Rick Vian opened his second solo exhibit at the Robert Kidd Gallery with a series of abstract paintings using the language of the Ojibway Tribe of Northern Michigan to title works such as Tagwagi Ishkote, Fall Fire. This painting sets the stage for a reconstruction of the forest environment in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, geography Vian draws on for inspiration. Painterly strokes of light in a variety of colors emerge from a dark place and come forward in fluid, intentional motion. Specks of modified cobalt blue carefully sew the composition together. Vian works, reworks, constructs, and reconstructs in a flurry of action until he has what he wants.
In Fire October II, Vian sets up the dichotomy of landscape and fire. A commotion of intuitive and turbulent brush strokes over a dark under painting provides an energy that explodes onto the scene. Clement Greenburg used “Gestural abstraction” as a term in the 1950s to describe paintings with dribbled or spontaneously splashed paint as opposed to those with more careful application methods. Here, the entire painting feels as though it may have been completed in a day, but the nature of oil paint gives Vian time to reconstruct and reshape his composition. Subtle placement of color adds to the intrigue. The layers of “action” give depth to the metaphorical premise of fire against the forest.
Spanning thirty years of painting, ranging from realistic landscapes to non-objective grid abstractions, repeated threads neatly unify Vian’s body of work; shapes, color palette, grid, and brush stroke. Rick Vian carefully loads his “meat grinder” mind with life experience and imagery, and then skillfully calls on his unconscious to deliver a visual perception of underlying patterns that makes sense.
I sat down with Rick Vian in his studio on November 24, 2012 for an interview.
Ron Scott: What are your earliest recollections of being interested in art?
Rick Vian: I got some clay from my mother when I was very young, probably around 3 or 4. She was an artist and used to give me art materials. She would give me this plasticized clay, and I would play with it, constantly and placing it next to the heat register until it would soften, and melt into the carpet. I did my first oil painting when I was seven, across the table from her, and I have been painting ever since. Around the age of twelve, Stanley Mouse, a Detroit car cultural artist who painted on cars and sweatshirts inspired me. I used to take my bongos and hitch hike to his house where he would pin stripe the bongos, but I really just wanted to see his studio. In high school I learned how to do sign painting, and fancied myself a commercial artist painting signs for stores and continued with my own work, painting objects in my backyard … finding any excuse to do artwork.
Was your early work representational?
RV: All of my first and early work was representational until I got to art school. I attended what used to be called the Society of Arts and Crafts in Detroit. This was after attending Hillsdale College for a year, then the University of Detroit for a year, and then I started Arts & Crafts. It was not until my second year there that I did an abstraction. I did not feel I had the right to do abstraction until I could do a good figure drawing or still life.
What do you consider to be early influences after arriving at the Society of Arts & Crafts, now called the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit?
RV: My main influence was the work of Willem de Kooning. The reason for that was his method. I like the method of working and reworking. I realized I wasn’t the kind of artist that could just imagine something. I would prefer to see something and react to it … and change it. My interest was different from the abstract expressionists in general, but I like the way de Kooning would deconstruct and reconstruct. Later on I became interested in the landscape and the forest. His methods allowed me to deconstruct something and then reconstruct it and I kept going until I got to something I liked. I never started with a picture of something, because I didn’t know what I wanted. I wanted to get through a process and have the painting teach me something and when I ended up, I wanted to see something that I could have never imagined. In that way, I felt as thought the painting was taking me somewhere and making the world bigger.
I would like to ask you about being a musician. Do you see any relationship between visual art and music?
RV: I didn’t until about three years ago. I did art and I was a jazz drummer, and they both satisfied a part of me. One day I realized that when I am painting, I am trying to divide space in interesting ways and it occurred to me that when I am playing the drums, I am trying to divide time in interesting ways. In that sense, I can see the same kind of process going on. One is space and one is time.
When you are doing artwork, do you listen to music?
RV: Yes. I have always listened to music, and all different kinds of music. Sometimes I will turn it off depending on what processes or decisions are going on. Sometimes it is Baroque music, it might be classical, rock, jazz or it might be some type of rap, because I like and have played all different kinds of music.
Do you have strong influences today?
RV: Right now my biggest influence would be Beethoven. I have studied his work in depth and feel he was much like a de Kooning, not a Mozart who would get a symphony in a flash and write it out. He did all kinds of changing and reconstructing. When he was finally finished, it went through a lot of revision, and he had this noble exalted piece that was incredible. I can relate to that.
How would you describe the influence of growing up and living in Detroit?
RV: Detroit has had a big influence. I was born here, grew up in Detroit, worked in Detroit, and went to school in Detroit. I worked with my Dad on his milk route. We delivered milk to restaurants in the early 1960’s. All my friends in high school were from Detroit. As an adult, I used to deliver gas cylinders to many companies in Detroit. When I was doing commercial painting, we painted many of the interiors at the big three auto companies. I wasn’t a suburban kid who later went to Detroit, and claimed himself a Detroiter. As I mentioned, one of my big influences was Stanley Mouse, the Detroit street artist. Probably where you see it the most was my paintings from the 1990’s. I was using industrial polyurethane paint, and I used those colors, plus the shapes were industrial. One of the early themes was industrial accidents, which were very familiar to me. Detroit and the landscapes were important to me and shaped much of my early work.
Are there any artists that you like from the past?
RV: Before de Kooning, I probably like Van Gogh more than others of that period. My parents took me to an exhibit of Van Gogh when I was fourteen at the Detroit Institute of Arts and it just blew me away and back. Further, I really like Michelangelo because of the colossal work he did in the Sistine Chapel.
What kind of process do you use for making your paintings?
RV: There is a general process. I do small paintings, maybe 7 x 10 inches using oil pastel. I use those when I want to move the direction along into a new place or I want to explore something. When I arrive at something that has potential then I’ll do a larger oil sketch and eventually work on a large canvas. When I work representationaly, I work quickly from memory, whether trees or water, I need to learn my subject to a point where I can rework and abstract the image. When it comes to actually making the large painting, I don’t have a picture in my head, or on paper and I don’t want one. I get a vague idea, a prevu, or almost seen. Then I will get a color idea, and I mix color … I get it laid out in bowls and on my palette, then I start an under painting, usually with complementary color from what I end up with. I start working on the painting, and at the end of the day, I’ll put it away. The next day I’ll come out and rearrange, and change it and continue. I like to work wet into wet, scrape, reconstruct and move it around. I will continue for a few days until I get it right. It can take anywhere from three days to a week, to a month. In the end, it has to feel right in the way it moves. The paintings are all about movement and which way the energy moves. Sometimes I close my eyes when I actually apply the paint with the brushes.
What are your thoughts about using the grid in your paintings?
RV: I became interested in the grid in the early 1970s. There were times when I would see the grid in the urban landscape and the northern landscape. I studied medical books on visual perception that gave an explanation to seeing grids. I found that these grids were common, especially in nature, like the growth pattern in trees. I found that these grids were common in the way visual perception would happen. When the waves of the electromagnetic impulses enter the eye, they stop at the retina and from there they become an electro-chemical impulse that travels along the optic nerve to the black box in the back of the brain. There is no light back there. When it gets to the back, there are over fifty neuro-mechanisms that operate on this impulse and construct what we see. I started to feel that this must be relevant to certain patterns or an implied grid.
This new exhibition of work seems more abstract than the previous work, but has the underpinnings of landscape. Could you talk more specifically about this new work?
RV: I wanted to take a walk between abstraction and representational work and I wanted to take it as far as I could go. When I look at waves curling and crashing into the stones along Lake Superior, it’s totally abstract, but I often include the suggestion of a horizon line, then it will become slightly more obvious as to what I am doing.
When you look back at your continuum of work, do see where it is going?
RV: I think the work will go forward. I love the freedom of abstraction and I don’t want to know where it is going when I start painting. I think I will continue with this method, and look toward new landscape based abstraction.
Rick Vian’s, Recent Paintings: Gitche Gumee Series continues through December 20, 2012 at the Robert Kidd Gallery.
Robert Kidd Gallery
107 Townsend Street
Birmingham, MI 48009
Ron Scott is a pseudonym for a writer based in the Detroit area. View more articles by Ron Scott.