Mastering The Good
There is no question that these are dark times and dark times call for light. That light is beauty. The beautiful comforts us in times like these when life itself is in question. I have been writing about the beautiful for well over half a century. Generally, I have been making my case for beauty through the visuals arts. Of course, the beautiful exist in many forms and all of them are good. Here I am going to limit myself to painting and to one painter who creates beautiful objects, the New Brunswick artist, Stephen Scott.
I chose Stephen because I know him and his work very well. You can check out a very long conversation that I had with him on my blog (virgilhammock.com) under the heading Stephen Paints a Picture which resulted in an exhibition of his work at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick. While you are on my blog you might want to read my post Art and Beauty that is also the name of my blog. Both of these articles were long before the current crisis with COVID-19.
Stephen and I often talk in circles and we talk a lot. In the current crisis our conversations have been limited to phone calls and FaceTime. Of course, we usually talk about what is art. He is, and as always been, a realist painter and I am a champion of realism, but also have a fondness for abstract and non-objective painting. I have alway been under the impression that content in art is secondary to its physical qualities. Here Stephen and I often part ways. I believe that I have to be attracted to a painting first by its qualities as an art work, craft and beauty, before I move on to content. This does not mean that content is unimportant. Content is often key to an artwork’s place in art history. Paintings can be beautifully done and totally devoid of serious meaning such as much of 18th century British portraiture. However, I have problems with the reverse. A badly done painting, regardless of its content, remains bad art or, as I would maintain, not art at all. An example would be Damien Hirst’s Spot Paintings. Damien Hirst and, his American counterpart, Jeff Koons, are not artists, but con men. If you think they are artists I suggest that you stop reading this article here as you will not like it.
Stephen has often told me what separates art from non-art is content then goes on to use his painting as an example. I reply that a landscape is a landscape and its content is landscape. His painting Southside is a view of a bridge crossing the Saint John River in Fredericton. It is a very wonderful painting and it is of a particular place, which is un-named in the title, but that place would be of little importance to people outside of Fredericton or New Brunswick, but they may still like the painting for its quality as a landscape. Viewers generally like paintings because they hold up as works of art even if some of them do not consciously know why. They know intuitively where things should be in a painting as they read it left to right and from the bottom left to the top right. North Side certainly checks off all those boxes. It reads well as a picture. In short it is a good painting.
To be fair Stephen and I have a different definition of the term content. I believe that when he speaks of content he is referring to the choice of subject matter that he finds worthy to paint. My idea of content is more its philosophic and or political meaning. Stephen has a good point because it is up to his vision what to paint in a picture be they of a landscape, city scape, street scene, or of people. If an artist is using their art to illustrate a belief like their dislike of war it is something else again. Take the work of Kathe Kollwitz say compared to that of Claude Monet. Both fine artists, but very a different in their approach to art making. I must admit that I am in the Monet camp as I like ‘pretty’ pictures, but that does not take away from the quality of Kollwitz’s art.
Another point that Stephen has forcefully made to me about the difference between art and non-art is the idea of intention. A real artist has the intention of making art. Art making is not intuitive, but done with intention. Granted passable art can be made by an elephant painting with a brush in its trunk rather like a thousand monkeys typing Shakespeare, but it is not the intention of the elephant or the monkeys to produce art. It is more likely to gain peanuts. Hopefully a good artist would not need a thousand tries to get a passable painting. A good artist sets out each time with the intention of making art.
I have over the years watched Stephen painting as I have had other artists, but it is he that I have watched the most. I have seen him work from a pencil sketch, to an oil study, to a finished painting. He makes strenuous demands on himself. I have seen him work all day on a painting and in the end wipe it all out and start over the next day. This sometimes over my objection that what he was destroying was perfectly good. In the end his judgement was sound, but it is hard to watch. Major paintings sometimes take months to complete. An example, other then the portrait of myself described in Stephen Paints a Picture (Man in a Yellow Shirt), is Tableau with Three Figures.
This painting is the result of a series photographs that he took at my 80th birthday in the summer of 2018. ( Stephen seldom works from photographs, but directly from observation.) It’s an evening scene through a glass door of three people sitting at a dining room table. The figure in the centre, shown from the back is myself, the woman to the left is my friend, Gina Bradet, and the other partial figure across from me is another friend, Chris Mackay. The painting is very different from its photographic sources and in every way better. Anyone who knows the three of us in the picture would recognize us immediately even though the figures are very broadly painted. The lighting comes from several directions, but it all seems correct. The colour of a mid-summer evening sparkles. I watched this painting go through several cycles and, in the end, it is a beautiful painting.
To return to my earlier point about content in Stephen’s work, Tableau with Three Figures is not titled Virgil’s 80th Birthday Party, but it speaks to a more universal theme: that of three friends enjoying each other’s company on a Sunday evening. This event could be happening anywhere. It reminds me of an Ingmar Bergman film, Smiles of a Summer Night, but that is just me showing my age. How we look at a painting depends on our own history. As an art critic, art teacher, and artist I look at a painting in a different way than an art lay person. Different, not better. However, I think that most viewers will enjoy looking at Tableau with Three Figures and gain something from doing so.
Stephen’s Northern Gothic is another work that operates on many levels, but can be easily understood by many as just a beautiful painting. He would be annoyed by me using the words ‘just a beautiful painting’. It is a compliment as contemporary beautiful paintings are few and far between and Northern Gothic is obviously far more complex in its meaning and intention. The title is, of course, a take on Grant Woods 1930 painting American Gothic, but there the resemblance ends. Stephen’s painting is far more painterly than Woods’s work. American Gothic is social commentary and Northern Gothic is not. Stephen’s painting is a self portrait with his wife. It is a mirror image painted from life. The history of art is full of images of artists and their wives. The best examples are by Rubens and Rembrandt. Stephen is very aware of art history and admires flemish painting as do I. The use of space is more complex in Northern Gothic than in American Gothic and its mood is far darker. It is hard to figure out where things are in Stephen’s painting, but it seems to all hold together and make sense.
Painting is artifice and serves no useful purpose. They are objects placed on a wall that are meant to deceive or, at least, that is what Plato would have us believe. Plato had many useful ideas; this was not one of them. Art, of course, serves a purpose, in fact many purposes. Chief among them is to satisfy the soul. We need satisfaction more than ever in these trying days of COVID-19. One way is making art and another is looking at it. Some of us can do both. At the moment most of us are isolated in our homes and art galleries are closed. We are reduced to viewing art by digital means; that is a poor way of looking at the paintings of Stephen Scott where their physical presence is so important. We must rely on our imaginations and wait for the time when we can see his, and other artists, work in person.
Let me leave you with the words of Immanuel Kant from his Critique of Judgement, part 51, Of the Division of the Beautiful Arts: “Among the formative arts I would give the palm to painting, partly because as the art of delineation it lies at the root of all the other formative arts, and partly because it can penetrate much further into the the region of ideas and can extend the field of intuition in conformity with them further than the others can.”* Take that Plato.
* Philosophies of Art and Beauty, Edited by Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns, The Modern Library, New York (Random House), 1964, pg. 331.
© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, 25 April 2020.
Stephen Scott has both a fine eye and hand. He often paints directly from nature and that gives value to the immediacy of his art. Stephen is also an unabashed romantic and that, in this time and age, is a very good thing when so many of us are trying to be pragmatic about everything in our lives. Today there seems to be little mainstream interest in landscape art perhaps because it does not fit readily into the Postmodern mode except perhaps as a vehicle for irony. But Stephen as a romantic — he paints landscape as a window to an understanding of nature, as a thing of beauty. There is only his sense of that what was before his eyes waiting to be discovered by him and now shared with us.
~ Posted by Virgil Hammock