Saturday, March 31, 2012

Bill Acheff: Painting Silence (1981)

William Acheff’s Southwestern still lifes are an effective combination of elegant realism and humble subject matter.  His painting skill is obvious, but the canvases are also imbued with the artist’s love for the objects he paints:  Indian pottery, beadwork, baskets, chiles and old photographs.  This personal concern creates a soul behind the lush trompe l’oeil technique, a soul that was not always present in Acheff’s work.  Before he moved to Taos in 1978, he lived in Los Angeles, worked for an art publisher, and painted paintings that were stiff as their subjects:  marble tables, starchy linens, and fussy, baroque pitchers.  Within a short time of his moving to the region, however, the man made a quantum leap in his art.  Lois Gilbert talked with Acheff at his Arroyo Hondo studio/ home.  “He was warm and generous,” Gilbert reports, “not at all imposing, as I somehow assumed from his paintings that he might be.”

Your paintings appear more real than reality, and I can never quite isolate the particular visual ingredient that makes them look that way.  Is it the lighting?

No, it’s not the light.  It’s a feeling I have for the subject matter.  That’s what I want to paint.  The reason I left Los Angeles was that the culture was so alien; it had no ethnic quality that I could relate to.  The first time I painted a Southwestern still life something clicked, and I knew I found what I wanted to paint.

But your painting actually shows more than what I’d see if I was looking at the objects themselves.  Each little bump in the warp and woof of a woven cloth is individually high-lighted and shadowed.
The longer you look at something, the more you see.  I see all this in the time it takes to paint it.
Where do you get the patience?
I don’t always have the patience.  It isn’t a matter of patience.  More than that, it’s the desire to paint like this.

Even though you’ve already done so many already?
Oh yes.  Until I reach that point of the absolute painting, I’ll keep trying. 

What’s an absolute painting?  Is it like the Great American Novel?
Probably.  It’s something all artists are trying to do.  It’s alive.  It goes beyond the surface.

But they already look alive…
They are, but they don’t fall off the canvas.  I’m not there yet – but I’m on the way.  I have to cross that edge.

I imagined your studio would be covered in Indian pottery and bric-a-brac, with photographs stuck all over the wall, but it’s very austere.
I don’t care to own a lot of things.  I usually borrow the objects that I paint.
Your mother is an Indian, isn’t she?
A half-breed.  She grew up in Alaska, where I was born.  We lived in McGrath, a little town in the middle of nowhere; 125 people and a river.  My father went up there when he was 21, for adventure and wild times.  He met my mother, had three kids, and when he got tired of the town and the drinking and the outhouses we all moved to San Francisco.  It was very different.  I was five and I remember it all.  I wasn’t used to all the cars, and when I saw a television for the first time I wondered how they got all those little people in there.  I liked California. . . but here I am back in the middle of nowhere.

Did you ever actually live in Taos, within the town limits?
Yes.  I used to run around a lot.  I’d stay out all night with the Indians, drinking in the hills. . . singing, too.  But one day I just said to myself, “This isn’t what you came here for.”  So I stopped. 
Why did you come to this area?
I wanted to get away from Los Angeles.  A friend told me I should see Santa Fe, and so I came out here for a visit.  I had heard about Taos, and I was trying to find out all I could about Southwestern art, so I came up here, found a place to live and stayed.

I knew this was the place where it was all going to happen.  The first year I was here I just came down.  I settled in, chopped wood, read books, ran and painted; simple things.  I could feel my nervous system slowing down.  I was getting to know myself.  I knew this was what I had to do, and when I went back to California to visit I couldn’t stand it.

And in February you’re scheduled to be on the cover of Southwest Art.  I guess now you’re ready for publicity?

What do you expect will happen in the next year?
My work will get better, and it will sell as well as it does now.  The prices will double in a couple of years.

What do your paintings sell for now?
Average?  $3,500.  I sold one recently at a closed bid auction for $6,700.  My record is $11,500. 

Why don’t you increase your prices?
I do, but apparently not enough!  They’re selling as fast as I can paint them.

That must make you feel secure.
Well. . . I don’t base security on finances.  I think I’d be secure if they didn’t sell.  It makes a difference, but. . . there’s always going to be problems.  The more pure I am – maybe that’s not the right word – the more together I am, the easier problems are to solve.  Problems overtake you when you’re weak.

I’d like to ask you something that may be difficult or too personal.  I’ve heard you’ve overtaken gravity.  Can you really levitate?
It’s more like hopping.  And at this stage in world consciousness, many people have learned it.

You really, physically, levitate?  Does it involve drugs?
It’s just technique, without drugs.  You feel a rush of energy during meditation, and you go up and come down with a thud.  And if other people are around, everyone bursts out laughing.  But meditating is the important thing, and that is simply deep rest.  The levitation sutra, or formula, has been around for years, and is one of the final techniques you learn in transcendental meditation.  The levitation is proof that you are transcending.  In meditation you bring your awareness deep within, and when you practice sidhis, or word formulas, you’re training your thoughts to think at that level.  So your thoughts are more powerful and pure. . . at the source of God.  So, in daily life, your thoughts and true desires are more powerful, and fulfillment is more likely.  Meditation also releases stress, which makes your perception clearer, and strength is the result.

What is your technique?
It operates on sound.  A teacher gives you a mantra (chant), most conducive to your physiology.  You know how sound has power:  a certain tone can break glass, and another can make you feel peaceful and settled.

And once you’re settled, what happens?
You’re transported.  It happens automatically.  The mantra just takes you away.  If you’re reading something and you don’t like what you’re reading, and you hear beautiful music in the background, before you know it your mind is over there listening to that music.  Your mind is always traveling, looking for finer, more tantalizing things.  So the mantra does the same thing – it carries you off.  It’s an effortless technique.  The only effort comes in making that decision to stop what you are doing, lie down and meditate.

Do you settle into a meditative state when you’re painting?
Yes.  A lot of times I’m not aware of what I’m doing, or I’ll have funny experiences. . . Well, not funny.  I was painting a drum once, and I was tapping on the canvas. . . I went sort of blank, and I heard a drum.  I thought something moved on the canvas.  It’s hard to talk about.  It’s just an experience I had.  But a lot of times I’m thinking about other things when I paint.  Sometimes I feel real peaceful, and other times my mind is going crazy and I’m cussing away at something.  It’s not all bliss.

It seems that no matter how you feel, the painting comes out very evenly. 
It does.  The only time I think I would suffer would be if I hurried.  I can’t hurry.

You describe everything meticulously in a painting, yet it seems as if there are also hidden – or invisible – presences.
That’s the absolute, the silence that permeates all things, the soul of all things.  I feel something when I look at objects.  They’re all old, and they all have a story.  If they could talk, they could tell so much!  But I’m the one who’s painting.  I’m the creator.  I’m painting myself, and what I feel about the objects is what emerges.  If I felt superficial about the objects I paint, the painting would be superficial.

Are you ever tempted to paint other objects?
Not a horse running down a hill, nothing like that.  Landscape painting, maybe. The life and dimension I put in a still life, I’d like to put in a landscape.

Do you think you’ll get bored with realism?
No, I don’t think so.  I haven’t reached the whole. . . wholeness of realism.  I’m just under the surface of realism.  There is always evolution, a growth toward more, and there’s no end to it.

I’d like to see an Acheff landscape.
Someday you will.

-- Lois Gilbert, January 1981

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