Big River 2

Big River 2 Watercolor 60

One of my goals with this series was to be direct, straightforward with the image. I thought carefully about what it is exactly I’m creating. The conclusion that I came up with was the same one the abstract expressionists came up with; I am creating a two-dimensional object. I am applying paint to a flat surface containing width and height, but not depth. The compulsion is to compensate for that by using the image support (in this case paper, for the oil painter canvas) as a window into another world, to use the qualities of the image to fool the eye into seeing depth where there is none. By employing the tools of spacial illusions, overlap, scale, value, stage placement, etc., the image becomes a hole in the wall, a direct contradiction to what it really is; paint on paper. As a landscape painter, this presented particular problems. No subject matter relies on these tools of the trade more. We sense deepest space outside, in the world. So it becomes necessary in creating the deep space of the landscape to employ several spacial tricks in concert to express this great distance between the viewer and the horizon.

It was a natural progression towards these Big River paintings from my last series, “Construction.”

Construction 30 Watercolor

With the Construction set, I kept the flatness of the page visible by keeping the subject matter parallel to the surface. I didn’t even include a ground below or sky above to contradict the two-dimensionality. However, I did utilize color to give the facade the “push-and-pull” effect. Each unit, by virtue of it’s color, appears slightly closer or slightly further from the viewer in relationship to the units around it. Additionally, I punched holes clear through the flat image to blocks of clear blue, contrasting with the warm colors around it, creating the illusion of spots of deep space through the windows. At this point, then, I was on the fence concerning the issue of fact and fantasy with spatial relationships. Maybe not indecisive, just retaining certain aspects of space while acknowledging the picture plane.

I think the key word here is “dynamics.” What are the visual directions of the image? Where does the image move to/from? With deep space (and landscape painting) much of that dynamic is spent on depth, visual movement from picture plane to horizon. Is it possible, then, to create a landscape painting without that?

So these Big River paintings try to address some of those issues for me. They are an attempt to create dynamics across the surface of the page, left to right, top to bottom, while remaining wholly FLAT. No energy is put into the illusion of space. They accept their width and height as truth and use that as their stage. The paint moves across, rather than into, the surface of the paper.

But are they landscapes? I think so. No, they do not duplicate in detail the visual experience of a landscape. But that is not an option without the gimmickry of deep spatial compositional techniques. Instead they duplicate something more important; they reference the sensation of the landscape. They imitate the action, the “verb,” of the natural world rather than objects, or “nouns.” They are the energy, not the vessel. This metaphor is most clear in the river, veins of energy that move across the surface of the land, always coming, always going, always staying exactly where it is.

This is where presentation plays a key role in the series. From the earlier images, you can see these are displayed unframed and hung by wire offset from the wall about 8 inches. This is a two-fold response to the issues of the image. The lack of frame is in part to avoid the window effect. Because I am attempting to work two-dimensionally, and not create deep space, a window into another world, it was important to keep the thing-ness about it intact. It is a piece of paper that exists as a flat surface; the image is an image that conforms to this. A frame, in my opinion, is a tool to reinforce the window idea of the image. It encloses the artwork in a way that suggests it is something not of this world. A frame is a border separating the real world of the wall from the invented world of the image; bring your suspension-of-disbelief with you. Not here. What you see is what you get. It fully exists here and now, with you the viewer.

The offset from the wall is the other tool I utilized to accenuate the flatness. By creating depth in the real world of the image’s presentation, the paper’s lack of depth is reinforced. With the clear visibility of the wires and the drop shadow immediately on the wall behind it, its two-dimensionality becomes a clear component of what it is.

Big River 3

Big River 3 Watercolor 40

Another Big River painting, somewhat out of order. I will post #2 tomorrow, or something like that. This one is #3. In creating the basic shapes for these, I have mostly kept to the ideal forms of the Greek/Roman architecture, the column, the arch, etc., with some variations in between. Because the brushstroke activities are chaotic, I thought it would be great to conform them within geometric forms as if they are conforming to Plato’s perfect forms that inform, say, ideal beauty. 

Here’s the same piece presented frameless as it is displayed now. These are on 300 lb paper, 40″ x 60″. I had a tough time going over the logistics of presenting these, but ultimately I punched grommets across the top and hung them from “L” brackets above. The weight of the paper has been sufficient to hold the works relatively flat and even.

Big River 3 detail

Big River 1 (again)

Big River 1 Watercolor 37" x 60"

This is another image of the previous post, Big River 1. The presentation is an important component of this series, beyond the image itself. I will write more about this series as I post examples. For now, here is the current statement for the series. Like most statements, it’s a little glossy without really getting into the meat of concept, but it’s accurate and a good place to start. In full disclosure, this statement was mostly written by me, but with some garnishing from Lia Newman, director of Artspace in Raleigh.

“Ashley Lathe has taken an immediate approach to the development of image, meaning, and materials in his new works. To create the works in the Big River series, Lathe builds layers of hard-edge brushstrokes on paper. The brushstrokes are not a continuous line along the surface but rather are a series of short, broken lines. The marks flow and curl across the paper, like water over land, hence the title of the series. The strokes come together and divide in their course across the surface. Their collective path creates what Lathe views as monolithic forms; archetypes, stolid, and ambiguous, occupying real space as forms on paper suspended without the confines of a frame. Lathe compares the path of the lines to the grand profile of their somber character, like the myth of the river in American lore.”

Abstract 12

These small abstracts were quite a departure from anything I had done before. From the beginning, my work had, almost by necessity, contained a formal structure regardless of how loose and expressive I worked out the details. With these, I came closest to letting the image work itself out from the first stroke I put down on the paper. Still, I couldn’t abandon some formal qualities. I think the geometric desire in me came out in the strokes themselves. I wanted each stroke to be clearly readable as start > push > end. No fades, no wet-in-wet, nothing that obscured or obstructed the activity of each and every action of their creation. So I left each stroke as hard-edged. Each is a stroke, but also a clearly defined shape. No lost-and-found edges, it’s all there for immediate consumption. I was already doing this with the previous abstracts, but in this fluid environment it becomes a contradiction. 

Abstract 11

I next tried something a little different. Instead of creating an environment, at least an implied one, like the previous sketches I thought I would structure the brushstrokes to be more…um…brushstroke-y. I mean to say more about the brushstroke as a brushstroke, not to be confused as an element of space.

The way I learned watercolor you should begin with large, pale washes covering the page to give a foundation of atmosphere, and also to set a color tone for the overall image. Here I kept to tradition by starting with large, pale washes, but I used them to define a shape cutting across the page. They became nouns, things, rather than adjectives or descriptors of the rest of the image. Space and atmosphere aren’t lost, this job just falls on the blank paper itself.

Train, train

First of all, my apologies for the poor image quality. This was taken with my phone camera. But I wanted to go ahead and post this image. For one thing I needed to shake things up a bit around here before completing these abstracts. But I also have a project in the works for an upcoming show at Three Hounds Gallery in Wilmington, and I have been intending on posting progress reports anyway.

I’ve gotten a lot of requests for works similar to my Kansas series I did a few years back. So far that has been my most successful set of works in terms of popularity. But I have been resistant to doing more from that set. I wanted to keep trying new things and move forward with thoughts on the image making process. But that series has continued to follow me around in requests and interest for more. I’ve said no a couple of times and forwarded examples of my current work, only to never hear from them again. Or I would say “let me see what I can do maybe” and then I never follow back up. But then Kate at Three Hounds Gallery in Wilmington contacted me over a year ago, and although I was initially resistant, I did cave in some time later. For one thing, having emailed and spoken on the phone with Kate, I liked her, which is important. Plus, the gallery is in a great location in a beautiful town, the show will be in October at the beach. It all seemed appealing.

Even more important, though, is that I thought of a new twist on the theme, a way to move it forward. The previous series was on the “experience” of Kansas, and I couldn’t make a long-term commitment just painting Kansas all the time. But I think the appeal to the series more about the composition. So the problem I needed to resolve was how to appropriately reuse the big sky composition while perhaps improving it’s use in a new theme. This is what I came up with. I will write about the various ways this theme came together as I post progress on the work.

This image is a preliminary for the series done in charcoal on a big sheet of drawing paper, 44″ tall I think, not sure about the width. The plan is to do the entire series in watercolor, but I can work quickly in charcoal, and I wanted to flesh something out to gauge it’s potential. It’s a shame I promised watercolors, because charcoal really seemed like the appropriate medium to use, as if the image was created from the soot of the environment it depicts.

Tonight is Open House at McColl Center for Visual Arts, so I have a big evening ahead of me. I will post some of the work I am showing for the first time next week. Until then…