The sum of experiences

By Aaren Madden, January 2015

Jeremy Herndl’s landscape paintings push visual representation into a multisensory realm.

When working en plein air, the painter contends with many variables. Among them are wind, weather and the shifting light of the sun. These things inform not only the composition, but the nature of the oil paint which creates it. 

“If it’s plus 30 Celsius, the paint is thinner and more slippery. I put some paint on [the canvas], and if I want to put more paint on top, it sort of drags through and blends with it. But let’s say it’s a cold day, like today. If I put paint on a canvas and I wanted to paint over top of that, because the paint is thicker, and more viscous, I can just paint wet over wet without moving the paint underneath,” explains Victoria painter Jeremy Herndl. It informs the painting process and, to the careful viewer, offers clues as to conditions in the space when painted. 

Rain can also be an opportunity, since its tendency to bead off oil paint can have intriguing results. “I have dragged paint through the rainwater on the palette, and then painted onto the canvas and sometimes it will sort of slide over where there is water, then stick where there isn’t.” Once it has dried, the evidence of time and place remains and offers a sense of immediacy to the painting, a phenomenological fragment that adds to the whole. It becomes yet another component of Herndl’s greater fascination with the multisensory nature of representation. 

“I think we are accustomed to seeing, say, a landscape or scenery as a moment or a capture, but my specific interest is trying to make a painting of the sum of appearances,” he offers, immediately asserting there is more to it than that: “There is also the experience of being in the space. Then you can avail yourself of the fact that what you hear, what you smell, the relative gravity and humidity of the place, the temperature, all of those things influence your perception,” he says. 

So does the passage of time. Herndl painted “Pond” over the course of three days in Francis King Park, letting the changing environment find its way onto the canvas. There is no shoreline nor foreground to orient the viewer, just overhanging branches and reflections of trees and sky in water. It shimmers with highlight and shadow, verging on abstraction. “Here it was dark at first, and then I saw light,” he says, indicating dappled sun on the right side of the canvas. Foliage that flits between dark moss and acrid green show Herndl’s response to the changing light in a temporal conflation that communicates his experience of the space over time. Delightfully, the windy day—the viewer might imagine the clouds sailing overhead—is depicted not just in the colours of paint, but in the choice Herndl made to let bits of cedar, flung by the wind, remain where they landed in the thick paint.

For Herndl, the painting itself is a way of creating empathy for the space; not just visually representing it, or entering into an experiential dialogue with it, but becoming that space by reigniting the multiple conditions present over time: the rain, the wind, the stillness, the feel of the paint, the solitude or bustle contained within, the warmth, the chill. “I am not really interested in the project of paintings,” he shares. “I am more interested in the project of painting. If I make a good painting, the viewer gets to have that experience of space that I had. My son calls them short movies, the good ones, because they kind of shimmer; they kind of move; you recognize it as a picture but at the same time it implicates you as physical space,” he says. 

“Hopefully the viewer will get this vicarious sense of the space,” he adds, as the painting itself becomes the artist’s experience of the space. “The space and the painter coalesce in the painting,” he suggests. “That’s what representation is to me.” 

Herndl will further explore his ideas around representation in January, along with four other artists (Todd Lambeth, Rick Leong, Neil McClelland and Jeroen Witvliet) in the group show “Realities Follies” at Open Space. Curators Lynda Gammon and Wendy Welch will highlight how, “through the practice of painting, the artists in this exhibition, each in their own way, are re-presenting and interrogating the meaning of representation, and in turn, questioning our ways of perceiving reality.”

Clearly it’s a deep interest of Herndl’s. He has been painting for 25 of his 42 years, and though he began by exploring notions of experiencing space, he moved away from them for some time. “I always wanted to go back to painting outside because I always felt accountable to that,” he says. After studying at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax and the Ecole Nationale Superieure Des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France, he worked as a scenic painter for a company based in Calgary, travelling to fulfill contracts as far afield as Tokyo. He then embarked on a one-year self-directed residency in Poland, then returned for one at the Banff Centre for the Arts. Wishing to be near family on the Lower Mainland, where he was born and raised, he attained a Master of Applied Arts at Emily Carr University in Vancouver. For the past few years he has been living in Victoria with his wife and two children and teaching at the Vancouver Island School of Art. Winchester Galleries carries some of his work.

Here in Victoria, Herndl can fully explore his original interests. This city offers intriguing spaces, both urban and natural, though he prefers to make no distinction between the two: “We are not distinct from nature,” he states, “we are it…human spaces I find really interesting because they exemplify this intertwining, this intersubjective mix of things.”

“Mason Street Farm (Lounge),” painted over a week’s time, exemplifies this. The same collapsing of time is evident as in “Pond.” Leaves on a fruit tree are at once cloaked in late day shadows and bathed in pink sunlight. Impasto leaves invite touch, if not taste. Chairs, doors, a fireplace, hanging towels indicate human activity, but the ghost of a jug on a table indicates its fleeting nature. The jug was placed there one day for a short time and then removed.  “I acknowledge it but don’t get into it too much,” Herndl says. “I am trying to paint this mutability.”

Herndl is attracted to this urban farm, and shares his plan to start another painting there on a December afternoon. “I like the anarchy of what the people do in the space: being self-sustaining, growing organic food in this prime real estate in downtown Victoria,” he says. This January at Open Space, it will be among the multisensory experiences of place offered up in Herndl’s paintings.

 

Jeremy Herndl’s work, along with that of four other Victoria-based artists, will be part of Realities Follies at Open Space, January 9-February 21. 510 Fort St, 250-383-8833, www.openspace.ca. Realities Follies opens Friday, January 9, 7 pm. The artists and curators will meet in a panel discussion on Saturday, January 17 at 2 pm.

What with its quick, intermittent whisking of cloud and sunlight and ability to recreate the landscape in mere minutes, Aaren Madden finds this blustery time of year particularly thrilling (though perhaps hard on the plein air painter).