John Zurier: "Once I get there, I know where I am."

Painter John Zurier -- whose exhibition A spring a thousand years ago was recently on view at Peter Blum Gallery -- is attracted to the idea of spareness. One of his stated goals as a painter is to achieve "...the maximum sense of color, light, and space with the most simple and direct means."

Zurier's works coax viewers into a state of heightened awareness while offering few references: they are cleansing, enticing and poetic.

I recently interviewed John via e-mail and asked him about his background, his working methods and his ideas.

John Seed Interviews John Zurier


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John Zurier

John, you were raised with fine modern paintings around you. Can you mention a few of the things that your parents collected and describe how their presence affected you growing up?

My parent's art collection had an immense influence on my life. That is how I first learned about abstraction and color and surface -- all things I am concerned with in my own work now. I was very lucky to have been able to live with them when I was young. There were paintings by Joan Miró, Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, Antoni Tàpies, Alfred Leslie, Norman Bluhm, and Richard Diebenkorn. But at the core of it were paintings by the German Expressionists and some of the American abstract artists from Stieglitz's group.

The four that made the biggest impression on me were a large painting of a dancing girl by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a watercolor by Oskar Kokoschka, Marsden Hartley's painting called the The Warriors from 1913, and Arthur Dove's painting Moon. Dove often made his own paint and frames and for some reason this was very appealing to me, and I think that is where I got my interest in materials. I loved the thin, dry paint Dove used in Moon. There is a brushstroke at the bottom of the painting that is both odd and brilliant. I used to wonder why it was there and how he did it. I'm still thinking about it.

Diebenkorn was probably the one I looked at the most, though. We had paintings from his Urbana and Berkeley series, and what I love about Diebenkorn is that his method is always on the surface: you can really see it all right there.

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Filadelfia, 2012 distemper on linen 21 x 23 in. (53.3 x 58.4 cm)
Courtesy of the artist and Peter Blum Gallery, New York

You had some important mentors -- I know Elmer Bischoff was one -- can you mention some of your teachers and talk about their importance?

I went to UC Berkeley and I studied with Joan Brown, Sidney Gordon, Robert Hartman, Jim Melchert, and Elmer Bischoff. Elmer was the most influential in terms of painting, and he taught me a lot about color, surface modulation, and the importance of mood. He had a great way of talking about feeling, intuition, and poetics, and that how a painting is made is also its content. He talked a lot about the "information" in Toulouse-Lautrec's and Edvard Munch's paintings; and the color harmonies of Titian's late works.

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After Paolo Schiavo, 2013 oil on linen 17 x 21 in. (43.2 x 53.3 cm)
Courtesy of the artist and Peter Blum Gallery, New York

Your paintings over the years have been sensitive to light, color and atmosphere: is it correct to say that you are now flirting with form? 

I don't think so. Even when I put shapes or lines in a monochrome field, I am thinking of form in the largest sense -- as how something is made. Form, for me, means dealing with the total construction of a painting, not geometry or making a picture of something. I'm very interested in how compositional formats and motifs, and even incidents in a painting can trigger perceptual responses and associations. Even a horizontal line can be read as a landscape, but it's not my intention.

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Öxnadalur, 2013 oil on linen 72 x 44 in. (182.9 x 111.8 cm)
Courtesy of the artist and Peter Blum Gallery, New York

Tell me about some of your experiments with media.

I often make my own paints and grounds and I'm always discovering new things. My interest in materials involves looking for the right color and how the surface affects the way light is reflected or absorbed. I use various types of raw cotton and linen canvas and pay close attention to the different colors and textures of the weave. I also sometimes use pre-primed linen. I will also grind my own oil colors and I make tempera paint by mixing pigments into animal glues. I do a lot of research and make tests. It's part craft, part chemistry, and part like cooking. But as a rule, I try to keep the materials in a painting simple.

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Sorgin, 2013 oil on linen 21 x 15 in. (53.3 x 38.1 cm)
Courtesy of the artist and Peter Blum Gallery, New York

How did you first travel to Iceland, and how have your travels there made an impact on your paintings? 

Larry Rinder had been telling me about Iceland for several years, and in 2002 my wife and I went with him and a group of friends on a 6-day horse riding tour. I loved Iceland, but for some reason I didn't manage to come back again until 2011. I'm in Reykjavik as I am writing this (at the end of July) and I have been here since mid-May. The landscape and light have been a huge influence on my work. Also the people, the language, literature, music, poetry, and art have made a big impact. An Icelandic friend told me about a story by Guðbergur Bergsson, about a man who grew up at the foot of a mountain. He moved away and missed the mountain so much he had a painting made of it. He moved back to his old home at some point, and he would sit in his house with the shades drawn and look at the painting of the mountain. I love this story -- with its memory and longing it feels very Icelandic to me, and it reads almost like a chapter out of Kenko's Essays in Idleness.

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Svartur Klettur 2, 2012 glue tempera on linen 108 x 75 inches (274.3 x 190.5 cm)
Courtesy of the artist and Peter Blum Gallery, New York

Can you tell me about the poetry that inspired some of your recent work? 

Bill Berkson and his poems are inspiring to me. They have lightness, depth, and grace. In 2011 we made a book together called Repeat After Me, published by Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco. Bill gave me the poems of an unpublished book to read and I made watercolors on Japanese notebook paper. Lately, I've been reading Icelandic poets in translation, mostly the modernist poets Steinn Steinarr, Jón Úr Vör, Thorsteinn frá Hamri, and Ingibjörg Haraldsdóttir. I especially like Stefán Hördur Grimsson. I made two paintings with titles from Grimsson's poems. The title of my recent show at Peter Blum Gallery in New York, A spring a thousand years ago comes from a Stefán Hördur Grimsson poem.

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A spring a thousand years ago, 2012 glue tempera on cotton 72 x 44 in. (182.9 x 111.8 cm)
Courtesy of the artist and Peter Blum Gallery, New York
How important has Japanese art been to your development?

 It's been very important. I started reading about Japanese gardens when I was in high school and that lead me to study landscape architecture at Berkeley. But it took some time for me to realize that my interest in gardens was mostly metaphorical, and that the traditional Japanese aesthetic principals of simplicity, suggestion, incompleteness, and impoverishment, could be guiding principles for my painting.

One of my favorite Japanese terms is jinen or "naturalness." It means things as they really are, or from the beginning to be made so without any calculation, as in water runs downwards and fire goes upwards. It's not intellectual and can't be conceptualized. The paradox is that if one talks about it too much it then becomes calculated.

Around 1994, I became interested in the color grey and the Japanese concept of "killed colors." This involves the elimination of color by darkening it or thinning it down so that it hovers almost at the extreme limit of visibility. This is how I came to monochrome--not out of minimalism and post-painterly abstraction. I like the idea that in Japanese painting monochrome painting is the closest thing to emptiness.

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Mosfellsbær, 2012 distemper and oil on linen 26 x 21 in. (66 x 53.3 cm)
Courtesy of the artist and Peter Blum Gallery, New York
Where do you see your work going? 

I was traveling with some friends, and one of them was supposed to be in charge of getting us from point A to point B to point C etc. His intuition was good, and he was familiar with the place, but he was not good with directions, as it turned out. We would drive for a while, and then he would say, "Aha! So this is where we are." That is more or less how things go for me. Once I get there, I know where I am.

Note:

John Zurier's next exhibition at the Claes Nordenhake Gallery in Berlin opens on September 20th

Royal Nebeker: "Life is but a dream..."

Artist Royal Nebeker has what just may be the world's coolest studio space: he paints on the top floor of a former fishing facility - The Uppertown Net Loft - a battered and picturesque wooden building that sits on pilings 100 yards from the shoreline of Astoria, Oregon. Originally built in 1897 as a satellite station where salmon fishermen could drop off their catch, the building has been declared eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and will hopefully become a cooperative of artist's lofts in the near future. For now, it is Royal Nebeker's personal studio and castle, with the Columbia River serving as its moat.

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The Uppertown Net Loft: Photo by Ben Moon

Born and raised in California, Nebeker has lived mainly in Oregon since 1974: he was originally attracted to Astoria because it reminds him of Norway, a place of importance in his personal history and artistic imagination. Because he has shown primarily in Europe and the Northwest, his works are not widely known across the U.S. and his style - a rich smörgåsbord of cultural, personal and aesthetic influences - doesn't fit neatly into any given box. Nebeker's fluidly brushed canvases often look somewhat like Bay Area Figurative paintings, but his works have a combination of psychological insight and spiritual intensity that is remarkable and distinctive.

Royal's situation in relation to the contemporary art world is very like that of his friend, the late Nathan Oliveira who once stated: "I'm not part of the avant-garde. I'm part of the garde that comes afterward, assimilates, consolidates, refines." Working offshore at the Net Loft - 3,000 miles from New York City - has given Royal Nebeker plenty of creative privacy and helped forge the character of his art.

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Royal Nebeker in front of the Uppertown Net Loft: Photo by Paul Anderson

A former ski instructor who remains quite fit in his late 60s, Royal spent the first half of May working with a crew of Astorian carpenters crating 29 large oil paintings for shipment to the Brigham Young University Art Museum, the first stop on a traveling retrospective of his work organized by the John Natsoulas Center for the Arts. Getting the paintings crated - including one canvas measuring nearly 15 feet tall - then down the narrow stairs of the loft then down the building's ramp to an onshore moving truck was exhausting. Of course, it was nothing compared to the effort that Nebeker has exerted in rebuilding his studio inventory and career momentum since the catastrophic storm of 2007.

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Royal Nebeker, at work in his studio: Photo by Ben Moon

Between December 1st and 3rd of that year, a three day long freak storm that has gone down in history as The Great Coastal Gale brought wind gusts of up to 165 miles per hour. The winds lifted up parts of the building's top floor and roof, and badly damaged the historic building - which Nebeker and his wife Sarah own - trapping Royal and his assistant in the building for some 20 hours. They got out by strapping themselves to a heavy ladder and crawling down a ramp on their bellies. Sarah Nebeker was understandably pleased and relieved when Royal telephoned her to say "We got out alive," but several years of his artistic output had been destroyed.

A less dedicated artist might have thrown away his brushes, but Nebeker, who has been at the easel nearly 50 years, managed to get his studio up and running again and has actually been quite productive since. The show now on view at the BYU Museum - Royal Nebeker: An Artist's Journey - includes seven large recently completed oil and collage pieces alongside thirteen large earlier works. One of his most striking recent paintings, titled Ship of Fools is part of an ongoing series: Loss and Revelation.

Losing two years of paintings and surviving a cataclysmic storm certainly must have something to do with the painting's storm-tossed allegory, but Nebeker isn't an artist who literally channels the events of his life into his work. In fact, his references are most often oblique and derived more from his dreams than from his day to day experiences. He says: "I've found that using filters like dreams and memories helps me capture the essence of things and cut to the heart." Royal keeps a dream journal by his bedside, and the richness of his dream life provides him with an un-ending stream of ideas.

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Royal Nebeker, Ship of Fools, 2013, from the Loss and Revelation series
Oil and collage on canvas, 84 x 90 inches

Ship of Fools reveals a man in a dunce cap who looks our direction as he rows a blonde-haired woman across a roiling blue ocean over skeins of painterly drips as a blazing cadmium yellow sun sets in an orange and greenish sky. At first glance, it could be seen as an Expressionist painting - an allegorical voyage à la Max Beckmann - but Nebeker isn't scornful or self-pitying enough to be a true Expressionist and even his toughest pictures feel uplifting in their message. "Nebeker's pictures have a wonderful core of Humanistic values," says Paul Anderson, a curator at the BYU Museum, "He is not a cynic."

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Detail: the leak in the boat...

He also has a healthy sense of humor and an awareness of human foibles. The couple in the boat are oblivious to the leak that spurts skyward behind the woman's back, and the man doesn't seem to be rowing very intently. Several menacing shark fins are visible in the dark water beneath them. Perhaps the picture is to some degree a portrait of a marriage, but in looking at a Nebeker one should never be to quick to make that kind of easy assumption. Royal has made many paintings that deal with relationships between men and women, but he has also made a number of self-portraits in which he takes on a female identity. The figures in Ship of Fools might be a couple, but they might also be aspects of a single self: or both.

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Above: a detail from Ship of Fools

Like many of his collage-paintings, Ship of Fools combines rough brushwork and drips with collage elements, written phrases and notations. Nebeker is one of a handful of contemporary artists - Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cy Twombly and Squeak Carnwath are some others that come to mind - who seem to have found just the right way to marry expressive imagery with snippets of language that function both as "notes" and graphic elements.

One of Nebeker's common practices is to leave some horizontal space near the lower edge of the canvas as a place where these kinds of images and notes can accumulate. Working this way allows him to combine the high traditions of painting with pop culture materials, and to make his images both emotionally and intellectually rich. Ship of Fools has a jaunty no sharks decal towards the lower left, which seems to graphically rhyme with a round logo on the boat's hull (Cleanline Surf) but the most prominent written element is a phrase from the song Row, Row, Row Your Boat: Life is but a dream... In the context of Royal's painting the rather trite lyric from a round often sung around campfires suddenly feels significant, even Shakespearean.

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Above: a detail from Ship of Fools

There are some other inscriptions present and one of them, from the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegård, is in Danish. Translated, it reads: "The person who never leaves reason never reaches a connection with God." Another Kierkegård quote enhances the allegory of the voyage as a spiritual quest: "The believer lies always above the deep; he has 70,000 leagues of water under him." Paul Anderson notes that "There is a wonderful interplay between high culture, pop culture and spirituality in Nebeker's works. Most have spiritual themes without being overtly religious."

Nebeker, who has Norwegian ancestry and has lived in Norway, has been asked "Why do you write on your paintings in Norwegian, Japanese and English?" His answer is: "I don't like the way English looks, it is so blatant. It is too easy to take literally, too easy to see what it means. I don't intentionally obscure meaning, but I distrust clarity." For that reason, looking at a Nebeker can be like listening to an opera in a foreign language: the emotion comes through even if the words can't all be deciphered.

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Royal Nebeker, "The Blue Bike," 2013
Oil and collage on canvas, 66 x 72 inches

Norway is often the setting for his paintings - Nebeker says he dreams about Norway - and the works of the Norwegian master Edvard Munch have exerted a major influence on him as well. In 1972 Royal received a grant to live in Munch's studio and living quarters in Ekley where he read the artist's journals and also helped organize the artist's archive of prints. At the time, Munch's work was out of favor in Norway, but Nebeker was very moved by his direct experience of the artist's environment and archives. Royal's interest in imbuing his paintings with psychological motivations and the inclusion of writing in his works both began with this crucial engagement.

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Detail: The son and father from The Blue Bike

Nebeker's 2013 oil The Blue Bike certainly feels quite a bit like a Munch painting: it is a deeply felt moment shaded by memory. The painting is centers on the silhouttes of Royal and his father facing each other across an isthmus in a nocturnal dreamscape. The Blue Bike distills Nebeker's recollection of the disappointment he felt as a boy when he received an inexpensive green bicycle from his father after hoping for a top of the line blue Schwinn. The canvas also alludes to Nebeker's mature, guilty realization that his father had been a man with limited resources he did all he could for his son.

"They stand so awkwardly," observes Paul Anderson of the two silhouettes; "two people who don't quite understand each other." The image of the father and son carries a very strong emotional charge: it makes the resulting painting nostalgic, apologetic and cathartic. Like many of Nebeker's strongest works, The Blue Bike is about human relationships, their emotions clarified and magnified through the filter of dreams.

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Royal Nebeker, When We Awaken from The Sun, the Moon and the Stars series, 2013
Oil and collage on canvas, 142 x 104 inches

Nebeker's very commanding vertical canvas When We Awaken which derives its title from a play by Henrik Ibsen, portrays a trio of figures rising from a tomb. The central figure is a woman who throws off her burial shroud as another open-mouthed figure to her right rises skyward. A third, transparent figure stands to her left, wearing a belt that is covered with numbers representing earthly knowledge. A collaged poster - in French - advertises a concert with an image of the Louvre's Hellenistic "Winged Victory" who serves as a sister image to the resurrected figures. At the bottom of the canvas is a line from Ibsen's play, a despairing, dreamlike drama that was originally called The Resurrection:

"What shall we then see?" We find that we have never lived."

Although resurrection has certainly been a theme used by many artists for hundreds of years, the idiosyncratic nature of Nebeker's painting demonstrates how Nebeker has come to the theme on his own terms. There is a paradox at the heart of Nebeker's art that goes like this: by presenting his personal dream world, infused with cultural references and anecdotes that mean something to him he causes his viewers to think more deeply about universal themes. Not all of us have read or seen the works of Ibsen, but at some deep level we can all connect with the universal human craving to reawaken to life's beauties and deeper meanings.

When We Awaken is actually two canvases: Nebeker added a second horizontal canvas at the top as the painting developed, realizing that his figures needed more room to ascend. His career as an artist also seems to have needed some more room at the top as well. Since the storm and losses of 2007 Royal has certainly had his own kind of rebirth, and his energy is at a peak. "I have all kinds of paintings waiting," Nebeker comments: "My mind churns around as I resurrect all kinds of ideas, worrying that I didn't say enough the first time around."



ROYAL NEBEKER: AN ARTIST'S JOURNEY
Through Sept. 14, 2013
The Brigham Young University Museum of Art
North Campus Drive, Provo, Utah 84602

Bo Bartlett: "Love and Other Sacraments" at Dowling Walsh Gallery


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Bo Bartlett, "Oceans," Oil on linen, 48 x 66 inches
Bo Bartlett's painting Oceans, on view at Dowling Walsh Gallery in Rockland, Maine through July 27th makes a very strong first impression. It allows you -- the viewer -- into a seaside room where two remarkably attractive women consider their options while looking you over in a double-trouble Lacanian gaze. The brunette is Bartlett's wife and muse, painter Betsy Eby who makes a very confident American Olympia in her rather tasteful lingerie. "Is this a day in the life of Bo Bartlett...a man who lives his life as a rooster in a feminist henhouse?" you might wonder.

Bartlett is an aesthetic auto-didact who has looked hard at the works of his American forebears. His canvases of recent years have the marine air and honest brushwork of Winslow Homer, with hints of Wyeth and Eakins -- and even a dash of Salvador Dali -- tossed into the mix. A realist who goes beyond realism, Bartlett is a seeker of life's unseen energies who likes to let the questions evoked by his work multiply. If you don't "get" Bartlett you may find his work excessively earnest, but if his paintings pull you in there is a chance you may find yourself wordless and gaping in their presence. That would please the artist very much.

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Bo Bartlett: Photo by Jeff Markowsky
I recently interviewed Bo Bartlett, and asked him about his recent paintings, the role of art in culture, and the upcoming opening of the Bo Bartlett Center.

John Seed Interviews Bo Bartlett

You have said that: "True artists seek the truth at all costs." What kinds of truths are you seeking in your most recent works?

I want to make paintings like I've never seen before. The current show in Maine has two distinct bodies of work. Both represent fields that I feel are somewhat unexplored. The figure paintings, many of my wife, painter Betsy Eby, posing with her friends, are intimate portraits. I know what I'm doing. And I'm well aware that they are dancing on an edge. They could easily be considered decadent, lewd and immoral from the right side of the aisle and patriarchal, misogynistic and sexist from the left.

The paintings address relationship -- what it means to see and be seen -- but they are not objectifications.

It is difficult to paint a portrait: it is difficult to paint a nude figure. It is doubly hard to paint a nude portrait. It's quadrupally hard to paint two nude portraits together, especially when they are real people not hiding behind allegory or symbolism. I expect some reaction, but the paintings aren't meant to goad. The art world is too jaded for them to be scandalous, but we joked that we wanted to make them 'beautiful and scandalous.' We almost used this for the title of the show.

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Bo Bartlett, "Outside This Room is War and Terror," Oil on board, 27 x 34 inches
We settled on Love and Other Sacraments, because the paintings aren't about titillation, they aren't about sex... although they may teeter sometimes. They are about tenderness, love, and deep nurturing friendships. One may ask: "How can (or how dare) a somewhat white male address this subject?" but the job of an artist is to trust their feelings and follow their instincts and paint exactly what they want to paint. It's not calculated, doing the politically correct thing; it's not about expressing ones feelings, instead, it's about making the work that you want to see, about making what one thinks the world needs.

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Bo Bartlett, "The Light Years," Oil on linen, 80 x 100 inches
Where does your art fit -- and not fit -- in relation to our current culture? 

I think that we are a culture obsessed with guns, violence, dualism, hate-speech, terrorism, war, and death. The paintings are an attempt to create an antidote for this. It is difficult to find honest examples of tenderness or earnest representations of love in contemporary culture. Of course there are love stories in novels and in films -- although Hollywood seems to be stuck in some kind of dysfunctional lower chakra male power rut, filling every multiplex with guns and explosions -- but, in current visual art, love and beauty are taboo.

Beauty is accepted at the base level in the world of fashion and photography, we all glance at the faces on the covers of the magazines in the checkout aisle, longingly or disdainfully, but we need the feminine element exalted in beauty: it was once provided in art by the great Madonnas: no longer. Realness has supplanted beauty as a higher truth in art. The thing about being an artist is, you have to trust your instincts to see what's needed, and trust your ability to provide it.

To be earnest is the greatest taboo in contemporary art, but I want to be earnest, almost to the point of being embarrassed. If its not embarrassing, it's not pushing beyond what's been done before. Look at the history of art. The purpose of Art is to wake us up. We get accustomed to our visual stimulus and we glaze over. Art can reawaken us. It doesn't have to be a new form -- although it can be -- but great art brings us to attention, it can awaken us abruptly with a splash, or it can be a slow revelation, but great art shakes us to the core and makes us see the world differently.

The job of the artist is to be true to their temperament and to keep themselves free. Every artist has a unique ability, personality and gift. Their job is to be true to who they are, true to their DNA, their nature, and their experiences. A kid growing up in the rural South looking at the grass blowing in a field on a sunny afternoon is going to have a different set of priorities and aesthetics than a kid growing up in the inner-city riding subways emblazoned with graffiti, neither ones experience is superior to the other, both are valid, and if they stay true to their experiences their art will reflect their own unique individualities and their art will be original and true.

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Bo Bartlett, "Betsy and Alyssa," Oil on panel, 24 x 36 inches
Your wife Betsy appears as a model -- sometimes alone, sometimes by herself, and sometimes with another woman -- in a number of the paintings on view at Dowling Walsh. How important and influential is her presence in your works?

Betsy is my primary subject. Always has been, even before I met her. When a friend of mine first saw her, they said, "That's who you've been painting your whole life!" The recent paintings have been a collaboration; over the past few years Betsy has posed with her friends in New York, Washington and Maine. She often appears in my recent paintings with her good friend, the painter Alyssa Monks. 

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Bo Bartlett, "Blue Sky, July 4th 2011," Oil on board, 16 x 16 inches
Eight of your recent paintings are squares of sky. Is it fair to say that they are paradoxical mixes of realism and minimalism? 

Exactly, I'm very excited about them. Similar to the figure paintings in that they are unlike anything I've seen before. Oh, there have always been landscapes and skyscapes, but, I can't think of any realistic paintings of the wide-open blue sky where the subject is the sky itself, no clouds, no tree-tops, or signs of human activity. I like to say it is my One original idea... so far. Of course they are reminiscent of color field paintings. I love Rothko. And certainly, we've enjoyed time under the focused domes of Turrell.

 But, to spend a day outside looking up at the clear blue sky, honestly trying to capture the depth and atmosphere, the humidity, the argon gases, the floating particles, your own viscera, silver tracers, it is a great way to spend a day. Each painting is a specific day and time and place, looking up in one direction into one part of the sky. It is difficult because there is nothing to focus on. I think they have their origins in September 11th, I remember being on the island in Maine, the clearness of the weather on that day. It seemed to put things in perspective.

I feel like they represent everything, the Light as it filters through the darkness of space, the light that gives us life and the dark void of eternity combining to create the optical thin blue veil of our atmosphere that sustains us. When you see the paintings in person, at first they read as a minimalist color field but as you stay with them longer and gaze into them, the space spreads out and back and you get the realistic illusion of the deep blue sky.

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Bo Bartlett, "The Big Day," Oil on canvas, 80 x 80 inches
How does the spirit of your friend and mentor Andrew Wyeth continue to influence your choices as an artist? 

Everyday I ask myself: "What would Andy say about this?" He loved to visit my studio and see what I was working on. He was very encouraging: always enthusiastic. But, it wasn't niceties, he was clear eyed and tough. I asked myself everyday what Andy would say about my recent figure paintings. I feel like he would have said, "Wonderful!" He felt like work had to have an "edge." It couldn't be like everything else. It has to be sharp and fresh and cutting, visually and/or conceptually. An artist has to work to find that edge... and not go over it.
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Bo Bartlett, "Guest Bed," Oil on board, 18 x 18 inches
In a recent interview, the painter Odd Nerdrum gave this advice to young artists: "If your only goal is to 'find yourself' and be 'original' you will end up in an empty, dark room." Do you agree? 

I know Odd. I like him. He's funny. He says stuff like this. He is serious, deadly serious, but his tongue is firmly planted in his cheek. I like that about him. I visited a lecture he gave at New York Academy once, he proclaimed to the adoring students, "all great artists have curly hair", and they all started looking around at one another, some tufting their locks. We are all original; we can't help but be. The question is: how afraid are we to be ourselves?

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Bo Bartlett, "Radio Flyer," Oil on linen, 48 x 66 inches
Tell me briefly what you think of these three artists: Lucien Freud, Odd Nerdrum, and John Currin.

They are not afraid to be themselves. That's what makes them great.

Freud was brave. I admire his courage. A master: a big influence on a lot of artists. It's trickier to talk about living artists.

I admire Odd, he's paved his own way.

Currin is the only one of these artists who is younger than me. I appreciate that he has kept a certain part of the conversation attentive to what might be termed representational figurative work. He was there as it regained momentum. He's interesting though in relationship to my recent figurative pieces, he did that series of sex paintings. Those were inspired by porn though. But, they addressed it head on: they didn't beat around the bush.

But, he's not really a realist. Some people assume that there are camps and because of how my work looks that I must be in one. I'm not in a camp. I look at everything. But, there isn't much 'realism' that I like. I don't think of myself as a 'realist'. It is such a worn out idea; we are way past such labels. Work is either good or it's not.

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Bo Bartlett, "The Promise," Oil on linen, 48 x 82 inches
How important is the element of mystery in your work?

Open-ended narrative is important. My work isn't trying to answer anything. Nor is it specifically posing a question. Words pigeonhole, but I know that it's psychological and archetypal and attempts to delve into the mystery of this life. The paintings are sort of visual metaphors or "Mise en scenes" for what it feels like to be alive.

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Bo Bartlett, "Croquet Season," Oil on board, 16 x 16 inches
Congratulations on the upcoming opening of the Bo Bartlett Center at Columbus State University. What are some of your hopes for the Center? 

Thank you: it's a very exciting time. The director David Houston came from Crystal Bridges. We'll have an active visiting artist program and exhibition schedule. Many artists have agreed to teach and exhibit already. There will be 18,000 square feet of exhibition space, designed by internationally renowned Seattle architect Tom Kundig.

The Center will contain a permanent exhibition of my large paintings, drawings and sketchbooks and journals. There will be rotating exhibitions by the visiting artists as well as travelling museum exhibitions. The Center will also house a growing archive of artists' sketchbooks, journals, photographs and ephemera. The Center will be an aesthetic experience and it will also have social outreach into the community and beyond. The Center will help pick up the slack for Art programs that may have been cut in public schools. We intend to offer art practice, not so much therapy or instruction as experiential, to the homeless, inmates in prison, and soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. I believe in Art - The Center will reflect this - I believe in the power of Art to transform our lives - and our world.

Bo Bartlett: "Love and Other Sacraments"
July 5 - 27, 2013
Dowling Walsh Gallery
365 Main Street
PO Box 524
Rockland, Maine 04841
207.596.0084
Open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM, and Sunday and Monday by appointment.

Sandy Ostrau: "Improvisations" at Thomas Reynolds Gallery

The paintings in Sandy Ostrau's new exhibition "Improvisations," on view at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery in San Francisco, always refer to something. One suite of paintings suggests coastal hillsides punctuated by zones of sky, wall and water. Another series begins with images of jazz musicians, and a third is based on figures lounging by swimming pools. In each instance the subject matter is definitely there, transmuted into a painted evocation.

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Sandy Ostrau
An intuitive artist who loves paint as a substance -- and who has a tendency to obliterate her imagery with painterly gestures -- Ostrau doesn't go all the way to abstraction. To do so would remove the emotional connection she wants viewers to have with her source material. "I'm not a fully abstract painter," she explains: "I want people to feel the landscape."

I recently interviewed Sandy Ostrau and asked her about her art and ideas.

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Sandy Ostrau, "Blue Wall," oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches

John Seed Interviews Sandy Ostrau:

Tell me a bit about your background. Since you grew up in Palo Alto when did you first become aware of Bay Area painting and its traditions? 

Growing up I was not really aware of what was happening there right under my nose. I was more interested in doing my own drawings and designs during high school and was mainly interested in Classical Art and architecture in those days. I didn't appreciate the Bay Area artists until I had moved back to Palo Alto as an adult and then began to discover their art. I was immediately drawn to Nathan Oliviera's and Elmer Bischoff's work. At the Art Exchange in San Francisco many years ago we found a fantastic drawing by Paul Wonner and my exploration of Bay Area art expanded.

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Sandy Ostrau, "Natural Spaces," oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches

Paul Karlstrom says you "know where to stop." Is he right? 

I hope so! Over-working a painting is the kiss of death. Over-painting usually results in tentative work. A confident brush stroke or mark is much more emotionally evoking and exciting for the viewer than a tentative stroke. I want my paintings to convey confidence in paint application and in design. I strive for freshness but in a controlled way. I am very controlled in my work as Paul Karlstrom also recognized. I move the paint around a LOT. It's a process that takes time.

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Sandy Ostrau, "Sun View," oil on panel, 12 x 12 inches

Can you tell me about your color sense and about how you manipulate color?

I use a limited palette. As each painting progresses, the colors unify and become more harmonious. The harmonies happen because there is a bit of each color in every other color. I am always thinking about warm and cool, and also about value: value is the key. I keep in mind what my friend and mentor Jim Smyth says: "Value does all the work, but color gets the glory." I mix my colors on a 4 foot long palette of freezer paper laid over boards.

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Sandy Ostrau's palette

Who are some artists you admire? 

Nathan Oliveira, Henry Villierme, Elmer Bischoff, Raimonds Staprans, Nicholas De Stael, Kim Frohsin and of course David Park and Richard Diebenkorn.

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Sandy Ostrau, "Catching Rays," oil on panel, 12 x 12 inches

What are some of the tools and techniques you use to give your paintings unity? 

What I am interested in depicting in my paintings are a structure and organization as well as harmonious color. I use geometry and texture to create structure and to distill the shapes of the elements in my painting. Texture is used to support the center of interest by moving the eye through out the canvas. Thick and thin paint, matte and glossy surface all help create interesting fields of color. The color fields in ranging values set the stage for the structure of the painting.

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Sandy Ostrau, "Standing," oil on panel, 12 x 12 inches

How has the introduction of human figures affected your recent work? 

In terms of figuration, I'm not trying to make it "right." Instead, I ask questions about the presence of the figures: what are they doing or where are they? That integrates the landscape and the figure. When I try too hard to make the figure look like something it destroys the unity of the painting.

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Sandy Ostrau, "Interlude," oil on panel, 18 x 18 inches

One of your series depicts jazz musicians. How did that series come about?

 Well, I have a 23 year old son who plays bass and we have an upright bass in our house, so music is around. I enjoy jazz but am not knowledgeable about it.  My jazz series began after I heard a performance of "Anti-Mass," a piece commissioned by the De Young Museum from a jazz musician and composer named Erik Jekabson: that piece was fabulous. I did a painting of Erik which was used as a poster for the 2013 Fillmore Jazz Festival. After that painting I had more ideas, did some sketches, and painted a bass player, a couple of trumpet and viola players, and a trio that included three members of Erik Jekabson's group. I feel like the modernity of jazz goes perfectly with my interest in abstraction. I'm going to continue working with some of these ideas.

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Sandy Ostrau, "Orange Shadow," oil on canvas, 24 x 24 inches

How do you hope viewers will respond to your paintings?

I hope that they are enjoying them. They are seeing a push towards abstraction in a way that is structural. I began as a plein air painter, and as I have added figures my thinking has evolved and changed. I want them to relate and put their mark on them and have a personal emotional connection. They are paintings, and nothing is meant to be exact. The question is where do you see yourself in each painting?

Sandy Ostrau | Recent Oils 
"Improvisations"
July 5 - August 24
Thomas Reynolds Gallery
2291 Pines Street (at Fillmore)
San Francisco, CA 94115

Grab a Beer: Art Books and Catalogs Offer Cool Summer Reading

One the joys (and hazards) of writing about art is I have gotten myself on some publisher lists and art books and catalogs are arriving at my front door with increasing frequency. We already have far too many books in our house -- I'm a former museum bookstore manager married to a writer/editor -- and books are a shared addiction. As addictions go, art books are pretty harmless except for the storage problem.

When the UPS guy rang the bell yesterday I knew that the "thud" on the doorstep that followed had to be Thomas Williams' new book "The Bay Area School: Californian Artists from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s" and I was right. I am about halfway through it (nice book!) and after a week or so "The Bay Area School" will move to the carved bench in our front room where the three ziggurats of art books grow higher and higher each month.

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Halfway through "The Bay Area School"...

Yes, I do read books on Kindle for iPad, most recently Eric Fischl's "Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas," but the iPad just doesn't feel quite right in my hands the way a book does. Printed art books -- especially those with large, high quality images -- have a pleasing physical presence, and you can leave them on your coffee table where your more cultured guests will perhaps notice them and raise their opinion of your taste a notch or two.

Here is a selection of art books and catalogs that can enjoy while forgetting the summer heat and sipping your favorite cold beverage. Let me start out with a bounty of books about West Coast artists, who are finally getting the critical attention they have long deserved.

The University of California Press issued two beautiful catalogs this past March. The first is "Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu," which was created to accompany the artist's much lauded recent retrospective at the Oakland Museum of California. The second is "A Troublesome Subject: The Art of Robert Arneson." I am especially interested in the Arneson book, the first major monograph on the very hilarious and self-lacerating ceramicist who succumbed to cancer in 1992. If ever an art book was overdue, this is it: Arneson was the bomb!

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"A Troublesome Subject: The Art of Robert Arneson " by Jonathan Fineberg
The University of California Press, 270 pages

Yale University Press -- in collaboration with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco -- has just released "Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966" with essays by Timothy Anglin Burgard, Steven Nash and Emma Acker. The Diebenkorn show has been getting raves -- on Twitter, MuseumNerd tweeted "It's ridiculous how great the #Diebenkorn #BerkeleyYears exhibit @deyoungmuseum is." -- but since the current BART strike is making it hard to get to the exhibition maybe ordering the catalog would be a good idea for now. If you don't already have a copy of "Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series," by Sarah Bancroft make sure to order it when you get the Berkeley catalog. Looking over the great Ocean Park series on 100+ degree days helps fool my brain into thinking that I am actually in Santa Monica enjoying some cool ocean breezes. NOT!


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Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 256 pages

If it is under 100 degrees where you are you might want to go the other direction and heat things up with the rather ostentatiously titled "Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica," by T. J. Clark. I'm still waiting for Clark's antithesis John Richardson to publish the fourth volume of his massive multi-volume Picasso biography, but while I'm waiting I'm sure that Clark's "ditch the gossip and try a Marxist perspective for a change" approach will be challenging and enlightening. Besides, Richardson is now hinting that he will end his Picasso biography in 1962 because -- as he recently told the Financial Times - "...I know too much. I know where the bodies are buried." Whoa!

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"Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica," by T. J. Clark
Princeton University Press, 352 pages

While mentioning some of the heavier new reads out there this summer, I need to thank Professor Boris Röhrl for sending me a copy of "World History of Realism in Visual Arts 1830-1990: Naturalism, Socialist Realism, Social Realism, Magic Realism, New Realism and Documentary Photography." The English edition which he sent comes with a handsome blue cloth cover, but I understand that the German version has a painting by Californian F. Scott Hess on the front. I wish the book had more color plates, but this is certainly the only book in my library with a chapter on "Realism in Bulgaria." I am going to masochistically will myself through this substantial book.

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"Lisa Adams: Vicissitude of Circumstance"
Zero+ Publishing, 48 pages
How about some books that are themselves works of art? Zero+ Publishing -- founded by artist and professor Kirk Pedersen of Mt. San Antonio College -- creates books that are highly collectible. Many of the books from Zero+ come in two or three different formats, and some of its limited edition books are hand-decorated. I have a copy of Fatehmeh Burnes' photo book "Drift" published by Zero+, and it is mesmerizing, visually poetic and moving. Painter Lisa Adams' stunning book "Vicissitude of Circumstance," with essays by HuffPost Arts blogger James Scarborough and Ezrha Jean Black is on my list.

I hope you will take a moment and leave some comments to let me know what art books and catalogs you are reading this summer. That said, its time to grab a beer, head for the reading chair and listen for "thuds" on the doorstep.