhelmed. ‘How will I ever finish this when there is so much area to cover?’ Determination, perseverance, and creative energy won out. I learned that on that marvelous oil paint paper I could scrape my palette knife over it, applying colors in glazes, not wasting any oil paint in the process. I loved the effect. The charcoal, one of my favorite tools, would maintain itself under the applications of oil. I tackled the trees with the same methods that I would have used with pastels. Giving them volume and form with horizontal strokes of varying colors. It worked beautifully. The entire process/experience of this painting I loved. It took me back to that child that I strive for in my work; that feeling of connection with nature, with the earth; that sense of being able to do anything that I set my mind to; the feeling of youthful adventure.
Centuries of Time. Gouache on Arches paper. Hart James@2015.
The Washington Center Gallery present Hart James, The Ancients
January 7 - March 7
Opening Reception – January 16, 2015 at 6:00 PM
They have stood on this earth before the human species arrived to the planet. Trees have born witness to the rise and fall of civilizations, survived climate change, and still stand tall as they struggle to persevere our industrialization of the planet. Hart’s paintings invite the viewer into the practice of reverence of ‘The Ancients.’