THE PATH IS RARELY STRAIGHT
by Jean Arnold
For those pursuing creativity, the path of development is
What can seem like a sudden, dramatic change may actually
be years in the making, and the result of much trial and error. So
it has been with my work. This summer, I had a show at the Salt Lake City Arts Council’s Finch Lane Gallery of semi-abstract urban landscapes (see left).
work for the Utah Arts Council’s autumn Fellowship Exhibition I have
pushed the abstraction further, and added
elements of surrealism. This new artwork integrates the recent urban
landscape work with explorations of surrealism
and organic abstraction that I was involved with while in
graduate school in the mid-90's. Since this new work is a sudden departure from the work shown
at Finch Lane, I wanted to describe how I arrived at this new direction,
and give readers an example of how artists often combine different
explorations into something new.
Rediscovery and Assimilation
For three years, I have been
visually absorbing the urban landscape, primarily through drawing.
In the spring, as I completed the work for the Finch Lane show, I
realized that my fundamental interest was less about capturing
actual appearances, and more about the interrelationship between
humans and nature, and the give-and-take between the human psyche
and our surroundings. My work has been through several distinct
phases, but consistently I have been interested in these themes.
I knew I had not been tapping into my strength in the arena of
invention and immediacy that I had discovered in graduate school,
and I was now ready to allow impulse, memory, and process to re-enter
the work. I pared down color to maximize progress in other ways.
Instead of painting, I drew--for me drawing is more immediate, and in
my art, it often leads the way. This new work contains the gesture,
process, and mark-making of abstract expressionism, while exploring the
spatial and imagery ambiguities of surrealism. As
I allow myself to work in this way -- letting the surrealistic and abstracted organic elements enter again -- I find myself engaged in the issues
of rela- tionship between psyche and surroundings, humans and nature
more powerfully and personally.
Jean Arnold in her studio
Jean Arnold earned an MFA in Painting in 1999 from Johnson State
College in Vermont. She has attended studio residencies at
the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont, and the International
School of Art in Umbria, Italy. In 1983, she received her BFA
cum laude from Utah State University, and continued her art studies
at the University of Utah from 1991-94.
Reverse culture shock: the transition back to
As part of my MFA program, I studied
art in Italy in 1997 and 1998. In the Umbrian hilltop town
where I stayed, I painted the patchwork fields of the nearby hills
from a distant and floating viewpoint in an abstract way. Back
in Salt Lake, I continued by doing a series of large studio drawings
of this landscape that evoked notions of ancient harmonies between
humans and nature.
the grip of the pastoral myth
transition back to working with the American landscape was difficult.
I resisted my surroundings, and longed for the Italian farmland
with its fascinating contours and patterns. I wanted to find
direct inspiration in my surroundings here in Salt Lake, yet my attempts
fell flat. I tried to work with the expanse of the valley from
a high viewpoint as I had done in Italy, but it just looked like a big,
brown bowl. I decided I needed to descend down into the valley to
a more human scale. This raised important questions: where
was my vantage point, and what sort of space was I looking at? For
a time, I did linear contour drawings of my neighborhood, and sketched
from a car, which helped make the shift in scale and vantage point that
I came to realize that I was
idealizing the Italian landscape, and denigrating my own urban
settings. I recognized that the “pastoral myth” was a strong
element in my Italian work, and to embrace my urban surroundings,
I needed to release myself from its grip. I delved into examining
the myth’s origins, its continuing hold on our societal consciousness,
and its paradoxes. The pastoral theme is the notion of man and
nature living in harmony and abundance, a nostalgic longing to return
to a more harmonious state. Interestingly, its development originated
in Italy, in the work of the painters such as Giorgione and Claude
Lorraine in the 16th-17th centuries. It took hold as an antidote
for urbanization and is more about what the countryside means to the
city than about the countryside itself.
This theme runs deep in our American psyche, and acts
as a filtered lens through which we view the landscape, yet it
is ripe with contradictions. The pastoral landscape tradition
gained force in America simultaneously with the encroachment of
civilization on pristine wilderness. In the early 19th-century,
Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole witnessed the destruction of
forests and the intrusion of trains cutting through the land. He was outspoken about
what he saw, yet his lushly forested paintings make only subtle
inclusions of tree stumps and trains. I recall my own hesitation
in 1998, while creating the large panoramic drawing of Italian farmland
“View From Assisi,” using photo reference: “Should I include the
telephone pole in the foreground, or exclude it?” Ultimately,
I included it.
Why this hesitation and
censoring of what I saw? The pastoral tradition -- the hope
of a harmonious middle landscape between wilderness and developed
land -- is a closed artistic convention that repels whatever disturbs
its premise. On one hand, our American consciousness hopes
for progress and a subdued nature, and on the other, treasures a
paradise of God and nature intertwined in the uninhabited landscape.
When we see beauty -- in both art and life -- we often want to possess it;
so pastoral art depicts that which is about to be captured by our relentless
Is this artistic tradition a vital force to incite
us to protect our surroundings, as many artists today believe?
Or does it actually cast an illusion over us, preventing us from
seeing what sort of world we are creating for ourselves?
My thinking became clearer when I saw the work
of Utah artist Mark England. At the time, we were both doing
large panoramic landscape drawings with floating viewpoints. There
were certain similarities, so the differences were obvious, too.
In my work, olive groves and vineyards harmoniously blended with
the contours of the Italian landscape. In his, urban artifacts
permeated his maplike scenes—telephone poles, wires, roads, and buildings
were strewn across the land. These anti-pastoral
drawings intrigued and challenged me, and helped
release my own work to go beyond the pastoral convention.
This nostalgic yearning still seeks expression
in my art, but now I am free to dialogue with its conventions
by introducing elements that contradict it, bringing the work a
richer and more complex meaning. For example, the drawing
“Encroachment” contains a beautiful inner glow, yet ironically it
emanates from a housing development surrounded by undeveloped land.
Transformation of the mundane
I had a different turning point when I
saw an exhibit of drawings at the Salt Lake Art Center by James
Castle, a deaf mute who lived in rural Idaho. As a self-taught
artist, he used whatever he could get his hands on -- envelopes and
scraps of paper with pencils, soot, spit, etc. In his isolation he remarkably transformed the most “commonplace” scenes
and interiors, using basic materials, into something visionary. He saw with lucidity and yet interpreted with personal
force. His inability to communicate on more than a basic level
kept him from making distinctions about what art should look
like, about what he should depict, and even about what the world
around him looked like. As with other artists who transform
the mundande into the extraordinary, the power of their work does
not reside in the “subject matter,” but in their own internal vision
of it, and in their capacity to work with the physical materials.
Embracing my surroundings
After seeing Castle’s work, I began to embrace
the philosophy of really noticing and accepting my surroundings,
rather than judging them and mentally retreating in a nostalgic
yearning for something lost. I started looking at the quality
of the space I inhabit here in an American city. Amidst the urban
clutter and chaos, I noticed the layers upon layers in space -- all
the stuff of humans mixed with trees, set against the mountain backdrop.
The intense variety of scale, shapes, and rhythms fascinated me.
My “seeing’” became turned on all the time when I was out and about;
it turned into an unrelenting hunger to depict and really drove me
to create new work.
This practice of seeing led me on a quest for soul-consciousness
amidst the human-made. What is “natural” and what is “artificial”?
Are such definitions located in the mind, or are there actual differences
between pine-groves and parking lots? Of course there are
differences... or are there? Why did carefully cultivated
fields in Italy appeal to me and not seem artificial? Are
we a part of nature, or are humans and the things we make separated
from it? Through "seeing" the city and responding
in my art—even in forlorn places—I found these
categories and dualities blurring together, as I felt a connection
between my soul and my surroundings.
In this new work, organic and human-made forms
are integrated in a dynamic relationship between plants, architecture,
landforms, and the urban clutter of signs, poles, and roads.
Using a variety of mark-making and materials, such as charcoal,
pastel, pencil, watercolor, and ink, I intermix the “artificial”
and the “natural” elements in an undifferentiated field.
A fluid viewpoint
Inseparable from “seeing” my
urban environs with new clarity, I also began sketching while
riding in a car on errands around Salt Lake. For years while
on road trips, I’ve sketched to capture the essence of mountains,
valleys, and clouds. In Italy, I fleetingly drew the contoured
fields as I zipped by on buses and trains. I had a hunger to
record what I saw. Over time, these sketches became more cohesive,
and I now combine elements to create images of abstracted, notational
urbanscapes. This practice leads me to absorb a tremendous amount
of visual information into my consciousness. I began looking
at my sketchbooks as a valuable resource for other work, and now invent
large works in the studio using quick, linear sketches as a starting
point. “Moving car sketches” from recent travels inspired much
of the work in the Fellowship Exhibit.
I began to consider how car travel has changed our perceptions
and experience of the land. We always have an ever-shifting
viewpoint simply by having bodies that move about. In our autos,
we now have a hyper-fluid viewpoint as we quickly cross vast stretches
of land. An endless strip of gray stretches out in front of
you, things are zooming by on either side, and the view is always changing.
For me, this experience is a metaphor for our current situation—the
enormous changes occurring in our lifetimes, our physical and philosophical
rootlessness, and our frenetic pace of life. In my work, I
began to seek a sense of flux, impermanence, and motion.
Now I am after a sense of ambiguous
spaces, multiple viewpoints, and journey as an alternative to the
traditional fixed, static, one-point Renaissance perspective.
I use dynamic compositions, the layering of forms, and merge elements
together to create a subtle sense of motion and passage. Some
of my work continues to have a sense of stillness, but spatial ambiguities
help it elude traditional one-point perspective.
The Renaissance pictorial convention goes almost
unquestioned--we believe it captures the look of the world, even
though it is only one perceptual system among several. No
one visual system can truly depict outward appearances. One-point
perspective is reassuring—it gives you a place to stand and a separate
identity from what is “out there.” Paul Cezanne broke the Renaissance
convention in the late-19th century, by creating simultaneous multiple
viewpoints and shifting spaces in his paintings. In the 20th
century, these spatial inventions were pushed further and further.
Post-Renaissance space is ambiguous, it can engulf the viewer, it
makes interrelationships primary, and it finds space as important as
the objects it contains.
During my graduate studies in Vermont and Italy, I
was shown these alternative ways of depicting space, and was instructed
to work with the visual complexity of the classroom’s furniture, students,
and model in a pared-down, interwoven way. Abstract expressionist and renowned art teacher Hans Hofmann
taught these concepts in the mid-20th century. Several of
my instructors studied under Hofmann, and so I was given this influence.
I am now taking this investigation into the
landscape, and exploring its relevance for the 21st century.
The Renaissance artists believed they stood on solid ground, that
the space before them was measurable, and positioned themselves to
be neutral observers of a stable world. We now understand the
world is not fixed, not solid, not stable, not secure, or “objectively”
perceptible to the observer. The boundaries between the “artificial”
and the “natural” are becoming increasingly blurred. As never
before, humans are causing fundamental changes to the deep structures
of reality on an imperceptible level, but with dramatic effects—through
genetic engineering, environmental toxins, nuclear technology, etc.
In my immediate life, my father witnessed the atom bomb in Nevada
as an Army soldier, and was marched to ground zero when it was cool enough
to walk on. He died of radiation-induced leukemia some 40 years
later. The consequences of our actions are increasingly ambiguous and
I find that our world is getting stranger and stranger.
Yet, as I explore the strangeness of my own inner life, I find
a rich source of strenth and inspiration for both living and creating.
Abstraction and surrealism offer me fertile ground to express my
own unease with the current planetary situation, and to express my
own inner processes while I search for meaningful connection with this
world, such as it is. To me, the urban landscape is a relevant
metaphor for the high level of complexity, uncertainty, and human density
we now live with. City life may be disturbing and test our reserves,
yet I still find it alive and beautiful.
Although these issues are often on my mind, I do
not pursue an overt agenda in my art. My interest in the human/nature
relationship feeds me with a certain type of imagery, yet formal
visual issues are still important in my work. I do not preconceive the results. When I step up
to the canvas or paper, intuition, curiosity, impulse, and gut
reaction take over, and I immerse myself in visual decisions. It is still a wonderful mystery to me how a white expanse turns into a work of art, and how all experiences in my own life can contribute
to its expression.
I am excited that my previous explorations have led to these ambiguous
landscapes, and I welcome interpretations that are multiple and open-ended
by the viewer. Through my own actions of seeing and depicting,
I hope my art will bring a heightened awareness and experience of life
to others, as it has to me.