Art Thoughts, Week 32 -- Gritchenko & Compaction

Mountain with Two Figures, Alexis Gritchenko (Ukrainian, 1883—1977) 1921, oil on panel, BF 2066.
From my parent’s bathroom window, I would get a great view of the hill the house was built at the foot of, rising up to meet the woods at the frame’s top. The other large element in view was an elephantine oil tank, painted a glossy and highly-textured black. An early memory from staring out the window is seeing, as it were, the layers of the landscape – grassy hill; stone fence; trees; sky – reflected dully on the side of the black tank. I loved seeing the seasonal changes – light spring green to yellow-flecked tan; olives and oranges; umber and ruddy brown from the line of oaks and hickories; slate grey to brilliant blue from the sky, all arranged like a strange layer cake. In hindsight, extrapolating back from my current preferences, I think the most appealing thing was this sandwiched snapshot of the current layers of the seasons, all on the “canvas” of the oil tank. It was nature, compacted: a sensation familiar to anyone who’s made a terrarium. This experience, repeated over the years, informed my love of bound and abstracted reflections of the observed and natural world. In Gritchenko’s small painting Mountain with Two Figures, layering and compaction are important features. The ground, beach, lake and build-up of mountainous strata, though they do pivot, lend a strong layered, horizontal feel to the painting. Horizontals are almost inextricably linked to landscape in the human psyche. Even those indigenous landscapes which have strong verticals (such as highland Peru, or coastal Japan) are inevitably grounded in the reality of horizontals and the accompanying perpendicularity of gravity. We relate to the horizontals of landscape for various reasons: gravity as mentioned; time, and culture…but we learn about them best through layering (repetition of horizontals) and we learn about layering through vistas. What I saw in the tank was a limited vista; what Gritchenko shows us is wider, but still compacted.

Compaction is a form of abstraction, and the mountain and lake are certainly abstracted. But both compaction and abstraction function in a highly paradoxical way when it comes to landscape: that is, they give us a deep sense of a place, without an excess of information. In other words, they may condense and compact the onslaught of visual data that is landscape, and in the end come away with a better, more well-rounded sensual experience of the scene. (This is assuming the abstraction is well-done). In this picture, Gritchenko has pared down the visual information to a minimum, but we undoubtedly receive a better feel for this scene than if he’d taken a photograph. Why? Because an artist has at their disposal a myriad of tactics: composition, color, value, texture, pattern; and the more elusive mood and light. All of these are infinitely tweakable; none of them must be relayed literally, but all are firecrackers, capable of powerful visual sea changes. (It must be said that this is an artist’s personal tweaking; each one would go about it differently. Therefore, it’s a highly subjective sense, but highly accurate). If successful though, this particular inherency of painting is capable of conveying a vastly deeper sense of a scene than a photographic record ever could. So think of this process as a simultaneously visual, physical and psychological compaction. Gritchenko chose to frame this particular scene the way he did, to great and appealing effect; I had fewer choices with my oil tank. But in both cases, nature was constantly on the move; her panoply of elements in flux. The best we can do in most cases is try to keep up, and stake our claim when we are able – compaction is one way we do so.

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