28 August 2023

Léo and Aix

Here is a small piece I wrote for the Léo Marchutz School in Aix-en-Provence which had asked me to participate in their monthly series. Included at the end is a selection of paintings from 1973 - 2023 to compliment the text.  


Léo Marchutz and my arrival in France 
I was unusually fortunate to meet my teacher Léo Marchutz when I arrived at the IAU during my third year of University in 1972. This was an event that changed my life.
Léo was teaching painting to students at the American Institute once or twice a week. I began attending his classes and soon enough it became a kind of personal apprenticeship, more 19th, than 20th century style than what I had been used to at art school. After my first year in Aix I made the decision not to return to finish my art degree in America but to stay and study with Léo. 

After all the contempt I felt for art school, which I eventually fled after two years in order to get to France, here in front of me was an artist who was guiding me into painting through the history of art. I was young with a whole life in front of me and like all great events in one's life, they arrive as improbable surprises. I took a small apartment in the Châteaunoir then France became my home. 

By this time I was seeing Leo every day. I would arrive for tea with Barbara, his wife, then Léo would usher me into his studio where he showed me what he was working on. Sometimes I showed him what I had been doing but mostly I asked questions and he responded, this became the model for our relationship. This amazing chapter of my life lasted until his death in 1976.

Though I cannot imagine that Leo would like some of my work today, I owe him everything. I only speak for myself, but I think one’s teacher, like one’s parent, needs to be left behind, loved and never forgotten, but no longer in the studio. One has learned everything one needs to learn and one must cut one’s own way into the world of painting. Unlike so many teachers, it was never all about him, he simply pointed his students back to the masters. Léo was the beacon, not the statue.

I am still a fan of the Léo Marchutz School in whatever iteration. I went to the first one when Billy, Sam and Leo had decided to make a go of it away from the IAU. Amos Booth and Francois de Asis were also instrumental but they remained behind the scenes. I met John that year (1974) and some time later Alan turned up. Remarkably, through all its forms, the Marchutz experience has survived. This is almost completely due to John and Alan who have ridden out so many storms over the past few decades to keep it going sometimes against great odds. They slowly transformed the early somewhat improvised format which Billy, Sam and Leo had begun, tweaking it a little here and there, to satisfy an upgrade to the University system that demanded a coherent academic curriculum. But they are not the only ones, there is a whole crew who has come and gone over the years and I imagine they are also still as much a part of this family as I have been. 

Australia, and some improvised notes on both my studio work and the series Evening Prayers Brunswick Heads.

Today, I live in Australia where I came about ten years ago to the North Coast of New South Wales. It’s a sleepy town full of surfers, hippies, new agers, and the odd film star. 

For the past six years I have been making studies at the beach at dusk. They represent a visual diary of my evening sessions entitled 'Evening Prayers Brunswick Heads’.

Many years ago I had seen the photographs of Hiroshi Sugimoto who spent years traveling around the world making large black and white studies of the horizon line almost cutting the image in half. He used an 8 X 10 camera often with long exposures during all kinds of weather and in all seasons. I was deeply moved by these things.

And although prior to seeing his series, I had never been fond of black and white photography, but in his case, I was taken aback by these painterly nuances in black, white, and a multitude of greys. 

Though his images were the inspiration for my own series, I wished only to explore this horizon line in colour using oil paints. Painting at dusk provided me with the colour I desired. While his photos were created using a long exposure, my pictures on the other hand, are made with lightning speed. 

I call it a series now, but when I began, I had no idea that it would become such a project. I simply wanted to get back outdoors again to have some fun and mix colours in the sunlight. I had been working in the studio for many years where the creative process is different. But I needed to change things up so I began going out to the beach towards dusk and making these small studies. Today, I now practice two Painting forms simultaneously, one complementing the other, one in the studio, the other, in front of the motif outdoors. They both bring great satisfaction to me and speak to different corners of my curiosity.

Although in this exploration at the beach I had not initially foreseen it to be a 'site specific’ series, one which generally means that the artist alters the site in question, but in the end however, it turned into one by means of repetition.  And unlike most artistic 'site' projects, in this case, the work proceeded the idea, not the other way around. And though I haven’t altered the site, it is I who has been altered by it. 

Throughout this time my work process has varied considerably. At certain moments I appear to be more concerned with the graphic unity of the surface while at others I am simply seduced by the sensual nature of the oil paint. But always, I am looking at colour’s ability to simultaneously push and pull the drawing of the image both forward and backwards into the surface of the picture plane but never am I interested in this approach solely for its own sake. Because the motif is so inherently abstract, being just the sea and sky (for I never use the beach as a traditional means to illustrate a traditional foreground), I use colour as the principal vehicle with which to push the foreground backwards into the painting while at the same time bringing the background forward up to the surface. This is for me one of the greatest lessons from Cezanne, who in the 19th century, single-handily ushered us into the era of truly Modern Painting by demolishing perspective and breaking down distance, for better and alas, worse. Matisse, whose work I came to love, went even further down this path eventually turning the Painting world upside down.  

During these years I’ve made lots of studies, and after much failure, I’ve learned a great deal too while also growing into the ‘motif’. I’m always looking for the pictorial resolution for them because each picture has its own illusive logic. I’m interested in the unity of the whole surface, the formal integrity of each painting, the drawing and colour being at its essence. But consequently, these studies might appear scruffy, sloppy and unfinished because I'm certainly more Expressionist than Impressionist. But personally, I like all these spontaneous and accidental elements in my own work, and in others too. It’s a matter of taste. 

As each picture can be so different from one day to the next, I too, am quite different. Somedays I'm joyful, sometimes not, maybe tired and a little grumpy, with a mind full of problems, real or imagined, but because I go out there as a habit to work, Nature has always opened up to me regardless of my state of mind, and as a result, I am always changed by the painting process, and it’s for this reason, more than any others, why I still go out there to work. As my friend, Francois de Asis has always assured me, “When one paints, one lives better”. 

I realised that I needed to work on a small scale in order to capture so much change, so quickly at this twilight hour. So thus, I settled on two small convenient board sizes. Working small, as all landscape painters know, keeps the process simple and within reach. There is also a special kind of beauty in a small oil painting.

These studies also opened me up again to exploring the expansive myriad of grey tones that cycle through the colour wheel while lighting up a whole variety of nuances at the dusk hour. And what surprises me when I take a few steps backward to view the oeuvre as a whole, it's that most of the paintings, though they obviously share my fingerprints, they all appear to manifestly look so vastly different from one to the other. But then, weather can dictate so much of this.  

I have enclosed a selection of work that will hopefully reveal who I am as a painter starting with a few early things, up to the beach paintings (in chronological order), then some of the large non-objection paintings done in the studio. These latter things perhaps deserve an explanation but I would need much more space here than has been allotted to me.  

I’ve never been crazy about American Expressionism though for many years I’ve earnestly tried hard to be. But because I'm a romantic, I've always dreamt of a way I could possibly marry Expressionism to Nature. I wish I could re-phrase this by saying that I desired to reunite them back together again, but the truth is that American Expressionism was never attached to Nature to begin with. 

Somehow, the American Expressionists missed the boat when they lost sight of the light. Not all, some of the time, but many of them, all the time. A shame, it’s a shame because in their quixotic crusade to make something completely new in American painting, the essence of Chiaroscuro was lost. (And anyway, their ‘abstraction’ couldn’t hold a candle to Turner’s late watercolours which had already achieved this in Britain more than a century earlier). 

They broke down painting without possessing the means to rebuild it anew. Maybe this is some kind of American 'thing' because we seem to do this all over the place, all of the time. Who knows, but again, it's a shame because by trying to paint quickly and spontaneously, they were really onto something important. And breaking things down can be a good thing too if one knows how to replace them with something better, however different. 

Many of my Evening Prayers have been moving towards a flat and graphic disposition. I like that. When I compress the motif down to just a few horizontal stripes of subtle colour that feel true to Nature, a small bell rings inside me. This is weird, but good. Personally, it's where my compass always wants to point, a place where I feel good inside.

I bring all this back to my own desire to see the motif as if for the very first time, each time, wave after wave, and day after day. This means approaching the motif quickly, seizing it, and subduing it with experience and craft. By working this way I’m able to avoid a sentimental view of Nature, something I deplore in painting. This isn’t a recipe for everyone, it a way I discovered for myself because I am an anxious person, and in this series, I need a colourful frenzy at the end of the day to find peace. 

But again, it was Léo, who found a way into the motif through his own very abstract means of drawing and who subsequently passed it on to us all. In this, Léo was also a sign post.
In summary, I had originally imagined that this project was about colour but to my surprise, I discovered it was really about light, without which, there can be no real colour. And because the drawing is fairly easy, without complications, I could really focus on colour. So now, when I get out there to paint it feels a little like I’m getting into a Google self-driving car because I have so few concerns about anything else except to enjoy the ride. After all, I'm just seeing, and mixing colour. 

1973, The very earliest copy I made after Michelangelo under the watchful gaze of Léo, whose enduring patience allowed me to move through my 'technique’ period somewhat quickly.

Prometheus, Prince Street 1982, oil on canvas, 45 X 45 cm

San Giorgio 1986 oil on canvas board 30 X 23 cm

Châteaunoir 1992 oil on canvas board, (5 figure)

Evening Prayer 27 June 2017 oil on canvas board 25 X 20 cm

Evening Prayer 30 January 2018 oil on canvas board 25 X 20 cm

 Evening Prayer 30 January 2018 oil on canvas board 25 X 20 cm

   Evening Prayer 20 May 2018 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

 Evening Prayer 23 December 2019 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer 21 February 2021 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

  Evening Prayer 11 June 2020 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm


  Evening Prayer 16 April 2020 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

  Evening Prayer 2 April 2022 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

  Evening Prayer 28 March 2021 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer 13 June 2022 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

   Evening Prayer 26 June 2020 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer 25 June 2022 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

  Evening Prayer 16 June 2022 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

  Evening Prayer 8 July 2022 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

  Evening Prayer 28 July 2022 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

  Evening Prayer 28 August 2022 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

   Evening Prayer 25 May 2023 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

   Evening Prayer 23 June 2023 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm 

Evening Prayer 12 July 2023 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

    Evening Prayer 21 July 2023 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

        Pacific, Myocum, 2002 oil on plywood 220 X 120cm

   Nothing Special, Dieulefit, 2010 oil on canvas 150 X 150 cm

        B.O.A.C. Myocum, 2020 oil on canvas 150 X 150 cm

             Pan Am 2022 oil on plywood 220 X 120 cm

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