Saturday, January 31, 2015

Conversations with Alfred Bricher and John Constable


                               Alfred Bricher, Sea and Rocks Near Newport, Indiana University Art Museum


I was wandering through images of paintings and stumbled across two old and dear friends- the two paintings by other artists that first inspired me to make copies in oil.

Back in 1970 I entered the MFA Program in Painting at Indiana University with no idea what kind of art I wanted to make. My paintings often were going several different directions at once,  starting with straight observation, bouncing into expressionism and hitting a few surreal notes. But I had the good fortune to almost immediately fall in love with the large exhibition of 19th century landscape paintings the IU Art Museum had staged. 

One of the artists in the show was Alfred Bricher (Am. 1837 - 1908). I was allowed to set up my paints and make a copy directly from his original painting above. Making copies was something I had read about that used to be part of every artist's training, but it was new to me. I found the process was like falling into a long conversation with the artist, with him gently pointing the way as I examined his thinking. 

Copying a painting in oil is slow going but it allowed me time to fall into his world on a deeper level than I'd anticipated. For example his large hillside of rocks at the left proved far more simple and geometric than I'd first realized.




John Constable, A Cottage in a Corn Field

About the same time I bought a little paperback of John Constable (British, 1776 -1837) landscapes from the campus bookstore. My favorite plate was the oil above. Back in my student apartment at night I worked up a careful oil copy of it as well. 

What I love about this Constable is the way he created such a flowing movement from the far distant curving clouds to the cottage roof and surrounding field, and finally into the distinctly differently colored foreground. I remember specifically how making this copy got me thinking about layering my pigments, building up complexly rich forms like the trunk and branches lying on top of the expanse of "foliage" color the artist had applied first. 




Philip Koch, Fall at Lake Lemon, oil on canvas, 1971 

My painting above was done on location right after I made these two copies. And I remember thinking at the time how I could feel my way of seeing had started to change from listening so closely to what those two old painters had to say.



Saturday, January 24, 2015

Catalogue Essay for Upcoming Exhibition at Edward Hopper House



Carole Perry, the Executive Artistic Director of Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY wrote the following essay for the exhibition catalogue for their upcoming show Philip Koch: Landscapes and Hopper Interiors. The exhibition runs Feb. 14 - April 12, 2015. There will be an opening reception Saturday, Feb. 14 from 5 - 7. All invited!


As an art student in the late1960s, Philip Koch (b. 1948) found inspiration in the geometric and color field abstractions of artists such as Josef Albers, Frank Stella, and Mark Rothko.  Koch created abstract paintings until, he says, “[Edward] Hopper came along and tapped me on the shoulder.”  With the ghost of Hopper as his guide, Koch turned his attention to the landscape and began to paint from nature in a realist style.

What he learned from Hopper, Koch says, “was to be relentless in pursuit of just the right idea to make a painting… Don't settle for anything less than extraordinary his work said to me."   Like Hopper, Koch starts a composition by sketching his scene on site.  He uses vine charcoal (a medium he is drawn to for its ability to render the nuances of light and shadow) to record his initial impressions, and then engages his imagination and memory to execute the final painting in the studio.


Since 1983, Koch has had 15 residencies in Hopper’s home and studio in Truro, MA on Cape Cod.  He has also painted in Hopper’s bedroom at the Edward Hopper House.  Spending time in the spaces inhabited by Hopper, seeing the same views and experiencing the play of light and shadow in the rooms and on the surrounding houses has provided Koch with a unique understanding of Hopper’s work and process.  Koch has used that understanding as a guide as he forged his own artistic identity. 

Edward Hopper once said that it took him 10 years to “get over” the influence of his teacher, Robert Henri.  Likewise, it took Koch some years to get past Hopper’s powerful hold on him.  It is not style, subject matter or technique that makes an artist unique, but how much of himself he puts into his work.  For the past 20 years or so, Koch has succeeded in putting himself into his paintings and telling his own story.  His modernist roots commingle with his appreciation for the 19th century landscape painters and their celebration of the natural world.  Koch’s paintings embrace that world, while continuing to discover the expressive qualities of color and light.

 

Koch, who works as a Professor of Art at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, makes regular sojourns to upstate New York and New England, following in the footsteps and painting the same views as the likes of Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, and the Hudson River School artists he so admires.  "Each generation" says Koch "needs a new image of what our earth looks like in our time. There will always be a need for landscape painters to show us where we live."  Koch shows us where we live, according to him.


Carole Perry, Executive Artistic Director, Edward Hopper House Art Center

Friday, January 9, 2015

Yellow Arcadia



      Philip Koch, Yellow Arcadia, oil on panel, 30 x 40", 2006

I've changed. 

Early on I painted the landscape by directly observing a specific place. With my paints and portable easel in tow, I'd head out seaching for sources that called out to me.  My paintings were reports on how an actual location looked and felt at a specific time.  I'm very proud of the work I did then. 

In the last decade and a half I've come to see landscape painting as a means to evoke more a state of mind than a particular location. Memory and imagination loom larger as sources as I paint.

My painting Yellow Arcadia is a good example. It's a favorite of mine and will be included in the upcoming exhibition Philip Koch: Landscapes and Hopper Interiors at the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY Feb. 14 - April 12, 2015. 

In our imagination the word Arcadia has come to represent an idyllic and unspoiled wilderness. Alternately it's seen as a place where humans live in complete harmony with nature. Nature ultimately is the wellspring of all creativity. It is where we came from. I believe it's critical that we reflect anew on its importance.

I'm far from the first to chew on this bone. From 1833-1836 Thomas Cole, the father of American landscape painting, created his series of canvases The Course of Empire.  The second canvas in the series, The Arcadian State, demonstrates this view. 







Saturday, December 27, 2014

Why I Don't Use Photographs When I Paint

Went to an exhibition of paintings by a prominent realist painter who is known as one of the first committed photorealists, painters who consciously attempted to capture the look and feel of a color photograph in their work. The work had been executed with extreme care and was impressive for the amount of detail each canvas catalogued. 

But if pressed, I would admit my most favorite works would be from other painters from the museum's permanent collection.
The art I like best is about feeling and mood. They are highly interpretive.  And they're always surprising, you don't know ahead of time what the artist is going to focus on and what they're going to leave out.




Charles Burchfield, The Mysterious Bird, watercolor,
Delaware Art Museum

Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield are two of my favorite artists, as long time readers of this blog know.  Neither of them used photographs as sources for their work, preferring instead the dictates of their own eyes, memory, and emotions. As different as they are from each other in style, each engaged in an inner dialogue as they painted. 

In the Burchfield above notice how the artist reserves almost all his darkest darks for moodier top half of the painting compared to the lighter and warmer foreground road. He makes a shift in feeling from the close space to the distance. As we travel through his painting we feel our mood change.

Below is the first painting I ever paid attention to when I was a teenager, Edward Hopper's fantasy about his painting studio on Cape Cod. At first glance a tableau of empty spaces, Hopper invests  each surface with gradations of colors that weren't really there but that breathe life into each section of the painting. And I know from my residencies in the Hopper studio how extensively Hopper lied about the actual architecture of this corner of his painting room.





Edward Hopper, Rooms by the Sea, oil on canvas, 
Yale University Art Gallery

Hopper and Burchfield looked out at their world but also turned their gaze inward upon themselves. Their resulting paintings look like nobody else yet speak to so many of us. 

In my own studio, while my style is different than either of these two masters, I borrow from their way of selecting, interpreting
and  inventing. I think this is the road that leads to an art that genuinely reflects how living feels to us in our time.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Falls Road, A Trio of Baltimore Paintings


Philip Koch, The River, oil on canvas, 20 x 16", 1980

There's always a lot of time spent casting around and considering which pieces to select when preparing for an upcoming exhibition. So it is as I get ready for my show at the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY (Feb. 14 - April 12, 2015). 

I ran across these three oils I painted over the span of some 34 years. Anyone who shops at the popular Whole Foods in the  Mt. Washington section of Baltimore will likely recognize these scenes. The River, above, is the earliest of this trio. With its olives and sliver greys it shows most clearly my roots in the traditions of America's Hudson River School painters. Today this scene remains almost identical to how it appeared over three decades ago.




Philip Koch, Jones Falls River, oil on panel, 12 x 16", 1985


Not so with this one, Jones Falls River. On the far bank is what is now the parking lot for the bustling Whole Foods grocery. Back then it was a field outside a factory that noisily banged out metal bolts. I remember feeling the low rumbling vibrations in the ground as I stood and painted this on my portable easel. It's quiter now. The plant shut down shortly after I painted it. At least a couple of times a week now my car is parked on that lot, waiting for me to throw my groceries in the back and head home.




Philip Koch, Falls Road Bridge, oil on panel, 8 5/8 x 9 7/8", 2014


Here's the final member, a painting I began in the 90's of a bridge on Falls Road rising over the river, just north of where I did the other two paintings. Recently I went back into it to pare away some distracting elements, allowing the elaborately bending forms of the bridge a bigger role. My color choices have brightened considerably since the first painting at the top of this post. 

It's funny as I like nothing better than traveling hundreds of miles to go painting from subjects that speak to me, especially to the mountains and shores of New England. But these subjects, each within a half mile of my home studio, call out with a different but just as poignant a voice. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Why I Don't Fit In



Philip Koch, The Voyage of Memory, oil on canvas
38 x 38", 2008

I've come to the realization that I don't fit in on any of the branches of the art world. My paintings have been alternately described by others as both "traditional","realistic", "visionary", and even "tinged-with-the-surreal." I don't disagree with any of that.

It is not my intention to criticize the contemporary art world. After all, I am part of it. One thing bedeviling me is how much of contemporary art is so concept driven. It breaks down boundaries and grasps for the newest of new media. Often I find the work bewildering.  

Artists of course are thoughtful people. We have a lot to say with our work on multiple levels. But my hope for my paintings is to have all that cognition fade away to let the viewer lose themselves in my work. I'm after a visceral reaction to nature, not an intellectual discourse on it. My paintings are a celebration of how deeply nature resonates within us as human beings. 

There's another whole wing of the art world that produces works that would satisfy the most savvy art collectors of the 1860's. No one loves the old masters more than I do, yet whenever I try to duplicate their methods it's felt like I was trying to squeeze my size eleven foot into a size nine shoe.


Philip Koch, White Mountain Pond, oil on panel
7 x 10 1/2", 2014


There is something unique to every epoch. We see and feel a little differently that the generations before us. Their best recipes revealed their sense of their experience. My task today is finding new forms to convey how life feels today. We have to write a new cookbook.

What I am doing with my paintings is marrying the excitement of my early years of abstract color-drenched painting with my deep affection for the romance of 19th century paintings of the landscape. It's not the most obvious match. And it puts me on a branch of the great tree of art where there's not a lot of company. 

I suspect that all of the people who view my paintings each have their own sense of not fitting in. I hope my paintings take them to a place where for at least a moment they can feel at home.





Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Secret Way to Enjoy Art


Philip Koch, Uncharted II, oil on panel, 18 x 24", 2014, at
Art Essex Gallery, CT

Everyone has had the experience of waking from sleep feeling we've returned from an incredible nocturnal adventure. We've been dreaming.

I want to do paintings with all the vividness of a powerful dream. Art is an invitation to feeling something beyond our day to day concerns. While it sets us to thinking, it's not primarily about ideas. Rather it's a sensation, an experience to be had and savored.

I wish people would approach art the way they approach food. Few people ask what their food means or ponder whether they "understand" their food. Instead they jump in and taste it. If it's good they'll ask for seconds. 

That's the way we should go to museums. Taste the work with your eyes. If a piece doesn't appeal to you keep moving until the flavor of a painting's colors slows you down and pulls you in for a closer look. 

Of course artists are thoughtful people. They try to produce work that has a lot to say on many levels. But little of that meaning happens until their art first ravishes the viewers' eyes and stirs their hearts. 



Philip Koch, Equinox,  oil on panel, 30 x 45", 2008, currently in Washington County Museum of Fine Arts' exhibition Mirror of Nature: The Art of Philip Koch