Painting what’s not there
October 30, 2011 § 3 Comments
A conversation with TERRY MIURA
The title of your new exhibition is “Urban Aria.” What is the significance of the title, and how did you arrive at it?
The word aria has a couple of definitions, one of which is Italian for air. This series of paintings has heavy emphasis on atmosphere and its effects, so I thought it was an appropriate title. The other reference for the word is musical — an aria is a melody, often a complex song in an opera. I often have musical references for titles of my paintings and shows (an earlier exhibition at Thomas Reynolds Gallery was entitled “Andante”) because I feel there’s a strong relationship between imagery and music, and I often think of my painting in terms of musical concepts. Harmony and rhythm are two of the more obvious examples.
Is this a new direction for you?
The genre isn’t new to me. I started out painting cityscapes a long time ago. There was a period of several years during which I focused on learning the craft of landscape painting en plein air, but the city never left me. What is new this time is that my work has become more abstract, both in terms of how I paint and what I paint.
What do you mean by that, and how did it come about?
Well, the brushwork is looser and freer than it has ever been. I don’t paint a lot of detail, so the shapes are simpler and less descriptive. Objects are merely suggested, not defined. I’ve been struggling to paint more abstractly for years and years, but being an extremely analytical person, I’ve always needed rigid structure. Rules of representational painting gave me that structure and I had a hard time leaving it. Consequently, abstraction eluded me for years. I mean, an abstract stroke made no sense to me, and I needed everything to make logical sense. Perhaps that’s why abstraction has always fascinated me; it was mysterious and out of reach.
It wasn’t until earlier this year that things began to change. I was painting on a street corner during the Sonoma Plein Air Festival. My subjects were cars and pedestrians, more or less familiar motifs. What was different for me this time was the fact that I was looking into the sun. The backlit cars and figures — in fact everything in view — became simplified because you really can’t see any detail when you’re staring into the sun. I was forced to simplify, working with a minimal amount of description. I have painted hundreds of backlit views before, but I believe this was the first time I tried it with moving targets. The simplicity forced upon my view by the back lighting, and the figures and cars in motion, made it impossible for me to render anything. The only way for me to paint the scene was if I just tried to capture the impressions of things, and not the things themselves. Many artists talk about this idea, and in fact I tell my students to do that too, but I hadn’t really grasped the full meaning of this way of seeing the world until I realized I was painting motion, not pedestrians.
Back in the studio, I pondered this concept of painting the intangible, and I started a bunch of new canvases. I wanted to see if I could come up with other concepts which were intangible, abstract notions and paint them — concepts such as airiness, noise, anonymity and mood. When I focused on these ideas and not cars and buildings, the cars and buildings looked more like cars and buildings. And to my delight, the painting became more and more abstract.
Atmosphere plays a part in this, right?
A huge part. I’ve always loved atmospheric perspective and its ability to create mood. My landscapes are typically very atmospheric. In back lighting, because the sunlight has to travel through all that stuff in the air — smog, dust, etc. — the atmospheric effects are very much accentuated. And it bathes everything in a single unifying color theme, which again is a great simplifier. The fact that you can tell a backlit car is a car tells me you don’t need any detail. A silhouette will do. Adding detail doesn’t make my statement any more eloquent, so what would be the point in making that car more defined? Less really is more.
You mentioned musical concepts. Can you elaborate?
Right. In many ways, ideas in music are very similar to those in picturemaking. Even the words are the same: composition, rhythm, harmony, key. Those are formal concepts. It’s easy to see color harmonies as being similar to chords on a piano, and pleasing placements of visual elements translating to tempo and cadence. I’ve always been a big fan of jazz, particularly Miles Davis’ music from the late 50s. Not only that the tunes are very moody and atmospheric, but I love that he says so much with so little. It’s pure poetry. I identify with jazz, I think, because of its improvisational nature. The music has to have structure, like representational painting, but with jazz, you’re allowed to abstract and express, sometimes sticking close to the score, and sometimes going way off. Coltrane sometimes played entire songs without ever hitting the note as written, and yet the tunes are identifiable. That to me is exactly what I try to do with my painting. I realize I have a long, long way to go, but I feel I’m making progress. When I get stuck on a painting, I often ask, “What would Miles do?” And I answer myself with a famous Miles quote, “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.”
Can you talk about your process? Do you use photo references or paint on site?
About half of this series of paintings are done using photo references. The other half are imaginary, composed from scratch. None are done on location. To me, plein air sketches are more like studies. I often bring them to a satisfactory finish, but my intent is usually to study and explore something specific; light’s effects, or the construct of a car or a building or a tree, for example. In the studio, I often just start with random washes on a small canvas, looking for shapes to spark a composition. I think of these as doodles almost. I then tighten up some of the design and introduce some sort of structure, correct perspective and believable spatial relationships, all the while moving things around to try different placements. A great thing about painting cars is that I can move them around anywhere to suit the composition, as long as the perspective is consistent with the context. Once I have a design to sink my teeth into, I paint thicker and with more decisiveness. I do many of these small paintings and have them all around my studio to give me more ideas. Not all of them are good but many will have a potential to be made into larger, more thought-through paintings. I may combine elements from two or more smaller paintings, recompose and edit. In terms of actual application of paint on the larger canvases, it’s pretty much the same as small ones. The difference being with the larger one I know where I’m going, whereas with the smaller paintings I don’t. It’s hit or miss — and I have a lot of misses — but I like the spontaneity and improvisational nature of starting with doodley washes.
Is that the same thing as painting from memory?
I don’t have a photographic memory, so it’s not as if I can paint exactly what I visualize in my head. But I tap into my memory for a general feeling of being in a certain environment. I can remember whether it was busy or empty, tall buildings or a big open sky, many trees or few — that sort of thing. The rest is constructing the image on canvas with some attention to perspective. I always thought this was a good way to work because I can only actualize what I can remember, and I can only remember what I noticed. The composition is pre-edited, to an extent. By definition, what I remember must have been worth remembering. I don’t remember colors too well beyond simple hues, so perhaps that contributes my palette being muted.
You’re known as a tonalist. Why do you paint tonally?
You know, I don’t even know what that means, really. I have nothing against bright colors, if it’s done well. I’m just drawn to a more quiet, muted palettte. I think it’s an effective way to create mood — and besides, it’s a lot simpler. Colors of things are information, as with any other detail. If I can communicate what that thing is without local color information, why do I need it? It makes it more colorful, sure, but that has nothing to do with what I’m trying to express. Bringing a tuba into a sring quartet would make it more colorful, but it doesn’t make it better, does it? That’s not to say that I paint monochromatically. I do actually use a range of hues, just not very saturated. A strong single-color theme unifies the painting and if I throw in a few color accents in the foreground, I find that’s enough color for me. Any more would start to fragment the image.
A few of these paintings depict recognizeable buildings, but many are just ordinary, everyday type of views. Is that intentional?
Absolutely. It goes back to painting the intangiable. A recognizable building would have to be painted recognizably. That is to say, the visual information not only has to be there, but also more or less accurate. The painting becomes more about the building than about, say, city rhythms. I don’t really want to paint a portrait of a building or a car. I want to convey a mood. The more information I paint, the more specific the subject becomes. Keeping my views more ambiguous allows more room for the viewer to interpret and to complete the picture in their own mind in the context of their own experiences and memories. I think that is a far more powerful interaction than a realistic depiction of a recognizable street corner can offer.
Since your subject matter is ordinary streetscapes, do you find that you see potential paintings everywhere you go?
Sometimes, when my brain is in that mode, like right after a painting session. But most of the time it takes conscious effort for me to mentally translate what I see into a possible painting. It’s a lot of work, and since I have a habit of doing that while driving in the city, it can be dangerous! I prefer it if someone else is driving, but then I get car sick, so that’s not good either.
Your figures, too, are non-specific.
I’m painting motion, not pedestrians, remember? I try to keep my figures less defined for the same reason. I want to identify with the figures in my paintings, and if they’re specific individuals, it’s not so easy to find resonance. I wouldn’t necessarily care about that person, because I don’t know him. But I can relate to everyman, and keeping him anonymous by painting him abstractly, I can see myself being him. Not every viewer will identify with him the same way I do, but If I painted him with more detail and definition, I’m sure even fewer will be able to relate to him.
So this has been an important series of paintings for you?
Working on this series was a completely eye-opening journey for me, unlike any other stage in my development as an artist. I feel I discovered something very important. I feel like I finally understand how to break the rules of representational painting without violating my analytical self, and it’s absolutely liberating. I love how abstract my painting has become in such a short time, and I love that I feel right at home after all these years of struggling to find my voice. I’m not there yet, but I believe I’ve found a piece of the puzzle. A corner piece, even.
Preview the “Urban Aria” exhibition