I paint the forces I see in nature. I work directly from the motif because the process of seeing and finding those forces- the big relationships within masses of land, sky and water- pushes me to take risks. My paintings are shaped within the triangle from me to the land to the painting. Being within the place I paint – walking the land, and enduring the relentless elements of land and weather – is essential to how I paint, and allow me to feel part of that place. It is important that the landscape is so much larger than I; I need to be engulfed and immersed. I always want my paintings to convey a visceral experience of a place, made particular through found geometries, color and light, coming together to give the painting its own reality and weight. I look to Courbet, Marsden Hartley and Frank Auerbach as painters whose paintings embrace the embodied experience of places through structuring the physical reality of paint and form.
Painting is a process of exploration and discovery. I like to find new ways of organizing spatial relationships, the sense of scale- suggested and actual -and the light of the place. I try not to name the objects I paint; I’m much more interested in the sensations evoked by my perceptions. In painting a tree, I imagine the tree as a verb rather than a noun, and work to depict a dynamic experience instead of a static object. The experience I’m after includes, but goes beyond the object, to a visually poetic evocation of leaning, tilting, almost falling, bark, branches and lichen.
It’s a meta- physical, sensate poetic evocation of a tree that I’m after. There is always a struggle between the competing demands of shaping big abstract structures and trying to make a painting convincing about the particularity of hard concrete or scrub grass on a hillside. Since I am constantly bombarded outside by so many sensations, part of my process involves working on the painting in the studio. In order to become its own reality in the world, a painting may need to be separated from its motif, and the studio does that. The studio allows me to have a dialogue with the painting itself. I make decisions that are more concise about my initial experiences in the landscape so that in the end, an image becomes real when it gets beyond description and beyond the analytic. It moves into a synthetic cohesiveness- when the parts together express the unexpected and the strange – true to something I know, and pointing to something I don’t. That’s when a painting is a jolt on the nerves.
A landscape painting, by its very nature, evolves over many moments in time. I sometimes paint several points of view in one painting- I seek to get a sense of the place and a sense that we move – all wrapped into one image. It’s true that there is a constant sense of passing time and transience when painting outside, but I like the way Adrian Stokes says that over time the substance of paint turns to stone. For example, when I paint clouds, the ephemeral moment becomes a hard and solidified mass.
All land is charged with history. Currently, the land I am most engaged in painting is land at the crossroads- the mouth of the Mediterranean- a land historically inhabited by Jews, Arabs and Christians. Now it is occupied either by abandoned scrub grass with gigantic boulders or dotted with irrigation ponds that fuel new citrus orchards carved into the desert. It is a land in transition. In contrast, my midwestern landscapes are painted from inside looking out into a semi-urban space. In these places, bits of nature are squeezed between buildings and parking lots. These paintings of a tree, cars and snow banks often eliminate the foreground. You fall into a destabilizing space.
As a woman painter I feel keenly aware of being rather vulnerable when I’m out in the landscape. Vulnerable in the sense that I could be a target for violence and vulnerable because I become immersed in painting and oblivious to certain possible dangers, but I’m not stupid. I carry a can of mace. While, this may also have been true for Cezanne, I think this additional tension adds a sense of urgency to my work, and that urgency bleeds into an acute awareness of other environmental threats to the land itself.
The Prado Museum has an outstanding collection of El Greco’s paintings. To my mind, he’s the first cubist with all those shifting planes and dynamic spaces. But what drove him to make those strange, nocturnally lit, stretched forms and spiraling spaces? I think that something beyond himself was at stake- perhaps his faith and his sense of the ineffable. Those paintings search desperately to give meaning-filled form to his experience. And that’s what we do as artists. The art that interests me has resonant form that reveals something beyond the obvious, but never abandons the physical. The challenge of landscape painting today is to make paintings that are as urgent in our time – that can reform our vision of nature, and cause us to re-imagine our place in it.