Painting and Mushrooms

FILE0031The beginning of my Introductory Painting paper was, as so often seems to be the case with the starts of my semesters, a mess. A family death that affected me probably more than I had a right to be affected (very distant, although a big part of my childhood), and set of repairs to our house costing us tens of thousands of dollars we didn’t have, for several weeks knocking out the walls between our bathroom, lounge, and kitchen, all preyed on my time.  I was, it’s safe to say, not as focused as I would have liked. I missed my very first class, where we picked a space and drew from it a set of shapes we liked. In the second class I quickly sketched a group of shapes, drawn arbitrarily from around the room. They were shapes that sort of engaged me, I guess, but it wasn’t really a space that engaged me, and I did not understand that I would have to use them pictorially – that this early in the game I was committing myself to what I would be allowed to depict further along – and if I wanted to represent anything beyond the media in this project, I had to have decided that from the outset. The shapes I had I could do things with, I just didn’t find those things I could do all that compelling or artistic.

This blog post is, effectively, the second half of my workbook for this paper, after I found I needed to choose a better space – that the shapes I had chosen only gave a boring confusion of images. If I can, I want to always communicate and explore ideas beyond just the qualities of my medium. However, I naturally do want to learn about paint and its qualities. I want to do this through exploring social ideas, through trying (and sometimes failing) to convey meaning. Far too much post-1960s art – even representational art – is meaningless or philosophically shallow so as to be quick to produce, and easily commodified. I largely see Barthes-like “death of the author” notions as excuses for artists to be less artistically and intellectually motivated, alongside faster at getting rich through luring vapid investors if they’re opportunistic enough.

The Pictorial Idea

  • A range of colours that convey depth. Cross-sections, or intersections. Processes depend on what I want to represent.
Lundeburg Forms

Untitled (Forms in Space), Helen Lundeberg, 1970, acrylic on canvas.

I discarded my initial shapes and sought out new ones. I decided to take a risk in terms of departing from the brief. By far the most exciting and interesting abstractions I had gathered were those of the Californian Post-Surrealist movement, particularly the representational abstractions of Helen Lundeburg, whose work I’d seen recently in Mexico. These reminded me that abstraction did not have to be, to my sensibilities, conceptually boring. So much of the abstract art I had looked at seemed, to me, like shallow exercises in media, sometimes very moving ones, but as a whole rather dry and methodological. Textbook-y. Seeing the work of some Massey University fourth years, in particular Riah King-Wall’s work, captured my artistic appetite. Here was an artist being generous to me, as a viewer, rather than snobby or obscure, and she was still carrying out the same sorts of exercises in colour and form as I had seen in strictly abstract or opaque works. I saw no good reason to deprive my work of a stronger pictorial connection to the world than “interactions of colour”, “interactions of form”, “qualities of paint”, even if, in the end, I believe my final does not elucidate very much about the world. Perhaps I failed because I was never quite confident enough, given the brief, to really say anything exciting. I would tell myself, “Well, all painting is abstraction, isn’t it, so go ahead?” but I could see that attitude would pull me too far from the brief, if I hadn’t already strutted away from it too far and too petulantly.


Wood fungus, near Chetumal, Mexico, 2013. At higher resolutions it’s out of focus, but it stays crisp up to a moderate size.

Instead of choosing a new space in my direct environment, I decided to abstract some of the natural spaces I had encountered a month earlier near Chetumal, Mexico. I was a bit conflicted about this, but  I had spent a great deal of time with each space in its three-dimensionality. I had good memories of the forms, I had stayed with each of these spaces, fascinated and trying to get a nice angle, until almost each time I’d lost track of my family among the Mayan ruins. These were not just 2D images plucked from the internet, so in a sense I felt they were similar to the “information-gathering” steps earlier in the paper. I chose a wood fungus that I had found growing on the log-column of a tourist shelter. I liked the undulations on the mushroom ledges, their obvious depth, as well as the complex negative shapes they smacked against the darker wood.


I missed a class on playing with paint as a medium and I was playing catch up with the exercises. I jammed some spare leopard print synthetic fabric over a stretcher, and began playing with the paint, creating incidents. I used metallic paints on highlights, I built up thick textures, with grooves like the undersides of mushroom caps. I found the fabric stole the paint into itself, and tried (and failed) to use that effect, then finally to dampen the effect by smearing the canvas with PVA. I put thick, wet globules of PVA and orange paint above the more textured areas and let them drip down the scene to see if they would follow the grooves and angles in the paint below them. Building up thick, impasto fungoid textures, then painting over them with dribbling, watered down pigment, grew into a motif in later works. When it had dried, I added big brush strokes in white and orange, and went back over the mushroom forms with a tap while the paint was still wet. I think a nice fungi-on-old-wood cliche built out of this technique.

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I continued reworking the shape, letting it warp with each redrawing, or clipping its curves back, and trying to break down the surface into generalised, coloured planes. In the interests of brevity, I’m making the rest of my work, pre-final, into a blog gallery:

The Final

The final, then, combined all these elements, but as I worked up the backdrop in smooth acrylic, hard-edged by tape, I saw a funny cliche cropping up. What I intended to be wood was starting to look like a dark, damp cave that fungi would grow in. The photo I initially took was of a bright fungus out in sunlight, among Mayan ruins, and here I seemed to be putting the fungus into a dramatically different space: moving it from bright and humid to dark and humid. I liked the limited palette, the dark, dark blue-browns with the chocolate colours, and the way they seem to become confusing, rock-like facets. I tried to build each of my most successful painterly ideas into this final. Hopefully that is obvious. I do not think it is a work with a great deal to say, and no doubt some viewers will like that about it, as is their right, but… I find it hard to not to break away from the idea that a piece like this is snubbing the audience a bit, or hoodwinking them, as I really haven’t built within it any legible narrative depth. Kinda like how it looks, though. 😉

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