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THE PULSE OF PAINTING
Recent paintings by former and current COM students
Curated by Craig Coss
January 31—February 25, 2022
Esther Rose Riesenberg
By Craig Coss, January 2022
Three years before I began teaching at College of Marin, I met with David Hollowell during his last semester of teaching painting at UC Davis. After working with a student in his class, he turned to me and, quoting his colleague, the late Wayne Thiebaud, told me, “I can teach my students to paint like I paint, but I can’t teach them how to paint like they paint.” At that moment, I took this axiom as a personal challenge: How might I guide my students to paint like they paint—to find their own voice, stay true to their own visions, and develop their own styles of painting?
The works in this exhibition are a collection of some of the most memorable paintings generated by my current and former students since I’ve taught at the College of Marin. I invited the artists who had painted these paintings to exhibit those pieces that I just couldn’t forget, and I asked them if they might perhaps contribute a few new pieces to consider for this show. Some of those paintings—such as Hannah Bourke’s Following the White Rabbit Back to the Innocence of Life, Ida Skomorokho’s The Joy of Life, and Judy Notary’s Invitation—were painted expressly for this show. Others—such as Jennifer Lipson’s Hear No Evil, See No Evil, and Speak No Evil series, Sam Chapman’s Birth of a Nation, and Lisa Summers’s recent dreamlike portraits—show the diverse directions former students have been exploring since they left my class. The divergent voices, visions, and styles of these artists thrill me.
Then, early last September, former arts commissioner for the City of Oakland, Slobodan Dan Paich, challenged me to include at least one painting from each of my current painting students, a few of which had very little painting experience. I accepted Paich’s challenge, and my students rose to the occasion: every painting student of mine from the Fall 2021 semester also has at least one piece featured this show.
When I first conceived of this exhibition, I asked invited artists to respond to the sentiment, Why paint? Painting is dead, which was told as a word of advice to a student of mine before enrolling in my course during the Fall 2020 semester. I had heard painting is dead before, in the 1980s and 90s, when I was a young art student. When did this idea begin?
After a bit of research, I learned that this statement is all of 183 years old. It was first attributed to the French painter Paul Delaroche after he saw a daguerreotype photograph for the first time. The year was 1839. Elsewhere in France, Paul Cezanne was less than a year old. Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, and Odilon Redon were not yet born. In England, the Pre-Raphaelites were still children. Modern, abstract painting would begin to be recognized by collectors and museums in Paris at least seventy years later. Painting certainly did not die with the invention of photography. Looking back, some of us might say that the possibilities of painting were just getting started!
Today, painting does have younger media to compete with for the attention of artists and viewers: so-called digital painting—accomplished with computers with touch screens or digital tablets working with the latest raster graphic editing software—tempts artists to give up the sensate tangibility, texture, and viscera of actual paint made of pigments and glue for the ease of undoing, working with virtual layers, custom-tailored digital brushes, and computer-aided three-dimensional modeling. The trade-off? Why, you can instantly publish your results on social media, or print open edition giclées to sell! And all of it can be made without ever laying down a drop cloth or donning one’s painting clothes; digital painting is all so clean and easy.
And yet, if our civilization were to unplug and collapse, it’s the real painting that would live to tell the tale to the people five hundred years in the future. 183 years ago, Photography was predicted to kill painting unless painting changed. And painting did change. Today, digital painting—which allows the artist to manipulate any two-dimensional image in myriad ways—poses a far greater threat.
What can real paint do that digital “paint” cannot?
Why paint today? Is it for the texture and tangibility, the viscera? Is it the smell of the linseed and walnut oil, the wee crystalline particles of pigment, pushed and piled? Is it the craft and prowess—the countless hours of practice required to master the materials—the rich, organic marks that only real paint can make? Is it the process of painting that calls us to paint? The slow, methodical, way of working? The ever-present fear that one might have to scrape off a day’s work (and paint worth two days’ pay)? Or is it the tradition—the collectability of beholding a unique, handmade object that exists nowhere else but on the easel or wall before us?
The Pulse of Painting exhibition addresses the sustenance of an unbroken tradition, far older than written history, and helps us see why some artists still choose to make meaningful images with actual paint.