a defense of balance in painting

By Emily Landress

You must respect balance, Painters

We intuitively understand the logic behind great art. It is not about subject or attitude or any host of possibilities, but about the promise and creation of order. But what is this order and why is it so difficult to pinpoint? Well, in many ways it is easier to define by what it isn’t. In the 21st century, a great deal of painting defines itself in opposition to, among other crimes, middle-class culture, sense, etc. Most of this is unworthy of comment. Nonetheless, we should ask ourselves what is gained and lost by this position. What is gained is clear. You can brand yourself a rebel. However, what is lost is art, and the order and logic that creates it.Order is about putting things in their proper place, a straightening of disparate elements so as to eliminate confusion.

So, in a way order and painting are closely related, especially in terms of the basic rules of composition. You may ask if there are rules to composition? Well, yes. One way to explain it is that when painting, we often step back and think about the viewer. It’s a simple question: how would an ordinary person look at this, how might they take it in? We take into consideration where the gaze of the viewer lingers and roams. This determines how we shift, position and balance shapes on the canvas. Thus a simple understanding of composition and form is put into play. I have no ideological axe to grind here except quality. I don’t care how you paint, your style or your content, just make sure that you’re good and balanced. The problem today is that no matter what style, the eternal truths of good composition and order are being violated and this violation has diminished the power of art. So, let’s take a look at three contemporary painters and compare these violators of balance against people who can actually paint.

Patsy Krebs: Perp 1

Patsy Krebs is a California based artist, born in Oakland, working in Inverness, California. She received her MFA from Claremont Graduate School. In 2011, Krebs worked with Master Printer Susan Oehme at Oehme Graphics in Colorado. She claims her work represents a meditation on time. To accomplish this meditation she starts her ‘journey’ by spreading thin coats of acrylic on wood panels, both horizontally and vertically, creating layers and layers of gradiated color. Krebs focuses on the central image being the most representative of the present, fading back into blurrier representations of the past. So yes, she is interested in time. I can’t tell you how hackneyed and silly this all is and how clumsy her paintings are, but I’m going to try.If you compare her work to Agnes Martin, specifically her “Falling Blue” piece, you can see Krebs’s shortcomings.

Martin’s piece similarly touches on a meditation, focusing on the attunement of her breath through the art of mark making. The difference why Martin’s work is much more successful is because of the work of her hand. Whatever the case, Martin makes this process tangible through correct composition, not hopefully pretentious philosophy. She truly achieves a quality of meditation and time, because her technique is so infallible. Krebs is not in touch with what it takes to create art. Her work seems machine made and lacks a sense of presence and understanding of the skill needed to do what she says she wants to do. Krebs gives me no reason to believe why these paintings should exist or why she’s creating them. There’s no need to be making bad art when we know that balance and proper composition creates good art. And the balance needed here is an understanding of how to paint.

Look at the Martin and then look at the Krebs:
One know how to paint and the other doesn't

Jake Longstreth: Perp 2

Jake Longstreth was born in Amenia, New York, got his MFA from California College of the Arts and currently lives and works in Los Angeles painting architecture and foliage in geometric, controlled and small brushstrokes. He explains that even though he eradicates ‘the life force’ of the buildings he paints through the use of flat planes, the structures of the buildings remain, holding their own within the landscape—whatever that means.

The problem with Longstreth is he never fully represents what he wants us to see, because he doesn’t have the skill to do it. He gives us no reason to believe that these buildings are worthy of our attention. You can see this in the lack of shading he gives the buildings. He needs to represent power, but what we feel is weakness. The presence of the buildings holds no difference than any other shape in the picture plane. Whereas Richard Diebenkorn, a master painter of urban landscapes, lets us feel the power of his buildings with every stroke and choice of color. Diebenkorn grounds his buildings in the beautiful balance of his compositional skill. He pushes and pulls these urban landscapes in and out of space to create a dynamic visual representation of the energy of architecture. And he gives the buildings a sense of presence and strength. As Longstreth wants to, but he has none of Diebenkorn’s technique to actually pull this off.

Look at Longstreth's work and then look at Diebenkorn:
Diebenkorn's paintings have structural integrity, while Longstreth's have paint

David Simpson: Perp 3

And lastly, let me show you David Simpson. Simpson was born in 1928, he’s an American abstract painter who lives and works in Berkeley. He graduated from SFAI with a BFA, and an MFA from San Francisco State College. Working with iridescent metallic colors, Simpson is interested in how color shifts and changes, depending on your perspective. The interesting part about Simpson though is that he is a contemporary of Mark Rothko, but clearly lacks Rothko’s understanding of how to use color both minimally and dynamically. Simpson doesn’t fully engage the potentiality of his medium and relies solely on the light of the gallery to pull off his grade school effects. What if he went beyond the metallic color and painted physical lumps, how would that shift and change colors? What if he included the gallery lights as part of his work? Whereas Rothko confronts these challenges on the canvas, Simpson merely strives for special effects. Rothko doesn’t leave the experience of his works up to how it’s lit, or where it is. His pieces are just there and they own any space you put them.
Take a glance at this: are they even in the same universe?
Order and structure are the basis of traditional painting. But in the contemporary art world, it’s seen as unnecessary and violating makes you seem like a rebel. However, there’s a right way of breaking rules and then there’s incompetence. Break the rule of thirds with fear in your heart, but at least know that that’s what you’re doing. As an artist, inhabiting the full scope of your art is important. In order to stray away from traditional structure, you can’t lose sense of what your painting still needs in order to be successful, such as a balanced composition. It needs thought, intention, care and purpose. And it needs order—if you’re trying to prove something to us then you need to go all out there to prove it. There’s no expecting us to make up for your lack of form and thought if you don’t give your painting exactly what it needs and craves to exist.

©Emily Landress and the CCA Arts Review

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