Neoteric Art: You studied in Chicago and New York and then traveled Europe. Discuss your early years.
Andrew Conklin: I was born in Chicago, IL, where I attended Catholic schools, and my first art school (the American Academy of Art). At the time, I was also working in a graphic design office and considered a career in that field. My first oil painting class changed that, as I became fascinated with the formal problems of painting, and moved to New York to further my study of realist painting. I enrolled at the National Academy of Design, and later attended the Art Students League and The New School University. Both the schools and the city provided me with a superb introduction to the artist’s life. I found a community of painters who were both supportive and competitive, and the quality of my work improved dramatically during my first years in Manhattan. During that time I was fortunate enough live in SoHo, and every day I was not at school was spent scouring the galleries, museums and neighborhoods for inspiration.
I began traveling to Europe shortly after my marriage to Helen Oh and I encountered the works of artists previously known only from books and slides. The paintings of Caravaggio, Domenichino, Titan, Velasquez, Rubens, Frans Floris, Van Eyck and Vermeer (among many others) were a revelation that stoked my desire to experience what I imagined these artists must have known: a recognition in their works of a complete unity between creative intent and execution.
NA: Your paintings seem to be allegorical in a classical sense. Discuss your painting and process (do you work from life or photos?).
AC: As I mentioned, my first aims in painting were formal: I was aware of the intense early training of traditional painters, and thought unless I could master the technical aspects of painting before I was twenty year old that I would never be able to communicate my ideas to the viewer. (I was well aware of the early paintings of prodigies like Van Dyck and Picasso) I reasoned that with time and life experience, the “message” in the work would follow. I have since come to realize that one is never finished perfecting technique, and that the “language” of figure painting is something one must learn to “speak”: it is a vocabulary of gestures, objects, colors and design elements that convey emotion and meaning without movement, sound and three-dimensional space.
My paintings always begin with an abstract design, which usually takes the form of a linear sketch on paper. When completed, the painting will be rendered as real as I can make it, but it will only satisfy me if it contains a strong sense of abstraction.
Next, I determine the appropriate scale of the work. Should it be a “Dutch” i.e. small size, or “Italian” (large)? I like to change scales to remain versatile, and to consider how the image size affects the ideas I am attempting to convey.
After settling on a size, I prepare a ground, either a stretched canvas or a panel. I usually then bring in models to refine my ideas in a sketchbook, and then in more accurate and detailed drawings on tracing paper sheets that I tape to the painting surface. Moving these semi-transparent layers about allows me to experiment with various overlappings, croppings and placement of figures and objects in order to balance all the elements to my satisfaction. Once that is done, I prepare a painting surface, either canvas or panel and begin working.
I bring back the models, one at a time, and paint each figure from direct observation. I find this enables me to better translate three-dimensional reality to a flat surface. It is actually quicker for me to render from a model than to copy from photographic images, since the latter always seems to me to show too much surface and not enough structure. Because of my training, it is not that difficult to “see” the anatomy of the body from a live model. With a photo, particularly one not adequately printed, the anatomical landmarks are not always clear.
NA: Why are you drawn to the figure?
AC: The human figure is the subject that interests me most. I prefer the body for both its form and its significance. It always invites our empathy and endless curiosity, and it can take nearly any shape.
I also believe in contributing to this art form, and that every period should be represented, just as novelists continue to write books in spite of movies, TV and the internet. A contemporary painting can reconnect it audience with the wisdom and delight of ancient myths and ideas, and challenge the viewer to consider human nature as both progressive and unchanging.
Of course, I am aware of, and interested in, new ways in which human technology permits representation of the body. I have recently begun to investigate the relationship between traditional representation in painting versus contemporary video media, particularly in video games. I see in them both similarities and differences.
NA: Who have been influences on your work?
AC: There are so many painters I consider influences. There are those whom I studied under, as well as my classmates and friends, and the Masters, both contemporary and past. What draws me to a particular artist is his or her approach to the problems of representation of the figure within a space.
Among contemporary painters, I often find myself reacting to ideas from artists as diverse as Matisse and John Koch, both of whom found inspiration in designing images of the nude within a defined space. These artists, in turn, hark back to painters like De Hooch and Vermeer who in a sense ‘solved” many of these problems. The challenge will be to reconsider the subject in light of my own interests and goals.
NA: You team-teach a class at The School of the Art Institute with painter Helen Oh, your wife. Describe that whole experience.
AC: When I became confident enough in my ability, I felt a need to share what I learned, and embarked on a career teaching art. I knew that I could pass on lessons in one hour that took me months, or years, to learn. Helen’s influence on what I do has been profound since we began painting together in the 80s. Her experience in conservation, and her broad knowledge of classical ideas has been a great help in shaping the aims of the courses we have taught together, which always combine drawing and painting techniques with concerns for best practices with materials, as well as history of paintings and the ideas they represent. It makes the experience rich and rewarding on every level.