Writing these next few essays has felt like untangling a long skein of thread and then carefully knitting it together, making sense out of something that had been chaotic. For an artist, for all of us, life and work are connected, and so it is here.
As it fell out, mostly because of location, I was the “designated sibling” during the final illnesses of my parents. I almost stopped painting, except for my scientific illustration, and I stopped writing. One thing self-help experts will tell you about such times is to try to nurture oneself, and with that in mind I embarked upon a series of Skype classes with a painter named Richard Thomas Scott.How I ended up doing this begins with another painter originally from Norway named Odd Nerdrum.
The first time I heard of Odd Nerdrum was an article back in the mid-90’s (in ArtNews, perhaps) which included an image of a darkly stupendous painting called “Man Holding the Head of his Lover.” It appealed to my deeply ingrained Gothic sensibility – as a child, my mother had taken me and my sister on graveyard tours, seeking out moss-covered gravestones and speculating on the lives of the ancient dead — and reminded me a bit of some dark fantasy illustrators I’d seen (John Jude Palencar springs to mind) except with freer brushwork and on a scale too grand to fathom. The painting puzzled me too – this was one of the big art magazines from New York, and yet this painting looked almost like something by Rembrandt. I knew just enough about the New York art world in 1994 to know that ArtNews didn’t give the time of day to anyone who painted like Rembrandt, or John Jude Palencar either. What was going on?
Then several years later I picked up a book, On Kitsch, vaguely recognizing the author’s name, and struggled through the rather dense philosophical essays. It seemed to be all about a new kind of painting called Kitsch, which was not hokey bad art; in fact, it was supposedly not art at all. This confused me yet again, in fact, I could hardly get my head around some of the ideas at first. Sunsets? Pretty girls? Sincerity? All of us products of 20th Century art education knew this would get us laughed out of any modern classroom and most galleries too.
A few more years passed, and I came across more references to this painter. One day my son, working at a bookstore after college, told me about a co-worker who was a painter, and showed me a photo of his amazingly mature self-portrait. His friend hoped one day to study painting in Norway, with a famous painter who had a very strange name . . . I had to find the book to remember the name on the tip of my tongue . . . Yes, it was that Nerdrum fellow again!
The more I saw of Nerdrum’s work the more he reminded me of some new Rembrandt, although I have to admit that Rembrandt was never my favorite Old Master painter. I remember disliking Rembrandt once, long ago, because I thought he painted heavy women with dimpled thighs. Ha! I shake my head now at my youthful folly. Nor did Nerdrum’s style, impasto laid on heavy linen, immediately appeal to me in that way I’m sure other painters recognize, like wanting to possess a new car or lover: Oh, I must paint like that someday!
And some of his work puzzled me (for the umpteenth time) in light of his writings about lack of irony and sincerity. Surely an exquisite rendering of a row of women defecating in the woods is a joke – right? Or a self-portrait spotlighting the painter’s slightly crooked erection? At the time, I could only imagine these paintings to be sly and contemptuous visual statements: “Art critics, suck on this.” “You won’t look at a nice sunset? How about this?” Perhaps they were simply disingenuous ways to succeed in the Post Modernist art world, that monstrous maw always seeking the next shocking image. Nerdrum seemed in some ways a deeply flawed and vulnerable man, but his best paintings radiated a profound dignity, and a deep mystery too.
I was obsessed for a while with this Odd mystery, bundling it up with my obsession with Renaissance painting techniques, and I discovered there were other people out in cyberspace who were obsessed too. A lot of them seemed to be artists like me who grew up during the latter part of the 20th century wanting badly to paint “real”, but who missed out on the requisite training.
At the state university where I got my degree in 1984, my oil painting instruction consisted of Fly free, little bird! What I’d wanted to learn to do was paint people, people who looked at least passably real, and not just lying around but flying, jumping, wearing costumes, preferably set in elaborate backgrounds, like the SF and fantasy illustrators who were the only living illusionistic painters I knew. How do I make things look like that? Where do I even start? After graduation, when my children were young, I’d taught myself to paint in egg tempera from a Dover book, and applied what I’d learned to paint well enough in acrylics to get some illustration free-lance work. I could always draw, and finally ended up working as a scientific illustrator, very happy that I’d found a niche. But still I longed to paint in oils and do it well.
After graduation I haunted the stacks in the university library, where I had discovered a whole shelf of forgotten books on the painting techniques of the Old Masters. My favorite was The Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Masters, by Jacques Maroger. I don’t know how long it had been in the library but I was the only person who had ever checked it out, and I suspect I still am. I actually ordered powdered white lead when it was still available and came this close to boiling it with linseed oil until it turned black and transparent, in an iron pot over a fire in my back yard. This was supposed to be the magic medium of the Old Masters that made their paint flow like dark honey from the brush! Odd Nerdrum actually did it, and it ruined some of his pictures, melted them right off the canvas. He had to paint pictures over again, pictures he had already sold, and this led to his terrible tax problems with Norway. So it’s probably for the best I never boiled linseed oil and lead in my back yard, although in my case it would only have resulted in poisoning myself and the rest of the neighborhood.
Like a painting technique porn junky, I ended up cruising the internet for articles about Nerdrum and his fabled technique. These articles had the tone of Maroger’s book – Here is the secret! The final secret of painting! In online forums people talked about Odd Nerdrum’s palette, mediums, and the precise sort of herringbone linen he uses. I knew the information was flimsy, but still my heart beat faster!
Along the way I began running across names of his students here and there. I would write them down on bits of paper, Google them and bookmark their websites, and then carefully study their work. Nerdrum’s students — and there are a lot of them, both men and women — were representational painters of course, but very much individuals, sharing a hint of the fantastic coupled with a grandeur I’d not found elsewhere. By the way, I hope this doesn’t sound as if I were cyberstalking Nerdrum students. If you are or were a student of Odd Nerdrum, I promise I won’t show up at your house — although it’s possible I might crash your next gallery opening but only if it’s in a city within easy driving distance. Hint: there might be some nice galleries in Atlanta!
I finally stumbled upon ArtBabel, a blog full of juicy information-rich articles, many written by someone named Richard Thomas Scott, a real live student of Odd Nerdrum. He was quite a wonderful painter himself, because there was one of his paintings with very real-looking naked people floating in the ether! Jackpot! I emailed him because there was contact information on the website and an invitation to join something, I wasn’t sure what, but I must have kept dogging him until he finally emailed me back.
At some point Skype classes were mentioned. The classes consisted of me and a few other people in various parts of the world watching Richard paint somewhere in Paris, I think from Odd Nerdrum’s house in exile, while he talked about the philosophical underpinnings of Nerdrum’s “Kitsch painting.” The connection went bad sometimes, but it was great fun, I learned a lot, and watching Richard paint was more useful than anything. We could ask Richard any questions we wanted about mediums, stretching linen, underpainting, and how to pronounce grisaille – mispronunciation being, of course, the awful curse of the Southern painting autodidact.
The Skype classes were during bright day in Tennessee, but the windows in the Paris studio on my computer screen were dark. Richard glanced at himself reflected in the dark window glass with the lights of some Parisian suburb shining in the darkness behind him, and painted his image twice on the canvas. He painted with astonishing facility, without a sketch as far as I could see. Whenever I do this I paint myself off the canvas or make somebody’s head too big. Richard never knew it, but as the weekly classes evolved, the lights in his studio window and his painting began to resemble the night view from the winding road up the mountain where we had moved in with my father during his final illness. I had begun having a panic attack every time I had to drive that road at night, even though I had done it hundreds of times over the years. There was no guard rail and the lights of the city twinkling in the black void a thousand feet below had suddenly begun to terrify me. It was all about dying, I know, the terrible fear of falling into the abyss myself before I had a chance to paint the pictures inside me.
Here is the painting Richard did while he talked to us:
I’m not sure if this was the first time Richard had students, but when I saw the title he gave the painting, “The Blind Leading the Blind,” I wondered if that was how he felt, because I remembered feeling that way myself when I first taught painting years ago. My friend Neil Robinson knew I needed a job and offered me a position teaching oil painting to people at the Senior Neighbors center downtown where he was art director. I told him I didn’t know enough — in fact, I knew almost nothing beyond what I’d learned in college. He said, “You know more than they do.” I’ve never forgotten that. Then he said, “And you’ll learn more than they do.”
The second time I took Skype classes from Richard, I watched him paint “The House on the River Lethe.”
When I saw the “floating” chair, hanging by a rope from some invisible ceiling hook in the studio behind him, I laughed and said, “That looks like something I would do.” I love surreal painted illusions when they’re done really well. Once again, without a sketch, he rapidly painted the light reflecting on the polished wooden floor of his studio. In Greek mythology, the River Lethe is where souls forget their past lives; and in Dante’s Inferno, he is washed in the River Lethe to forget his past sins and complete his atonement. The painting reminded me of how I felt when I started getting rid of things that weren’t working in my life, letting things go one by one. Empty.
I would have loved to buy “The Blind Leading the Blind,” but it was beyond my budget. But then early this year Richard had a Kickstarter campaign to support him doing some insane number of small paintings in a month. I bought a share to get an 8×10, and ended up with this little jewel, “The Gloaming.”
The first thing I noticed about the painting when it arrived was the facility of the execution, because I am above all else an admirer of beautiful painting. The swift little highlight on her nose caught my eye, done in a second, I am sure. I have seldom been able to paint with that assurance – except, for some reason, when I’m doing a demonstration for students.
But I have a confession: after admiring the lovely technique, for reasons I could not quite fathom, I carefully put the painting away in a cupboard. Every time I walked by, I would see it in the shadows and ask myself why I didn’t take it out and have it framed. I finally realized that her downturned face and hands (has she been twisting them? Could she be clutching a damp handkerchief?) subtly conveyed some mix of raw emotions — loss, regret, resignation — with such intensity that it almost broke my heart. Having received many well-meaning suggestions to “paint more cute stuff” over the years, I don’t believe the mood of a painter’s work can be changed, or should be. Being largely unconscious, deliberate efforts to lighten mood risk losing that connection with spirit that make a painting truly powerful. I’m stunned by Richard’s ability to convey deep feeling so delicately, so economically, in such a small painting. She is alive.
In fact, even more than skills, this is the single most important lesson I learned from Richard: Painting in the 21st Century may now legitimately embody human concerns and sincere emotional connection with the subject. Richard was a wonderful teacher and a fascinating person, and I’m thankful to him for filling in almost all the blank spots in my oil painting education. I finally stopped obsessing about Odd Nerdrum and his painting technique and realized that there is no magical formula for oil painting. Oh, there are mediums and recipes, and some work, or they don’t. In the end, you just have to do it.
A lot of people are talking about a new movement in representational painting, asking if it’s real and if it is what to call it, whether Kitsch, NovoRealism, or Post Contemporary. I can tell you that even here a fresh breeze is blowing through the open windows of my studio. Change is in the air.