Christopher Benson: 'INSIDE and OUT' at Paul Thiebaud Gallery

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A young visitor contemplates Christopher Benson's The Quilter's Daughter

At Paul Thiebaud Gallery in San Francisco, painter Christopher Benson is currently showing a suite of paintings that feature contrasting settings and themes. One cycle of recent paintings is set in Berkeley; there is one exterior depicting the side yard of the Benson family's former home, and three views of the artist's wife Cybele posing in the house where she grew up.

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The Quilter's Daughter, 2012-2014, oil on linen, 48" x 96"

Another group consists of four paintings of a three-block section of a partially abandoned industrial/commercial district in the city of Roswell, New Mexico. According to Christopher Benson all of the Roswell paintings represent "one day in that location on a very hot morning and afternoon in June of 2013."

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Roswell 4, 2013, oil on linen, 48 x 72 inches

There are also two earlier works on view: one depicts the artist's wife and son in a Rhode Island interior, and another shows Cybele having her hair hennaed by a friend in Berkeley.

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Henna, 2005, oil on linen, 26" x 26"

Considered as a whole, Benson's show is an essay on visual clarity. The artist's solid, reduced brushwork shows his efforts to deal with the essential in order to harmonize his subjects. As a result the emotional tone of the show is both subdued and inviting. In a short essay written for the exhibition catalog Benson discusses his approach: "All these paintings together reflect my desire to reduce some essential visual and emotional response to subjects that are often far more cluttered and complex in real life; despite their seeming realism, they are more like memories than exact records of what I saw."

 Looking over the surfaces of Benson's paintings I kept it in mind he worked as a cabinetmaker in his 20s and 30s. In both his interior and exterior scenes Benson has a firm awareness of structure and architecture. His forms are carefully carved by light into planes that imply firmness and weight. Even with a brush in his hand, Benson has a carpenter's sense of structural rectitude.

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Roswell 4 (Detail)

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Roswell 4 (Detail)

In his interior scenes Benson plants his figures firmly in their painted worlds in a way that hints at a certain sense of restraint. One of the artist's stated themes, when painting his wife, is to show "how she is ultimately isolated, as we all are, inside her own experience."

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Grey-Eyed Athena (for Mark Edmundson), 2013, oil on linen, 12" x 16"

Seen from a few steps back Benson's paintings radiate order, serenity and singularity of vision. Seen at close range the artist's hand and brush are very much present: he isn't in any way a Photorealist. In his catalog essay, Benson opines that "... in the end, every painting is put together by the eyes and hands of its maker, wrestling the primitive alchemy of colored earths and oils."

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Roswell 8, 2014, oil on linen, 22" x 36"

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Roswell 8 (Detail)

INSIDE and OUT is a beautiful and very honest show: it looks superb in the Thiebaud Gallery's perfectly lit spaces. Don't go expecting to be knocked out, but do go expecting to see a show that quietly says more than you might at first expect.

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ACME Bread, 2014, oil on linen, 42" x 48"

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Roswell 2, 2013, oil on linen, 10" x 14"

Christopher Benson: INSIDE and OUT
November 14 - December 20th, 2014
Paul Thiebaud Gallery
645 Chestnut St San Francisco, CA 94133

Holly Van Hart: 'Possibilities Abound'

Artist Holly Van Hart is a committed optimist. Her work expounds on the idea that finding serenity in the face of life's trials and turmoil is a matter of staying alert to possibility and open to change. In many of her recent paintings images of eggs and nests serve as metaphors for life's dynamic opposing forces.

I recently interviewed Holly Van Hart and asked her about the unfolding of her career and her vision as an artist.

John Seed Interviews Holly Van Hart:
 
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Holly Van Hart
 
Tell me about your early years. When did you know you were an artist?

I was raised in New York City by my artist Mom and police officer Dad, and always knew I was an artist. As a girl, my Mom taught us drawing and painting, and freely shared her high-quality art supplies. I usually had multiple art projects going, including painting, ceramics, crocheting, and calligraphy projects. At college I majored in engineering which didn't leave much time for art. But later, while working in high tech, I pursued painting passionately as a hobby - taking many classes, reading hundreds of books, forming an art critique group, and painting every spare minute. Also, I was entering painting competitions, winning awards, and selling my work.

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Dream Weaver, Oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches
 
How and when did you decide to leave your career in the tech industry and devote yourself to art?
I enjoyed a fulfilling, 20-year career in the tech industry, and painting was a hobby. Over time, the artist side of me became more consuming, then all consuming. In 2012 I decided to make the switch and paint full-time. In 2013 my painting 'Possibilities Abound' won the California Statewide Painting Competition and that gave a big boost to my art career. As a professional artist I work harder than I ever did before. But now my life and my work are all one thing, which feels more authentic and satisfying. I turn 50 later this month, and am psyched about having many decades ahead as a professional artist. This definitely feels like what I was meant to do.

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Larger Than Life, Oil on canvas, 54 x 72 inches
 
Nests are a recurring image in your work: tell me about them and why you are attracted to them.

For the last 18 months I've been totally absorbed with my 'Possibilities Abound' series. This series uses larger-than-life birds' eggs and nests to symbolize the promise of our own capabilities, to be nurtured and explored and stretched to their fullest potential. That's what really excites me. DeWitt Cheng nailed it in his recent essay about my work, and I'll quote him here, "These works about potential and metamorphosis, then, are clearly autobiographical, but they're also universal (as the deepest, most personal work often is, paradoxically)." My work is personal because it relates to my switch to art from high tech. But there's another personal slant to it . . . it reflects my experience with Silicon Valley's culture.

Silicon Valley has this unique culture of creativity and unrelenting optimism. New technologies are created every day, and are transforming lives around the world. This is a place where anything is possible. I love that. Interestingly enough, Preston Metcalf, Chief Curator at the Triton Museum of Art, had an additional interpretation of my work. Preston identified more with the nests than the eggs. He thought that we are each metaphorically a strand or twig that combines with our fellow beings to find the opportunities that abound when we realize that we are all connected.

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Nest at Night, Oil on canvas, 36 x 18 inches
 
What kinds of energies and emotions do you want your work to transmit?

I'd like people who look at my work to feel the 'anything is possible' vibe and to be energized by that. Our lives are as large as we make them.

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Nestled, Oil on canvas, 30x40 inches
 
Your switch to full-time artist is one 'anything is possible' story. Tell us another.

Sure, here's one from my early 20s. I wanted to take 6 months off work to go travel and explore the world, but thought there would be too many obstacles. One was that my family wasn't big on international travel so they wouldn't understand. Another was that I didn't want to have to quit my engineering job. Also I had to pay off my student loans and would need to save some pennies to pull off the travel idea. A friend coached me and helped me see that these weren't such big obstacles. Then I took the leap. Along with a girlfriend, we made the case and were granted leaves of absence from our engineering jobs. We bought globe-hopping plane tickets, and had the time of our lives backpacking across Australia, Asia, and Africa for half a year. That experience definitely opened up my thinking about what's possible in life.

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Opportunity, Oil on canvas, 30x40 inches
 
How do you develop your images?

Everything I'm doing right now is in the 'Possibilities Abound' series of oil paintings. Within that context, I first think about what message to convey, and then about which subjects, colors, textures, and style will enable me to say it best. Next that idea needs to get turned into a design that is fresh, compelling, and inspired. These things are typically 80% baked before I start painting, and the rest happens through the painting process. Well, it doesn't just happen as simply as that. This last 20% is critical and requires huge amounts of time and energy and concentration. By the time a painting is done, it has 5-10 layers of oil paint, and has required lots of inspection and introspection over a period of months.

Regarding the subjects in my work (nests, eggs, branches, magnolias, cherry blossoms, sticks, feathers, ribbons), some of the inspiration comes from photo references and some comes from my imagination. I like using a combination of each. It might sound counter-intuitive, but the more that comes from my imagination, the longer it takes to create the painting. Not every painting succeeds. Not knowing whether a painting will succeed or fail keeps me alert. I think it also lends a certain energy and freshness to the work. The last part of the process is naming the painting, and the title for each painting typically gives away my intent for it. Also, my blog postings reveal even more background and context. At the same time, I aim to leave plenty room for viewers to make their own interpretations.

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Possibilities Abound, Oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches
 
Is your work all about optimism?

Sure. But not naively so. In life, and in my work, excitement about life's possibilities is usually tempered by fear of the risks. I like to convey the fine balance between the beauty of nature, and her unseen forces and risks. Look closely at my paintings, and you'll see heavily textured organic swirls throughout each one. The texture is applied first (before the eggs and nests are painted), and is meant to represent threats to the eggs and nests. Examples include predators, wind, rainstorms, and humans. These textured swirls sometimes align with the subject of the painting, and sometimes go against the natural lines of what's represented in the painting. That's on purpose. It mirrors the complexity of our lives.

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Possibilities On High, Oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches
 
Who are some artists that you admire? 

I admire all artists who create something daring and different. Some of my favorites include Turner for his expressionistic landscapes, Georgia O'Keeffe for her striking images of flowers and bones, and Mark Rothko for his awe-inspiring color fields. Each of these artists challenged current-day artistic conventions as well as social conventions. Ditto for the poet Walt Whitman. I admire his controversial and poignant poems about human nature and connectedness.

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Serenity, Oil on canvas, 20x20 inches
 
What are your interests outside of painting?

My absolute favorite thing is spending time with family and friends. So much the better if that time can be combined with mountain biking, hiking, traveling, or consuming super-sized quantities of dark chocolate.

Event: Holly Van Hart: 'Possibilities Abound' Solo Exhibition  
Dates: November 23, 2014 - February 14, 2015  
Reception: Friday, December 12, 2014, 6 - 8 pm Possibilities Abound Online Catalog  
Location: Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara, CA

Robert C. Jackson: 'Tinkering with Reality'

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In Need of a Plan, Oil on linen, 40 x 30 inches

Painter Robert C. Jackson likes things... lots of them. His current show at Gallery Henoch, Tinkering with Reality, is populated by cosmologies of pancakes, donuts, goldfish bowls, apples, oreos, vintage soda crates, and postcards. There is a philosophical vibe to the show -- Thiebaud meets Hegel? -- and some spiritual connotations as well: Jackson's donuts multiply like the Boddhisatvas in a Buddhist scroll, suggesting multiple realities. Funny, inquisitive and just a tad moralistic, Jackson's still lifes are conundrums that blend Jackson's affection for Americana and the entire history of the still life genre.

Jackson also likes books, and he is the proprietor/editor of a striking new book that features interviews with 20 representational painters, himself included. It is titled Behind the Easel: The Unique Voices of 20 Contemporary Representational Painters and you have to wonder: where did Jackson find the time to put it together? You would think that painting kept him busy enough...

I recently interviewed Robert C. Jackson and asked him about his background, his ideas, and his new book.

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Robert Jackson: Photo by Ned Jackson

John Seed in Conversation with Robert Jackson

Tell me about how you transitioned from being an electrical engineer and assistant pastor to a full-time artist.

I started painting during the last semester of my senior year at college and knew from that point on I wanted this newly found love as my career. Having an engineering job lined up I was certain I would quit to be an artist one day. I found after 5 years I was so stir crazy to be an artist that I spoke to the pastor of my church and told him I planned to quit my job to go for it. To my surprise he asked if I would make a detour and quit to work at his church. After 5 years I once again became stir crazy about becoming an artist and quit the ministry. The pastor this time said he always knew that day would come. To a certain extent the decision was always blind faith, one never could make a full time living with part time work. I always knew I had to jump in feet first.

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Lure, Oil on linen, 40 x 30 inches

Have you been characterized as a "Pop" artist? If so, does that annoy you? 

Honestly, I haven't been too concerned about labels. What's that silly expression, "call me whatever you want, as long as you call me?" There's some truth to that. I love what I do and hope there are some that get it. From interviews and what I've read, Wayne Thiebaud struggled against being called Pop as he saw himself as more of a painter than the Pop movement. That being the case, I strongly identify with being a painter myself, but if Pop means that my work is speaking to a contemporary society I don't mind that.

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More Donuts, Oil on linen, 60 x 48 inches

You seem to like things.... LOTS of things. Is your art, to some degree, about glut? 

I do tend to think of my art in different groupings; food fights, wall of crates, dilemmas, quests for immortality, art dialogs, and some I call excess paintings (and of course some mix these). Funny to see your word "glut" as I suppose that is a more bombastic form and possibly dark side of excess! But yes, they are about abundance, desire, want, collecting, amassing, and the extreme.

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Art Project, Oil on linen, 48 x 48 inches

How would you describe your personal philosophy? 

I'm going to answer this both personally and artistically. Personally, I try to live by grace and would like to think I view others with that in mind and attempt to offer it freely. Of course I am a far cry from being successful at that, but I do believe in believing the best and keeping a non-judgememtal and open spirit.

Artistically, I really feel strongly about a healthy marriage between concept and craft in art. I've even drawn quadrant diagrams thinking this through. Representational painters can fall into the trap of focusing 95% of their energy on craft at the expense of concept because well-handled painting is so alluring. Though, a low concept painting can't be salvaged by high craft. So I do spend quite a bunch of time brainstorming and hope it bears fruit. I'd like to have concepts that are enriching and challenging.

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Icons, Oil on linen, 40 x 30 inches

I'm betting that you collect art and objects: am I correct? 

I am definitely a creature of habit and routine. Ever since I was a little boy, every Jefferson Nickel I get as change, I check the date and if it is earlier than 1964 (the year I was born) I save it. They aren't worth anything at all, it's just something I enjoy for a reason I can't even explain myself. I own all the crates that show up in my paintings. My art book collection has gotten a little out of hand. And yes, I love to collect and look at other artist's artwork. Very little of my own artwork hangs in my house. Mostly contemporaries that make me stand in shock and awe.

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Come One, Come All, Oil on linen, 48 x 60 inches

Your art strikes me as aiming to appeal broadly: to "art" people and everyone else. Is making a wide connection one of your aims? 

YES! Many artists say their ultimate goal is to paint only for themselves. Of course I admire that and embrace much of that, but I see myself as wanting to create work that speaks to people. Otherwise why show it in public? I love revealing my inner dialog in a way in which others can in turn continue the dialog when viewing the work. I find it a rewarding challenge to create work that speaks AND can be heard.

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Behind the Easel: The Unique Voices of 20 Contemporary Representational Painters
by Robert C. Jackson with Pamela Sienna

Artists: Steven Assael, Bo Bartlett, Debra Bermingham, Margaret Bowland, Paul Fenniak, Scott Fraser, Woody Gwyn, F. Scott Hess, Laurie Hogin, Robert C. Jackson, Alan Magee, Janet Monafo, John Moore, Charles Pfahl, Scott Prior, Stone Roberts, Sandra Mendelsohn Rubin, Daniel Sprick, Will Wilson, and Jerome Witkin.

In the foreword to your new book you say that "The last thing I want to do is be a writer" but you managed to get this book put together. What motivated you? 

Really it's my belief that this book needed to be done and it wasn't going to happen unless I did it and so I created the book I wished I had. I'm pretty passionate about art and artists and wanted to provide another platform for these artists to have their voices heard. I have 2 copies of John Arthur's "Realists at Work" that was published in 1983. For those that have not seen the book, artists such as Wayne Thiebaud, Janet Fish, and Jack Beal were interviewed with images of their work intermixed. I'll often grab a copy at lunch and reread one of the artist's interviews. It's not a curator or critic talking about the work, it's the artists themselves and I love that. But in the ensuing 30 years plenty of artists have come onto the block and a book of this type with representation painters hasn't been done again. In tackling the same general idea, I wanted the images much larger and the questions directed more about their creative processes as opposed to the technical but that book was somewhat of an initial impetus.

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The Thinker, Oil on linen, 48 x 72 inches

How did you choose the artists in "Behind the Easel"?

This was really hard for me as there are tons and tons of talented artists out there and the last thing I wanted to do was exclude people. I respect anyone who has chosen to make this their life's path. However, I knew I didn't want an encyclopedia or "who's who" with a single picture for everyone, rather I wanted a somewhat intense and respectful look at a grouping of artists. My goal was to have about 12 pages per artist and reproduce them larger than I had seen any of them reproduced in a publication before. Simple math, and keeping the book to around 250 pages, limited me to about 20 artists.

After much consideration, I set up 2 constraints. Firstly, I wanted artists that had caused me to drop my own brush and give up my own work to see what they were doing (and it takes me a lot to make me want to leave my easel). I've gone to their shows and dog-eared their catalogs. Secondly, I wanted artists who were identifiable enough that from across a room that I knew who did the painting without having to run up and read the nametag. Which explains the subtitle of the book, "The Unique Voices of 20 Representational Painters"

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Pop Florals, Oil on linen, 40 x 30 inches

Are you ever reticent about using humor in your work?

I actually find it an incredibly challenging pursuit. Nothing is as awful as a stale pun or a one-trick pony. To create a laugh or smile that visits again and again is difficult. To a certain extent it is a balancing act to push it right to the edge without falling. But when all is said and done, if my work brings a little joy to someone's journey I find that pretty darn satisfying.

What do your children think of your art? I have a very close family. My children are 22 (wow, 23 this month - Happy Birthday Becca!), 19, and 10 and I couldn't have bigger fans than these three.

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Pancakes, Oil on linen, 48 x 12 inches

Robert Jackson: Tinkering With Reality
November 6-29, 2014
Gallery Henoch 555 W 25th St, NYC