I’ve spent the last week working on Four Buildings, a series of large (for me, at least) oil paintings of buildings at different times of day. You can see them arranged above, and below at large scale individually.
(You can also see them, and a lot of other work I’ve produced this year, on my new, still-under-development art showcase site, art.joshmillard.com. As I continue to focus on making (and n.b. selling) paintings as a big part of where my creative energy is going, I plan to keep building that site out.)
I’m happy with these new paintings both as a set of work on their own and for how they’ve grown out of a lot of painting work I’ve been doing the last three months, and thinking about writing some of that up has made me realize that I’ve been doing a lot painting lately and very little writing about painting. I’d like to get back to blogging about this stuff more consistently; we’ll see, but for now here’s some thoughts on these.
A little bit about Four Buildings as a set. The four paintings are:
- Building At Sunrise (30 x 20 inches)
- Building At Noon (24 x 30 inches)
- Building At Sunset (30 x 20 inches)
- Building At Midnight (24 x 30 inches)
But that’s just one possible ordering; I see Four Buildings as a set that relate to one another in a chain, with Sunrise adjacent to Noon and Midnight adjacent to Sunset and so on, but I don’t feel like they have a specific start and end point. They’re a loop — Midnight and Sunrise are adjacent as well. You could start with any and move forward from there; and if there weren’t only one of each, you could hang them up in a cycle that continues on down the wall indefinitely.
It’s also a loop that can go in either direction; the paintings are deliberately very abstract but there’s enough detail in the number and orientation of architectural features to suggest that these are paintings of different buildings, not just of one building at different times of day.
And so there’s two competing interpretations that I’ve decided to embrace in superposition in my thinking about Four Buildings.
One, and this is I think the most natural one to jump to, is that these are four buildings in the same city at different times of day. Each is looking in the same general direction, in the same downtown area, up at a building and the sky. In that interpretation, the sense of time is progressive, six hours or so at a time, and the loop order is forward: Sunrise -> Noon -> Sunset -> Midnight -> Sunrise.
The second interpretation removes the progression of time, and instead says these are four buildings all at the same moment, in four cities around the world. Somewhere it’s noon; elsewhere it’s midnight; elsewhere, sunset, elsewhere sunrise. The loop is explicit instead of implicit; the paintings occupy space on a wall the way the buildings would occupy space on the planet, orthogonal to one another; the sun in the sky in Noon and Sunrise and lighting the building in Sunset is the same sun, at the same moment; the full moon high in the sky in Midnight is shining at the same time, across the world, reflecting the same light from the same sun.
That second interpretation is resonating with me a great deal as I write this while reading up on the United States’ disastrous abandonment, under Trump, of the Paris Accord. It is a very weird time to be making art. More thoughts on that some other time.
Talking more about the actual process of making these, there’s another order: the order of their creation. I didn’t conceive of these as a set all at once; it began as a quick notebook sketch Friday night, of some red and some yellow parallel lines, no sky. I’d originally titled it “Skyscraper At Sunset” in the sketchbook.
I got up the next morning still thinking about that sketch, and decided to execute it as a large painting. I drove my wife to a Neighborhood Emergency Team training session, went to the local art store to buy some large canvases, and came home and got to work with blue drafting tape on a 30″ x 20″ canvas. I spent the rest of that morning making Building At Sunset, adding a blue sky to the original sketch composition and using the blank gessoed canvas as negative space for the white portions between the colored stripes.
Sunday the idea of a series started to cohere; I sketched out Noon and Midnight. Monday I completed Building At Noon; Tuesday, Building At Sunrise. Began work on Midnight yesterday afternoon, and completed it this morning. Somewhere in there the idea of a quartet had stabilized for me; the sketch for Sunrise is dated Tuesday, made (and not even finished) in a hurry that morning as my wife and I were trying to get out the door for a morning walk or an errand.
Thinking about the paintings as a concrete set helped me make decisions about how much and what kind of variations to include from painting to painting. Knowing that I might return to this basic theme in the future but that this was a closed, four painting series meant I could leave some ideas on the table and just aim to make the set do a constrained collection of things.
Each of the four is composed very simply, with recurring elements: wide parallel lines and negative space; a very limited palette of flat colors; sky defined by intentionally visible, directional, lighting-sensitive brush strokes; a simple repeating concentric-circles theme in the paintings that feature sun and moon; use in all of the paintings of blank, unpainted canvas as context-sensitive white element. The brightness, contrast, and distribution of color and value is the most aggressive point of variation from one to the next, disparate from each painting to the next while the other basic elements remain strongly similar.
I’m happy with the paintings. I’m happy with the set. I’m happy to have executed a set of paintings on these larger canvases, and to feel like the whole came together in a way that improved on the original idea of Building At Sunset.
But also I feel good about these as a piece of work following all the painting I’ve been doing before last week. These aren’t like anything I’ve been working on previously, exactly; in addition to generally working smaller (I’ve done a lot of work at 12″x12″ in particular), I’ve been moving mostly between three modes: strictly abstract mathematical stencil-based works, variations on Menger sponges, and the occasional attempt at realistic/illusionistic portraiture and still life.
I’m happy with Four Buildings partly because it fits none of those molds, and partly because it builds off elements from all of them to some extent and builds off the skills I’ve built up from painting and reading daily for the last few months. While these four paintings aren’t compositionally complicated, I don’t think I would have conceived them as confidently as I did, and know I couldn’t have executed them as well as I have, if I had tried for whatever reason to do so in January.
They feel like growth, and it’s hard to convey how valuable that is for me at a time when a lot of what’s going on in the world seems to be regressing or decaying or, in resisting those processes, threatening to collapse under pressure. It’s a weird time to be making art, but I’m very glad that I have it to pour myself into and have greatly appreciated the support and encouragement I’ve received from others in the process.