David Grossmann paints magical, minimalist landscapes
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
This story was featured in the January 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art January 2014 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
David Grossmann can still recall his first experiences in an art class—the sights, sounds, and scents that wafted through the room. He was only 11 and growing up in South America when his parents enrolled him in a painting class at La Casa de Cultura in Curicó, Chile. Grossmann remembers how the floors creaked and the classroom smelled of kerosene, turpentine, and linseed oil. The air often seemed like it could burst into flames at any moment. The kerosene space heater sputtered and tried hard but rarely produced much heat. And on winter days the top of it was sprinkled with lemon peels to mask the smells. The words of his teacher, who painted large, expressionistic works thick with paint, echo in his ears to this day: “More paint. More paint, David.”
And then Maria Elsa Gonzales would demonstrate on his canvas. As soon as she turned away, Grossmann quickly scraped off her bold brush strokes and replaced them with his more timid,
Today Grossmann still has that independent streak, and at only 29 years old, he has already developed a distinct visual voice. Rose Fredrick, curator of the annual Coors Western Art Exhibit and Sale in Denver, which opens this month, describes his paintings as ethereal. “I don’t often get this excited about a new artist’s work, but when David brought six of his latest paintings to my office, I was blown away. I invited him to the Coors show right then and there,” Fredrick says.
Likewise, when Grossmann stopped in to Matthews Gallery in Santa Fe last spring to show his work, owner Lawrence Matthews immediately recognized that the artist had a unique vision—one that is increasingly rare to find these days, he says. Matthews agreed to represent him on the spot. “David has a great sense of color that reflects the natural world’s palette but doesn’t imitate it,” Matthews says. “His brushwork is marvelous, informed by his plein-air painting, so the texture of the painting’s surface reflects light in a way that enhances the overall work.”
Ask Grossmann to describe his work, and he says he hopes that it evokes a sense of “visual poetry.” Like plenty of other landscape artists, he recoils a bit if viewers label his landscapes as pretty. “The word just seems to trivialize the years it has taken me to get to this point,” Grossmann says. “But I know that people often don’t have a concept of how much work it takes.”
Creating a landscape work can take Grossmann from 20 to 60 hours, depending on its size and whether it’s a studio or plein-air work. Just preparing his Baltic birch panels involves repeatedly applying layers of gesso and sanding the surface after each one. Although he may be painstaking in his creative process, he is hardly boastful or grandiose about his early successes. He seems genuinely surprised and honored to have been juried into the Coors show and to have sold 30 paintings in the past few months. Indeed, he is much like his landscapes — calm and thoughtful. As he puts it, “I tend to be quiet and introspective. I think my paintings tend to be that way, too.”
These days the painter makes his home in Pueblo, CO—his family returned to the United States when he was 14. But, he says, Chile has both shaped him as a person and continues to influence his art. Growing up in Chile’s fertile central valley, his family frequently took road trips around the country to the desert and sometimes to the awe-inspiring Andes Mountains, where summits can reach 20,000 feet. “The dramatic landscape of the country gave me a deep appreciation for nature, for the beauty of mountains, and it began my love of exploring the outdoors,” Grossmann says.
Grossmann’s parents were Christian missionaries in Chile, and as a youngster he was home-schooled, often preferring the company of his sketchbook and pencils over the company of people. To this day he enjoys solitude. And to this day he feels rooted in two cultures. When people ask him where he is from, he has a hard time coming up with an answer. Perhaps that is why, when it came time for college, he chose a double major—business for practical purposes and Spanish because he wanted to feel connected to a part of his past that he had lost.
However, after earning his degree from Colorado State University, Pueblo, Grossmann realized that what he always wanted to be was an artist. He soon moved to Boulder, CO, and enrolled in a classical art academy that taught students in the European atelier tradition. Although the academy emphasized portraiture, a plein-air painting class with artist Chris Groves became a turning point in his career. “Something in me came to life when I was painting outdoors that never came to life when I was inside painting still lifes or portraits,” Grossmann says. “I felt free and unconfined. I could rearrange anything I wanted, whereas with portraiture I had to be absolutely exact.” He adds that a tree doesn’t mind if you rearrange its branches, but people may mind if you rearrange their faces.
When the academy folded suddenly in 2008, he signed up for a six-month mentorship with Colorado landscape painter Jay Moore. Moore’s style of teaching suited Grossmann. Moore didn’t go out on location with his students or try to change their style. He stressed that he didn’t want students to produce carbon copies of his own work. For Grossmann, his mentor’s advice and critiques gave him the courage to pursue his dream of becoming a fine artist. And through the mentorship, he developed the ability to simplify compositions, zero in on a focal point, and capture a sense of place.
Today, such simplicity is evident in his magical, often minimalist, landscapes—reed-thin tree trunks illuminated by a splash of late-afternoon sunlight or a trio of deer in a barren, snowy landscape. For Grossmann deer are symbolic of the quiet and solitude he finds in the forest.
Grossmann relishes creative experimentation, although he qualifies the remark by adding, “Every painting is an experiment.” In CLOUDED SUN AND BARE TREES, for example, he is experimenting with the concept of minimalism—discovering how much he can leave out of a composition and still have the work hold together as well as be engaging and interesting. It’s a fine line to walk but, for him, a necessary one.
The painting SO TALL is the result of another experiment. Grossmann says he wanted to capture the enormous height of a grove of trees, so he experimented with a new painting position. Instead of standing at his easel, he sat on the ground with his back against a tree and craned his neck skyward, so he could see and paint the entire length of the tree. By the time he finished, he had a stiff neck, he recalls. But he was rewarded for his efforts; the landscape won Best of Show at a plein-air event in Breckenridge, CO, last summer.
Grossmann has spent much of the past few years traveling around Colorado, painting and sketching the state’s natural wonders and wildlife in all seasons. But there are certain places he returns to again and again, such as the Wet Mountains in southern Colorado. “I keep returning there because the trees there feel like friends. When I visit them, I watch how they have grown or fallen, how they look in every season. That is one of the places I go to find that elusive sense of belonging.”
He also admits he has a favorite season and subject matter: autumn and aspen trees. “Autumn is the most poignant season because of its brevity,” Grossmann says. “It is when life feels most fragile and transient. The colors in the trees and the fallen leaves remind me how brief life is and how quickly it changes.”
Last October, on his final painting venture of the autumn season, the thermometer was already down to 20 degrees when he arrived at Colorado’s Sawatch Range, a narrow strip of the Continental Divide. The yellow and orange leaves would soon turn to brown and fall to the ground. The journey yielded the painting SCATTERED YELLOW LEAVES. Grossmann wrote about the experience, as he often does: “The cold seeped into me as I painted, washing through me like the thickening layers of fog that crept over the surrounding forest. Despite my aching toes and numb fingers, I realized that there was no other place I would rather be than here in this cloud-filled forest. It was one of those beautifully unexpected times when the changing seasons lay siege to the landscape and held it captive in stark and quiet force.”
As this story was going to press, Grossmann was preparing for three major shows in 2014. Fall had given way to chillier November weather, the leaves had dropped to the ground, and he was hard at work in his studio creating works for the busy year ahead. When asked what he hopes to convey to viewers in these works, Grossmann replies, “I hope to convey the sense of wonder that I feel when I am outdoors. It is when God feels closest, and when my wanderer’s heart feels closest to peace.”
Featured in the January 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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