by Joel Adas
It began about seven years ago. After looking out the same windows in my apartment for years, a sort of curiosity grew in me for what I could see through them: a slow parade of clouds of all shapes and sizes, tops of buildings, early spring tree branches studded with buds, birds swooping by, planes floating off into the ether, wires criss-crossing everything. The paintings I was working on at the time were highly detailed simulations of old photographs with small scenes within scenes floating in them. They were intricate images that created odd narratives that revolved around petâ€™s dreams, memories, and fantasies.
Then it occurred to me: why not simply depict what I see out the windowâ€”nothing more, nothing lessâ€”no need for irony or narrative or agenda, just straightforward depiction. Drawing with a pencil on paper seemed the easiest approach and was something I hadnâ€™t done in quite a while. The first drawings were meticulous. I was fascinated by the intersection of various elements, such as where the patterned siding of a building met the soft forms of a cloudy sky. There was real pleasure in sitting perched by a window and slowly modeling these forms into existence with pencil and eraser on antique yellow Ingres drawing paper. I felt very connected to what I saw and, by extension, to the place where I lived.
This new approach of making art from the world immediately around me was, in a sense, a bit unnerving. I kept asking myself, can I do this? Will this be interesting to anyone else? I remember thinking of artists of the past who had turned to something very simple as the subject of their artistic practice. Giorgio Morandi came to mind, setting up still lifes with simple objectsâ€”jars, pots, boxesâ€”and then combining them in various ways. His method resulted in stunningly simple, but interesting and beautiful, paintings. The lesson I learned from Morandi is that there is ample material for art all around us, in the most common, overlooked places and objects. They simply need to be seen with a set of fresh eyes that can translate them into intriguing paintings.
Moreover, seeing things that we are all familiar with, that we can all relate to, but seeing them in a new light, has some magic in it, and that magic is art. It is magical to look at a Chardin still life or a Vermeer interior because we all know what the artist is painting, and yet it is the familiar turned strikingly beautiful. In fact, my favorite Vermeer painting is not one of his famous interiors, but rather one of some buildings in Delft, called â€œThe Little Streetâ€. It depicts an alleyway, some women working and washing clothes. The shapes of the buildings, the colors of the window covers, they all become essential. It is a perfect compositionâ€”simple, straightforward, and yet wonderful. I think if I have had a mission statement over the past seven years, it would be just that: take the ordinary and make it into something wonderful through painting.
Two other artists who come readily to mind are Hokusai and Hiroshige. The latter in particular made art out of the most mundane street scenes. By having us look at the street through the looming form of a lantern or kite, he gave us a new way to see a scene that was as familiar in 19th century Japan as it is today. We still understand a busy street or a city lane at night. We can all relate to people crossing a bridge in the pouring rain, struggling to keep their umbrellas upright. It translates across time because of its universality. It is part of the alchemy of taking the ordinary and making it into art.
One conundrum that I run into in pursuing this line of inquiry is, when is ordinary too ordinary? I sometimes wonder if a telephone pole that strikes me as incredibly beautiful, its contours and colors resonating against a deep blue sky, is in fact interesting to anyone else. But in the end I have to have a simple faith in my fascination with what I see around me. If it interests me, then that is enough to begin a painting or a drawing.
What began as a simple exercise seven years ago has now evolved into the focus of my artistic practice. I keep coming back to those first drawings, to their directness. The simple motifs I started with still preoccupy me. I am still trying to make an interesting painting of tree branches against an ever changing sky, or of the hulk of a building criss-crossed with telephone wires. I have to trust the idea that within these images that we see around us continually, but which we often take for granted, is an endless variation of forms and colors and textures that can ultimately result in interesting, timeless images.
images: Giorgio Morandi, Natura Morta, 1955, oil on canvas; Johannes Vermeer, The Little Street (Het Straatje) c. 1657-1661 oil on canvas, 21 3/8 x 17 3/8 in. (53.3 x 44 cm.); Hiroshige, Osahi Bridge in the Rain, 1857, print; Joel Adas, 2007