We Will Never Not Have Been: 18 Paintings (2015 At Stanford Art Spaces)

DEWITT CHENG, Curator, Stanford (Univ.) Art Spaces 650-725-3622, dewittc@stanford.edu.
JAMIE BOLLENBACH, Artist, 206-650-0591, JamieBollenbach@gmail.com

Abstract Illusionism: Jamie Bollenbach and Yari Ostovany

Stanford Art Spaces is pleased to announce two May-June 2015 solo shows by eminent West Coast oil painters: We Will Never Not Have Been by Seattle painter and teacher Jamie Bollenbach; and Atmospherics, by Oakland painter Yari Ostovany. With the J.M.W. Turner Painting Set Free show coming to the de Young Museum on June 20, this is an ideal time to consider artists who share the English Romantic’s interest in capturing mood and atmosphere with color and gesture freed from restrictive naturalism and realism, and aspiring to the shock and awe of the Sublime. The term Abstract Illusionism was used in the 1970s and 1980s to describe a kind of contemporary trompe-l’oeil, fool-the-eye paintings; realistic shading and pictorial space were employed for abstract expressionist paint blobs and drips, creating a kind of hybrid of abstract and realist art. I use the term here to suggest the dual nature of these works, hovering between abstraction and representation. Bollenbach’s eighteen paintings—half of them never before exhibited— belong to a series that began in 2003 entitled The Amplitude of Time. He writes:

Many of these paintings look abstract, but they begin as portraits worked from life in my studio in Seattle: direct observation of a person blended later with the uncertain memory and re-imagination of that experience. This artwork can only come into its nature because of the real time spent with that person. Often the model saw the work in the making and moved or even danced, which also built some of the abstract forms lines of the composition. The paintings were often worked long after the first sessions, trying to locate, in William Blake’s phrase, “eternity in an hour.”

My review of his 2011 show at Noma Gallery in San Francisco:

Seattle painter Jamie Bollenbach exhibits sixteen paintings that began with that traditional cynosure of male artists, the female nude, and evolved during the painting process into abstract landscapes or skyscapes — swelling, undulating membranes or tissues composed of flickering, fluttering black and white brushstrokes in perfect balance: M.C. Escher meets Roberto Matta. The artist’s multiple responses to the motif (“sound, scent, color, glimpses and memories of intense but uncertain emotions – fluid, eternally transforming, winking in and out of being”) are recorded in works like “Population,” “Forms of Man and Woman Against a Cyclic Landscape,” and “Priscilla I.” As a group they stand midway between figure-based abstraction (from cubism, futurism, and abstract expressionism) and ambiguous figuration (from surrealism). Bollenbach, who studied with the contemporary portraitist Ann Gale, takes her analytical, fragmentary approach — it’s also that of Cézanne and Giacometti — and uses it to explore the “inscapes” of the psyche. A pair of World War II sky paintings (“The Bombers” and “Americans’ Planes Are So Much Prettier Than the Germans’”) featuring minute but deftly summarized B-17s (which veterans in Seattle and elsewhere are quick to decipher) summon historical memory. The title for the show derives from Walt Whitman’s poem, “Song of Myself:”

“To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.... I laugh at what you call dissolution,
And I know the amplitude of time.” (VisualArtSource.com)

Bollenbach’s richly textured canvases contain thousands of discrete marks laid down over lengthy periods, “the visual traces of a living, breathing person,” but venturing “beyond the surface of resemblance, [incorporating] abstraction as visual music, as tone and description and mood…. The ancient tools — the mud of paint, the hand and eye, the play with the flat space that looks infinitely deep — reveal aspects of our being and our relationships that cannot be approached any other way…. directly observed/imagined paintings- built over time, rather than taken mechanically all at once, have always folded the amplitude of time into their subjects.”

Jamie Bollenbach began painting in the early 1990s in the Bay Area and received his MFA in Painting from the University of Washington in 2002, where he maintains his studio practice, and has taught contemporary painting, drawing and life-drawing, and color and design with the UW School of Art, and numerous Puget Sound institutions. His work is collected nationally and he has shown all along the West Coast, including SF-MOMA and Seattle Art Museum’s artist galleries, as well as the solo show, The Amplitude of Time, at NOMA gallery in San Francisco. JamieBollenbach.com.


Jamie Bollenbach, "The Amplitude of Time," Noma Gallery   2011

"Those solemn reports of the death of painting (or art) that seem to recur every generation or so, prematurely, get no respect from Jamie Bollenbach. In an increasingly electronic contemporary world, the Seattle artist champions handicraft, the tradition of painting, and the creative struggle with and against a chosen medium, loved (“I like the juicy.”) but refractory. Working with models, he isolates certain elements that seem to extend themselves into surrounding space , perhaps like cubist planes or futurist lines of force; gradually the process, memory, imagination, and a host of other associations (history, politics, etc.) enter the work, sometimes completely obliterating the nudes beneath, but leaving a human presence in his tumultuous,  semi-abstract landscapes. Bollenbach: “My subject matter evolved from organic abstraction toward the exploration of transitory human presence, represented temporally in paintings as traces of light and color and gestural marks within a specific shape of space. I begin frequently from a live model. Elements of desolate, imagined landscape enter the work, pushing figuration to the edge of winking out—my version of the traditional symbol of the soap bubble as the fragility of life.” Also: “...Just standing in a a room is an amazingly complex system. And making art is a way to comprehend and express the mystery and wonder of a person just standing in a room probably better than other process.” 

Above, "Eroded and Anticipated, Forms of Man and Woman in a Cyclic Landscape"  2009



Cosio-Delaunay, dealers associated with San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art and San Franscisco and Oakland Art Enthusiast, represent Jamie Bollenbach's work in California. 

     Ongoing Life-Drawing Sessions, Thursdays at 5PM. $17

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Formation  2008, oil on canvas, 52" x 32"

From the B-17 Project idea, this painting is a way of thinking about the spaces for the public sculpture idea.  The clouds and sky are all imagined - the aircraft can just barely be discerned in the upper center of the painting.  Astonishing to me is that about a third of the people visiting this painting in the studio recognize the type of aircraft - the B-17 of course - from the merest, tiniest little marks of graphite. The aircraft is a true icon.

This does I think successfully convey the enormity of the sky, and in spite of the war action, is intended to be full of foreboding and inexorability, not drama.  When handling a subject as massive as the Second World War, it is nearly impossible to avoid romanticizing it or being sucked into problematic nostalgia for the Good War.  

By removing the specifics- the unit, the place, the exact time period, I hope to convey the expressive truth of unstoppable, oncoming horror -and the strategic bombing campaign was the most complete kind of horror - with the shapes and spaces of the clouds light and air.  We can say that it was worth it to defeat Hitler - that there may have been no future without this effort.  I tend to agree- but the scale of it - what really happens when you fill the sky with aircraft and obliterate city after city- was a truth that even the airmen, undergoing  tremendous stress and risk (20% of the bombers did not come back on some raids)  could not fully confront at the time. I've been talking to some of these great old veterans lately, and also some people who saw the sky filled with aircraft coming straight towards their town.

Wilderness  2008, oil on canvas, 60" x 72"

On the left is a piece about 60" by 72", with the working title of "Wilderness," just finished this June after a number of years.   The painting named Patricia is another major recent work; more discussion is below.  A couple of small pieces are coming out of the B-17 Project idea, and I will be returning to some political themes for a piece for  show in San Francisco proposed for this fall. 

Installation: I am working with UW on the possibility of developing a version of the large B-17 installation sculpture for the School of Art - this would be a major project involving grant fund-raising, calls for scholarship and specific technical assistance.  I especially need help with metal wire and aluminum casting techniques, so please contact me if you are interested in helping out.  More details on the concept are under "Initial Point."

Patricia   2008, oil on canvas, 60" x 72

The big process difference between Wilderness, above left, and Patricia is that the latter has a live model as a direct source. Wilderness evolved very slowly, mark following space following mark - one might be forgiven for thinking this is like surrealism, but a painting like this was built in a way that I hope exposes the imaginative process rather than simply illustrates the imagination.
Wilderness is a canvas that I started working way back in 2001, but this didn't really begin to develop until last year, when I drove toward a strong classical illusion of light and dark, but only in service of mood - this image is wholly invented, and is to me a consistent extension of abstract expressionist techniques. I simply kept driving until a landscape slowly emerged, populated with Archile Gorky-like figurative stuffed into specific allocations of space. The color and light in the impossible sky (no moonlight and sunrise would work like this) is verging dangerously on the surreal, but I'm not exploring a subconscious dream-image world, or front-loading an image with any sense of internal purity.

I hope that the mood emerges naturally; if there is any specific referent (and this is a recurrent theme) it is that in the midst of the contemplation of emptiness, it is impossible not to want to see people, but our experience of this, while emotionally strong, is visually fleeting, always in motion, beyond grasping.

Are the swirling lines and forms sinking into and out of the dark gendered?  Yes - you can think of a Picasso line, it's weight turning and twisting and arguably sexualized even while dissociated from the body.

Patricia is in oil, about 60" by 72", and began with my most common process of two or three sessions with a model. Like the last major painting, there is a distinct implication of perspectival and atmospheric distance that the figurative forms occupy. Here, the connection to a real person, and a much more specifically conceived invented landscape are more apparent.

I am flirting with surrealism here, not to mention eroticism, but these evolved out of working with it. To me, it's closest affinity is with Excavation, by DeKooning. It has the same figurative sources, the same push to all-over abstracted form tiling, but re-embraces classical painting's spatiality.

Which may be why these are taking so long - I have to decide where every abstract bit hangs in space, without much of a mimetic guide other than skin in light and shadow, and there almost no sketches. It was worked like a high modernism - trial and error, excavating the form.

The model's relationship to the image grew particularly stretched in terms of imagery, but her compositional positions were critical and largely survived.  I have several earlier versions I may post later.

This working title of "The Everything Painting" was due to it's somewhat futile attempt to find a sweet spot between figurative realism, all-over abstraction, classical landscape (there is an ocean and a ground and a distant mountain range under there) and I'm afraid to say surrealism, in the sense at least of dream imagery. I generally dislike surrealism, with the exception of Yves Tanguy, because it tends to feel false and forced to me.

What I do like is any painting that successfully creates an embracing idea-atmosphere, where the emotions and the logic of the work are inseparable, powerful, and specific to the terms of painting.

Sources and Methods  photo: Under the Rails, (c) Jamie Bollenbach 2015

Under the Rails, Self Portrait Jamie Bollenbach (c) 2015

The source of these paintings developed during my MFA program at the University of Washington in 2001 from a traditional figure drawing experiment where a model moves and new drawings at each movement; these are superimposed on the previous drawing. This idea of still image as a description of the passage of time was famously used in Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, which itself was based in early motion capture photography.  In my work, the direction is reversed; where the early moderns - including the proto-fascist Futurists - were embracing technology, metal, speed, time and, apparently, the future, this work tries to stuff the 20th century back into observational painting traditions;  the notion of time employed is organic and human, photography rejected, the marks gestural and muscular but pushed back into pictorial space, the synthesis of mood, process and image elevated over an illustration of external philosophical concept.

I have been accused of both unrepentant humanism and Northwest Mysticism, to which I happily confess.

My paintings argue that the dynamic, analytic, expressively attentive thinking of vision, illusion, and painting process is an irreplaceable intellectual activity. But it is not a defense of painting as paint - paint and painting processes are Art when they seek new knowledge and expression within all the possibilities of Art. If little pots of mud still teach us about the nature of being, identity, philosophy, love, hate, politics, and blue, wonderful. It is true as long as it is true.

Each painting, each drawing, every image and object created by an active human consciousness connects to all other such objects and their formative processes.

Art is simply a refinement, more ambitious, putting out tendrils of sensing into the most delicate and fleeting of concepts and experience. Painting allows, demands in fact, awareness of each element which creates the painting, both technical and in terms of subject and subject matter. Done well, it extends the possibilities of what all people can become aware of; done well, it adds to collection of all art works and processes, making available a bright little packet of new information to anyone who cares to examine it. It is the peculiar pressure of painting that each brush stroke is in a way connected to every brush stroke ever made in the 40,000 year history of painting. Whimsy, pretty and decorative aspects aside, this work is good if and when it meets this test, if it attaches to the body of all Art, sensitive to a new, ephemeral yet inarguably describable experience.

The paintings here represent artwork from 2002 to the present. 

All Artworks copyright 1998-2015 by Jamie Bollenbach. All rights reserved. Free, non-commercial use of images with attribution by written request only.

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