Tad Spurgeon oil paintings


about me
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about me
      "Less wilderness and more order I object to."
       -- Frederick Law Olmsted


      I was born in Philadelphia in l955, went to a Friends school there, William Penn Charter, then to Andover, and then left Yale after a few terms, having learned something incredibly valuable there: that I needed to connect the dots my own way. From 1982 to 2014 I lived in Vermont, but am now back in Philadelphia, in the neighborhood where I grew up. It's interesting after so long to be back in the place which, for all its complexity, qualifies as home. I studied large format photography at Yale, but am self-taught as a painter. I'm fascinated by the traditional craft of oil painting, the basic work with the materials that turns color into light, paint into meaning. The thought that something important might have been misplaced from the older craft began years ago when I first noticed that modern paintings tended to look better in reproduction than in person, whereas the opposite was true for older paintings. I began to question what I had been taught, began to look at painting with different eyes. It was odd: I had grown up with the great newness of Modern Art, but the more I looked, the more it seemed to lack something important in relation to work generated by the older ideal of artists and craftspeople in service to society. The original triad was head, heart, and hands, and all of these remain vital. At the same time, Old Master worship and the new perfect surface both make me uneasy. Turning back the clock doesn't ever seem to work, the important thing is to go to the root and transform the definition of time. When I discovered Morandi's work in 1989 I began to work with a simplified realism. Morandi wrote: "One can travel the world and see nothing. To achieve understanding, it is not necessary to see many things, but to look hard at what you see." This makes sense to me: it is about existing, and expanding, in the present moment. Other 20th century painters of great interest to me are Walter Vaes and Gwen John. The work is determined by the code or ur-language of Nature hidden so well in plain sight. I'm intrigued by the ongoing tension between paint, depiction, and meaning that can take realism beyond itself.

      There are many different attitudes about what this activity called painting is really about. Theory means little in practice, painting is a visceral or physical response; a way of transforming the complexity of experience into the resolution and relative simplicity of art. Simplicity means, however, that there is no place to hide. The experiential nature of painting -- the way it functions as an analogue of life -- offers a sure way to learn more about the structure of reality. Like a resident of the Middle Ages, I have always seen the structure of the visible world as a set of highly detailed teaching metaphors, and, in this context, the circuitous process through which mimesis becomes meaning in a painting is basically nurturing or affirming. The process is about discovering what is natural within a given situation, then developing a koan of form and feeling in whose context nothing can be added or removed. This means that a finished painting somehow manages to be more than the sum of its parts, an experience that evolves, and seems impossible to outgrow. While the search for what is really there is both fascinating and endless, realism is ultimately not the goal but a vehicle for the unconscious languages of colour and form, and the underlying but insistent kinetic message -- the throb -- of the paint itself. Inhabiting this arena has proven relevant because it is clear that, as with the craft itself, things work out better the more I relinquish conscious control over what is happening. Given the opportunity, my hands know what to do next, whereas serial brick walls have demonstrated that my mind does not. This suggests that creativity is a manifestation of a physical intelligence located beyond conscious ideas: an old fashioned, even ancient, concept. The work has taught me to focus on what feels best on a given day, to follow the energy of the process where it leads. The simplicity of this allows an element of complexity to occur that feels relevant, as opposed to manufactured. So, this means I'm not interested in style, the obsession and opium of the 20th century, but in what lies beyond it. The paradox that, on the surface at least, a painting must have a style, has meant that the focus of this often changes in unpredictable ways, but these changes form a pattern within a relatively slow, if not exactly ancient, version of time. As with life itself, there's a recurring sense of looking into the distance, being on the verge of discovering what painting might actually be about. Of course this cannot really resolve itself, and I'm reconciled to this as a fundamental situation, and simply document it in the work as the ongoing tale of the process and the pea. Still, it is intriguing that the outcome of a given painting, whether it takes hours or years, always reveals a previously unknown element. And while it makes sense that the solution lies within what has yet to be envisioned, the solution nonetheless always contains a surprise. As in life, painting reveals new aspects of itself incrementally, but also recedes further into yet another quality or orbital of mystery. Creativity can be explored, but not owned, or even defined. It is always leading into new territory, and therefore new questions about both the work, and itself.

      Genuine culture is neither rigid nor chaotic, always expressing a numinous balance between unity and diversity. In this context, it seems best to accentuate the positive; to transform the inevitable lead of experience into the gold of understanding. At the same time, the truth is most often more complex than either: an alloy of inscrutable mien. From the more syncretic, or hermetic, approach of the 17th century, it is logical that Newton's Third Law of Motion ("For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction") would hold true in the metaphysical realm as well. Life is capable of infinite magic: the self-perpetuating confines of empiricism can be transcended. A leap of faith is necessary, and whether this leap is wise or foolish cannot be foretold within life's cramped, pragmatic context.

      Or can it?

      The paintings here feature different techniques and permutations of painterly realism. You might enjoy an overview of the work.

      Slide shows of the technique used to make various different paintings are here, these are alas somewhat dated, it is increasingly hard to paint and take pictures at the same time.

      Much too much information about recreating older technique is here.

      Have fun, and please feel free to contact me with any questions.

       Tad Spurgeon.

An Infinite Constant

      The Golden Ratio is expressed algebraically as 1 plus the square root of 5 over 2. It is an irrational, i.e., infinite, number. There's tons of interesting information on the way this is used throughout nature on the internet. But let's look at the way the ratio itself is generated. A circle is drawn from the midpoint of one line of a square. The square is then extended to incorporate part of the circle's radius. So, conceptually, the rectangle is created by integrating the opposites of the square and the circle. The square is stable, but also static, a rational, material if not quite profane symbol. The circle is mobile, about wholeness, the bigger picture, and irrational by virtue of containing pi. We can draw a finite circle, but mathematically, the figure refines itself without end. So, an interesting background aspect of the Golden Ratio as the foundation of many types of organic form and growth is the way it allows unity to manifest as diversity with integral harmony. Each chamber in the nautilus is larger, but based on the same proportions as the one that preceded it. So, by integrating geometric opposites, the ratio itself is a paradox: an infinite constant.

In Plain Sight

      "Within itself the soul sees all things more truly than as they exist in different things outside itself. And the more it goes out unto other things in order to know them, the more it enters into itself in order to know itself." Nicholas of Cusa, De Aequalitate 1459.

      We develop a shorthand version of the visual world in order to navigate through it, but what we see is quantized into further levels of information and meaning. Painting from life relies on looking at things closely over a period of time. One would think this would be boring, but an interesting phenomenon occurs during the process: the greater the search, the deeper the perception. At first the mind rebels: "Why are we staring at this apple?" But once the mind relinquishes its shorthand version of the visual world, this first level is quickly past: "Oh, because we really know very little about this apple." Trust that the process brings results begins and further levels can then be explored. Whether looking out or looking in, there is always more to see.

       Imagine the simple process of drawing the apple from life with a pencil. At first the outline is drawn lightly, then the process of correction begins. Why? Because it is not quite right! At first this is frustrating, but this also provides the energy that is used to correct the situation. The errors provide instant clues to their solution. Bit by bit, the outline gets better. Bit by bit, more of the subtleties and intricacies of the form fall into place. It is essentially round, but not like a circle is round; there's more. But is any place actually flat? No. Are there any concave places? Oh, yes. How can a single contour be so articulated?

       This is the beginning of nature's great lesson. The visual world contains tremendous built-in complexity that we tend to take for granted. In our day to day life, we are in fact often involved in attempts to create an alternate world, instead of exploring the one we just may inhabit for a reason. To the extent that we are willing to slow down, and look more closely, nature reveals more about both its structure and its meaning. Nature's gentle but inherent profundity is not available to someone in a hurry; an apple, in this case, is just an apple, preferred as a snack or not. This attitude may be necessary in daily life, but is it useful for art? The answer depends on how art is defined: as an initial or spontaneous response, or one that is achieved through study over time. Matisse made apples that are flat, Cezanne made them out of planes, Chardin made them three dimensional without copying them pixel by pixel, Magritte made them appear real, but with an unnerving perfection designed to question the concept of "real" itself. These approaches to the pictoral role of the apple are all different, yet succeed on their own terms as varieties of transformation: the viewer knows that the painted apple is, and isn't, the actual apple, and that this paradox is intrinsic to painting. Reconciliation between the philosophical and the practical point of view may never be achieved in larger terms, but it can occur -- is, in fact, necessary -- within the context of a given painter's style. Each painter approaches this individually. Yet, the created world is so detailed that to comprehend something as conceptually basic as the outline of an apple, it is necessary to pay attention in a different way. The fact that the things we see are capable of more than their mundane identity has been a staple of painting since antiquity, probably originating in the Platonic concept of the visible world as a material projection of the invisible world. Delacroix (10-17-53) refers to depicted forms as a hieroglyphic language, leading the viewer on to deeper levels of meaning. At the same time, meaning is always optional, and the painter's intention may or may not be clear to the viewer. Painters have often complained about this -- occasionally insulting the public back with equal directness -- but in the larger sense it is only fair that the viewer also have the option of exercising perception that is personal. The validity all types of seeing -- from the casual to the committed -- for the individual involved develops an interpretive tension between the surface and what may or may not lie beneath it. When does an image have a meaning, a coherent message, when is it simply a document? Over time, this tension serves to refine the process of visual communication within a given culture.

       Exploring seeing actively, as a process rather than a given, leads to the interesting paradox of more being created from less. When we put a hold on temporal activity, our consciousness stops ranging around on the surface and begins to settle down. As it settles, it naturally goes deeper. How deep does it go? There are plateaus, but then, as in quantum mechanics, a sudden shift occurs and one finds oneself somewhere new: the apple of an hour ago is not the apple of the present moment. The observational skills necessary to paint something as deceptively simple as an apple can be a great exercise in developing patience; in both searching, and waiting for, the next level. When is it merely rendition? At what point does it become art? Does this transition occur through more complexity, more simplicity, or a combination of both that was unavailable prior to committed observation?

       A fascinating reciprocity comes into play, an awareness of the relativity or unreliability of perception itself. If the painter is constantly in a state of seeing more, how can anything ever be as it seems? The object being observed changes, but so, necessarily, does the observer. The apple is an object, but concentrating on it allows it to function as a doorway into further levels of knowledge. What appears to be an act of mimesis actually becomes an act of mutual transformation. The observer is taken beyond the confines of imitation or symbology into a realm where the microcosm and the macrocosm are interacting in the present moment. Once this is experienced, a quantum change takes place. Nothing can be perceived as "the same" again, because identity itself has been shown to exist in flux. As a result of paying attention, there is no such thing as plain sight: seeing has become analogous to evolving.

The Climate of Delight

      "Delight is a secret. And the secret is this: to grow quiet and listen; to stop thinking, stop moving, almost to stop breathing; to create an inner stillness in which, like mice in a deserted house, capacities and awarenesses too wayward and too fugitive for everyday use may delicately emerge. Oh, welcome them home! For these are the long-lost children of the human mind. Give them close and loving attention, for they are weakened by centuries of neglect. In return they will open your eyes to a new world within the known world, they will take your hand, as children do, and bring you to where life is always nascent, day is always dawning. Suddenly and miraculously, as you walk home in the dark, you are aware of the insubstantial shimmering essence that lies within appearances; the air is filled with expectancy, alive with meaning; the stranger, gliding by in the lamp-lit street, carries silently past you in the night the whole mystery of his life...
      Delight springs from this awareness of the translucent quality in all things, whereby beauty as well as ugliness, joy as well as pain, men as well as women, life as well as death -- the grinding clash of opposites between whose iron teeth all systems of philosophy are crushed at last to pulp -- are seen as symbols; in the true meaning of a symbol, whose Janus-like face contains at once that which exists in time and space, and that which transcends it."

--Alan McGlashan, The Savage and Beautiful Country, Houghton Mifflin, 1967

For further information on technique or a specific painting please contact tadspurgeon@gmail.com
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