Working With Complicated Still-Life Setups
BY LISA RUSS SPAAR
"What interests me is complexity," says Virginia artist Trisha Orr, "but I don't want my still lifes to be just a lot of 'stuff.' 1 want each painting to be a world in itself." She is attracted to the idea of bringing together the disparate, of turning disorder into order, "of taking a big jumble of objects and making them seem like something solid and inevitable," she says. But getting to the point where she could paint this way took years of education and experimentation.
|Right: Slill Life With Brass Teapot, 1991, oil, 32 x 26. Collection the artist||
||page: Still Lite With Satsuma Cup, 1991,oil, 40 x 34. Collection the artist.|
Even when she was young, Orr was attracted to still-life painting. In junior high school, while taking a life drawing course in Conte crayon at the Art Students League in New York City, she remembers peeking into the still-life class next door. 'There, other students were working in watercolor and pastel on these lush still lifes," she recalls. 'They were painting fabrics, glass, bread, fish, even rabbits and ducks-universes filled with all of life's richness. I felt a longing for that visual beauty." Intrigued but intimidated by both the mediums and the subjects, she never took the course.
Later, while studying art at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, and at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Orr says she realized there was "a prejudice against painting objects as you saw them." The main stylistic influence at the time was Abstract Expressionism, and although Orr still felt a desire to paint realistic, lush still lifes, it wasn't considered the appropriate thing to do. "As a young artist," she remarks, "it's hard to buck the prevailing ideas."
After college, Orr studied painting at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture, where Hans Hoffman was the presiding spirit. "Hoffman's main idea," she says, "was that some objects pushed forward out of the picture plane and some receded. This notion got into my bones, and I think it influenced me to evoke three-dimensionality
when I paint, but it didn't help me develop my technique.
"We were also encouraged to transform what we looked at through the lens of our creative vision," Orr continues. "A lot of different teachers moved through the school, each critiquing students' work with his or her own idea of what this 'lens' should be, and before long I felt as dizzy as a patient at an optometrist's office who has looked through too many lenses."
After art school, Orr began her self-education. "What I really wanted to do was to learn to look as intensely, calmly, and carefully as I could at objects," she explains. "I'd been taught to bring Abstract-Expressionist ideas to figurative painting, and I had to consciously jettison some of this thinking in order to begin to discover my own subject matter and style."
Orr started by making 12"-x-8" paintings in grays and browns, depicting very simple, mostly natural objects: wood, shells, and stones. "I restricted the subject matter and scope of these studies in order to learn about looking, about temperature-warm and cool-and about color," she says.
Orr then tried large paintings-5'-x-6' canvases- showing a moon snail cupped in a pile of several halved scallop or clam shells. Some of the paintings focused on one of these "nests" of cradled shells; others contained three, four, or even five clusters of them in what the artist calls a "constellation or solar system." She says, "I set up piles of shells-concave and convex forms-
|Right: Still Lite With Red Geranium, 1991, oil, 40 x 36. Collection the artist.||
||Opposite page: Still Life With Daffodils, 1991.011, 38x32. Collection the artist.|
using a very limited color range and almost no local color. I magnified the objects in the paintings tremendously and tried to make whole universes. I looked at the shells very closely and rendered what I was seeing as exactly as I could. I was also interested in working with a motif that seemed emotionally or symbolically charged-something that seemed to mean more than itself."
O rr made large shell paintings for about eight years. During this time, she was still manipulating oils as she had been taught, building up the entire surface at once, thinking of the canvas as a dynamic whole in which particulars would emerge like a photographic image from a negative, so that every area of the painting was always at the same level of completion.
Throughout this period, Orr was also working in watercolor, especially when she went on vacation and couldn't paint in a studio. She recalls that the large shell canvases often felt like work, but the watercolor studies were fun, a diversion. She also noticed that using a wet-in-wet watercolor technique allowed her to paint more complicated setups than she'd been able to do in oils.
Orr finally felt ready to try some oil paintings using complex setups. "I wanted to include more disorder, more flow, and more delight in my work," she explains. The technique she developed for these oils grew directly out of the wet-in-wet method that had worked for her in watercolor. "Rather than conceiving the whole painting generally and then rendering particulars, as I'd been taught, I drew the setup, wet one area, and applied a lot of color there," the artist explains. "I worked in detail on a specific part of the painting, let that area dry,
and then worked on another area-as though 1 were piecing together a jigsaw puzzle.
"Before I thought of using this technique for oils," she continues, "I'd never been able to work with complex setups in that medium. I'm such a literalist. Flowers and other things would die or change before I could render them faithfully. Also, building up the whole canvas simultaneously, as I'd been taught, isn't a useful technique for someone who's unsure of having uninterrupted work time, which is my case since I have young children and other responsibilities."
Orr uses her "jigsaw," almost quiltlike method to paint the most transitory objects, such as flowers, first. She magnifies what she sees only slightly. "I want a size that will allow me to paint a full, rich configuration, to explore each little nook and cranny, but I don't want to magnify so much that my 'worlds' will be completely out of scale."
In assembling subjects for her still lifes, Orr is attracted to pieces that are themselves complex. "I want to work with objects that have enough visual chaos to make them interesting," she says. "I like things that aren't too intact, that excite my eye, that will visually break down into abstract colors, surfaces, and shapes so I can have fun with the ways they can be depicted by themselves and in relationship to other objects.
"I like looking at something so complicated that it disintegrates," she continues, "so I'm painting not a vase, for example, but the light, shapes, colors, and textures that comprise the vase." Although the pieces she assembles are obviously resting someplace, Orr doesn't want any reference to a room or table in her pictures: "I want the objects to be the most important
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things. I want them to create their own context."
Orr seems to have fun when assembling setups and painting her current work. She says, "I always start with one visual idea involving color-a scarf or tapestry, something appealing in the garden or at the florist, what black-and-white stripes might look like moving through water. Then I look for ways in which these objects or ideas suggest other objects and ideas that I can add to the assembly." The way pieces "quote" one another in Orr's work leads to a kind of visual humor.
"I like the humor that can occur when objects obscure, interrupt, or contrast with other objects," she adds. In Still Life With Owl Teapot, for example, she was interested in the ways in which the black-and-white striped cloth could be altered through prisms of glass and standing water and repeated in the flowers and fabrics. The rotund, squat teapot, with its quizzical owl eye, is alluded to in the lace pat-
tern, in the mouth of a shell, and even in the creamy folds of a plump rose. Black stalks of baby's breath poke out in front of prim white roses. The glistening trompe-l'oeil surfaces of a porcelain pitcher stand beside plain, glinting glassware. In Still Life With Brass Teapot, a denser, darker composition, Orr took her visual cues from the moody, yellow light of early spring.
For many of her paintings, she uses items from friends, relatives, and junk shops, which add an emotional interest or context. The objects bear their histories: weddings, deaths, inheritances, dime-store purchases, gifts, travels, shared meals. Some pieces, like the willowware and a satsuma cup, are themselves decorated with stories, adding yet another layer of meaning to the ensemble.
Many of the objects appear in several paintings. "I like using the same cast of characters in different configurations," says Orr, who admires this feature in the still lifes of Giorgio Morandi, one of her heroes. She is also attracted to the work of Pierre Bonnard for his dissolution of color and light, for the way the objects in his
paintings become one large pattern but also break down into individual items, and for his sense of play and humor. Two contemporary women painters whose still lifes she especially admires are Janet Fish and Carolyn Brady.
Orr often primes her canvases with lead white, which she says creates a luminosity underneath the paint. She uses small sable brushes and a palette that includes titanium white, cadmium yellow, lemon yellow, cobalt blue, ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, permanent rose, viridian green, permanent green, cobalt violet, Winsor violet, cadmium orange, Mars black, burnt umber, and yellow ochre. Her painting medium is made up of turpentine mixed with linseed oil. Orr paints sitting down, moving the canvas as she proceeds in order to keep her point of view consistent.
"The physical world is full of astounding beauty," says the artist. "What I love about seeing, about making these paintings, is trying to be as faithful as I can to things as they are." In doing so, Orr has created still lifes that resonate not only with physical honesty but also with the lives of the human beings who are connected to the familiar, eccentric objects that appear in them. Her paintings present worlds as rich, as complex, and as sensitive as the imagination of their creator.