Tag Archives: Baroque painting

The Lebowski Cycle – The Supper at Emmaus

Supper at Emmaus (After Caravaggio) • Joe Forkan 2006-2009 oil on linen 96"x 38"

This painting is based on Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus from 1601, which illustrates a dramatic moment from the story of Jesus’ resurrection. I was interested in Caravaggio’s take on the story because of his depiction of the moment of discovery, when the disciple’s “eyes were opened”, and for his symbolic use of the still life to reinforce the central idea of his painting.

Supper at Emmaus Caravaggio 1601 Oil on canvas 141 cm × 196.2 cm (55.5 in x 77.25 in) National Gallery, London

The symbolic references used in the paintings of this time period are somewhat obscure to us now, it is still clear from looking at the work that each figure, element, and gesture was an important consideration in the presentation of the story, all subsumed into the final image. One of the qualities that I most enjoy about narrative painting is that there is a clear story to be presented, but the specific events of the narrative give you great latitude for formal, conceptual or expressive shifts and digressions that can set a different tone or shift the story’s implications.

In my painting, I was looking to create a kind of visual and narrative tension between the figures, the dramatic space, and the still life, one that is suggestive of a larger narrative, and that hopefully moves beyond the specifics of the Jesus story, the Lebowski story, or the Caravaggio story, but retains a shifting, if uneasy relationship between all three, in addition to where I am trying to go with the content and the formal elements.

Detail from the Supper at Emmaus • Joe Forkan 2009

I hesitate to be any more forthcoming about my intentions for these paintings, in that I don’t want to set a specific read for anyone else. Painting is, after all, a language of its own and in this regard, I will let the paintings speak for themselves.

This painting was one of the most complex of The Lebowski Cycle. Its scale was daunting (96″ x 38″ / 243.84 cm x 96.52 cm), with 3 main figures that are slightly over life-size, and a deep space that I wanted to paint in a specific way. I wanted the background to be largely empty, but not in the way that Caravaggio’s paintings are empty, through the use of chiaroscuro (the contrasting effects of intense light and deep shadow). I was looking to represent space and to convey a sense of light and shadow through the relationships of large color shapes, rather than using a more dramatic recession into shadow.

This painting will be included in the Laguna Art Museums exhibition The OsCene 2010 –  Contemporary Art and Culture in Orange County from February 21st – May 16, 2010.

The Lebowski Cycle – Process: The Supper at Emmaus

Supper at Emmaus (After Caravaggio) • Joe Forkan (in progress) oil on linen 96″x 38″

Unlike most of the paintings in The Lebowski Cycle, I started The Supper at Emmaus using an indirect painting method, and worked up the image as a grisaille.

In the early stages of this series, I made a trip to Europe specifically to look at narrative paintings and Baroque era masterworks. I spent a lot of time with Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus (which is currently on loan to The Art Institute of Chicago). Many of the master works that I am referencing used indirect painting methods, and I was interested in employing this method to develop a strong play of light and shadow in this painting.

Process images from The Supper At Emmaus • joe Forkan 2006-2009

I worked up the main figures, the still life and the basic shapes of the background entirely in low contrast, high value gray and white, and then developed the figures from there with glazing and scumbling. However, I wanted the space to be defined more by color relationships than by the value relationships that tend to define space in Caravaggio’s work, so the space was built with more contemporary notions about color in mind. The ideas of Hans Hoffmann, Josef Albers and Albert Munsell, tend to inform my use of color in general (although painting from nature is always the best teacher).

The painting underwent considerable changes, especially in the background and foreground areas, with thicker applications of more opaque paint, although many areas are still handled more indirectly.

There is really no way to accurately identify in sketches and studies how color relationships will actually read once they are translated onto a large scale painting, so there was a lot of trial and error in the process of defining the space of the room in relation to the figures.

Two studies exploring direct and indirect methods based on The Coronation of the Virgin by Diego Velazquez • Joe Forkan 2001

It’s can be difficult to talk about painting techniques in isolation from the ideas that one is using the techniques to express.

At play in the paintings are the differing sources, stories and visual references, seriousness and humor, and a wide range of possible readings. These are subtle relationships that direct the evolution of the paintings, but everything is expressed through the language of painting, and the language of painting is also part of what I’m trying to talk about.

So the work grows based on the dynamics between these elements, rather than a march towards some premeditated notion of what the finished painting should look like. Sometimes that means the process ends abruptly, or months of work are obliterated and begun again. It may not be the most efficient system, but this approach does let the paintings evolve beyond their initial conception. I have seen painters who plan their work, and then basically start at one corner and work their way across the canvas, and once they hit the far edge, they’re finished. I’ve never had much success painting that way.

Detail from The Supper at Emmaus • Joe Forkan 2009

My early teachers always stressed working paintings up all at once. The idea was that everything is in play on the canvas, and each mark affects all the relationships throughout the entire piece.

At that time Neo-Expressionism was all the rage, so rough drawing, emotional color, and violent mark-making were de rigueur. The studio was more boxing ring than laboratory or atelier. Painting was to be done on the balls of one’s feet. It was a struggle and an endurance test and the smell of modernist, two-fisted Action Painting still hung heavily in the air.

Even Hans Hofmann’s famous “push/pull” theory, concerning “the visual tension between forces and counter-forces” in a painting sounds more like a wrestling move than an art theory. Push. Pull. Attack the painting. Charge the image. Lots of action verbs.

I like this physical approach to painting, but at the time, much of it was directed towards the production of very aggressive political paintings, which I wasn’t much interested in making. (I was a political cartoonist at the time, so I already had a place to grind that particular ax).

Many of those formal strategies have remained a part of my process, and I do think that this all-over approach can lend coherence and life to a painting, (and the studio still feels like a boxing ring some days).

An example of a more physical approach to painting from 2002 • Arcadia Joe Forkan

It’s probably not the easiest way to engage a body of work referencing old master paintings with believable figures in believable space, and I did dial it back a bit for this particular painting. There were still some dramatic changes in the process, however.

Part of the appeal of this work for me is trying to build compelling images out of the collision of so many ideas and methods that seem at such cross purposes.

I love this Chuck Close quote about painting from an interview he did with Charlie Rose:

“Painting is one of the most magical of mediums, maybe in my mind, maybe the most, because it transcends its physical reality. You know, its just colored dirt, on some cloth, wrapped around some wood strips. It makes space where there is no space, and it conjures up images from life experience. You know, paintings can make you cry, and its just colored dirt. If you think about sculpture, sculpture occupies a real space, you can move around it, and relate to it the same way you relate to this table …but a painting is a magical window, and it’s just the most fun to play around with and build these things out of colored dirt”.

The Lebowski Cycle – The Death of Marat

The Death of Marat (After David) • Joe Forkan 2008, oil on linen, 96″ x 58″

Begun in 2006, The Lebowski Cycle is a series of paintings exploring the idea of layered narratives, using masterpieces of western art and the 1998 Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski as a starting point. Much of my previous work is figurative, dealing with memory and perception, and walks a line between representation and abstraction, but still I struggled with the idea of making narrative paintings. Film and television have largely overtaken painting as the mediums for narrative approaches, and contemporary painters have largely focused their attentions elsewhere.

Yet I have still found myself moved by paintings that depicted grand story arcs, compressing into a singular image a multitude of thoughts, ideas and emotions. And it wasn’t strictly the stories that interested me. Actually, when looking at narrative art from the Baroque era in particular, I am often more interested in the internal complexities of the images than the specifics of the story represented. The human interaction and conflicts, the formal qualities and modes of depiction give the paintings great breadth and depth and can continue to engage the viewer’s interest over time.

These were challenges I wanted to engage in my work. The formal and conceptual possibilities seemed enormous, but only if the narratives could remain mobile, and the paintings weren’t trapped in a singular reading.

Death of Marat David 250

Death of Marat Jacques-Louis David 1793 Oil on canvas 64 in × 50 in Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels

I began thinking about The Big Lebowski, the 1998 film by Joel and Ethan Coen. In writing the film, the Coen brothers began by constructing of a labyrinthine narrative worthy of a Raymond Chandler novel, and replaced the traditional hardboiled detective character with an aging pothead, turning a genre on its head. This gave them great storytelling possibilities, playing off of and to the conventions of the genre (as well as the conventional take on aging potheads). I’ve always loved this film for its humor, its preposterous story arc, rich visuals, and the way the entire story is played so absolutely straight by the actors.

The film became a screen upon which I could project ideas from a wide range of sources and intensions. By combining narratives, themes, and titles from well-known works of western art with scenes from the film, and ideas and approaches from contemporary art, I found a rich repository of images that informed, overlapped and contradicted each other; ideas to alter, splice together, reconfigure, and run back through the language of painting.

It’s an engaging process. Each painting of the original twelve is at least 72 x 40 inches, painted with oil on linen. My desire was to have the paintings read as a body of work, and I knew that the paintings would diverge stylistically if painted sequentially, so I decided to begin all twelve of the original paintings at once. Four are now completed, the other eight are about 90-95% completed.