By Virginia Campbell
Artists who aspire to simplicity in their work have a daunting challenge. The fewer gestures an artist makes, the weightier each one becomes. For landscape artists with a modernist attraction to reducing natural chaos by abstracting the core essence of a scene, the arid architecture of the West’s canyons, mesas, and mountains offers a rich playground. Here, in this stripped-down landscape, so much of the abstraction has already been done. It is a modernist’s dream.
Utah painter G. Russell Case is deeply invested in the mysteries of simplicity, and his native landscape has provided him with an impressive laboratory. “How you go about simplifying is one of the hardest things about painting,” he acknowledges. “It’s like a novel. You have your main character, and then your supporting characters, and after that the more stuff you put in, the more distracting it gets.” In painting, each brush stroke or compositional element signifies a host of conscious and unconscious decisions, and each precludes a host of other possibilities. Drawing just enough of the right detail from the landscape is fraught with enough opportunities to wreck a whole day’s work. “What I like is when I come upon a scene so simple that I actually have to add interest back in,” he laughs. “The point of simplicity is to let the idea come through the landscape.”
There are, of course, many ways of letting the idea come through the landscape. “I’m not so interested in painting technique and color per se, but in spatial relationships,” says Case of his strategy. “Most of what you can say about spatial relationships on a canvas has been said already by great artists. It’s just a matter of going about it in my own way.”
Case’s painting CANYON OF THE COLORADO is a vivid demonstration of the artist’s “own way.” If you had never seen a canyon in real life and looked only at this painting, you would come away with a fair understanding of the essential beauty of this geological formation. Case captures the natural strangeness of it and the intriguing invitation it extends. In the foreground, three Indians on horseback are just entering the canyon, giving a human perspective and scale to this topographical drama. The figures diminish as they descend into geological time, and the shadows encompass them not with darkness but with color. The painting presents a simplified view of what matters about this canyon: bright flatness broken by darker angled depths into which humans venture, moving from superficial acquaintance with the world down into deeper revelations.
The success of this painting relates directly to how unencumbered it is. The colors in the shadows are of overriding interest, occupying over half of the pictorial space. The faded silhouette of the distant horizon quietly frames the upper bound, leaving the viewer’s surrogates, the riders, to orient our visual journey. Here and there a swath of particularly luscious hue stands out to remind us that this adventure has been concocted from paint—a medium as fluid as time itself.
The influence of the early western modernist Maynard Dixon is evident in Case’s work. “Maynard is the most important painter in the West,” Case says bluntly. Though Case was a dedicated painter as early as high school, and was so focused on painting in college that he got through solely by virtue of his art classes (“I scratched by with a D in English,” he admits), he had never seen Dixon’s work until he was out of college. Once he saw it, there was an immediate recognition. “I thought, ‘I know what this guy is doing,’” says Case.
Part of what distinguishes a painting by Case is its palette. “A lot of people comment on that,” he says, “but it’s just a typical palette. The colors aren’t even that expensive.” Protests notwithstanding, Case’s color language has a distinctive look and feel. It could be that much of what is unique in his palette derives from the many years he spent working in watercolor, a medium unforgiving to false steps in either composition or color.
Case’s father was an illustrator for the Bureau of Indian Affairs who became a watercolor landscape painter and taught his son how to paint at an early age. “In high school I had my own studio in the corner of the basement and professional materials to use,” he recalls. “My father was very encouraging, and he helped with framing my paintings, so that I had a sense of the finished product. When I was as young as 15, he helped me have shows at local banks. I was able to sell my work to buy more materials. I remember I sold a painting to my girlfriend. She insisted on paying 20 bucks she’d earned working at McDonalds.”
The habit of making money from painting stuck throughout college and ultimately made Case’s career inevitable. He and his high school sweetheart got married young and quickly became parents. But, he explains, “My wife told me that if I could make $20,000 a year, we’d be okay, and I could continue to just paint. I wasn’t too concerned about being able to do that. The first year I made $22,000.”
The important change in Case’s art came later, however. He was accepted into a two-month painting program in Arizona, his first trip outside of Utah. Two important things happened in that program. First, he started painting in oil. “I was burned out on the watercolor process by then,” Case recalls. “Oil was so much easier and more responsive and fun. Paintings fell together in front of my eyes.” And in what turned out to be a perfect complement to his switch to oil, he was advised by a fellow artist to read turn-of-the-century American painter Robert Henri’s writings
on art. “That transformed my life,” he says.
Henri was an influential teacher and thinker in his own day, and he continues to influence many artists today. Henri’s relevance to Case is evident: He emphasized the importance of overall composition as a key to infusing a painting with mood and emotion; and, more generally, he spoke of an “art spirit” that required both an independent life in the Emersonian sense and a “simple and direct” approach to painting. “Henri was interesting because he didn’t want his students to paint like him,” says Case. “He was intent on something beneath the surface.” All in all, this was a perfect influence on the young Case.
Case’s switch to oil, as well as the increased sense of purpose Henri’s guidance gave him, soon paid off when Salt Lake City art dealer Paul Bingham bought every one of Case’s paintings at a Maynard Dixon Country show. Ironically, Bingham had rejected Case a year earlier without even looking at his work. Now he was making up for lost time. “He acted like I was the best thing he’d ever seen, and he spent money advertising me when I needed it. He did a lot more for me than I did for him,” says the artist.
One of the things Bingham eventually did for Case was introduce him to art dealers and gallery owners in Scottsdale and Santa Fe. “I was fortunate,” says Case, “to get involved with dealers who cared about me, who knew the business and taught it to me, and who treated me fairly.” These secure relationships have allowed Case to follow his own solitary tendencies in the art world. He’s not a joiner, and he’s never belonged to a painting society or association. This may be just another dimension of his preference for simplicity.
At 42, Case is just entering his prime painting years. You can see a mature confidence in his latest work, compositions that are clear, eloquent, and uncontrived. His paintings have that strength of inevitability about them that all good pictures have, but also the lightness of fortunate accident. Case’s description of his negotiations with a canvas suggests how he achieves this distinctive combination of qualities: “I make decisions subconsciously,” he says. “But because I often don’t get what I set out to do, I just shift in the middle of the painting. It’s a lot less painful to do that than it is to stick to your plan and force your way through it.”
Featured in August 2008