New Haven painter Jan Cunningham’s abstract epiphany.
“I meet Jan Cunningham, appropriately, in the Bistro des Artistes of the Union League Café on Chapel Street, where several of her recent paintings are on view through the end of September. She is serious and intense as she recalls leaving her native Texas to study painting at Rhode Island School of Design in the 1970s, and her subsequent move to New Haven in the early ’80s.
‘I wasn’t ready for New York,’ she says. ‘I wanted a university town with a good library.’ Cunningham was, she says, very intellectual at the time — studying the philosophy of phenomenology, and was drawn to New Haven by the presence of Andrew Forge, the charismatic teacher, painter and critic who was then dean of the Yale School of Art.
Though she was still painting landscapes and portraits, Cunningham found herself increasingly attracted to the abstract work of the British artists Ken and Mary Martin, who made geometric abstract constructions. She wanted to experiment but felt, quite simply, unnerved: ‘I was afraid,’ she acknowledges. ‘Abstract art seemed so unmoored.’
It was not until she received a fellowship to the MacDowell Colony in 1983 that she found the confidence to give it a shot. ‘They brought me my meals right there, to my studio — it gave me a sense of self-worth.’ She began to think ‘not of representation, but of re-presentation,’ she explains.
A fascination with systems offered her an avenue into abstraction, and she began making drawings based on the layout of her studio — flattening it out like a dismantled box, drawing the door in relation to the window and so on. Having a system meant that the marks were not just arbitrary, willy-nilly, decoration, but that they had a foundation in reality, in geometry. They gave the drawings what she was looking for: ‘meaning.’
Starting at Yale that autumn of 1983, Cunningham discovered that the duality of her drawings using systems on the one hand, and her landscape-as-portrait paintings on the other, caused consternation and conflict with her teachers. ‘I think they thought I was schizophrenic, and urged me to go one way or the other,’ she recalls.
She cast her lot with abstraction. While continuing to employ an intellectual approach, Cunningham also pushed herself to experiment with color and three dimensions. Eventually she was able to begin with the rigors of the system and work through them to a more intuitive conclusion.
Cunningham likes to talk of ‘inviting’ elements into her art, things like sensuality or color. But because she broadened her approach did not mean she gave up thinking, and the intellectual activity of drawing remains ‘at the heart of my practice.’
She quotes Cézanne: ‘I want drawing and painting to become the same thing.’ And the conversation turns to the artists who have influenced her painting. She quickly lists Braque, Morandi and Diebenkorn along with Cézanne. Looking at her pictures there in the Bistro it was easy to spot a kinship with Braque and Morandi’s low-key, subtle colors. And Diebenkorn’s method of dividing up the canvas and working and reworking the surface is easily evident in Cunningham’s work, too. Indeed, working and reworking the painting is the hallmark of her artistry. ‘This one,’ she gestures with a smile, ‘is called, ‘One More Than Five,’ because it took me six years to finish.’
Working this way slowly, arduously, revisiting the image a thousand times — refining, scraping, repainting — agonizing and constantly changing, sometimes in subtle, barely perceptible ways is what makes the painting what it is. The contemplative viewer willing to spare more than a glance can read the history of the image as it has been built up, as the ghosts of its former self have accumulated a solid presence.
Cunningham likes the idea of the contemplative — of ‘contraries coming into accord’ — but doesn’t care much for the term ‘spiritual.’ She sees her work as grasping her, dictating its needs, and she points to ‘Train to Marseilles.’ The title is taken from Matisse, who said that making a painting is like deciding to take the train to Marseilles: The train stops all along the way in unexpected places, and even when you arrive you realize you need to go further still. She shows me photographs of dozens of different ‘stations’ the painting stopped at before reaching its final destination. ‘I worked on this painting six or seven days a week for a whole year,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t touch anything else — it wouldn’t let me.’ Then, she adds, after a pause: ‘Maybe it is like prayer.’
Cunningham maintains her studio at Erector Square, the converted old factory where Erector Sets once were manufactured. Her part of the factory is a good-sized loft with windows all along one wall. It is neat and well-organized, without fussiness. There are some books, a few postcards (mostly Cézanne) pinned to the wall, but the emphasis is on the painting. One wall is obviously the work wall: it’s splattered with paint, as is the floor directly beneath it. Near to hand are wheeled dollies with palettes and paint and jars of brushes.
Cunningham pulls out several earlier pictures from the racks. One, ‘Body of Light,’ is a brooding picture composed mostly of variations on black. It’s one of her personal favorites. ‘I feel quite at one with darkness,’ she explains. Showing me other works she explains how one painting often has its beginnings in another — taking a color relationship, or some aspect of the drawing and reworking it in another direction. Again it is the working and reworking, the painstaking struggle that in the end becomes the image itself
It is a condition that would have been familiar to her mentor, Andrew Forge, who was part of a postwar generation of European artists, such as Giacometti, for whom the anxiety of existence fueled a constant re-examination of self through the work they created. But not all of the pictures are dark; some of the earlier paintings show a brighter, lighter palette. ‘I felt a kinship with Matisse’s colors,’ Cunningham says. She then adds, with a laugh: ‘But I always felt he was having way too much fun.'””
-Excerpt and images courtesy of Issuu, “New Haven Magazine,” by Second Wind Media Ltd., September 2008