Presented to the Department of Art
California State University, Long Beach
In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Master of Fine Arts
WE, THE UNDERSIGNED MEMBERS OF THE COMMITTEE, HAVE APPROVED THIS PROJECT REPORT
THE LANDSCAPE OF MEMORY
By Dennis R. McGonagle
Tom Krumpak, M.F.A. (Chair), Marie C.Thibeault, M.F.A. and Kristen Morgin, M.F.A.
ACCEPTED AND APPROVED ON BEHALF OF THE UNIVERSITY:
James A. Kvapil, M.F.A.
Chair, Department of Art
LIST OF WORKS
LANDSCAPE OF MEMORY
Artistic and Philosophical Influences
Description Of The Work
Description of Artistic Methods
LIST OF WORKS
Slides of these works may be obtained in the Media Collections Department
of the Library at California State University, Long Beach.
LANDSCAPE OF MEMORY
American culture is heir to the deserts.
- Jean Beaudrillard
Potted cactuses, a Mexican shot glass, a photo of Monument Valley from an old Arizona Highways Magazine were the beginnings of my still life. The act of painting this artificial landscape transported me across time and space, taking me back to a past life in Flagstaff Arizona, where I drove Greyhound busses. My job was to drive passengers through the desert, to destinations like Gallup, Albuquerque, and Las Vegas. Sometimes I would drive migrant workers to the fields of El Centro or I would cross the border to connect with bus terminals in Mexicali or Tijuana. At other times I would drive the Midnight Express out of the cool mountains of Flagstaff, through forests of saguaro cactuses into the twenty-four hour a day blast furnace heat of Phoenix.
But driving through the vast stillness of Monument Valley was my favorite. The billowing clouds and giant mesas towering over the Painted Desert were a breathtaking sight for a landscape painter from Whittier. I gazed through the windshield painting landscapes in my mind as I absorbed the sights and energy of this magical place. Although my Greyhound career began in 1979 and ended three years later with the Transit Workers strike, I will always have vivid recollections of my time spent in the desert. My MFA project gives form to the memories of these journeys.
As I began my paintings, I sought out symbols and metaphors that could represent all the realities and possibilities that the desert could hold. I wanted my artificial landscapes to have objects from the natural world so I used potted moon cactuses. Brilliantly colored man-made hybrids with day-glow red or orange domes grafted to a green cactus stalk, moon cactuses were ideal for my purposes because they are a blend of the real and the unreal. Miniature cars and busses as well as plastic animals were selected to represent the world in simulation. I bought a large stack of old Arizona Highways Magazines and mined them for photographic backdrops of the desert.
In order to develop a personal narrative, I painted every aspect of these carefully constructed still lives as if they were real places. Plastic animals showed the relationship between man and nature, predator and prey. Plaster figures surrendered to the Migra as 99 Cent Store helicopters circled overhead. An old prospectors truck loaded with jewel-like rocks sits parked in the vast desert stillness. Photographic backdrops become blends of imaginary spaces and real places with real objects entering into and emerging from them.
Artistic and Philosophical Influences
The well-known Los Angeles painter, James Doolin, was and will always be a member of my CSULB Graduate Committee. I met Doolin when he came to speak and show slides of his work at Cal State Long Beach in 2001. After he finished speaking, I introduced myself to him and asked if I could bring some paintings to his studio to get his opinion about them. I explained that I would be screening to get into the CSULB MFA program and would like his advice as which paintings to present. He graciously agreed and our friendship began.
I brought a truckload of large canvasses over to Doolins studio on Robertson Boulevard in West Los Angeles where he proceeded to carefully look at and talk about each one. He was very interested in my work, probably because it was something like his own thematically, but very different in terms of style, execution, and materials. My eccentric use of color and frenzied paint application in particular seemed to appeal to him greatly. Doolin explained to me how he made studies of different kinds of light and how he used light and shadow in his landscapes. He showed me a model for his MTA mural of Los Angeles After 2000 and talked about the various light sources he had used in his mural.
We had a wonderful dialogue that day and on a subsequent studio visit a few months later. I remember how James Doolin encouraged me to screen for my MFA, but cautioned me to be true to myself, and not to be swayed by teachers who would try to change my style and approach to art. He told me that one day I would definitely have a devoted following of people who would collect my work.
James Doolin eventually agreed to be a member of my graduate committee at Long Beach. Hesitant at first, he said he was worried that he would not be able to devote enough time to meetings and other committee responsibilities. Doolins health was beginning to decline, but he still insisted on coming to a Pit Crit that following Spring where he spoke very eloquently about my work to the professors here at Long Beach. Even though he was recovering from a bout with pneumonia, he still pushed himself to come. He said he wanted to get a sense of where the faculty was coming from when they spoke about my work. Doolin passed away a few months later at the age of 70. He died of pulmonary fibrosis.
Being a landscape painter myself, I am captivated by Doolins landscapes, particularly his desert scenes of Death Valley which he painted in the early 1980s. I am inspired by their magical color relationships, especially the sgtrong contrast between the light saturated colors in sunlight and the mysterious greens and blues in the shadows. Doolin had a knack for creating exciting compositions in his landscapes, transforming subjects like freeway underpasses and rock formations in Death Valley into visually compelling structures.
I am including two James Doolin quotes to illustrate how I connect James Doolins painting with my own.
Consciously, I strive to make my paintings strong on the abstract level, clear on the descriptive level, and mysterious on the narrative level so that viewers can make up their own stories and symbols.
Recently I have been filling some of my Illusionistic paintings with sunsets. That is the vehicle I can use to get back to the kind of pure color I used in my Artificial Landscape paintings, when color itself was my first priority. Looking back on my life as a painter, I now believe that color - and beauty - have always been most important to me.
Like James Doolin, color and beauty are very important in my work. I want to create intensely felt sunsets in my own paintings, brilliantly colored skyscapes illuminated by the setting sun. I want to create that same sense of the sublime that I saw in Doolins MTA murals, particularly the one entitled, Los Angeles After 2000. which shows a metropolis at the twilight of the twentieth century. The freeways are choked with cars for hundreds of miles in every direction. There is an eerie beauty to the vast landscape. The sun has gone down and helicopters circle through the nuclear orange sky. The viewer is, in fact up in a helicopter watching the drama below. The walls of the buildings and bridges in the foreground are illuminated by a ghostly green light.
I also strive to make my paintings strong on the abstract level, clear on the descriptive level, and mysterious on the narrative level. The viewers of my Landscape of Memory project will bring their own experiences and perspectives to the paintings. Consequently, everyone will find their own personal connections to the work.
Another critical influence on my art work is the work of Regionalist painters. Artcyclopedia defines Regionalism as,
An American term, Regionalism refers to the work of a group of rural artists, mostly from the Midwest, who came to prominence in the 1930's. Not being part of a coordinated movement, regionalists often had an idiosyncratic style or point of view. What they shared, among themselves and among other American Scene Painters, was a humble, antimodernist style and a fondness for depicting everyday life. However, their rural conservatism put them at odds with the urban and leftist Social Realists of the same era.
Of the Regionalist painters, Thomas Hart Benton has had the most impact. Born in Missouri, Thomas Hart Benton was a strong champion of Regionalism.. His paintings reflected the tough Midwest lifestyle rather than the cosmopolitan East Coast. Benton's style was more realistic, in opposition to the many abstract styles of art found at that time. The idea of constructing a model for an artificial landscape was one I borrowed from Thomas Hart Benton. Benton had a technique of creating shoe box sized models using such materials as pipe cleaners, clay figures and cotton clouds to develop his complex compositions. He began his paintings by creating sculptures that evolved into dioramas (or miniature scenes) of intended two-dimensional works. First, he formed clay models, which were somewhat like a relief sculpture (projecting slightly from the surface). Then he created many drawings from the models. If the idea presented did not translate well to two dimensions, he would rework the model until it did.
Other Regionalists influenced me as well. John Steuart Currys landscapes, like Benton's, capture the energy and drama of the Midwestern landscape and its people. Grant Wood used his talent for realism in his characterization of the American scene. My desert scenes connect to that tradition because they too are of a specific region of the American landscape.Even though they are a mixture of the real, the hyperreal, and the imaginary, they are narrative paintings of a real place in Northern Arizona. They are 21st Century Regionalist paintings.
Another source of inspiration for my method of creating models for my artificial landscapes
comes from the Peruvian retablo. Retablos are wooden boxes filled with brightly colored figures arranged into intricate narrative scenes of religious, historical and cultural events. I had the good fortune to learn how to make retablos from the master retablo maker, Nicario Jimenez Quispe, who lectured at Whittier College during my senior year there in 1993. Nicario came from the town of Ayacucho, located a few miles from Lima. The retablistas of Ayacucho are renowned for their highly detailed painting and clay work in their retablos. Nicario showed me how to create figures using boiled potatoes and plaster and how to integrate them into the shallow dimensions of a wooden retablo. His work differed from commercial or mainstream retablo making in two major respects: it was highly original art, not molded assembly line stuff like you see in Latin American folk art shops. And, it is sociopolitical. Nicarios work commented on such themes as the Sendero Luminoso guerrilla movement, cocaine trafficking, and the state of the education system, economy, and government of Peru.
My artificial landscapes are based on models that are similar to Nicarios in several ways. Like Nicario I construct them in wooden boxes, they have a complex narrative quality, they are populated by figures and there is a feeling of depth created by the stacking of objects against a backdrop in a shallow space.
Description Of The Work
A major theme in my work is the contrast between foreground images placed against backgrounds of skylines and mesas that are very far away. A good example of this is the painting, The Play of Nearness and Farness. The foreground of that painting is dominated by a large orange moon cactus in a bowl that is tumbling right out of the picture plane. The middleground. is represented by a rocky cliff. The viewers eye is then taken across twenty miles of barren desert to three mesas rising out of the horizon. This play of nearness and farness was one of my original purposes when I began painting this series of works last summer. The first ten paintings in the series are all variations on the idea of close-up objects depicted in a deep space environment.
Some of the paintings in the series appear to be nearly identical. Left Brain, Right Brain (slide 8) and Deja Vu appear to be virtually the same painting with just a few slight variations. Like a frame from a movie, each painting in the series has a subtle shift or variation, adding and subtracting details from the painting that follows it. Capturing the same image in a variety of ways, as in a movie, I retell the same story from a variety of perspectives.
Although all of the paintings in the Landscape of Memory series take place in the desert, they are shown at all different times of day. Dreaming in the Desert, Midnight Express and Silver Wolf take place some time between midnight and three A.M., a time when I was usually behind the wheel of a bus. The deep blues and purples of the night paintings represent the quiet mystery of those evenings in the desert. Driving up to five hundred miles a day would take its toll on me at times, resulting in severe bouts of sleep deprivation. Sometimes I would glance into my mirror and notice that all of my passengers were sound asleep, as I fought to keep alert. Once I was awakened to the blasting of a car horn and discovered myself on a freeway in downtown Albuquerque. To this day, I have no idea if I was asleep for a few seconds or for several hours. Dreaming in the Desert (slide 11) and Midnight Express (slide 9) are records of that miraculous night
Some of the paintings reveal colorful sunsets. In these I can give full play to the idea of beauty. In the canvas, Mysterious Mesa, (slide 14) a black mesa is silhouetted in the twilight as red clouds reflect the last rays of the sun. A green flash compliments the scene as it radiates across the horizon. In this larger canvas, there was more room to play zones of color against one another.
A small cast of key players come and go through the Landscape of Memory series of paintings. The old prospectors truck, loaded with jewel-like tumbled rocks, represents movement across time and space. The truck is a rusting relic from the 1950s, the golden age of pickup trucks. In my paintings, it is often found parked precariously on impossible cliffs and ledges, its driver nowhere in sight. In the earlier paintings it was part of the still-life in the foreground. As I began to experiment more with my compositions, the truck began to drive farther into the deep space of the photographic backdrop. In some paintings, two identical trucks can be seen, representing a desert traffic jam. The glittering boulders in the bed of the pickup truck are polished stones purchased from a desert gift shop. Piled up in the back of the pickup they could represent a load of glowing uranium ore.
Cows in various forms appear in many of the paintings as spectators, bearing silent witness to the unfolding drama in the desert. They often appear in multiples to suggest a kind of stop-action movement. A second bovine theme is the cows skull on the Mexican shot glass. This is a testimonial to the transitory nature of life, the Mexican dia de los muertos idea of laughing at death. It is also a salute to the hallucinatory powers of mezcal. Cows and their presence in my desert landscapes brings an element of humor to the narrative as well. There is something odd and quirky about seeing a big, fat cow standing next to a giant shot glass or grazing in a field of glowing moon cactuses. It is my hope that this odd quirkiness will bring joy and delight to the viewers experience.
One of the themes of The Landscape of Memory is the confrontation between American border patrol figures and a family of immigrants trying to cross the border into to the United States illegally. A symbol for this clash is a yellow CAUTION FAMILIES CROSSING sign, often seen near the Camp Pendleton area of the Santa Ana Freeway as it nears the Mexican border. I included it in the paintings, La Migra, and Western Sunset because there is something very compelling for me about this sign. Perhaps it is the need to warn motorists about families running across a freeway in the same manner that people are told to watch out for a migrating herd of animals. It is odd and ironic, therefore, it is the perfect signpost to guide the viewer through my map of desert hyperreality.
The figures for my culture clash narratives came from a smashed and broken Peruvian retablo. (Not a Nicario, but a commercial Christmas one.) These plaster figures with their brightly painted costumes are a perfect compliment to the grim green military figures who are detaining them. In, La Migra, armed guards and a snarling German shepherd occupy the high ground as they confront a group of gaily dressed Peruvians who have been discovered hiding in a ravine. Part of my daily Tijuana to Los Angeles express route was a stop at the immigration office near Oceanside. Though La Migra rarely came aboard the bus, his presence and authority were felt.by everyone present.
Transit Strike is a metaphor for the final stage of my bus driving career. In Transit Strike, a group of immigrants struggles to load all of their earthly belongings onto a truck that is parked behind an empty bus. All of the energy of the painting takes place behind the scenes, in the background. The bus is no longer available, but an alternative has been found. As a bus driver I was witness and participant to many such scenes.
Driving Greyhound busses represented an eventful interlude in my life. I am grateful for my Greyhound experience because it literally expanded my horizons. Unfortunately, when I was working, I had to live in remote locations like Flagstaff or Indio and I was so busy, it was difficult to find time to do anything but drive. My career as a Greyhound driver ended with the Transit Workers strike. It was a nice run while it lasted, but I celebrated when it was over.
Description of Artistic Methods
Rather than do a few large-scale canvasses for my show, I chose to create a suite of forty small panels that could act like movie stills for my desert narrative. Thus, most of the paintings in Landscape of Memory are painted in oil on nine inch by twelve inch hardwood panels. The panels are actually old chalkboards, artifacts that I excavated from the basement of the elementary school where I teach. I framed the chalkboards with 1 by 2 inch pine in order to give them a more dignified presence on the wall. I left their corners rounded in order to preserve a reminder of their previous function, which was to remember and record the thoughts and calculations of generations of children. Now they serve to record my memories of the desert.
My next step was to gesso the panels. This I did in a variety of ways. For some of them, I would simply gesso them white. For others, I would color the gesso by mixing it with liquid acrylic, creating a toned ground. Sealing some of the panels with clear acrylic varnish allowed me to incorporate the gridded green chalkboard surface into my artistic statement.
When the primary coat had dried, I brushed on a layer of linseed oil and varnish mixed with burnt umber or burnt sienna. The final step was to paint directly into the wet surface of the panels with highly saturated oil color. This wet into wet technique was very forgiving. It allowed me to paint rapidly; blending, incising, scratching, and wiping away areas. I worked in two to three hour shifts. At the end of each painting session, I had the choice of wiping out areas with a rag or allowing the surface to dry. In subsequent painting sessions I could paint over areas with either thin transparent layers or thick opaque brush strokes.
On the panels with toned grounds I employed a technique called reverse color underpainting. This method had its origins in the Renaissance and was a favorite of Raphael. The painting, The Old Prospector, was painted on a panel with an orange surface, some of which can still be seen peeking through the blue sky and shining through the thinly glazed cliffs in the background.
Other paintings in the Landscape of Memory show are larger and painted on canvas using either acrylic or oil. I used a similar wet into wet technique for the oil paintings on canvas. Due to the larger size of the paintings, (twenty-four inch by thirty-six inch or thirty-six inch by forty-eight inch) the look and feel of the paintings surface quality is different. The canvasses absorbed the brushstrokes more, giving the paintings a more blended appearance.
For my project one of my goals was to develop and expand my vocabulary of paint applications. I wanted the paint to reference itself in my work on this series of paintings.. Oil paint is beautiful, sensuous stuff and I wanted to show it off for all it was worth by applying paint in such different ways as, transparent versus opaque, thin washes over thick underpainting, smooth and scumbled, flat and glossy. Also, individual brush strokes stand out more when applied to a hardwood panel and the record of each stroke of the brush becomes part of the finished statement. This variety of paint handling and visible record of brush strokes call attention to the surface of the painting creating a tension between the illusion of three dimensional space, reminding the viewer, This is not the desert, this is a painting of the desert.
Some of the strongest and most creative decisions in my painting happened with the first strokes of my brush. That is why I left seemingly uncompleted sections in some of the paintings. In, The Old Prospector, I used a two inch housepainter brush to apply a thin wash of color to represent a cliff. I liked the strong sense of gravity that the paint and brush created for the rock wall, so I left that part alone. The transparent glaze of color made a very interesting effect on the toned underpainting. I spent many hours on other parts of the painting, such as the small figure in the foreground but the energy and spontaneity of the first strokes of the brush are a nice compliment to the tightness of other areas of the composition.
Though nearly all of the paintings in my project are painted in oil, I returned to the use of acrylic paint for a few of them. I did this because I wanted to travel back in time to a the style and materials that I employed twenty five years ago when I was painting and driving busses. I wanted to compare and contrast who I was then with who I am now.
The task of painting a series of forty artificial landscapes for my MFA project opened up new possibilities and expanded my repertoire as an artist. I had painted exclusively with acrylic for my entire painting career, so I challenged myself to paint the panels in oil, a medium that I had little experience with. As a result, I grew to appreciate oil paint and learned to use it with a variety of different techniques. I turned to the idea of an artificial landscape because I wanted to develop a studio approach to painting from observation that would compliment my outdoor plein aire style. Artificial landscapes give me a way to create a narrative composition and set up a controlled lighting system for it. I will continue to work in this manner, creating models for my paintings and my murals.
The Images of The Landscape of Memory Project were successful in exploring events from a past that had been submerged for many years. With this project, I have contributed to the dialogue of contemporary landscape painting.