One day while web surfing, I stumbled across the website http://glennharrington.com/ of New York-based artist Glenn Harrington. Within seconds of seeing his work, I knew I had to chat with him. He’s a profound artist and thinker and our chat below really goes deep. Check it out …
“… I prefer to expose the brighter, celebratory and unusually interesting moments. Ugly is easy … Life is tough enough, why complicate it with depraved paintings?”
MICHAEL: Hey Glenn, Where do I even begin with you? Your work is exquisite. To me, your paintings are a combination of Realism and Impressionism. You seem to be a Contemporary Realist with romantic insight. No?
GLENN: When you say "romantic," if you mean idealized or ephemeral, I agree. And if you apply “truthful” to the term "realist," I agree. I'm interested in capturing an iconic image of an experience, happenings that we all know to be true; visual and emotional. Sometimes life is exciting and colorful and sometimes it is depressing and challenging. I prefer to expose the brighter, celebratory and unusually interesting moments. Ugly is easy. Someone has said that there is an inherent melancholy apparent in some of my work, that eventually the beauty of a painted promise fades. I think there is that element too, though don't peg me as a "Depressionist." Undoubtedly, the lighter, playful side is there often as well. We see "Impressionistically," that's to say we can only focus on one field of vision at a time - the peripheral image is always soft-edged. I'm attempting to capture this abstract image of reality and trying to keep it fresh throughout the process of painting. Brushstrokes on the surface are like calligraphy, like letters and words, they are the tracks of the painter’s craftsmanship and thinking.
MICHAEL: Ugly is easy. I love that. It implies that we have to work to see and create beauty sometimes. No? I mean, craftsmanship is work!
GLENN: We never have to look too far to find beauty. It's so bountiful, that we often take it for granted. Once we determine that something is beautiful, then we have to find out why. "Painting is quasi-scientific." Turner taught me what was really out there. Beauty can easily be turned into sentiment, but I think we can all spot an obsequious painting when we see one. I think we make a conscious choice to pursue beauty or not.
When I close my eyes for the last time, I want a Monet hanging over the bed, not a Bacon (if I can afford one by then). Life is tough enough, why complicate it with depraved paintings? Beauty can be subjective-I find some "weeds" as attractive as flowers while others might spray poison on them. Humans are complex, multifaceted, beautiful creatures capable of good and evil. Artists examining our darker psyche have produced some great paintings like William Blake, Francis Bacon, Hieronymus Bosch, Odd Nerdrum, etc. Painters can be poets, novelists or journalists - visual or literal. We align ourselves with either the stories of our day or the news of time - the fashions or trends. "Literature (and good painting) is news that stays news." The pursuit of beauty is timeless and endless and in the end, we are its imitators at best. Beauty exists apart from us. Beauty is real and painting it helps to understand it. Yes, "craftsmanship is work" and so necessary first. The hard work pays off when the craftsman starts to work not only with his hands, but his head and heart too.
MICHAEL: Unless it's an art academy that stresses figurative realism, I don't see many art schools that stress craftsmanship. Expressiveness and creativity seem to be the focus in art schools now.
GLENN: I think that's true, it was true when I was in college, and it was true when my son graduated from art school a few years ago. Craftsmanship takes time. I took classes in painting and drawing which encouraged self expression as well as illustration, calligraphy and graphic design, which focused on solving problems quickly, employing different media. I was never taught how to paint. I was encouraged to keep on painting. In the end, we teach ourselves. I think it's best this way. Painting is a language that we make up as we go along.
The benefit of school is being around a diversity of people who are striving for similar goals. Along the way, we might be lucky enough to hit that inspirational teacher. Many great artists never went to college. I read today that the cost of college leaves graduates with unprecedented debt, making it impossible for them to buy first homes. Between 2000 and 2012, the average cost of four-year college tuition increased 44% and this was during our recent "recession."
My son was encouraged by fellow students and advised by teachers to be more expressive, essentially to let go of traditional thought and methods in an effort to "find himself." I don't think that's bad advice, especially while you’re in school, but that advice should not be given at the expense of developing craft. Some of us don't 'find ourselves" until we have lived in the world a while. In the meantime, we can be developing a facility with painting that will assist us until we have something unique to say. My son has been able to piece together a career with commissions and occasional shows. It's not an easy path.
MICHAEL: How do you start a painting? Does it begin with a photograph of something (other than a portrait, obviously)? Do you create paintings purely from your imagination or are they somewhat recreations of an existing scene?
GLENN: Paintings usually begin with the inkling that an image, whether from life, imagination sketch or a photo, might make a great painting. Since they already exist in their present form, painting verbatim from life and photos doesn't excite me. Interpreting the experience is what makes it unique and sketches done from all the above is how it starts.
I've made paintings from life, photos, oil sketches and memory for a long time. Painting from memory is exciting, it requires being a designer/editor as you go, shifting and eliminating objects, shapes and colors in order to find the feeling you're after. There's a freedom and exhilaration that comes with working from memory. I often use uninhibited, old palette paper cut outs to find cohesive color schemes and apply them to reference. Photography can be a convenient tool, a reminder, but its abundant information can be too alluring. Whenever painting from life and photos, I abandon them at frequent stages so as not to be led down the dull road of copying. How many poets do you know who write verbatim what they see and feel? The art, the uniqueness, is in the interpretation, the distilling of our personal experiences.
Looking recently at the work of Cecilia Beaux and W.M. Chase, I found that in the few instances where they worked from photos, the paintings, although technically excellent, seemed stiff, lacked soul; that's because the proportions, lighting and rendering were photographic. I found that in contrast to their other great works, any number of artists could have painted them. Drawing is the first link between the canvas and the brain, it's the structure of a painting, the framing the sheathing's attached to, that's what first gives life to paintings. George Innes and Constable painted landscapes inside their studios, "inviting nature in." They achieved this with lively imaginations and precise life sketches.
MICHAEL: Well, that's a first. Believe it or not, but after all of this time, I've never heard an artist say the art is in the interpretation. Cool. You know, it seems to me that ALL of the great art that I've seen, including yours, has some grounding in tradition or what has preceded it. Usually, when I see something that claims to be "original," it's a mess. Thoughts?
GLENN: Once you make it to the painting stage, it's all about trying to hold on to the power the image gave off initially. What keeps it alive is what we have to say and in a sense we transform the original, isolating it, giving it a new life. The process is where the poetry is, it puts our distinct impression on it. The act of the interpretation is what we share and that is the painting.
Paintings are sort of framed fossils of what's happened, evidence of an experience. It's not just the footprint that matters to me, but what the foot reveals. Who was the creature and where was it going? There is so much life in Van Gogh's paintings, they teem with life, those buttery brushstrokes leave sled tracks in the snow. I went to St. Remy and was in the room at the sanitarium where Van Gogh looked through the little window, next to the famous bed, to see the workers toiling in the fields. Just outside the sanitarium's main entrance is an old Roman stone structure with arches and beautiful entablature. John Sargent painted a lovely impression of this silent sculpture, Van Gogh didn't; he chose to reflect the inner lives of the cherry trees and working people. Though technically admirable, Sargent's fossil lacks the importance and humanity of Van Gogh's.
None of us paint alone. We drag history's lot along the road with us. For better or worse, we thrust ahead fueled by the great painters, they show us what's possible. So many of us start out by imitating them only to fall short and become ourselves. While many of us will never come close to the perfection of these masters, I think it's important to realize that we have something unique to say as well, and in fact, shouldn't worship them to the degree that we stifle our own vision and confidence. If you don't agree, read Tolstoy's, "What is Art" and Mark Twain’s autobiography. Both knock out the legs of the great masters in music and painting in an effort to get at the essential, the core of what's driving the works and the public’s role in their acceptance.
I'm so captivated by all the art movements from the Baroque, Pre-Raphaelites, Tonalists, Expressionists and Impressionists to the Abstract. Sometimes I can't take my brain off a Motherwell or Diebenkorn. Lately, the convincing wild wind in Homer's paintings make me want to put a light jacket on and enjoy the breeze. Everything I think is good works its way into my work. Setting out to be honest is where I try and begin.
I illustrated books for many years and was always painfully conscious of the audience when painting. Now, I'm the audience; a dark room full of “little me's” - some are editors and critics, some are restless children and snoring old men. There is a section of adoring fans up top and another waiting with tomatoes down below in case I slip up. Of course the sneering artists are standing in the back. It's not that I feel I need to please them all, it's more that my intention is to relate to them all in some way, conveying part of a story that they know in their own lives. Who doesn't read a book to get something out of it for themselves? My favorites are those masterfully simple writers whose hand you barely ever see. Art is a relay race, started by others long ago. There are dead artists all over the field holding out oil-stained batons for us to transport to the next generation - only there's no straight path!
MICHAEL: When did you first become aware of yourself as an artist? Where do you think your talent comes from?
GLENN: My dad was an occasional painter who wished he had pursued the discipline. He was my first teacher, so I can't remember when I wasn't an artist or at least interested in art. My career has taken a circuitous route from sign painter and van muralist to graphic designer and illustrator. Early on, I illustrated Bill Clinton and Bob Dole for the back cover of Mad Magazine. United Artists hired me to do a James Bond movie poster (which was just published in Germany's Folkwang Museum catalog 25 years later). I've worked for most of the major publishers, painting for over 600 books. I've worked as an advertising sketch artist in the Chrysler Building with an office that overlooked the northeast gargoyle. Although others would have considered me an "artist," I knew the commitment the label really carried, and I didn't consider myself in that realm. Somewhere along the line, I made that commitment, dismissing all the commercial work which had taught me keen draftsmanship and began to focus on content that I felt was important. It's been 20 years since the "transformation" and I now feel that the work I'm producing has some lasting value. It's naturally segued into mixing life with its pleasures and trials into my subject matter.
My drive to paint was introduced to me by my father. My "talent" comes from God. I've worked hard, the result may suggest a natural talent, but I think that some of us are endowed with an innate ability to recall and recognize shapes, form, color, light, etc. I feel as though I've been blessed with an ease to record scenes and given a natural visual curiosity from early on. We don't think we are particularly gifted in an area until the moment we realize that everyone doesn’t see things as we do. Some might suggest genetics, conditioning or environment as the reason. I don't. Certainly abilities are passed on in generations, but I don't think that there is an "art gene."
MICHAEL: I'm getting two words floating in my head from what you've just said; confidence and commitment ... Perhaps even faith. Which came first for you during the transformation period?
GLENN: I grew up in the suburbs of New York surrounded by the art in advertising. You can't help but be influenced by it as a child; books, cartoons, magazines, subway and bus ads, movie billboards, etc. Not far from me on eastern Long Island, was where Kline, DeKooning, Motherwell, and the Abstracts met. This was real art to me at the time. I still think that it's real art. I didn't know how to get there. I applied for a painting scholarship out of high school at Southampton College, just minutes from the abstract painters, but was told that my portfolio was better suited for the city and that it had more of a commercial look and it did. I wanted to be independent and the city offered the opportunity for me to be and I found I could make an excellent living there. Peripherally, I was watching the painters at the galleries and museums, thinking that I might like to make the jump one day. The commitment concerned me, the fact that I might be locked away alone until I could hammer out a series of something original or worthy of a gallery's interest. I also wanted to live after having spent the last 17 years in school. What I've found is that I was already investing my life, hammering out solutions to other people’s problems. I don't regret a minute of the body of work I produced. I met many people, traveled and honed my skills. I've supported a family, bought a home and had a "normal life." I didn't want to wind up on the side of the road like Pollock, or end the way Rothko did. In fact, I wasn't in awe of the lifestyle of most of the great artists. That's what I meant by commitment. I don't think I mentioned confidence, though the excess or lack of it is always there. You also mentioned faith. I'd be happy to go into that if you'd like. In short, my faith shaped who I am and that in turn shaped my work, which in turn shaped my life.
MICHAEL: How has faith shaped your work and life?
GLENN: Last year, I didn't know that the moon moves nearly one-quarter of an inch a year away from the earth. When I was in school, there were only nine planets, then eight - when they discovered that Pluto was a dirty ice ball. Now they number over one thousand in multiple galaxies. If you follow the number of earthquakes in recent years, you'll see an incredible increase all over the world. The atrocities in Sudan, Syria, the Ukraine, etc. suggest that we've not put an end to war. The internet has aided societies in their quest for the same freedoms we take for granted here. The industrialized nations are expanding at an alarming rate and one is left with the impression that the US may not be at the helm soon. ICANN will shortly hand over the internet to the world and the "glory days" of the internet will most likely be over.
I mentioned earlier that I'm interested in the pursuit of beauty, that drive is not devoid of the realities taking shape in our world, it is a conscious decision. The poet W.B. Yeats talked of the "Perne in the Gyre", an ever increasing spiral downward with fashion and trends speeding up until the end of time. In the face of these realities, imitating natural, silent beauty interests me more.
Artists are observant people, but if we lock ourselves away and ignore the realities of our changing world, we won't be able to represent it in an honest, committed way. When we look up at beautiful skies, it's hard to imagine that the black coldness of space lies just beyond. At some point, any thinking person must start to question what we are doing here, especially when contrasted with the lifelessness that lies beyond our earth. I'm fascinated by space and science. Aside from the gifts of Tang and introducing aluminum foil, one great gift NASA has given us is the image of an "earth rise." It's a spacescape from the moon in which an astronaut in the 1960's read to the world from the Bible's Book of Genesis as the earth rose from the moons horizon upside down. This certainly put things in perspective for me, to see how unique our situation is. Humans have accomplished fantastic things, but we didn't make the universe and that takes us to the inevitable question, "Where did it come from?"
I have been skeptical of organized religion since childhood. As a boy, I had heard and read about Jesus. It seemed that everyone I knew -including me-who professed Him was getting it wrong. So, as opposed to abandoning Him, I started to read the Bible. It was there that I found out that just about everyone who had found favor with God had not lived up to His standards. The only person who did was Jesus, and as a boy, he became my super hero. Here was a man who fulfilled ancient prophecies, claimed to be God, performed healing miracles, was tender with children and women at a time when society's dismissed them, told us of heaven, was rejected, and then rose from the dead to be witnessed by more than 500 people. He couldn't be dismissed as just a good teacher after making the claims he did. He didn't give us that choice.
I don't see how it's possible not to question our purpose here and where we are headed, to live blindly, without having at least a philosophy of what's really going on. A good friend, a father who's teenage daughter committed suicide a year ago, stopped by my studio this morning to ask if I would paint her portrait. He told me that he would never see her again. He is very angry with her still. He is a hard working agnostic/atheist. Trying to imagine his sorrow is difficult, but living with the thought of her extinction must be unbearable.
Over the years I've read about most other religions. I've walked away as a stronger follower of Jesus as a result. I believe His promise that his "yolk is easy." Life is tough. I'm looking to ease my yolk. Many religions talk of giving up yourself, some to the extent of extinction. I don't accept this, life is too beautiful to count its end as empty. It nullifies our purpose, making life and art, pointless.
My faith is who I am, which in turn continually influences my work. Once I gave up the idea of who I thought I wanted to be, it was easy to let go of previous high aspirations and just get to work, unencumbered and driven purely by ego. As I've mentioned earlier, I'm not a "Depressionist." In spite of the difficulties the world is facing, and has always faced, it still abounds with beautiful people and places. Painting them is a noble and fulfilling pursuit. I'd rather remind someone of a beautiful moment than a horrible one. That's not to say that these moments are always colorful and light filled, even somber - I love cloudy days. We've all seen art history's fantastic paintings of war, depravity and degradation. Some are wonderfully haunting. I feel there's too much of it out there already, just turn on the TV. In C.S. Lewis', "The Great Divorce," the small bus that makes its way through the grass stops to let out the occupants to find heaven shinning in the distance. Some of the people drop all and head towards it while others get back on the bus to return home. An artist is among those who returns to the bus with the intention of relaying what glory he has seen to "his audience."
I don't like crowded buses, but that's not the reason I wouldn't return, I'd have sailed to Byzantium.
MICHAEL: Finally Glenn, The fact that your son is also an artist ... what does that mean to you? Also, long after you're gone, what do you want your body of work to say to people ... from your point of view anyway?
GLENN: When you're walking along and discover a face in a cloud, in a rug, or on wall paper, it's called "pareidolia." It's the sighting of imagery within pattern; recognizing figures in wood grain or marble are the most common. If, when you are walking along, you have made the discovery and turn to your side and there exists another person who has just seen the same thing and is turning to you to see if you've seen it too, then you have an inkling into the relationship I have with my son. We share a silent visual language. I told you before that I didn't believe in an "art gene," but I do believe that the way we see and observe, might be a combination of nurture and what's passed along in the blood.
A painter’s journey is what he makes it. From the minute I open my eyes in the morning, I'm already trying to figure out what I'm looking at; warms contrasting cools, ambient light, why a tree is twisted, value structure etc. Aside from the business side of painting, it's the life of a poet, a visual poet. Being able to share this unique perspective with my son has given me great pleasure. We are friends, he's worked very hard - it's not an easy road. We make each other feel that we're not working alone and believe that we're both working toward something that is bigger than we're seeing it now.
I really don't think about the body of work I'll be leaving behind very much, I just don't want it to be forgotten before I go. I've sold hundreds of paintings around the world and don't know where they've wound up. They have more of a life than me! I've enjoyed great success in the venues I've found myself in and believe that's mainly because I've been blessed and worked hard in the studio, inviting real places, objects, people and moments from our world, into the paintings. I don't think that Shakespeare was too concerned about the literary legacy he would leave behind in contrast to the vitality of the living moment generated by his live performances on stage. His folios were published later. He wasn't thinking of the movie and book rights! It was all about the present act. I'm still excited about what I'm going to paint. What holds up over time is for others to determine. You can't think about it while painting, ego and acceptance are cruel masters, legacy will pale in comparison to where we really are in the end.
MICHAEL: Yes indeed. Glenn, this has been such a pleasure. Thanks for chatting.
GLENN: Thanks for "stumbling" across me and for all your compliments and insightful questions.
Check out Glenn Harrington at http://glennharrington.com/.