Driving through the vast spaces of the American West is sometimes like taking part in a road film. Yes, the horizons are wide, but they also obscure—even if only by the curvature of the Earth. What we see is constantly changing, unfolding, as ridge after ridge pass away, revealing in sequence ever more distant ridges, ever more distant peaks.
The lesson came home most on my first visit to Nevada several years ago. Sure, I knew from looking at maps and aerial photographs that Nevada was not flat, but having never been there I had anticipated it to be merely a rough high desert on the other side of the Sierra. Yet in person, I found the state to be series after series of mountain ranges, some just as high and just as dramatic as anything in the Cascades, Rockies, or Sierra, yet relatively unknown to the outside world. Pilot Butte, for example, stands more than 11,000 feet high—nearly as high as Oregon’s tallest, Mount Hood—and yet it is relatively obscure outside of the state. The West, then, is so large, and the ridgelines so vast, that it’s possible for entire monolithic peaks to be hidden from view.
But this work didn’t begin there. When I first set out to make Anticipation I had several experimental ideas in mind. First, I wanted to make something with more physical presence than my previous paintings. To have any piece of art evoke the idea of “love” is a near impossibility—such directness may in fact be part of the drive to make art at all—but if there was a way, size and physicality would be key. I was thinking a lot about icons, altarpieces, shamanistic objects, and other quasi-religious items, and how physical they all are. So for this week, I handled a lot of smallish wooden art panels at an art store, trying to find one that had the right feel. This was the largest of the three I picked out, and I ran with it because I wanted to try another landscape.
Second, I wanted to try a different color, in this case cobalt violet, first synthesized in 1859. I set out to find it without even knowing what it was, only liking the name and the date (for me, a sly reference to the year of statehood for Oregon). I wanted to use the piece as an opportunity to think about the mid 19th century as well as where I am from.
Lastly, I wanted to use the materials to guide the image. With watercolor on paper, this mostly comes from the way that washes are used, and playing with how the water interacts, but the paper itself contributes relatively little because it is so consistent, even when rough textured. The wood panel, however, would offer the grain at least, and possibly a unique way of carrying the water. as it turned out, this was true, but limiting—the grain provided opportunities, but it also prevented washes from spreading very far, and limited many of the techniques that I had developed over the past year. (I don’t think that “printer’s tears” are possible on this grained surface.)
All this is very technical, isn’t it? All of this is very cerebral—not particularly romantic or emotional. Yet the intense color, the way that it is so thinned through wear (helped out by a sanding block) speaks of handling, touching, intimacy. Is it love? Ambiguous. But as the mountains peak over the ridges—as the image is both barely clinging to the wood, and yet inscribed in a color halfway between the blue in the artery and the red spilt on the ground—there’s something of a promise.
Anticipation. Watercolor on birch plywood, 6 in x 12 in, 2016