Poetry in Action: Julie B. Montgomery's Zen Paintings
by Charles Donelan
by Charles Donelan
Julie B. Montgomery pursues a vision of painting that combines a zen-like appreciation for the value of spontaneity with a meticulously planned process. Blending rigor and freedom in this way allows her to create convincing landscapes that retain the compositional integrity and shifting layers of color one ordinarily associates with pure abstraction.
To visit Montgomery, a group of us took Amtrak's Surfliner from the station on State Street in Santa Barbara to Carpinteria, a journey of approximately ten minutes duration. From the Carpinteria station, it was an easy walk alongside the tracks that led us to the former loading dock that serves as her front porch. Following the way pointed out by a small sign that says "Entrée des artistes," we encountered a long room dominated by large canvases, sketchbooks, and natural light.
Montgomery paints in acrylic, and she begins by layering all the paint she plans to use directly onto the canvas. Once this "block" of pigment has been mixed and spread, she has a limited period of time in which to carve into it with palette knives, spread it again with large brushes, and finally scrub parts of the surface with rags containing small amounts of a secret miracle solvent that turns out to be 409. When I asked Montgomery to explain the logic behind this somewhat unorthodox procedure, she said, "I started working this way for practical reasons. I moved from using Conté on paper to painting in acrylic on canvas because that process worked better for me. But I've also always been interested in sculpture, and that's part of it as well. By mixing the paint on the canvas and then drawing on that surface by scraping, I was able to get the reduction effect that I had seen in the foundry. The chemistry of it is unpredictable, which is part of what makes it interesting."
|Mariposa Green 54" x 120|
Digging a little deeper as I studied the grid-like structures in her "Mars" series of paintings, I asked Montgomery to say more about the idea that she is doing "action painting." She said that she does "work on the composition first, but once I've set up the canvas and applied the pigment, it becomes a drawing exercise in which I am working against the clock. I have to be quite deliberate with my decisions at that point because within an hour or so the paint will set. I work fast, and although I have still got the urge to do very exact stuff, something that you can see from my sketchbooks, when I am painting in this way there's a feeling of spontaneity that's important as well. I find the intensity of the emotion is there in the urgency of the act."
One of the subtlest aspects of any recent Julie Montgomery painting is the inevitable ghostly trace of her handwriting that barely interrupts the smooth panels of color. She has a habit of writing fragments from her journals onto these canvases, and then erasing them with a cloth until only the slightest, mostly unreadable shadow of them remains. It's a barely detectable, somewhat private, and very personal touch. When asked about the writing, she said that, "all of my recent paintings include elements of writing, handwriting that I do from my journals on to the canvas, and then I rub the surface to obscure the words so that they can no longer be read. I've been in the habit of doing this for fifteen years now. It adds another layer of texture to the image, and it gives the work a personal relation to me through the hidden message and through the presence of my handwriting as shadow form."
|Mars III 48" x 72"|
About the Author
Charles Donelan has lived in Santa Barbara since 2001. He writes about visual art, music, theater, and books for the Santa Barbara Independent, where he is the arts editor.