Sunday, February 20, 2011

Riparian Wood — the Paintings

(double click pix above to get larger view)

I have always been obsessed with branching "fractal" scatter patterns, shooting them over and over from several points of view. The mass of detail in my over-all-pattern photos seems to be pictorially complete to me, but when painting I usually want to rig up more of a landscape composition, or to introduce something into the center, such as a chair, a gate or door, or a little hut, a hermit; a figure. A figure to set against the ground (as in the background, or "setting" for the subject), instead of leaving out the figure and letting the ground fill the picture space as a valid and complete subject in itself. Photographers Harry Callahan and Eliot Porter explored "field" subjects in nature. I think Jackson Pollock worked his way into this kind of ground-for-subject with his drip-splat paintings and ran with it out to the end zone. He may have been exploring a way to reintroduce the figure before he died. Before Pollock and Callahan, all-over patterns were considered suitable for the visual enhancement of fabrics, flooring, wallpaper, and "English" gardens.

Large trunks of many hardwood trees can become figures against their ground of branches and landscape in photos or paintings; I have painted many anthropomorphic tree figures. But the riparian family group grows in clumps along the edge of waterways — especially aspen, almost like bamboo in its field of staves — and red birch, or water birch, grows like bunch grasses carpet a plain, but in clumps instead of a turf. When I draw or paint them, I paint the clump, not the overall frieze/plain of riparian wood. The uncountable amount of similarly-sized detail seems impossible for me to keep track of — where's the focal point? where's the architecture? — and although I know many naturalistic painters do paint these fractal patterns (and successfully), they are both too much and not enough for me as a subject for painting. I wonder about this, since I do not hold the same requirement for my photographs. Perhaps painting, for me, is primarily about the figure, set against nature or inside of nature; whereas a photograph can depict ground only, since the act of taking the photo in some way contains the photographer; the photographer's eye is the implied figure — as in "Look what I saw!"

I also wonder, idly, if a human figure being added to a background in any way mirrors the idea of Aquinas that Grace is "added" to Nature, or perhaps that human beings are figures "added" to the ground of nature. We are our main focal point, and many people in many cultures have held the uneasy feeling that we don't belong here on this planet; whether because we our origins were actually in another ground of reality, or that we have gone to far in deviating from our earthly one, is a point of difference among various faith traditions.

As I write this, I am camped at Baker Creek, near Big Pine. Unlike Independence Creek, Hilton Creek, McGee and Tuttle Creeks, in its streams there is almost no red birch. I don't know why this is, and must consult Ranger Becky next time I see her. It may be a matter of altitude.

Outside the wind is lowering the snow boom down to 3500 feet and I may wake to a white campsite. My little trailer is shaking like a clump of sagebrush; I hope it doesn't bust loose and tumble into the creek. The temperature is also dropping and once again I am grateful for the invention of the portable propane heater. To distract my fearful mind from the stormy quaking, I am drawing fanciful figures in a calm landscape, such as two pilgrims in a silver boat floating down the lower Owens River. Looks like an illustration to Lord of the Rings. Maybe if I add plaid shirts, bomber hats and backpacks.......

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Riparian Woods — the Photos

This fall-winter-early spring I have been recovering an intense involvement with the vision of trees and shrubs that grow along the water, photographing autumn golden Aspen in Rock Creek and at Convict Lake, and this winter, Red Birch (or water birch) in Independence Creek and at Horton Creek.

Previously I had discovered my fascination with thicket imagery when I moved to Marin County in 1987 for a two year sojourn in the Tomales Bay environs of Point Reyes Station and Inverness. I often pulled over to the side of the highways to take a couple thousand photographs with my old Pentax, driving along Sir Francis Drake Blvd, up and down the road from Bolinas to Olema, and out of Marin on the road to Petaluma; roads winding along the water courses, rich with riparian growth. I went camping in desert oases with a group of avid bird watchers who searched for rare hummingbirds, owls and parrots while I photographed the grass, bushes and scrub trees they might be hiding in. And I painted oak trees and aspen clumps.

I left off stockpiling thicket photos (I have boxfulls of 4x6 prints in storage) and painting oak trees when I moved to Berkeley to attend GTU in 1992, when books and lectures became the objects of my fondest scrutiny. I took a class on nature and images of divinity for which I wrote a paper on  thickets, thornbushes and woods, such as the desert Thornbush in which Abraham found a trapped ram to substitute for the sacrifice of his son, and the Burning Bush encountered by Moses in Egypt. Dante's pilgrim begins his adventure in The Divine Comedy by coming to an awareness of being caught in a Dark Wood, and so forth. The theology of my study was the recurring experience of encountering transcendent, prophetic reality manifest through the ever-whichaways, or fractal, growth pattern in bushes and thickets, the kind of growth that occurs in riparian woods. (More on this idea in the next blog.)

After I graduated I returned to painting and focused on the subjects of people and owls, and had pretty much stopped taking photos, until I got a digital camera to document my paintings. When I moved to Horton Creek, I began to use it to take pictures for this blog, and so took up where I'd left off, taking pictures of thickets along the creeks; and got hooked, again.

Next up: Riparian Woods — the Paintings