Thursday, October 13, 2011

Artist Interview with Oil Painter Larry Leach (Part I of a Two Part Series)

"Mama's Sunrise"
Larry Leach
Oil on Canvas
54" x 68"
When I decided to expand my blog to include interviews with other Texas artists, Larry Leach immediately came to mind.  Though Larry resides in Georgia now, I met him while I was a student at Lamar University in Beaumont.  I had drawn my whole life but never really studied art formally.  At that time I was undecided about my path in life.  As a child I had dreamed of being an artist, but the “real world" seemed to believe that art isn’t a job.  After a couple of years spent bouncing around different majors, I finally enrolled in a drawing class.  I had never drawn with charcoal, and I didn’t know anything about Larry at the time, but I immediately felt at home in his class.  He has a genuine and easy going demeanor and a true passion for art that’s infectious.  He saw my potential and soon became my first real mentor.  When I visited his studio in downtown Beaumont it gave me a glimpse of what it was like to be a working artist.  When I saw his paintings at the Harris Gallery in Houston and later in his one man show at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas I realized that art can be a career.  When I expressed my doubts about earning a living to Larry, he told me “First you get good at something you love, and then you figure out how to make money doing it.” Larry Leach has managed to do both.

For the past 30 years or more, Larry Leach has painted the landscape.  His is a world mostly devoid of people, a world in which light and color interweave with memory to create their own history.  He is widely praised for his ability to fuse mark making and depiction.  His works are as much about the act of painting as they are about the landscape. 
Paintings by Leach hang in several museum and corporate collections including the Brevard Museum of Art, the Alexandria Museum of Art, the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, LSU, the Moody Center, and the Kaiser Aluminum Corporation.  He has also received several public commissions from the Florida Art in Public Buildings program.  He has had numerous one person exhibits throughout Texas, Florida, and Georgia, and is currently an outreach artist for ColArt America.
When I approached Larry about the interview he responded with enthusiasm.  As always he was extremely generous with his knowledge and his time.  His responses were so thoughtful and informative I’ve decided to break the interview into two parts rather than cut it short.  Here’s part I of the interview, and Part II will be posted on Friday, October 14, 2011.
"Late Afternoon Light"
Larry Leach
Oil on Canvas
54" x 84"
What's on your easel right now?
I'm working on two paintings right now and both are near completion.  The larger one is 54" x 68" and as usual, I hang it on my studio wall while I'm working.  I like the white wall that it's resting on.  It’s the same as the gallery or museum wall that it will be shown to the public with.  The smaller work is on one of my easels and is about 20" x 30."  Both paintings are part of a continued theme that I started in the early 1990's when I was in Texas: the image of the untainted or primeval landscape with the search for early morning or late afternoon light which drags across its surface. 
Where do you draw your ideas or subject matter from?  I know you have worked quite a bit from memory.  Do you ever paint on location or use photographs as references? Do you keep a sketchbook?
My ideas come from my collective past which includes being raised on a rural and isolated Louisiana farm.  My favorite pastime was roaming the woods with my dog and a sketch book.  This still is my base for conceptual growth, aloneness with nature, a love for the craft of my materials and a respected consideration of the history of art. After this my ideas come from working.  One work begets another.
I paint from memory, watercolor sketches and in a lot of cases from invention.  I don't rely on photographs.  The act of painting is important to me and therefore my painting at its' best gets the feel of a particular motif but resides somewhere between abstraction and realism.
I always loved your studio set up in an old bar in Beaumont.  What’s your current studio space and setup like?
Five years ago, my wife Sheila and I built our home/studio in rural Georgia, not far from Savannah in the middle of 21 acres.  The structure including a loft has about 5000 square feet which is divided between the living and studio area.  The studio area has about 2500 square feet.  The center of the room has a height of 16' which slopes to each side down to twelve feet.  Sheila and I share the working space.  So my painting wall that the 54" x 68" work is on is 16' high and 16' wide that drops from the center of the room.  Though the 54" x 68" work may seem to be getting on a large scale, it seems small on this wall which is designed for me to be able to work much larger if I need to.  I have palettes with rollers that can shift around where I need them.

"Sampson's Island"
Larry Leach
Oil on Canvas
54" x 68"

We used to talk about George Inness and Cezanne and their influence on your work.  Can you talk a little about the artists and movements that particularly affected you?
Technically, I probably have been influenced by Cézanne more than anyone.  Specifically his working method of building the surface through a series of laminated glazes with a constant addition/subtraction process.  He used only a one size round bristle brush, whereas I combine the palette knife with #8 and #10 Flat hog bristle brushes.  I employ his use of warm/cool colors to attain weight and depth and like him do not rely on traditional Chiaroscuro.  The effect is that depth in my paintings lies somewhere between the "window" (illusion of depth into infinity) and the "wall" (flatness). I do employ more linear perspective than him.  Like Cezanne, I want the image to be parallel to nature and not a copy.  Cézanne also did watercolors on site and sometimes used them as guides in the studio.
The viewer of my work will probably see a closer connection to Inness.  This is because of similar themes (early morning and late afternoon dragging light).  A year or so before his death, he worked for several months in Tarpon Springs, Florida.  This whole area of West Florida is fairly flat.  Inness and later I and other artists have enjoyed the late afternoon dragging of light and the shadows off the live oaks which are native to the area.  Inness was a leading artist connected to the Hudson River School.  He was specifically influenced by Camille Corot.  Inness would impart Corot’s Barbizon Romanticism to his own work and like Corot, was primarily a studio painter.  Corot called his work "souvenirs" (memories of the landscape.)  He would also use watercolor to help him with his imagery, although one of his best friends did photos of most of the sites where Corot painted.  The main thing Inness got from Corot was the overall unified tone of the painting.  Therefore Inness and the third generation Hudson River school were known as "tonalists".  If you look at Corot and the other Barbizon Artists, you will always see a cow, a person behind a tree, ducks, etc.  Inness continues this with his work.  I depart from this poetic sweetness as you will never see a duck, human or anything but the pure landscape in my work.
Others who have a considerable voice in my work have been Monet with his series of paintings (28 haystacks) where the subject matter really becomes the light and his interpretation through his color and process. Also with his later large works, there is a feeling of entering into an environment and there is no focal point, no beginning or end.  Like Pollock’s' work, the drawing becomes inseparable from painting.  I abandoned the focal point in the middle 1990's and my whole body of work since has become somewhat of a series and part of an environment. 

"Island Counterpoint"
Larry Leach
Oil on Canvas
20" x 20" each

In 1995 you had your first museum exhibition in Beaumont, TX at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas.  I was struck by “Padre Island Counterpoint”, your grouping of forty 20” x 20” paintings of the Gulf Coast.  What led you to explore the idea of repetition in your landscapes?
These were meant to be seen collectively as one work, but also could be seen autonomously.   This idea was from others of course.  Jennifer Bartlett had just done her series of 250 enameled 12" metal plates in NY that were exhibited as one piece.  Some of the minimalists (Judd) also used this idea of repetition.  My friend Salvatore Peccarro from San Francisco showed me his 12" photo/silkscreened panels from a photo of the sky taken each day of 1992.  There was the obvious passage of time within this huge overall work. 
Since my initial series with 20" x20", I have produced over 900 20" x 20" paintings and have exhibited and sold as many as 60 at one time that were always placed 4" apart.  These are all over the U.S. and a few places overseas.  I have since used the idea on other scales (20" x 92" in repetition, etc.)  Besides other artists concerned with repetition, probably the main continuing influence is from Beethoven and his use of what he calls "counterpoint".  He would have a 28 minute composition with autonomous elements within that would lend themselves to the overall musical score.  Therefore, I usually name my repetitive groupings "Island Counterpoint" or something similar and the individual painting will be #1, #2, etc. from that particular counterpoint grouping. 
Paul Brach, who lives in New York and writes for Art in America, said: " The "Counterpoint" groupings is a lyrical exploration of the light over the ocean or an open expanse of beach: hung in series, the eye as it moves up, down, over and back has a sense of Proust's ephemeral time.  Seen as a totality the work has an ebb and flow like the ocean and time itself". 
"Beach Grass Series I and II"
Larry Leach
Oil on Canvas
96" x 30" each
Part II of my interview with oil painter Larry Leach.

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