Painting

“On Being Traditional” or “Traditional Pictures” (A pre-cursor to my solo show in January) by Sean Oswald

When I completed my time in graduate school, which had been a time of great learning, experimentation and a general opening up of my work, I found myself afterwards in a state of continual shift. This continual shift was happening in my personal life, in the sense that I was finishing graduate school and was systematically applying for introductory level faculty positions in painting and drawing, but the shift I’m referring to — for the scope of this essay— is the shift that was taking place in my work. This can be traced to my time before going to grad school in 2011, which was my first year of marriage. At that time I had begun an enormous amount of personal research on the atelier resurgence in American arts education. This time period was one where I focused my work to drawing and painting from life with regular/ bi-weekly study from the live, nude model, where I would drive from my college town home to Cincinnati, a 45 minute drive.

The discipline extended to more than just studying the figure for 3 hours a night at 2 times a week, but I was also waking up an hour before dawn to do Master copies from the Bargue Drawing Course, commonly used in the French Academies. This discipline lead me to meet two artists, Max Ginsburg and Garin Baker. Two men associated with the “old hat” club at the school for art and design in New York City. They also taught together at the Art Students league, or more commonly referred to as just “the League.” One summer, since I had was teaching high school painting and drawing, my wife and I were invited to live with Garin in Upstate New York, at the Carraige House Atelier in New Windsor, New Jersey.

This time took my discipline in drawing and painting from life to a new level. We would paint from the still life after breakfast, from the landscape after lunch, and then from the live model after dinner until around 11pm. Garin taught in the city two nights a week at “the League” and the other two nights he had models out to his studio. Those nights attracted illustrators, comic book artists, hobbyists, one guy who worked in Jeff Koons’ studio, and one Hasidic Jewish man who couldn’t paint when the model was nude. Sometimes when Garin could muster compassion, for he was also of Jewish descent—his family had left Russia for America a generation ago and his parents were film makers in NYC in the 70’s and 80’s, raising him as a “secular Jew”—he would ask the model to wear underwear. We painted like this on the daily for all of six weeks and times were intermittent with on location paintings along the Hudson River, where the painters of old who made it famous, may have set up an easel years before. We also took day trips to see the likes of N.C. and Andrew Wyeth’s studio spaces, and to the Hispanic Society to see the Joaquin Sorrolla murals, to the society of illustrators to see the Norman Rockwell’s, and to the Met to see the Sargents, William Merritt Chases, and the Bougereaus along with others. We passed by the Rembrandts and the Holbeins, for Garin didn’t care for them, but I did.

After the summer ended and we ended up back in Oxford, (OH), the small college town that houses Miami University (the first Miami in fact, for it’s where the Miami Indian tribe were) I found myself continuing my disciplines, but beginning to experiment more conceptually again with the direction of my paintings.

This along with other, more important matters within our family, my wife and I decided that I should leave my job and pursue graduate school in Cincinnati. This brings me again to the beginning of my story, when upon my first critique of grad school, during the first week of class, I sat down with the “photography” professor and champion of all things Heidegger. I showed him a number of small portraits and still life paintings done naturalistically and from direct observation. To these he replied, “this is no longer a valid way to make art- you cant do this. If you want to make this kind of work, maybe you should consider the output of “instagram” or the material of YouTube.” Of course this wasn’t the only perspective I got, plenty of my professors and of course my thesis committee would be eventually made up of those who valued making with the hand and with traditional materials, but these comments set me on a two year course of rapid consumption and output of every type of mode I could without the compromise of my essential ideas. I made my work in plexiglass, on paper, pure abstraction, ab-ex, projected plexi-glass light experiments, quintessentially art school-esque dance performances, animated cartoons, magazines, comics, didactic Zines, satirical religious pieces, and etc. I had “had the quintessential art school experience.” After my first year review, I was encouraged again to begin painting and drawing and to dig deeply into the painting language under the tutelage of the painting faculty. My thesis work then, of which I was extremely proud, looked so similar to the work of Yale’ys grad students of whom I openly mocked in my undergrad years. They were large paper paintings, done with acrylic and marker in a naïve, flat and unsophisticated way, from the motifs of famous paintings like Titians “The flaying of Marsayas”, or Caravaggio’s “Abraham and Isaac”, and others of both religious and cultural significance. For I was working out my own feelings about organized religion and my wrestling with God, mainly in a tertiary piece “Jacob Wrestling the Angel” after Delacroix’s version, except in mine there were beat up pick up trucks and benign house cats with acidic/ neon colors.

So when I finished grad school and began to shop my work around along with my CV for faculty positions, I found myself in that state of great fluctuation, for my work had been set off in the direction of ever expansion from that initial critique with the photo professor. Around this time I was showing and painting along side one of my thesis committee members and a guy who in many ways had taken it upon himself to “show me the ropes.” We went to New York City again, but this time with very different aims and different artists in mind than the ones I had gone to explore with Garin several years before. This occassion we spent a lot of time in Chelsea at Chaim and Reed, Sikkema and Jenkins, David Zwirner, and Peter Blum. We were there to see Merlin James, and John Zurier, David Humphrey, and to take advantage of my friends contacts with the gallery owners. We went to listen to an open critique with David Cohen, and had late night drinks with an artist friend who also wrote for Artcritical. Our aims were different and so were the artists. The last day in town I went to the MOMA by myself, for I am an introvert after all and needed to re-charge. I also had a piece of advice from my mentor in my mind as I went. I had asked him something related to figuring out the next direction in my work, and his advice was go to the MOMA and “pay attention to what stirs (me) the most, let it be intuitive and at the gut level.” I took his advice and went to the MOMA and allowed myself to move in and out of the pictures and to pay attention to where they were stirring me- to my surprise Malevich and Dali did very little for me. The Pollocks stirred me more than anticipated, and Newmans zips were quite dazzling. De Kooning drove me a bit wild, they were incredibly exciting. But to my chagrin the painting that stirred me most and on the deepest gut level was Monet’s “Agapanthus.” It felt deeply shameful at the time, as I assumed that those who I had been rubbing shoulders with might laugh at me for this, for to be true to myself in this way and admit this to myself, it might mean the political game I was playing in the art world would be in danger of coming to a halt. I might have to stop making work that I didn’t really feel, BUT I could articulate how it checked all the analytical boxes that strategically could place me in the RIGHT galleries and court the favor of the RIGHT artists, critics, and gallerists.

What I didn’t know about myself then, but have come to realize is that I am a very traditional man in a sense, (though I am an artist, which may seem to some as an oxymoron). To be frank, I believe in a traditional understanding of beauty and my work asserts a classical position of the triangle of truth, beauty and goodness. All of my work retains this goal to some extent.

So during this time I found myself slowly being redrawn to the influences and artistic loves of my past. This came to a head while on residency at the Vermont Studio Center, where I poured through pre-renassaince masters of Giotto, Massaccio, Fra Angelico, and Pierre Della Francesca. I realized that I needed to be honest with myself again, in a different way and that my work needed now to refocus and I needed to re-draw the boundaries. So after a time of drawing large religious images straight from the book of Luke, and inspired by Pasolinis The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Which ironically became the work for my first solo show), I decided to return to traditional motifs; the portrait, the figure, the landscape (especially trees), and still life (especially fruit and florals).

From 2015 to the present I have been painting within these confines and my works are a selection of full figures, florals, fruit still life’s, portraits, and landscapes (mainly trees).