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Steve Locke's homage to the auction block and a visit to Braddock

Tuesday Night Painting #12

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Drawing by Stanley Whitney

Hello painters, 

Last week we looked at the abstract color field work of Stanley Whitney. We discussed the artist's intense urge to express himself through painting abstractly while also dealing with pressures to live and act politically.

Today we'll look at the paintings of Steve Locke, another artist whose abstract work arises from his engagement with "color theory, portraiture and memory." Locke is typically a portrait painter, but has relatively recently embarked upon a series of abstract works.

And afterward, I'll share with you some thoughts and images from my visit to Unsmoke Systems, an art space located in the small town of Braddock, Pennsylvania.

Steve Locke, Homage to the Auction Block, 2020

Steve Locke is a painter and installation artist who was born in Ohio, raised in Detroit, and educated in the arts in Boston, Mass. Locke's recent series of paintings is titled Homage to the Auction Block.

Taking Josef Albers' square homages as a starting point, Locke began developing this recent body of paintings after working on two public art projects for the city of Boston. The first of which was the large abstract colored banners hung outside the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in commemoration of the life and death of Freddie Gray.

The second of which was the proposal to create a slave auction block memorial at the site of Faneuil Hall. The memorial was to be a large, raised bronze plate in the shape of an auction block, heated to the human body temperature of 98 degrees. Locke designed this memorial "from analysis of slaving manifests that dictate the amount of space available for "loose-pack" cargo of slaves.  Humans were allotted a space of 3x5 feet."
In past classes we've discussed how certain shapes can appear and reappear in an artist's body of work, and how these kinds of motifs can influence a work's interpretation.

Abstract artists attempt to look for and find meaning in shapes, colors, and compositions. This can be heavily based on research such as in Locke's work, or it can be a more intuitive, call-and-response experience such as in Stanley Whitney's paintings.

In this case, Locke has taken the image of the auction block and converted it into an abstract shape. The work is abstract and open to a variety of meanings and interpretations until you learn about the origin of the work. Then the focus rests on the meaning of the auction block, but the use of colors and evidence of the work's hand painted nature allows its interpretation to expand again in a more focused direction.
Locke notes on his website that the works used to be conceived and executed in a hard-edged fashion, but after researching Josef Albers' method of painting, he began to appreciate the effect of painting them by hand. Locke writes that "It gives the paintings a sense of humanity necessary to their conceptual underpinnings."

Likewise, consider how the color palettes might also reinforce the conceptual aspects of this work. How do you feel about the usage and combinations of colors at play here? How do the cool greens and grays, the flesh tones, and the warm colors combine together to affect your interpretation of each piece?

You can see more of these paintings and explore the rest of Locke's various bodies of work at his website
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~ ~ Tuesday Night Painting field trip ~ ~

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Unsmoke Systems Artspace, a gallery and events space located in an old, repurposed Catholic school. It was a very bright and sunny day when I pulled into the gallery's parking lot, which is flanked by two large abstract sculptures of bent metal, covered in a rusty reddish orange color. 



Unsmoke is located in the borough of Braddock, which now is a small community of about 2,000 people. Braddock was once a busy community of 20,000 mostly Eastern European immigrants who had come to work in the steel mills. The art space is situated directly across from the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, one of the few remnants of Pittsburgh's industrial past that is still in operation.




I visited Unsmoke and Braddock in order to see the work of John Burt Sanders up close. The artist's at times minimal, at times heavily textured paintings caught my eye when I saw them online, and luckily he was there to open up the doors for me the day of the show's deinstallation.

Hosting an art exhibit during a pandemic is tricky endeavor to say the least. But the exhibition space (which is located in what was the former school's auditorium) was large, light-filled, and spacious. On display were canvases ranging in size from 9 x 11 inches to 46 x 60 inches.

The exhibition title, JOIN, makes references to Benjamin Franklin's political cartoon of a snake divided into pieces with the caption JOIN, OR DIE. Quoting from the exhibition website:
"Sanders’ work asks us to consider the particularity of the part as a way to resist it’s being consumed by the whole."



Opposite the entrance when I walked in were a series of five oil on canvas pieces, with subtle backgrounds of stained ink behind thickly layered oil paint. From the entrance way, these canvases appeared almost blank unless the light caught a stripe of oil paint to create a shimmering effect. The raw canvas color, similar to the look of aged parchment, fit in well with the scheme and feel of the exhibition space.

Installation shot, above photo courtesy the artist



These canvases require some close examination. The oil paint is raised off the surface, having been pressed down on top of a laser cut stencil. The waving stripes is a motif that is repeated throughout the exhibit, along with the larger meandering lines which evoke the snake's twisting, dissected body.
These paintings reward close looking from multiple angles. I appreciated the delicateness of the backgrounds, some of which simulate the appearance of a soft airbrush. Sanders then employed a stiff bristled brush to apply the top layer of oil paint to create the layered textural feeling.



From afar, the textures and patterns appear custom made for the space itself. Unsmoke's stark white gallery walls are left intentionally crumbled in spots, exposing bricks and strips of wood siding underneath. It's enough to make any industrial chic coffee shop serving $7 matcha lattes jealous, but you know that by being in Braddock it's truly, authentically industrial. 
John and I managed to cover a variety of topics during our conversation: his enjoyment of sci-fi novels, especially the works of Ursula K. LeGuin (who I am on the record as being a major fan), his work as a pigment specialist for a high performance, ecologically friendly concrete manufacturer, and his experiences as an art teacher.

The part of our convo that stuck with me the most, and which I think could be of greatest help to any former painting students, was his philosophy of working toward this exhibit:

I observed that the compositions painted on raw canvas must be rigorously planned out ahead of time, since the work is so precise. John described his approach as one of volume, wherein he works on a large number of canvases, ranging in size and technique, weeding out the inferior ones and preserving the successful ones. This prevents any one canvas from becoming too precious, allows for a range of experimentation, and as a testing ground for different ideas and compositions.

This hit home for me personally because sometimes I find myself wanting each piece I make to be the best thing I ever did, wanting each canvas to be a masterpiece. I also tend to rush immediately toward a final product, sometimes skipping crucial steps on the way there. But it's good to take a step back and realize each painting you make is part of a larger process and you have to allow yourself time to experiment, to learn, to find out what works for you and what doesn't. And then you carry that knowledge into the next piece, and the next one after that.



John Burt Sanders is an artist from Arcade, New York.  He completed his MFA in painting and drawing at Ohio University in 2011. Additionally, he earned a BFA in painting and art history at State University of New York at Fredonia in 2007. In 2019, his work appeared in the Northeast edition of New American Paintings. Sanders was awarded an Artist Opportunity Grant from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council in 2014 as well as a Travel Grant from Ohio University in 2010. In 2014 he participated in a 4 week artist residency at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont. Sanders currently lives and works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

I want to thank John for taking the time to speak with me about his paintings and about his process. You can continue to follow his work
here on Instagram.

This is usually the spot where I tell you that this newsletter is free but not cheap and to ask for donations to keep it running. I still commit several hours per week to compiling and writing these, but this month I will simply remind you of places where you can donate to support black lives and communities of color.
 
Links
 
One:
From Hyperallergic, a stroll through Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, home to some of the most prestigious galleries NYC has to offer, to examine how said galleries are reacting to the waves of protests.

Two:
Also from Hyperallergic, this article from 2016 discusses the ways in which studying abstraction can help us understand the values of black lives. I found this to be an incredibly insightful essay that is required reading today.

Three:
Completing the trifecta, this article also from Hyperallergic, is about the NYC based artist Harriet Korman, described within as one of New York's "purest" abstract artists. I believe I could create many great educational abstract painting exercises based off of Korman's fantastic work.  Her work, Focus from 2011, is pictured above.
And so we reach the end of another Tuesday Night letter. This week, it's all jazz. Three full albums you can stream from YouTube. Enjoy:

Bill Evans - Homecoming
Lester Young with Oscar Peterson
Charlie Parker - Jam Session

See you next time!
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