Statement for Surreal Abstractions, Spring 2021

 

I saw Max Ernst’s 1941 painting Europe After the Rain II for the first time at the Wadsworth Atheneum a week before my senior year at Trinity College was cut short. It is a stunning work of surrealist imagination and technical creativity, and has since dominated my thoughts in a way no other work of art has before. Like many of Ernst’s paintings, it features unconventional techniques in applying and manipulating paint to create incredibly intricate patterns throughout the composition. These methods captivated me, and my attempts to understand and replicate them became the guiding theme of my fellowship year. Researching the decalcomania techniques Ernst and his contemporaries employed, I was surprised by the difficulty I faced in finding records detailing their specific methods. I worked in oil and acrylic to practice and experiment, to achieve effects similar to theirs, each time feeling as if I’d unearthed some arcane secret of surrealism.

 

Much of my prior work focused on creating recognizably representational landscapes with varying degrees of abstraction. These paintings were in many ways expressionistic, as the often bare, expansive, and ambiguous landscapes I was creating were not paintings about capturing moments or scenery or representing specific places at all; they were about a sense of atmosphere and an attempt to evoke feelings that I could not otherwise articulate or hope to express. There was a constant thread in the scenes I chose to render: the inclusion of atmospheric effects – in many cases billowing smoke or heavy fog – which emphasized the ambiguity and murkiness that felt most vital to tying these physical spaces to the emotions I hoped to convey. In the fall of my senior year I was encouraged to step away from my comfort zone in both concept and in process, with the tangible phenomena of light and air and smoke and fire serving as my point of departure. First came charcoal sketches of burning oil fields in Kuwait, then stepping further from landscape came work free of any narrative framework, studies of smoke drawn in a contextual vacuum, purely as explorations in using my materials to capture the ephemeral characteristics of my subject. I left charcoal for ink, giving up some control of my marks to the inclinations of my medium, the physical properties and tendencies of the ink having a mind of its own, and as such more closely paralleling the intractably unpredictable fluid dynamics I was trying to represent. I began experimenting with ink on sheets of frosted acrylic and found that this combination brought me closer than any other to recreating the way that smoke catches light and casts shadows.

 

I spent the fall of 2019 creating a short series of such studies, resulting in a set with a good deal of variation, but all closely tied by the constraints of my focus and my lack of experience with my medium. The following semester I completed my thesis based entirely on landscape paintings, and through the end of 2020 focused all of my efforts on recreating the surrealist techniques I found so fascinating. After months of this long and open-ended process of experimentation I slowly began creating new works of ink on plastic, at first as a way to feel productive while taking breaks from my routine. In contrast to my Ernst-inspired studies, varied in scale, medium, subject matter and technique, the works in ink represented a consistent framework within which I could develop a personal process and technical language. Working exclusively on 25x38 inch sheets of plastic, I slowly began to experiment and progressed from pouring and dripping black ink to introducing fixative sprays, masking fluids, white and red inks, and powdered charcoal at different stages of the process. I tested different methods of manipulating these media to my desired ends, in some cases evolving convergently with the decalcomania process I had been exploring in paint.

 

I call the resulting works surreal not for any dreamlike subject matter nor for any conceptual basis in revealing the unconscious, but rather as a concept of technique, with the methods used being more than illusionary tools or tricks but instead being a vital conceptual jumping off point as they were for Ernst; the automatic processes providing something to respond to.  I call these works abstract in the sense of not being figurative, not rendering specific forms or even attempting to suggest specific ideas. One might consider them expressionistic, in that they are a pure expression of myself, dealing no longer even with real world references or evocations of the atmospheric effects that first captured my focus, now truly nonrepresentational. To me however they are unequivocally not works of abstract expressionism, as their evocation of myself begins and ends with my hand, with the physical mark. Unlike my landscape pieces, though I hope for them to be evocative and moving, there is no particular mood or emotion that I am trying to impress upon a viewer, no evocation of my inner self, with the only relation to myself being evidence of my process. Relatedly, though wholly in line with the spontaneity and vitality of action painting, my work differs from the characterization that critics like Harold Rosenberg found so central, as my process is not where I believe the value lies, but in the resulting, finished art object.

 

To me this work sits in an area of overlaps and potential contradictions, pulling from the impulsiveness of action painting, automatism of surrealism, and opacity of abstraction. I made these pieces because I enjoyed the engagement of the process, developing a mastery of techniques and materials with such strong inherent tendencies that mastery often involves accepting outcomes beyond my control, and learning how to incorporate and respond to these material facts. The concept behind this body of work has been “merely” the exploration of techniques at the intersection of the atmospheric studies I made almost two years ago, and my efforts to understand and replicate the effects I saw in Ernst’s work.