Why flowers?

May 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

Gary Bukovnik | Ecstatic Exodus

Ecstatic Exodus | Gary Bukovnik


A conversation between master watercolorist Gary Bukovnik and Clare Henry, art critic for the Financial Times.

Cezanne spent many years painting apples. Your vocabulary has always been flowers. Yet it’s obvious to me that with your remarkable draftsmanship, you could draw anything you chose. Why flowers?

It’s not an option. Flowers chose me. I tried for years to escape. Flowers are the vocabulary of the language that I speak. I originally fought it, with varying degrees of success. You search and travel to explain who you are. Eventually I understood. These are the true representations of me — for better or worse. Take it or leave it. It has to be.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Robert Mapplethorpe, Odilon Redon, Fantin-Latour, Monet, Van Gogh — think of those sunflowers and water lilies — Demuth, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, all are famous for their glorious flower pictures. Which artists do you admire? Have they influenced your work?

I particularly admire Demuth. If I could have chosen a teacher, it would have been Demuth. He was such a facile watercolorist and had an amazing ability for selective vision, including exactly and only what he wanted to include. I feel a great sympathy with Mackintosh, in particular his watercolors, which in addition to benefiting from his keen eye have a great deal of heart and soul. I love his Zinnias. O’Keeffe and Mapplethorpe use flowers in a completely different way from me; their sensibility is not mine.

Your pictures are very beautiful. Yet you have said that in America having flowers as your subject is a disadvantage and makes for problems. Why is this?

Because flowers are innately beautiful. It’s easy to dismiss something beautiful. In this age of angst and gritty confrontation, curators these days seem to want edgy work. It’s different in Europe, where there is an art historical dimension. And sometimes people feel that watercolors have less value or that those using watercolor are not so committed. To me, that’s ridiculous.

So, what about painting oils?

Watercolor has light — light is a positive force. I am a positive, optimistic person, so light — that is for me! And oil painting is not in my heart. If I’m supposed to be a good watercolorist, why try to make me into a bad oil painter? I also like watercolor’s tendency to look oriental. By this, I mean its reductive nature, its spare and limpid qualities, and careful use of negative space, which is as important as any objects. And I like that there must be thought and study before taking action.

Where do the flowers come from?

I make no secret of the fact that, as an urban dweller, I buy my flowers from the San Francisco Flower Mart close to my studio. Sometimes I don’t even remove the rubber bands or twist-ties that bind the flowers together. That becomes part of the picture. And I like the involvement of another person. The ties show someone else has participated in arranging that individual bunch.

I know you always draw from life. Do you make preliminary sketches?

I never do sketches. My impulse for making a picture is intense. It burns. I find if I make a draft, the soul of this ends up in the sketch, not in the actual work.

You mentioned that accuracy of structure is important to you. How far do you take this?

Botanical accuracy is not my goal. If you try to duplicate nature, it’s impossible. You end up being a slave. So I say, let it go. Scientific illustrations often have no heart. But obviously a tulip must look like a tulip. That’s a given.

What about color? Do you select your flowers with a color palette in mind?

Color is not even a concern. More and more I think of flowers as form. The structure I make is real, even though the color may not be. The structure comes from nature, but the rest comes from me.

Your work is notably bright, clear and colorful. Does living in San Francisco contribute to this light-flooded, high-key approach? Does the cheerful, upbeat optimism of your pictures — which is so appealing and endearing — have anything to do with living in California?

California is an important ingredient. I grew up in northern Ohio, where it’s cold and overcast. My love of art was not encouraged, but I was determined to do it. Arriving in San Francisco 40 years ago was a revelation. I immediately felt a spiritual affinity with the place, with its light and atmosphere, and also its attitude. Californian white light is like the Mediterranean, it’s positive and uplifting. So yes, the pictures are a reflection of my surroundings.

Artists are traditionally supposed to be angst-ridden. You seem to have a new sense of anticipation.

I’m happy. My paintings are happy. My flowers are jumping for joy!

I gather Rome had something to do with this?

Rome was an event of life-changing importance to me in every stratum, but culminating in a big change in my painting. In spring 2003 I was to be a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome, a huge thrill. I prepared and planned very carefully. I had everything ready. I had done many drawings ready to paint. I shipped all my equipment, all these drawings, but then everything got stuck in customs. I was left in an empty studio with no materials, no drawings, not even my usual vases.

So what did you do?

I began making pictures of flowers just strewn on the table. Soon afterward, my stuff arrived and I put these drawings aside. I had not realized the potential. It only dawned on me when I got back home to San Francisco that here was the answer. For many years, I had focused on increasing the quality of the technique, the drawings, the emotional impact, but those things had coalesced. I was ripe for something to happen, but I didn’t even know what questions to ask. Yet when I looked at the Rome work, it was obvious. The pieces that most appealed to me were those small paintings of flowers casually lying on the table. They showed change, the beginning of the opening of the door to the future.

Today your tulips explode in all directions, lilac blossoms fly off the stem, pots of primroses tumble, water bubbles and effervesces as the molecules are let loose from their containers. These are no longer still lifes. Your flowers jump, dance and spin. Did it all happen at once?

After Rome, every painting opened the door a little bit more. At first, everything was occurring in one plane. I knew that wasn’t yet it. But I was making pictures with flowers rather than of flowers. Later I found a way of putting the flowers in space, so there is a foreground, a middle ground and a background, rather like a landscape. I was ripe for a change — and when it came, it was like a dam breaking, an enormous flood, Niagara Falls!

You say you don’t aim for realism in color, but you do aim for accuracy of structure. A tulip must look like a tulip?

Absolutely. Accuracy of portrayal is the tool that one uses to get the idea cross, a means to an end. Then one can move on to the bigger picture.

So what for you is the bigger picture?

The spirit, the portrayal of a feeling of joy or a feeling of release. Some poetic emotion or thought. That is my main concern.


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