Dominion Resources recently purchased three of my paintings.
They are river subjects, about which few Richmonders complain. Mine don't necessarily draw comparison with the local talent - unless that local talent is Daniel Robbins, the expatriated Frank Hobbs, or the long-missing John Cort.
I'd like to take the opportunity to talk about these people.
If John Cort isn't well-remembered, it's entirely his fault. But his reputation is secure. Last I heard of him, he lived on an island. When you can do that, you don't think about the home-folk anymore. And why should you? You are not only far away in terms of distance, you've gone about as fer as you can go as regards the elusive, but highly coveted spoils our culture can lavish on its winning teams - whether the team is a team of many or a team of one.
I don't know the man personally, but I've seen a number of his pictures. You can too - if you care to: 1) be in Downtown Richmond, Virginia and; 2) show up at the James Center there.
The first (and least) of these celebrates pride and pelf. It is in the magisterial vein of much oversized portraiture and, while it is technically superior, it has no artistic value. Few portraits do - or have to. But the other two paintings are worth your time. Facing the portrait is a panoramic view Cort knocked together from a downtown eyrie - or photograph of same. It captures the after-hours glamor of a place that will most definitely wake up in the morning. Its treatment is relentlessly energetic; the picture is alive - an attribute that's peculiarly underrated. Cort's limited palette and "rubbing out" technique are eminently suitable to his aims. There are few better paintings of the subject. It is quite enormous and, unlike most panoramas, it is vertical in format.
The third is of a shoreline washed by slate-colored waves. It's a good piece of work and also very large. The smart money, however, should go to the cityscape, which takes some risks and sticks in the head.
Whatever Cort may do, I hope he tempers his portraiture with truck like this.
Frank Hobbs doesn't live in Richmond anymore, but professes to like it and may well return. Choice of residence aside, Hobbs' contribution to the landscape is worth revisiting.
His most visible work revolves around the poetry, if you will, of transportation. It's formally exciting and has a terrific punch. But his river paintings are, in my view, more compelling. They are striking enough to attract art accumulators whose comfortable yearnings go only so far. To see a Hobbs' painting among its peers can be unsettling; if you don't watch yourself, it'll you wake up.
In his river paintings he gets at two very essential things: the vitality of fluid motion against the monumental forms of piers and bridges. His delineation of things is strong and subtle. His bridges span the river, keep the traffic moving, and are not likely to cave in. He understands that less is more, but is willing to show the effects of age - which can mean a lot on a bridge. Because of his superior grasp of form, he never loses the big shapes that constitute an abstract design.
Whether intentionally or not, Hobbs has made paintings that represent, not only a familiar subject, but something that does not cater to sentimental prejudices. He's made good paintings and good paintings last.
Daniel Robbins' paintings are, like Hobbs', constructed along organic lines. They not only give you the subject, but how aerial perspective can affect how it's perceived. He understands that one thing must be seen in relation to something else and doesn't, as a result, pander to a viewer's preconceptions about what to paint and what not to. In a painter's view, no subject is more important than the next. The really important thing is to make an image that will live and breathe. Robbins' best work does this and I hope collectors of "Richmond subjects" learn to see with their eyes and not their habits.
And, finally, there's me.
Dominion's three paintings are: Tredegar, Bridges Raised and Fallen, and Three-Mile Bridge At the Kanawha Canal. All of them show "historic" subjects. And insofar as I can be a historian, I'm glad I can do it. But I was more interested in showing - as Robbins and Hobbs do - "history" in relation to the things around it. Tredegar as a Civil War shrine needs no introduction. But the sun shines on what's left of it; consequently, it's new every day. I excerpted its smoke-stack as a compositional device, bearing in mind that the history-conscious wouldn't care about that. But history-conscious people need aesthetics whether they know it or not. In any case, I chose to paint this emblematic view as winter's russets and yellows yielded to acid green. The sky pushed flat-bottomed clouds as the river ran toward the sea.
I painted "Tredegar" during for a two-week period, which spanned two seasons. I'd never done that before.
Bridges Raised and Fallen is about swift-moving water. It's about a transportation culture that's been laid low. It's about chunks of concrete that have, thus far, defied the river's rage. It was composed on a square, but it is, I think, panoramic in feeling. When I did the picture, I was thinking of a view I'd seen twenty years before. It showed man and nature in a kind of split decision - which is evident here as well. The wind was up all the time I painted. In such conditions, time is always spent anchoring picture to easel. I did it grumpily, then gladly, then grumpily again.
The Kanawha Canal is all that remains of a great transportation system that conveyed goods and passengers to the world beyond. In order to link canal to river, locks were built. As I understand them, locks created the necessary water-flow to lower barges and bateux from into the river, where they found a wider channel. Shiplock Park is a fascinating time-capsule; it celebrates, in three-dimensional form, the relatively breathless period of our nation's canals - which started with the Erie and moved south and westward. It was here that a seaward journey began. Without locks, the river wasn't reachable.
I wanted to show a man-made Richmond alongside of a more pastoral one. So I divided the painting into two sections, which were created individually and fused when they were done. The result is the largest painting I have ever attempted in a natural (or any) setting. Such flaws as it has can be attributed to me struggling, not only with my own limitations, but with the challenges implicit in a two-panel design.
Regionalism in art can be suffocating. It's predicated on political meanings first and artistic ones second. It is best consigned to that proverbial dust-heap where impractical notions wither away. On the other hand, I see no reason not to celebrate a locality's genius, which the James River mightily exemplifies.
A didactic moment you are free to ignore:
Postmodernist types eschew emotional connections for fear of being "uncool." Their concerns are well-taken. There's nothing "cool" about liking something. Coolness is about systematic rejection - or, rather, conscious apathy. The act of making something is never cool - or shouldn't be. To do, to make, to be: these are passionate decisions that are never beyond criticism; on the other hand, what else is there?