Abigail Ogilvy Gallery loves promoting dialogue with our artists to get to a better understanding of the story behind the work. We had the chance to hear from Mishael Coggeshall-Burr about how his studio practice draws on inspiration found in his travels, photography, and even in the routine of tending to his gardens:
Abigail Ogilvy Gallery: What made you want to be a painter over another medium?
Mishael Coggeshall-Burr: It is the best way I have found to express how I see the world, to let my experience of the world flow through me into something new. The act of drawing while simultaneously creating color and form, the control and the freedom of creating from basic ingredients. Oil paint is the best medium I have found to translate the rich tones, colors and contrasts of life from photographs into something so real and yet so strikingly new. I like to work wet-in-wet, mixing color on the canvas; oils generally have a long working or open time, and they continue to look wet when dry which makes the painting more alive and fresh, and easier to work on over an extended period. Oils also have a unique smell/flavor/creaminess rooted in antiquity, a romance and history that I am drawn to.
AOG: Which came first for you: film photography or painting?
MCB: They gradually grew alongside each other. As a student, painting was taught to me in the studio by observation, but I felt drawn to the outdoors: what was happening outside the studio, real life. Photography was a way to step into the role of artist-in-the-wild, snatching up glimpses of reality that would then launch longer studio experimentation. I started to take blurry, cinematic photographs to capture moments in time in a way that mirrored a memory. I noticed how light effects in a blurred photo had shapes that reminded me of brushstrokes, so combining photography and painting into one process felt like a natural step.
AOG: We are suddenly in this age where the photo has such a strong presence in painting. How important is it, for you, to take your own reference photos?
MCB: Essential. I have to have been there, have my own memories of that experience, that is crucial. My creative process is rooted in that sense of adventure you get exploring on foot with a camera, poking into back streets and alleys, country roads and thickets. Each photo becomes a memory, defined by both its physical existence as an image and the emotion it stirs when you see it. Each photo is a coiled spring of ideas, a present to be opened in the studio. I might shoot a hundred frames of one moment and just one might carry the essence of that moment within it--the light, movement, even sounds and smells.
AOG: What is the significance of using the blur to break down these familiar spaces?
MCB: For me, a blurred image concentrates the act of seeing into a kind of “key”, a thumbnail for that experience of seeing that can be saved, carried, put away and rediscovered. The process of painting from that “key” is a reawakening or reanimation of the experience of being there. “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know,” (Diane Arbus). A blurred image, (and the subsequent painting) might be viewed as a greater secret still; but it is this same loss of detail that makes the image more relatable, induces a sense of déjà vu, so the experience ends up being more like sharing a secret, which I think is fantastic. Blur, like dreams, lends itself to interpretation. Sometimes people say things like “I feel like I’ve been there before” even though they have never physically been in that location.
AOG: After you've taken the photos, how do you pick which ones will become paintings?
MCB: Out of a few hundred images I might print two or three photographs with the right balance: inky blacks to near whites, a sea of chromatic grays with flecks of tantalizing color, a dynamic composition. I like to work from the physical object of a 4x6 photograph, almost like a talisman with some mystical quality beyond the chemistry and paper. Like a visual memory, it should be an optical play on reality, indistinct, flawed, and compressed--but beautiful, like a human thought. I love the process of painting from an imperfect image—a translucent layer-cake of memory preserved inside that smooth glossy paper—into something made with my own hands, something with distinct marks that show process but retains the original spirit of the photograph. Working from the defocused photograph is intriguing, challenging. I don’t always know exactly what the objects are that I am painting. Separated by time from the experience the photograph records, I may know it is a scene outdoors, or some sky peeking through trees, but I may not be sure if it’s a leaf, or a person, or even a building. Forms separated in three dimensions have been brought together in two, their forms carved and blended by the lens. Painting in this way takes a degree of faith: it can be a very abstract process until the very end of the work.
AOG: Your work seems heavily influenced by your travels. Does the location of your subject influence the way each painting is made?
MCB: It does during the photography stage. Arriving in a city--for example, Hong Kong--I look for interesting angles to capture the buildings, the light falling or bouncing between them, the city folk going about their day; but this is also a south Asian city built on a rock island, so I look for the intermingling of nature in the nooks and crannies, a mini rainforest in a forgotten alley, a lichen covered buddha unobtrusively placed, bamboo scaffolding, architecture or forms that signal “this is where you are” without giving too much else away. With nature scenes I look for a more diffused feeling: touches of bright color you have to hunt for amongst browns and greens, occasional man-made objects standing out with their orderliness and symmetries, the interesting visual mingling of the wild and the manmade. I majored in physics as well as painting, and my science side loves the camera work, but also the philosophical implications of the blur, the ephemerality of matter, the function of memory. Back in the studio, I approach the photos all the same as my inner critic emerges to examine the treasures I’ve collected. This temporary detachment lets me begin by seeing the images purely as promising visual starting points. Then as I switch back into a fully creative mode and work the paint, it slowly grows on the canvas and in my mind into something different and bigger.
AOG: Do you have a favorite place you have traveled to?
MCB: I grew up in a stilt house built by back-to-the-land parents in a New Hampshire forest; we had no running water, no electricity. The differences with my peers I felt growing up are mirrored when I am traveling--of not belonging, but seeing clearly. Perhaps travel is natural for some artists, those that see the world in that new way that others do only when they step beyond their borders. For me, the most worthwhile travel involves a sense of being off the grid, offline, both vulnerable to--and guided by--serendipity. Walking down the miles of snowy no man’s land road between border outposts of Tibet and Nepal; exploring hollow cement ruins in a Caribbean island jungle; walking the length of Broadway or across Paris in a day. Travel brings out an awareness of details in the mundane, the contrasts and signature elements of a place, a perspective that helps to frame the scenes I am out to capture.
AOG: On average, how much time do you spend on one painting? Do you work on more than one at a time?
MCB: I work on one piece at a time, usually spending anywhere from 10 to 30 hours depending on its size. Once I have started painting a piece it has an energy, a momentum that I do not want to disturb. There is a wonderful quote by Alfred Sisley, “Every picture shows a spot with which the artist himself has fallen in love.” I prefer this, to focus completely, to let the painting take over.
AOG: What do you do when you're not painting?
MCB: My wife and I are raising four young children, renovating an old farmhouse, and tending the gardens, all of which makes life quite full. I also support a college physics department, troubleshooting experiments and building demonstrations: work that I find complements and supports my time in the studio.
View Mishael Coggeshall-Burr’s work at Abigail Ogilvy Gallery on view through August 18th, 2019.
Blog credit: Sigourney Schultz, June 2019