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Bringing It Home

East Aurora
Bringing It Home
A talk with Philip Koch, resident artist at the Burchfield Penney

Among the perks and privileges of the largely honorific job of Burchfield Penney Resident Artist is access to the gallery archives, including some 25,000 Charles Burchfield artifacts. Finished paintings and sketches, and notes in notebooks and on the backs of envelopes and other scrap sheets. Burchfield wrote as much as he painted. “But what I’m especially impressed and gratified to see,” current job holder and landscape and nature artist Philip Koch said in a conversation, “is the number of preliminary drawings he made for the finished watercolors.”

Koch said when he started out, his artistic training rather scanted preliminary drawing. But it’s since become a mainstay of his artistic practice. He said he began as an abstract painter—his artist hero at the time was Mark Rothko—but eventually found “that wasn’t enough. Not enough connected to the real world.” He switched artistic heroes then to “Burchfield’s friend Edward Hopper,” and started painting landscapes. Representational though not quite realistic. “My work has a kind of visionary and otherworldly quality.” More of a magic realism. And he said he always made lots of preparatory drawings, “but felt odd about it, just because most artists today don’t do that.” So part of the benefit of poring through the Burchfield materials is that “it’s been very reassuring, seeing a modernist artist like Charles Burchfield doing so much preparatory drawing. He’s encouraged me to keep on keeping on...”

High Trees
Gothic Pastel

Koch talked about how Burchfield “rescued landscape painting,” a genre that postdates the Italian Renaissance and did not occur first in Italy. The first true landscape painters, he pointed out, were northern Europeans: Jacob Van Ruisdael, in particular, late seventeenth century, Holland. Commencing a tradition that culminated, so to speak, with John Constable, early nineteenth century, England. “Burchfield doesn’t talk much about other painters—he talks about musicians, Sibelius—but I think he knew the landscape tradition cold, Van Ruisdael to Constable.” Where the tradition is then lost somewhat—so that it needs to be rescued—is in the late nineteenth century, with the impressionists. They’re doing something very different. When you think of the way Constable painted nature and landscape, it wasn’t impressionist, but really more expressionist. Nature in Constable is expressing itself, saying something. This is the tradition Burchfield goes back to. It has to do with the enormity of nature, and the expressionist impulse, Koch said.

Another benefit of the Resident Artist job is that it gives you a chance—if you grew up in Rochester but have been living in Baltimore, teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art, for the last roughly forty years—to “come back to where you grew up and came of age,” Koch said. He talked about his “love affair with the ‘ordinary’ landscape of Western New York. It’s not the Grand Canyon, it’s not the White Mountains. And yet you find this extraordinary painter doing these really visionary paintings of the area. He found the magic in it. Not made it spectacular. He would have said the spectacle was there all along, and if people didn’t see it, they had overlooked it. I think it’s a great lesson for all of us. Don’t be in such a hurry. Really look, to see if you’ve missed something important.”

In conjunction with the residency Koch has been traveling around Western New York, painting some of the scenes Burchfield painted. “Not trying to be Burchfield,” he said. “Just trying to be me. That was one of the things Burchfield was teaching us also. Not to try to be somebody else. Not to try to do what somebody else is doing or has done. This lesson from Burchfield reaffirmed my decision to be an artist in Baltimore, not New York City. Burchfield went to New York for a short while, but didn’t like it. It wasn’t for him. So he came to Western New York. Was an artist there. Here. A wonderful and idiosyncratic artist. Nobody like him, ever, anywhere.”

One of Koch’s recent paintings—locally made—called High Trees, was donated for and auctioned at the Burchfield Penney gala fundraiser last week. A show of his work—particularly work produced in conjunction with the residency—is tentatively scheduled for after completion of the residency, which runs till May 2016.

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