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.......


  1. I love the colors.
    It is all about the water. The riparian rootballs raise the water up a heroic few feet or yards where it can mix with the sun to create a small organic miracle.

    The branches look like arms and hands reaching for the heavens. Beseeching? Giving thanks for deliverance?