I’ve read a lot of artist’s statements over the years, and I’ve drifted off to sleep in most of them. Just kidding. Sorry, couldn’t resist. I’ve actually read quite a few interesting artist’s statements. It’s just that they do have the reputation of being a little dry.
Not Larry Hill’s. His statement for his new exhibition “Story Lines,” which opens Saturday, Oct. 15, at 1821 Gallery & Studios, is beautifully written. (It helps that Hill is a writer as well as a painter.) In trying to boil it down for my limited-space arts picks column in Friday’s Seven section, I found myself thinking: I wish I could just run this in full.
So I am.
Here’s Hill’s statement for the show. There will be an artist’s reception 4-9 p.m. on opening day.
“I’ll find me a place by the river now and give up all my story lines.”
– Van Morrison
All of these paintings originated in the past year, but I suspect they truly began in 1955 after I returned from the army to complete my college education at Fresno State. Having discovered the heroic-scaled canvases of the abstract impressionists while away, I changed my major to art. Soon, after enrolling into a painting class taught by Darwin Musselman, I felt I’d be advancing from the old school to the new wave. Wrong. Musselman, an intense taskmaster, held me firm to the basics and taught me how to crawl first. The flying would come after I paid my dues.
Musselman had studied at the Los Angeles Art Center and The School of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. Proficient in many styles of painting, he never shied away from demonstrating techniques he felt might spur a student’s progress. About the time I began to suspect he was controlling us all too tightly, he showed the class Hans Namath’s 1951 film on Jackson Pollock. I was familiar with Pollock’s work, having seen the eye-opening display about him in Life magazine a few years earlier. After watching the film, Musselman took me aside and elaborated on what he’d asked the class to look for in the film. How Pollock’s gestures of flinging paint might have been born in works he’d completed under the teaching of Thomas Hart Benton.
“Hundreds of paintings,” Musselman reminded me, “that stressed the lyrical abstraction of the figure against landscape.”
We stood in the hush of the vacated classroom, teacher and student, picturing Pollock moving cat-like above a large canvas stretched below him.
“The layers,” I said. “Really something in the way he seemed to be rushing in and out of the painting, adding layers.”
“Yes,” Musselman said. “Even in the grainy film you could see how he was working with different values of paint.”
“Really something,” I repeated, frustrated that I couldn’t pinpoint in words my fascination with Pollock’s wild display of energy.
Musselman once more emphasized how Pollock’s fame could be traced back to years of borrowing from the academic to achieve the avant-garde. I began packing up for my next class, the image of Jackson Pollock still behind my eyes. How could I or anyone else know that on a summer evening only days away from our viewing his powerful physicality he would be killed in a car crash brought on by his heavy drinking and deep despondency? And abstract expressionism would be forever romanticized. Something Jackson Pollock might have applauded. Surely not Darwin Musselman.
Decades later I still can bring the filmed image of Pollock up, his hardscrabble face, tight jeans, and denim jacket. The mixture of anger and joy in his every movement. And Musselman, a man whose encounters were almost silent compared to Pollock’s collisions—I think often of him. If the two of us could go back to that schoolroom conversation, I would bring up the part in the film where Namath had the artist work on a piece of glass above the camera.
“It’s a river,” I’d tell Darwin, both of us observing the lines forming from Pollock’s gestures. “He’s dashing in and out of a river.”