My painting always begins with the actual phenomenon before me: the tree, the telephone pole, the vine. I draw directly from life—straight, accurate drawings that I then work and rework, usually by adding watercolor and gouache right on top of the graphite. Sometimes I even cut the drawings apart, cutting one image out and collaging it onto another piece of paper. The surface of the final work looks abraded, because I keep beating on it, distorting the original sketch, recombining elements, changing the colors. By the time I’ve finished working with graphite and watermedia, the image has been transformed and the paint application is pretty thick. To build up an even richer surface, I sometimes use dry pigment and mix it with gum arabic (the binder in watercolor).
Whether I’m in Columbus or Cincinnati, Ohio, or in Prague or London, I basically drive around and draw. Wherever I am, I make objective drawings with pencil or ink. I fill sketchbooks with these drawings of trees, houses, etc. Sometimes I do a little watercolor on the spot. I never take photographs. The sketches become the bases of all my work.
I always start with the actual phenomenon—a branch I notice on my way to my studio, for example. It becomes a visual idea that I explore, perhaps by putting the branch in front of a house. Pretty soon I’m working to recombine the images. I’m playing with the image and its variations as a musician would embellish and vary a theme. I work out ideas; I ask questions, for instance, should there be one or two crows? Then I add color—with watercolor or gouache—right on top of the original drawing. Along the way, I also start to build up the texture. Pencil and watermedia are what I use to work through the image; sometimes I don’t feel as if I’m ready and I thus have to paint another version in a bigger format.
In my work I’ve always felt a need to say something about my culture. Art has never been just a formal exercise. I started making art in the Abstract Expressionist era, but I was in Chicago rather than in New York. We Chicagoans felt we had our own art: We didn’t have to imitate NYC. The emphasis was on content—on having a concept or an idea. One of my teachers was Boris Margo, a Russian-born painter and printmaker. He told us that painting wasn’t purely an optical phenomenon; it wasn’t a purely formal exercise. If you’re painting, you have to have an idea; that stuck with me.
In my role as a professor, I teach courses in postmodernism as a critical theory, but I find it has limitations. Postmodernism is a complex system that holds that our perceptions are mediated only by cultural information, especially TV. But painting, for me, comes out of a physical, emotional and conceptual connection to the world. Painting tries to connect with direct experience. Of course, I can’t grasp that experience, but I try. That trying is my art.
The only philosophical system I feel comfortable with is phenomenology—I think it’s a solid basis for my art. Phenomenology proposes that our direct perceptions are the bases for knowledge; knowledge proceeds from experience. Claude Levi-Strauss talks about the connection we have with the world in an essay called “I and Mind.” We breathe air in, we breathe it out; we eat the world. As human beings we are totally integrated into the world—of culture, of the earth. We know things with our bodies and through our eyes, as well as through the culture we have “learned.”
Erin Nevius is editorial intern for The Artist’s Magazine.