David Linn takes a risky approach to painting. To begin with, he has a message, and there’s a long tradition of killing messengers. Linn strives to keep it subtle; he leaves a lot of blanks for the viewer to fill in. But it’s obvious his work is allegorical, which both attracts and repels contemporary gallery goers.
All the paintings in David Linn: The Impartial Light, opening today, Sept. 9, at Turner Carroll Gallery are infused with mythic qualities – something that in our age can easily seem oven the-top. Linn brings the dramatic heat of his subjects down a notch by using only brown and white paint. “If these same images were created using naturalistic color, to my eyes they would appear absurd, implausible, or weak,” Linn said by phone from his studio in Elk Ridge, Utah. ”For me color exists as a veneer on the surface of things. It doesn’t seem to go all the way through. I want to strip away that veneer and address the form and substance that underlies it.” The browns Linn uses have the look of toned or antique photographs – they’re strangely familiar, which makes us more willing to accept the symbolic world he presents. His technique is pure classicism. Linn builds his surfaces using underpainting and glazes. His lighting is so dramatic that the action in many of his paintings seems to take place under spotlights.
In And Then I Looked, a steep cliff blocks the path in front of the viewer, yet it is the only place with enough light to see. A wall of rock with vertical fractures glows white, like a frozen fountain, while everything else falls away into impenetrable shadow. Our minds read Linn’s deep darks, built of layers of translucent brown, as empty space. That space directs our attention to the light and the seemingly insurmountable obstacle blocking our way. In the artist’s view, life is filled with the possibility of spiritual evolution, but people often do not want to take the difficult path that leads them to growth.
The ground in many of Linn’s paintings is a talus field, a plane covered with rock debris. A talus field is one of nature’s most treacherous surfaces to walk on. Stepping on one rock can cause others to shift. Boulders several feet away can slip, quickly gathering force, crushing the unwary walker’s ankle or starting a landslide. “My figures are usually traversing a tedious or unpleasant landscape,” Linn said. ”That is how I view mortality – not as a bleak wilderness but a wilderness of unintended consequences.
In The Burden Above the talus field lies far above the tree line. Jagged rocky peaks stretch to the horizon. Wind-swept patches of snow could be a sign of spring or could be years old. Rocks hang from the sky by strings, yet the painting seems filled with peace. I don’t have the sense that those things are about to break loose and fall,” Linn explained. “It is a realm where normal gravity doesn’t apply”
Linn has spent a lot of time climbing to mountaintops and driving across the desert between California and Utah. Some of the things he has seen and felt in those places have become touchstones in his life, reminders that spiritual growth is possible. Above timberline and in places unmarked by trails, there is a temple-like sensation,” he said. “You are in touch with sensations you are usually far removed from in everyday life.”
For Linn it matters little if the thing that becomes a touchstone is in itself a positive event. Often while driving in the desert, he has seen smoke rising on the other side of the horizon. Linn knows the most likely source is the dust generated by large industrial smelting operations, yet, for Linn, the form rising from beyond the known represents life’s ultimate challenge and reward. The plumes of smoke in many of his paintings bring to mind the oil-well fires in Kuwait after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, an association some viewers have mentioned to Linn. But the artist finds the symbol too filled with personal meaning to abandon.
The figures Linn puts into this bleak, dangerous, yet serene landscapes are all self-portraits. ‘‘I use myself as a model loosely” he said. “I suppose my work has to be autobiographical to be authentic, but I intend them to be everybody because of our shared experience.” Linn faces a problem that has confronted all classical figure painters: if he painted people wearing contemporary clothing, they could become dated fast’, if he left the figures nude, they could be seen as bizarre. Linn solves the problem by partially wrapping his figures with strips of cloth, which evokes Renaissance paintings of Jesus raising Lazarus. The wrapping does bring up associations of funerals, Linn said. ”But that is subconscious. The figure is traveling through some aspect of mortality and in the end there will be a spiritual resurrection.”
Many of Linn’s self-portraits involve peril. In At the Abyss two male figures, both self-portraits face each other, leaning over the edges of opposing cliffs. They balance precariously by leaning into a boulder they jointly hold over their heads. “It is a visual conundrum.” Linn said. ”There is no way to get out of that problem unless both figures were to push outward at the same time and at exactly the same rate – and then the stone would drop.” The painting doesn’t show how deep the abyss is. Perhaps the men would fall a short distance’, perhaps they would plunge to their deaths. The serious tone of At the Abyss suggests imminent death so strongly that most viewers probably won’t even consider the possibility that the abyss could be shallow.
“An interesting evolution in my own artistic growth is losing my fear of having other people come up with far better interpretations of my work than I can,” Linn said. “When I was young, I used to think that if people didn’t get exactly what I was trying to say I had failed. But I have come to see that everybody brings something different to a work of art, and some bring something that is more deep and profound than what I could bring. I feel honored that I can create something that allows people to open their own packages in response to the work.”