The European Museum of Modern Art -- MEAM -- Promoting Contemporary Representational Art

A few months ago I posted a blog suggesting that MOCA in Los Angeles should show more representational paintings. The blog touched a nerve and I heard from many, many artists and also from one museum: The European Museum of Modern Art -- MEAM. I had never heard of the MEAM, but I have been looking over its website and corresponding with artist friends to learn more about its ambitious programs and historic building.

The MEAM is housed in the Gomis Palace, a renovated 18th century Neoclassical building in Barcelona, and is owned and operated by The Fundació de les Arts i els Artistes which was established in 2005 by the architect José Manuel Infiesta. The Foundation and the MEAM share a dual mission: both were established to exhibit and promote figurative art of the 20th and 21st Centuries. The Foundation maintains a website which presents contemporary representational works -- Figurativas en Red -- and also organizes an annual award in painting and sculpture.

Interior view of the MEAM
The Museum exhibits selections from the Foundation's three permanent collections: Contemporary Figurative Art, Modern Sculpture and Catalan Sculpture. A number of American-born artists are represented in the MEAM's collection including John Nava, and David Jon Kassan.

Works on view at the MEAM including "C. Standing" (center) by John Nava
Photo: John Nava
I have been able to interview three artists who have recently visited the MEAM: I asked them their impressions of the collection, the building, and about the MEAM's importance in promoting representational art. My interviews with Jordan Sokol, John Nava and Richard Greathouse will follow...

Installation view: The The European Museum of Modern Art (MEAM), Barcelona
Jordan Sokol:

I visited the MEAM last October for the opening of their 2013 Figurativas competition exhibition. Its an annual painting and sculpture competition sponsored by the Foundation for Art and Artists; the organization behind the MEAM. Being a painter myself, and having just relocated to Madrid I thought I would take advantage of the opportunity to visit the Museum as well as offer support to some colleagues who were selected for the exhibition.

The Museum's collection is housed in a renovated 18th century palace in the heart of the labyrinthine city center. I wasn't quite prepared for the grandeur of the space. Its been beautifully preserved to evoke the charm of its former decadence, with its richly textured walls that serve as the perfect backdrop and compliment to its collection of contemporary figurative paintings and sculptures; the term figurative, in this case, refers not just to work representing the human figure, but more broadly referring to representational work.

At the time of my visit, the first floor housed examples of its permanent collection while the second floor was filled with the work of the selected competition winners and finalists. The amount of work on display managed to dwarf the over 18,000 square foot space, which I think, in itself, is a testament to the rapidly growing community of contemporary figurative artists that the Foundation for Arts and Artists has been proactive in promoting and supporting.

On the second day of the opening the museum hosted a discussion free to the public, and screened an hour-long documentary they made during the judging process of the competition. The judges consisted of Odd Nerdrum, Jacob Collins, Antonio Lopez Garcia, and Gottfried Helnwein among others. It was one of the highlights of the event, as we were able to witness candid moments of the jurors discussing their philosophies and often in disagreement.

A big topic was the use of photography in representational painting, which is its own can of worms. Jacob Collins played a particularly interesting role in the film as he raised questions with the other jurors as to the standards for qualifying art and the importance of discussing artistic philosophies in order to come to a greater understanding as to the criteria for judging works.

Ultimately, MEAM has proven to be a great resource for figurative artists, through its competitions, sponsorship, and engaging public events. I most look forward, though, to seeing how the artists will make use of their new champion.

I think its interesting to have a space dedicated to contemporary figurative art after almost a century of self-described displaced and disregarded representational artists who couldn't get the time of day from an art world that rejected them as the remnants of an oppressively narrow, hierarchical, and irrelevant tradition. However much inevitable is the natural evolution of culture and its aesthetic philosophies, its unquestionable that we're now seeing a growing resurgence and acceptance of representational art.

Harold Speed said, "There is, strictly speaking, no modern art any more than there is modern truth. There is just art and truth. There is good art and bad art, as there is truth and untruth."

I agree with Harold Speed and like to think whether a work of art is representational or not is irrelevant and I would hope the quality of a work is judged on its own merits without bias towards its pictorial language. But the art world is still not a level playing field in that respect and until representational art can shake its stigma its pivotal that places like MEAM exist to support and promote contemporary representational art, treat it with equal significance and educate the public to its relevance.

On the other hand, the new generation of representational artists also have the responsibility to investigate their own intellectual and technical criteria towards work that can stand on its own integrity. It remains to be seen how the artists will continue to handle this responsibility now that they have such a prominent venue.

Installation view: The The European Museum of Modern Art (MEAM), Barcelona
John Nava:

I was struck at this sort of Spanish "school" of representational painting. It seems to me that the most famous exponent of the attitude is Antonio Lopez Garcia. His success has clearly been hugely influential in Spain, but perhaps less obviously his essential humanism along with a liberal openness and lack of pretense is also reflected at the MEAM. By that I mean that one sees right away that the work displayed is, in one sense, all over the place. It isn't particularly programmatic.

John Nava, "C. Standing," 2013, Oil on panel, 60 x 60 inches
Collection of the European Museum of Modern Art (MEAM)
There is a sense, instead, of greater comfort with modernity - a willingness to include a very wide variety of approaches. In this sense it is reflective of Antonio Lopez himself who paints with enormous sensitivity and scrutiny and yet can speak so admiringly of, say, Giacometti and also Wyeth. His interest in sincerity and true feeling allows him to have these wide ranging interests and not to be threatened by work that may violate some canon or other or that might seem to be too close to contemporary art world fashions. This contrasts with the seemingly more stringent polemics you encounter in many of the "ateliers" that have arisen in recent years. The MEAM celebrates figuration but is not so narrowly "one note."

Installation view: The The European Museum of Modern Art (MEAM), Barcelona
Richard Greathouse:

Regarding my impressions of the MEAM's collections: there are some impressive works there, but in general what I like about their collection of representational work is the breadth of what all could be called "figurative" work. I think that it speaks to the variety of imagery capable in what otherwise might be considered a narrow field.

The space is beautiful. I think that it serves the work well, in that there is a certain aesthetic even in the colors of the walls and the lighting, that makes the museum experience feel familiar and comfortable. You can tell a lot of care went into making the building what it is. The location in the old city of Barcelona is also a great plus.

I think what Infiesta is doing is admirable simply because of the resistance representational art faces in the contemporary art world. I think it's also important because there seems to be a great imbalance between those who are interested in making representational art these days, versus those who are willing to partake in it (i.e., view it, purchase it, show it, support it in any way).

I can speak to that as an artist myself, as I've witnessed a growing number of people interested in learning and committing themselves to a classical training in recent years. So having more museums like the MEAM serves as a good outlet to the rest of the world for what this growing group of young artists is doing. Questions of relevance aside, it is hard to ignore the increase in interest towards a representational training among young art students.

Going back to the impression of the MEAM's collections, I think it's important to note the breadth of subject matter and imagery that the collection boasts, in that whether these young artists go on to continue painting representational pictures or not, remaining within that so-called camp of representationalism is not limiting to the possibilities of their work.

Installation view: The The European Museum of Modern Art (MEAM), Barcelona

The European Museum of Modern Art
Barra de Ferro, 5

Discussing the Art Boom on HuffPost Live

I was recently invited to discuss the recent boom in art prices on a segment of HuffPost Live. During the 20 minute segment I only had a few minutes to air my views and the end result was less than perfect. Still, taking part in the discussion was a positive experience.

Directly below is an edited clip of the segment highlighting my comments.


Or you can watch the full 20 minute segment below:

In Santa Barbara: A Masterfully Presented Delacroix Exhibition

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is currently presenting Delacroix and the Matter of Finish featuring 27 paintings and 18 works on paper: it is the first exhibition of works by Eugène Delacroix in the U.S. in over a decade. At its heart is a previously unknown version of the artist's dramatic rendering of The Last Words of Marcus Aurelius, a canvas from a Santa Barbara private collection which has recently been authenticated by the museum's Assistant Director and Chief Curator, Eik Kahng.

The show is accompanied by a catalogue that features essays by Dr. Kahng; Marc Gotlieb, Director of the Graduate Program and Class of 1955 Memorial Professor of Art, Williams College; and Michèle Hannoosh, Professor of French, University of Michigan.

Eugène Delacroix, The Last Words of Marcus Aurelius, n.d.
Oil on canvas, 25 5/8 x 31 3/4 in.
Collection: The van Asch van Wyck Trust.

In her role as a curator, Eik Kahng has been deeply involved in the design and installation of the exhibition. Since it is extremely difficult to do a Delacroix show in the United States -- his monumental works are in Europe and rarely travel -- Kahng sought ways to maximize the impact of the intimate selection of works on view and give them a rich context. "We wanted to maximize the potential for visitors to interpret the show on their own terms," Kahng explains. In the final installation design a variety of elements -- including texts, images, wall colors, music and digital technology -- all make significant contributions.

Installation View: A Brief History of the Life of Delacroix

Near the entrance to the exhibition visitors are greeted by a chronological history of the artist's life which is interspersed with key images of his art. It provides a sense of historical and personal context and also provides an introduction to the evolution of the artist's subjects and ideas over time.

As the show's title suggests the issue of finish is extremely important in experiencing Delacroix's oil paintings. Delacroix and the Matter of Finish is the first exhibition to invite side-by-side comparison between Delacroix's paintings and the so-called "sketch-copies" by his closest students, Pierre Andrieu (1849-1935) and Louis de Planet (1814-1876). Delacroix's oils tend to be executed with a certain roughness and his use of impasto caused him to be derided as a "pastry cook" painter during his lifetime.

The artist, who felt that his execution allowed viewers to complete his images and ideas in their own imaginations, has a distinctive hand that Eik Kahng wanted to be apparent and available in a variety of scales and contexts. To give visitors a sense of the monumentality and dynamism of Delacroix's large works, the museum has installed digitally printed scale facsimiles adjacent to his actual works.

Scale facsimiles: Delacroix's Massacre at Chios (left)
Delacroix's The Sultan of Morocco and his Entourage (right)

As a counterpoint, a group of tethered iPads available in the exhibition area are equipped with a specially developed "Delacroix" app which allows close inspection of the master's surfaces which range from relatively tight to explosively abstract. The app also facilitates comparisons to paintings in the exhibition -- including those of Delacroix's students -- and related works of art in other museums throughout the world.

An exhibition visitor tries out SBMA's Delacroix iPad app

The exhibition marks the first time rugs have been included in an SBMA exhibition. "They offer a sense of intimacy," Eik Kahng explains, "and they help with acoustical issues presented by the high ceilings of our gallery." As visitors peruse the show they hear Romantic music played at low levels via SONOS wireless speakers.

Installation view: Delacroix and the Matter of Finish

Delacroix and the Matter of Finish has been presented with a sense of generosity and invention: it provides visitors with every tool they need to experience Delacroix's works in their imaginative intensity. The exhibition's thoughtful installation appeals both the the mind and the senses and lets every visitor feel welcomed, informed and engaged.

Installation view: Delacroix and the Matter of Finish

Delacroix and the Matter of Finish
October 27, 2013 - January 26, 2014
Santa Barbara Museum of Art
1130 State Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Museum Hours: Tues-Sun
11AM-5PM, Thursdays 5-8PM

Wayne Thiebaud: Memory Mountains

Veteran artist Wayne Thiebaud -- who will turn 93 on November 15th -- isn't slowing down a bit. His current one-man show at the Paul Thiebaud Gallery, Memory Mountains, consists of 31 paintings and 17 works on paper and fills both floors of the gallery. The exhibition is, among other things, a tribute to Thiebaud's dedication to his craft: several of the canvases on view have been heavily worked and re-worked for periods of up to ten years and some of the works date back to the 1960s.

Gallery Director Kelly Purcell chats with Wayne Thiebaud
Photo by Morgan Schlauffler

In a 2010 New York Times interview Thiebaud acknowledged that he often paints outdoors -- to "fortify his focus" -- while admitting that plein air painting did not allow him the flexibility that his imaginative approach to subject matter requires. "But with me," he noted, "it's about remembrance -- sketching certain types of reflected patterns, different kinds of lighting, then conjuring it up with your memory and imagination."

The Memory Mountains are a varied lot: towering ridges, city-topped buttes, and sandstone mesas, and all of them glow with the artist's characteristic palette of rich complimentary colors. Even though each emanates from some kind of memory, the mountains have been stylized into hybrid forms that fuse the ridiculous with the sublime. When I recently spoke with him by telephone, Thiebaud told me that he thinks of memory as "one of nature's pleasures" and the pleasure he took in conjuring up the various crags, boulders and cliffs in this exhibition is clearly evident in every image.

During my phone conversation with Mr. Thiebaud we spoke about his mountains, his artistic intentions and his work ethic.

John Seed in conversation with Wayne Thiebaud:

Wayne Thiebaud
Photo by Matt Gonzalez

What can you tell me about the ideas behind your Memory Mountains?

The Memory Mountains offered me the opportunity to mix abstraction and representation: that is the origin of my main idea. The other idea was that the mountains came from some actual experience or place some time back in my life: from Arizona where I was born, from my time growing up in Utah and Southern California or from my later life in Northern California. Those places are the main sources of the memory material I worked with.

Laguna Rise, 2003-2012, oil on canvas, 24 x 35 7/8 in.

Were any of them painted outdoors, or do you conjure them entirely from memory? 

That is exactly what I do. I have worked a lot from direct experience, but these were designed to try and do something else.

Essentially there were sort of three characteristics or aspects that I wanted to focus on: maybe I can explain them to you without boring you.

One was the idea of humor: how I can find a seriousness in mountains -- which can be as sublime an idea as anything -- but then go all the way to a kind of silliness or ridiculousness. I find it ridiculous how we name them: oh, things like "The Devil's Woodpile." Or we decide that we're going to carve 40 and 50-foot high pictures of our presidents into them. And the other things that we do to the poor mountains: how we sort of cut our way through them or arbitrarily cut their tops off. Or how we mine them, cut all the trees off them; all these kinds of semi-ridiculous things.

Detail of Laguna Rise

There was the sort of opposite aspect of venerating them and having them be spiritual sources. That extreme -- from the sublime to the silly -- was something that interested me.

Another idea was the idea of position of mountains. We mostly see them -- and almost have to see them -- from afar, unless we are walking in them or hiking in them or driving in them. There is this tendency to see mountains pretty much in the distance and I just wondered what would happen if you tried to get them as close as possible. It seems that they are almost coming to overwhelm you: or that they seem somewhat ominous in their character.

Big Rock Mountain, 2004-12, oil on canvas, 54 x 54 in.

Yes, I noticed that some of the mountains are distinctly flattened: they are sort of in your face

It is the loss of horizon which I think gives them a peculiar position. That interested me essentially because it was a sort of oppositional research that was helpful in establishing a more abstract potential.

The third aspect was that I had to have a kind of naïve omnipotence about making my own mountains. Not just painting mountains, but to really actually believe that I was forming the rocks, the sediments that the wind had blown, or other aspects of it. I was interested in that sense of a bas relief in addition to the painting. Those are some of the things that I tried my best to see if I could get some results from.

Yosemite Rock Ridge, 1975-1987, 2011-2013, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 in.

There are paintings in the show that go back to the 60s. You have been painting mountains for quite a while

Yeah, I'm an old guy…

I feel very privileged to be however tiny a part of that great tradition of being a painter. It's been very special to me in addition to being very interested in teaching.

Green Hill Farms, 2008-2011, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 in.

What is your daily painting schedule like? You seem to have tremendous self-discipline. 

You know, I didn't go to art school John. I came up through the ranks of cartooning and illustration and graphic design: I have a lot of respect for the artists in those fields. I had that kind of apprenticeship where you are supposed to just work and you are obliged to not ignoble those traditions: the great traditions of the design and typography and decorative arts, the ideas of design and drawing.

Mountain Layers, 2010-11, oil on canvas, 36 x 24 in.

It must sometimes feel surprising to find yourself defined as a fine artist, having come from that kind of commercial art and design background.

And while it has been diminished somewhat that tradition is going to have to maintain itself and to re-invent itself continuously. There are very basic things that are not to be ignored, in my opinion.

Night Mesa, 2011-2013, oil on board, 24 x 24 in.

I need to pass that kind of thinking on to my students… 

They (students) have a rather naïve idea about creativity and self-expression. Even though they don't have a "self" yet they have these difficulties in coming to grips with the idea that they are going to have to work harder than they have even imagined in order to really distinguish themselves or to be sure not to insult the great tradition of something like painting.

Peak, 2013, oil on canvas, 35 7/8 x 48 in.

Have you read Nancy Boas' book: David Park: A Painter's Life? She tells a wonderful story about how as a young man Park attended a 1930 luncheon for the artist Henri Matisse. Matisse told the young artists attending the event: "Talk less. Work more."

There is certainly is a lot of talk today.

Yes I have read it, and she interviewed me: we own some works by David. He was a great influence on people here -- particularly Diebenkorn -- who in turn influenced me. I'm obviously a very influenced painter and I delight in being so.

Rock Mesa, 2010, oil on board, 24 x 24 in.

When someone walks into your show, what do you hope they will grasp or enjoy about the paintings? 

Well I hope first of all that they will smile quite a bit at the ridiculousness of some of the images and get some sort of pleasure out of it. That would be rewarding to me. Also I hope particularly that young painters and other artists would not feel that I have insulted the tradition.

 Wayne Thiebaud: Memory Mountains
October 29 - December 21, 2013
Paul Thiebaud Gallery
645 Chestnut St., San Francisco

Hearne Pardee and Gina Werfel: [ he said, she said...] at Adler and Co.

Hearne Pardee and Gina Werfel - both of whom are painters that teach at UC Davis - are the subjects of a double solo show at Adler and Co. in San Francisco: [ he said, she said...] As a married couple who have developed their parallel careers over four decades of partnership, Hearne and Gina have developed complimentary artistic practices that overlap into a kind of ongoing conversation.

[ he said, she said...] Installation View

Pardee's plein-air paintings of suburban dwellings are disrupted and enriched by boldly applied collage elements that create a pleasing and challenging sense of visual complication. One of his stated aesthetic goals is to use color to provide a connection to memories and unconscious associations. Werfel has a feeling for gesture, and uses it to conjure up both spatial references to the landscape and the human body. "Space," she asserts, "is created through the vestiges of gestures left embedded in the process of painting itself."

I recently interviewed both artists to ask about their backgrounds and interconnections.

John Seed Interviews Hearne Pardee and Gina Werfel

Hearne Pardee and Gina Werfel: Photo by Mary Fong

How did the two of you meet and develop your concurrent artistic practices? 

HP: We both studied at the New York Studio School in the 70s, where we were influenced by Leland Bell and Mercedes Matter. Both emphasized work from observation, with Mercedes coming out of the Hofmann tradition, which took spatial relationships observed from the model into abstraction. I began painting outdoors while there, and Gina came along a couple of years later.

  GW: While still in graduate school at Columbia, I won an award from the Artists for the Environment to be a resident artist at Bear Mountain with several other artists who used nature in diverse ways: Melissa Meyer, Ned Smyth among others. I discovered during my stay that painting rocky stream beds served as metaphors for Renaissance and Mannerist figure compositions that I had studied as a student in Italy and moved my work closer to abstract rhythms.

Hearne Pardee, Night, oil on canvas, 54 x 66 inches, 1973

How did you each find your artistic directions over time? 

HP: I worked with Philip Guston, who was teaching at the Studio School then, and under his influence I produced the "Night" painting. He told me then that I wouldn't ever go back to work outside after having that experience, but I was never totally convinced, and began keeping both work from observation and more abstract work going at the same time. Gina kept painting outdoors but became much more involved with gestures and painterly marks when she started painting outside the city. I kept looking for right angles in the woods and Gina found a connection to organic forms to construct space.

Gena Werfel, Rushing By, oil on canvas, 28 x 52 inches (diptych), 2012

GW: I painted outdoors from observation for many years, using the landscape to generate active and gestural compositions. After the move to California in 2001, I transformed my search for abstraction in landscape into large paintings that were mostly about the mark and sensuality of paint, but still retained some semblance of landscape elements and/or the human figure.

Hearne Pardee, Birch Lane, acrylic and collage on panel, 19 x 25 inches, 2012

Can you tell me about how each of you became involved in collage?

HP: I began doing small collages based on the outdoor paintings in 1980, trying to get more involved with color. When we moved to California in 2001, we both painted outdoors for several years, but then began to change. Gina began making abstractions in the studio and I began making large collages in acrylics; the colors I added became less about enhancing the colors in the subject and more about making new relationships emerge from the field - in this sense I see myself going back to the way I worked in "Night", although now including work from observation (I start the collages with painting outdoors).

Gina Werfel, Divided Light, oil on canvas, 24 x18 inches, 2013 

GW: More recently, my work has started from fragmented mash-ups of old dolls and our son's childhood drawings to generate dynamic compositions. My practice also incorporates collage and acrylic on paper and panel, with irregular bits of collage functioning as resting points in energized spaces. A range of high-key and neutral colors is combined with a fluid geometry in the paintings and mixed media works.

Hearne Pardee, Suburban Landscape, acrylic on canvas, 54 x 66 inches, 1978 

Where do your practices intersect and where do they diverge?

GW: Our practices intersect through our common artistic training at the New York Studio School. We were both trained in the legacy of Hofmann's teaching of "push-pull" planes in space and how abstraction underlies even the most realistic rendering of forms. I look to Hearne's work for its architectural solidity and its careful demarcation of color relationships coming out of his training at Yale under Sewell Sillman, a student of Albers. My work deals more with the chaos of marks and unresolved forms, and yet, an underlying architecture of forms in space is what holds my paintings together.

Where our practices diverge? Hearne's is architecturally based, mine more organic and intuitive, bordering on all over chaos. However, at the same time, we both relish the risk taking of process based work, such as gluing down a piece of collage, only to cover it up with a corrected notation.

HP: I see the main intersection in the way we both work with overall space, which includes both work from observation and abstraction - the way forms emerge from the field. I think the big change in modern art comes with the idea that creation is more a way of organizing the field rather than depicting a model. I go much more into the way this idea involves the grid and frame, and ground myself in direct observation, where Gina gets more into gestures and spontaneous marks. I'm more concerned with a sort of ethnographic approach to the everyday environment, more documentary.

Gina Werfel, Slant Steps, acrylic and mixed media, 48 x 48 inches, 2012 

What does it feel like to see your works hung together in a single show? 

GW: We have shown together in the past, however, in different contexts, where our work tended to be treated as solo shows side by side. The Adlers have hung this show differently, where the show's title (he said, she said) truly speaks to the differences/similarities in each of our works, and yet our works are investigating similar issues, such as a figure in space, a set of abstract colors and forms jostling for space. My works fracture space and form, whereas Hearne's hold forms together in a solid envelope of space. I love what a painter friend said about the show tonight, that it is a call and response kind of pairing. It is hung densely, challenging the viewer to contemplate convergences and diversity in the works side by side. Does our partnership (both personal and artistic) reveal itself in the works on view?

Hearne Pardee, Home, acrylic and collage on panel, 25 x 38 inches, 2012

HP: It sounds corny, but to me they reinforce one another and I'm pleased by the way we each hold our own. We've provided a context for one another as we've developed in our own directions, and of course as we've both responded to other artists' work - that's been especially true with our move West, where a lot of this development took place, where we relied on one another in a new environment and dealt much more directly with artists we'd always looked at from the East Coast - Thiebaud, Diebenkorn and David Park in particular. But it's also sobering to look at this overview of our work, for me encompassing 40 years, and to think about where we go from here.

Gina Werfel, Gateway, oil on canvas, 48 x 40 inches, 2013

Hearne Pardee and Gina Werfel: [ he said, she said…]
November 7-December 4, 2013
Adler and Co. 
77 Geary Street, Suite 201
San Francisco, CA
Gallery Hours: Tuesday-Friday, 10:30 to 5:30, Saturdays, 11 to 5

Kelly Detweiler at the John Natsoulas Center for the Arts

Kelly Detweiler -- a painter whose work is on view at the John Natsoulas Center for the Arts in Davis, CA -- has invented a wide-eyed cast of characters to inhabit his loving yet sardonic paintings. Earnest, alert and just a bit spiritual Detweiler's actors and actresses are put through all kinds of trials and tribulations and yet somehow they never entirely lose their innocence: the artist who painted them likes them too much to let them be destroyed. He is at heart a nice guy.

Detweiler also works with a shaggy and anthropomorphized cast of animals who play roles suggestive of our more fierce and instinctive inner natures. Since he often works from ideas that bloom from his unconscious Detweiler has no problem letting humans and animals coexist in his mythological situations. In that sense he is like Picasso.

I recently interviewed Kelly and asked him about his background, his work, and his sense of humor.

John Seed Interviews Kelly Detweiler

Kelly Detweiler: photo by John Seed
 In your artist's statement you say that U.C. Davis was a "magical place" when you were a student there. Tell me about some of the people and experiences that made it that way.

U.C. Davis was a quiet little college town with a powerhouse faculty when I arrived. I was aware of almost all of the faculty and somewhat star struck to be working with Robert Arneson every day and to be able to interact regularly with Manuel Neri, Wayne Thiebaud, Roy De Forest, William Wiley and the rest of the faculty. I was amazed at how approachable these people were and what a great environment it was for making art. 

Sacramento State also had Jim Nutt and Gladys Nielson and Carl Wirsum during that period of time so the entire region was alive with amazing artists who were on the edge of national recognition. David Gilhooly was there for my first year and he was a great role model because he worked so hard and really made you feel lazy if you weren't working all of the time. Out of six students in ceramics, I was the only one who knew how to fire the kilns and make clay so I had a teaching assistantship every semester I was there. Arneson knew I wanted to teach so he taught me many valuable lessons that have helped me as a teacher over the years. 

This was a great time in the history of the department and I felt very lucky to be in the middle of so many artists I admired. What I really loved was that the structure was perfect for me at that time. I was able to do ceramics and painting at the same time. There were also an amazing group of graduate students, and many of them are still very visible in the art world today: Christopher Brown, Nancy Rubens, Arthur Gonzales, Leonard Kosianski and Katherine Sherwood to name a few. 

"Economic Summit," acrylic on canvas, 60 x 72 inches, 2013  

Your work blends social commentary with humor. Has it always been that way?

My work has always had a humorous edge to it. I was always attracted to artists whose work had a narrative humanistic edge and often it was manifested in humor. Clayton Bailey was an early influence, Roy de Forest, Jim Nutt and Peter Saul all had an edge of humor to their work and that was the stuff I was most attracted to. The social commentary has grown over the years with self-awareness and maturity. Having children has also affected my view on the world and forced me to speak out a little more forcefully in my work. The early work had social commentary, but usually about the interaction between the sexes. Now I often react to bigger more political issues, but they have to be something that comes out in my drawings. 

"Framed," acrylic on wood, 42 x 36 inches, 2013  

There is a quite a bit of Picasso in your work: tell me about your dialogue with him and what you have taken from his imagery, style and subjects. 

I don't remember when I saw my first Picasso, but it was probably in Art History class at Grossmont College. It was pretty much a love affair from the start. I loved the distortion and the manipulation in Guernica. Here was a painting that was both visually interesting to me and was also an extremely powerful social commentary. As I grew older and was able to travel and see more and more Picasso paintings live I have gained more insight into his process and more appreciation for his ability to abstract reality and to invent. 

He spoke directly to my sensibilities as an artist I was not interested in what was big in New York at that point or much of what the art magazines told me was important. Pop art had some attraction for me but those artists just outside the main track were the ones I was drawn to the most. From my perspective there was a huge gap between the early figurative work I liked from Europe and the newer art, which I was finding as a student. Picasso bridged the gap for me and he dealt with the figure in a manner I could embrace. 

 "Faculty Meeting," Acrylic on Canvas, 60 x 60 inches, 2008  

Do you have a favorite painting from the past few years? If yes, tell me about it. 

If I had to pick a favorite painting it might be "Faculty Meeting" which is a big painting of a group of dogs and cats fighting. Why is it my favorite? Maybe because of the subject matter, this issue of conflict amongst humans is universal. Homo sapiens fight about almost anything, religion, food, land, oil, relationships, skin color, you name it we fight. 

The drawing for Faculty Meeting was made during an actual faculty meeting The idea for the painting came from a notion that Art Historians would prefer if we were dead so they could decide what we were doing and thinking. Having us around only complicates the process for them. Using animals to represent the two groups made me realize that I had communicated something much more universal about mankind, not just artists and art historians. The humorous edge also mimics the real situation in academia where we are all competing fiercely against each other for those low salaries. 

 "Crush," Acrylic on Wood, 42 x 30 inches, 2012  

You have been teaching for a number of years. What do you try to give to your students, and what do you notice about the current crop?  

I felt very let down when I started teaching and realized how little I actually knew. Consequently I want my students to go away with a strong foundation and an appreciation of how hard it really is to make art. I try to teach my students to be patient and that anything substantial does not come easy. This generation of students is used to getting everything quick and easy. 

I tell them that art is slow and hard and they will learn patience, persistence and good work habits in my class. I strongly feel that Art skills can help them in any discipline. It is the only class I know of where they can all have different answers and all be right. I really try to teach them what I missed out on as a student. 

The period when I was in college was quite fluid intellectually, so it was possible to get a drawing teacher who did not know how to draw. Some stuff looked so easy that students wondered why learn all this academic stuff when I can jump right into something easy. They were convinced that they could be the next Pollock or Barnett Newman without too much difficulty. I try to show them that good abstraction comes from knowledge and usually from somewhere very academic. I try to take a very academic approach in my classes. I rarely show my own work to students because I don't want them to paint like me.

 "Meltdown," Acrylic on Canvas, 60 x 72 inches, 2010 

 Is it fair to say that you are serious and grounded as a man, but something of a comedian as an artist?  

Humor is a way to approach serious issues and make them palatable. I am definitely grounded in my real life, because you can't be a good parent if you are aren't grounded and being a good parent is important to me. I see things now that I want to comment on that would be very heavy and dark if I just went right at the issue, so I usually take the issue on as a problem to solve with line, color and a touch of humor. 

In the painting "Meltdown", there was a big nationwide financial mess, which continues to plague our economy. Banks were getting bailed out but real people were losing everything. Greed is a central issue in this dialogue but I chose to approach this issue with some humor and still not diminish the importance the problem. I like it when somebody looks at one of my pieces and thinks they have it figured out immediately, but then comes back later to realize there was something substantial behind the colorful façade. 

 "Starry YES," acrylic on canvas, 36 x 28 inches, 2012 

One of your recent series features the idea of YES Industries: tell me more about that.  

YES Industries grew out of this idea that greed has taken over. The YES pieces also speak to the art world in general and to the rise of artists who don't even touch their own work. I have created YES donation centers, which eliminate the collectors and put the money right in the artist's hand.  

What would you like people to know about the work in your current show at Natsoulas Gallery? Everything in the Natsoulas show is new work. I have been on sabbatical for a year and I have spent the majority of the year working toward this exhibit. Even though I may be humorous, I am also very serious about my work. I realized quite a while ago that I have somewhat unique vision of the world and that my imagination is one of my strengths. I believe that what UC Davis nurtured in many of the students of my era was the strength of the individual vision no matter what the approach or media.  

Kelly Detweiler 
Opening: Friday, November 8, 2013 7:00 pm  
521 First Street Davis, CA 95618  
A full-color catalog is available.

Jennifer Pochinski at the John Natsoulas Center for the Arts

Jennifer Pochinski is a Sacramento based painter who paints in a big generous style. Although she is a representational artist, Jennifer works like an Abstract Expressionist, often covering an entire canvas in a single day with broad wet-on-wet brushstrokes. "I have to get my nerve up to paint," she explains, "because I'm after the feeling of profundity that is normally found only in abstract art."

I recently interviewed Jennifer -- whose solo show at the John Natsoulas Center for the Arts in Davis, California opens on November 8th -- to learn more about her background and her ideas.

John Seed Interviews Jennifer Pochinski

Jennifer Pochinski

Tell me a bit about your background and your early life in Hawaii

My family moved to Hawaii when I was 11. I attended sixth grade through college on the island of Oahu, but did a bit of traveling throughout those years starting with my senior year where I was an exchange student in Germany. At 19, before I decided to major in art, I worked in a pub in London. I was tagging along with my sister during her semester abroad. That led me to spend a summer in South Africa.

After I received my BFA in painting from the University of Hawaii, I went to London again. It was the first time I was experiencing the art in the museums as a painter. I found myself interrogating the European painters of the 20th century. My interpretation of their message was, " You don't have to explain everything..." Later, while visiting the Whitney at a show featuring American painters, I realized I didn't have to ask the works of art anything. I was knocked out by that visceral response of being 'home.'

A Greek Market, oil on canvas, 55 x 55 inches

You have lived in European countries, including Britain, Germany and Greece. How did living overseas affect your development?

I started going to Greece regularly in 1995 when I got married and moved there in 2003 but promptly got divorced. Living overseas, trying to learn new languages gave me a more than a few life lessons. When you live in a foreign country, the key to survival is to become like a child again and learn everything from the start. Generally I lived in a state of being open to the present moment and painting was my stronghold.

A Kitchen Counter, 30 x 40 inches, oil on canvas

Have you had any teachers or mentors who were especially influential?

In 2002-3 I returned to the University of Hawaii and studied with West Coast artist, Pia Stern. She happened to be a student of Elmer Bischoff at Berkeley. Her philosophy was about 'digging' and finding something personal inside oneself. I remember looking at some artist, maybe it was Joan Mitchell, and I said to her that I was being way too polite in paint and she said, 'Get rude!' Her influence kept me going for years as I painted in isolation in Greece right after that.

Rocky, 48 x 48, oil on canvas

What kinds of subjects are you attracted to? 

The search for content is an ongoing process. I like ordinary moments of things I know. But I want the physicality of the paint to be the story and I seek out subject matter that I can get lost in. My guilty pleasure is painting still lifes, so in my most recent work, I am painting objects but with humans as the foil.

Twelve Year Old, 48 x 48 inches, oil on canvas

Your paint handling is lush and fluid. Has it always been that way? 

My work has indeed changed a lot since moving back to California. I switched from doing smaller still lifes and landscapes to larger figurative pieces with much thicker handling of paint. I am a colorist but I value the neutral mass of leftover paint.

Added to fresh color, it introduces an element that I could never think up myself. I love trial and error and fixing things with lots of paint. Basically I embrace the unexpected and allow the process to be a mystery. This can be a painful process. Sometimes when I walk back 20 feet to look at my work in process I just dread turning around.

I have been studying the transitions into maturity of some major artists. Matisse, Lee Krasner, David Park Robert Arneson. I read Eric Fischl's book "Bad Boy" in which he documents his breakthroughs in detail. For a while I was waiting for some sort of milestone to happen and I would know a formula. Once it gets easy and you know the outcome, it doesn't seem authentic. So I accept that as a painter I am in a constant state of uncertainty.

Gardener with Dog, 40 x 48 inches, oil on canvas

How influential has Bay Area Figurative painting been to you?

One of my teachers told me that my work belonged in the Bay Area Figurative movement. It was a compliment at the time, but it really seemed out of context in Hawaii and Greece. We moved to California in late 2010 and, it was like finding the Mothership. I can see their work first hand at my local museums. I meet people who knew one or more of them. I even had sushi with Manuel Neri! I saw the Diebenkorn show at the De Young twice. I was a little intimidated to go see that collection of iconic work. But I was drawn to his pieces that were, frankly, quite awkward.

One thing in living here where the work is so prevalent, and recognizable, is that it has become an opportunity to go deeper. I really like what Phillip Guston once said:

"When you're in the studio painting, there are a lot of people in there with you - your teachers, friends, painters from history, critics... and one by one if you're really painting, they walk out. And if you're really painting YOU walk out."

Dinner Party, 55 x 55 inches, oil on canvas

What do you think that your paintings offer to viewers?

I am in this because I love paint and I love the artists before me who loved paint. I always thought my work looks like a live performance, or some moment of outpouring of emotion. If they like that, it is what I can give them.

Jennifer Pochinski
Opening: Friday, November 8, 2013 7:00 pm
John Natsoulas Center for the Arts
521 First Street Davis, CA 95618
A full-color catalog is available.