Space brings objects into being. by Mengdan (Mona) Shen (class of 2015)

I just interviewed for a job that should start right after the program ends in Lancaster, which excited me for a second, mostly because at least I know where I will be when this summer intensive painting session is over. But on my way driving back from this successful job interview the awareness of the program ending in two weeks made me miss Mount Gretna badly. And that’s when for the first time, I thought I liked and enjoyed being in this group much more than I had expected. Two months ago, I was still at art school, surrounded by critical thoughts to think of painting more as a concept. I struggled with whether I should choose painting as my language or not, but at the same time my defensiveness of form, against critics of form’s validity in art, persisted and sustained my interests in paintings.

Honestly art school is a community where all the smartest and dumbest people are, and, when you try to get through and figure out the concepts and theories (however meaningless they are sometimes), you will be more or less reflective on your own thoughts and work. But when people asked me about the feminism or psychology in my figurative paintings without really looking at them, and a professor who I still respect called my painting ‘academic’, I just wanted to walk away and paint without any explanation. I appreciate them truly responding to my work, but I trust my eyes more than any word.  I accept painting as a form as it is. So being in this painting program right after school has been such relief for me. I am finally out of theoretic art talk and am back to what I want and who I am. Nothing is any better than improving through exchanges of thoughts with people who care about things as I do.

The first two weeks were very cheerful, while the third week was a lot more overwhelming and struggling. I think that this was after Brian Rego, who just left, showed us the impressive paintings he did with built-up surfaces, which led me to question the ways I naturally paint. I’ve been too comfortable with the way I paint and most paintings I did resulted in sameness. How anxious can you be when you find out that you have been missing possibilities? VERY. I was stuck in a situation where is no exit last week.

Monday was coming finally, with a new assignment by Jay. We were supposed to make a big painting without seeing directly from life, the subject could be anything or anywhere, as long as it made good sense on a painting. I didn’t get the point till I started. For me it’s perfect time to push the limit of one specific aspect and open up the possibilities of it. For example, what’s happening if a tree is composed structurally by lines only?  - or a path is in the same tone as the sky but still reads as spatial due to slightly shifting temperatures in it?  As a result I decided to give up the solid defining of form (at least not being so decisive about it at first), and apply the paint by many physical actions across the canvas. I began to see what paints and colors could do with space and environment if they are more open and not solidly formed into things. In other words, let the pieces of paint speak by themselves. It seemed a good start.

At the same time, I’m still trying to find a new and different position in which I find myself seeing and considering the things of so-called nature. I still cannot tell what my focus and intention is through making a painting, except to say that different points are happening all at once and I capture very little of them.

Some good conversations have happened. Once I brought up a question, ‘What if Cezanne were to paint something he’s actually not interested in, will it be a good work?’ Maggie King and I agreed on the conclusion that a good painter can paint everything well. She mentioned David Park’s sink painting as an example of something unimpressive that was painted well by a great painter (I’m searching for an image). Eventually both of us agreed that going through a process we sometimes hate and pushing through it, can actually lead us to somewhere good.

The most exciting thing that happened this week was the arrival of two new teachers, Stephanie Pierce and Mark Lewis. They both brought to mind thoughts that I have never taken seriously. Mark showed us his works and process in a lecture on Wednesday, and I confirmed that artwork is one of the best approaches to get to know a person. His passion for working on collages on-site is so impressive and inspiring. On Thursday morning, Stephanie had a lectured about the idea of finding the space in between objects by means of breaking the edge, deconstructing the solidity of form, and opening up the possibilities of color pallet. She emphasised the use of horizontal and vertical marks that pull around in space in an approach to treat everything in a painting equally.  I’m very interested in her idea because it makes me think that space brings objects into being, and all we do is find the relationship through space as we truly respond to them. I saw the possibilities of how marks could create space as a unity with all the shifts responding to each other during her demo on Friday morning. She also showed us the media she’s using and how to organize it. On that painting day, I described the main areas of form as little as possible, and found the relationship by the light touch of overlapping color and merging edge.

My housemates have been working hard this week. Usually we aren’t back from the studio till midnight. Their small studies of still life always inspire me to work more.

On our way getting back from a museum trip to Philadelphia, I started to write down some thoughts that have never crossed my mind. First we went to the Barnes Foundation that has an intensive collection of modern paintings. I was already exhausted after walking around only the first of two floors! Cezanne intrigued me most as usual, but in different ways this time. He doesn’t necessarily paint light to bring you into a space, which I’ve been struggling with recently. The image is totally made calmly without the sense of time and emotion. He pulled out the essence of what’s always there by concise analysis of structure. So the whole image is glowing even though I cannot find any narrative light. The more I looked at his painting, the dark spots started floating around to hold up the space. His later works of rocks, trees and earth are the most ambitious.

When I was in high school, the first few painters that I liked were Maurice Utrillo and Amedeo Modigliani. I haven’t looked them up for a long time.  When I walked into some rooms in the Barnes, I noticed their studies immediately among dozens of works on the wall. It felt like running into old friends that one can continue a good talk with.

The special Impressionist exhibition at PMA was interesting. Pissarro’s works are as good as always, so are Sisley’s early ones. Some painters are not the best, but I can see myself through them more. Monet’s Poplar Series is one of the best models on how to take one single element of landscape, explore the fleeting elements of light, weather or atmosphere.

I did three drawing studies from Cezanne in the PMA. There was no one in the circle room where his collections are for few minutes. Spending some time with him alone felt surreal.

Once we had looked at everyone’s drawings outside of PMA, everyone was finally exhausted after being exposed to so much art in one day. A group of us treated ourselves to a good dinner in a Chinese restaurant.

Sunday morning was coming with a burst of light on my bed. My goal in the upcoming week, the second to last week, is being as productive as possible.