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Statement for Swamp Series

Origin, Influences, and Goals

"Pluff mud" came over the car radio while I was driving through the Carolina lowcountry and taking nearly-random-photographs of various by-passed small towns, dilapidated barns, and curious farm animals. "A Charleston, South Carolina phrase describing the mud in the marshes," was the description that was given. Liking the expression and playing with it, I said, "Pluff mud this" and "Pluff mud that." While filling my mouth with the playful words and rolling the sounds out of my mouth like a tranquil summer day's melody; I could literally feel the mud squeezing up between my toes, see the dark patina of blue and lavender smearing over the rich black-brown mud and smell the salty-marsh aroma tickling the tip of my nose. As I was playing with the term, a new focus for my art was forming. I began shooting photographs of ditch banks (close-ups of lush vegetation -- alive against the surrounding mud), but soon expanded my search to include swamps and marshes. Pluff mud, it's strange that two little words, heard very serendipitously, could become the catalyst of a major project for me. More than twenty years ago, I painted a wetland series, but I always considered that episode of my painting career finished. Finding new subjects and looking for new ideas would be the challenge of this new series.

Like many contemporary painters and most post-modern realists, I use photographs as reference material. Although my guerrilla, shoot-from-the-hip (or shoot-from-the-car-window) photographs often lack a feeling for space or form, they capture a multitude of patterns and well-defined shapes. In spite of recording the watery landscape that spreads before me; the photograph is small, flat, cool and limited. I blend this snap-shot information with my plein-air painting experience and life-drawing skills, as well as, some knowledge of art history to forge a personal, yet descriptive rendering of the scene. Other ingredients to be mixed into the vision is a feeling of amazement while staring into the sublime, the numbing from being overwhelmed by the plethora of information and the fear of complete alienation. I believe that painting is about seeing both space and surface; it is a tug-of-war between the visual world and the internal worlds (concepts: organizing, editing and embellishing; expressions: push and pull, tactile and visceral reactions).

Albeit my work leans heavily toward realism, I enjoy exposing the paint as a material and revealing the painting process through exposed layers. My paintings reflect and acknowledge the ideas of many modern art movements that happened during my formative years. I can't paint a deKooning, but my paint expresses his sheer joy of the paint. Jackson Pollock opens the possibilities of spontaneous paint, as well as, the suggestion of unlimited space -- for me. Mark Tobey's calligraphic marks inspire meditative responses to rendering the shapes and colors found in forms. Milton Avery's simplified and sophisticated shapes become an eloquent solution to blocking-in the under-paintings. After seeing the photo-realistic landscapes of Gerhard Richter, I was re-invigorated to paint the natural world. And of course, using the photograph as the main source of information is a logical conclusion to Andy Wharhol's Pop Art. Homage to the surface is a modern goal that I respect; but fabricating a sense of space and place, a very anti-Greenbergian idea, is one of my goals.

Older modern influences are the line drawings of Picasso and Matisse,which introduced me to an economy of line that maximizes expression, and although I am moving beyond stylization, my search is still indebted to them. When I look at nature, I am swamped with all that visual information and my desire is to represent all that assemblage, much as Henri Rousseau and other naive artists would. And then, Cezanne, who was able to take almost contradictory ideas and blend them into a personal and expressive style, reassures me that synthesis of divergent interests can yield a unique vision. Some of those opposing ideas that my work is concerned with are: spontaneity and control; stylization and naturalism; and modernism and tradition.

It would be misleading to indicate that all of my influences are modern artists, as I have always admired and respected the works of the great masters. But as deKooning implied, I necessarily view the achievements of the past through modern lenses. An example of this perception is the blending of the techniques of direct painting and indirect painting to talk about light (direct) and shadow (indirect). Another is fusing traditional landscape painters' information with the direct observations of the Impressionists.

By synthesizing various ideas, I keep refining my vision. E. H. Gombrich defined the search for perfection as a trial and error process - the eraser (correction) is the tool of more expressive realism, and that is how my work develops. I do not start with a perfect line, shape or color but by constantly changing and layering arrive at a conclusion. I paint and then react to what I have painted. The painting guides me to next step; I believe that the artist and the artwork must have a dialog. .

Another goal of this series is celebrating our surrounding wetlands. It is eerie how the roads have ripped paths through the hearts of many wetlands, leaving them unnaturally open and revealing views that otherwise most people would never see these are the scenes presented in most of the paintings. They are the roadside vistas, the ordinary landscapes that exist beside the road. Almost any landscape can be a beautiful, transcendent fantasy, but sometimes familiarity with art's organizing principles can make the vision more exciting. It is like compare and contrast, the scene before the viewer is compared to various artists' perceptions passed down through a cultural heritage. In a time when millions of instant images stream into our lives - numbing us by the sheer volume; I still believe in the power of the image. It makes us remember i.e. photos of the World Trade Center , it tugs at our hearts i.e. photos of dogs and babies, and the most powerful images and that includes quiet, calm paintings -- transform us. It is my hope that as the term pluff mud inspired me; my paintings will inspire others to respect the wetlands and to be creative.

Ray M. Hershberger

 


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