Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Ten

October 23, 2013

17 August 2013

Stephen Scott came to my house after the Sackville Farmers Market, an event which happens every Saturday morning, where we had already had coffee and had talked for a hour or so about art and what we were doing. “Remember, I said that I did like (Mark) Rothko,” were the first words out of his mouth as he sat down at my kitchen table. “Yes, of course, and I do as well. He made beautiful objects,” I said. “He does, and his paintings show signs of a lot of physical work which I like,” he said. “I think that are many non-realist artists that we could both agree made great paintings,” I said. “One modernist painter whose work I think is a load of horse shit is Barnett Newman,” Stephen said. “Are you talking about Voice of Fire. The painting at the National Gallery?” I said. “Yes.” “I don’t know about that, I think some of them, Voice included, are rather beautiful to look at,” I said. “We can agree to disagree,” he said.Voice_of_Fire_photo

“Let’s get down to business. It’s mid-August and I only have a place to stay in Sackville until the end of month. I am not sure that I can finish by then,” he said. We were looking to have a large portrait at the end of the project and the oil sketches and drawings were the lead up to it. “We will just have to increase our settings,” I said. Now that we had two oil sketches going, we could alternate them, giving one a chance to dry a bit while he worked on the other. We moved the kitchen table out of the way, arranged the chairs and his painting gear and sat down to work. “I could work on a single subject for a year,” He said. “If you did, it should be something more interesting than me.” But, the thought of sticking to something, anything, has its rewards in painting as it allows for the development of a complex idea. So, I asked him about change for change sake. “The idea of radical change is a bit of illusion, isn’t it?” he said. “Like Rothko?” I said. “Yes, Rothko stuck to things.”

“Did I ever tell you about the time I met Rothko?” I said. “I did talk to you about my teacher, John Hultberg, and his trouble finishing paintings. Well, he had moved back to New York from San Francisco and I happened to visit New York and John must have been 66, and he took me to the Cedar Bar for a drink and who should drop by, but Rothko. It turns out that John and Mark were old friends. Boy, I thought, here I am with two famous artists in a famous bar and I am part of the conversation. I wish that it had turned out better as both of them drank like fish and I matched them drink for drink only they were a lot better drinkers than me. Don’t remember a thing, only that Mark was wearing a long overcoat and a black hat. Once again, history had passed me by.”

“It is interesting.” he said, “We certainly miss opportunities, don’t we.” “I am afraid that when the train of history comes into the station, that I won’t be on the platform,” I said. “I am not sure that I will ever be part art history. I am not in the right place nor the right time,” he said. While he continued to paint, we talked about art history and why some art, regardless of quality, becomes famous while other stuff never get recognition or slips from favour. “It is that old chestnut that the victors write the history and the victor, at least today, is big, big money,” I said. “Of course, you are right and there is not a chance in hell of that changing, but my problem is that I could never play the game that is today’s big art. The kind of stuff that is in Venice or wins the Turner Prize,” Stephen said. “Don’t be too put out. You can still put food on the table with your painting and you can look at yourself in the mirror,” I said.

“What’s that we are listening to?”, he asked. “Sounds like Handel to me, let me have a look.” I said peering at readout on my streaming radio, “Yes, Rinaldo, one of his operas.” “I like it. Something nice about music like that,” he said. “You know, we are really trapped in the past,” I said. “There is other music I like. How about Frank Zappa?” he said. “Good thought, Zappa, besides being crazy, wrote some quite credible classical music that is being played today by major orchestras.” Stephen had a pencil in his hand. He was using it like a stylus to make lines in the thick wet paint on the canvas. “Interesting technique. I like the way that you use anything at hand,” I said. “Anything that works is OK with me,” he said. “I used to use my hands a lot, my palm, my fingers to blend the paint. Not a good idea considering what’s in oil paint,” I said. “You are right about that, but I get enough paint on myself without finger painting.” “The messy part is the fun part of oil painting,” I said. “One can’t get enough wet into wet,” Stephen added.

brushes etc“I think that painting is taking over,” he said while still looking intently at me. “Does that mean that I can sit back and relax?” I asked. “No, but we could stop and have a coffee and look things over,” he said. There is point in most paintings where the real action is in the painting rather than the subject. Where one stroke of the brush calls for another and you attempt to bring it all together. I think that you have to be an artist to understand what Stephen means by ‘taking over’. A finished painting is a finished painting and how the artist got to that point is mostly invisible to the viewer. “Sometimes painting is just work,” he said. “All work and no play makes Stephen a dull boy,” I said, “We had better find something exciting for you to do.” “Painting is exciting enough for me, only that it is hard to get it right,” he said.

Still over coffee, I said, “Stephen, does Postmodern art have values that trump beauty?” “Don’t know about trump, but beauty is notably lacking in a lot postmodern stuff,” he said. “You are still producing wall art which is passé in many peoples eyes,” I said. “Well, people can have a choice between looking at a wall or looking at art on a wall.” “Sometimes when I go into an artists run gallery or civic gallery and I am faced with the usual, a pile of rope on the floor, crap leaning the walls or just an empty space, all usually accompanied by long statements by the artists or curators, I am at a loss for words, so I just make nice,” I said. “It rather reminds me of going to church,” he said. “Seriously, Stephen, we are missing something. All those people in black can’t be wrong all the time,” I said. “It’s a game mostly for the young, but it goes back a long time, to Duchamp and before. Old farts, like us, are just reactionaries,” Stephen said. “I was at a major opening recently where all of the remarks were about how young all the artists and all the curators who picked them were and how fresh and original the works in the exhibition were although it looked like the same old shit to me that I have been seeing in exhibitions over the last fifty years. I thought I should just lie down and die on the spot,” I said.

“Well, before you drop dead, let’s get a hour’s painting in,” Stephen said.VH 17 Aug

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Sunday, 20 October, 2013.

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