Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A Portfolio of My Chestnut Ridge Park Drawings

Philip Koch painting and drawing at Chestnut 
Ridge Park, May 2015

In May of 2015 I took my first official trip to Buffalo, NY as Burchfield Penney Art Center's Artist in Residence. I asked Scott Propeak and Tullis Johnson, two of BPAC's Curators, where I might go to get some panoramic views of the area. They both suggested Chestnut Ridge Park, an area south of Buffalo that had been a favorite of Charles Burchfield's when he worked on his landscapes. Their suggestion was right on target.

I began at the crest of the hill in the Park that commands a view looking north toward a distant Lake Erie. A whole series of drawings ensued. Though I had grown up in nearby Rochester I had never done serious art in Western New York State before. These repeated views from Chestnut Ridge reflect my delight in finally working from the landscape where I grew up. I just wanted to keep doing drawing after drawing.

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge: Lake Erie, vine
charcoal, 12 x 9", 2015

I often do pastel drawings back in my studio based on my on site charcoal drawings. The charcoal above led to the two pastels that follow.

Philp Koch, Chestnut Ridge: Lake Erie Blue, 
pastel, 10 x 7 1/2", 2015

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge: Lake Erie Orange,
pastel, 10 x 7 1/2", 2015

While making a drawing is considerable faster than my usual medium of oil painting, it's still time consuming. But I like that. It gives you extended opportunities to sense other possibilities out of the corner of your eye. The longer I stay in a place working the more apt I am to discover something else I have to do a new composition about.

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge: Spring Trees,
vine charcoal & white pastel chalk, 12 x 9", 

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge Panorama, vine charcoal,
 10 1/2 x 14", 2016

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge Forest, vine charcoal, 
13 x 13", 2016

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge May,  vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 2015

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge: Gold Sky, vine charcoal, 9 x 12",

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge: Buffalo Skyline, vine charcoal,
9 x 12", 2016

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Visiting The Masters Exhibition at Somerville Manning Gallery

Charles Burchfield's watercolor August Morn hanging on
the Sommerville Manning Gallery wall yesterday.

One of the ways you know a painting is good is that instead of tiring of it you grow more curious about it over time.

Yesterday we drove up from Baltimore to Greenville, Delaware and visited Sommerville Manning Gallery. Each year they mount an exhibit that's especially worth seeing, American and European Masters . One of pieces they included is the Charles Burchfield watercolor August Morn, 1933-49. By coincidence before I learned the painting was going to be on display at one of my art galleries  I had written a blog post about the painting. The temptation to see it again in the flesh was too strong to resist.

Rebecca Moore from the Gallery and I enjoyed closely going over the painting together. Since becoming the Artist in Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY I've had the opportunity to examine Burchfield's paintings and drawings first hand. A revelation for me was how often Burchfield loved to go back into his earlier work and develop it further. He painted the central section of the painting in 1933. But revisiting it years later he decided he could take it to a higher level by enlarging it. 

The seam where he joined an additional 4" tall panel of paper at the top of the painting is visible if one looks closely at the large white cloud at the right. What I hadn't realized is he also placed smaller additions at the left, right and bottom as well. The seams where he joined these panels are made almost completely invisible by agitated brushwork in the foliage he's built up around the edges of his enlarged composition. 

Sixteen years after the piece was begun it was completed at a more grand scale. Rebecca and I talked about how Burchfield himself had evolved over these years. The middle section from 1933 was a straightforward view of his next door neighbor's house in Gardenville, NY. Typical of the work he did at that time it's all about solid volumes and establishes clear highlights and cast shadows of the roofs and walls. His later additions focus more densely patterned celebrations of Burchfield's garden. That he can marry these subtly differing styles of painting so well testifies to his remarkable talents.

The American and European Masters show is well worth a visit- it runs through June 4. 

I'm attracted to Burchfield's work because he and I are sort of chewing on the same bone. Two of my paintings at Sommerville Manning Gallery are like the August Morn in the way they take a close up look at the almost surreal patterns of growth that I discovered in tree trunks and branches in my wanderings through the forest.

                                         Philip Koch, Thicket, oil on panel, 14 x 21", 2014

My painting Thicket was done from a group of young white birch trees I discovered in Acadia National Park in Maine. They seemed to do a dance together to a rhythm only they could hear. There is an almost painful fresh innocence to groves of young birches like these.

Philip Koch, Deep Forest Pool, oil on panel, 15 x 20", 2014

One of the themes Charles Burchfield often played with is the cycles of life from youth to maturity to old age. In my oil Deep Forest Pool I depicted the second half of this cycle, with mature birch trees bending and clanking their way upwards on the pond's far shore while two fallen birches slowly submerge in the inky dark waters.

Philip Koch, Memorial, oil on panel, 18 x 36", 2010

Burchfield in much of his work relied more on memory and fantasy than on direct observation. My painting Memorial is a reverie of the countless times I've lost myself in deep spaces looking out from mountain tops at the earth's expanse. This painting is based on my memories of the islands surrounding Mt. Desert Island in Maine. It was done entirely from memory and shows the scene under the pale light of a full moon.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Mysterious Backgrounds- Wichita Art Museum's Burchfield Hush Before the Storm

Burchfield Penney Art Center posted this Charles Burchfield watercolor today on their Facebook page. It's Hush Before the Storm from 1947 that's now in the Wichita Art Museum. What with the cheerful blossoms in the immediate foreground one might at first be tempted to see it as just a pretty picture and move on. But we're talking Burchfield and with him there's usually more going on.

I think one of the best pieces of advice I could give someone who wants to experience a painting more deeply would be for them to spend more time enjoying the painting's background.

What caught my eye in this Burchfield was the sky. The crazily active shapes in the trees could have monopolized the painting.  It would have made his idea too simple and we would grasp the composition too quickly. But the artist cleverly invents countering shapes in the sky that answer back to the noisy arches and angles in the trees. 

Very often I think master painters reveal themselves with the touch of their brush. Burchfield artfully lays in these parallel rows of little brushstrokes in his clouds. He makes a point to keep changing their direction as he moves around the sky. You don't know ahead of time which way they're going to move so you keep looking.

For me the slate gray color for the approaching storm clouds is the perfect foil for the warm greens in the front half of the painting. Burchfield wants you to look at his sky so he invests it with a host of little unexpected moves to seduce your eye. 

We'd better keep moving. Judging by the look of that sky it's going pour on us soon.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Tapping Into the Past

Burchfield Penney Art Center is great about posting a different Charles Burchfield painting on their Facebook page every morning. A recent one is this lush watercolor, August Morn, 1933-49, a view Burchfield painted from his backyard in Gardenville,NY of the backyard of the Arbarella house next door. I love the painting for the way packs in an incredible amount of information and detail. In less able hands it would have been an overcrowded jumble. Yet Burchfield evokes a feeling of an intimate and even cozy space. He organizes it beautifully, with a big role assigned to the prominent and impenetrable row of sunflowers that wall us off from the neighbor's yard.

One of Burchfield's great talents was finding extraordinary possibilites in the close at hand.  

It's always a mystery how some artists manage to orchestrate their forms and their emotions together in a powerful visual duet. I think one reason Burchfield's creativity functioned on such a high level is how seriously he would relive and relish his most vivid memories. 

When I saw August Morn I realized that for Burchfield his neighbor's Gardenville backyard appealed to him because it so clearly reminded him of the views from his own boyhood home.
Here's a photograph I took standing in the back of the home where Burchfield grew up in Salem, OH. That sloping one story addition on the right side house is a dead ringer for the Gardenville, NY house he would paint decades later.

Imagine the thriving garden that was there in Burchfield's day. Maybe you can't go home again, but Burchfield did the next best thing.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Blistering Vision- Burchfield's Coke Ovens

Philip  Koch, Coke Ovens Leetonia, Ohio,  
vine eharcoal, 12 x 9", 2016

This morning I was reading the notice for the upcoming exhibition at Burchfield Penney Art Center, Blistering Vision: Charles E. Burchfield's Sublime American Landscape (on display July 8 through October 23, 2016 in Buffalo, NY). Last summer I had begun a drawing that relates to BPAC's exhibition but never completed it to my satisfaction. 

One of the themes of the show will be to demonstrate how Burchfield blended the tradition of romantic 19th century American nature painting with his own awareness of the growing threat posed by industry. In Burchfield's work are some of the first stirrings of environmental consciousness in 20th century American painting. 

Just a few miles east of where Burchfield grew up in Salem, Ohio is  Leetonia, home in his day to a major coal mine and a field of open air coke ovens. Beehive-shaped brick enclosures built into banks of earth, these ovens would burn 24 hours a day generating the enormous temperatures needed to produce coke, a fuel necessary to make steel. 

Reading the description of the show, I immediately remembered my trip last summer to Leetonia, Ohio where Burchfield had painted the slightly other-worldly coke ovens. How I'd felt when I was working in Leetonia came back to me full force. I went back into that unfinished drawing. Sometime later it was done.

Philip Koch working on the drawing  above 
of the coke ovens in Leetonia, OH, August, 2015

When I visited the Leetonia ovens I found extensive rows of these brick-lined little caves. Peering into the black holes in the earth you couldn't help but feel the place had an almost surreally intense personality. For Burchfield, whose imagination was so easily stirred, the sight of these ovens flaming away at night made a haunting impression on him. Seeing the gaping mouths of these ovens all these decades later I found myself intrigued but a little unnerved. 

The sublime implies a side of nature that inspires awe or even fear. Burchfield never shied away from any of nature's moods- he took felicitous delight in sunny fields, but also a devilish pleasure in the slightly haunted forest. His art beckons to us to open our eyes more widely and to take in both the beauty and the strangeness of this world.

Charles Burchfield, Coke Ovens at Twilight,  watercolor, 1920

Charles Burchfield, Abandoned Coke Ovens, watercolor,
1918, Wichita Art Museum

As the Artist In Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center this year, I've had an enviable opportunity to get close to one of our greatest painters. Burchfield, a profoundly emotional man, labored to give his experience concrete form. His drawings and paintings take us to a place where we can feel some of what he felt  

As I read about the upcoming Blistering Vision show this morning I recalled the hundreds of discoveries I've made studying his paintings. Honestly it feels like a deep river of energy and knowledge. From that I got the momentum I needed to complete my drawing.