In the beginning of the modern era artists moved beyond the traditional boundaries of painting, not through obvious paths and gates, but by jumping the fence in populated areas or crossing an invisible line out in the wilderness. Consider how shockingly new and radical it once was to incorporate collage and assemblage into painting, or combining commercial and fine arts techniques, or taking this new painting into theater, transferring the visuals of the canvas on to sets and costumes. It's hard in our present time to appreciate how daring were the achievements of Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, and events like, for example, Kurt Schwitters expanding his “Merz” from “bild” into “bau,” that is, from pictures to construction and installation. These artists of the early modern era were pioneers who opened up new territory and gave permission for future painters to explore it. Contemporary artists are runners in a marathon relay race that began over a century ago.
I came to abstract painting by happenstance and temperament. Originally my intention was to create a career as an independent film maker mixing live action with animation. I entered The Ridgewood School of Art to develop my drawing and painting skills, and meant to move on from there to NYU for film classes. At that time I understood painting to be nothing more than adding color to a drawing. The point of non-representational painting was foreign to me.
Sherron Francis, a painting teacher at Ridgewood, also taught pottery and had introduced slab making to the school's Clay Department. Sherron was a color field painter living and working in NY. Her clayworks, basically put, were color field paintings with glaze and clay rather than paint and canvas. In the fall of 1981, I observed my fellow students making abstract paintings in clay while I was attempting to throw pots. The process intrigued me though the point of non-representational motifs was still incomprehensible. Then one particular slab's motif reminded me of an aerial view of farmers' fields, which was something I always admired. Making this connection between abstraction and a known pattern was an epiphany: shapes don't have to be recognizable to be beautiful (the obvious isn't always obvious), and there's more to painting (and storytelling) than depicting people, places, and events in a literal, representational, photograph mimicking fashion. I attached myself to the clayworks class.
Clay’s malleability enabled me to break the restraints of traditional painting’s format of 90 degree corners, straight line edges, and flat surface. With clay the surface could undulate and vary in thickness and I could scoop out areas of the surface or build up mounds as desired. These acts of forming a supporting structure for a painting with my hands quickened something inside me, and opened my eyes to what painting could be.
I experimented widely with forms and textures, including embedding glass fragments and steel wire which would melt in the kiln yet adhere to the clay. With clay shapes had physical form—this was real volume, as opposed to painting's illusions of volume. By the end of the year I was attempting to recreate the qualities of clay slabs in a larger format with wood and canvas.
Initially I was making abstract art only in clay, and this was always a spontaneous action rather than calculated method or philosophical approach. Sometime in the 82/83 school year while I was building a painting I became consciously aware of what inspired my abstract art. Since a child, even before I could read actually, I was absolutely fascinated with history and archaeology and mesmerized by pictures of ancient cities buried in the sand or overgrown with jungle. Additionally, and related to this, construction sites were spellbinding to me. My father was a carpenter and I grew up on the jobs. Many of these jobs were additions to existing public buildings in urban environments. Besides the rubble and churned earth, the old buildings themselves were a great source of visual stimulation for my imagination. My non-representational art, I discovered, actual did represent something.
By 1983 I had experimented with brushstrokes “leaping” from the canvas onto the wall. I skipped the obvious next step of using the entire wall to create a painting and went right to my own version of Merzbau. Though they were fun to produce, these non-portable types of painting didn't seem practical or commercially feasible so I abandoned the practice.
Also in 1983, I experimented with free-standing paintings but mostly kept the work limited to wall art. As my interest in impasto, textures, layers, and isolated brush strokes developed, my paintings shifted from assemblage to construction, though my experiments toggled between “lumpy” 2D work and completely three dimensional. But even when the experiments became wildly three dimensional, I understood myself as a painter and not a sculptor, though I did begin to refer to these things as “sculpted paintings.”
Painting Gets Really Expanded
When I was creating a portfolio in 2010 with the intent on taking my work public I began to sculpt polystyrene into forms roughly 3.5' x 4' x 2'. These were to be wall-hanging sculpted paintings of irregular shape, rounded forms, with broken surfaces, a mixture of solids and voids, with embedded objects, and protrusions intended to read as leaping brush strokes. The paint applications were diverse combinations of techniques (this work was destroyed in a fire in 2011 and no photo documentation exists).
In 2012 an art professor from Sydney was visiting me and after seeing the work which survived the fire, referred to my artwork as “expanded painting.” As of that time only fellow artists had seen my paintings and I hadn't yet attempted to exhibit. The thought of categorizing my work with anything more than the ubiquitous, generic label “abstract” wasn't a genuine concern. Yet, the term “expanded painting” succinctly described what I was doing. There wasn't much reference to expanded painting on Google in 2012. Based upon my findings I determined that expanded painting was a broad categorical description rather than describing a specific school of thought. The term wasn't common yet neither was it obscure. Since I was about to go public with my art for the first time it seemed a loose label would be useful, so I appropriated the term.
The Expansion Gets Contracted
Work began on a new series of paintings in 2016 despite the fact I didn't have a studio. Limited storage space and limited paint supplies meant the paintings would have to be of a small scale. Instead of trying to replicate the work lost in the fire in miniature, or create paintings based on drawings done since the fire, I opted to design new work that incorporated some of the older ideas while generally moving forward. Part of this new series would address a question that arose from where my painting had expanded to. The paintings of 2010-2011 had characteristics which could lead viewers to question if they were actually painted sculpture rather than the sculpted paintings I claimed them to be.
Some of the paintings from the 2016/17 session were of shaped wooden forms covered in canvas. Painting was restricted to the picture surface leaving the sides in raw canvas with its folded corners obvious, while deliberately tacking the canvas on the painting's edges to emphasize to viewers that these dimensional objects were indeed paintings.
A New Situation
2019 began with a new work space. The initial efforts there were restricted to repainting a number of pieces produced in 2017 while I considered options for moving forward. I've been painting for 40 years and events left me with practically nothing to show for it. Some of the old ideas don't need to be revisited while others seem important to show. The thing is, my art is progressive. I'm constantly moving forward. Not only do I not wish to recreate old work, but I'm a different painter now. Technically I can recreate a painting from back in the day, but temperamentally it's impossible as one's sensibilities shift, and interests and priorities change. It seems the correct approach is to continue my journey from my present artistic position and incorporate some of the old ideas into the new thinking. The past can then be made alive through my current sensibilities and those old concepts will surely be stronger works this time around.