A painter’s curious and gifted eye sees beauty in light play.
This piece first appeared in The Vermont Standard.
Down a dusty gravel road, hidden from Woodstock’s main thoroughfare, there’s a long neglected truck, a vintage 1950s Chevy. Its once gleaming red exterior has been scratched dull by Vermont snows and winds, its windows are cracked or missing, and its shiny chrome logos have been stripped away. Most would call it unsightly, a blemish, but to Alan Bull’s curious and gifted eye, the curve of its hood, its rust streaked patina, and the contrast of light on its only partly remaining windshield are the inspirations for art.
Bull’s aesthetic interpretation of the aging Woodstock truck will be part of an exhibit of his paintings, called Light Play, which opens with an evening reception this Saturday at the ArtisTree Gallery. The show affords Bull, who is well known for his renderings of old trucks and farm machinery, the opportunity to showcase a diversity of painting media and methods, as well as subjects. His oils, acrylics, watercolors and monotypes will fill ArtisTree’s four rooms for the next month.
Bull’s fascination with trucks began in his childhood, with visits to his grandparents’ Long Island farm. About fifteen years ago, when rain kept him inside on a day that he had to produce a painting for a charity auction, Bull picked up a photograph of his grandfather’s old potato truck. Since then, dump trucks, flat-beds, haulers, and plows have become a trademark of sorts. “In almost every show, I’m asked to include a few of the trucks,” he says, and there’s been a steady stream of commissions. “Someone who saw the [original] at the auction but didn’t get it asked me to paint one,” Bull adds, “and it’s gone on from there.”
Bull’s artistic vision, however, extends far beyond farm equipment; the subjects in his vast body of work include landscapes of country meadows and brooks, waterfronts and city streets; he also paints nudes, and lately, performing musicians.
“The thing that most of his paintings really depict is the light,” says ArtistTree Gallery Director Adrian Tans of Bull’s work.
Capturing the cool blues of a snow-covered marsh, the rich ambers of the summer sun on a field of haystacks, or the darkness of a woman’s shadowed curves, “is a difficult and rare thing to do,” he adds.
But it was Bull’s masterful brush strokes that first impressed Tans. “There was a tiny picture Alan did of his cat, Mozart,” he recalls of one early piece by his long-time friend, “I could look at it and almost not see the cat,” it blended in with the background. But once his eyes focused, says Tans, there it was, a perfect cat, “it was just so captured, this little picture with very few brush strokes. I was hooked from then on.” Bull’s wide-ranging skill with a brush makes his minimalist works just as powerful as his more developed landscapes and figures, Tans adds.
Brushwork is an important element of the monotypes in Bull’s portfolio. He’s included arrays of the one-of-kind prints in Light Play; he hopes that seeing a few of these works in series will help viewers understand his technique.
Monotyping dates back to the mid 17th century, it’s a method that combines printmaking and painting. Bull applies pigments to a plexiglass plate; he creates images either by brushing on oils as in conventional painting, or by filling up large areas with color and wiping parts away. He covers the completed plate with damp rag paper, then cranks the sandwich through a roller press. Sometimes the plates are only used once, but Bull likes to use his two or three times, repainting some parts of the plate between pressings. “Over the course of several prints you’ll see hints or ghosts of previous images,” he says, “it lets you try different ideas using the same image several different ways.”
For example, Bull’s monotype Whale’s Jaw, Dogtown #1 is, he says, “a straight forward little painting of this giant boulder” at a now abandoned colonial settlement in Gloucester, Massachusetts; the piece shows a subtly hued rock formation surrounded by bold green vegetation. For the second pressing, Bull added color to create a fall scene. Then for the third pressing, he wanted to soften the look a bit, “so I left the ghost of the fall colors,” he says, “and added more light and shadow to the rocks themselves.”
Bull realized by age seven that he wanted to make art, but finding his artistic “voice,” and learning to rely on his intuition, took a little longer. All through high school, classmates coveted the sketches he whipped up in study hall, and Bull went on to the Philadelphia College of Art, where he studied painting. After art school, he says, “I imagined that I would be drawing what other people wanted me to draw.” He did stints framing up pictures in galleries and helping established artists; he worked drawing portraits in malls. “It showed me a lot about the business of art,” he admits, “and different aspects of how artists produce and present their work.” Still, it was repetitive, and wearing, Bull began to feel burned out.
A small inheritance from his father gave him a little freedom, but it was a year long residency at the William Steeple Davis House on Long Island in the mid 1990s that was a turning point. “I went there and for the first time in my life, really, I was expected to be an artist and do what I wanted to do,” Bull says, “I realized that I can paint what I am drawn to and people will respond by buying my work and taking it home.” Now, when something about a busy city intersection catches his attention, or he notices the shadows at play down a long stretch of country road, Bull knows to trust his eye.
On a stop in Woodstock a few weeks ago, Bull remembered seeing, on an earlier visit, “a great old truck down by the old railroad turntable,” so he made a quick detour and took some photographs home with him. As a result, art lovers who see Light Play will find that corroded, fading objet d’art immortalized, gracefully, on canvas.
Painting ‘Chases Mack Yard’ by Alan Bull.