At first glance, the oil paintings by Charles Yoder appear to be photo based realistic representations of verdant foliage and the shadowy precincts of a forest. Upon closer investigation, these works reveal an eloquent array of modernist painting approaches, a profusion of colorful gestures that coalesce into images that portray the varied rhythms of natural form.
Viewing these works in reproduction does not prepare one for their visceral materiality; the physical presence conjured by passages of flat color and contrasting tonality. Some painted areas remind one of Hiroshige’s woodblock prints and reveal the influence of printmaking techniques in Yoder’s studio practice. Eschewing conventional glazing and rendering, he uses direct gestural marks to create the illusion of movement through light and shade.
Willem DeKooning once said “Content is a glimpse,” and it is this statement that is a point of origin for these paintings. After a period as an assistant to Robert Rauschenberg in the 1980’s, Yoder forged an art practice largely hewing to contemporary modernist dogma, with a focus on process and non-objective abstraction. Finding his efforts lacking in a primal connection to his lived experience, he found himself standing in a pine forest in Eastern Long Island, observing the visual complexity of his surroundings. There he experienced an aesthetic epiphany that changed his approach to art making. He embraced the subject of another of his favorite artists, Charles Burchfield, who once commented, “I seem to have made a career out of my backyard”. Using this “glimpse” of woodland as a template, Yoder began a series of works that represent the surrounding trees as a forest of marks and gestures that re-create the physical presence of nature. His research begins with expeditions into the forest to find compelling passages of light and rhythm, the true “subject” of these large paintings.
In embracing this seemingly simple content, he was able to jettison much of the cumbersome modernist dogma that had grown like a thicket around modern painting practice. Paradoxically, by embracing these trees, he discovered a forest of painting processes that allow him to explore the border between abstraction and representation and causes us to question our relationship with nature and any art that attempts to re-create its phenomena. Yoder speaks of artists as “children who do not lose art to language. Focusing on nature frees me from theory, logic, and other “adult” concerns.”
For one attempting to escape the prison house of language, Yoder betrays a delight in wordplay, puns, and the mutability of meaning in the construction of his titles. He attempts to subvert the solemnity inherent in sincere expressions of solidarity with “Nature” and utilizes these “slippages” in meaning to create ambivalence around what might otherwise be a surfeit of feeling.
The larger paintings emulate the scale of nature and unfold over time as one moves past them, recapitulating the original physical experience of these spaces. Yoder claims to be pushing no environmental issue, other than an emotional appreciation of the sylvan experience, using paint to make this experience palpable. His process begins with vigorous action, as he plants the major forms and colors in the background of the painted space. As he moves toward the foreground, his technique becomes more detailed and nuanced, growing into a complex web of layered line and restrained color. The overall effect is one of vector equilibrium, where no one part of the canvas claims more importance than any other.
This creation of a serene chaos, punctuated by abrupt pistol shots of light, captures the rhythm and timbre of lived experience. The experience of these works evokes metaphors more appropriate to musical expression, as vision dances in a forest of color and light.
John Bowman is a painter living and working in New York City.