In this fascinating and thought-provoking article, Portland-based artist Paul Rutz shares the details and influences behind his recent series of bottle paintings. You'll be amazed.
We don’t know what the world is, except in how we feel it, see it and so on. We don’t know what we are, except that we can feel what it’s like to be us.
These are nearsighted paintings. By that I mean they’re paintings done by a nearsighted person enjoying the way his eyes are different from perfect, whatever perfect is. Making myopia my focus, so to speak, drove most decisions as I painted these pictures, from the choice to set bottles on a window sill to the matte gray hue I painted around them.
I’m attracted to the idea that seeing differently isn’t necessarily seeing worse. It seems easy to take that notion and apply it elsewhere, saying we should celebrate difference in all sorts of ways. But while I believe in celebrating difference, I don’t see it as my job to tell my audience where to take the metaphor. I just offer a series of paintings and some thoughts behind how I made them, asking you to decide what it means.
In the studio I use my nearsightedness because I think it helps me paint more engaging paintings. What’s close looks dramatically sharper for me if I remove my glasses. The paint looks a little crisper as I apply it to the picture. Of course, no glasses also means some changes in how I sense the scene I’m trying to paint. But who can say whether that’s a less true or even less accurate way to take in a moment? Nobody knows the true view of the world, because how it looks depends on our far-from-omniscient sense organs and the fleeting, quirky ways we pay attention to some things and not others. Making a picture for me is about conveying what it’s like to look at something for weeks at a time, which is a different thing from trying to show the truth of it.
I enjoy the warp of the world through my little arrays of bottles. I get physically close to them, and I move up and down slightly, side to side, looking for the scene behind the bottles. This is different from the bottles-as-objects paintings by the likes of Giorgio Morandi. I’m painting bottles as lenses into the abstract. In swirls of paint, I copy the swerve of the world outside the studio: trees and power lines, the buildings across the street and so on. Even the letters on the bottles become part of the scene, no longer just a code to tell you what was in them, but a looking glass through which to see the city of Portland bent out of recognition. Whether the paintings’ viewers sense that city (or cityness of any kind) in the final version of the painting doesn’t concern me.
Bottles behind each other, or even inside each other, reflected on each other’s surfaces, reorganized by their relationships and by the fact of them being near each other—it slowly becomes so familiar that I find myself watching how my own heartbeat flexes and flutters the view inside the bottles. Day after day, concentrating on these little bottle arrays, I enjoy thinking about how the kind of being I am makes me see in this special way, and how it won’t last forever. After all, there’s a fascinating flip side to this myopia.
The British art critic Martin Gayford posed in 2003-04 for a portrait by Lucian Freud, who died at age 88 in 2011. In the late 1950s Freud famously changed his painting method from hyper-detailed sable brush strokes to his mature mode painting with boar’s hair in loose, goopy impasto strokes. Gayford quoted the old painter: “I work the way I do because I can’t see what I’m doing. . . . It’s only by stepping back that I can see what I’ve been painting, so it’s more like aiming at a target while I’m actually putting the paint on. But I’m sure if I wore glasses it would affect the way I paint.”
This leads Gayford to write, “It strikes me that short-sightedness, and the need—or not—for glasses and other optical aids, is an underrated factor in the history of art. This suggests a new explanation for late style, the broadening and loosening of brush strokes, as in the works from the old age of Titian and Rembrandt . . .”
Did far-sightedness drive Lucian Freud to paint the way he did in middle and old age? Will that kind of thing happen to me when my eyes change? It’s a captivating idea, that the little variations in how painters see can drive our work as much as our imaginations or what we have to “say” about life and looking at it.
Back to the bottles: While what’s close overtakes what’s farther away, I slowly realize I’m actually not noticing the details of that blurry world around the bottles. They actually frame or focus the scene behind them, which offers unfamiliar options to explore as a painter. It’s fun to make an abstract picture through the effort to paint an accurate, realistic scene, indulging in details that echo the city but don’t depict it in a familiar way. But how to design it as a picture took some trial and error. The gray background that surrounds them came from meditating on where my attention went as I painted, and what that should mean for the design of the whole. I noticed that as I worked the scenes were not just out of focus, the way a camera would record them. When I looked at the bottles, then looked away at the painting, that scene around and above the bottles actually went unnoticed. So I mixed that matte gray: a way to echo these typical Pacific Northwest scenes in one hue, encouraging the viewers’ focus back to the bottles, where mine spent most of the time.