Open for Interpretation

by Patrick Flanagan

John Hathorn's Retrospective at the AcA.

I don't know everything about art and I like it that way. It affords me the constant pleasure and opportunity of discovering new work, and exploring new ways of accessing art. Shift your perspective and your reaction to a piece will shift. One way of expanding your experience when viewing art is learning more about the artist, along with his inspirations and intentions. And that's exactly what transpired on a cold and misty January day when I ventured into the studio of John Hathorn.

Walking through pea gravel and plantings, I first notice a koi pond with rippling water. Instantly I feel my blood pressure drop. With a Southern gentleman's warmth and charm (he's an Oxford, Miss., native) John appeared and with hand extended guided me into his studio and his world of paint.

After just a few exchanges, it was evident to me that John Hathorn loves paint. He loves everything about paint. He loves the pigment, the viscosity, everything to do with paint and the process of painting. In fact, I note a tall wire trash can right in front of me overflowing with hundreds of spent paint tubes in homage to that process. I come to the rapid conclusion that this man is happiest when completely immersed in the process of creating a painting.

Upon entering his studio I immediately notice three over-sized paintings on canvas that demand my attention. They are powerful and gorgeous, quiet and sensual. I quickly refocus, asking John about his process (first things first). He enjoys poetry, language, literature, and, it's obvious, nature. Whenever a quote or line in a poem resonates with him, he feels compelled to translate that feeling onto canvas via paint. He rarely finds sketching absolutely necessary, choosing to embrace his intuitive nature. But don't be fooled thinking he simply dives in with no plan of action, haphazardly slinging paint onto a support. Before starting a work, he gives great thought to how he will lay out his canvas structurally, ever mindful of the concept he wants to put forth.

He is meticulous in preparing his canvases, building, stretching and "sizing" them. Sizing is a method used by painters to condition the canvas to more readily hold paint.

Most artists simply apply gesso a few times and are good to go. Not this painter. He usually puts six to eight coats of a polymer medium on the front and a few coats on the back. He likes things done correctly and is very thorough, making sure his collectors get the best quality work he can give them. No short cuts here folks, just pride in craftsmanship and sincerity of purpose.

John is a contemporary painter doing abstract work. He has been teaching at UL Lafayette for more than 20 years, having received his BA from the University of Mississippi and his M.Ed. from Florida State, with a concentration in, what else, painting. He taught abroad on numerous occasions and in 2008 was awarded the Distinguished Professor Award. He has had national exposure through exhibitions at galleries and museums and has been the recipient of numerous grants and awards throughout his career.

One of the large paintings I fell in love with upon entering his studio is from a body of work titled "The Baudelaire Sketches" honoring the 19th century French poet. I bend my neck to read some verbiage written vertically down one side of a canvas, and he is quick to tell me that the words do not relate to the painting in a literal sense but are used primarily as a visual component within the structure of the painting. How lovely he honors and connects the catalyst for a work within the work. Within this series he also pays tribute to certain old world artists he admires (for their use of color and sensuality) and has used these works as a point of departure for his depictions of the sentiments he feels are inherent in their work.

Regarding the piece I loved, "Baudelaire Sketches (Of A Miraculous Plant)," a 78-inch by 72-inch oil and charcoal beauty, my initial reaction was not necessarily to understand its foundation or purpose, but instead allow myself to enjoy its visceral impact. Then my eyes began to dance around the canvas, following John's gestural markings, strokes, smudges and dabs with continued excitement until I landed on thickly applied luscious oil paint. It almost looked like an abstracted partial hand print - a stamp or seal of approval. I see lines of writing although somewhat obscured. I do indeed think I felt what he intended. "Felt" being the key word here. I love it when that happens; it's like your soul just ate a piece of pecan pie.

The "Cardinalis Sketches," a series he has worked on over the last several years, utilizes the color red to express diverse passions such as his beloved poetry, art history, botany and ornithology. Red is also used as a point of departure both formally and conceptually, paying respect to selected artists who utilized the color and successfully captured the sensuality of the human figure. Another series, "The Grammar of Water," explores the properties of water.

John has not limited his work to paint; he has also produced collages and collects curious objects he integrates into his painted works.

He has constructed objects that "contain" his paints, e.g. "Stool with Palette," a wooden stool draped with one of his palettes, tilted and elevated on one leg mounted on a wooden base. He also has worked with stones and wire, forming them into hanging pieces. Though some of his works are diverse, one can readily recognize a unifying element that connects it all into one: commitment to purpose, devotion to expression, and a love of all things of beauty, be they written or painted or both (or floating somewhere in between).

You do not want to miss seeing this collective body of work. It is provocative and poignant. Go and discover your own interpretations. It is indeed food for the soul. I found myself thinking about those huge beautiful canvases as I went to sleep that night. I snuggled warmly into my dreams with a satisfied smile. Thanks, John.

Karen Kaplan is a corporate art consultant, owner of Fine Art Resources and an artist. She believes in a world filled with upheaval and change, and in the importance of individuals taking a bit of time to feed their souls by viewing varied forms of art.

John Hathorn: A Retrospective
Feb. 9-April 13
Main Gallery
Acadiana Center for the Arts
101 W. Vermilion St., 233-7060