A year-long sabbatical finally gave Painting Professor Dennis Congdon 75 PT the breathing room he needed to really get into his painting again – so much so that he spent the spring preparing for a New York solo show that opened on June 1 and continues through July 6 at CUE Gallery in Chelsea.
“I’ve been immersed in the work,” Congdon says. “The big paintings in the show are so big that I’ve put everything else – new ideas and drawings – on hold.” Congdon’s longtime friend Stanley Whitney, who curated the CUE show, describes this new body of work – inspired by the artist’s many visits to Rome – as “fresh, bright, humorous and joyous.”
Since winning the Rome Prize in 1983, Congdon began visiting Rome regularly, often as fellow in residence at the American Academy in Rome, which confers the coveted award on emerging artists and scholars “who represent the highest standards of excellence in the arts and humanities.” His experiences in the ancient center for art and architecture have proven to be life altering. Every time he visits Rome, Congdon is struck by the layers of time visible around every corner and down every alleyway. Since the presence of the past first began resonating with him in the early ’80s, he has attempted to capture that connection through his paintings – to “move forward by looking back to the past.”
Congdon believes that the sentiment is best expressed by a passage from Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky: “The most definitive feature of antiquity is our absence. The more available its debris and the longer you stare at it, the more you are denied entry.”
Congdon’s recent paintings break through that barrier, exposing layers of time through both technique and subject matter. “I have used the stencil to put the painting’s armature or sinopia on top,” he writes in his artist’s statement for the exhibition. “The surface is handmade but it is also mechanical. I want that surface to feel inviting and rich but also cool and fast.”
In terms of content, many of the new works include images of Congdon’s paintings (his own personal “detritus”) haphazardly stacked up in the fields surrounding Mount Vesuvius. “One’s own past work is like any landscape in that it is different every time you go there,” he says. “It’s a contemporary landscape, but it’s strewn with things from the past.”
In a sense, Congdon has always mused about time and the fragility of civilization through his work. “We’re here and then we’re gone,” he says. “That impermanence moves me as an individual and as an artist.”
Another powerful force in Congdon’s life is his teaching and the deep joy he derives from interacting with young artists. “Teaching is a calling, as is painting,” he says. “These are acts of love. And they’re not mutually exclusive.”
Congdon sees the professor-student relationship very much as a rich, mutually beneficial exchange. “We open our lives up to the examination of our students,” he says, “but it moves in both directions. It’s a wonderful chance to help them and teach them but also to look over their shoulder. The students are a fountain of eternal youth!”
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