Senior Thesis Paper Spring 2020
I will often wake up from a particularly striking dream – often striking not for any discernible profundity of thematic content nor notably vivid mimicry of the waking world, but striking for some undefinable but undeniable sense of spiritual weight – and find myself wondering if the most noteworthy parts of it felt significant because I had experienced them before. If the glance a high school friend gave me or the color of the sky as I walked down the street or the knot in my stomach when I looked at a building made me feel something because my brain had concocted them as arresting sensorial inputs, or if they felt significant because I had already lived them, not as memories from my life but as memories of prior dreams. Similarly I will sometimes find myself – often in the delirious moments just before sleep which seem to parallel the confusion and dissociation of those just after waking – thinking back to particularly memorable dreams I’ve had before, and as my mind strains to try and pull them back into the forefront of my consciousness, I will be struck by the unshakable gnawing feeling that maybe I never really had those dreams. That somehow I am not remembering a dream, but instead at some unreachable depth and for some unknown ends am fabricating a memory dreamed.
These opposing but related situations mirror my experience with the ideas behind my senior thesis. I set out to complete a series of paintings that respond to an ongoing set of privately spiritual moments, moments which crept into the most benign and unassuming points in space and in time to imbue me with feelings of cosmic smallness, connectedness, and inexplicable profundity. I feel an unbearable yearning for these emotional scenes, spaces that are snapshots of moments fully real or just as fully imagined, but which for the way that they tug everlong on my consciousness through dreams and doubletakes and moments of déjà vu become just as significant to me and to my worldview as the most deeply ingrained childhood memories or the definitiveness of the world around me as I see and touch it for myself. These moments felt dreamlike, and like the dreams I described have been hard to pin down and examine, or even definitively recall as having occurred. I have for the past few years struggled to find the words to describe these experiences, and have struggled too to find suitable comparisons in the words and images of others. I have found that trying to paint these moments – not as visual renderings of what I saw, but as representations of what I experienced – and in doing so assess my memories in a simultaneously thorough and removed manner is how I come closest to understanding and reliving them.
I have tried to do this in the past, creating paintings based on memories of my own, or based on images I’ve found that remind me of some aspect of these experiences, but I have always been left unsatisfied. I have come to believe that it has been the lack of structure and development of these ideas in a formal manner that has resulted in such disappointments, with individual paintings created off the cuff and without context resulting in sometimes aesthetically engaging, but always conceptually unfulfilling works. As a result I came to see the senior thesis as an ideal opportunity to properly address these complex emotional moments that I had grappled with. The creation and exhibition of such a series of connected works would allow me to fully explore what tied these influential moments together, and resultingly create a cohesive body of work with which I could provoke some of those same feelings in a viewer.
The first step in doing so was to try and figure out what visual characteristics were shared by all of the moments I wished to recreate. Some of the best descriptions of the scenes I painted and described to others over the years have included terms like “atmospheric”, “moody”, and “ambiguous”, so I used those as jumping off points to assess from. It is because I find it so difficult to put the ideas behind my thesis into words that I feel the need to paint them. If it were easy to speak or write I would speak it and write it. Instead, I find it – if not explicitly easier to capture in paint – to at least through the process of painting become more real and concise in my mind than by any other avenue of approach. I tried to formulate a topic based around tangible factors such as attempting to capture in oil the billowy intricacies of plumes of smoke and fire, or a recurrent and specific atmospheric ethereality, but in both cases the focus on such explicit and surface level qualities left me unsatisfied. Conversely, conceptual bases focused on more abstract notions such as the foreboding or ambiguous mood of many of the scenes I painted resulted time and again in project proposals that seemed far too vague and undefined. While ultimately my artist’s statement for my thesis still leans towards this latter category to some degree, it has been through meticulous efforts to find the common ground between the two approaches that I have been able to settle in on something of a compromise between them.
A vital determination I settled on early in this process was the treatment of all works produced in this endeavor as landscapes. I say landscapes in a broad sense, with variation in degrees of abstraction and realism, and in many cases straying from traditional definitions of landscapes. Rather than being works depicting purely natural formations, some feature neither an explicit presence nor absence of evident humanity; their subject matter ranges from unequivocally natural and untouched scenes of desert cliffs and rolling hills, to ones highlighting the human imprint of architecture and machinery cutting into the land and sky. These scenes are also dissimilar in their tone, with some featuring the explosive energy of sublime violence and others entirely mundane and idyllic; some with content of absolute specificity and others blurred beyond recognition.
Searching for inspiration and for clarity, I was drawn consistently to the works of a set of artists diverse in style and thematic content: the atmospheric Tonalism of George Inness and James McNeill Whistler, the haunting Romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich and Francisco Goya, and the quiet, Impressionistically-tinged realism of Edward Hopper and George Bellows. My interests converge at the intersection of their varied conceptual and stylistic approaches, and in my art I aspire to give form to this elusive juncture of ideas and techniques. Recognizing the significance of atmosphere – both metaphorical and literal – I chose oil on canvas as the medium most capable of rendering it. I tried to strike a balance of thick and gestural brushstrokes and more thinly applied layers of glazing to convey the effects of light and air that are so vital to my subject matter, as well as to arouse the contradictory feelings of tumult and stillness that I wish to instill in the viewer. I worked on a scale large enough to support the level of detail I intend, and also to inspire a sense of physical vastness and related feelings of one’s smallness in nature.
In previous semesters spent working with the same ideas in mind I had collected reference images from a wide range of sources and consisting of a wide range of subjects. Photos of my own, photos found online, and paintings by other artists: all images depicting scenes which I felt embodied the sense of atmospheric moodiness I was infatuated with. From these collected images I created paintings in oil and studies in charcoal, some of which resulted in successful artworks, but which overall felt scattered and disjointed. Subject matter drawn from these sources was just as likely to include a New York skyscraper as a Southwestern mesa. Some images were traditional landscapes, others were rooted in abstraction. Some contained people, others cars and airplanes, others still were purely natural and free of all evidence of human intervention. Ultimately I learned that regardless of the quality of the individual pieces I produced, the art I made from this collection of references was too inconsistent to form a cohesive and deliberate set of works.
As I went down this path and began to understand this issue I worked to narrow my focus, but did so slowly and, admittedly, somewhat reluctantly. Part of this was because even though I realized that many of the ideas I had and images I found inspiring were too far removed from the ideas I was really trying to get at, I still wanted to paint them, and had to consciously convince myself of the validity of continuing to make such works outside of the conceptual confines of a discrete project or thesis. One significant step on this progression came last semester in Concept and Process II, when rather than continuing with my intended paintings in line with this thesis and my prior attempts at the related subject matter I was directed towards a different but related avenue of exploration. Rather than working in oil, and rather than attempting to capture complete scenes (regardless of content) I investigated the fluid patterns of smoke and fire at the micro and macro scales, and did so in charcoal and ink. I was opposed to this approach initially, but with the benefit of hindsight feel that such works helped me not just to develop skills in rendering those atmospheric effects so vital to the larger complete scenes I wished to produce, but also to better understand how those physical phenomena revealed and shaped those same qualities I admired.
Entering this semester I set out to use the knowledge I had acquired over the previous years to finally address the forms and ideas that had continually eluded me. To do this I made decisions regarding scale, style, and – vitally – subject matter. I decided I would, as had been suggested over and over by peers and professors alike, work large, with most of my pieces measuring thirty by forty inches. I decided I would work somewhere between representational and abstract, with recognizable forms presented in a slightly obscured and blended manner which I felt most comfortable with. I decided too that I would lean in to the color palette which I have at times found myself too bound to, of alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, dioxazine purple, and yellow ochre, colors which I have grown to rely on for their utility in making deep and vibrant chromatic greys. Tied to this advantage, I had sometimes found these colors resulted in works that ended up being too muddy and subdued, so I made deliberate efforts to include colors like cadmium red, cobalt blue, and cadmium yellow to punch up my paintings, as well as more greens and oranges than I usually worked with in order to deepen the range of my mixed colors. At the same time that I made such choices to try and change from my previous work, I also came to terms with the fact that in some cases the subject matter I chose to depict would – by virtue of some inherent quality of the chosen scene or by the greater comfort of my hand in painting it – benefit from the sometimes muddying effects of my reliable limited palette, with the ambiguity afforded by the closely related mixed tones playing into the vague and mysterious tone of the atmospheres I wanted to depict.
On the topic of subject matter, perhaps the most significant choices I made in planning my thesis were the decisions I made regarding the subject matter of my selected pieces. I decided that in order to focus my field of content and create a unified body of work I would have to set stricter limits than I had before. I decided that I would not include works with visible humans, nor explicitly identifiable human artifacts like buildings or vehicles. Likewise I would not include works that were abstracted to the point of losing a spatial grounding. I wanted all of my paintings to be recognizably landscapes, and for the focus to rest entirely on the evocative spaces depicted. I did not, in the end, make a choice barring or requiring the inclusion of recurring features such as smoke and fire, deciding instead that such contextual artifacts were not the defining characteristics of the scenes I envisioned, but were – just like the other atmospheric effects that frequently appeared in my paintings – simply one type of engaging visual feature that helped to establish the tone of my landscapes.
I planned on creating a series of paintings as I have described, numbering between ten and fifteen, along with the associated studies in oil and charcoal that would accompany them. The last two months have been unexpected, and have thrown wrenches in the plans of the entire world, with my thesis being no exception. Between issues of studio access and material access, along with the general turmoil of changing places and habits, and vitally the loss of constant in person support from both peers and academic mentors, much of my plans for my thesis were left unrealized. As disappointing as this has been, the changes wrought by the unanticipated pandemic have also led to unexpected insights. It doesn’t feel right to say I feel lucky, but I certainly appreciate the irony of the Coronavirus outbreak and subsequent quarantine interfering with my thesis focused on landscape – landscape not just as an aesthetic exploration, but as a manifestation of feelings inextricably tied to being present and open in nature, emotionally, spiritually, sensorially. Working on my project, “Landscape of Longing”, was made impossible due to being removed from the former, and in doing so I experienced even greater feelings of the latter, truly longing for the landscapes I could no longer experience. These paintings were from the start therapeutic, not in helping me to work through past traumas, but in helping me to consider, make tangible on canvas, and cumulatively address feelings and experiences that I otherwise cannot. Finally returning to work on them now, even as I remain largely blocked off from the outdoors, these works feel even more significant, representing not just the moments I felt in the past, but those already profound moments now reimagined through the lens of the present.