Jeremy Lipking: Silence and Sagebrush
March 13 through March 21, 2021
By DANIEL MAIDMAN, May 2021
There is an old template for a fantasy tale: a warrior of tremendous talent goes seeking an enemy worthy of his capabilities. He vanquishes foe after foe, always disappointed that he has not yet found an opponent who can challenge him to his limits. He himself does not know his limits, and he will not know them until he meets and fights his opposite.
This kind of thing happens in real life all the time. Consider Jeremy Lipking. Among the great mass of artists there exists, and has always existed, a tiny fraction of catastrophically talented practitioners. These practitioners show a degree of talent in some area or another of their medium which is so far beyond the capabilities of their colleagues as to stand in a transcendental category of their own – sui generis artists.
Jeremy Lipking has long struck me as a candidate for inclusion in this tiny league of absolute talent. His particular territory of excellence is color. He owes much to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, to Bouguereau and Gérôme, to Sorolla and Sargent and Zorn. And yet he is entirely himself. His composition, draftsmanship, and paint handling are all strong; but his color is beyond compare. From his earliest work, he has shown a dazzling ability to use color to tell the story of matter, atmosphere, and light. Many great colorists show some bias – an emphasis in some part of the spectrum, or an inability to convey the color of certain types of scene. Lipking’s only bias is toward a mysterious sense of heightening. He isn’t oversaturating his color. Rather, in looking at his work, one experiences a sensation of waking up to color, as if one had not really seen color clearly before now.
As such, he is much like our fantasy hero, seeking a worthy opponent. His entire career might be understood as a quest to find a subject matter matched to his talent. The first paintings of his I saw were mainly nudes in interiors. They were very good, but the best thing about them was the color – the diverse half-tones of shadows, the cool glow of flesh in indirect light, the startling brilliance of some reflective facet of cloth.
He seemed to grow tired of these scenes, and he moved his nudes outdoors. He explored how sunlight played over water, how it diffused through foliage, how shadows clustered at the bases of pine trees and rocks. The figures themselves became like afterthoughts as his eye devoured the natural environment.
(I realize the dates don’t support my timeline here, but there was an overall trend at the time.)
Later still, he found a new connection to the figure through his increasingly large family. Freed of his youthful dependence on eroticism, he was able to depict the figure with the gentlest of touches, with an undemanding joy in the mere existence of the people he depicted.
And last, he found the great landscapes of the American West. It was here that he became, I believe, a mature artist. In the vast unpeopled expanses of grass and shrub, rock and sand, river and cloud, he found a territory as mighty as his ability to represent it. His depiction of the figure grew in resonance to meet the heroic quality of the land.
In A Mother’s Blessing he depicts his wife and two of his children. Look at that expanse of pale scrub, at the air-dulled green of the forested hillside, at the blue sky shading toward darkness overhead – at the dashes of violet in the shadows of bushes, the faint violet shimmering in the bare sloped earth where its texture mixes shadow and light – at the warmth of sunlight on skin, and the darkness where skin turns away from the sun. Look above all at the crispness, at the separation of edges, of colors, telling us a vast story of clean open air.
Consider also the composition, with its lines arrowing left beyond the edge of the canvas, conveying a sense of great scale, of dynamic calm; and the figures, large but not giant, rooted in the ground but rising above the skyline, anchoring the image right of center to balance the leftward drag of the perspective lines. The elements of composition evoke the serenity of the scene, telling of motion but of stillness greater than motion; of little sounds at the edges of an enormous, living silence.
We see this sensitivity to the specific qualities of figure and land again and again in his newest work. In Reflections at Dawn he catches the jaw-dropping darkness of shadowed forest at the beginning of the day, which appears so much blacker than forest at night. And as well he catches the seeming brightness of the water, which is not so much bright as sharp-edged. He catches the moment after the rising sun upends the colorless forms of night, painting the world with a vista of pale violets and minty greens and warm yellows. As in A Mother’s Blessing, he marshals all these visible things in order to convey something that is invisible: the quality of open space, of moving air. And beyond these invisible but material qualities of space and air, the immaterial spiritual quality of the scene. The figure, sitting serenely, eyes closed, out on the water, serves to guide us into that sense of the numinous which the rest of the scene intimates. It is easiest for an artist to go astray in this most literary aspect of the painting, the use of the figure as a Virgil or Beatrice, guiding us into the deep. But Lipking does not descend into the obvious or the tasteless. His years of work on the figure have taught him how to choose the right words and the fewest.
Jeremy Lipking’s work can be difficult for the precise fact that it is easy. We are taught that there is something wrong with work that is simple to look at. This is not true. There is absolutely nothing wrong with making a beautiful picture of something that is beautiful. When you phrase it that way, it seems absurd that this must even be said. But we live in a confused time, and it does need to be said. A child can take delight in Lipking’s work, and understand much of the treasure it offers. His work does not fail because it is beautiful. It might fail if it were only beautiful. But it is not, and I hope this writing helps explain how much there is to be seen in it.
Let me add a personal note; art sometimes makes a personal impact as well.
I worked in a black-box theater in college. The black-box theater teaches an interesting lesson in construction of space. You start with nothing. You add a light and a chair. The light illuminates the chair. The two of them have a very close relationship. The angle and focus and color and intensity of the light define the character of the chair; and the chair makes the qualities of the light visible. Beyond the chair, there remains a base canvas of nothingness. Then you add another light, some colored gels, a table, a sofa, a glass of water, three actors – soon you have a sketch of a scene taking place in a particular location. But beneath that definition and specificity, there remains the blackness, the undefined void.
I am not prone to depression, but my infrequent passages of depressive thinking tend to repeat a single image: seeing the entire world as a black-box theater. Here the naked ground, there the single light source, and all around an undefined blackness. The rest of it – plants, animals, wind, rain – are just an elaborate game of make-believe made real by faith – but take away the faith and it falls flat; it is as ridiculous as pretending real life is happening inside a college theater.
Lipking, seeking the great spaces, the perspectives that stretch for miles, takes on a point of view which reveals the black box quality of the world itself.
In Vermilion Cliffs, we see the light of our single light source compartmented into three distinct regions. It is the end of the day but the sky is still aglow with light, its blue mixing with green, billowing clouds flaming with light. Then in the upper reaches of the land we have the fading edge of the sun’s light, the sun’s light at its reddest, answering the red of the rock. Shadows are bold and blue violet, crisply divided from lit planes that pulse with light. Then, in the lower reaches of the land, it is already evening. The shadows are brighter and more indistinct. The cast shadows of patches of grass and of the solitary figure merge with a general gloaming.
Lipking has placed himself in a spot where all the tricks of the stage lights on the giant theater set of the Earth are laid bare. And yet, seeing it, one does not despair. There is such an immense beauty to it, an inward life, a harmonious complexity of all the parts, that one can find the heart to make the leap of faith – we make a leap of faith in experiencing the theater as real, or in seeing real things in paintings, and finally, we will need to make a leap of faith to see the world as real as well. Lipking, after decades of seeking, has finally found a task worthy of his titanic colors: preaching the reality of the world, and in the preaching, making it so.
All of the paintings reproduced here, except Reclining in White and Nymph du Bocage, were shown in Silence and Sagebrush, a solo exhibition of recent paintings at Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ, in March 2021. WM
Daniel Maidman is best known for his vivid depiction of the figure. Maidman’s drawings and paintings are included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Bozeman Art Museum, and the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art. His work is included in numerous private collections, including those of Brooke Shields, China Miéville, and Jerry Saltz. His art and writing on art have been featured in The Huffington Post, Poets/Artists, ARTnews, Forbes, W, and many others. He has been shown in solo shows in New York City and in group shows across the United States and Europe. In 2021 it will be included in the first digital archive of art stored on the surface of the Moon. His books, Daniel Maidman: Nudes and Theseus: Vincent Desiderio on Art, are available from Griffith Moon Publishing. He works in Brooklyn, New York.
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