by Suzanne Edminster
I took a two-day workshop with Jesse Reno in Portland recently. In the glare of the plastic-covered hotel conference room, under alarming chandeliers and migraine-friendly fluorescent lights, Jesse led us down the rabbit hole to the place where composition meets dreamtime.
Even if you don’t especially want cosmic floating eyes, bitey teeth, and monsters in your work, Reno’s rigorous approach is compelling. Starting with random strokes of paint applied primarily with hands and a few brushes, he asks the students to focus on what is on the painting surface, NOT a pre-formed vision or an invisible viewer or reviewer. There is no end in sight, only process. Figures may appear and be obliterated. At least two paintings are started simultaneously.
In focusing only on what is there, Jesse asked us to respond only to the immediate and present world of the painting in any stage of chaos. One student asked if doing a particular move–some outlining, I think– would “help the viewer.” “F….. the viewer,” he told one student. Your allegiance is to yourself and the mess on the page. Another student asked if she could cut out the head of one painting and collage it on another. (She apparently liked the head but disliked the rest of the work– the common problem of the “precious” spot that dominates the rest of the work.) He said that she could, but she would be avoiding the problem. The problem is staying with the process through the dark, murky stages where nothing is working, internally or in the painting.
Reno works with only five colors of acrylic paint, his hands, and a few brushes. The limitations provide a framework to contain an extremely intuitive approach. His method is to consider only what appears at the moment, and to spontaneously follow every impulse. In this sense, it feels like meditation, where one loses focus on the breath and continually brings it back. At the same time, a governing aesthetic is in operation, an unusual combination with intuition. Each handstroke produces its own small story, especially as the mind of the painter begins to see figures in the mess. This method has a distinguished provenance; Leonardo da Vinci espoused it, even though apparently people mocked it even in his time, given the slightly defensive tone of his quote.
“Look at walls splashed with a number of stains, or stones of various mixed colours. If you have to invent some scene, you can see there resemblances to a number of landscapes, adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, great plains, valleys and hills, in various ways. Also you can see various battles, and lively postures of strange figures, expressions on faces, costumes and an infinite number of things, which you can reduce to good integrated form. This happens on such walls and varicoloured stones, (which act) like the sound of bells, in whose peeling you can find every name and word that you can imagine.
Do not despise my opinion, when I remind you that it should not hard for you to stop sometimes and look into the stains of walls, or the ashes of a fire, or clouds, or mud or like places, in which, if you consider them well, you may find really marvelous ideas. The mind of the painter is stimulated to new discoveries, the composition of battles of animals and men, various compositions of landscapes and monstrous things, such as devils and similar things, which may bring you honor, because by indistinct things the mind is stimulated to new inventions.”
― Leonardo da Vinci
I find it interesting that da Vinci mentions “monstrous things, such as devils and similar things,” which are often seen in Reno’s work. He mentions composition twice. Composition– and what lies beyond it– has been a recurrent theme for me this year. I can’t know the intent of the original Italian, but it inspired me to look into the root of the word. Compose has some wonderful non-aesthetic meanings: to be composed, be still and calm. The root comes from the Latin and Greek. Com means “together,”, and pose comes from to stop, cease, or to place in repose, a pause, a stop. Each time we stop to bring elements together, and then pause, we have composed. We pause or stop together.
Back to the class. Reno sometimes models or speaks aloud both his aesthetic and narrative process. “I don’t like this, so I’ll try a little green.” “The horseshoe is in the elf’s stomach now.” My experience was that of following traces of soul or dream which emerge through paint marks, a distinct feeling of scouting or tracking. One can follow the trace or lose the track and fall off the road. Sometimes the highway is clear, but often you have to take the machete into the jungle.
When a painting emerges, it has been retrieved by a long and arduous process. It is full of information for the painter. The viewer is on his own. It’s not really about shamans, monsters, animals, tricksters, but about the process by which they emerged— or submerged, or de-composed.
Chicken with cigarette. A narrative emerges, but cannot be forced. And the story changes its ending constantly. Slippery paint, slippery slope, a wild ride.