ESSAY BY JOHN SEED
The subject matter in Chris Liberti’s recent paintings comes from his interest in the way the forms around him can be re-configured and made to work together. Whether Liberti is painting rooflines, bookshelves, palm trees or telephone poles, he sees them not as isolated elements, but as part of a larger scheme. In his carefully carpentered compositions, Liberti joins the edges of forms and the spaces that surround them into remarkably pleasing and luminous paintings. Strikingly balanced, Liberti’s canvases manage to be both highly-organized and free at the same time. Liberti has a feeling for paradox and knows how to create unexpected harmonies of form and color.
Gesture, color and surface enliven the new harmonies and patterns Liberti creates as he works, generating a distinct back-and-forth between representation and abstraction. Although there are certainly similarities that connect his works, each completed painting stands on its own: a distinct vision that Liberti has shepherded towards a necessary and unique conclusion. Some paintings come to the edge of realism, while others feature willfully invented patterns, intersections and overlaps.
“I often find myself in a struggle between abstraction and representation, “ Liberti comments. “I don’t want to lock myself in to being one or the other. Working abstractly is freeing since there is more looking involved: more than simply looking at what was being painted.”
Liberti is a very direct, visually oriented artist who is relatively unconcerned with theories or conceptual underpinnings. He is also a painter without pretensions who speaks of his artistic process in very straight-forward terms: “I simply enjoy the process of painting, working with my hands, looking, mixing, adding a spot of color, standing back, looking and going in again.” He is a formalist who values perceptual experiences more than symbolism or context.
In an era when too many artists work harder at promoting themselves than at making art, Liberti is something of a rarity. He has a work ethic like Wayne Thiebaud’s: going to the studio means going to work. When he is standing at the easel Liberti keeps a few simple goals in mind: “I try to remain sincere and rely on instincts while reminding myself of things I’ve learned and where I want to go at this moment.”
Raised and educated on the East Coast, Liberti studied at Buffalo State College with the realist painter Jim Phalen, who had once studied with Bay Area painter Paul Wonner. Phalen, who Liberti says was his most important mentor, rarely showed his own work to his students. Because he wanted his students to find their own distinctive paths — rather than being overly influenced by his work — Phalen recommended that each student study the works of a few key artists who were right for his or her approach and temperament. He told Liberti to look at the work of Richard Diebenkorn and Frank Auerbach, both of whom became important influences.
Over time, Diebenkorn has remained especially important to Liberti, and so has Vincent Van Gogh. When asked what he valued in both men’s work, Liberti
commented: “I admire their uninhibited use of color, the immediacy of their paintings and also gestural and painterly qualities. Both Diebenkorn and Van Gogh had the ability to take everyday scenes and subject matter and turn them into something compelling. You can see and feel their passion for their work and each used line very powerfully.”
Liberti also feels that Diebenkorn had a “great sense of composition.” Looking at Diebenkorn’s works, and studying their compositions has been very important to Liberti, because he feels strongly that the essential elements of a composition must be established before the rest of the painting can “fall into place.” Once he settles on the major compositional forms and forces in a painting, Liberti is able to enhance the image’s tactility by using a wide range of brushwork and also by scraping away to reveal vestiges of underpainting. “The physicality of painting,” Liberti notes, “is what I enjoy the most.”
Inclined to work and rework his surfaces, Liberti is “rarely satisfied” until an image has gone through many transformations and variations. “I have a problem deciding when things are finished,” he admits. “I’m never truly happy.” For a painting to feel “right” enough to call it finished, he needs it to at least come together in a way that is strong and original enough to emanate a certain range of possibilities: “If I can get into a piece and get into that ‘space’, someone else will feel that same way. I’m not looking for a specific feeling.”
In his best works Chris Liberti brings together abstraction and representation in a way that allows beautiful tensions and artistic paradoxes to co-exist. He plays the organic off of the geometric, sets transparency next to opacity, and contrasts depth with flatness. His finished works are balancing acts that demonstrate just how thoughtfully and methodically he has struggled to maintain those tensions.
“Painting is simple but complicated,” Liberti says: “I like to keep it that way.”