Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

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  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Landscapes of John Rhett

~Sally Amthor

The landscape paintings of John Rhett are meaningful vistas of apparent simplicity. They capture the atmosphere of a specific place in a very specific moment, as seen by the angle of the light and the shape of the foliage, the color of the sky and grass. One is drawn into the very spot, as though gazing on the land, the farms, or hills during a walk down the road. In fact this may be the best approach to these paintings, according to Rhett. They are neither didactic nor manipulative in their effect on the viewer. “Much in contemporary art is issue-oriented,” says Rhett. “Mine is not. Mine is not about beauty or truth. It is about inscrutability. The inscrutability of God, the inscrutability of nature, the inscrutability of art. Nature doesn’t lecture, it is mysterious. It is sometimes benign, sometimes harsh. It does not explain itself, but as a creation of God, it can sometimes offer me a glimpse of Him.” When encountering nature, most people do not feel the need to quantify or dissect its effects on them, but are content to merely experience it. Yet artists are often subject to a torrent of demands for answers, for explanation, justification, and rock-solid truth. But art is not a machine, nor is it a moral referee. For this reason Rhett’s description of his landscapes makes perfect sense. In his artist’s statement, he quotes Jed Perl in “The Art of Seeing”:

[People] have ceased to believe that a painting or a sculpture is a structure with a meaning that unfolds as we look. This endangered experience is not a matter of imagining a narrative; it involves, rather, the more fundamental activity of relating part to part. We need to see particular elements, and see that they add up in ways that become more complex—and sometimes simpler—as we look and look some more.

Rhett says of his paintings: “I study the landscape without a preconceived notion of the final image. This approach involves not imposing on the subject, while hoping an unforeseen yet essential aspect will manifest itself in the work.” This is risky business. Every time a painter sets out to paint in this manner, he is forfeiting control in order to gain a more substantial freedom, a freedom that can only result from the artist’s openness. In this way a painter might feel as though he is “playing” with the paint, with the elements of his creation. But it is a profound sort of play.

This plunge into the subjective experience of a thing, this yielding to the essence of a piece of art in order to comprehend it, is a way of dealing with the world quite differently than that of mathematics or science. It is a different way, but it is not inferior. Art requires a different kind of intelligence than the recitation or depiction of facts or figures, but it is intelligence nonetheless. The best art “does not lecture or preach,” according to Rhett; “It maintains an intriguing silence before our best attempts to unlock it. In that way it becomes simliar to nature. It does not reflect the surge and swell of human machinations that eddy around it. Like a tree, or a boulder, or weather.”

At the same time art can be quite literal. It can contain truth, present a factual representation of the world; but it does so by different means. Rhett’s landscapes are based on actual locations, but the process and result of his painting is more than simply an iteration of fact. Rhett describes his process as an open-minded exploration.

I decided to take my painting to the most basic level I could think of, short of a child-like paint application. It was simply to paint what I saw. I often recall a quote that Franz Kline reportedly made to his students: “…where you see blue, put blue; where you see green, put green.” I am aware that such an approach can be looked at as either hopelessly naïve, or, sublimely elemental. My body of paintings is based primarily on such an idea of keeping a ‘simple mind,’ to see what emerges.

“To see what emerges” is one of the great adventures of an artist. It can become the meaning of an entire work, as the painter discovers what the painting is, not by studying it or interrogating it, but by experiencing it—allowing it to develop and his view of it to grow as it takes shape on his canvas.