This week I was grading portfolios at MICA after returning from the opening reception for Saginaw Art Museum's Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch exhibition in Michigan (through Feb. 19, 2012). These are intense face to face reviews with individual students. Maybe it was the fatigue from the long weekend of travel, but it struck me that I wished I could summarize all the things I've said to my students this year in just a few words. Of course the concepts behind good painting (and superior drawing) are anything but simple and need to be approached all kinds of ways. Lots of my lectures get long and pretty word heavy. I don't know how else to do it.
Sometimes you want to bend the stick the other way and boil it all down to its essence. So here it is as an early holiday present, the words I wished I'd told my classes this year-
Enjoy Your Eyes.
My eyes have brought me a huge share of the enjoyment I've felt in living my life, and a good portion of my understanding of the world as well. This show Michigan is big- fifty pieces- and it's a celebration of the pleasures I've taken. We had a great turn out for the opening reception and based on the comments I received and the inquiries about how to go about collecting my paintings, I'd say others were sharing in the visual pleasures too.
Above is what greets you as you enter the Museum's largest gallery. At the front is my painting The Song of All Days. The painting is a tribute to the thousands of eloquently beautiful days I've seen in my 40 years as a painter. It is a particularly dark painting, partly because I frequently find a resonance with the shadowed side of world.
I remember back to 1967 when I was taking my first studio art class at Oberlin College. The instructor said something about how it was good to "notice the shapes of shadows." Hearing those words set off a reaction like a light bulb in my head- I had never really considered that every shadow has a shape. To me they had been just areas where the light had dimmed. But the instructor had prodded my thinking to start opening a door wider. He opened a door I was ready to walk through.
Below is me (at the very far left giving a short Artist's Talk at the opening reception Dec. 9. In it I urged the visitors to look at the whole exhibition of course, but to decide which painting they thought was the best before they left. That's good advice for anyone visiting any exhibit. Maybe my paintings or my remarks might open another door someone else is ready to walk through.
Here is exterior of the Saginaw Art Museum. Fifteen years ago I had been invited to have a solo show of my landscapes when the Museum was just the mansion house at the left. In the intervening years two large additional wings have been built. My show filled up the modern wing on the right.
Ryan Kaltenbach, the Curator and Deputy Director of the Museum decided to add about a dozen landscapes by earlier painters from the Museum's Permanent Collection to the exhibit. Once I had moved beyond my earliest work of colorful painted abstractions, I always felt deeply indebted to the work of the realist painters who went before me. It seemed they offered so many tools that I could use to tell my own story. One of the 19th century paintings hung alongside my own work was this one by the French Barbizon School painter Harpignies (1819-1916). These were among the first painters to take their oils outside and work in paint directly from observation of nature. They always seem to have something of a pantheist spirit to them, with their tress expressing a remarkable living personality. In this case demonstrating a wonderful fluttering and ascending movement, exactly the kind of sensation you can have out in front of nature.
That sort of fascination with the natural world runs all through artists from the past that inspire me today. Here below is a wall of three of my birch tree pieces Saginaw Art Museum hung together as a group. They show me picking up on the same idea of the movements suggested by rising tree trunks. In the foreground at the left is my charcoal The Birches of Maine, center is the oil Deep Forest Pool, and at right the oil The Birches of Maine. These artists back from the Barbizon School helped me paint these pictures today.
Here are two more of my oils out of the exhibition hanging in the same section of the show with the old masters' landscapes. At left is Red Whisper, oil, 30 x40" and at right Under the Moon, oil, 24 x 36".
Both of these paintings have a frankly romantic feeling to them. To me nature often seems to express a slightly unexpected and mysterious side. I want my paintings to capture some of that.
That kind of romanticism from America's 19th century paintings have no better exponent than George Inness. Here's me posing (somewhat gleefully) with Saginaws' Inness painting Golden Glow from 1880.