I thought it would be intriguing to ask painters this simple yet complex question. This query comes with no ground rules—it’s up to each individual artist to find their own approach and direction.
This project will be an ongoing exploration … let’s see where it takes us.
What is Painting?
Featuring Marilyn Propp
About painting: It started out as scraping, pulling, drawing with a loaded brush, digging through the layers to find out what was underneath, carving out earth and crevasses. The clefts and fissures, red iron oxide against a turquoise space, were physically real to me as I made something I’d never seen before. A fellow student asked, “Have you been to New Mexico? That looks just like it.” I’d never been, had never seen red earth against clear blue sky, but I cut into and shaped paint until I’d made a place for myself.
Now, many years later, I find myself under the sea, machine parts and marine life entangled and morphing into one another. I used to paint to find out what was going on inside of me. The language of paint– forms, dragged lines, textures, color, physical presence– would take shape and speak an almost primeval language as I pulled images out of my interior world. Now, the images learned from looking and drawing pull me both outward and inward. Both intuitive and responsive imagery can exist in the same painting.
As a child I saw light shining through leaves and the textures of blankets pulled over my head; I dug wet clay out of the excavation sites of houses being built behind my back yard; I listened to the wind as the trees swayed at night. When I’m really painting, when it’s working, I conjure these stored sensations. I remember the work of artists I feel a kinship with; I feel the substance of the paint. And that’s it, that’s what keeps me intrigued: the substance of the paint itself, it’s materiality, the pushing and pulling, wrestling with it until something appears, building, destroying, rebuilding, the surprises, the discoveries.
Using a long brush and black paint thinned like ink, I start with gestural calligraphic dragged lines on the white panel, a form of automatic writing. Rhythm and musicality, the matching of movement and form: initially it’s about the motion of the body as I make marks. I respond to the hard unyielding surface of wood panels rather than the bounce or give of canvas. As the forms appear, I firm them up, and then build layers of paint. It’s still an intuitive act, but I can direct it now. I know how to respond much more quickly. I can explore the paint like a life-long companion.
About paint: Oil paint is elastic, physical, flexible. It can be rugged and textured; translucent; delicate; layered; scraped—all characteristics that oil paint can embody. It’s not just skin on a surface, but a substantial material presence. Max Beckmann; Philip Guston’s late work; Willem de Kooning’s early work; Susan Rothenburg’s surfaces, Elizabeth Murray’s shapes. Painters take the essential stuff of earth, colored mud, and make images, non-images, surfaces, depths. I think it’s intrinsic to our nature. As long as we have hands, people will make paintings.
To quote William Kentridge, on Max Beckmann’s painting “Death,” from 1938:
“But what [the painting] did do, and still does, was fill me with awe and hope at the way in which painting or drawing could so evoke the ambiguities, uncertainties, and arcane ways in which we shape our sense of ourselves and our construction of the world.”
(Essay by Kentridge in “Max Beckmann,” published by MOMA, 2003, p. 183.)
Born in upstate New York, Chicago-based artist Marilyn Propp (BA University of Pennsylvania, MA University of Missouri-Kansas City) attended Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, Brooklyn Museum Art School, Provincetown Workshop, and San Francisco Art Institute’s pre-MFA program. In 1990 she co-founded Anchor Graphics, now a part of the Art and Art History Department at Columbia College Chicago. She has taught at Columbia College since 2002, and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Loyola University.
Exhibitions include DePaul Art Museum; Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art; Peltz Gallery, Milwaukee; Neiman Gallery at Columbia University School of the Arts, NYC; Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington; Galeria AP, Universidad Veracruzana, Xalapa, Mexico; Louisiana Tech University Gallery; St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame; State College of Florida, Bradenton; St. James Cathedral; Studio 18 Gallery, NYC; Koehnline Museum, Des Plaines, IL; Brad Cooper Gallery, Tampa, FL; A+D Gallery; and Printworks, Chicago.
She has received an Illinois Arts Council Finalist Award and a Professional Development Grant; CAAP grants from the Chicago Dept. of Cultural Affairs; an Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation Grant, Columbia College Faculty Professional Development Grants, and a nomination for a Richard H. Driehaus Individual Artist Award. Visiting Artist positions and Residencies include Cill Rialaig, County Kerry, Ireland: Universidad Veracruzana, Mexico; Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville; State College of Florida, Bradenton; Louisiana Tech University; Jentel Artist Residency Program, Wyoming, and a Ragdale Artist Residency, Illinois.
Her work is in the collections of the DePaul Art Museum, Chicago; the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Evanston; Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College; Summer Palace, Saudi Arabia; Amnesty International, NYC; Old St. Patrick’s Church, Chicago; Hallmark Collection and the AT&T Collection, Kansas City; and private collections throughout the U.S.
She states: “My work reflects the clash/coexistence between the industrial and the natural worlds. It also alludes to a delving into the subconscious, going under the surface to stir up memories and bits and pieces of one’s life. Both sea life and industrial parts contain this dual meaning, as personal imagery, and as objects and life forms which now perilously coexist.”
The What Is Painting? Project – More Featured Artists