Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on November 6, 2008 in Resource Library with permission of the author and Hackett-Freedman Gallery, 250 Sutter St. 4th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94108. The essay was excerpted from the illustrated catalogue titled "Terry St. John: The Pursuit of Form." Images accompanying the text in the catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you are interested in obtaining a copy of the catalogue, please contact Hackett-Freedman Gallery at either this email or web address:


The Pursuit of Form

by Peter Campion



There's a snare that even the most accomplished artists encounter, a temptation to see too far ahead of themselves. They've learned to anticipate formal difficulties, and to angle their way around such challenges before they even arise. This kind of solution quickly becomes a problem. Usually you see it resulting in reproductions of a signature style, or in the mere presentation of subject matter. Skill itself becomes a trap.

The only alternative is for the artist to remain alert to the unknown as the work develops. This often demands long periods of sustained connection with the process. But through immersion in the material itself artists who choose this tougher path are able to discover the most vital forms.

Terry St. John is preeminently such an artist. His paintings wear the imprint of inevitability. But he discovers that inevitability anew each time he paints. Each of his paintings becomes the pursuit of its eventual form. Talking with me in his Oakland studio, he said, "I always start a painting thinking, 'this one's going to be easy.' And they never are.'' St. John is obsessed with getting the picture right. But his effort to make his shapes interlock, and to get each color to work at its full potential, ripples through the finished paintings. Like much of the best work of the Bay Area figurative tradition, in which St. John takes part, his paintings exude a blend of exuberance and calm. He has a unique talent for getting expressive strength to blend with extreme attentiveness.

St. John's method itself combines determination and spontaneity. Often he'll work on a picture for months at a time. To look at the Polaroids he keeps of paintings in progress is to see forms moving all over the canvas as he searches for the most dynamic composition. His process is labor intensive. It involves lots of work with the palette knife. Often he paints back over an area of the canvas he's already scraped, which creates a layering effect. In recent years he's also employed sign-painters' paint, which gives the surface a new boldness and also acts as a medium, transforming the other oils so that he can more easily paint ''wet on wet.'' Despite this level of deliberation, St. John remains open to the unexpected. The changes in sunlight when he's painting outdoors often suggest the direction a picture can take. When he's working indoors, he'll change the light or move props around to examine new possibilities. He tends to work on several different canvases at once, which helps him to gain some distance from which to view each picture. He also keeps attuned to the big effect that little alterations can have. As he told me himself, ''sometimes you change one thing, and 'boom': it's there. But sometimes you change one thing and 'boom': it's not there.''

St. John's paintings always reveal a give-and-take between the motif as it appears in life and his own feelings. When he paints landscapes, for instance, his fidelity to the scene balances against his painterly intuition about where the picture should go. Sometimes he finds that a form that wasn't present in real life needs to be in the composition. Other times he'll take a painting out of the studio and head back to the open air.

Oak Tree, Diablo Mountain (2003) has remarkable friction. When I examined this painting up close, what impressed me were the gestural swipes of the brush strokes, the speed and weight with which the bluish white in the center swerves upward and then around on itself as well as the vibrancy with which the extreme color contrasts at the bottom of the picture hold their place. This canvas had all the strength of the best gestural abstraction. But then, when I looked at the painting from thirty feet away or so, I was struck by how carefully delineated it seemed, how perfectly legible it was as a landscape. It exuded a nearly classical poise. Moving from the strong hues in the foreground to the light blue in the background, the picture had the traditional recession of a Claude Lorrain. Such contrast appears as well in Berkeley Marina, March (1999) and Sailboat, Benicia (1999), with their scraped regions of color.

The play between gesture and poise cuts across all of St. John's approaches to landscape. A painting like Aquatic Park, Berkeley (2000, 2004), with its slashed strokes and its collisions of impastoed hues might seem a purely expressive picture. But reading down the left side of the painting, it's incredible to see the various gradations of purple, green, and blue. In the midst of this flood of color and texture, each region maintains its distinct place. The larger composition itself has a tensed balance. The purple triangle on the left, for example, tugs against the blue triangle above it and to the right, while the central figure grounds and deepens the tableau.

At first glance, the recent painting From Oakland Estuary Pier (2006) seems to give off a very different feeling. But if Aquatic Park, Berkeley, shows a firm structure despite its spontaneous appearance, this picture contains a quickness and agile touch despite the solidity of its shapes. The black in the foreground, which registers as the shadowed side of the dock is not pure black, but a darkened blend of hues, flecked with blue and red. This shape locks dynamically into the composition, with its sharp, scalloped edge creating the shade on the water.

The pull between the painter's imagination and the life of his subject, which lends friction and vibrancy to St. John's landscapes, gains a new intensity when he paints the figure. The figure presents a unique challenge, since in the studio the artist can't depend on changes in the atmospheric light to suggest new directions for the picture. He has to rely on invention. Fortunately, St. John has a tireless urge to explore new possibilities, to push the forms around on his canvas until they click and their colors vibrate with the greatest liveliness. It also helps that he's been working with the same model for three years now. The two of them have developed a dialogue, so that the sessions are active engagements with the unfolding of the work. Perhaps as a result, the finished paintings have a beguiling depth.

This sensibility could be called psychological, but it doesn't appear as narrative. Instead, looking at these canvases, I have the feeling of encountering another person in the most intense moments, those moments when privacy is both evident and maintained. St. John's figure paintings may appear to resemble his landscapes. In both types of painting, he breaks the motif down into its most vibrant parts. But the figure is never merely physical for St. John. To look at any of his nudes is to have the sense of meeting another, individual self.

In painting the figure, St. John engages in a tradition that he's fully internalized. He builds his figure paintings by using an almost sculptural approach, starting with a pose that may seem ordinary enough, but then proceeding to change the angles of light and shade as he attempts to create the most dynamic shapes. That method may recall Diebenkorn's tendency, especially in the figure paintings from the mid-1960s, to construct the figure out of separate fields of color. St. John's firmness of structure may also draw comparison to James Weeks, with whom he studied. But in fact his line of influence stretches much farther back. 'When he and l were talking about the Louvre, I asked him what he'd go to see if he were in that museum at that moment. "Delacroix and Poussin,'' he said with no pause at all. Those seeming opposites, with their respective romantic abandon and neo-classical perfection, suggest the kind of synthesis that St. John has achieved in his figure paintings. His expressive, textured application of color strikes a counter- point with his cool, immoveable forms. This internal tension imbues the paintings with much of their energy.

In Woman, Cat and Cup (2004), for example, St. John constructs the figure out of strong contrasts in value, which work to establish the light and shadow of the scene, but also give the figure a sense of immediacy and amplitude. As she looks off to her right, the model shows the gorgeously sharp profile of her face. The painting has an immediate heat. The model maintains her slight remove, though. Her right shin, which St. John has constructed out of an elliptical column of slashed purple and blue, both intervenes between the viewer and the model and helps to establish the depth, staggering the volume of the space, as do the cup and the cat in the foreground. A similarly dual feeling comes through in the firm but dynamically cropped composition of Woman in Studio (2003) and in the audacious contrast of value in Woman and Red Shadows (2003).

Every shape in these paintings, every region of color, contributes to this tension. The props and furniture in St. John's nudes are never merely props and furniture. They tend to hover on the line between identifiable objects and abstract shapes. In the foreground of Woman, Cat and Cup, for instance, stands a diagonal white rectangle that St. John tells me he based on a towel that happened to be strewn over a paint can. As they simultaneously invite and elude interpretation, such shapes help to create the sense that imagination and reality have woven together in these spaces. In Woman, Reflecting in Mirror (2004), the vertical pink shapes above the figure to the right, and the blue and purple triangles below them, convey an intensity that you can't help but connect with the interior life of the figure herself. In Standing Nude with Mirror (2003), the fan-like form of light blue, slicing across the surface of the mirror, doesn't imply an actual object so much as an emergent excitement that matches the radiant presence of the figure herself. And isn't this feeling an emblem for St. John's work as a whole, for its exhilarating balance between emotion and form?

The great English painter John Constable once wrote of not wanting to be one of those artists who ''chase after a picture and get the truth at second hand.'' As a contemporary painter, Terry St. John often finds the truth by transforming the reality he sees. But Constable's distinction still holds. Revision allows St. John to pursue the most intense and primary forms. There's nothing second-hand about a painting by Terry St. John. In recent years he's become something of an exemplar for several younger painters, as well as poets, in the Bay Area. You hear his name mentioned with a tone of great admiration. But it's not that he's some iconic eminence. On the contrary, he seems constitutionally unable to strike the pose of self-importance, or to rest on his laurels. By remaining constantly engaged with the challenges of painting, with the search for necessary and vivacious structures, he shows the most vital commitment to the work of wresting form out of process. In his finished paintings such labor becomes the truest pleasure.

© 2006 Peter Campion

About the Catalogue

The above essay is excerpted from Terry St. John: The Pursuit of Form (2006). 48 pages. Published on the occasion of the exhibition Terry St. John: The Pursuit of Form, held May 4 - June 24, 2006 at Hackett-Freedman Gallery, San Francisco, CA. (right: photo of front cover of catalogue, courtesy of Hackett-Freedman Gallery)

About the Author

Peter Campion is the author of a book of poems, Other People (University of Chicago Press) and a monograph on the painter Mitchell Johnson (Terrence Rogers Fine Art). His criticism has appeared recently in ARTnews, The Boston Globe, Modern Painters, San Francisco Chronicle, and Sculpture. He's a Jones Lecturer in Poetry at Stanford.


Resource Library editor's note:

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Raven Munsell, Hackett-Freedman Gallery, for help concerning permission for reprinting the above text.

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