Critique Collective

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Tag: paint

Jeffrey Thompson’s Patterned Abstract Paintings and the Wonder of Mathematical Systems

Jeffrey Thompson is a painter from San Francisco who relies on a mathematical, grid-based concept in order to develop abstract paintings. Recently, Thompson has exhibited his work at the University of Southern Oregon and in the SF Weekly for their “Masterminds 2013.” His art is available online at http://jtarts.com/.

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Paul Weiner:
How do you usually begin a painting? I’d like to hear about how you plan (or don’t plan), develop concepts, and engage in problem solving.

Jeffrey Thompson:
Ideally, each painting informs the next, so I usually begin the process by reviewing any relevant past work. At the outset, I make some general decisions about the way forward. I decide, for example, whether the new work will try to expand on any previous effort, or explore different territory. If the surface I’m planning to work on has a predominant characteristic, horizontal or vertical, I decide how to treat it in the composition. That is, I decide whether to employ it, or to somehow defeat it.

When I begin to attack the canvas, the process is largely mathematical. First, I determine the basic interval upon which the surface is based. For example, a 30″ x 30″ surface would likely use a 3″ basic unit. I then break down the composition based on those dimensions. I may then further divide the surface into smaller regions or grids. When establishing the drawing, I’m typically trying to emphasize the relationship between the painting surface and the layout.

At the point when I have the drawing in place, I make some fundamental choices about mediums, color, and content to cover everything from paint to the source materials I’ll be using in the collage. These collage elements are critical, as they determine a great deal about the overall impact of the piece. Newsprint carries a lot of populist imagery that, when broken down, becomes increasingly ambiguous. I find this desirable up to a point. Through experience, I’ve discovered that, if these materials are broken down too far, all meaning is obliterated. If not far enough, they seem to endorse more than is necessary.

I should note that I’m not after a specific message here. Rather, I’m trying to incorporate elements of the culture as a whole. Ironically, my objective is not unlike a good newspaper. I see myself as a kind of visual editor seeking an objective and balanced overview.

In contrast to newsprint, I sometimes opt for finer, clay-based papers in the collage, which typically come from fine art magazines or professional journals. These materials emphasize subtle color and advanced typography, and when using them, I focus on those elements.

I spent much of the past twenty years working with type and color as a graphics specialist and journeyman lithographer. My career in design and printing influenced my interest in graphic or text-based imagery and also financed my work in fine art.

I most often work with a combination of acrylic, oil, and enamel paints. I layer the acrylic paint first, with the solvent-based paints on top, in order to create a more or less stable paint structure. These paints are used out of the container in an unaltered state, although I do mix for color. I apply the paint directly, frequently manipulating it with pallet knives, spatulas, and other tools, rather than relying on brushes exclusively. The paint is alternately removed, sanded, or reduced and reapplied until it achieves sufficient density and form.

While the work is underway, I often photograph it in order to make decisions about direction, proportions, content, etc. When problem solving, I will use whatever tools are readily available, or most appropriate. This includes everything from mirrors to Photoshop. My only rule when using these tools is not to rely on any one of them too much. In order to see the work objectively, I will also hide it, turn it to face the wall for a period of time, or simply look at it upside down to take it out of normal context.

The final step is, of course, finishing the work. This is often the most subjective part of the process. It involves deciding that some or all of my original goals have been met, and that what has been achieved cannot be taken much further without losing what has been gained. It may also include approving any discoveries I may have made along the way. I will almost always embrace a positive random occurrence or other happy accidents.

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Paul Weiner:
Since your process relies on a mathematical process based on the surface you’re working on, how do you think it would change if you were to paint on a non-rectangular surface?

Jeffrey Thompson:
I have occasionally worked with random shapes when I come across what I call found surfaces. This has led to some interesting adjustments, but, in terms of an intentionally irregular or curved surface, I don’t think much would change. A two-dimensional grid can be applied to any non-linear shape. Even an irregular cloud like mass can be mapped and diagramed.

I will admit that type of presentation is less appealing to me. I don’t, however, think this is simply bias. I believe that the rectangular format is somehow intrinsic to the way we think about things visually. A theatre uses a linear proscenium; televisions are linear; and even books are rectangular. Some of that is a by-product of technology and tradition, but I think some of it is hard-wired in us.

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Paul Weiner:
What is the ideal forum for displaying your artwork? Do you prefer it in a commercial gallery, museum, public space, or other art space?

Jeffrey Thompson:
The ideal environment for this work would, in my opinion, be a permanent installation that would be site-specific. I have envisioned the work, especially the horizontal abstractions, in some sort of fixed setting along the lines of a viewing chapel or chamber, where the experience could be fully integrated. These paintings seem to thrive in intimate spaces and often take on unique and personal narratives and associations within this type of space.

That being said, I have found that work from this series seems to adapt well to most environments. I have shown the work in spaces that range from intimate local galleries in San Francisco’s Mission District to large academic environments such as the one at Southern Oregon University. In each, the work takes on a unique and compelling personality. In the case of a recent commission, the work seemed to transform before my eyes after being installed. As comfortably as it fit in the studio, it seemed equally at home in its intended environment. I think because the work is essentially geometric in nature, it not only echoes the surface on which it lives, it also naturally embraces and compliments the architecture of the room in which it is hung.

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Paul Weiner:
How did you happen upon the striping and grid formats that are prevalent in your recent works?

Jeffrey Thompson:
This format evolved out of a combination of early influences from art school and my professional exposure to commercial graphic design standards. While studying lithography and etching under Kenji Nanao and Misch Kohn, respectively, at Cal State – Hayward, I became aware of the significance of the grid as an integral, albeit silent, partner in the printmaking process. Everything involved in the planning of a print, or painting for that matter, relies upon and is constrained by the essentially rectangular format of the process. This encompasses every aspect, from the paper to the press itself. The vast majority of litho stones and most etching plates echo this format, and, so, the planning involved in printmaking necessarily becomes an extension of that underlying geometry.

When my career extended itself into the commercial environment, this relationship only grew. Everything produced in a commercial print shop relies heavily on the geometry of the press and, by extension, the grid. Later on, as commercial lithography came to rely almost entirely on computer-generated graphics, the underlying grid became more and more significant. This is especially true in print design for publication, where every square inch or millimeter has a defined value, both literally and figuratively. A full page ad in the New York Times is valuable real estate, and the designs created for that environment are necessarily based on columns and margins, which are themselves based on the underlying grid.

Eventually, I took this fundamental premise and adopted it as the basis for a series of paper collages. This soon expanded to larger and larger paintings. There was something compelling and universal about the structure, and I quickly discovered that the potential for variations on this theme were numerous.

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Paul Weiner:
Would you consider your work as expressionist, purely aesthetic, conceptual, or something else?

Jeffrey Thompson:
This is probably the hardest question to answer, and I would gently resist any temptation to put a definite name on my work. I suppose it would be ideal if others cared enough about my work to decide that for themselves. Frank Stella, whose early black, linear paintings were a big inspiration to me, considered his work to be minimalist and post-painterly abstractions. I, of course, would be thrilled to have my work associated with either of these disciplines although, technically, I lean towards a more painterly approach.

However, I believe what truly defined Stella’s work was his ability to reinvent himself and his paintings throughout his career, thus defying a strict classification. My greatest desire would be to emulate that ability, to continue to grow my work and reinvent my process over time. However, if pressed, I would say that I am generally an abstract painter who leans heavily on aesthetics, conceptualism, and expression, not necessarily in that order.


Please view Jeffrey Thompson’s artwork online at http://jtarts.com/ and “like” Critique Collective on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/critiquecollective.

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Stephen Mauldin’s Experimental Painting Techniques

Today’s interview is with Stephen Mauldin, a painter and instructor living in Oregon with great interest in creating new painting techniques to express content he has developed for over forty years. Mauldin holds an MFA with a concentration in painting and printmaking from the University of Idaho as well as a BA in art from Oklahoma City University. He has exhibited his work in many galleries throughout the Northwest and beyond. Read the interview, and then find more information and artwork online at http://www.mauldinart.com.

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Paul Weiner:
How has your experience as an educator affected your artwork in terms of process and aesthetic preferences, if at all?

Stephen Mauldin:
I can’t say that my teaching experience has affected my process or aesthetic preferences. Teaching basic design and color theory has certainly deepened my understanding of basic design principles and the intricacies of color, but I think what teaching does most is to keep things fresh. All the knowledge and skills one uses as an artist are eternally fresh for each new group of students. Their enthusiasm for receiving that knowledge and acquiring those skills prevents one from taking it all for granted. Plus, one continues to learn as one teaches. My knowledge of art history ,though still limited by most standards, I think, has expanded exponentially over the years due to teaching.

The deal is, I’m a single-minded guy. I think it was Matisse who said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that every artist has one idea they refine for a lifetime. That’s certainly been true in my case. I’m still addressing the same issues I was nearly forty years ago when I left undergraduate school. I bring more life experience and artistic experience to bear on those issues, but the core issues are still the same. Where I live and what I do for a living has never had any immediate impact on my work as an artist. If I hadn’t taught, I think my work would have still taken a similar path.

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Paul Weiner:
As an artist who has been trained in smaller art markets like Oklahoma City and Moscow, Idaho, how do you feel about the commercial art system that clusters around major cities like New York and Los Angeles?

Stephen Mauldin:
In the digital age, it seems a little silly since most things can be done anywhere now due to the internet. However, not many people are going to buy a large, expensive painting over the internet, sight unseen, so galleries are still necessary. The key issue, though, is the “critical mass” of collectors necessary to sustain a commercial art system. That’s what New York and L.A. have that other cities don’t. That allows them to create the gallery infrastructure that draws collectors from elsewhere, as well. That’s one of the biggest complaints here in Portland, Oregon where I live. We’re known as a creative magnet and there are thousands of working artists here with more arriving every day, but there are nowhere near enough collectors to support them all (not even including the collectors who occasionally travel here to buy art). It’s a frequent complaint in Seattle, as well.

The downside of the system is that it lets a handful of people define what is the “best” art of any generation and limits the variety of art being seen by the public. There’s art being produced every day all over this country that’s as good as anything made in New York or L.A., but few people see it because of this system.

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Paul Weiner:
You mentioned the rise of the internet as having an impact on art collection. Since many patrons are unwilling to buy expensive paintings online, do you feel that the value of contemporary art is diminished when it is sold on a store like Etsy?

Stephen Mauldin:
Not necessarily. What I was suggesting is that I doubt many people are going to drop several thousand, or tens of thousands, of dollars on a piece of art they’ve only seen online. Much of what any piece of art offers is too subtle to be seen online. If the piece can be sold for a few hundred dollars, people are more likely to take a chance. On the other hand, I think serious collectors prefer to see the art “in the flesh,” as it were, since they are more discriminating by and large. That said, much of what is on sites like Etsy is what I would call “wall décor,” not to be mistaken for Art. As my basic design students learn, Art has three essential elements: subject, form, and content. Subject is what the art depicts; form is how it is organized; and content is what it communicates. Wall décor usually has the first two elements, but is often thin on or completely lacking the third. Also, whereas collectors are usually most interested in content, people who buy wall décor are usually most concerned about whether it will match the couch. There may very well be some excellent art on Etsy’s site, but I doubt if many serious collectors rely on Etsy or similar sites to add to their collections. Frankly, I wouldn’t expect anyone to buy work off of my site without seeing it first.

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Paul Weiner:
Could you explain your concept for your String Theory series?

Stephen Mauldin:
The String Theory series didn’t begin with a concept, per se. I experiment with paint frequently. Robert Henri noted in his book The Art Spirit that mastering a medium does not come from being taught what he calls “stock phrases.” He suggests there, quite accurately I think, that mastering a medium comes from thoroughly understanding the properties of that medium. To that end, I am constantly playing with paint in order to more fully understand what it can and cannot do.

So, one day, while paying with paint, I taped an ultra-fine straight pin to the end of a palette knife, dipped it into some paint, cocked the palette knife back, and slung a very small quantity of paint onto a piece of paper. The resulting mark was absolutely electric, playing out into lines smaller than a human hair and crisper than one could ever create with a brush. It immediately struck me as the perfect visual signifier for the “strings” of string theory, electric little knots of energy. With the paintings in the String Theory series, I took that idea and married it to those issues I mentioned earlier. The face is actually derived from a mannequin head I bought while in graduate school, which has come and gone in my work ever since and is used to signify some sort of “higher intelligence” in the universe. What I’m trying to suggest is a universe teeming with intelligence on multiple levels. By the way, a palette knife breaks in half after about two hours of slinging paint like this, so I had to devise an alternate tool.

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Paul Weiner:
Tell us about this alternate tool you’ve developed!

Stephen Mauldin:
I wish I could tell you that it’s something amazingly complicated that took natural engineering skills to develop, but I simply stuck the pin in the end of a Colour Shaper. They’re like paint brushes with some form of rubber shaped like bristles instead of having actual bristles. I had bought a bunch of them years ago but found that I didn’t like them. They had been laying around the studio for years, so when I was looking for a solution to the failing palette knife problem, they were there, and they worked. They wear out, too, but it takes months instead of hours. I prefer one particular type that’s hard to find, so I just bought about $150 dollars worth of them in case I can’t find them in the future or they’re discontinued.

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Paul Weiner:
How would you define your style of art?

Stephen Mauldin:
I don’t know that I really have a “style” since my work changes rather significantly every few years. The issues stay the same, but the way the paint is applied changes dramatically. In the beginning, I used brushes and applied paint directly to canvas or panel, as most painters do. Then I started shaping the canvas over objects and applying paint with an airbrush to simulate the play of light and shadow on those objects, stretching the canvas after the fact. That was continued on rip-stock nylon for a while to get finer detail. After that, I made all the marks for paintings on glass first, and then collaged them into “paint assemblages” of sorts. Next, I used a tool designed for putting stripes on picture frame molding to draw directly with paint and produce pieces infused with a dense web of spirals and arcs to suggest the patterns of sub-atomic particles. That was followed by extruding thickened paint into actual webs that were about a half-inch deep. Later, I stamped the image onto canvas using rubber stamps that I carved myself. Now I sling paint with pins.

Actually, it dawned on me recently that I have always been led by the paint. As I have played with it over the years, it has continually revealed new things to me and suggested new technical directions. Ben Shahn said, “The painter who stands before an empty canvas must think in terms of paint.” Over the years, as I’ve addressed the issues I do, that’s what I’ve done – thought in terms of paint and how I can make it convey more clearly what I’ve been trying to communicate.shadow1

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Paul Weiner:
Is there a certain type of paint you prefer? Also, would you consider your revelations about paint and its application to be equally important to the actual products you create?

Stephen Mauldin:
I’ve used NovaColor acrylics for thirty years. I started using them when I worked with an airbrush because they’re slightly less viscous than tube colors and require less thinning to be sprayed. It’s a high quality, heavily pigmented artist’s color and is much less expensive than any other brand I’ve found, so I’ve stuck with it. They’re great people to deal with, too. Producing the electric little mark that I’m so infatuated with now is all about viscosity. If the paint’s too thick or too thin, all you get is little dots or a big mess. Curiously, only the warm colors with NovaColor will do it. I think it’s the properties of the pigments, so I’ve taken to modifying the cool colors with Utrecht’s extra stiff colors. I tried gel mediums and everything else I could think of with no success until I stumbled upon the Utrecht solution almost by chance.

I don’t consider my revelations about paint to be of much importance since they would be of little use to anyone else. They’re a reflection of my temperament and have resulted in painting methods that are extremely time consuming and mind-numbingly tedious by most people’s standards. Actually, the importance, in my mind, lies not in the products or objects I create, but in the content contained therein. The paint and the objects are only means to an end.


Please view Stephen Mauldin’s artwork online at http://www.mauldinart.com and “like” Critique Collective on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/critiquecollective.

Subscribe to the Critique Collective newsletter for additional content, faster updates, art tips, and insider information absolutely free.