Anyone who loves painting is probably familiar with the term “a painter’s painter”. It is a double-edged sort of a phrase that can be both praiseworthy and back-handedly disparaging at once. On the one hand, it suggests a skillfulness so subtle and specialized that only another practitioner of the same art would be equipped to appreciate it. At the same time, there is a sense that this kind of specialized quality is, at least commercially, a disadvantage. The painter’s painter is a bit like that breed of Jazz musician whose self-directed, exploratory focus on the form rules out any consideration of the listeners’ desires, tastes or expectations. This does not prevent such a player from making music that is appealing to others, but rather it places the cart of his or her satisfaction with the outcome of a performance ahead of the horse of public or critical opinion. Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk come immediately to mind as examples of the musical type. Albert York, Rackstraw Downs and Vija Celmins paint from a similarly independent spirit.
Artists who fit into this category can be found across the whole sweep of time and are, when compared to one another, more alike than different. As students, we are taught by our art history professors to lump kinds of painting into movements, isms, groups or schools, as if such pigeon-holing were the whole key to evaluating or appreciating their achievements. It is true that epochal styles and movements arise when groups of artists are subjected to a common set of cultural conditions; it is also true that an artistic movement can become the aesthetic hallmark of an age. But this commonality within schools is misleading. A close examination will, as often as not, reveal great chasms of difference between any movement’s individual members, just as closer affinities can be found between artists of vastly different types. For example: the French painters Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and Édouard Vuillard are more like one another than the enormous stylistic divergence from 18th century genre painting to the early 20th century Nabis, to which each artist respectively belonged, might otherwise suggest. Their similarity is not one of kind, but of temperament and spirit. Their pictures share an intimate, meditative, domestic sensibility that transcends the superficial differences of their styles.
There are two painters living in northern California today — Jennifer Pochinski and Gage Opdenbrouw — who, at least to this painter’s eye, merit the title of painter’s painter. They are not part of a movement, do not live near one another, and though glancingly acquainted, are not close friends nor the common members of any particular group or school. Pochinski grew up, at least in her formative student years, in Hawaii. After school she married, and finding no support from a husband who disparaged her art, moved with her two young daughters to Europe, where they lived for many years, only to return to the US when Jennifer was in her 40s. She lives in a modest bungalow in a tough neighborhood of Sacramento, painting in a converted garage in the backyard. Opdenbrouw is younger by about a decade. He lives in an industrial strip along the Oakland / Alameda estuary in a renovated factory loft. He has, until recently, partly supported himself as a carpenter.
Both these contemporary California painters share a superficial resemblance to the iconic Bay Area Figurative movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. Because of this they tend to be critically identified as members of a second generation of that school. While this is an understandable comparison to draw, it nonetheless glosses over the deeper differences in their respective approaches to content. The Bay Area Figurative artists grew out of a response to the dominance of the Abstract Expressionist painting coming out of New York in the mid-20th century. They used recognizable human and urban landscape subjects to pose a countering formal language that was still driven by Modernist ideals and aesthetics. Pochinski and Opdenbrouw came up in a period when PostModernism’s culturally critical philosophies dominated American painting — especially in the New York-centric northeast — to much the same degree that Modernism’s formalism did in the 1950s. Their pictures reach out for a more personal, experiential and direct sort of observation that is unburdened of the domineering theoretical cant of our artistic age. In this respect, they more closely resemble the Impressionists than all those later, more formal movements of modernism. They are seeing the world and rendering an impression of it that is clearly representational, but also expressionistically liberated from the dogged literalism that some of the more neo-classically oriented realist movements have been attempting to reassert of late. Both Pochinski and Opdenbrouw are pure painters whose robust, gestural mark-making issues from the shoulder rather than the fingers.
None of this is to suggest that either of these painters is uninterested in culturally challenging content, or in the exact philosophical positioning of their ancient art in the present technologically dominant world of computers, smart phones and the nascent robotic dystopia so many of us fear.
Pochinski’s portraits are powerful assertions of the unruly reality of her individual subjects’ identity and humanity. They are physicallybeautiful objects which yet describe the often unpretty disjunctions and awkwardnesses of the human condition. She is, of course, especially conscious of and sensitive to the emotional experience and strength of her female subjects — wresting away the traditionally objectifying impulses of the much maligned “Male Gaze” and imbuing the ancient tradition of depicting the nude female form with the authority of personal ownership and a power that is yet willing to acknowledge all womens’ implicit vulnerability.
Conversely, her portraits of men reveal them as the also vulnerable, sometimes sensitive but too often bullying and fearful creatures they have always been. Man and women in Pochinski’s art are thus leveled and treated with an even-handedness that perhaps hopes for the more balanced co-existance we should all aspire to, but which is so seldom achieved.
Opdenbrouw does something similar with the landscape. He is more of an impressionist than an expressionist, more a renederer of emotionally charged observational records of things actually seen, places visitied and remembered in paint, which are somehow simultaneously predictive.
He does all of this without falling into the potentially compromising picturesque traps of the genre. If he paints a scudding Constable-like cloudscape, he yet maintains some gritty sense of the broken and vulnerable character of the earth and its systems here in the early 21st century. His architectural views are shot through with vestiges of ruined and abandoned spaces that can sometimes suggest a world left behind after humanity has exited the stage and nature has slowly begun to reassert its older orders. In this way he calls the whole hubristic, self-serving narrative of the technocratic age into question.
Opdenbrouw’s figures, unlike Pochinski’s, which are so vital and immediate, are somewhat ghostly apparitions which portend, much as his landscapes do, a world in which humanity has run out its clock and is now only a memory — like a faded photograph of a family of strangers relegated to a yard-sale shoebox.
Neither Pochinski’s nor Opdenbouw’s work screams out to be noticed or praised for their buzzworthy gimmickry, as so much contemporary painting does. They are quiet, thoughtful reflecters of our world’s most subtle and genuine complexities — lovers of the material and character of paint who reference the medium’s long history while yet maintaining complete clarity about the here and now.