Sunday, August 4, 2013

On Monhegan

Monhegan Island Morning, Rebecca Stebbins, 2013
I was asked by a modern sculptor who saw my work online, “What’s the point of doing things that have already been done?” It came off like an affront, but I believe his point was that ‘real’ artists should push forward, seek new forms of expression, reinvent genres and challenge the status quo. I respect his point, for without it we could never have opened the door to a Vincent Van Gogh or Maya Lin. There are also artists whose attempts to shock the world seem more like self-indulgent fodder for a therapy couch than seeds for a new movement in art, but even the art world has its Betamaxes and New Coke.

My artwork is impressionistic, representational, or as a friend says, I paint things that look like things. It is what I love to do and to look at, whether a Monet landscape or a Chardin still life. I leave it to others to shock, repel, or disgust their audiences, or to confront them with difficult challenges. There is room enough in the art locker for all of us.
Edward Hopper, High Noon, 1949
I am painting for a few days on Monhegan Island, 10 miles off the coast of Maine. The 50 or so local residents call it “the rock,” and it is: a giant, rugged rock topped by pine forests and surrounded by the cold, swirling riptides and currents of the Atlantic Ocean. Monhegan has Maine’s highest cliffs, dropping 168 feet into the sea.

This place  has drawn people for thousands of years for its rich fishing; there is still a working harbor, primarily lobster boats. For 150 years the island has also called to artists, and many iconic American painters have painted here.
Everywhere here I see a Hopper painting. Edward Hopper was a distinctive American artist who forged a unique style that was sparse and clean. He often painted New York and Paris, and here, where his eye was drawn to the crisp lines of the dormered houses against the profoundly blue sky, or rusty rocks in a deep teal ocean.

Edward Hopper, Blackhead, Monhegan 1919
The current exhibition at the Monhegan Art Museum in the lighthouse features Monhegan artists who were affiliated with the New York Armory show in 1913, a watershed moment in American art history. Most of the paintings, by Robert Henri, Leon Kroll and others, are bold, modern landscapes. One would expect Hopper’s stark houses or rugged rocks here, but instead we find his still life painting of a jug and copper bowl, in tonal shades that look very much like Chardin.

Jean-Siméon Chardin, Still Life, c.1732

Edward Hopper, Jug & Copper Bowl
French painter Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin was a master of the beautiful, painterly still life works he created in the 18th century. So here was Hopper in 1903, considered modern, ground-breaking and unique in his approach to his subjects, painting in the style of a Frenchman who had “done it already” centuries earlier. I wonder if anyone ever asked him, “What’s the point -- it’s been done before?” The piece was lovely, if a little out of place amongst modernist landscapes. I like to believe that Hopper found value in still life painting in the way that I do: as an opportunity to take a fresh look at old forms, a study in relationships, an exercise in seeing things as they are.   

My Sweet Cherries, Rebecca Stebbins 2013

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