Paul Sutinen

 

A conversation with painter Stephen Hayes

Since 2015, Stephen Hayes has painted the mundane sites of horrific tragedies

Tad Savinar, writing in the catalog for Stephen Hayes’s 2013 retrospective at the Hoffman Gallery at Lewis & Clark College, said, “I believe good artists are good scientists, constantly searching and testing in order to refine and express their pursuits.” Over the past three decades Hayes has moved his painting from a controlled, uniform touch to wildly brushed, smudged, scraped and daubed compositions as free as improvisational jazz. His recent work focuses on seemingly mundane scenes, but locations of horrific tragedy.

A new group of Stephen Hayes paintings is at Elizabeth Leach Gallery from October 5-28.

So how long have you been a painter?

That’s kind of a trick question. It’s interesting you ask that question because I’m currently writing a fellowship proposal, and in there I wrote that when I graduated from grad school and went off on my journey to make work, I was not a painter, so I recognize that I was wasn’t a painter coming out of school.

What did you think you were?

Somebody who got his MFA. I focused on drawing primarily. I did painting, but then I spent a couple years in Cyprus trudging the hills and painting en plein air. I learned a lot about what it was to make a painting. I traversed a whole bunch of sort of hackneyed ground, but also discovered what the material was, how much I felt connected to it, how much I didn’t know about it. That was 1980 to ’84. I was not really thinking of myself as a painter, but I was trying to learn something about painting.

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Jef Gunn on the coming and going of his art

The Augen Gallery show reflects Gunn's process, creative and spiritual

Jef Gunn moved to Portland in the late 1990s. Over the past 30 years he has participated in numerous exhibitions in the Northwest and has wide ranging teaching experience. Gunn paints in a wide variety of nominal styles. He enjoys using encaustic (pigments in beeswax) because, as he says on his website (www.jefgunn.com): “With encaustic, I can bring together all of my other methods: oils, papers and inks, fabric, tar, and gold. My work draws on multiple lineages of art, culture and spiritual meaning.”

Jef Gunn in his studio, August 2017/Photo by Paul Sutinen

An exhibition of recent paintings is at Augen Gallery through September.

When did you decide that you wanted to be an artist?

I was 13 years old. I remember it. I had always been drawing, but in our house there was no talk about art. We didn’t have a whole lot of books—not that we were poor, but nobody read. Then my mom remarried and on my stepfather’s shelves was everything that Time-Life published. I just started looking at books and I pulled up a volume of Rembrandt from the Time-Life series and I just knew—I just saw—‘oh I get it!’

I want to do that?

No, it’s more like, ‘That’s what I’m doing. Oh, I see what I am now!’

That’s really cool. How did you pursue that?

I drew all the time. I didn’t know they were etchings. I wasn’t reading very well, so I just saw drawings. I could relate to drawings, but they were etchings. So I copied his etchings out of the book.

Then did you move on to other artists after Rembrandt?

Velasquez and Goya. They were in the same series.

Did you take art in high school?

Yeah, I took art in high school. That was like all I could do. I did very poorly in everything else, even gym.

So art was the thing where you thought, ‘This is me and I this is what I do and I’m good at it.’

Actually, in my senior year in high school they said, ‘You’re not doing very well in high school. How about how about you take the last half of your senior year and go up to Pasadena City College and take art classes?’ I said, ‘Yup.’ I went and took color and design and drawing and found out that I wasn’t the only artist in the school. In high school I was the artist in the school. I spent a year not knowing what the hell to do and went back to PCC and then transferred to Cabrillo College. Before Marylhurst [BFA 2005] that was the only college I had—junior college painting classes, and I did a building technology program at the same time.

During your time in high school and college were there teachers or important experiences for you?

I learned most from this one fellow at Cabrillo in Santa Cruz named Tom Allen. I remember him saying the most important people he looked up too were Hans Hofmann (I didn’t know who that was at the time) and Paul Klee. One time he took us on a field trip to the museum at UC Berkeley. There were a lot of Hofmanns.

Jef Gunn, “Ranch Next Over I”, 2015, oil on panel,
12 x 24 inches

What did you think of the Hofmanns at that point?

By the time I started painting I was really interested in Monet and Matisse. I hadn’t gotten into Cézanne yet. I didn’t know what to make of Hofmann because when I was drawing as a teenager it had to be tight. It had to be real. It had to be believable. I was drawing fantasy stuff like people riding dinosaurs.

I took my first painting class in 1975 when I was 20. It was in the mid-’80s—I was in Seattle then—I started looking at Picasso, and I had what I called ‘my cubist epiphany.’ I kind of went to it by way of [Lyonel] Feininger actually.

Yes, I liked Feininger early on, too. There’s something about those lines that describe something that’s there, but not quite there. What do you think about paint? What is your relationship with paint? There are painters who have a relationship with paint itself and there are painters who just want to make an image with paint.

I love everything about it. I love color and form, but also material—I don’t only use oil paint and encaustic—primarily I do that. It’s material, the thing itself. Oil paint can be a lot of different things. It can be dry and wispy or it can be scratchy or wet and gooey. And it reveals your hand. It reveals a momentary gesture. It’s like your mind thinks something, your hand does it, and—something about the springiness of the brush, the viscosity of the paint—it appears as your thought.

When you’re talking that way it makes me think of a violinist with the relationship of their bow and a string on the violin and the thought through the hand.

It’s direct.

Jef Gunn, “Ranch Next Over II”, 2017, oil on panel,
37-1/2 x 61-1/2 inches

Do you have an idea of when you first had that feeling about paint?

I think it took a number of years after I started. In the first five years I had a few kind of interesting paintings. I could create an image that was believable, might have some realism to it, but it becomes really about the paint in the early ‘80s landscapes and portraits and things.

Someone asked Tom Allen how important a likeness is in a portrait painting. He said the first duty of a portrait is to be a good painting and if it’s got a likeness, so much the better. The point is don’t sacrifice good painting for a likeness.

Do you feel there are any painters or painters’ works that that have had a particular influence on you?

Well, all those people we’ve talked about. Picasso and Motherwell, at one point after I started looking at Picasso. Monet previously. But when I got to Barcelona in 1986 (I was there for a year and a quarter), I kept seeing this fellow named [Antoni] Tàpies. So that year was huge because of looking at Tàpies, and he was like something you had to deal with. Every painter in Barcelona has to deal with Tàpies.

He was very prolific.

Outrageously prolific. I used to say the Zen of it just made me stop in my tracks, totally arrested. It was like, ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to address this guy?’ On the other hand I was dealing with all that stuff up on the hill—that Romanesque stuff from the 700s, the 900s, was there.

Was there something about Tàpies’s materiality that affected you or something else do you think? It’s very much about thick stuff and other kinds of collage elements.

It was also his marks—marks you could tell carried metaphor—and everything about them. The metaphor that’s often talked about with him is the wall and what a wall could be. And the walls in Barcelona are highly textured, there’s graffiti, sometimes going all the way back to Roman times. And Tàpies used that to create these huge spaces with strange marks that looked like honey, or straw—the Dada of it was a huge force in it as well.

Dada, meaning?

The absurdity of it.

The feeling of chance?

There’s a great deal of chance, but there was always some sense of spiritual import behind it all that I could feel when I first saw it. I couldn’t make sense of it, but I could feel sort of like—if I say this it’s going to sound really ridiculous—a Zen master stands right in front of you. You’ve got to get around him. How are you going to get around him? It really feels like a challenge.

I realized all the things I carried around with me, what made art important—color, design, fine lines, technical dexterity and all these damn things—that’s not really what carries the power of a piece of art. All that’s fine and good and it might have all that, but if it doesn’t have this sort of gravity then maybe it’s just nice, but I got really got interested in stuff that had gravity.

When you say gravity you mean some sort of seriousness and meaning?

Like life and death. Like being and non-being. That’s what Zen is all about, what Buddhism is all about. I wasn’t a Buddhist at that time. I’d done meditation practice, but it felt like those sort of very primal human practices.

Are you Buddhist now?

Yeah.

Does that have anything to do with your painting?

More and more and more, actually.

There are a couple ways to think about that. One is your approach when you’re making the painting and the other is the artwork and what the viewer receives.

For instance I had a show in May of this year at Traver Gallery [in Seattle]. It’s entirely different from oil painting—mostly prints of small objects on Chinese papers mounted onto panels. Very very serene. Very very very very methodical. The same print from a nut shell over and over and over, and each time I printed there’s no thinking about it. There is no deliberation. There’s no philosophy behind it. It’s simply this moment, press, this moment, press, this moment, press— it goes on in a mantra so it’s like a whole visual field of mantra. No one needs to know what the mantra is, but I made it more explicit in my statement for the show. The act of painting is very much like that of meditating.

Do you begin a painting with an idea of what you’re going to do?

Sometimes I do that. Sometimes I see something. I still go out and paint landscapes. Then I come home and I’m dwelling on that landscape.

You paint landscapes on site?

Sometimes they’re finished right there just like classic landscape painting, but more often they’re better if I they cook in the studio and I keep puttering with them and looking at them. Sometimes I’ll look at them for a year. There’s one on the wall there—I thought, “Oh I know what to do,” so I kept it.

The classic abstract expressionist question is how do you know the painting is finished?

It just feels that it’s done. You know Chagall’s answer? I always liked Chagall’s answer: My wife tells me.

You talked about doing drawing from Rembrandt and things like that. Do you still do drawing?

Not as much and I feel guilty about that.

Drawing guilt?

It still feels to me true that it’s the foundation. I used to draw incessantly. I’ve got boxes and boxes of old stuff.

Why do you think that dwindled away?

The more I started painting and the more I started going into the sort of repetition pieces on paper. The more I paint I think more like painting than I think like drawing. There’s an interesting correspondence between Matisse and Bonnard. When Matisse was feeling depressed about his painting, he said that a colorist who is a drawer is not the same thing as a painter, and that made me look at those two painters differently. And even in Bonnard’s drawings he draws like a painter. He draws shapes and textures and squiggles because he’s working the shape and texture in the field of the shape whereas Matisse draws and then puts big flats of color around to the drawing more or less.

The painter Robert Ryman said, “It seems that the main focus of painting is to give pleasure: if someone can receive pleasure from looking at paintings, then that’s the best thing that can happen.” Is there more than pleasure that you want someone to get when looking at your work? Is there an emotional aspect that you seek?

Nowadays what I’m looking for in the work, and maybe it relates to how I know it’s done, is when I start feeling—even if we don’t want state it as drastically as life and death—but is it coming or is it going? That’s a Zen phrase. It’s a Buddhist phrase, but Zen uses that more than others. Is it there or is it not there? Is it somewhere between useless and useful or alive or dead? It’s got to be alive. Painting has to be alive for that to happen, but it should have this—I don’t know if I want to call it at tension because it’s too common a word—no one really knows what it means—but it’s got to arrest me and make me consider my existence for a few minutes. But then again I don’t want to it to be unjoyful. I’m really I’m really interested in joy right now.

How long have you been interested in joy? Was there a time you were interested in something else other than joy?

No, I enjoy painting especially in the landscape paintings, especially the ones I do outside. I have a real joy in painting them even if I am screaming at them and it’s all falling apart because I really enjoy that tussle.

A couple years ago I did something in painting that I’ve never done before. I just had a big canvas and started filling it up randomly, just putting paint on with no design in mind. Over time the painting started looking like a landscape I’d seen a couple years ago, obviously subconsciously showing up on the painting, so I developed it. And it was a really good painting. It had a joyful feel, strong colors and crazy, ludicrous, really free. So I’ve been trying to do more of those.

Be more wild and crazy and joyful?

Really spontaneous. Spontaneity is one of those qualities that comes with joy and Zen.

Do you visit the Portland Art Museum much?

No. I have a membership, but I don’t go very often. I’m a busy person. I work for a living so I don’t end up with a lot of time.

Jef Gunn, “Ranch Next Over III”, 2017, oil on panel,
24 x 40 inches

I was just wondering if there are any particular things you like to look at the art museum, something that you can revisit, that connects for you.

There’s one little Monet that I’m really fond of, the brushwork on it. It’s little, looks like the bank of the river with some trees, big sky. I usually go up to the C.S. Price room and those old Portland people. I always go to the Asian section. Asian art is really been a huge influence on me for two decades at least.

What do you think about being a painter in the age of video and computer generated art?

There’s a part of me that feels like one day the electricity is going to go out and everyone’s going to not know how to sharpen a pencil. Some of my hobbies include edge tools—chisels and gouges, saws and things like that. I’m a carpenter, so I’ve got a huge collection of chisels and planes and things. I like to know how to keep them sharp. There are a lot of things you can do just as fast with hand tools. I love hand tools. I love tools of all kinds. So I’m very interested in non-electric and non-digital things—not just to preserve them in a museum. But, I have a feeling that it connects one to the moment in a way that screens don’t. Screens can’t actually.

You paint landscapes as landscapes and you paint other paintings that are paintings as paintings.

Sometimes they are paintings as paintings and hidden in there is a landscape. Or I paint paintings just as marks.

What are the similarities or differences between those approaches? Do you approach a landscape painting differently from one that is just marks?

They’re similar in that they’re all about materials and marks, the materiality of the thing, and the marking and the shapes are all very important as themselves. But, in a landscape painting they will reference a landform like metaphor, like it’s a hill, or it’s a river or it’s a lake, or it’s a sky. Those all can have metaphorical significance. I used to say the landscapes come from walking and these other pieces come from sitting.

Can Modernism be ‘new’ anymore?

A show of abstract work at Elizabeth Leach Gallery leads back to the history of Modernism

This sports anecdote is from the introduction to A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern by Kirk Varnedoe, the late American art historian who served as chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art from 1988 to 2001.

“Somewhere back in a rainy summer in the 1970s, I made a pilgrimage of sorts to a place in the north of England that it fascinated me for years; it’s a playing field that’s part of the Rugby School, and on the wall next to the field is fixed the marker I came to see. It reads: “This stone commemorates the exploit of William Webb Ellis, who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game. A. D. 1823.”… I was among [those who played rugby in the late 1960s] and as I moved back toward the bare essentials of the sport, I found my curiosity enduringly piqued by the tale of its origin. What possessed Webb Ellis, in the heat of a soccer game, to pick up the ball? And stranger still, why didn’t they just throw him out of the game?”

In 1823 a guy changes the game from what we call soccer, to the game of rugby. In the late 19th century another game changed, and Varnedoe’s question applies. When Cézanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire with daubs of paint, or certainly when Pablo Picasso began showing analytical cubist paintings—why weren’t they thrown out of the art game? Why did the game change to accommodate them?

So “modern” art reflected an abrupt change from the way art was played in the past, and depending on the critic/historian it originated with Édouard Manet and the “frankness with which [his paintings] declared the flat surfaces on which they were painted,” according to critic Clement Greenberg, or maybe with Van Gogh and Gauguin, according to Arthur Danto—at least sometime before 1900.

Chris Gander,”Plug:Matrix,” 2017,oil on wood construction, 21 x 21 x18″/image courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery

The idea of modern art also reflected the critical/historical concept of “progress” in art. The genealogy runs something like this: Renaissance begat Mannerism, which begat Baroque, which begat Neo-Classicism, which begat Romanticism, and so on to Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism—and then, according to Arthur Danto, in the early 1960s, with Pop Art, and for Danto with the example of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, 1964, which looked just like the mundane Brillo box in the grocery store, the historical idea of “progress” stopped. No longer is there an avant-garde. There is no “next step” in art evolution. As Danto said, “As far as appearances were concerned, anything could be a work of art, and it meant that if you were going to find out what art was you had to turn from sense experiences to thought.” It no longer had to look like art to be art.

Modernism in this reading was the last gasp of art “progress.” For a critic like Greenberg (by the way “modern art” is a critical/historical term—I’ve never heard of an artist saying, “I’m a modern artist”) modern painting (painting was the main vehicle for the progress in modernism) tended to strip away things that were not fundamental to painting. The best modern painting, according to Greenberg, would demonstrate recognition of the flatness of the canvas and emphasize color— attributes special to painting. Likewise, Greenberg would find sculpture that was painted with colors irritating, since color was an attribute of painting, not something like scale or form that was essential to sculpture. By the end of the 1960s these ideas were worn out, and nobody cares much about that puritan view now.

Joanna Pousette-Dart,
“Cañones #3,” 2007-08,
acrylic on canvas on shaped panels,
79 x 92″/image courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Now there is an exhibition at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery entitled New Modernism that “presents seven artists whose innovative approaches to formalism link them to the modernist art movement of the 19th century.” I don’t buy this premise. All artists have their own formal approaches, and if they do interesting work, their approaches will be personally different (innovative) from those of others. Looking at the exhibition, I don’t see “modernism”—either in the sense of an abrupt break with the past (since there is no “progress” anymore) or in attitudes linked to refinement of the essences of painting or sculpture. The show could easily and more accurately be called Some Current Abstraction, or something like that.

Still, the current abstractions in New Modernism include some interesting artworks for us to consider.

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Lee Kelly just turned 85. Through June into mid-July he is showing new work at Elizabeth Leach Gallery. Over a career of almost 60 years Kelly has completed dozens of public and private sculpture commissions. He has major works on the Portland Transit Mall and the Rose Garden in Washington Park. He lives and works on what was a dairy farm in Oregon City; the barn is now a shop/studio. What was pastureland 50 years ago is now reforested and populated with Kelly’s sculpture.

You grew up in Idaho. Did you go to high school there?

No. I came out here.

Where did you go to high school?

Roosevelt, but I went back there and did ranch work in the summer.

Why? Because you couldn’t find work in Portland?

I loved the idea of horses and doing all that.

Lee Kelly in his studio/shop. Winter Garden at Muktinath in process at left. Small
maquette for the sculpture at right in the background.

So now you got a sculpture farm next to horses. When you were at Roosevelt High School did you do any art there?

I tried to, but I got crossways with the teachers.

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Blake Shell arrived in Portland about nine years ago. Her background included an M.F.A. in Photography from Savannah College of Art and Design and work as gallery curator/director at the University of Arizona. She soon became director of the Archer Gallery at Clark College (2009-2012) and then succeeded founding director Terri Hopkins at The Art Gym in 2013. She is now the new Executive Director at Disjecta (www.disjectaarts.org), one of the most adventurous art spaces in Portland.

This conversation occurred in April 12, on her second day at Disjecta.

You are the Executive Director. What do you see as your job, and what do you have other people doing?

I’ll be overseeing the team and all aspects of the organization. I’m really in a place of thinking about strategic moves forward, the growth of the organization and working with the board to increase fundraising that can increase programming support for artists and all the things I’ve been interested in—as well as just making sure that things are happening in a strong way. There’s a great staff here already.

“Oh Time Your Gilded Pages,” Disjecta, curated by curator-in-residence Michele Fiedler, artists Adriana Minoliti and Bobbi Woods/Photos by Mario Gallucci

The organization already has awesome programming. It already has things like the Curator-in-Residence program, which is really interesting—bringing a curator in to create an entire season of programs every year. We are currently in the sixth season of bringing in different curatorial voices from outside of the region to interact with artists and the arts community. The seventh season will start in the fall.

To bring programming here and to share information out to other areas about what’s happening here is a really important thing for any arts community, but particularly at this point in Portland’s history. Portland and Oregon artists are engaged in a national and international way.

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Christopher Rauschenberg: The beauty of the bucket

Portland photographer Christopher Rauschenberg has spent his career paying deep attention to the beauty around him

John Cage said, “Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look.” That seems to be the point of Christopher Rauschenberg’s photographs for more than 40 years.

Beyond that work as a photographer, Rauschenberg was one of the five founders of Blue Sky Gallery—now one of the premier photography institutions in America—back in 1975. He founded the Portland Grid Project in 1995. As the website states: “Christopher Rauschenberg took a pair of scissors to a standard map of Portland and cut it into 98 pieces. He then invited a group of 12 Portland photographers, using a variety of cameras, films, formats, and digital processes, to all photograph the randomly selected square each month. By 2005 they had covered every square mile of Portland and shown each other over 20,000 images.” The Grid Project is now on its third round of photographing the city.

Christopher Rauschenberg, Warsaw, 2016

In 1997-1998 he spent time in Paris rephotographing 500 scenes shot previously by Eugene Atget, who Rauschenberg considers “the greatest photographer of all time.” His website portfolio includes photographs from travels to Europe, China, Tanzania, Thailand, Brazil, and Guatemala. From March 26-April 19 a selection of recent photographs from Poland will be shown at Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

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Louis Bunce: Catalyst for making Portland a city of modern art

A retrospective of Louis Bunce's at the Hallie Ford Museum makes the case for the artist as the catalyst for modern art in Portland

There is a retrospective exhibition of paintings by Louis Bunce at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem, running through March 26. It is an important show. It is a great show. It is accompanied by a monograph on Bunce by Roger Hull. It is important. It is great.

The importance of Louis Bunce to the development of art in Portland (and Oregon) cannot be overstated. As Hull says in his introduction: “Arguably Louis Bunce was the major Oregon modern artist of the twentieth century—a claim that can be substantiated on the basis of his enormously skilled production in many styles and modes, his friendship with artists on the New York scene that provided links between the Big Apple and the Rose City, his imaginative will to make Portland, Oregon, a city of art as well as roses, and the sheer force of his amiable, extroverted personality.”

Gerald Robinson, “Portrait of Louis Bunce,” 1955, gelatin silver print//Courtesy Hallie Ford Museum of Art

The exhibition certainly demonstrates “his enormously skilled production in many styles and modes.” Born in Wyoming in 1907, Bunce graduated from Jefferson High School in Portland. He attended the School of the Portland Art Association (later called the Museum Art School and later the Pacific Northwest College of Art), and spent four years in his early 20s in New York attending classes at the Art Students League. Early on he was enthralled with the paintings of Paul Cézanne, and the early landscapes in the exhibition have hints of Cézanne.

He then seems to have been inspired by the surrealist Giorgio de Chirico in the 1930s, with works like Along the Waterfront, 1939-1940. Here is a view from the seawall along the Willamette, looking north. Two figures lean on the wall, gazing across the river, but the rest is a simplified still life of objects: timbers, post, wheel, bridge and the towers of the Portland Public Market Building (later the Oregon Journal Building, demolished in 1969 for the construction of Waterfront Park). It has the bleakness of de Chirico, but maybe that’s also the bleakness of the Great Depression.

Louis Bunce, “Along the Waterfront”, 1939-1940. Oil on canvas. 34” x 30 ½” /Courtesy Hallie Ford Museum of Art

By the 1950s Bunce, in the spirit of the times, was making abstract expressionist style paintings. For me these are his most powerful works. Bunce combines freedom of form making with explorations of paint application—typical abstract expressionist attributes—with the feeling (not really “depiction”) of the land and sea of Oregon. Burned Land No. 2 relates directly to the series of massive wildfires known as the Tillamook Burn. Other titles such as Bay Composition No.2, Beach—Low Tide, Soft Rocks, Cliffside, or Lava Field, make it clear that Bunce was looking locally for (oh, I hate using this word, but…) “inspiration.”

Landscape-inspired-abstraction continued to be Bunce’s motif of choice through the end of his life, with a few side tracks into “pop”-inspired, paintings of enormous apples and roses, and a series of collages and serigraphs with strange furniture-like motifs (unfortunately not in this exhibition, but in a show of Bunce paper works that just closed at Hallie Ford).

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