I met with Hearne Pardee at his studio in the Art Building at the University of California at Davis where he has taught since 2000. Drawings and painting-collages cover the walls. On the floor are boxes overflowing with an unexpected combination of sketchbooks and butterfly collections. Piles of painted, paper scraps drift into adjacent, provisional compositions.
Hearne’s work is focused on the residential landscapes of Davis, California, a quiet, suburban town of single-family homes, watered lawns, street trees, parks and greenbelts. The horizontals and verticals of these environs are visible in much of his work, often reinforced with staccato application of colored paper pieces adhered to the surfaces. Spatiality is frontal, planar and syncopated, tending to operate between the colored cutouts and the painting layer beneath.
Red clay sculptures — foregrounding a painter’s eye for interstices and relationships of form — are also in progress. Hearne picks up a small, fired piece of this sort. Rotating it and examining it from different angles, he tells me he made it when he was a student.
Sarah Granett: What do you think about the word practice?
Hearne Pardee: I’ve always avoided that idea.
Peter Schjeldahl doesn’t seem to care for the word practice. It came out of Postmodernism. In a way I relate to Postmodernism, but I don’t go for the idea that art is disengaged. I’m involved with everything around me. That’s where my work comes from. And “practice” seems clinical. We had a British colleague who said after you get your degree you have your own row of territory which you’re licensed to cultivate. I’m not good at defining boundaries that way.
Practice in terms of doing things over and over again, as a discipline, is not a bad idea.
SG: How would you describe your activities as an artist, in the studio and outside the studio? What do you do?
HP: I combine work inside and outside the studio. I’m really concerned with perception, with observing, through painting on site, which I then combine and edit in the studio. That editing process goes in two directions. One is going in and dissecting the painting by using colored patterns to break up the image or enlarge on it. The other is putting several of these paintings together in a grid, and letting one interact with another to create a composite image. In the studio I’m also constantly observing the effect of one color on another and making changes.
Those are acrylics on paper, but lately I’ve gone back to working in oils, starting a large canvas outdoors — that’s an acknowledgement that the process of observation is at least as important as the one of construction in the studio. But I also work in oils in the studio. Then I’m usually looking at an image to start with, because it gives me an opening. Beyond that my approach is very intuitive. Sometimes I’ll make a pictorial depiction of something, but other times it’s not about the literal picture but about what I feel needs to be over here or over there. This goes back to Hans Hoffman, which is where I started as a student at the Studio School — you started out looking at things — a pile of still life objects for example — and then by breaking down the space, and looking at how things were interconnected, it became a spatialized abstract composition, and after that it could become something else. That’s a basic metaphysical thing you go through.
Outside the studio would also include my work as a writer. I use writing to put my ideas together when I’m inspired by things I see.
SG: Can you elaborate on the basic metaphysical things?
HP: You move from representation through Modernism, with its idea that abstraction is some higher level of reality, and then go on to a further level in allowing another image to emerge. I don’t know if that’s a higher metaphysical level exactly. Right now in all my work I’m asking what does the image need — if frames dissolve, what are the essential visual elements that we want to hold on to? How can it be made crisper and more vivid? Can this be a way to hold on to something like a vanished dream? I’m also working on studies of everyday objects in clay, which is a rather different thing that I’m still developing.
SG: Do you think about rhythm?
HP: Yes, rhythm is the primary thing. The poet Charles Olson says:
of rhythm is image
of image is knowing
of knowing there is
a construct …
When you’re looking at something you’re in the space, and your body is in there and you have movement — which means rhythm and your sense of where things are, and how big and heavy things are. That is where I want to start — with your own body in relation to what’s around you. That’s what I’ve been doing with the series I’m working on now of the track where I go running. I have a very physical interaction with the space, because of my experiences running there. The image comes from that direct rhythmic interaction.
When I begin putting the images together and collaging colors onto them, I get to a construct.
SG: You mentioned Alva Noë’s work. He emphasizes experiential knowledge and thought as contributing to perception. So it’s not only visual. How does this play out in your work as a visual artist?
HP: It confirms my interest in more than just the retinal aspect of painting – in how Matisse and Cézanne go beyond the Impressionist approach, which to me is just a starting point. It makes the visual field more mysterious and undercuts photography’s claim on the truth. I’m curious to push the experience of perception further — I’ve been reading a book on the Claude glass, the so-called “dark mirror” that painters used to compose landscapes, but that’s also associated with other sorts of vision.
SG: How about travel, and your interest in place? You’ve spent significant amounts of time abroad, notably in New Caledonia.
HP: I was always attracted to the tropics, mostly from a love of natural history. Now, I’m interested in how my involvement with the contemporary, everyday landscape plays out in places that are modernizing, moving from a village culture to something more like our own. When I travel, I work on drawings and watercolors, just as I do at home in Davis, California. I’m interested in seeing what that might tell me.
SG: How do you find time to do this work? Because even — or especially — in academia, there are countless factors that impinge on studio time.
HP: Yes, dealing with the day to day things can be challenging. Life is just complicated that way. I try to set aside times while I’m not teaching to develop new ideas. Now, I’m exploring sculptures, and how they may be placed in relation to the paintings. Also beginning to work in oils outdoors, which has taken some planning. Now is a time to prepare so that once I get busy teaching, it will be easier to push ahead.
My teacher, George Spaventa, who came out of the Abstract Expressionists, was one of the last people who new how to model from the figure and make art, as opposed to making an academic study. He used to say, you need some kind of result. It upset him when frustrated students destroyed their works. So even if it might not be that good, I say to myself, well okay, I got to that point, now maybe I can get to something better. And you go on from there. A little bit every day.
SG: Let’s talk about your trajectory, how your work has developed. How did you start?
HP: Well, it took me a long time to get focused. I liked Cézanne. He just went out and painted. And I thought, well that’s all I have to do; I’ll figure something out. But I realized after a while that I needed a more definite plan. That’s when I started doing the collages. Now I’m trying to go back and forth between painting outdoors and collage.
SG: Do you ever go from the collage back outside to work from direct observation again?
HP: No, I don’t. I start another one. One thing that interested me was going back to the same place with a different piece of paper every day, and each day it would come out differently. It’s not the same image, although it’s the same subject. You see something you didn’t see before. This sets off ideas back at the studio.
SG: Are your color chip decisions, which happen in the studio, linked to memory, experience or the acquired knowledge of the site?
HP: No, I don’t think so. I often use the collage to bring in things that seem illogical, to set up a tension. Sometimes I’ll see a color lying around, and wonder what it will do, and put it into the painting to find out. Then sometimes something starts to develop, and the piece starts asking for particular colors. Then it builds itself.
SG: In terms of the trajectory as an artist, are you where you expected to be? Have there been surprises?
HP: I am surprised by connections between new things and old. I’m doing these sculptures now — they take me back to things I was doing in art school that were actually relevant! George Spaventa would set up a still life that we would model from. Once he told me he liked something I was working on, and said there was a oneness to it — these things people say to you that become so influential. So, yes, I still go back to that — it still has to do with getting a oneness. That’s probably as simple as it is.
Another example, starting out I was interested in Cézanne and Matisse. Now I notice that the still life sculptures are really close to Cézanne. Closer than my paintings ever got. My collages are quite different from Matisse’s cutouts, but in a way I’ve brought the two together. Integrating your teachers and influences in unexpected ways — there’s something reassuring about it.
And I’m totally surprised about being here — I never intended to get to California!