By Nancy Natale
Styles of painting go in and out of fashion. In Western art, representational painting based on observation of the real world and intended to produce an illusion of reality, was once the only style of painting. From the Renaissance until the middle of the 19th century artists painted what they saw, posing models, setting up still lifes, or painting landscapes outdoors. Abstraction or non-objective painting slowly became accepted with the influence of other cultures and schools of thought. Today, abstraction in various modes is the most dominant style of painting. This seems particularly true for artists who use the medium of encaustic.
The Figurative Style
Running counter to this trend, I invited two artists who paint in a figurative style to answer some questions about their work. They are also included in the small fraternity of men that we see in encaustic circles. Before looking more deeply at their work, I want to establish that “figurative” does not necessarily mean that the art must depict the figure; it may simply mean a representational style that is based on observed reality. Also, the term may encompass a spectrum of styles that vary from what may be called “realist,” “naturalist” or “representational” to very abstracted.
In addition to the information about their work that I gathered from email interviews with Kevin Frank and Dan Addington, I am also providing an excerpt from each of their artist statements. This is to demonstrate the formal way that artists may describe their work and how they put forth important and illuminating ideas that their work is expressing.
Kevin Frank received a BFA in drawing and painting from Carnegie Mellon University in 1983. Until 2010, he worked as a broadcast graphic designer for NBC Universal. He now lives and paints in Kingston, N.Y., in the Hudson Valley, and shows his oil and encaustic paintings throughout the country. Earlier this year he had a solo show at Fischbach Gallery in New York City. You may have seen his distinctive work in R&F’s Encaustic Works 2012, A Biennial Exhibition in Print or in a couple of other contemporary books on encaustic.
Kevin describes his technique as painting “in a naturalistic way–to represent reality by way of recreating or imitating the effects of light, texture, etc. on a given surface.” Occasionally he does paint abstractly and he also works as a graphic artist. Kevin’s recent work is based on collectible ceramic figurines in well-known styles that he finds on eBay, such as Hummels or those figurines modeled after Norman Rockwell’s magazine covers.
NN: Does your skillful formal painting technique put you at odds with today’s current art trends?
KF: I don’t consciously follow or avoid art trends. I’m concerned with making good work. If one has to look over one’s shoulder while making work, the purpose of painting then becomes something else. With painting, my objectives are clear and do not take into account what anyone else is doing.
NN: In your paintings of Hummels and Rockwell figurines, does the Old Master technique make an ironic comment on the figures? Or are you not thinking irony at all?
KF: What is referred to as the Old Master technique, perfected centuries ago, continues to be a viable way to make paintings. I use this technique for its practicality and unique pictorial qualities. Of course I recognize the irony of using this technique to lavish attention on and heighten the drama of a banal object, but don’t necessarily endeavor to make that the message of the work.
NN: Do you paint the figurines dead on or with emphasis on certain aspects? For example, I notice that some figurines cast shadows while others have solid-colored backgrounds.
KF: The two series involve different concepts. In the case of the Rockwell series, I have taken mass-produced porcelain figurines based on his paintings and used them as models. My objective was to reproduce Rockwell’s original paintings from them. This entailed positioning and lighting the figurine, as close as possible, to match the positioning and lighting as rendered in the original painting. In many cases, Rockwell painted his subjects over nondescript backgrounds which I have carried through in this series.
In the Hummel series, I have placed the figurines in a more dramatic setting. I explore the effects of light and shadow on a figure and how that treatment may contribute to the emotional aspect of the image. In this case, the figurines are stand-ins for actual living beings as they possess similar surface qualities such as skin and clothing texture. The fact that these objects were ubiquitous in many homes of my generation, including my own, is another relevant factor.
NN: Has your opinion of the figurines changed after working with them for extended periods?
KF: When I first started using the figurines as models my purpose was—at least on a conscious level—to study Rockwell’s techniques. I wanted to understand how he achieved the effects he did. That’s all I was thinking about. But through the process of returning the three-dimensional object back to two dimensions I revealed an expression of my own subconscious that I wasn’t aware was there. Rockwell’s original intent was to show the America he knew; mine was to study how he made the work. In the end, I think my interpretations pay homage to his mastery but also challenge his American myth
“Through the layered appropriation, the inanimate ultimately becomes animated, and the narrative shifts to the tangled coexistence of humor and pain, boredom and imagination, truth and fiction. In this newest generation of Rockwell’s characters, the perceived comfort and warmth of his ideal are revealed as a fictional defense against the true complexities in which we exist.”
This is an excerpt from the full artist statement that appears on Kevin Frank’s website.
Dan Addington’s extensive educational background includes an MFA in painting from Illinois State University, a BA with double major in art and theatre from Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, and a Master’s in art and art history from Arkansas State University. He exhibits his work in numerous group and solo exhibitions across the U.S., and since 2007, he has owned and operated Addington Gallery in Chicago’s River North Gallery District.
Dan produces work that looks dramatically different from Kevin’s paintings, but the figures that Dan paints are also based on a type of statuary – monuments, in his case. Process and unconventional materials form the technical basis for his work, and he describes his style as being a blend of figuration and abstraction.
NN: What attracts you to representation as an approach to painting compared to abstraction?
DA: Well, I’m attracted to both. That’s been the conundrum that has driven my work for many years. The first three-quarters or so of the life of a painting in the studio involves abstract processes and considerations, and it isn’t until the end that the image steps into the painting— and then a whole new process of drawing with various tools and materials begins.
Usually, it’s an abstract idea that starts the ball rolling. I don’t believe in creating texture on a surface just for texture’s sake. I want that accumulation to be an organic result of the process. It’s like layers of history; with each “era” of the painting, a new layer appears. So the beginning of the painting starts with broad moves.
Often, I begin the composition by collaging elements to a prepared wood panel. That may be sheet music, text from books (often poetry), or patterned fabric. I spend time staining the surface with pigments, then sanding and weathering the surface with sanders and other tools. A lot of this gets buried, but it’s still there and much of it will remain visible through the wax and other layers that will eventually cover it.
NN: Do you generally have an idea of where you are going with a painting or do you let the painting seem to guide you as you proceed—and when do you introduce the figure?
DA: For the majority of the time, I’m feeling my way along, hoping for the piece to speak back to me about what will happen next. I usually have a selection of images in mind, and when an image clicks with what has been happening on the panel, hopefully we get a marriage made in heaven!
NN: Since history is an important influence on your subject matter, do you do research on foreign trips and/or read history?
DA: The influence of history really started with a long trip to Ireland in the mid 1990s. That experience had a lasting effect on me and my work. At that point I moved from using traditional paint to including other organic materials to make my work. The approach was tentative at first. Then, from over the course of a decade, starting in 2001, I took a number of trips to Europe. A good deal of the imagery in my work is the direct result of drawings and photos from that time.
All the figures in my work depict statuary—not the sculpture of museums, but actual monuments out in public spaces, in parks, on buildings, in cemeteries. The idea of monuments and how they commemorate lives and events intrigued me—especially since the U.S. looks different in this regard. I love reading about history, specifically the places I’ve visited, but I also love reading the poetry produced in those places, too. It all finds a place in the work sooner or later.
NN: What is the significance of birds in your work?
Ironically, I think I started doing the birds because there was less “significance” than the more dramatic, bold, large-scale images I was doing. They were a way to make a small, quiet, whispering statement. But of course, every choice has some level of significance. The birds have come to represent the gentler emotions that I want to express. They also have come to symbolize a transcendent spiritual element present in nature.
“The organic qualities of the wood, wax, and tar communicate a feeling of timelessness. The materials and processes used emphasize the paintings as visceral objects with an evocative physical presence. Often, these materials are meant to recall and engage the physical body, and with the accompanying image, evoke a meditational response from the viewer. Through a mixed use of painterly languages, these works explore the nature of mortality, express a sense of loss, and address mankind’s desire to locate spiritual meaning.”
This is an excerpt from the full artist statement that appears on Dan Addington’s website. The Addington Gallery Chicago is found here.