Woven Tale Press Artist: Barry Masteller
April 11, 2018
"I want my work to always be in flux."
Interview by Jennifer Nelson, WTP Feature Writer
Barry G. Masteller is a self-taught abstract painter and photographer living in New York City and Albuquer-que, New Mexico. He became deeply interested in photography after moving to the Monterey Peninsu-la from Los Angeles in 1970. His photographs are centered around landscape and the figure, often re-worked, post production, into abstractions. His oil paintings meticulously use color and texture, often incor-porating a substrate of cut canvas collage and other elements. His imagery ranges from landscape to non-objective abstract utilizing layers of tonal glazes. Masteller's paintings are in the public collections of The Palace of the Legion of Honor, Achenbach Collection, San Jose Museum of Art, Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, the Palm Springs Museum of Art, Crocker Art Museum, the Triton Museum of Art, and the Monterey Museum of Art.
Nelson: You first became interested in pursuing art as a teenager in Los Angeles. What experiences during this time influenced this decision?
Masteller: Actually, I've always been making and looking at art. Early on, I had two elementary school teachers that encouraged me. I recall doing a painting to represent my school-selected from all the other students' work to hang at the Board of Education in downtown Los Angeles. I was in the fourth grade. Lat-er, I was selected to design the program for my sixth-grade graduation with a painting of mine on the cover; it was silk screened into copies by my fellow classmates. I had seen paintings before-as my mother ex-posed me to some collections in Los Angeles. I had two "uncles" who were artists and craftsman that lived across the street from me. I had a keen interest in what they did and how they did it-one was a package designer and carpenter and the other a watercolorist and bon vivant.
I started painting in oils when I was fifteen. A friend of mine showed me a small, approximately eight-by-eight-inch painting that he made. I remember holding it in my hands and just staring at it for a long time. I was struck by the color, paint texture, and form. It was a painting of a mask. Seeing it and holding it was a epiphany for me-I asked him how I could do something like he did. He said, "just get some paint and do it!" so I did. Once I did, I never wanted to stop.
Nelson: For several decades, you have worked full-time as an artist. Yet earlier, you earned a living work-ing in art restoration and conservation, running your own gallery and representing other artists, and creat-ing a line of hand-carved, gold-leaf period frames. How did you balance the art against your other responsi-bilities?
Masteller: Being a full-time "mud wrestler" (painter) has always been a challenge. I feel it's vital to be in the studio everyday-even if I just sit in my chair and study what I'm working on without picking up a tool. It's being one with the work and the process. I've never separated the other things I do from painting-it's all about the same thing-everything I've done is art related and, therefore, has influenced my painting and my way of seeing. I just can't separate myself into chunks. I quit being an employee as a framer and painting restorer in 1980. It was then that I converted my studio into a full-on-everything space-gallery, frame design, art restoration, and painting studio. My days have always been long and dedicated to my process.
Barry Masteller, Sequence 17, 2018.
Construct photograph on paper on aluminum, 30" x 30"
Nelson: In the Sequence series, you use construct photography to create abstract artwork with vivid colors. Can you explain the techniques and processes of this type of photography that involves painting, as well as the tools you use?
Masteller: When I was living and working in California, I had my work stored in several places. It wasn't until I relocated to Albuquerque that I had it all in one place. I took the opportunity to make a hi-resolution photo inventory of all the remaining work I had. The Sequence series began as a way for me to bring together fragments of my painting history-cropping areas of the photographs of my older work and incorporating them into new and different images. I have always felt that my paintings are like words-each making up a story or a journal up to that moment in time.
The series actually began in 2013 when I started making close-up photographs of several of my paintings. I found the photographs very exciting, but I was unsure how I would use them. I had forgotten about them until I rediscovered some on a computer file I had buried. They were all in 35-millimeter-rectangular format. I began turning them into squares as so many of my paintings are. Filling the upper area of the square with fragments from some of the other close-ups, and eventually moving to the landscape photographs I was currently doing and images from my historical inventory.
Barry Masteller, Insomnolence 4851E, 2017.
Construct photograph on paper on aluminum, 30" x 30"
Nelson: In the Insomnolence series, you took pictures at night and manipulated them to create art. What are the advantages and disadvantages of working at night? And is there a type of camera best suited for this purpose?
Masteller: When I relocated to Albuquerque, I began to re-explore landscape photography. The space I now occupy has huge windows that face north and on a busy downtown street. I would often wake up in the middle of the night from my insomnia, grab my camera and photograph the passing cars, street and signal lights using camera movement, processing the images with photo-editing software. The advantage of working at night is primarily about the light-or lack thereof. My favorite time is just before dawn as the sky turns violet and dark blue. The camera I use is a full frame 35-millimeter. I mostly use it hand-held so that I can get camera movement. My go-to lens is a 15-millimeter diagonal fish eye prime with long, some-times bulb exposures so that I can capture the light in different ways. I use this lens for its distorted effects and it gives me circular images that I can manipulate in post-production.
Barry Masteller, Natural Occurrence 141, 2009.
Oil on canvas, 36" x 36"
Nelson: Earlier in your career, you lived and worked in Northern California where you painted artwork for such series as Natural Occurrence, The Woods, and Clouds Over Sea. How did the landscape inspire you to depict nature, and why did you decide on oil paints as your medium?
Masteller: Some of my first paintings were landscapes, and I have always felt an affinity to it. My abstract work has always been centered on the landscape as opposed to the figure or non-objective. My deeper interest in painting the landscape directly came about through my painting restoration work. I specialized in early California paintings from the late-nineteenth century through about 1945. I worked on literally hun-dreds of paintings that were surfacing during the 1980s and '90s, many requiring major restoration, but many just cleaning and varnishing. I had to get up close and personal with many of them, studying and working on them magnified. I would often incorporate some of the painting techniques into my own work as a way to better understand the processes used and to expand my work both technically and personally. I started out painting with oils and still do. I also work with acrylic and watercolor; they each have their own unique characteristics and each painting kind of lets me know which medium to use.
In 1992, I bought five acres in the country where I built my studio. The acreage was almost completely covered with coastal oak trees, which I have always loved. My view was somewhat elevated and I could see the surrounding hills and valleys for miles. At first, I was painting my abstract work, but within about a year or two, I was interpreting my surroundings and it was finding its way into my work. I didn't start out to make landscapes as I feel that my work is principally abstract. In fact, I feel all painting is abstract. And it's this difference and similarity that I find so intriguing about photography.
Nelson: How has your move to Albuquerque and New York from California impacted your artwork?
Masteller: I'm not sure it has, though maybe I'm still in process. I began to move more into "pure" abstrac-tion around 2010 after breaking away from galleries that just wanted my more representational landscape work. I felt that the paintings were going in a direction that I wasn't comfortable with-I needed to move on in more ways than one.
When I was in New York, I was working small, doing figurative abstractions and collages. The figurative works were interpretations of people mostly from those sitting across from me on the subway. I think it was my way of feeling a connection to humanity that I missed in my work in the country. The collages were inti-mate seven-by-ten-inch mostly cut and torn painted pages from The New York Times.
Albuquerque sometimes reminds me of my years growing up in Los Angeles. It's a city of a million people very spread out and with two major highways crossing from the four directions. The light and climate are similar and very unlike the weather in the Bay Area or New York. When I first set up my studio, I started painting landscape interpretations using cut canvas as a substrate on panels. I think I was attempting to get a feel for this new place, but my work has returned to my more introspective abstraction that I was doing before I left California. So, in that sense, I guess my work is still on the same track, though it has become more formal and I've begun using the grid as a foundation to the forms. The place where I live has metal screens along the stairway and railings. It's in a two-inch grid pattern. I wanted to figure out how I could use it in my painting by painting onto it and pressing it onto the canvas; I gave up on the idea as impractical. But one day, it found its way into one of my paintings and continues on.
Barry Masteller in his studio
Nelson: What's a typical day like for you in your studio?
Masteller: I used to work an eight-hour day, sometimes splitting it four in the morning and four in the even-ing when I was employed. Since about 1980, I just work all the time. I feel like I'm always in the studio as I have two. One where I go around 8:00 in the morning and work five or six hours; I use it to paint, stretch canvas, for woodworking and photography. The other is where I live and do my night photography, comput-er work, and smaller work on paper.
Nelson: How do you see your artwork evolving in the future?
Masteller: I'm just always surprised by the work, I never want it to be static. I don't understand why artists want to be brands or have a consistent look-painting the same painting. I want my work to always be in flux-pushing me in different and new directions. I want to remain focused on abstraction, the process of interpretation and change. How one work affects the next and how my daily life is brought into them as my story and history. Paintings are like time capsules, each one a part of a personal journey.
Nelson: What painters have influenced your artwork?
Masteller: So many did and still do. Rembrandt, J.M.W. Turner, Monet, Daumier, Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Matisse, Picasso, Duchamp, Philip Guston, Joan Mitchell, Pollock, Alberto Burri, Diebenkorn, de Kooning, Cy Twombly.
Essay By Marcelle Polednik
In an age when California landscape painting is less an aesthetic category than a geographical designation, Barry Masteller contemplates the history of this genre and the distinctiveness of the scenery that inspired it. At first glance, Masteller's paintings evade specificities of time and place. Depicting a somewhere that is nowhere in particular, a golden, eternal hour, they are at once transcendent and elusive. This timeless quality, however, is neither universal nor indefinite. Rather, it has its roots in Masteller's sustained engagement with the particularity of his surrounding landscape and the history of its representation.
Since the 19th century, artists have flocked to California compelled by the beauty of its natural terrain and the unique light that floods the soil. The exceptional setting inspired two diverging sensibilities, each one aimed at capturing the rare qualities of the environs. Artists such as William Keith and Joseph Breuer strove to painstakingly and faithfully record the luminous views they observed. Their contemporaries, Gottardo Piazzoni and Xavier Martinez, on the other hand, focused on light as a mercurial agent of transformation and created contemplative, abstracted compositions.
While distinctly contemporary, Masteller's canvases betray the influence of those early pioneers who recognized California's singular fusion of land and light as fruitful ground for a more meditative approach. Piazzoni continually emphasized his concern “not with the external aspect of the landscape, but with its inward life.” The haunting glow that envelops Masteller's landscapes also hints at the mystery lurking beneath the natural world. For Barry Masteller as well as for his historical predecessors, the landscape serves as a conduit to unknown worlds and hidden dimensions.
Tall and wiry, round and sensual, or angular, trees are the protagonists of Masteller's paintings. In The Woods series, rows of trees silhouetted against the burning sky transform the landscape into a contemplative interplay of light and form. In other series, such as Clouds over Sea, the sky itself takes center stage. The linear, horizontal bands of distant sea and clouds break over the middle ground, revealing billowing, recognizable cloud formations. Abstract color fields give way to the physical world. Rather than focusing on land, these landscapes explore what can be seen from the earthbound perspective. Though firmly grounded, the paintings soar to new heights.
Masteller's works remind that paintings not only represent but also exist as physical landscapes. They reflect a keen understanding of paintings as three-dimensional terrains, formed by sedimented layers of pigment, binder and varnish, and built up, like geological formations, over the course of time. Rather than a weighty, physical presence, however, the works exude a lightness more befitting of a mirage. The ethereal brushstrokes that hover on the surface of these canvases enhance the insubstantial quality of the apparitions. The painstaking method with which Masteller applies the paint to canvas, the delicacy of the forms and the subtlety of the deep, sultry hues invokes the jewel-like tonalist surfaces that haunt his compositions.
Barry Masteller's paintings offer a provocative challenge to the notion that the past brilliance of place California landscape painting has dimmed in recent decades. Light burns intensily, albeit wistfully, over the expanse of his canvases.
Marcelle Polednik PhD.
Director of Collections and Exhibitions, Monterey Museum of Art. Currently Director of the Milwaukee Museum of Art.
Enigmatic Urbanscapes: Barry Masteller's Boulevards
by Donald Kuspit
Is there a precedent for Barry Masteller's beautiful, haunting
boulevards? We see the same moody elegance in Gustave Caillebotte's Paris, the Place de l'Europe on a Rainy Day, 1877--the same brooding isolation, the same grandly empty spaces, for all the figures that inhabit them.
Masteller's cities are 21st century New York and San Francisco, and his lights and darks are more cunningly balanced than Caillebotte's--the dark clothing of his 19th century figures hardly makes a dent in the hazy luminosity, while the strong radiation from Masteller's luminous windows locks horns with the darkness (their interaction conveys the tension of the
city, hidden by its deceptively bland geometry)--but they have the same strange spaciousness: a peculiar mix of seemingly infinitely extending straight streets and the claustophobic intersections--deceptively broad, open spaces--where they converge.
Caillebotte's place and Masteller's boulevards are equally grand, but the boulevards are much more complex--not to say dramatic and disturbing--than the place. The Parisian buildings and umbrellas are curved, fluid structures, with an ornamental flair, the American buildings are bleakly rational--facilely functional rectangles, with the wrap-around Bauhaus-style windows that confirm their basicness. Whatever curves appear, as in the sidewalk of Boulevard 53 and the pipes of Boulevard 54, both 2005, or ornamental patterns, as in Boulevard 46 and Boulevard 47, both 2005, seem incidental to the matter of fact look of the scene. Masteller's light softens hard American cities, more the products of mechanical engineering than imagination, while Caillebotte's light brings out the softness of the Parisian surfaces, giving them an imaginative expressiveness.
But in the end Masteller's New York City and San Francisco are much more uncanny and fantastic than Caillebotte's place CityParis. Caillebotte observes a scene, but Masteller invents his scenes: his pictures are abstract constructions that convey the strangeness and alienation of urban life even as they suggest the larger enigma of representation, hinting at its problematic, uncertain character. Masteller is a conceptual painter: he unites fragments of the urban environment--carefully chosen from a repertoire of photographs--to create a kind of picture puzzle, that is, a representation that conveys the unreal look of every convincing representation even as it precisely realizes reality. The empirical is subsumed in the enigmatic, making for a sense of uncanny truthfulness, however factually bizarre the picture finally seems. Boulevard 44 and Boulevard 45, both 2004 convey this doubleness--the sense of the unfathomableness of reality that emerges from excruciating attention to its detail. What Masteller finally represents is the uncanniness immanent in space--space whose uncanniness becomes manifest because Masteller has lived its contradictions. These are evident in the at-oddness of the buildings and streets, and above all in the clash of light and dark. There is a hint of latent violence in Masteller's Boulevards, for all their apparent calm.
I think Masteller's urbanscapes are a breakthrough. He has previously been known for landscapes, influenced by Monet, as he has acknowledged. His trees have a glowing intensity, his clouds a peculiar impenetrability, for all their ephemerality. Masteller is clearly a master observer of atmosphere, light and dark, natural form, and their interplay. The results are solemnly harmonious pictures. But in the urbanscapes this facade of harmony is broken, nature is no longer the scene, and there is a sense of disruptive, even demonic power. Perhaps Masteller has discovered himself through his experience of the city.
The innocence of the landscape has certainly disappeared. No apologies for haunting beauty; it remains credible, despite the attacks on it by different modernists, among them Duchamp and Newman. Beauty conveys the esthetic conviction that is the core of art at its most intimate.
Donald Kuspit is an art critic and a professor of art history and philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Kuspit is a contributing editor at Artforum, Sculpture,and New Art Examiner magazines, the editor of Art Criticism, and the editor of a series on American Art and Art Criticism for Cambridge University Press.
Ecstatic Reserve in the Work of Barry Masteller
By Dominique Nahas
The shimmering bimorphic forms of Barry Masteller's landscape paintings predominate the artist's work. This is not to say that Masteller has ignored urban scenes or the use of hard-edged geometry. In his Boulevard series, for example, the artist has arranged city streets and apartment buildings, along with the silent movements of silhouetted Hopperesque people seen through store or apartment windows, to create a sense of community and isolation. In another body of work entitled Moon Sequence the artist has gone out of his way to investigate geometric repetition by painting naturalistic scenes as sequential events. We see the differing position of moon and stars over varying dusky silhouettes of trees in Moon Sequence 6 (2004), for example, where an entire image consists of nine panels stacked vertically in sets of three. In Moon Sequence 2 (2003) the artist lays out, predella-like, a horizontal ordering of three small panels. When read from left to right the work creates a narrative of shifting perspectives of land and night sky, as if we were viewing several frames of a film at one time.
Deep vistas of land, water and sky, however, are where Barry Masteller finds his essential voice. His sensory landscapes, all imaginary, are immediately identifiable through his signature use of saturated colors such as auburns, crimsons, browns and ochres. The varying light effects in his work recall the glowing effects in the works of Rembrandt and Turner, the charcoal drawings of Seurat, as well as the early-century California Tonalists.
To achieve his chiaroscuro effects the artist uses a light, delicate touch in which brushes and rags are used to apply pigments and washes as well as to wipe away wet areas of the canvas. Mark making and image-formation and spatial tension, therefore, are created as much by accretion as by reduction. The essential drama that Masteller suggests through his deft use of light is cyclic: perpetual emergence and dissolution from gauzy indeterminance into anticipatory consciousness. His paintings, irradiated with light, are seemingly at a standstill, mysteriously elusive and ecstatic. In the works, the suffused contours of our world as we know it are present but they seem wholly other, as in Earth and Sky 479, (2003). This is not surprising, as the artist's indwelling worlds --- not inhabitable by man - appear to be undergoing deep-rooted, slow change.
Masteller wants us to participate in his intensified perception of objects and the space around them, in the transcendental sublime. His image making compels us to take stock of primary dimensions of sensible phenomena, which open up and then dissipate into the realms of invisibility and the hidden. These immanent fields of possibilities, paradoxically, seem to rise up from within the earth itself, confronting us with an outward sense of harmonious fullness which seems to close in on itself, as in Earth and Sky 470 (2003). In a mid-ground of reflected water there lies a concealed reserve of time and space which pulses secretly throughout the artist's work, often punctuated by the silhouettes of round-shouldered trees, as in Earth and Sky 498 (2004) which serve as surrogates for the human form. This imagistic play is clearly not so much a depiction of the actual physical world held in suspension as much as a reflection of the painter's varying states of mind.
Barry Masteller's ongoing Earth and Sky series asks that we reconsider, in pictorial terms, what we take for granted. When we see a horizon line shimmering in the distance of his bucolic scenes we are not meant to train our eyes and thoughts solely and exclusively to time that is to be but also to be aware of hidden realms within his work. Subliminally, we join a dimension of absence, which is literally grounded in the artist's work, as we consider the terrain that lies below the mounded earth in the foreground, expressed as unseen. Similarly we become slowly aware and marvelously compelled by a sense of the unknowable in the area which lies beyond the horizon in each of his paintings --- implied but undepictable regions of time and space --- made manifest through the suggestion of aura which permeates the earth.
Wonderment regarding the hidden face of the order of things seems to preoccupy Barry Masteller. He captures that feeling in his paintings. In his notes he writes: “ With the passing of the years I feel a greater connection to the earth, especially to light and the way the physical world responds to light with illumination, reflection and emanation.”
Dominique Nahas is an art critic and independent curator based in Manhattan. He is also a regular reviewer for Art in America and the editor of d'Art International