The River Laughs While The Sky Cries: A Conversation with Drew Bennett
My appreciation of the American tradition in painting, and specifically painting nature, originates in the mid-19th century movement of the Hudson River School. When I visit a museum and see a work by Cole, Barstow or Church, I immediately think, "Boom! American painting starts here." Then, oddly, I can’t think of another era of American landscape paintings that had such impact. Diebenkorn comes to mind, of course O'Keeffe, and a bit of research into the works of Robert Duncanson and even some Andrew Wyeth is exhilarating . Bay Area-based painter Drew Bennett feels like a revivalist in many ways. His new body of work, The River Laughs While The Sky Cries, on view now at Ever Gold Projects, evokes a reconnection with early American painting, more urgently now as major reflection on how climate change and the pandemic have shaped our relationships with nature. Bennett and I connected a few days after Robert Bechtle passed away, just as another ring of fire was scorching California.
Evan Pricco: I'm not sure what triggered it, but I thought of your paintings when I saw that Robert Bechtle had passed away last week. I know you aren't a photorealist, but there is something real about the world you are trying to capture. Do you think of yourself in the realms of classic Bay Area painters? Do you appreciate that era?
Drew Bennett: I’m very touched by this. When I moved to San Francisco in the spring of 2005, Bechtle’s retrospective was at SFMOMA. That show and that museum at that time in my life sent ripples into my life ever since. Bechtle pushed against the edges of what we can express as humans. In his photorealism, there are full psychedelic freakouts all over the place in mark and palette, they’re just woven into a whisper against the overall effect.
I have massive reverence for all the generations of artists who have worked and lived in the bay area. A year ago, on a 10 day meditation retreat, I saw my art community in this energetic continuum of bay area art generations, like a line of Care Bear heart rainbows. It could have just been an ego fluter, but it wasn’t a recognition thing it was about commitment to the practice of observing and working.
A more tangible answer would be that I’ve been hosting figure drawing in the ballroom of Starline Social Club every other week for the last year or two is a more open and inclusive version of Diebenkorn and Park and the Bay Area Figurative crew doing their weekly figure drawing back in the day.
Would you say this body of work was borne out of the pandemic and our just subconscious desire to be outside and experiencing nature? Because with the wildfires in California right now, your work has taken on a whole new meaning for me and what it means to be outside and in nature.
This work is born out of a very meandering and often lost path that I have been on for over two decades now but the pandemic affected the work greatly. The emotional effect of this year has drained a lot of joy out of me that I would normally use to fuel my practice. It's been challenging but rewarding to learn to work without as much of that joy-fuel. It also makes the work more stoic and lean more in the direction of realism where I would otherwise be more expressionistic I think.
As to experiencing nature and being outside, yeah, all the work is borne out of a devotion to Mother Nature. Painting has proven to be the most fulfilling act I can practice to deepen and strengthen my relationship to nature. The paintings are a document of my active reverence and observation of her.
How do you treat your source material? Do you take photos?
I started plein air and I will return to plein air but there is this journey I’m on with 2D source images that still has my full attention. The source materials vary from my own photos, Instagram posts, movie and tv stills, album art photos, I have this Hidden Valley Nature Bar bus stop ad of a waterfall I’ve been wanting to paint for years now. It still hangs on my studio wall. Whatever the source, the motif is a structural and emotional portal into my own experience with nature and what I want to work out of the painting is a universal portal into the experience with nature.
I have recently begun to explore more of the Hudson River School era, and what always seems to surprise me is that it feels like, in the museum sense, it has taken America a really long time to reengage with nature paintings. What is your opinion of that and I could be way off…
Yeah. Everything I want to say is support of that is so cliche American culture critique… “The worship of independence casts shadows, bro.” My own American-bred insecurities about “pure creativity” and “contemporary art” and whatnot derailed and ultimately froze my core practice for years. Working from nature is all about getting nude and not everyone’s down for nakie time.
Has this direction always been where you thought your works would be heading? Or did our current world draw you to it?
I had always wanted to be where I am now. And I kinda always knew it too but I didn’t trust myself enough, most of that time probably with good cause. But becoming a father kind of woke me up like, “Whoa, this isn’t gonna go on forever, I better make a dash at what matters most to me before this life passes me by.”
Where is your happiest place right now?
Sitting right here at my dining room table answering these awesome questions a bit after midnight.
Drew Bennett's newest solo show, The River Laughs While The Sky Cries, is on view at Ever Gold Projects in San Francisco through October 31, 2020.