I quit: Recent Paintings by JIm Condron

The obvious shared feature of several new paintings by Jim Condron is their relatively small size compared to other publicly displayed works by the Baltimore artist. Each of these works is about the size of a book cover, a somehow apposite comparison given the artist's explicit literary references in the past. Working at this scale encourages playfulness and experimentation, and partly for this reason these paintings have the character of milestones on a journey. By limiting the space upon which he works, the artist is required not to do more with less, necessarily – but to imagine more or to imagine deeper into a given space. Large canvasses may be particularly suitable for making bold statements, but working small often means pushing boundaries within.

“Her talk is like my secret writing” (oil on paper on silk, 5 x 5.5 inches, 2013) might inspire a neo-formalist analysis by some latter-day Clement Greenberg, but what enticed this writer was the swirling milk-chocolatey paint laid thick with a knife on paper. It conjured up a sensuous memory, that of sticking my finger into a bowl of buttery cake frosting and licking it off. Truly “sensational” events tend to be channeled deep in our minds, and each of these works by Mr. Condron, layered and built up with paint as they are, combine, appeal to, and play off both the visual and tactile senses.

Mr. Condron hints of his close association and love for books in the ironically titled “I have no time to read” (oil on paper on leather, 5 x 8.75 inches, 2013), in which the painting is mounted on a strip of pebbled brown morocco, for centuries a style of treated leather favored by bookbinders. He builds a dense impasto by mixing and shaping paint with a palette knife or other instrument to create uncertain topographies suggested by ridges and troughs imbued with rich color. The result is like a map representing no geographic location, but a projection instead of interior life, with edges neatly trimmed. There is a sculptural character to the work, and no reading of it seems complete without taking into account the feel of the thing. But therein lies the rub: we don't usually go around handling works of art, though perhaps we should.

Strips of mink fur (re-purposed) frame the third painting, entitled “Could you hate me less” (oil on handmade paper on board, mink; 8.5 x 8.5 inches, 2013). The painting is composed of rough nodes and smooth planes of oils in moody hues of indigo, blue, olive, gold, cadmium yellow and white. These seem to bubble up and erupt from the paper as if sprung from thermal wells, a kind of materialization of emotional life. But there's something else here. At the center, in what appears to be a quiet recess, are a glancing pair of alert, calm eyes in the midst of this chromatic uproar. The eyes appear feminine. They cast a side-long look not at the viewer, but at the world beyond, as though apprehending something invisible to us. To be honest, these eyes may be nothing more than an accident of perception – another way of saying that one viewer, or many, may just be seeing things. But we have a proclivity to see things, like the image of the Virgin Mary on a half-eaten grilled cheese sandwich. (Someone paid lots of money for it!) To paraphrase Nietzsche: stare into a painting long enough, and the painting will stare back. Yet if we want to respect the possibilities inherent in a work of art, and the intentions of the artist, and our own intentions as well, then we are called to respond to them by first opening ourselves to all the vivifying elements of personal experience – our senses, our memories, inclinations, feelings, thoughts. Even the “wrong” ones, the ones that put us on a different track altogether.

- John Waite

John Waite is the owner of John Waite Rare Books, a bookseller specializing in appraisal and/or sale of fine and unusual books of all kinds, autographs, documents, manuscripts and ephemera. Particular interest in the appraisal and placement of archives large and small.


When Here And Now Cease To Matter: Jim Condron's Recent Paintings

There is a lovely painting called Honeysuckle that Jim Condron completed earlier this summer. On a sheet of paper less than two feet square, he works the surface densely to suggest foliage, snaking tendrils, and blossoms, and beyond these he renders earth in dirty grays and pinks and suggests a deep overgrown space with patches of dark blue and black. It is an exquisite evocation of a corner of nature. Somewhat surprisingly however, Condron laughs out loud at the suggestion that he might be a nature painter: “Never did I want to be a nature painter!” he protests. “Flowers would be the last things I'd have said I wanted to paint.” But in fact much of the mazy fascination of Jim Condron's art is discovered not just in the distance between what he intended for it and what it actually is, but in the space between what it is and the words that he feels you can apply to it.

Condron made this picture, like all of his recent work, in the garden that he helped create around his home in the suburbs of Baltimore. It comes from a series of pictures that he calls “Grounds,” denoting not only that they picture flowering groundcover, but also that their subject is what he calls “the ground on which I live.” “I was letting myself wander about the space,” he explains of his painting process, “and seeing if I could get it to read as a flat pattern but still make it possible to move around and into the space. That's what the paintings are all about, really.”

In fact they're actually about far more than that, whether or not he finds it easy to talk about. Because the suggestion of moving into the physical space of his paintings is an eloquent metaphor for what he calls “literally digging into my internal self.” In other words, while he occupies himself with translating natural appearances into paint, this process is simply the platform for his actual, more substantial subject matter.

Condron borrowed T. S. Eliot's phrase “Home is where one starts from” as the title of a recent exhibition, and he explains that, like Eliot, he wanted to suggest “that an internal home is the true content of the work, regardless of the apparent subject.” Then he hesitates, before clarifying: “It's the spiritual … not that that's something we talk about these days.”

Though he says his painting practice makes him feel “not of my time,” Jim Condron is a painter precisely for our times because of his authentic post-modernism. He is concerned not with novelty but with finding in the observation of the external world a sensory equivalent for his own spiritual realities. In this, though he would be embarrassed to have it pointed out, he has a great deal in common with his own artistic heroes. “I admire artists who feel,” he says, before mentioning Monet, Cezanne, de Kooning, and Guston. “They're painters who have conviction, regardless of the time they're working in.”

Reflecting on the role of nature in his art, Jim Condron admits that he is “not the painter that I wanted to be.” We should take this opportunity to celebrate precisely the painter that he is.

– Robert Ayers
September 2010

Robert Ayers is a British-born writer and artist. He is a regular contributor to ARTnews and Huffington Post.

Jim Condron's paintings attempt to access and depict a realm of experience beyond conceptualization. If that enterprise is paradoxical, it is anything but self-defeating, and it both reflects and rewards disciplined concentration.

Condron's work is shaped as much by its refusals as by its affirmations. He dispenses with the often facile ironies that characterize much contemporary art—ironies that, looked at steadily, reveal themselves as symptoms of exhaustion and sterility, of an essentially parasitic sensibility. His engagement with the artistic past—especially with such comparatively recent figures as de Kooning, Diebenkorn, and Guston—is sophisticated but never arch, and he affirms the possibility that applied paint can communicate realities that outstrip the intellect. In their evident mastery of the medium, his canvases are painterly; in their cognizance of the history of painting, they are erudite as well.

A Jim Condron painting always has two subjects: the paint itself, and the experience of seeing, which for Condron is largely an interior event. The figurative subject serves as an occasion to explore the relation between outer flux and inner ground, and hence between change and constancy. The act of perceiving that dynamic—the deeper subject of his work—requires giving up all ideation. Seeing then means experiencing that the inner ground of the subject and the inner ground of the painter are one and the same. But aiming for that sort of ontological depth does not mean giving up beauty; Condron is a superb colorist, with lush palettes and vibrant brushwork. The world as he sees it is a visually sumptuous place.

It is also an inviting place. Condron's paintings display a strikingly authentic sense of space. The obligatory flatness of most modern painting, though it may involve spatial push and pull, seldom allows for the skillful creation of what might be termed participatory space, an area in which Condron excels. Relatively few contemporary painters—John Walker, and Eric Aho come to mind—work in this vein, which goes beyond geometric perspective and draws viewers into an organic cosmos. In Condron's case, the effect is of his having put marks into space rather than on the canvas. In his studies of a weeping blue atlas cedar, the tree luxuriates in space, extending itself in several directions. Around it recede landscapes that one could seemingly walk into, around, and through, but they do not indicate any vanishing point. Space is rendered not geometrically but experientially, and therefore convincingly.

The cedar paintings form one of several series in which Condron depicts the same object over time, mostly en plein air. As with Cezanne's Mont Sainte Victoire or Morandi's domestic tableware, the sequence of canvases allows Condron to preserve the object as a sort of experimental control, so that he can examine more precisely the act of perception, even as he seeks to capture the object in what Maritain would call the act of existing. In a kind of subtraction by addition, the accumulated images convey the sense of a changeless essence discoverable beneath the shiftings of light, color, and form.

But Condron's approach and process, as subtle as they are, would mean little if the resulting paintings didn't resonate with viewers. And therein lies the decisive strength of his work: the common inner ground of painter and figurative subject is also shared between the painting and the viewer. Condron's canvases present more than form, color, and light; they communicate his sense of the energy and space within each of the objects he depicts. That enlivening force endows his work with the sort of vigor and immediacy that escape all but the most accomplished and disciplined artists. A Jim Condron painting is not so much an art object as a transformative experience, one that defies discursive thought even as it engages the history of the medium.

– David Soud

David Soud is a former teacher and freelance writer who recently earned a DPhil in English at Oxford. This blog, a Christmas gift from a thoughtful stepson, is one more arena where I can enjoy writing about people and things that interest me, whoever and whatever they may be.