BRATTLEBORO >> I've wanted to write about Jim Giddings' paintings for a long time. I would have preferred happier circumstances. Several weeks ago a devastating fire destroyed most of Giddings' 45 years worth of artwork.
This will be a looking back, largely through Giddings' words, a kind of reclaiming what was lost. It will also be a look at how the lost work has had an impact and nourished the work of more recent years. And finally, a looking forward.
Over the years Giddings has garnered great respect as a devoted artist with an intense and personal vision. He has worked and kept working, despite the difficulty of selling work, and while holding a day job. One felt he was born to do this. But in fact, Jim Giddings wasn't one of those people who knew from childhood he wanted to be an artist. He entered Amherst College intending to be a biology major. In the process of doing research for a biology class he came upon some art prints that opened him to the world of fine art ("This is it — This is where I'm going!"). He eventually graduated with a degree in art history.
"After graduating I declared myself a working artist right away," recounts Giddings, and for fifteen years he simultaneously painted and taught art history to high school students in Massachusetts, Colorado, and Idaho before moving to Brattleboro. "I was learning as I was teaching!" he adds with a grin, amused at his youthful chutzpah.
His first medium was watercolor. "It seemed the easiest place to start," saidGiddings. The culmination of that work came with a series of paintings done throughout the '80s at Small Point, Maine, of the ocean, with no sky, horizon, or shoreline, viewed from above, as a seagull flying over might see it.
Perched on a rock out in the ocean ("you wouldn't want to be there at high tide"), these paintings evoke the waves, foam and mist but are also quite abstract. Speaking of his ocean watercolors, the whole series seen only on the occasion of an Open Studio at Petey Mitchell's studio a few years back, Jim becomes at once especially saddened and at the same time enthused. These watercolors meant a lot to him, he confesses. "Watercolor is where I started" (his life in painting). Recently he had re-discovered these paintings, and had decided they "needed to see the light of day." He was preparing to show them. "These were the hardest to lose," he said, then added, "Watercolor might be my favorite medium, even though I haven't made a watercolor painting since 1989!"
What's hard, said Giddings, is almost no one has seen these paintings. "Losing something no one has seen — it's like, did they ever really exist?"
Also almost entirely lost are the pastel drawings made in the days he was hanging out at the Mole's Eye, during the '80s. From a personal viewpoint, as documents of a time in his life, and the lives of many local lovers of dance music, when a Friday or Saturday evening down at the Moles Eye was de rigueur, this feels like a huge loss, said Giddings, even though, he admits, they were not of great import to his developing work.
"I got to the point," he recounts, "where I wanted to push the paint around." Neither pastels nor watercolor did the trick. "The transition came," he said, "when I saw a painting by Jude Rondeau, done with oil paint sticks. They had all the depth, the richness I was seeking, that I couldn't get with watercolor." It's the medium he uses to this day. The irony, said Giddings, is "I use the paint sticks as if they are watercolor. I get the light areas by scraping the medium down to the paper. Letting the white of the paper come through — that's the same as watercolor."
The '90s brought the investigation of the landscape genre. "Lots of cows," which got tiresome, he says. "They started morphing into people — for a while they looked like meercats!" (an animal that stands upright on two legs).
Of paintings that we have come to recognize as what may be called "Vintage Giddings," paintings done over the past decade and a half, little is left as well. Twelve were at the gallery due to a recent show he'd had there.
Over the years Giddings' work has become imbued with elements gallery-goers recognize. Crows and a slightly lone male figure that Giddings calls "everyman" have been signature elements. The other day at Mitchell Giddings Fine Arts gallery, Giddings points out one particular painting in a grouping of four currently on display. Titled "Two Men Meeting In Darkness," dated 2003, it begs for a narrative. But it is the milestone in terms of technique that he wants to talk about. "I'm partial to this painting — it represents the coming together of many of the techniques I'd been working on." One of those techniques is a way to create a line without actually drawing into the painting, which would disrupt the scraped, worked surface. By using the back of a paintbrush, he explains, he can create a line when he rubs the oil paint stick over the surface, then scrapes. The effect is very print-like. In fact, viewers often mistake his paintings for prints, something he doesn't mind at all — "I love prints." Furthermore this particular painting, he points out, has most of the marks and figures that are iconographic elements — numbers, Xs, crows, and the slightly leaning over man, used many times and in multiples, that is like a refrain in a haunting melody.
"I am fascinated by repetition," said Giddings. The figures, repeated from painting to painting and within the painting, are made from heavy paper templates, often taken from an image in a newspaper ad or story. The figures can be mysterious, barely there or starkly there. The man in a bowler hat that is often surrounded by numbers is a stand-in for a businessman, or Wall-Street type, saidGiddings.
But mostly, Giddings said, he just wants to make a picture that is visually intriguing, and thus especially likes to combine images of disparate things. Giddings is loathe to ascribe a narrative to his paintings and does not even like to conjecture on the "meaning" of the crow. He likes the shape. I'd say also it allows him to use the rich dark pigments he loves. As we talk, I get the feeling they are as much of a mystery to the artist as they may be to the viewing public.
Recently Giddings returned to landscapes. There are no cows. "Gihon River Bridge" (29 x 66") was recently shown at MGFA. It will soon be installed at the Atrium, a space on Main Street that Mitchell and Giddings now curate. It serves as an "annex" to their gallery, and has work from several of their artists on a rotating basis.
"Gihon River Bridge" was saved because it was too long to fit in Giddings' studio's storage space. And it's a beauty. It is large, by the standards of this artist's work. It's richly dark and melancholic, as one might imagine Frost's woods. It was started during a stay at the Vermont Studio Center, a residency powerhouse up in Johnson, Vermont, inspired by a view out his studio window.
I asked Giddings if he can envision where he is going in his work once the studio is rebuilt. "It's too soon" was his response. It is sure to be worth the wait-and-see, as the entire art community pitches in to help him move on.