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Mar 24, 2013

Hey, step away from the painting...

Yesterday I drove up to Seattle to see the Nicholi Fechin show at the Frye Museum with my friends Anton Pavlenko and David Darrow. We had a great time. It's always nice to see art with other artists because you can really talk shop, geek out, and abandon any pretense of looking cool. My wife loves art, and we like to look at paintings together, but she always seems to end up several galleries ahead of me and I always feel pressured to catch up.

And Fechin is not a painter you want to rush.

Many people (not my wife) think the point of painting representationally is to achieve a likeness. I used to think that too, be it a finely-observed and naturally expressed academic study or a quick emotional interpretation. But I am older now and believe likeness is less important than paint handling. And Fechin's paint handling is something you want to stuck your nose into.

So as Anton, Dave, and I walked through the Frye looking at the Fechins we kept getting into trouble. Seriously, we almost got tossed. All three of us kept schooching right up to a canvas, exclaiming loudly about something we were seeing, and a guard would rush over and insist we step back. "Sir! Please maintain a foot distance." "No, more space, please." "Yes, I understand you are artists, and would never touch a painting, but please sir, do not touch the painting." Okay, so one of us did accidentally brush up against a Fechin while waxing on about a passage of color but it was unintentional. (And no, I won't say who – other than it wasn't me...ha!)

So how do you explain to a museum guard the physical nature of a painting can be so enticing you just want to stroke it? That you want to go all Hellen Keller on it and experience the surface using a different sense? I bet a Lucien Freud would elicit a similar response in me as well.

Fechin's work must be experienced in person to be fully appreciated. No reproduction or print can convey the tactile handling of his paint. Besides, most print reproductions I've seen tend to boost his color in the hope of appealing to a wider audience. (I was surprised to see how much black, gray, and raw umber he used. Strong coloration didn't become dominant until he moved to the Southwest and even then the hues weren't as saturated as I thought.)

Sure, there are some practical concerns with how Fechin painted. If you own a Fechin you'd better hire someone to check the floor underneath on a daily basis because bits and pieces have been known to drop off and require reattachment. Fechin preferred to work with extremely oil-starved paint. He'd squeeze his colors out onto cardboard and let them sit for a while to draw out oil. Which is how he created the rich textural surfaces we celebrate him for. The upside to this technique was Fechin could create juicy enticing effects that flicker and shimmer. The downside was he removed a lot of what bonds the paint to the canvas. And Fechin loaded pots and pots of paint on his canvases. I estimated in some cases perhaps up to ten pounds at a time. (He loved flake white.) So owning a Fechin must be like owning a classic Jaguar XK-E sports car. If you do, you'd better get yourself an in-house mechanic.

But oh, to have a Fechin to look at everyday would be worth it. Sure, he liked to paint portraits, interiors, the still life, landscapes, and unfortunately a few big-eye Navaho children. But for him, the subject matter was only an excuse. In truth, it was about the paint, and it would have been awesome to see him push it around. If only YouTube had been around in his day...

If you are a painter get yourself to the Frye before this show closes! There are over forty canvases and twenty drawings on the walls. And a lot of the work dates to his time in Russia. Don't procrastinate because the exhibition is on a short run. It closes May 19th. Admission is free, and there is free parking lot right out in front of the building. Hey folks, this is Seattle and you can drive right up to the building and park for free!

But please, when you go be sure not to touch the paintings.

2 reader comments:

sharon said...

great post..I also get in trouble with the guard bu only in St pete..hardly ever in europe

Kathy Johnson said...

I was amazed at the abstractions -- I understand it a bit more now after seeing Fechin's paintings. Unfortunately, the poster they did for the show cropped out that part of the painting -- a shame, really. It is an exhibit that is a must see.