|Red Phalarope at Wissahickon Waterfowl Preserve. Moku Hanga by Ken Januski. Copyright 2023. 9x12 inches.
Earlier today I was looking through some of my earliest blog posts trying to find one in which I talked about the problem of making a painting that had a bird as the subject. I never did find it but I did run across one on ‘building a picture.’ It touches on the same subject.
In my many years as an artist, but particularly in my early years, including all the time I was studying art in college, my art was about building pictures, not portraying something. During my many years as an abstract artist that remained true. One of my main concerns was making the picture ‘hang together,’ or as Matisse said to have every inch of the surface contribute something to the overall work.
As my work veered toward abstraction that seemed organic and seemed to reference the natural world in some way I also started considering those references when I built my pictures. An overall disillusionment with the art popular in galleries. and art magazines in the early 90s, coupled with my practice of drawing insects that I found in the garden, eventually led me to use birds as my primary subject.
As I did so I was surprised to find what an easy transition it was from abstraction to naturalism/realism! Except that I did have a fair idea of what birds looked like. And because I knew what they looked like it was easy to see how wrong my work often was! All the formal elements of abstraction could be used in realism. But accuracy was another matter.
To finally get to the point (!!) I also realized that I didn’t want to fudge my inability to draw birds with some degree of accuracy and realism by resorting to abstraction. So I spent 5-10 years trying to paint and draw them somewhat realstically.
In doing so I sublimated my interest in building a picture. You may guess where this is going. I no longer want to sublimate building a picture to accurate bird portrayal. Sometimes I still get a pretty good balance I think. But sometimes I don’t even want a balance. I want to abstract the bird, especially in the interests of the entire picture,
Such is the case with my newest moku hanga. It is based not only on a specific bird, a Red Phalarope, but also on the other birds even at the Wissahickon Waterfowl Preserve that day. It also includes the island on which a number of the birds were situated, a tree on that island, the very bright washed out colors of the day, and the bubbler/aerator which seemed to attract the phalarope. All highly abstracted, and all in the interest primarily of a visually exciting picture. Many of the subjects I just mentioned are seen as passing references, just an in music you may only need to use a note or two to recollect a much longer musical phrase.
In my journey through bird art I have tried a lot of things in order to actually build a good picture but also be true to the bird portrayed. Much of it has frustrated me because I felt giving up too much ‘art’ to keep the’ accuracy’, not just in terms of the bird itself but also in its environment and space. Many viewers might have actually felt the opposite, that I was letting ‘art’ get in the way of accuracy. But here’s the thing. Cubism is over 100 years old. Non-objective art is over 100 years old. Even Abstract Expressionism is over 50 years old. So much art has happened over the last 100-150 years. I really don’t think bird art or wildlife art does well to ignore that. On second thought bird artists and wildlife artists would probably not do well, at least financially! I think that is probably part of the problem. The buying audience is very conservative, with some exceptions. I know bird/wildlife artists who are not at all conservative and yet do very well in terms of sales. So it is possible. In any case I at least I know that I can’t ignore the last 150 years of art, sales or no sales. To do so is like being forced to wear someone else’s clothes. So my art continues to try to find a way to portray the natural world with a contemporary visual vocabulary.