Saturday, January 9, 2010

Charles Brindley, part II

Yesterday I wrote about Charles Brindley, an artist who lives in Kentucky near the Tennessee border. He grew up in Nashville, and so Tennessee can claim him too.  I am especially interested in his large-scale drawings of deciduous trees in winter.  But Brindley also makes large oil paintings of our local rural landscape.

Brindley traces his interest in landscape back to his childhood in Nashville.  He was the youngest of several children, and his grandmother and great-grandmother lived with the family.  So sometimes his mother would take the elderly ladies out for a drive in the country.  He was too little to stay home by himself, so he went also, and spent long hours gazing out the windows of the car at the landscape.  This was in the early 1960s.

I think a lot of Americans experience the landscape at first this way, and mainly this way.  I've wondered why there aren't more paintings and photographs of the road, with the landscape falling away on either side.  I guess it's because it's hard to draw and drive.  I remember long drives in the country in the early 1960s also, when my family would drive to Wilson County to visit my grandparents at their farm.  My earliest attempts at landscape painting probably resemble the view through the back seat window.

Of course, Brindley gets out of the car now and draws on site.  His graphite studies are used to make large oil paintings in the studio.  Some are panoramic in format, such as "Flat Agricultural Landscape":

When you drive to Adairville from Nashville, you drive through an area known as the Hidden Corn Belt.  This is a four-county area north of Nashville where a great deal of field corn is grown, in huge fields.  Brindley's landscapes often reflect a fascination with the graphic qualities of the lines of the furrows, some just beginning to sprout corn.  When you get up close to this painting, you can see that the earth is rendered in an almost Pointillist style, with tiny touches of color juxtaposed.  The color is not simply naturalistic: it seems saturated, and oddly, more saturated in the background than in the foreground, which is the opposite of classical atmospheric perspective technique.  This gives the impression of bright sunlight falling on the yellow field at the far right, whereas the foreground appears somewhat overcast.

The lines of the furrows on the middle field create regular linear perspective, but in a way that actually suggests a mound rather than a flat landscape.  Is it flat, or hilly? This ambiguity gives the space a sort of vertiginous quality, as if you are flying over it and changing your angle of view as you fly.  In some ways it reminds me of Thomas Hart Benton's undulating landscapes:

Benton has been called a Regionalist painter.  American Regionalist painters in the 1920s through the 1950s rejected abstraction and modernism in favor of a more representational style of painting, and their subject matter became the rural landscape and small towns of the United States.  You could say that Brindley's work could be categorized this way.  His landscape painting, though, is much more representational than Benton's.


An example might be this painting of the trunk of an old beech tree.  In this painting, there are no large passages of hyper-saturated color; the overall effect is more naturalistic.   But when you get up close you can see again that Pointillist effect of juxtaposed intense color.  This painting reminds me more of the work of American 19th century landscape painters of the Hudson River School, like Cole and Durand, than it does of any 20th century painting. I saw a show once of small oil studies by Asher Durand, and Brindley's study of this beech tree seems to have much in common with Durand's meticulous studies.

But of course, as a 20th and 21st century painter, Brindley has a different attitude toward the application of paint.  His paintings don't have the "licked" surface that the almost photographically real Hudson River School paintings of the 19th century had. Brindley draws your attention also to the flat surface of the canvas and the fact of the material presence of paint on it, like a good modernist would.  He has obviously thought a lot about how tiny spots of colors work when juxtaposed, which was the obsession of 19th century French painters, Seurat being the most famous practitioner of that technique.  But Monet also thought deeply about the effect of small touches of color that the eye mixes, instead of the painter mixing the colors on the palette.

This juxtaposition of tiny touches of color hits a high-water mark Brindley's "The Green Man":

 The subject matter here is a rock formation, another favorite landscape feature for Brindley.  But the real subject is the broad spectrum of lichen colors on the rocks.  It takes a minute to find the Green Man:  a green figure reaches toward the center of the painting from the right hand side, as if he is jumping to catch a ball.  The Green Man is described by thousands of tiny spots of color, mimicking the tiny spots of lichen on a rock.  The rocks themselves seem to be abstract paintings made of many touches of color:  nature as Abstract Expressionist?  And the forms of the rocks, cropped and devoid of any other context, compose together an almost abstract, sculptural form.

There's a tension in Brindley's work between his representational impulse--the desire to record every branch and twig on a tree for example--and this drive toward abstraction.  But they are not really contradictory:  the Romantic landscape painter has been a driving force in modernism, and toward abstraction, from the beginning of Romanticism in the early 19th century. 

Friday, January 8, 2010

Charles Brindley and Big Trees

On New Year's Eve of 2009, instead of buying a bottle of champagne, my partner and I treated ourselves to a visit to an artist we admire:  Charles Brindley, of Adairville, KY. Brindley grew up in Nashville and studied art at MTSU and at the Arrowmont School in Gatlinburg.  He is best known for his large-scale, meticulous graphite renderings of giant, ancient deciduous trees of the Southeastern mixed hardwood forest.

I first encountered Brindley's work on the cover of a program guide from WPLN, Nashville's public radio station, in the 1990s. It was a drawing of a bare tree in winter. I pulled the cover off and thumb-tacked it to the wall over my desk, and I looked at it every day for a long time.  I think it may have influenced my early photographs, many of which were studies of trees.  Brindley's monochrome drawings are so detailed that they look like photogravures from a distance, with their matte surface and their long gray scale.

My second encounter with his work was recently, at the Belle Meade Club in Nashville.  Three large drawings of trees on the Belle Meade Club golf course are hung in the downstairs lobby of the club.  Again, from a distance, one might mistake them for photogravures, but on second inspection they have an otherworldliness that is definitely not photographic.  One notices, for example, that there is nothing in the drawing but the tree:  no background of other trees, no hills, no people, no golfers.  A few birds may perch in the bare branches, and a few old leaves cling to the branches.  There's a suggestion of a big cloud behind the tree. The tree stands alone.

The drawings at the BMC are oaks, but this osage orange portrait below suggests the scale and ambition of these drawings.

These drawings are impressive on several counts. First, they are big.  The one above is 23 inches by 29 inches, and Brindley does the drawings on site.  (Sometimes, if it's cold or rainy, he draws from inside his car, a feat in itself.)  Second, the draftsmanship is very, very good.  Brindley has been drawing for thirty-seven years, and he became obsessed with drawing trees in 1985.  From 1985 through 1991, he says, he drew trees almost constantly.  It shows.  Eventually he challenged himself to do twelve large drawings a year, and he has done this consistently every year since, amassing a large body of work on the subject of deciduous trees, especially large, old trees, and mainly depicting their forms in winter when the structure of the tree is easiest to see.

Brindley's medium for these drawings is the humble graphite pencil.  He goes through a lot of them every year, and he uses all the grades.


For early 19th century American landscape painters like Cole and Durand, drawings done on site in the landscape were a means to an end:  they used these drawings as references when making larger oil paintings in their studios.  In the late 19th century, the French Barbizon painters pioneered the idea of painting directly from nature, "sur le motif," instead of in the studio. This became the signal method of modernist landscape painting, in the hands of Cezanne, for example.

Brindley does both.  He makes large, finished drawings "sur le motif," in five or six visits to the site, but he also makes reference drawings outside, in the landscape,  that he uses later to make larger composite drawings later in the studio.  And he makes paintings from these reference drawings.

Here is a study with notes written directly on the drawing, in true 19th century style:

And here is a composite drawing based on several drawings put together. This is a commission for the MBA school, and the subject is some trees on the MBA campus.

Tomorrow I will be writing about some of Brindley's paintings and  more about him, his work, and the Northern Romantic landscape tradition.