Artist Statement • Don Gray Art


A preliminary note: Casein is a long-established, water-based paint medium derived, in part, from an ingredient in milk. It is very permanent. Casein may be used relatively thickly and opaquely in an impasto manner, or nearly as transparently as watercolor. Like most media, it may be applied loosely and spontaneously, or in a more detailed way.


 I have always tried to understand and paint reality. I have found this an incredibly difficult task. How can an artist, especially in a time of weakened artistic tradition, significantly express the pungency of reality, its intensity of color, structure, light and shadow, as well as our feeling for its beauty and poetry, its ugliness and horror? It is a daunting challenge to try to express the three-dimensional world on two-dimensional paper and canvas.


 I have primarily used still-life to study and interpret reality because one can look intently at, and study, objects that do not move. And I have a natural feeling for real objects that are the subjects of still-life. But, I'm not a camera. I've never been interested solely in the surface appearance of things, but also their inner structural and emotional core, their density of form and feeling.


  I personally see spiritual significance in this density of matter - there is something timeless, immortal about it - whether an apple, rock, the human head or the planet itself.


  For years, I have used art books as elements in still-life. Their images add aesthetic and symbolic richness to the paintings. And I admire the work of the artists I use. Frankly, I feel more of a kinship with the great artists of the past than I do with most contemporary artists. The art of Rembrandt and Cezanne was - is - deeply attuned to their own lives and the life of their time, both physically and spiritually, whereas much contemporary art is based on fashion or theory disconnected from life.


 For some artists, self-portraits form a significant portion of their body of work. Such artists tend to be more introspective - Rembrandt, Goya, Cezanne and Van Gogh come to mind, among many others. Self-portraits are, in part, the desire of the artist to understand and express himself through study of his features in the mirror during the painting process. I am temperamentally and poetically related to these artists, so it is not surprising that I have painted a number of self-portraits during my career.


 The angels I have painted are a development from a series of pastels of constellations which I made during a period of nightly study of the stars. This led to my using moons and stars as backgrounds in my still-lifes. From there it was but a small step in the direction of things overtly spiritual that I found myself painting angels. I'm unsure whether or not angels exist (I suspect they do), but I felt a need to paint them. This is a cardinal rule for artists: paint what you feel you want and need to paint even if there is no rational reason for doing so. Artists should follow their gut instincts. It will all become clear later. Or, maybe it won't. But you need to do it anyway.


 I enjoy flowers for their obvious beauty. They are also very expressive of our inner feelings and psychological state (I think of the wonderful portrait by Degas in the Metropolitan Museum of a thoughtful woman, hand to chin next to a large, picture-filling bouquet that clearly represents her inner life). I often paint bouquets in profusion, filling the canvas or paper with them to express an abundance of life and strong feeling. Flowers, since they bloom, fade and die so quickly, are symbolic of our own mortality, the temporariness of our brief lives. Artists and poets, for these reasons, have forever used flowers as a subject of their work.


 I appreciate rocks for exactly the opposite reason. They are beautiful in their varied shapes and forms, the way flowers are, but, instead of expressing the fragility of the passing moment, are "eternal," "timeless" in their massive solidity, permanence, durability, "immortality." Even a pebble may be seen as seemingly lasting as a mountain.


 Still-life objects - skulls, cans, books, etc - are solid the way rocks are, and therefore also express timeless qualities and ideals of solidity and permanence. Fruit and vegetables, while looking and feeling as solid as rocks -- a characteristic of form in them that I respond to -- are ultimately as fragile in their way as flowers. They, too, age and fade. Most things - natural or man-made - have beauty and emotional significance. At least I have always felt that way. Give any object more than a passing glance, whether a light bulb, sardine can or pair of levis thrown in a tangle on the floor, and significance of form and feeling can be found there. The longer we look, the more we see.


 Fruit and vegetables, like rocks, have a massiveness of form that appeals to me, but they too age and fade, like flowers and flesh, so they express the solid, but transient beauty of life. The greatest artists have always been aware of the profundities of life and death - consciously and unconsciously. It is this awareness and their expression of it, together with their highest level of ability, that comprise their genius and make their work meaningful through the ages on many levels for those prepared to respond to it.


 I have painted an extensive series of paintings using art books as important elements in still-lifes. I respond to the intrinsic beauty and significance of art created by the great artists. Their paintings, or segments from them, also add a great deal of beauty and expressiveness, enriching and expanding the meaning of the other still-life objects, and the resulting painting as a whole.


In another way of looking at it, why not associate ourselves with artists of this stature, living or dead? Why not join with the best, the highest, the deepest, when as artists -- or any other vocation, for that matter -- we are spending our lives trying to express, as significantly as possible, our response to the same reality and mystery of life? Why not, since we live only once, associate with the best?


 The greatest art is always both timeless and contemporary. It is timeless in its pursuit of the unchanging values, truths, aspirations and needs of humanity. It is contemporary in its expression of the changing particularities of our experience of these truths from person to person, and era to era.


 Thus great art of all periods has in common certain qualities and characteristics of solid form, profundity of feeling, powerful drawing, richness of color, originality, honesty and passion of concept and perception, modified by the artists' personalities and the time in which they live. Rembrandt and Cezanne, for example, are very similar in their concerns for these and so many other aspects of timeless art and human values, but different in overt style due to differences in society, personality and art in the 17th versus the 19th Centuries.


 With regard to my writing, whether art essays or poetry, I try to express what I see as the realities of life and art, whether positive or negative, in a well-written way. As a painting should be profound in both content and aesthetics, the use of language should also be profound in the beauty and effectiveness of its search for, and revelation of, truth. I tend to have a serious view of art and life, so both the essays and poetry reflect my deepest concerns, and I suspect, the deepest concerns of many people.


 Essentially, in writing I am exploring the meaning of life as I do in painting. However, essays like "Art Curriculum for the End of a Millennium," "Great Moments in Art" and "Yellow Canary Art Dictionary," present what I hope are pungent truths in (what I also hope is) a funny way. In my poems, I'm not so much interested in rhyme, although it sometimes occurs, as I am in expressing, as profoundly as I can, a world that both inspires and troubles me. I try to do this through language that is as beautiful, rhythmic and potent as I can make it.