Gregg Hertzlieb on Richard Loving: Watering System
Richard Loving (b. 1924)
Watering System, 2008
Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 inches
Collection of the Artist
Richard Loving is one of Chicago’s premiere artists. He taught at the School of the Art Institute for more than thirty years, and his art has been featured in countless museum and gallery exhibitions nationwide. His recent paintings, more representational than the abstract or nonobjective pieces that constitute the major part of his body of work (characterized by dashed linear forms and mostly unmodulated color areas), were the focus of a major exhibition at the Brauer Museum of Art from December 3, 2010 through March 20, 2011. These newer paintings are indeed “views of an inner world” as the exhibition title indicates—while they are full of images of trees, flowers, and other landscape elements, they are still imaginary constructs that depend on viewer recognition of components while urging viewers to allow their imaginations to transport them to tranquil and poetic worlds of beautiful color, where birds and waterfalls exist in a compressed, stage-like space. Loving’s painting Watering System from the exhibition is a particularly complex work that dramatically shows the artist’s masterful use of color and ability to transform a generally familiar scene into something full of magic and wonder.
Loving mentioned that he was inspired to make this painting when visiting a friend and seeing the friend’s sprinkler system watering a grove of trees on the friend’s property. The jets of water all suddenly operating at once impressed Loving as an interesting sight, the formal appeal of which the artist captured in crisscrossing, centralized passages of white brushwork leading the eye deeper into the landscape. The lushness of the depicted vegetation and unnaturally vivid color bands on the sides of the picture, however, move viewer attention and focus past the literal nature of the landscape into a symbolic or metaphorical appreciation of this water-nourished grove. Generalized ideas of fecundity and growth literally take center stage, as the land teems with leafy trees, flowering plants, and the rich greens and oranges of spring and summer.
Tree forms more fully rendered in the central area of the painting become silhouetted, sketched, and abstract as the water streams leading back and through the center simultaneously and paradoxically lead the eyes outward to call attention to the aforementioned broadly colored left and right edges. Loving’s landscape thrives because of the watering system, but the artist reminds the viewer through wonderfully poetic pictorial means that the painting itself thrives, grows, gains in substance through the nourishing or feeding streams. Consider the earth in all its visual splendor and metaphorical opportunities seemingly projecting fountains of possibilities for the sensitive admirer, and painterly passages manifesting the artist’s wonder are the result, giving rise to a work of art where inspiration itself before natural beauty is the primary subject. A sight of a watering system offers a watering system for the mind’s eye, with the artist sharing his reflections on the processes that led him, that moved him, to create and meditate on creation.
The tension or dance between representation and abstraction, between transcription and invention, extends conceptually to the plants on the floor of the grove, again simultaneously and paradoxically specific and generalized. The birds too are recognizable as such, but their particular species is unknown and beside the point—they are truly characters in a narrative about dynamic growth in a place, as well as about personal expression across the breadth of a pictorial surface. The discarded beer can speaks to veracity or the truth of a place as it was found, while it also calls viewer attention to a spoiler in paradise. The image of the discarded can is a visual flourish to perhaps make the depicted scene seem less Edenic, more vulnerable like the artist himself who at times feels in touch with a divine spirit but can ground himself in reality through humor and recognition of frailty or a temporal nature.
Hovering over and beyond the watering system is a curved and glowing horizon that operates with the side bands of color to create the stage-like, confined space of the painting. The horizon offers a limit at the same time it visually hints at limitless space. The curved line is the delineation of the horizon but can also perhaps be the lower edge of a descending planet, with light and clouds moving across the atmosphere of its vast surface. The small orange orb just above the horizon in the center can be the distant sun that illuminates and warms the grove, or it could be a moon passing between the landscape and the descending planet.
Perhaps this faraway shape can represent a world within a world within a world. Parsing out such an enigmatic statement can offer an enjoyable challenge if one decides to take that challenge, and Loving’s beautiful paintings, Romantic in the historical sense of the word, certainly encourage contemplation and an imaginative grappling with the rich mysteries they present.
Gregg Hertzlieb is Curator and Director of the Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University. Hertzlieb is the editor of the books The Calumet Region: An American Place (Photographs by Gary Cialdella), published in 2009, and Domestic Vision: Twenty-Five Years of the Art of Joel Sheesley (2008), as well as a contributor to The Indiana Dunes Revealed: The Art of Frank V. Dudley (2006). He has been awarded the Edward L. Ryerson Traveling Fellowship by the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and a Conant Writing Award for Poetry from Millikin University. His artwork has been exhibited widely, including at the Aron Packer Gallery, August House Studio, the Central School of Art and Design in London, Columbia College, Elgin Community College, the Goodman Theater, and Struve Gallery.