Painting Still Lifes | Nature Morte
Jim Phalen plays with the nature of contradictions in still lifes that arrest and sometimes confound the viewer’s gaze.
By Deborah Secor
I paint glacially slow paintings, almost exclusively from life. The challenge and reward are in how I make a painting meaningful and my own,” says Jim Phalen. “For me, meaning is arrived at through being true to what I see and to the process of recording what’s able to be seen.” Phalen’s paintings most often present austere arrangements of simple objects laid on a white sheet or countertop. The pictures’ utter simplicity is an elegant expression of the artist’s process because he gazes at a setup for days, weeks or months—the time necessary for him to see and express things truthfully. “A good subject is one that contains within it the embodiment of contrast or contradiction, which produces tension, which in turn,” says Phalen, “compels the viewer to think.”
Stark, Confrontational Compositions
Phalen nonetheless notes that only some of his work has a specific point. “I try not to make all paintings carry the burden of meaning,” he says. “I’m fond of the Portuguese writer José Saramago, who wrote, ‘Wise is the man who contents himself with the spectacle of the world.’ I often use stark, confrontational compositional choices to make a point, while in other works I allow that process of seeing to take the lead, but in all I’m committed to the practice of painting from life. I paint what’s paintable. Many subjects are, for me, un-paintable. A flying bird, a swimming fish—anything in motion, even a smile—cannot be seen in the manner necessary for it to be painted perceptually.”
Sketching is indispensable to Phalen’s process. “When I get an idea for a painting, I jot down a quick thumbnail, about 5 by 7 inches,” he says. “I rarely use photos. They’re predigested, locked into a two-dimensional world already. The challenge and excitement are in the transference from the three- to the two-dimensional. That’s when all the choices are made that give the painting its unique qualities.”
The Artist’s Process
Phalen paints on a prepared birch plywood panel, generally preferring Lefranc & Bourgeois oils, although he finds several other brands satisfying, too. “I gesso the panel three times and then lay out the composition in blocks of color, using no detail. I cover the entire surface in thinned, lean paint. The resultant underpainting is a relationship of color swatches, which help me see whether all the elements work together. It’s controlled disorder, a loose arrangement of color and shape that only vaguely refers to objects. In the preliminary stage, a pumpkin is an orange circle, for instance. If all the elements work well, they’re slowly made into a recognizable image. I’m a little suspicious of color, using it to punctuate the composition. Instead, I’m very interested in light and how it creates value, and how that in turn creates form. Thicker, more textured applications come later in the process.”
The artist likes a thickly gessoed surface so he can sand it down. “I was intrigued, “ he says, “by erasing as a drawing tool, not just as a way to fix something. I began to see it as a method to evoke memory, to suggest something that was, but is no longer.” Reflecting on the concept of still life as la nature morte, or dead nature, Phalen recalls walking away, as a young man, from a horrible car crash that was fatal to others. “That event shaped my outlook. Often my paintings address the fragility of life.”
The Associative Power of Objects
The associative power of objects is what Phalen relies on, as he places flowers, game and fruits that are emblematic, as well as toys, the odd spoon or fork, a power cord—simply the detritus of daily life—on a kitchen counter or a floor to express content without making the point graphic or overbearing. “I often use the fish as a symbol. It addresses mortality in subtle ways, and the fishing industry is big in the Pacific Northwest, where I live and where there’s an issue about endangered salmon. The fish as symbol, therefore, works in all kinds of ways.”
Phalen considers Pink Plate, painted in 1997 (see page 67), a pivotal image, more subtly commenting on mortality. “I find it less charged—and perhaps less angry—than some of the earlier paintings. It’s somewhat subversive, operating in a lighter and more atmospheric space: the commodification of nature, but this time on a white tablecloth. Besides, pink is a lovely color.” In a one-man show in 2002 at the Frye Art Museum near his home in Seattle, Phalen returned to his earlier tone. “Undercurrents of the Commonplace” included a painting of the severed leg of a horse, titled The Spanish Gift. In explanation, it’s wise to remember that the Spanish introduced the horse to America, and Spanish art is dominated by the masterly use of darks. Though referencing Spain, “the picture,” says Phalen, “is about American culture and technology. Until 100 years ago, everyone rode horseback. The horse was the auto of the day.” Thus one grisly object, the horse’s leg, raises questions about conquest, technology and the history of empires as reflected in the history of art.
Phalen elaborates, “I strive to achieve two things: authenticity and integrity. For many great artists—Rembrandt, El Greco, Cézanne, Titian among them—technique was a distant second to other issues. The greatest works of art are the ones that embody the greatest number of contradictions. Contrast is needed to define things both visually and formally: light and dark, warm and cool, big and small, straight and curved. The principle of contrast applies as well to content: Competing elements are vehicles for tension and complexity—in music, writing or painting.”
In order to be able to paint biodegradable items, he freezes them in a certain shape to reuse the next day. “They stay good for three or four hours, sometimes longer depending on the season.” To control the situation further, he uses artificial light. “Natural light is too fleeting,” he notes. “I’ve found working from nature—observing the nuances of light and shadow, of placement and staying true to the idea of representation—allows me the freedom to address issues that resonate truthfully. Yet some things I don’t compose. I make no conscious decision where objects will go. I know it sounds odd,” he smiles. “Think of it this way: If you clear the kitchen table and then look at it six hours later, things are there. They weren’t designed at all. I’ll paint that.”
The temporal and thematic divisions that categorize the history of art, Phalen refers to as “a bit of a shell game.” Looking back to his 12-year stretch as a college instructor, he says, “I’d have my students look at paintings by Vermeer and Mondrian and then ask them which was more real. Naturally they said Vermeer, but actually the answer is Mondrian. What he painted is what it was all about—nothing more. My own sensibilities are more like Vermeer’s,” he adds. Whether painting a still life, a self-portrait or a figure, Phalen desires to lose himself in the act of seeing and painting. “Through the process over time,” he says, “something truly revealing happens. Not only is a likeness achieved, but, almost by default, a deeper understanding. When I’m working, I’m able to clear my head and lose myself in the seeing. That’s the beauty of it. It’s like the star you see only by looking away.”
As a young man, Jim Phalen worked in a copper mine to earn enough money to spend eight months in Europe. He has a bachelor of fine arts degree in sculpture from the San Francisco Art Institute and a master of fine arts degree in painting from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He has shown his work at Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York, and at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. In 2000 he won a Pollock/Krasner Foundation grant. Among the places he’s taught is Bowdoin College. To see more of his work, visit www.jimphalen.com.
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