Believer, 2013, by James Hough

Believer, James Hough, acrylic on canvas, 31" x 47"
Believer, 2013, by James Hough, acrylic on canvas, 31″h x 47″w

My most recent painting takes a turn toward representation. I used additive and reductive painting techniques to create the image, as I have been doing in my non-objective works, but this time I was evoking a still life by Henri Fantin-Latour, whose intimate paintings are so quiet, yet sculptural, in the way he uses light and shadow to create space.

Plus, finally seeing the Cy Twombly Gallery at the Menil Collection was a huge inspiration as I approached this painting. Looking at Twombly and Fantin-Latour is humbling and uplifting at the same time, and this painting owes its swirling circular shapes and its palette to both painters.

Burger Night, 2013, by James Hough

Burger Night, 2013, by James Hough
Burger Night, 2013, by James Hough, 55 1/4″ x 45 1/4″, acrylic on canvas

I worked on this painting off and on for a long time. In fact, after my attentions progressively made it worse, I was driven into a brief retirement from painting altogether.

“Who needs paint anyways!” I shouted silently to myself. “It’s just stupid goo!”

But I pulled through and finished it, thanks mostly to my wife for her encouragement and a little bit to myself for remembering that I actually do like paint.

Sunk, 2011, by James Hough

Sunk, 2011, painting by James Hough

I’ve made some preemptive resolutions for the coming year, one of which is to use words less often. The world is full of them already. That said, sometimes I like to talk about where a new work comes from. So here goes.

Distinterested Witness (destroyed), Jim Public, 2011

Sunk was called Disinterested Witness for a while, but after about a week of looking at it in the house it wasn’t holding up to repeated viewings. So, now it’s Sunk. Before the DW nomenclature there had been a ghostly image of a ship at sea in the piece, but no photos survive to document that permutation. And prior to all of that, this panel and canvas had been home to a painting from 2005 called TAF Prototype, from my days as a painter of faux-marketing-graphic-design-satire.

TAF Prototype (destroyed), Jim Public, 2005

But, again, now it’s Sunk, and I think it’s going to stay that way.

What You Looking At, 2011

What You Looking At, 2011, acrylic on canvas, by Jim Public

This painting had a bit of a long and tortured beginning, as with a lot of my paintings. I made this 25″ square panel 4 or 5 years ago, and the first painting it became was an oil of a logo I designed for a brand I invented called Koby Teith. The brand’s image, as I conceived it, was about rugged Americanism expressed through poetry, with lots of deep, earthy colors and a logo that looked like it wouldn’t be out of place on a cattle brand or bottle of hot sauce. Here’s that old painting, which is now destroyed. (On the off chance that you like this old painting, please refrain from expressing it now that it’s gone: you had your chance during the 4 years it existed:) Believe me, it needed to be put to rest.)

Jim Public (James Hough) Koby Teith star 111001

The next job for this canvas was to be a neat experiment in painting with UV light. I layered many glazes of fluorescent acrylic on it until it was a strangely vibrant, dark monochrome. For the next stage of the plan I was going to create a solid stencil to cover it, affix the stencil to the painting, cover it in clear plastic, and leave it on my roof for several months. Fluorescent paint being poor at holding up to direct sunlight, this technique was going to burn the image from the stencil into the paint. It was an exciting idea for a spell, this notion of making an image using only light rays, but in the end it didn’t really say anything I wanted to say about art or the world, so once again I set it aside.

Next, most recently, I pulled it back out and started layering acrylic on it for sanding. My first pass with the sander was circular; I thought a rough, blurry, sanded circle would look nice on the square canvas. I was wrong. So I renewed my sanding and got the painting to a point where I thought it was good and finished, with something like a white contrail passing across it.

But, after looking at this image for a few weeks it felt contrived and didn’t look so hot; it couldn’t stand up to repeated viewing. I got pissed and really went after it with the sander until gesso and canvas started to come through. Finally, I arrived at the image you see above, which is more spontaneous and gritty. The image has a chip-on-its-shoulder attitude. I titled it What You Looking At: a canvas that’s been through this much pain shows a raw face to the world, and “What you looking at?” is how I imagine it would address a viewer it it could.

What You Looking At is acrylic on canvas, 25″ x 25.” Back in the day when this canvas was Koby Teith Star I was convinced that I was in the middle of my ascension to the contemporary art pantheon, so I priced that painting at $1,000. Now that my feet are back on the ground and I have a new, less pretentious vision of what I want out of my life as an artist, I’ve priced this canvas at $500, which I feel does justice to you and me both.

Jormungand Releases His Tail, 2010, by James Hough

Jormungand Releases His Tail, 2010, acrylic on canvas, by Jim Public
Jormungand Releases His Tail, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 45.25″h x 41.25″w

Last fall, while I was working on God’s Covenant at the Event Horizon, I was also at work on a painting similar in size and technique. I was looking a lot at the mid-to-late-20th century American painters Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston while I painted, seeking to be inspired and educated by these makers of beautiful messes. The particular Mitchell I studied over and over was a tiny reproduction of La Grande Vallée (1983) from an AbEx series of commemorative stamps (as seen below, bottom row, second from the left, between Motherwell and Gottlieb). The blues and yellows in that painting were all the more arresting and mysterious because of the small scale of the stamp; it was like looking at a glorious painting across a football field.

110903 ab ex stamps

The Guston I had in mind while I worked on the painting that ended up being Jormungand is called The Light (1964) from the collection of the Modern in Fort Worth. Like the Mitchell above, this painting is so much about vigorous, broad, wriggling brushwork, this time in grey and pink.

What happens when you look at a lot of art over a lot of years is you start to see how some people just know how to make things look good; this description, “one who makes things look good,” is for me the best definition of what an artist does. Of course, determining what looks good is a subjective process, and this is kind of the point. If we all liked the same stuff, or if we could apply objective criteria to a visual object to determine its “good-looking” grade, then making and looking at and talking about art wouldn’t be much fun. Because the experience of beauty is elusive and specific to the individual, the pursuit of beauty can make life an adventure. And, when two people stand before a giant, scribbled canvas by Guston or Mitchell, for example, they can draw on their memories and intuition, exercise their senses of taste and judgment, and come to know better their own and each other’s notions of truth and beauty, which I think is as worthy an experience as any.

And, the art doesn’t mind our scrutiny and judgment, because it’s inanimate, perched on the wall, exposed fully, intended for as much gazing as we have to give it. The arts in general provide the perfect outlet for our innately human compulsion to judge others in order to understand ourselves better. And it is an excellent antidote for the more pervasive and, I think, malignant forms of judgment we indulge in when we watch reality tv or skim the pages of glossy magazines, calling on our ideas of beauty and righteousness as we repudiate or extoll, depending on how much they confirm or subvert our individual visions for the way things and people ought to be, the images of real human beings before us. In this way, art, which is both amoral and inhuman, can make us more moral humans.

Mitchell and Guston just make things look good. Their individual senses of scale and color, the way they each handle paint, and everything else they bring to their canvases, despite their abstract messiness, makes them distinct and lovely. These two painters continue to give me a lot of material to work with in my own studio. Looking at Jormungand now, you would hardly think that it started as an homage to The Light, but a painting has to start somewhere. As I built up layers of acrylic and sanded them down, transforming the surface slowly into what it ended up looking like, with the tans and blacks swirling up a wicked froth, it felt more and more Norse in character. And, having been watching the live simulcasts of the Met’s Ring cycle, I went in the direction of the epic (rather than the cosmic, as with Covenant) when I was titling the painting. In Norse myth, Jormungand is the world serpent who encircles the Earth and holds the conflicting universal forces in check by holding his tail in his mouth, making of himself a protective ring for our planet. It is said that when he one day lets go of his tail, the Norse version of Armageddon will begin. Which sounds wicked and fits the vibe I get from this painting.

Jormungand is acrylic on canvas, 45.25″ x 41.25.″ Like Covenant, it also lives in our bedroom, and I’m happy to report that I have yet to get tired of looking at it, which for me is a good sign that I’m on the right track in the studio. I’ve destroyed a lot of old artwork over the years as they age before my eyes and start to look stupid; I don’t foresee that happening with these paintings.

God’s Covenant at the Event Horizon, 2010, by James Hough

God's Covenant at the Event Horizon, 2010
God’s Covenant at the Event Horizon, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 48.5″h x 41.5″w

I want to catch you up on some of the larger artworks I’ve made in the last year since we moved to Garland. A lot of the paintings I’ve done over the years are in the medium-to-large size range–between about 3′ and 8′ in one dimension–which doesn’t lend itself either to ease of shipping or modesty of price; they are a bit heavy, and they take a lot of time to make. As you know, I have a broad commitment to finding ways of making reasonably-priced artwork and connecting to an audience that includes, but is not restricted to, the traditional contemporary art world. But, I am also committed to making the best artwork I can, and this pursuit sometimes takes me beyond parameters such as pricing, weight, scale, and so on.

Now that I’ve begun the Camelot quest and I’m making the effort to meet the members of my community here in the Dallas area, as well as on the web, I want to make these larger, more intensive pieces of art available for your viewing and, because there’s always a chance, purchase. If a neighbor did one day decide to buy one of my larger paintings, the collector, being local, is all-too-easy to reach for delivery, so shipping would be a non-issue. For now, and for simplicity, there will be no Paypal buttons for these pieces, as I don’t expect those of you who live far away to want a painting shipped to you at a cost somewhere in the low $100s, considering crate-building, weight, and insurance. And for you local potential collectors, cash or check is an easier form of payment, and I don’t have to cough up a percentage to Paypal for handling it. If one of you would like to subvert my expectations and pay for the crating and shipping of this or another large piece to you, please show me the error of my ways, and I’ll accommodate you posthaste.

That long preface behind us, let’s turn our attention to the painting above. It was one of the two paintings I first made once we got settled here. Some of you may have seen it on my former blog, Look On My Works. It’s comprised of many layers of paint which I alternately built up and sanded down until I liked what I was looking at, which is a kind of supernatural cosmic landscape, and I titled it with the kind of language Wayne Coyne uses to name Flaming Lips songs.

Covenant is acrylic on canvas, 48.5 ” x 41.5.” It lives in our bedroom, as it has since last autumn, and, unlike most of the stuff I’ve made as an artist, I haven’t gotten tired of looking at it. In fact, like the best work an artist does, it makes me say to myself, “Wow. I can’t believe I made that.”