In Spirit of Place, his landmark book on contemporary American landscape painting, John Arthur locates the early 1960s as the point where art lost connection with its historical traditions and uncritically embraced a smug, self-absorbed avant-garde aesthetic. These failures led to a “rapid deterioration of basic artistic skills, a growing ignorance of the fundamentals of the visual vocabulary, and a diminished sense of the communicative powers of the visual arts.”
Loss of historical tradition and uncritical embrace of anything new, different and controversial precipitated, Arthur argues, the “trivialization” of art in the ’60s and ’70s:
Too little is asked and too little is expected of artists, critics, and curators. This unfettered freedom of creative expression, set loose in a cultural vacuum and untempered by any substantial understanding or link with the past, has led to a diversity of formal expression that is consistently marred by the shallowness of its content and expectations. Divorced from tradition, the avant-garde, whether figurative or abstract, has wound up sharing the ‘what you see is what you get’ superficiality of the amateur painters rather than extending the boundaries of art.
Arthur finds that much of the art of those decades is characterized by “a lack of humanism, of graciousness, eloquence, and delight, and a diminished capacity to awe and enchant.” Fortunately, the lessons of those decades have not been lost on contemporary landscape painters, who refuse to get caught in the net of artistic banality and who, in Arthur’s words, “share a concern for content, craft, and references to tradition.”
It is precisely this concern for content, craft, and tradition that characterizes the history of landscape painting in Minnesota, and that continues in the work of plein air artist Richard Abraham. Abraham’s landscapes—both plein air and studio pieces—exhibit a keen sense of design and are charged with meaning:
I’m influenced by art history. Sometimes I may be prompted to paint something because it reminds me of Metcalf. It’s hard to define, but I’m really just trying to express something about beauty. Not to seem overly earnest or high-minded, but as a traditional painter of landscapes, I’m trying to capture something I find beautiful in the natural world and express my appreciation of it, or my empathy for it. I think I paint with a lot of empathy. I really feel something about the places and things I paint. Even still lifes have a story and hold meaning, a personal connection.
Abraham grew up in a small town in Iron Mountain, Michigan, and continues to feel a “sense of place” that is reflected in his paintings: “I always look forward to going back to Michigan because I’ll paint the places I grew up, places I’ve known my whole life. Somehow that gets into the painting. I always feel that the Michigan paintings touch people more.”
He spent years in commercial television and design before joining a figure-drawing co-op in Madison, Wisconsin. Being involved in the Madison art world made him realize that art was his calling: “In the late 1990s, I walked away from everything and moved to Minneapolis to study at the Atelier. I had no savings or job, just an old car. Three weeks after moving here I found a job in a frame shop. I stayed there seven years, until it closed.” Going from a well-paying corporate job to supporting his artistic ambitions by working in a frame shop was “a humbling experience,” Abraham notes. It was also a huge leap of faith, and he had “all the confidence in the world” that he could do it.
Abraham speaks positively about his early studies at the Atelier. “I could always draw,” he says, “but the discipline of drawing every day for six hours was valuable—it tunes your eye and hand.” After a year, he began to study with Peter Bougie in Uptown, and eventually studied with Jeff Hurinenko and Joe Paquet in St. Paul. From these mentors Abraham learned a range of techniques that he has honed into his unique approach to painting, and now passes on to his students:
I tell my students that there are techniques they can adopt, but the idea that you decide to paint in a certain style is false. You don’t choose your style. You end up painting who you are. The way I make a mark or the way my brain organizes things isn’t that different then what I was doing 30 years ago in college. There’s just a lot more knowledge and training on top of it. I don’t really worry when students paint too much like me, they may go through a phase of doing that, but in the long run I know they’re going to paint who they are. It’s a false choice—am I going to paint more like Sargent or Rembrandt? It’s not an intellectual choice that one makes. There’s a certain alchemy to it. Everyone ends up taking a different path and ends up being different.
Abraham’s respect for the craft of painting is evident in every canvas, and while his classical Atelier training gave his work a strong foundation, he was not afraid to move beyond it. “When I first started painting,” he says, “everything had to be precise and polished and cleaned up.” Now, Abraham experiments more with color and form to enhance the narrative content of his work: “I edit a lot more and I’ll push color a bit—I’ll make something more atmospheric than it actually appears to me because I’m trying to tell that story, trying to explain what’s there.”
Artistic experimentation is particularly evident in his plein air work, in which he often loosens his brushwork, softens his edges and plays with color. “It’s OK,” he says, “to let a little edge bleed away or a little part of the sky be unfinished; to let a little of the process show. I find it really appealing. When I’m in a museum looking at paintings I love seeing the brushwork or the decision to not fix an edge that’s rough. Now I think it’s necessary that paintings aren’t developed uniformly all over.”
Discovering plein air painting was a milestone in his artistic career. Abraham recalls his first outdoor painting experience:
I had spent 14 years working in a corporate structure—computer-based graphic design, animation and video, editing—all done in dimly lit rooms. I felt like I had spent 14 years in a dark room. Then I took classes with Joe Paquet and we went outside to paint. All of a sudden I was painting outside on a Thursday afternoon, on a beautiful day, and I felt like I was getting away with something. Amazing that this could be your job—go outside and paint things!
Plein air painting—the ultimate painting-from-life experience—changes an artist. Forced to keenly observe nature’s rapidly changing colors, shapes, temperatures and atmospheres, the plein air artist seeks in nature what one rarely encounters in contemporary art: truth and beauty. It’s an honest form of painting, one that doesn’t get caught up in the commercialism, narcissism and superficiality that shadows so much contemporary work. Abraham sees through the hype of the art market:
There’s a lot of contemporary art that draws off pop culture that is sort of winking at you. It’s fun stuff but I also feel the artists are hiding a little bit; hiding behind the irony. Like the fictional character in “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” Dr. Brainwash, who would photocopy pictures of beetles and spray paint things around them, and sell them for tens of thousands of dollars. I always feel that when I’m showing a landscape there’s no nudge in the ribs saying, ‘Get it?’ I just think it’s beautiful, and I’ve tried my best to capture that on canvas, in paint. And there’s nowhere to hide when you do that. You just have to put it out there and let people love it or hate it or like it or dismiss it…or not feel anything.
It would be difficult not to be moved by Abraham’s work. His paintings brilliantly capture the nuances in nature’s values, colors and forms while weaving a story about place. Many of the places in Abraham’s paintings are just snippets of nature—“The Credit River,” for example, is just a small section of the river and its bank—but through an expert sense of design, rhythm and tonality, Abraham injects drama and presence into this humble bit of nature.
While Minnesota greens challenge many plein air painters, Abraham brings them to life. In “Raking Sun,” just a few hints of red in the foreground animate the varied greens throughout the painting. The soft focus and loose brushwork of “Gray Sky” create an enchanting prairie scene that plays off purples and yellows, reds and greens. “June Greens” is a simple composition of trees and grasses with rich blue and green tones exquisitely rendered.
“Russian Olive Tree,” with its muted colors, soft edges, lyrical lines, and lively splashes of purple among the greens, has been described by one artist as “a poem.” If we wanted to turn John Arthur’s lament about paintings of the ’60s and ’70s on its head, we would point to Abraham’s work, and especially this painting, as suggesting the very “graciousness, eloquence, delight, and a capacity to awe and enchant,” that Arthur finds missing in much contemporary art.
Visit Richard’s website
Richard is the current president of the Outdoor Painters of Minnesota, and has been featured in the Minnesota Originals series.
You can view his work in the studio (Northern Warehouse, #510 in Lowertown, St. Paul), during the St. Paul Art Crawls, and at the following galleries:
Grand Hill Gallery
333 Grand Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55101
651 227 4783
512 2nd St.
Hudson, WI 54016
715 386 4112
Richard also offers a range of painting classes, indoor and plein air, for all levels of experience. He has a Saturday “drop-in” class that meets at various outdoor venues throughout the Twin Cities, such as the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary in St. Paul, Lebanon Hills Park in Egan, and Fort Snelling State Park.