Stuart Shils

“What interests me is perceptual joy, and I always see the painting as equivalent to a love letter to someone I’m crazy about.” — Stuart Shils

RH: After thoroughly perusing your website, I would venture to say that your works are based on intimate observation with all the senses – sight, hearing, scent, touch, and taste, a full perceptual experience of a place. One can “feel” and “hear” the rain in your Ireland paintings, for example, and yet also experience the “looking through” the rain. The act of painting: how does it feel to you? Your paintings feel like pure, raw acts of artistic fury: do you paint vigorously and with urgency?

SS: “Outside under the sky or in the city in front of or between buildings I’m at the visual mercy of large elements – light, clouds, wind and rain. And because nothing on that temperamental stage set is standing still, all my moves are informed by a sense of heightened urgency to dig into work as quickly as possible. But that doesn’t mean rushed or sloppy – coherent response requires clarity and a really vigilant state of receptive mind – and given how quickly light can change, I work as if there is not necessarily a next time. Many years ago when I was a student in the life studios of my school, the modus operandi was to work on a painting for several weeks, and in retrospect it seemed like most of us were asleep after the first two hours, and to greater or lesser degrees so were the paintings.

After graduating I needed to get away from what had become for me, dull and sluggish routine, so I took a break and went out of doors for a breather. And in that blaze of light I succumbed to a dazzling intensity of experience that has absorbed my attention for close to 30 years. With the sun moving resolutely across the sky no painting session can last nearly as long as it needs to, and I always feel, and enjoy feeling, parenthetically pressed by (but not necessarily limited by) an awareness of beginning and end.

Even though working outside is often enough to make me crazy, my hope is to hold onto and to project sustained enthusiasm, and to provide tangible evidence of vigor and improvisational immediacy. The clock is always ticking like a metronome and the state of mind is often feverish, but every brushstroke, knife mark, notation or deletion leads to the next and therefore, ultimately counts. And I work on the painting over as many or as few sessions as necessary, until it withstands further interrogation. So we are not really talking alla prima. Drawings however are usually resolved in one sitting as the overall expectation and means are more limited than with painting. In both cases though it’s a shared state of mind: edge of the seat and very much in the moment.”

RH: When you go out to paint, do you “prepare” yourself beforehand in order to be the most receptive possible? Do you sit and absorb for a while out of choice and then know when it is time to begin painting? What kind of scene might bore you despite any amount of observation?

SS: “My first teacher, Francis Tucker always said, instead of sitting down and picking up the brush right away, do yourself a favor and just look for 10 minutes before you start painting. And more recently I discovered in Sarah Stein’s notes from Matisse’s teaching atelier, she records the master as saying, “when painting, first look long and hard at your model or subject….(and) one must stop from time to time to consider the subject in its ensemble”.

So to sit with a motif for a brief time, even 5 minutes, is so rich. 5 minutes of not drawing or painting – just looking and reflecting. But of course actively: absorbing, speculating, getting completely lost in a place, going in and out of various visual considerations – where to place more weight, where to pass over quickly, what is most important, where is the most contrast, what do I want to emphasize, what can I get rid of, how does the eye move through space, and how does it make me feel – all of this contributes to what will happen graphically.

Assuming that the painting is not going to be an academic inventory list of undifferentiated fact, I have to let the place get inside of my senses because where else does a response come from? Sometimes the motif has been recently encountered and it’s, ahhhhhhhhh, like love at first sight and sometimes it may have taken a while to get under the skin, and maybe even feels a bit formidable and threatening, like hmmmm. At other times maybe it’s a familiar place worn a little thin, but then the process of engagement and wrestling has revealed something totally new again. And that is why we go out and put ourselves in front of motifs, with the hope that when we hoist up the sail it will catch some wind.

I often get bored going into an exhibition and seeing a roomful of paintings that are essentially the same – the same speed of looking, the same point of view, the same quality of drawing with the brush, the same compositional strategy (that is a terrible postmodern word but you know what I mean), the same hierarchy of perceptual emphasis and sense of scale (and by scale I don’t mean size), the same organization of color and color mood, the same spatial focus. And that sameness usually means someone has not spent enough time immersed in the motif actually being open to possibility and then to inventing a self-conscious fictional narration that has a distinctive and compelling formal life separate from the literal fact of the material world.

Boredom before nature is another story and that’s something I know nothing about. Everything, however mundane or simple is grist for the mill and if nothing else, it is our job to see it in the right light. Although of course, depending on who we are, where we are coming from etc, some things are always more interesting than others. Personally, at this point, I find empty rural landscape potentially boring because of the relative lack of structure – but that is usually the case with paintings made from such motifs as opposed to the places themselves.

After all those years on the Irish coast, examining the densities of moist airspace (that never seemed empty), an experience I was mad about in the best way, I’ve been drawn back into a different kind of structure that you can see in my recent urban and Italian paintings and monotypes. I mean, I painted “emptiness” (so to speak) with passionate absorption for many years but need something else right now. But I know better than to say, oh I’ll never paint this or that, because with the passing of time, it all comes around again.”

RH: What happens when you are back in the studio looking at your drawings and paintings and what importance do you find in the process? Do you paint in a more calculated manner or does the experience take you by full force in the way that nature appears to do? How does this studio process fuse with the observational aspect of your works?

SS: “I really wish I knew the answer to that, but it’s something I’m still very much trying to understand, that is, the inter relationship between studio and out of doors, and it may require however much more time I have on this earth to work out.

It’s only in the last 2 ½ years that I’ve undertaken painting in the studio from drawings made outside. However, as the groundwork for that I began making monotypes in the studio about 12 years ago, and that was the first time I had turned my back on nature (so to speak) and made images away from the motif. And I was absolutely astonished by the results, and by the fluidity of the experience, because, I had thought, how can I possibly work without being directly in front of the motif?

So I had to adjust my expectations in terms of what I was getting in the studio as being very different from what was happening outside, and the two approaches quickly became very inter complimentary, one really informing the other. Making the monotypes inside the studio actually hammered out a whole new range of expectations and possibilities that turned me around, and re informed my outdoor work. You see, being in front of a motif is very intimidating because the hard, cold fact of reality hits us on the head and says, ok man, look at me, this is what I am. But then the painter has to walk a very fine line, like a trapeze acrobat in redefining all that and establishing it editorially as painted space, and it becomes an entirely different story than what is “out there”, an artificial fiction related to nature but not at all the same.

I grew up as a painter with a reverential devotion to the idea of working in front of the motif as the only honest path and there was a kind of self-reinforcing, fundamentalist preoccupation with the whole thing. And actually, when not looking at the motif directly, I found it easier to fall into repetitive or self-referential mannerisms, which is the proverbial pitfall and the very reason that I always turn back to nature, if only via drawing. And yet, and yet, I would be a very different person without what monotypes have offered, and at this point I really cannot live without it, that process has become a kind of lifeblood.

Curiously and ironically, even after pursuing monotypes for years and feeling increasingly comfortable working from drawings and dredging visual memory, I still find that yes, something extremely important happens when working in front of nature and that is not the same as what happens when working in relation to drawings, or photos or memory. And in front of a motif, the force of the visual assault is extremely strong and with regard to the vast theater of decision-making, I’m much less self-conscious than when in the studio watching myself. So when young students of mine in Philadelphia tell me with confidence, “well no one really works from nature anymore”, I think, “how sad.”

RH: You talk a great deal about the role of memory in painting in your writings. What do you feel memory provides? Can you select one of your works and talk about how you incorporated memory into it specifically?

SS: “A few years ago, it occurred to me that wait a minute – when I’m painting outside, and I turn away from the looking out into the motif to go back to my painting, a certain amount of time elapses, even if it is a short time like seconds; and, isn’t that in fact then working from memory, because I’m no longer looking at the motif while pushing the brush across the paint surface? And, the bridge between that and to going out to making drawings and then taking them back to the studio to work, seemed clear. And it’s only a slightly longer period of time from glancing back and forth from motif to painting or from outside to the studio, but it requires the same kind of grip and intention. And for both, isn’t it a matter of training memory, as if it is a muscle, to grasp and retain and then of course to transform sensation through interpretation, into something artificial and very different from the empirical facts of nature?

Implicit in the prospect of using memory is the idea of adjusting expectations, so that what happens in the studio is not going to be the same as what happens in front of a motif, how can it be and why should it be? So then any sense that there is only one way of making a painting is ridiculous. I really don’t care how anyone makes a painting as long a it is intriguing. Oscar Wilde said there are only two kinds of paintings, good and bad.

So the thing about being in front of nature, is that there, in that relationship, is a treasure house of opportunity available to us that in no way compares to looking at a photograph or working from a drawing. However, both drawings and photography can help to train the memory and to laminate the residue of visual experience deeper into our eyes and memory banks. And of course, very great painters have used photographs, but they had years and years of harvest from the motif to shape and inform their use of photographs.

A personal anecdote: four or five years ago, when I first came over to JSS, each day of the Marathon we’d come back into the city from Ein Karem, crowded into a cab with maybe a group of fellow teachers and a few students or maybe it was someone’s car we were in, or both, it’s all a blur at this point – but what I do remember is the sensual impact of coming out of the shadows of those hills outside of town, after long days of heat and enthusiasm and very high mood, and winding around the bend and seeing the sweep of the city mega blasted by warm late afternoon light, it was like wtf!! My eyes leapt out of their head, mamma mia, the light was spectacular, Jerusalem bathed in a radiant luminosity intensity and given the context of those days and the newness of that sort of quality of light for me, I never really got over it visually.

So on return to the States I sat right down before my life returned to “normal”, while the brain was still singed, and made a set of gouache drawings from memory, using the structure of some very fast line drawings that I made on returning to my room after those rides. This gouache is one of them.”

RH: Many painters can get upset on having great motifs in mind, but not having the time or the means to pursue them, worse yet if they don’t know how to do what they have envisioned. What preoccupies and frustrates you in painting, and how do you face it? And what thrills you in painting?

SS: “Perhaps thrill and frustration are closely related? I’ve always looked at painting in a very workaday way, something one simply does regardless of mood or the weather. For me, during periods of serious engagement, it cannot be stop/start – one day taking photographs of recently finished work, then one day painting, then one day wrapping things up for a show, etc – it has to be every day with the entire day devoted to focus with the brush in hand or at least to contemplation of motifs, in front of them with a pencil or whatever. For short and long term sanity I’ve always depended on extended campaigns away from home, where I could sink into deep reflection – 13 summers on the Irish coast, almost 20 years of going out to the American mid west in the springtime, several summers in Italy – where, free of domestic care and not involved with exhibition apparatus of any kind, my primary focus could be on work. Most frustrating to me is when the inevitable and to some degree necessary machinery of normal life gets overwhelming and very much in the way of work.

At least in the short run, I’m rarely able to match my expectations of what I want from a painting with what actually happens, and perhaps part of the process of growing or growing up, is to recognize that that’s inevitable. The high bar of expectation comes from cumulative exposure to perceptual force – the longer we commune with color and tone and shape and form, the more we encounter the hypnotic resonance of it all and then, how can we not feel inadequate looking into the face of the motif? For me being outside is quite trance-like, very much like sticking an appliance plug into the wall for electricity. And connection to that electrical current is the source of my pleasure in painting. In the midst of things I’m not worried about the outcome, and definitely not about the marketplace – and just to be clear, the marketplace should NEVER be a consideration while the brush is in hand.

So even when very inspired, painting is not as easy as being at the airport and jumping onto one of those moving sidewalks. To the contrary, everything about painting is really difficult and pushes me to the edge of madness and frustration. But I don’t want to reveal the blood of the struggle in a painting, that’s backstage material best kept from the eye of the viewer. I have always worked and pulled my hair out simultaneously, but the higher motivation is the sheer pleasure and joy found in the depths of perceptual engagement and in savoring what is revealed along the way. I’ve been privileged to see remarkable glimpses of light and space while engaged with work (and I don’t mean pretty picture Sierra Club calendar like events) and I can only hope that a little bit of that rubs off on the painting. What interests me is perceptual joy, and I always see the painting as equivalent to a love letter to someone I’m crazy about..”

RH: Your interests seep into so many different media – graphite, gouache, monotype, oil pastel, oil – as well as photography, film and writing. Is there a guiding principle in your choice of media? Does a scene jump out to you as definitely gouache material rather than pastel, for example? Do you concentrate on one media at a time, or do you prefer to handle a few at a time? Other interests on the back burner?

SS: “When I was a kid in high school I made films, did theater and played music, all collaborative, collective projects. I never intended to become a painter, I wouldn’t have known how. That happened while I wasn’t looking, almost by accident. In college I studied architecture for a few years, and years later I worked in old houses as a painter and carpenter’s assistant, and came to recognize material as relating closely to expression. We use what we have to make form.

My primary passion now is in using oil paint and a secondary interest is making monotypes, with the camera as a shaper of perceptual understanding competing close behind. But very early on, mostly as a result of the influence of my teacher Seymour Remenick (who was a diverse and magnificent draftsman), I came to explore and depend on a wide range of media as part of daily work life. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney has a poem in which he compares, metaphorically, the digging of his father’s shovel in the bog to his own work digging with the pencil for crafting poems, and I like that comparison. We use what we need to get at what it is we are after.

All those materials like gouache and pencil and oil pastel are so portable and easy to set up, as opposed to painting at least as I do it, it is such a cumbersome ordeal, all that stuff to carry around. So it’s wonderful to have a pouch with some dry or aqueous media that sets up easily, doesn’t smell the place up if traveling, etc. And as I found years ago, one thing really complements the other. Acrylic paint for instance, dries so quickly that it requires a certain kind of attack and attention and what results is a language of the brush that is slightly different than oil paint but that can inform oil.

And it’s the same with everything. I always have a camera in my pocket and I find that having the eye confined within the view finder is a wonderful and refreshing framing tool, as opposed to looking out directly into massive space with no boundaries or borders. Plus, what the camera does to space is so TOTALLY unrelated to what our eye does. The eye cannot possibly encompass so much information in one fell swoop, nor can the eye set up relationships of large patterns of dark and light and color so quickly. SOOO, it is not like one thing is better than the other, they are different and supportive in terms of being parts of some greater whole that is in the process of forming.

I love cinema, and often think, the life of the painter is so solitary, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be involved in a collaborative project. Julian Schnabel, whose work as a painter I cannot even look at, has become a really wonderful film maker. The first 15 minutes of Diving Bell and the Butterfly, as Jean Dominique Bauby was coming out of his coma, are like a cinemagraphic painting, just gorgeous, and I thought to myself with immense admiration, this is a film I wished I had made.”

RH: In your photographs, it seems that you take great pleasure in views through veils of some sort, whether it be clean or dirty glass, shades, or thin curtains. Many of your paintings also give this sense of looking through fog or humidity whereby the final image on the canvas veers towards total abstraction. Can you talk about this a little?

SS: “As a kid I often sat in my mother’s car during rain, watching water run down the windscreen, the world of “solid” form on the other side of the glass melting, transformed into a distorted, foggy dream for the eyes. Later I did a lot of photography as a teenager and got involved with collecting simple filters and lenses and pieces of glass to look through to study qualities of visual distortion. At the time I was doing this more or less for fun, to bend the “real”/stable world for amusement and for some latent aesthetic pleasure, but obviously some kind of root went down or took, because here I am now almost an old man and still doing the same thing.

When I arrived on the northwest Irish coast in 1994, after having been an urban street painter in Philadelphia for years, accustomed to working in relatively constant sunlight, I was suddenly thrown into a seething cauldron of unpredictable and volatile atmosphere with everything wet almost all the time, the sun going in and out like a strobe light at the Fillmore in the late 1960’s. And one day, walking around in the rain, it occurred to me, ah hah, my eyeballs, here in this place, are like the windscreen of my mother’s car, drenched lenses or filters and the water running down them was distorting the world in very similar ways. And at first, as a painter I found that threatening and weird, I mean, how in the world am I going to paint that, something that doesn’t stand still and actually has no “form”?

But I was pulled into it, deeply, and came back every year for 13 summers. Besides painting I would also draw, and in 1998 I began to make monotypes of conditions like rain and night that I could not possibly paint directly. Eight years before that, my friend Bill Scott in Philadelphia, on seeing some nocturnal urban paintings I had done said, why don’t you make monotypes, it would suit you well. But it took years for the idea to come onto the front burner. And it also occurred to me then that the nighttime is also a filter of sorts, bringing its own qualities of distortion. I’m fascinated by the idea that there is no one proper way to see, so I try to use the camera, like I use a sketch book, to explore not primarily what is “out there” but how it is seen and then how it is translated into something else. I actually carry around pieces of fabric, glass, plastic, etc, to use as filters for the camera. Or more often, wherever I happen to be, I find dirty windows, reflections in windows or car bodies, looking out windows, etc and use that as the perceptual screen.

For the last few years there has been a very close relationship between how I’m thinking about painting and photography, using the camera as if it were a pencil, in a sense, to examine and probe the visible world, with results that have surprised me and informed my point of view. I don’t “paint” from photos per se. That experience seems flat in comparison to being in front of nature, but I use them as informants and stimulants and I look at them all the time as a way of assessing possibilities. The camera is also a tool for getting yet another step away from the world of names and preconceptions, toward a more simplified abstract understanding of place as light, shape and color first and foremost.”

For a complete biography, cv, reviews and portfolio, please visit Stuart Shils’ website.