Crane was born in the Pacific Northwest in 1951. He moved to New York City in 1976 and studied at the Art Students’ League. Since 1985, he has had three exhibits at the Edward Thorp Gallery and is currently preparing for another show next fall. I first interviewed him 10 years ago in his studio in Brooklyn; at the time, he was working on both cityscapes and interiors, as well as on the landscape paintings which have since preoccupied him. There is a good deal of consistency in what he said then and what he has to say now; proof, if it were at all necessary, of the singularity of his vision and of the ideas which are fundamental to his art.
A superb draughtsman with a keen eye and a highly idiosyncratic palette, Gregory Crane examines his surroundings with wit and dexterity, reminding us, at this late date in the 20th century, that for the artist, observation and technical skill are indispensable, rather than optional, qualities. Here, the subject matter is presented not so much as an exaggeration of reality, but as the heightened features of a personal universe—that which is seen, studied, and translated onto a two-dimensional plane. As with all art of integrity, the innovation lies not in the process but in the execution, in the ability not to fancify the visual world but to completely reinvent it, to create what one critic called, “An otherworldly poem of actual American landscape.”
Simon Lane As an artist, you have stressed the need for observation. But how do you turn that observation into a painting?
Gregory Crane The process begins to get more and more abstract as I translate what I see onto canvas. This translation, or distillation, is the “basic anatomy” of a painting. I’m attracted to nature more for what I imagine it to be. It is my imagination which helps me to translate what is seen onto the canvas.
SL So to that extent you’re putting your personality and your imagination back into the landscape?
GC There is always something in the landscape which serves my imagination. The painting speaks to me at a certain point, as a guide, indicating a way forward.
SL So there’s a feeling that a landscape is coming to life through your own eyes? When you are divorced from the landscape and back in the studio, you’re creating a certain mood which is your own?
GC There’s a mood to it, but on a more comprehensive level, I’m trying to get to an essential reality, an archetype. The painting will start to suggest certain things to me; there is always a building process which consists, in part, of my “notes,” which have become a visual shorthand that I “read” carefully. The slightest gesture or nuance of a stroke will help me to proceed.
SL And what of the obvious transition from a three-dimensional to a two-dimensional plane?
GC That is where the “reality” of it begins. The abstract process of putting what I have seen onto the surface of a painting is the very thing that becomes most real to me. It is a form of “realism” that is based on, or relies on, the abstract.
SL So once you have transformed it into an image, it then has a different reality?
GC It has a more essential reality, based on abstraction—the unreal elements become real through the painting. And that involves much more than mood, it involves an essential light, form, color…I’ll often use parts of the landscape as an index, you could almost refer to it as a “catalogue of events.” It doesn’t have to be a particular place, or a particular time.
SL So you are constructing your own landscape, your own image of nature?
SL In which the forms fit into a certain aesthetic?
GC Yes. They’ll fit only because the painting is an orchestration of elements, or events and place, which is only a part of the greater effect. I enjoy places that I’m familiar with because they give me a certain elemental idea. It’s as if I were confiding in old friends: the great hills of Vermont or the dense forest of the Northwest, where I come from.
SL The landscape becomes, in a sense, your own palette; you’re selecting from it the things which can best serve your vision. You said at one point that “nature can spawn an image that becomes greater than the sum of its parts,” which I particularly liked.
GC One of the most important elements in making a painting is orchestrating the parts toward a greater effect. I particularly like what Max Beckman said, “You can only understand or get to the invisible by a thorough study of the visible.”
SL And how do you actually put that into the painting?
GC I’ll work a certain area until it appears as an “imprint”; not planned but controlled, subconscious, and instinctual.
SL Is this controlled attempt to render the subconscious visible something you rely on?
GC Well, the downside to all this is that two days after a flurry of painting “right off the fingertips,” I’ll notice that a cloud effect suddenly looks like the Star Ship Enterprise and the inspired moment is reduced to a joke: wrong synapse or something.
SL Spaceships notwithstanding, do you have to be able to perceive and portray reality in order to go beyond it?
GC Well, I do believe you have to aim for a thorough understanding of drawing. I can address the painting more directly trusting what I know and knowing my limitations, the human practice rather than just technique. In other words, if you are unable to translate through drawing and painting, if you have a difficult time doing that, then you should think of another form of expression, such as real estate or dentistry.
SL Do you think, in reference to what Max Beckmann said, that we are striving for an understanding of the invisible?
GC It’s not specifically what I’m striving for, but it is something I really count on, something that’s necessary to make the image more than what is just seen. When I’m working on a painting, it has to have a visual power of its own, and so it maintains the illusion that there are things that are not necessarily seen, however subtle that might be.
SL Such as the wind, for example, an elemental force which is only seen by its effect, and which one can detect in many of your paintings?
GC The idea of the wind is a nice side effect; often you will get that illusion simply by a gesture, a stroke. After all, this is not still life. We are talking about something very much alive in nature. If you are out there, viewing it, scrutinizing it, on vigil, then you will start to notice that it is far from static. There is also the time element, it’s not a question of the wind appearing and rustling leaves, this is not the stuff of painting for me. I enjoy it, but I don’t necessarily seek it out.
SL So how do you identify yourself with the landscape, if at all?
GC (laughter) Well, that’s a good one, Simon. Essentially, I identify with it as a means to an end.
SL Were you brought up in the landscape?
GC Yes. I grew up on a small farm in Northwest Washington State. The memory of the area and the time (the 1950s and ’60s) has had a profound effect on aspects of my painting. I regard the direct references to the landscape as a primary experience, almost of “religious” proportions.
SL Do you consider yourself very American as a painter?
GC Completely. I feel as if I could get into that line, that tradition which comes from Ryder, Innes, Blacklock, Heade, Birchfield…up to the present.
SL Other influences?
GC Breughel is right up there and I’d even toy with Bosch. I particularly like Philips Koninck and Hercules Seghers, to name two others.
SL Well, the critics have certainly had a hard time categorizing you. I know that you consider yourself an “outsider”; that you live in Brooklyn and draw mostly from the pastoral world suggests this.
GC Given the time we’re living in it is useless to paint the landscape simply for its beauty or to delight in its pastoral order. It’s really more in flux than anything else, more of a focus for emotion, expression, experience, and memory. Call me a “meta-proto-arch-primal-real-realist,” if you like. Or at least say I’m hard to pin down.
SL Your work tends to be dynamic. Is this an attempt to introduce movement into a stilled moment?
GC Not specifically. The notion of movement is almost vicariously injected into the image, not simply because of the movement of my hand across the surface. I do have a certain handwriting and it comes through. People often think that I am trying specifically to get that across, but I’m not. What I’m really trying to achieve is a subtle adjustment of all the elements. In the end, I don’t want to read the painting as simply a windy day, for example. After all, if you just think it’s a windy day, you’re missing out on the other 90 percent of what’s going on. So to answer your question, it is not really about movement at all.
SL You seem to produce a personification of the landscape, you’re giving it character, your own character, that is.
GC It’s really very much to do with portraiture. I enjoy portraiture, but I am not a “portrait painter,” so I have to assume it through the image, which happens to be landscape; the painting becomes almost a self-portrait, or portrait of the artist as a backyard. It speaks of my personality, body and soul.
SL There is a feeling of isolation in your work. Lone characters, small buildings.
GC Or no characters.
SL Do you feel that we are subordinated by the landscape, that we are small within it?
GC Oh, yes. I’d be the first to admit that I don’t feel particularly superior when I encounter nature. I’ll use buildings to suggest scale or to simply “anchor” a composition, to suggest a human presence. With one of the paintings I’m working on now I’m trying to convey the incredible scale that you can happen to notice at a glance. As for people, there isn’t much room for them in my painting. In terms of scale, they simply disappear.
SL When I interviewed you 10 years ago, you were engaged in painting interiors and figures, and now you seem consumed by the landscape.
GC Landscape for me has become a much more comprehensive arena of events, much more open ended. I have more variation to choose from, or to suggest an identity. Metaphor becomes the driving force behind the painting, making it more vivid, more alive. I would like the painting to be more than just what it looks like.
SL So there is something behind it. Are these the elemental forces you’ve talked about?
SL The invisible, perhaps?
GC Right. If you can see more in the finished painting than just a singular image of the landscape, then you are reading it correctly. It’s emotionally ridden with many parts, a distillation, in effect.
SL Can you say that painting consists of creating and then solving problems?
GC Yes. That’s the essence of the process. The more enjoyment you have with the problem, the more dynamic the painting becomes. I enjoy the problems I create for myself, I can take this idea beyond the simplicity of an equation, closer to the realm of experience; more primal, in other words. The beauty is that you get to invent and reinvent a problem, as long as it somehow furthers the painting. You could almost refer to it as discovering the image after the fact, through the looking glass, the mirror. This has to do with the instinctual.
SL How do you overcome the problems you create for yourself in painting?
GC Well, it’s a long journey, Simon. The start is slow, the middle is characterized by indecision, even loathing for the image in question…
SL …And the end?
GC Pure intoxication.