"The difference between representation and abstraction is like the difference between clouds and sky. The origin of the debate is more useful than the debate itself." -- Howard Fonda
Goldfinch is very proud to present Howard Fonda’s solo exhibition the message or the messenger in Gallery 2. Known for composing picture planes comprised of loose brushstrokes of varying lengths that coalesce into mesmerizing, boldly chromatic pictorial fields, Fonda makes paintings that embody principles of abstraction and representation simultaneously, in the process overturning categorical definitions of both. Fonda’s interest in looking at painting through a philosophical lens, as “a vehicle of contradiction,” as he has stated, allows us to re-examine definitions and assumed truths that are in fact dependent on context and contingencies. “On a whole, the subject matter is driven by my personal fascination with love, existence, meaning and truth,” Fonda has explained. These are “big, well-worn themes that I personalize and play out in my humble little studio. It’s all bit self-indulgent, but it helps me make sense of this crazy world.”
Howard Fonda is an artist, former educator, father and husband living in Portland, OR. Philosophical and introspective, Fonda’s work expresses a romantic worldview and mystical inner journey within a painterly dialogue. He has been the recipient of grants from a number of institutions including the Oregon Arts Commission and the Joan Mitchell Foundation. Previously an instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Fonda has lectured, served on jurying and critique panels and pursued curatorial projects at numerous universities and art centers. The artist’s work has been exhibited throughout the United States and abroad since 2000.
Artist’s Q&A: Howard Fonda and Gallery Director Claudine Isé
CI: Let’s begin with music. Who are your favorite jazz artists? I know you are a big jazz fan so it might be impossible to pick out just a few. Do you have particular artists that you only play in the studio while working, but rarely do at home or in the car?
HF: I am, indeed, a big jazz fan. I fell into it a bit backward. I was lucky to be introduced to jazz at a young age and was particularly drawn to drummers. But it was my love of hip hop in the 80’s and 90’s that really opened the door. Realizing where all the samples were coming from illuminated a whole new world that really spoke to me.
I have a decent collection that spans the genre, but usually find myself somewhere between the Big Band and Hard Bop eras. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and of course Miles and Coltrane. All the heavy hitters. Bud Powel, Wes Montgomery, Charles Mingus and Jimmy Smith are all fav’s, too. Grant Green, Art Blakey, Chet Baker, Art Tatum… uh, there are too many giants! I really enjoy contemporaries like Brad Mehldau, Bill Frisell and Carlie Hunter as well.
But the biggie…the go to, is Thelonius Monk. The purity and inventiveness, the technical brilliance mixed with a nonchalance, I find so inspiring. Monk thought there were no wrong notes, no mistakes. His influence has certainly entered the studio (more than visual artists) and I’ve thought about his work and philosophies a lot over the years. His work can be a slow burn and I like the awkward or unexpected. These are goals I take to the studio. I like leaving “mistakes” and allowing the construction of the painting to be left exposed.
I’m also attracted to a central tenant of jazz – the idea of improvising on a theme. Creating a structure that can be pushed, pulled, stretched and then revisited in real time allows for endless expression, even when dealing with the most trite of subjects. Incidentally, this methodology can apply to material, form or content.
One of the many, many things I love about the way you paint (on canvas, specifically) is that “abstraction” and “representation” are perfectly in balance, and as such, demonstrate right before your eyes how intertwined and inseparable each is with the other. As I see your paintings, it’s impossible to separate the abstraction part from the representation part because the abstraction is precisely what forms the the pictures, the “representation”. But of course it’s also at the same time broken apart, again right before your eyes. This is of course due to your way of mark-making, which also results in paintings that are immediately and uniquely identifiable as yours, as Howard Fonda’s. I guess the question I’m asking in all of this is, do you think or care much about the terms “abstraction” and “representation” as underlying concepts that are important to an understanding of your work?
I do feel that as a viewer, an understanding of these concepts and histories will provide a more rewarding experience with the work, as you will see more unfold from the paintings. Though I certainly don’t think it is necessary to understand International Art English to enjoy the work or find something meaningful therein. I’d like to think my work is meant for anyone – yet I am a painter nerd, with a history degree that happily carries the baggage of “painting” around.
While there has been endless critical debate regarding the merits of both representation and abstraction, as well as the historical impact of both, I tend to disassociate with their differences and see them as more connected or intertwined – particularly in traditional, 2-dimensional art such as painting. Don’t get me wrong, I have had many a barstool debate regarding this duality and find the “shop-talk” fascinating. But, honestly, it’s not something I think about in the studio. I just try to make the appropriate painting for the idea, or the moment.
You’ve talked before about your work and practice as involving a search for meaning. As any artist knows, that search can involve numerous “failures” along the path to knowledge. I have an ongoing interest in the nature of failure and in understanding how our “failures” can actually push us forward if we learn to treat them with a certain amount of respect. Could you describe what a “failure” means or looks like to you, in terms of your studio practice and the act of making a painting?
I’m very comfortable with failure. I guess, the nature of the way I work necessitates it. I fail a lot. Ha, maybe more than I should at this point. I even share a selection of failed work on my website (no, none of them are available – they are failures!).
I’m most excited when failure can be integrated into a finished work. I see failure as a path that can cast light upon a dark corner, or provide necessary self-reflection. It is a useful tool in any endeavor. Failure is such a valuable human experience and art is such a perfect place to highlight it! (particularly in our over-mediated, highly curated, digital world).
I think it is also important to point out that failure, like it’s counterpart success, is largely self-defined. And perhaps more useful, it is our response to our self-perceived failure and success that define us. This thought process can extend to the studio and can be embodied in art!
One of the magical things about being able to see your paintings in person, and also to mount them as a show, is getting to see their backs, the reverse sides. You make paintings there too — not as elaborate as the front, but they do feel intentional — more like drawings even though they’re paint on canvas. What charms me most about the reverse side is that you as the artist don’t make a big deal about the fact that they’re there. Anyway, I love that that in your case, the “hidden” painting can only be discovered in person, and (as far as I know) is not distributed on its own as an image through the distribution channels we’ve all come to depend on, most notably Instagram. Can you talk about the B-sides of your paintings and how you think of them?
Yes, yes. Particularly in recent years, the backs have become more intentional – or maybe intentionally unintentional… or is it unintentionally intentional? I don’t like titling my work and at first, it was a great way to remind myself of what I was doing/thinking, or provide some intimate context to the content, or honor and pay respects to the references in the work. This is particularly true of the Native artists and artwork that appear in my work. I’ve also found it a playful space to connect with fans or collectors and those who get a sneak peak… like sharing a secret or intimacy. While the faces of the work can be autonomous art objects, the backs are a look at the artist: my echoing signature; accretion of dates; graffiti; snippets of thoughts or poetics that only surface when in the act of painting. They are not created with the idea that they will ever be public.
Can I ask you to share a bit about how having kids and your identity as a parent/father has impacted your approach to painting, your studio / studio practice, and your identity as an artist and a painter?
Ha. Well, it’s definitely altered my schedule, that’s for sure! I’m a night-owl by nature, but with 2 early-bird kids my days of painting through the night are on hold.
I can happily say that every aspect of my life has changed! Our kids, our family, is such a source of inspiration and joy. They have offered my life a second bloom and are a constant reminder that life is more than any one thing, like painting or being an “artist”. My partner and our children have helped me to be a better person and by extension my art has benefitted.
The way children see the world can be so enlightening – full of wonder, optimism, and even fear. It is a chance to see existence anew, respect time, and perfect love.
In short, it has proved a very rewarding experience for me. (I hope I reread this when they are teenagers).
This is a question that every artist is being asked now, because Covid-19 has introduced such an overwhelming change in the way that we all live, work, cohabitate, eat, share intimacies, and literally, how we are able (or not) to see each other, in person or through a technological lens. Still, I think it’s worth asking because we all have our own individual experiences within these shared conditions. How has the pandemic affected your practice? Has it impacted your thoughts about art in general or painting in particular?
It is unquestionably a difficult time, with COVID being only one of several compounding factors (#fucktrump #fuckracisim). Our family, and in large part city, have been very strict about quarantine. Luckily, we all get along and enjoy each other so much. In spite of this ongoing tragedy, we have refocused this time as a unique opportunity to be together and bond. My partner and I are also very conscious that we are in a privileged position to do this. We feel very fortunate.
Of course, it is hard to disrupt the daily routine, and to miss the valuable connection to friends, peers and community. But, in the grand scheme of things, it’s only been 9 months. That’s, like, less than one percent of one’s life. I mean, there is a lot of compromise and acceptance in those 9 months, but shit, it’s a once in a generation pandemic! People are dying! (#wearafuckingmask)
It is a reflective time. A time for empathy and compassion. These are ideals that drive my studio practice in the best of times, so I can’t say things have changed too much in my studio. I am just very thankful.
Could you also tell us more about how and why your name “Howard Fonda” plays a role in your compositions? Is it simply another type of signature? Does it speak to the personal nature of your subject matter? My thought was that it had something to do with your musings on life and death, and fleetingness vs. longevity, but of course it’s all speculation on my part.
I like the idea that it relates to fleetingness and longevity! That is lovely… tell me more! Your speculation is more interesting than my ramblings. I do like this idea that it somehow underscores the personal nature of the work and its production, too.
Like much of the text in my work, it can function as “text” or content, or it can function as form – a way to activate space or provide a visual context/complement to the “subject”. I tend to sign work on paper more often, but do sign the paintings, too. Perhaps I put more thought into it than your average artist, but really, it’s just a means of signing the work. It’s certainly not Josh Smith, but it’s not passive like a 19th century painter either. The middle path!
And finally, can you talk about the show’s title: ‘the message or the messenger’. What does this phrase mean to you and in context with the body of work we’re showing?
Well, hmm. Let me see. The message or the messenger…. I was thinking about the varying ways one could access the work and find meaning or use in it. At it’s most basic, I guess I’m asking, is it the work, the object?; is it the voice of the artist?; is it the material or form?; is it the historic signs/symbols and narrative of the work that leads to beauty and/or meaning? You know, is it the message or the messenger? A koan for the ages.
Howard Fonda, Thoughts on Painting:
The difference between representation and abstraction is like the difference between clouds and sky. The origin of the debate is more useful than the debate itself.
I see painting as a philosophical sanctuary and spiritual outpost.
I embrace painting's traditions and limitations, finding comfort in them.
Painting is a vehicle of contradiction adept at conveying the hubris of, and understanding of, existence.
Painting is poetic and transcendent.
I find painting an articulate means of exposing a range of emotion, both rational and irrational. Both rational,
and irrational, experience define existence.
Genre and form are choices like any other, used to articulate a cultural perspective and historical context.
Craft, form and content are equivalents.
Painting relies on truth and beauty.
Mystery begs to be demystified. Definitions beg to be redefined.
Judgment, itself, can be good or bad. Both "good" and "bad" can be good or bad or both. Judgment has less to
do with art than one expects. Consideration and empathy are more useful.
Content is form. Form is content.
Academia, "institutions", and "the market" are all equivalent.
In these times, critical analysis of art must contain a measure of academia, "institutions" and "the market", as
well as articulated taste.
The value of art is never fixed and is contingent on context.
Art is everything and nothing. Everything is everything and nothing. Nothing is everything and nothing.
Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is more important than knowledge.
Creating meaning and finding meaning are two different things. I am primarily interested in finding meaning.
- Howard Fonda