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Time Pieces

Stewart Oksenhorn

Daniel Sprick has done exceptional work with the human figure. In fact, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Art selected an example of Sprick’s figurative paintings for its permanent collection.But Sprick has largely abandoned painting the figure. The artist, who has lived virtually all of his 51 years in Glenwood Springs, now focuses his attention on still-life painting for one elemental reason: People, having lives to lead, tend to move; objects – and Sprick’s choice of objects range from fruits and flowers to skulls and soup cans – do not.”That’s why I hardly work with models any more,” said Sprick. “They complain. They don’t sit still.” Even flowers, with their tendency to wither and wilt, can cause problems for Sprick: “Flowers voice their complaints. Most of them change dramatically over the course of a day. So I have to speed up for flowers. I have to do the background first, and then get a fresh flower.”Sprick’s trouble with animate objects isn’t so much an annoyance with the fact that they tend to twitch or fold or get up to go to the bathroom. It’s that he sees the essence of his work as time – and it’s considerably easier to ask a vase to hold still for days or weeks at a time than it is a person. Or a tulip.The passage of time, of course, cannot be seen in a painting. But time can, in its own way, be felt or sensed. Sprick can spend months on a larger painting, coming back to it again and again. Even with a smaller still life, he can spend a week painting, and hours or days simply choosing objects and arranging them on a table. Often Sprick will spend hours assembling a still life – placing the objects, observing how they capture light and create shadows – only to abandon the project if it doesn’t look just right to him. He can pass inordinate amounts of time simply looking at things.”It’s my choice of activities. I could do a lot of things, but this is what I find myself doing,” said Sprick at the Main Street Gallery in Glenwood Springs, where the group show “A Closer Look: New Paintings By Old Friends” – featuring paintings by Sprick, as well as two of his former students, now contemporaries of his, Dean Bowlby and Doug Arneson – opened last month to a packed house. “Still lifes hold still and allow an artist a lot of time to work. And that’s what I need – all the time in the world to look and work.”The power of paintOn first glance, Sprick’s work, marked by a stunning expertise with paint, can have the look of photorealism. But he is noticeably pleased when an observer comments that the paintings don’t have the feel of photorealism, that there is something other than simply trying to use paint and brushes to mimic reality. In “Art Nouveau Figure and Landscape,” for instance, objects in the foreground are slightly exaggerated – sharp, bright and big – while the tree branches in the background, seen through a window, are blurred, their colors faded. “Photorealism is about trying to copy the look of a photograph,” said Sprick, who is often as careful in choosing his words as he is the objects he paints. “Even though these are completely detailed, they look completely different from how a photograph looks.”Sprick relates the difference between photorealism and his representational work to a matter of time. In a world where machines can digitally paint – and Sprick acknowledges that computers can make some pretty impressive pictures – it is time, and the resulting feel, that separates digitally generated work from human-made art.”That’s why I like it to look like paint – when it looks like paint, it looks homemade,” he said. “The more technical and computerized the worlds gets, the more value that will be placed on handmade things. There’s something about the feel of something made by a human that appeals to us in an emotional, rather than a technical level.”I still think the only success that really matters comes on an emotional level. The best result for someone who looks at a painting is to feel something.”It might seem off-course for Sprick to exalt the emotional over the technical. After all, his work is technically wondrous and, having parted ways with figurative painting, his objects are just objects – in contrived settings, yet. But he says his paintings aren’t about the emotional value of a mirror, or even a flower. Instead, shapes, masses of light and dark, the composition of objects in a room or on a desk, resonate on a very human level.”There’s something to feel, irrespective of the objects,” he said. “Another word for it would be harmonies, vibrational harmonies, for which the objects are not necessarily central. The objects could come and go – none of the objects are terribly important to me. They’re just stuff. They’re just a starting point for compositional harmonies, proportions, light and dark masses. The objects don’t convey feelings, but the harmonies do.”That’s about as conceptual Sprick will get. There is nothing high-concept or cutting-edge to his art. In fact Sprick takes issue with the world of contemporary art, claiming “art schools have beaten the common sense out of artists.” Recently, an artist acquaintance of Sprick’s took the view that artists exist on a plane above their audience. He believed it was the job of artists to mess with people’s minds.”I said, no, it’s not. It’s the opposite,” said Sprick, whose intense and reclusive sides can be interpreted as difficult, though there is no evidence of this the day we speak, as Sprick eagerly discusses artistic issues. “We should stand for ideals, even strive for something enlightening and hopeful. When I look at my paintings, they’re extremely easy to understand. The last thing I want is to confuse people.”The things I’m trying to express are not complicated. It’s just matters of the human heart.”Simplicity, however, is not to be confused with a lack of depth. Sprick’s paintings are accessible, not lightweight; the shadows and dark spaces suggest the imperfection of the world. In his figurative pieces, his subjects are routinely downcast.”I want something generally constructive, toward – what? – toward being life-affirming,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I see the world as only flowers. I have dead bugs and cigarettes – the evidence of human stain and self-destruction. I like my beauty to be a beauty that would match your experience. You haven’t experienced the world without flaws and without hardships and without things you didn’t want to be different. But you’re not ready to pitch in the whole tent.”Born to be an artistAs a teenager in Glenwood, Sprick was embarrassed about his devotion to art, and put aside painting for what he calls more ordinary teenage activities. Apart from those years, however, his life has been consumed with art.Sprick drew “intense amounts” when he was little. He and his artistic-minded siblings – including his sister Nancy, who works at Main Street Gallery and does Sprick’s framing – had as an example their father Charles, a dental technician who, says Sprick, “put a highly perfected degree of art and craft” into bridges, dentures and crowns. He credits the early immersion for his advanced skills.”It gave me a huge head start on the whole thing,” said Sprick, who taught at Colorado Mountain College for 15 years. “It’s like a bilingual person who learns at an early age will always be ahead of someone who picks it up as an adult. It’s a neurological pathway, and it gets pruned by the age of 10.”After graduating from Glenwood Springs High School in 1971, Sprick spent a year in a vocational-tech program at Mesa State College, training as a welder. He enjoyed welding, but found his mind drifting.”When I was welding, I spent as much time watching the smoke plume off the weld as actually welding,” he said. “I was interested in the way things look.”Sprick moved into the art program, then transferred to the University of Northern Colorado. He would periodically drop out to hitchhike across the United States and into Mexico, or to study at unaccredited art schools in New York and New Mexico. After finally graduating in 1978, he spent a year in Italy, living on a farm outside of Florence where, in exchange for doing chores, Sprick was given room and board. He calls the situation ideal – not so much because the capital of the Renaissance was within walking distance, but because of the time he was able to devote to painting.”It can be a distraction, to think you have to be in an exotic location to learn how to paint,” he said. “The only thing an artist needs is time – time to do nothing but work on his work.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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