by Robert Kushner
Many great Modern painters have been tremendous sources of inspiration to me: Matisse, Bonnard, Klimt, Redon, O’Keefe and Demuth remain important sources. The anonymous decorative masters who designed Islamic mosques, American quilts and French brocades influenced my work as well. Japanese influences slumbered and meshed with these visual traditions for a while. If I directly quoted Japanese art, I wanted to maintain that I was making paintings about Japanese screens, not really daring to make my own screens. Slowly, this, too, began to change.
In 2000, I was invited to exhibit recent works at The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu. I felt that a pair of screens would create a nice contrast with my paintings on canvas and paper. I created twelve related works on paper that were then mounted into two traditional folding screens in Japan. The results surprised and thrilled me with their objectness. A series of paintings on paper became a physical entity inhabiting and commanding its own space in the room, a major statement with cross-cultural resonance beyond my expectation.
The following spring, I was invited to Osaka to paint on a pair of one hundred year old Kinbyobu, or golden screens. Painting directly on these valuable and precious objects with no possibility of making revisions was terrifying. Japanese screens are usually painted with Nihonga technique: mineral pigments (azurite, lapis, malachite, cinnabar) mixed with animal gelatin. I decided, however, to continue painting with my customary techniques of oil paint and European gilding. With the studio open to the public, I worked for two intensely hectic weeks, at the end of which the screens were exhibited.
I knew immediately that I particularly loved working on old screens and that I wanted to do more. These old objects carried their secret histories, like the invisible rings inside a tree. Whatever I put on top of them seemed to merge with and evoke their years of dutiful service. I could tap into their authority of scale and proportion honed over centuries and collaborate with the remarkable craftsmanship required to make a screen of paper and wood that will last for hundreds of years.
In starting the long series of screens and doors, I made a few initial decisions. I did not want to paint over any image that I respected (and I never have). I did not want to compromise the permanence of the art work by painting over something unstable. Initially, it was difficult at first to locate old screens with low-grade artistic intention that were also in good condition. My friend’s mother, a volunteer at a thrift shop inKobe, came to my rescue with a group of old, happily undistinguished screens. These days in Japan, many damaged screens are simply discarded as they seem anachronistic to modern apartment living. However, this first collection of screens had been saved for some reason and I was grateful to have them. I also began to buy screens on eBay and from an importer inSan Francisco. Most of these veterans arrived needing various minor repairs and a lot of tender loving care. I learned about the admirable and precise techniques of screen construction by taking them apart and repairing their minor tears and holes. A friend who knows much more about restoration fixed broken hinges and major tears.
Before I even start painting, I love to look closely at a screen, listening to what it wants to tell me. Old scuffs and worn corners make me consider where and how these domestic objects once served. Some of them radiate an aristocratic understatement, others are more modest and worldly. Some would require a substantial room to celebrate their original beauty. Others are resolutely intimate –“pillow screens” for a sleeping room or backdrops for displaying a prized doll collection. On the sliding doors, the metal pulls, decorative brasses from a century ago, tell their own stories–from elegant simplicity to overly ornate to merely functional. The peeling lacquer edges or the additional shims, added when the door frame of an old house must have settled, reminded me of a long and admirable history of daily use.
Nearly all of my screen paintings employ chance operation as a compositional structure. To determine the exact placement of the flowers, I made a set of small paper squares, each with an arrow drawn on it. I always paint flowers seasonally, with the live flower in front of me in the studio. I consider one flower whose forms interest me, and decide how many times it will be repeated over the surface of the painting. I place the screen flat on the studio floor and then I (or more frequently, my son Seppi) stands on a ladder and drops the squares of paper onto the screen. They swirl, unpredictably, like autumn leaves falling from a tree. Wherever the paper markers fall, I paint an image of the selected flower, using the arrow to indicate the direction the flower will be facing. The flower is painted in oil paint, thinned with medium so that the paint flows almost like ink. When this process is completed, I repeat the same procedure for additional flowers until the painting becomes complete and interestingly full. The results have always surprised me with compositions that are always strangely unexpected, yet always satisfying. The random placement often imparts a sense of movement, a floating or flowing that one can often see in nature.
This technique of chance operation is closely derived from the compositional systems invented by John Cage (1912-1992), composer, artist and friend. Cage and I met at an artists’ retreat in 1980. He lived in my neighborhood, we both loved plants and we became friends. Years later, when I began to employ both his techniques and the philosophical ramifications of indeterminacy, his approach to art as well as life became a beacon for me. My technique is essentially a simplification of the elegantly extravagant systems of chance that Cage developed over his long career. However, our results take radically different visual form.
After the randomized distribution of flowers is completed, I devise another randomization to create the rectangular shapes in the “background” of the paintings. I have created various simple grids, then I use an on-line random distribution to select the locations for a pre-selected number of colored and gilded areas. I make a drawing on paper of the background colors which then dictates the location of the rectangular forms. Even though these shapes appear to be behind the flowers, these areas are the final application of paint and leaf.
Through this body of work, I have become fascinated with a wide variety of reflective surfaces. The background of many of the screens is created by placing squares of copper leaf, oxidizing them and finally adding a protective layer of varnish. The resulting eroded surface is rich, surprising and varied. I also employ many different shades of gold leaf, varnished silver leaf and colored mica powder. The leaf or mica powder is always applied using my own variation on traditional European technique. First, two layers of acrylic medium are applied to seal the surface; then, a coat of colored acrylic to give a background tonality to the leaf. After this, I apply a very thick layer of gold leaf size, a kind of varnish, that must dry before the gold is applied. The resultant surface is extremely responsive to changes in light. Even with the smallest amount of light, some part of the painting will reflect and cast the light back into the room. Their reflective quality makes the paintings very difficult to photograph, but also allows them to change continually through the day.
I have stumbled on an evocative palette of colors that derive from the greens and warm browns of the oxidized copper: iridescent Byzantine blue, pale mauve, crisp mint green, dove gray, oxblood red, silver gray, flamingo. The colors evoke Edwardian interiors or perhaps the faded glory of a Safavid Persian carpet. The chroma might sing with a tropical brio of hot reds and oranges or the coolness of silver leaf and azure, often tempered by the underlying backgrounds of Prussian blue. The strange hues and tactile surfaces of these paintings are quite distant from any traditional Japanese screens. The bold scale of the floral elements, the juxtaposition of outlines and filled forms, and the sensations of groundlessness evoked by the randomization process place these paintings more closely in dialog with the traditions of Western practice than traditional screen imagery. To me, they seem particularly American in their synthesis and assertiveness.
The screens and doors exhibit layer after layer of chance survival that echo my feelings about the precariousness of life itself at this moment in time. The sheer chance of the screens’ physical survival, the odd circumstances by which they finally reach my studio, the unpredictability of the copper leaf oxidation process, and finally the randomness inherent in the compositions of the painted flowers all contribute to the unity of the finished screen.
People often ask me why I remain so committed to decorative sources after all these years of exploration. The answer is simple, I never get tired of pursuing new ideas in this realm of ornamentation. Decoration, an abjectly pejorative dismissal for many, is a very big, somewhat defiant declaration for me. An open acceptance of the decorative leads me to places that no other approach can provide. The eye can wander the mind think unencumbered through visual realms that are expansively and emotionally rich. Decoration has always had its own agenda, the sincere and unabashed offering of pleasure and solace.
The critic Amy Goldin phrased it most succinctly: “The [decorative] artists wish to remind you of the possibility of joy beyond reason, of solemnity beyond fear.” The question is, do we have enough cultural sophistication to embrace this different intent, and value the alternative voice it offers?