After a successful 20-year career as a watercolorist in Tulsa, Patrick Gordon moved to New York to create large, multipanel oil paintings of flowers. “I’ve never worked harder or had more fun than I have in the past few years,” he explains. “I’m still painting things I love that represent my thoughts and experiences, but the pictures are completely new.”
by M. Stephen Doherty
|The Studio Table
2007, oil, 60 x 48 (diptych).
All artwork this article
courtesy Fischbach Gallery,
New York, New York.
Looking back at magazine articles, books, and exhibition catalogues from the 1980s that reported on the changing attitude toward watercolor painting, one finds 40"-x-60" paintings of still life objects, interiors, figures, and landscapes by artists such as Sondra Freckelton, Carolyn Brady, John Stuart Ingle, Janet Fish, and a 20-something Oklahoma artist named P.S. Gordon. That young man was mounting gallery and museum shows of his realistic, large-scale still lifes that incorporated antique furniture, heirloom objects, patterned wallpaper, shimmering fabric, and exacting portraits.
Last November, the recently transformed Patrick Gordon created a sensation in the New York art world with an exhibition titled “Patrick Gordon: The Truth and the Beauty” at Fischbach Gallery, in New York City. The show included more than a dozen oil paintings measuring from 36" x 36" up to 76" x 48". Several of the paintings were actually three or four separate canvases either bolted together or hung with a few inches of space between them. In each picture, the symmetrically composed images presented a bouquet of flowers in a vase that rested on a table and against a background of lushly patterned fabrics, moldings, and reflective objects; or the vase is isolated in a nonspecific space. Each of the paintings was created over a two- or three-month period from Gordon’s own photographs, enlarged up to 131/2" x 19" on a Canon I-990 printer.
|A Thousand Orchids
2006, oil, 72 x 60 (triptych).
The essay by John Arthur included in the 28-page catalogue for the exhibition alluded to a major life change that brought Gordon to a New York loft from his palatial home in Tulsa and prompted him to use his full name rather than his initials. However, the artist prefers not to dwell on those wrenching changes. Instead, he celebrates the fact that having made it through that period he is able to enjoy life and painting. “Many artists reach the middle of their careers and decide to redirect themselves,” Gordon explains, “either because it’s necessary or because it’s just time to revitalize the work and make it more relevant to the person he or she has become.
“I worked in oil at various times, but I decided to focus on watercolor when I graduated from art school,” the artist continues. “It was an exciting time to be challenging the traditional notion that watercolors were small, decorative, tinted drawings,” Gordon explains. “A few years ago I painted a series of large figurative oils and really loved the feel and immediacy of the medium. That series was rather confrontational, and it was difficult to arrange for them to be exhibited and sold, so I decided to return to what had always been my favorite subject: flowers. They are just so perfect in every stage of their existence, whether they are in bloom or starting to wilt. So many great artists of the past showed that depictions of flowers can represent a simplified, beautiful life; and since that was what I was striving for, it made sense for me to paint them.”
|Flowers for Lalla
2007, oil, 60 x 48.
There are times when the artist will visit the home of a friend or will be having dinner in a Manhattan restaurant and he will see an arrangement of flowers he feels compelled to photograph and paint, but most of the time he buys cultivated flowers from Fisher Brothers Nursery, in New York, and photographs them in his studio under natural light. “I never use spotlights because I think flowers look best under natural light,” he explains. “That’s a bit of a challenge in my loft because the nearby buildings block most of the direct sunlight, but I have a great Canon EOS 10D digital camera that takes exceptional photographs, even under poor light. My life has become so much easier with the digital camera because I know instantly whether or not I have what I need, whereas before I had to wait days for film to be developed and printed before I knew whether or not I had the best exposures.”
As previously indicated, Gordon selects the best photographs and makes large prints of one or two images, and then he projects the image onto a smooth canvas and traces the outlines of the major shapes in the image. “I make a quick, rough graphite drawing of the projected image on canvas, and then I seal that with a coat of varnish,” the artist explains. “Once the varnish dries, I paint the image with thin applications of sepia, yellow ochre, burnt umber, or raw umber oil color. The only exception is in areas that need to remain bright, and in those cases I allow the white of the canvas to remain visible.
|Cantonese Tea Pot
With Red Tulips
2007, oil, 44 x 60 (diptych).
“I usually work with the canvas turned upside-down as I develop each area of the painting,” Gordon says. “My mother, who was an artist, started me working upside-down and I’ve continued to do that because it’s often better to see the abstract patterns rather than to think about the identity of what I’m painting. I’ll flip the large canvases around on the easel so I can reach the areas I want to paint, but most of the time I don’t consider whether I’m painting a leaf or a petal and just focus on the relative color and value of what I’m painting. The halogen lights over the easel keep the light constant throughout the process.”
Although Gordon is absorbed in the developing patterns on a canvas, he frequently steps back to evaluate the pictures as they gradually reveal the stories that motivated him in the first place. “There is an underlying allegory or autobiographical story line that inspires every painting,” he explains. “Those are important because they help determine what should and should not be in a picture, and they keep me highly motivated during the months of work that it takes to complete each picture. In many ways, the messages and symbolism are the very reason I am compelled to paint the still lifes. If viewers start to see the connections between objects, that’s fine, but it’s really not essential that they understand how something symbolizes an event or a person in my life.”
|Two Peonies With Decanter
2007, oil, 60 x 48.
Perhaps the most obvious story told in the recent group of paintings exhibited in New York is contained within the still life The Absence of Red (Self-Portrait). Gordon reveals that the two wrapped bouquets represent his two marriages, the glass of water refers to his long interest in watercolor painting, the reproductions of fish indicate various friends and family members, the spilled water suggests the artist’s own tears, and the fabric was added in recognition of the dealer who gave it to him. “Everything in the painting is there for a reason, and the nearly monochromatic tone of the picture is also significant, but none of that has to matter to people who see the painting,” Gordon says. “I just needed it all to be there in order to create the painting.”
Amusingly, Gordon uses square aluminum pans as palettes and discards them after he finishes working on a painting. “I paint in my living environment, so I try to minimize the use of solvents,” the artist explains. “Instead of scraping off paint and cleaning a palette with mineral spirits, I prefer to just squeeze the paints into square aluminum cooking pans that I discard when the oil colors become dry. In recent months I’ve held on to a few of those pans thinking I might be able to make something fun with them, but so far nothing has occurred to me.”
2007, oil, 60 x 36.
In addition to painting still lifes of flowers, Gordon draws and paints commissioned portraits. “I’ve never gone in search of those commissions, but collectors often approach me about doing a graphite drawing or an oil painting of a family member or business associate,” he explains. “I assume that if they sought me out they are already familiar with my work and want me to create a portrait that is consistent with the pictures I’ve completed. I prefer that because I’m only interested in painting people the way I see them.”
The artist’s commitment to recording the world and its inhabitants as he sees them is elegantly summarized by John Arthur in the catalogue essay. “The act of painting remains at the center of his life, and it remains an unshakable obsession. At midlife he realizes and embraces this fact more clearly, and now knows much more acutely that one must always be alone in the studio.”
|The Absence of Red (Self-Portrait)
2007, oil, 60 x 48 (diptych).
About the Artist
Patrick Gordon was born in Claremore, Oklahoma, and earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the University of Tulsa. His paintings have been included in group and solo exhibitions at the Springfield Art Museum, in Missouri; the McNay Art Museum, in Texas; the Flint Institute of Arts, in Michigan; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Philbrook Museum of Art, in Oklahoma; and Fischbach Gallery, in New York City. For more information on Gordon, visit his website at www.psgordon.com.
M. Stephen Doherty is the editor-in-chief and publisher of American Artist.