Questions and Answers

Symbolism

Q: How much meaning should I attach to the specific objects in your paintings? For example, are the objects in "Vase and Stones" symbols of something? Do they have a deeper meaning? Does the closed box mean something? The open vase? The stone half in shadow? Etc.?

A: No, they are not symbols, not in the sense that any object is there principally to stand for something else or to suggest some hidden ideas. I think it is more accurate to consider the objects as examples of rather than symbols of something.

My paintings are meant to be experienced as concretes, as individual objects for contemplation and discovery. They give you, the viewer, a certain experience of reality -- "reality as I see it." As I will explain, however, the paintings are meant to both be experienced as specific views of specific objects, and also as representatives of important abstractions.

In nearly all cases, the objects in the paintings were chosen for their shapes and sensual textures, and arranged to either harmonize or contrast these. So the stones set a harmonizing pattern across the painting, but the rough stones contrast with the smooth ones, giving variation within the pattern. The glass vase contrasts with the burlap, both in texture and in suggestion of refinement versus rudeness. And so on.

The box is closed, because if it were open your eye would tend to linger at the opening or attempt to go inside, and I didn't want your eye to follow that path, but to move along the diagonal towards the vase. There is a small stone in the shadow so that it becomes interesting rather than a void, and the pit in the stone is to give the stone visual interest. The vase is empty because I liked the way the light played through it that way.

When I compose a painting, I have general ideas about the mood I want in it, and the kinds of objects, and then I pick and discard objects, rearrange and light them until I have a composition that entices me. This process is only partly conscious. Much of it is subconscious (though drawing on my knowledge of the principles of composition), with my conscious participation mainly being one of editor, or analyst asking why something looks good or wrong, but the creation and judgment are mainly subconscious.

I know that there is a trend in modern art to fill a work with "allusions" and "references." I think of these as like footnotes. It is patently fraudulent to have a paper that is mainly footnotes, and I think the same about paintings. Footnotes are OK if they add a little optional, supporting elaboration, but they are mainly negligible, not a substitute for real content in the main body of a work. A work of art must stand on its own.

Objects are never there as proxies for some symbolic idea. They are there because I like the way they look, and they fit the visual theme of the painting.

I've not yet been able to put into words the exact themes that differentiate one painting from another, but they all are variations on three overriding themes: Orderly Universe, Clear Perception and Value.

By "Orderly Universe" I mean that the world is what the Greeks called Cosmos: A natural world, of distinct, definite objects, each of a specific nature and obeying natural laws. By "Clear Perception" I mean both that the objects in the orderly universe are knowable by exercise of the human mind, and also that I give the viewer the experience of seeing the objects clearly. By "Value" I mean the idea that the objects are sensuous, beautiful and contribute to human happiness, that they are worth contemplation.

The objects are only part of the picture. More of the theme is achieved by the composition and rendering, and here there is not only the matter of unifying and contrasting shapes and textures, but also the contrasts of empty and full spaces, the paths I lead your eye in, and the careful modulation of edges, with some of them very sharp and others very diffused. I think selective focus is very important.

The vase, stones, bag, box and other objects do not symbolize Orderly Universe or Clear Perception. Rather, they are examples of orderly, clear and distinct objects. If I have done my job well, they give you the perceptual experiences from which you may subconsciously induce those abstract ideas.

Vase and Stones

Inspiration

Q: I am curious to know what inspires you. How do you go about getting such ideas for paintings? Do you sit and think about what you are going to paint or do you just have instinct

A: My starting point for each painting is different. Sometimes it's a beautiful object. Sometimes it's a particular quality of light that I'd like to reproduce. Sometimes it's another painting that has a composition that I like. Occasionally, I simply start with objects that I think will look well together, considering their colors, textures, shapes and connotations. After I've selected the objects, I put them all on a tabletop, shine a light on them and start arranging them, thinking about which look good next to which others, which need to be seen against either a light or a dark background, and which is the most interesting to me and hence should be made the focal point. I keep rearranging them until I come up with a composition that I think is beautiful--one that has an interesting focal point, good light and dark contrast and a pleasing, unified composition.

So, regarding instinct versus thought, I'd have to say that my main judgment of what looks good is usually made subconsciously, not by formal rules, but by just asking myself "does this look attractive, beautiful, interesting, etc." This is not instinct, but just an automated habit of judgment, formed by a long experience of making many separate judgments of how things look and then thinking about why. (By the way, if you are interested in this process, the best book that I know of is not by a painter, but by a writer, The Art of Fiction by Ayn Rand.)

In the end, I'd like my paintings to give the viewer the sense that the world is real, orderly and beautiful, and that he has the power to see it.

Pumpkin and Squash

History of Still Life Painting

Q: Can you give a brief history of still-life painting?

A: Art reflects the philosophic ideas held by the artist, so art of any period predominantly reflects the philosophy dominant in that period.

Modern still life began in the Renaissance, when the focus of intellectual attention shifted from the afterlife to this world. Still a religious period, the paintings showed a mixture of secular and religious elements, with the precise mix and significance determined by the artist's view of the relationship between this world and other. For example, the vanitas, a popular form, showed worldly pleasures amid symbols of death, recognizing sensual pleasure but warning of the insignificance of life relative to the infinity of the hereafter.

During the Enlightenment, confidence in the power of rationality cast out religious piety and medieval horror. Life on Earth was looked on with more respect. Even when contemplating death, the emphasis in art shifted from the terrors of decay and punishment to the glories of heaven. Returning to the ideals of the Greeks, Heaven appeared as a better version of Earth, not a better version of Hell. In still life, this was reflected in a greater emphasis on an admiring depiction of worldly objects, frequently representing production, wealth and sensual pleasures. This process continued through the eighteenth century.

However, following the philosophies of Hobbes, Descartes, Hume and Kant, intellectuals questioned the power of the human mind to comprehend reality. This anti-renaissance had two effects, both of which show up in still life of the late eighteenth century and following. First, the subject matter becomes increasingly arbitrary, signaling a growing uncertainty regarding human values. Second, the images are progressively unclear and distorted, signaling epistemological chaos. The breach between the mind and reality is increasingly reflected in art up to the present day.

Vanitas by Barthel Bruyn the Elder

Smoker's Still Life with Walnuts by Revensteyn

Still Life with Skull, Sea Urchins and Lamp on a Table by Pablo Picasso