Monday, September 8, 2014

KCET Artbound: Poetry In Action: Julie B. Montgomery's Zen Paintings by Charles Donelan

In her current show at MichaelKate Interiors Gallery in Santa Barbara's Funk Zone. Montgomery displays the confidence of a mid-career artist who has found a balance between the immediacy of nature and the sophistication of the contemporary. Although her most ambitious work thus far is a triptych called "Mariposa Green" in tribute to the landscape of northern California, where she was raised, Montgomery now lives and works in Carpinteria. The intimacy and style of her studio space reflects not only her background -- she grew up in Sonoma, where her parents restore antiques -- but also her career as a fashion model, which has taken her for extended periods to both England and Japan. Right on the beach, and adjacent to the train tracks in a complex that includes not only other artists, but also woodworkers and crafts people of all sorts, it's a remarkable spot on greater Santa Barbara's vivid art map.

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 

Within the first hour or so, these acrylic pigments begin to harden, so it is very important that Montgomery know where she is going when she sets out. Leafing through her many sketchbooks, one sees an artist's hand in evidence that is meticulous, line-oriented, and seemingly quite far from what's on the walls. I asked her about this, and then about what gives her the ability to work with such an unstable, abstract-seeming arrangement and still end up with recognizable landscape images. "I feel so close to my subject matter with these paintings that it seems to pass through me onto the canvas," she says. "The drawings in my sketchbooks are more archetypal figures, but the canvas gave me different constraints to work with and against, like the sense of a band at the top and the bottom of the picture. That cued my response, which was to draw landscapes."
But how does she bring together the alchemy of mixing paint with the science of rendering? "There are two things going on," she says. "The first is that in this process, I have to work quickly, so it becomes about the action of it. I'm not working from photographs, although I am very interested in and influenced by photography. When these landscapes come through, they become like Rorschach blots -- different people see different places and things in them. For me to draw something imprints that image in my body. I establish a subconscious relationship to the shapes, and that's part of what I'm using when I paint. These images are my dreamscapes, but I see them more as windows than as mirrors. I'm drawing from my inner life, but I'm looking outwards, either at the world or at the surface and the materials. I love solving visual problems using math and geometry, but I am also passionate about the beauty of things like wood grain and marble. I think of what I am doing as setting up a situation with these ingredients, and then participating in that situation by painting."
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."

Mars II 48"x 48"
"I feel a strong connection to the environment and I think my work reflects that. The way I work feels like skating to me, or running downhill. It's one of those activities where you throw yourself forward with a kind of deep inner trust. I think in part my fascination with layers of color began when I spent lots of time going to the museum in order to look at Mark Rothko's work in person."
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"
And what do these whispered passages actually say? "They are phrases," Montgomery told me, "like I remember one was 'remembering the breath of a new born dark place.' In my writing I try to connect with the elemental rhythms of life, like night and day. I look to my work and my writing for a connection with pre-existence, and an immersion in a sense of trust and freedom. When it's going well, I can relax into it and know that the work will be there for me. It's a hollow bone, and when I ring the bell, the stuff breaks free." This poetic dimension, slight as it may be in terms of the visible, nevertheless sets the tone for these unusual, and unusually moving images of landscape--both the one outside, and the one that we all carry in the interior.

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. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

LA Art Critic Betty Brown on Julie B. Montgomery

Los Angeles Art Critic Betty Brown writes 
Traces of the Ineffable: New Paintings by Julie Montgomery

The touch of an infinite mystery passes over the trivial and the familiar, making it break out into ineffable music…The trees, the stars, and the blue hills ache with a meaning which can never be uttered in words.
-Rabindranath Tagore

Julie Montgomery creates elegant images of trees and sky and sea that seem to shimmer beneath her meditative gaze. Then she inscribes gentle, elusive texts over them, whispered phrases of human presence responding to the landscape. Erased, obscured, and evocative, the words comprise painterly palimpsests; viewers are compelled to fill the ellipses in order to construct meaning. 

However rubbed, washed, and scraped, the images in these paintings refuse to disappear--just as nature resists all of our insensate attempts to obliterate her. Instead, Montgomery’s ethereal forms emerge as diffused veils of jewel-like color. Adumbral jade green, lusty garnet red, or regal jasper brown, they recall the treasures hidden deep within the planet’s core and seem to imply that what we see here above the horizon is merely an emanation of the earth’s interior light.

Critic Arthur C. Danto argues that what makes something art is its use of rhetorical (and generally metaphorical) ellipsis. Viewers participate in the co-creation of the artwork by filling in the gaps generated by such ellipses. If everything is given—if the landscape is reproduced in painstaking scientific detail—it is not art for Danto. Nor is it art for Montgomery, who presents but does not describe, implies but refuses to insist. Subtle and suggestive, her hazy curtains of trees and hills and sky coruscate under the barely perceived calligraphy.

Encountering Montgomery’s paintings is like staring out across the fog-covered Pacific and seeing the Channel Islands revealed as the ocean mist lifts on a sunny Santa Barbara day. Gazing westward, we know the islands are there, even when they are obscured by haze. Contemplating Montgomery’s art, we know the poetry is there, but the elegant erasures and ellipses force us to look further, to look deeper, to look within, in order to perceive the shifting strata of meaning.

Tagore’s lines form a fitting parallel for the ineffable nature of Montgomery’s paintings: “The water in a vessel is sparkling; the water in the sea is dark. The small truth has words which are clear; the great truth has great silence.”

Friday, April 2, 2010


Santa Barbara News Press, March 2010
"Fuzzy Visual Logic" by Josef Woodard

Julie B. Montgomery creates painting that literally blurs the lines between abstraction, realism and allusion, as seen in a sensual exhibition at the Frameworks.

In the paintings of Julie B. Montgomery now at the Frameworks/ Caruso Woods Gallery, one detects a distant ripple to the aesthetic gospel according to impressionism, set in the service of a personal vision. In her sensual and visually massaging pieces, canvases operate at an interesting juncture between abstraction and pictorial allusion.      
We sense a connection to the known world, but as seen through the perceptual gaze and filter of a style that softens edges and reduces real world elements to discreet forms swimming in some cosmic middle space. Hers is like a squinting take on the world of light and dark forms we live in, via an ultra-soft focus offshoot of realism. Or, if you like, she's an abstractionist with more interest in pure visual sensation than the outside world. Either way the art works, and woos.

Montgomery's canvases come in assorted shapes and sizes (emphasis on "shapes"). Larger canvases in the gallery include the innately cool "Blue Evolution" and "Grand Ochre" with its scrubbed golden aura and seeping drips emanating from the seemingly overheated objects, fuzzily represented.

By contrast, the "Evolution Series" is a mosaic-like set of 18 square paintings, 8"x8", like a set of dream time postcards with all the details rubbed out. Still, we sense ghostly hints of palm trees, wavy horizons lines and figures making their presence known.  On the back wall of the gallery, there hangs a triptych called, "Sixth Season" with a mystical wash in keeping with the paintings title.
With the beguiling canvas called, "Metamorphosis in Blue II," which vaguely evokes as assembly of architectural forms set before distant mountain contours, the palette expands from Montgomery's typically more two-tone approach to each piece.  The broader color spectrum is only subtly more dramatic, but subtle changes and variations make an impact when the aesthetic code is so carefully and successfully tended.

Little things matter in art with such quiet, contemplative dignity. In the end, Montgomery's art achieves a transcendental effect by establishing a connective bridge between the artist, the world and the viewer, and the sure but mysterious spaces linking them.

Friday, February 5, 2010


Santa Barbara Magazine February/March 2010
Entree D'Artiste: Painter Julie B. Montgomery's creates a colorful life in a Carpinteria Orchard.
By Gina Tolleson. Photographs by Nancy Neil

Click image to make larger


Venata Magazine August 2009
An Author, A Painter, and a Poet: A Conversation About the Art of Words
By Matt Katz


The Word is more than a heap of letters. It builds order from chaos, starts and ends wars and love affairs. It leads us half-blind down the synaptic highways of our minds, thoughtfully and thoughtlessly wandering. Words absorb worlds and twenty-six dripping letters are nothing but shapes until they become the instrument of the author, the artist, wrung out, reformed, carved and polished, painted, sculpted.

Ventura’s Ken McAlpine took to the solitude of our local islands to deconstruct contemporary American life in his most recent book, #Islands Apart.# Carpinteria-based painter Julie Montgomery utilizes words to add texture and ethereal mystery to her work. And Robert Peake, from Ojai, is a poet.

An author, a painter, and a poet met at the E.P. Foster Library in Ventura to discuss the quiet art of words, and to consider how those words shape our understanding of the world.

VENTANA: How does an author react to the modern generation’s predilection for quick-byte writing?  
KEN MCALPINE: The word is that people’s attention spans are shorter and that there are fewer readers, but the when I talk to people, they say, “I love to read; I have twelve books stacked by my bed.” I believe there are still people who love the arts … they’re just getting drowned out by Britney Spears.
ROBERT PEAKE: In general, technology speeds up our relationship to everything, and words are no exception. … All of us share, as artists, a sense that words can slow down our relationship to ourselves and our world, to noticing things, or taking in a piece of art, which is a very different experience than taking in an email. The natural tendency of technology is to make us want to scan and skim. I think that the more we do that, the more we become hungry for this balance of taking a moment to really appreciate something. … There is a preciousness right now about what we’re doing, in a world of increasing chatter and instant gratification.
VENTANA: How do people react when you tell them you’re a poet, Robert?
ROBERT PEAKE: It’s a great way to stop a conversation at a cocktail party. … My day job is in technology, which a lot of people think is incongruous, but there’s actually an interesting interplay between art and technology going on these days. I think people in the arts either see technology as a friend or a foe. If you look at it in the right way, we’re living in some of the most interesting times for words and art.
VENTANA: We often feel a poem before thinking about its meaning. Do you consider the visual impact of the actual words, the way a poem looks?
ROBERT PEAKE: There’s a whole school of visual poetry, where people are very much looking at the page and how you lay things out on the page. Poetry, to me, is using words to get beyond words. You know, we don’t really have good words for complex emotional states. I mean, even good ones like, ”I’m feeling kind of #wistful# today…” That still doesn’t encompass the way that the light’s coming in through the window that morning, and what’s gone before, and what you’re thinking about.
VENTANA: Julie, this ties in to your field, visual arts. But you also incorporate words. How did that come about?
JULIE MONTGOMERY: I have been journaling for years. I started writing in my drawings, and then in my paintings. The words are not necessarily meant to be read. For me, it’s sort of a reminder of the importance of a stream of consciousness. In my paintings, the words are often just that, or a poem, or a conversation I’m having with the painting, an internal dialogue.
VENTANA: In the painting you brought today, #Island Passage#, how do the words match up to the rest of the piece?
JULIE MONTGOMERY: On this particular piece, it’s a poem. It’s meant to be seen in glimpses so that the viewer can kind of fill in and have curiosity—and think for a moment. It’s more meant to be impressions: somebody whispering, or a veil of text, as in words that you can see, but also a texture. I’m doing layers of colors and textures in my pieces, so for me the final layer is a #textural text#, as it were.
VENTANA: So in a sense, you’re using words to communicate, much as a poet or author would, but the meaning of the words isn’t all that important?
JULIE MONTGOMERY: Right, although for English-reading audiences, they’ll be able to get little pieces of it. I think sometimes not revealing everything is a nice way of engaging, allowing for a little bit of mystery. It’s sort of like the carpets they would weave where, in the pattern there’s one flaw and it lets the spirit out of the carpet. I guess it’s sort of the opposite of instant gratification.  
KEN MCALPINE (to Julie): Do you highlight particular words? Like, “dream” leaps right out of there.
JULIE MONTGOMERY: Sometimes there are certain words that are really important to me at that particular time in my life.
ROBERT PEAKE: It immediately struck me that [this work] is a lot like poetry—that word you can’t quite make out, that music in a distant room, that experience that isn’t ever going to be fully manifest through the medium, and yet the only way it comes through is the medium of words. That’s what you’ve got: #words#. They’re imperfect and they can’t convey it completely, but they can point out a trajectory. … One word can have twenty or thirty nuanced meanings depending on where it’s placed, depending on its context. And that’s the art. That’s the wonderfulness of words as an artistic medium, this incredible variety of expression.
KEN MCALPINE: Words are art, but there’s also a very workmanlike aspect behind it. People ask me, “What do you do when the muse isn’t firing?” I’m getting paid for this. I come in and bang my head against the wall until the words come. And if they don’t come, I keep banging. … But it is a joy. Writing provides a chance to be observant. I believe this is my one life—I’m not coming back as a kumquat—and I don’t want to miss anything. Part of the premise behind my book, and we’ve touched on this, is that things are just so rushed these days. Sometimes it is fun in our vocation to step back and observe. #You know, today was a day well lived. I saw these things; I didn’t miss them.#
VENTANA: Ken, describe the creative process behind your most recent book, #Islands Apart#.
KEN MCALPINE: I take copious notes. So I was wandering around those islands, with five days growth and no shower, holding a notebook. The few people I ran into gave me a wide berth because I’m on a promontory scratching down what looks like my last will and testament before I jump over the edge. But yeah, I take a lot of notes and then I come back and highlight what I think is best. After that, it’s actually kind of magical. You sit down with those things and they sort of whir around in your brain. The first two days or so, I’m sorting stuff out and things just don’t go well, and then all of a sudden things gel. That part is magic.
JULIE MONTGOMERY: I have a very similar experience. Often I’ll work on a painting until I just really don’t like it, and then I’ll make myself leave, otherwise I’ll overwork it. And each time I walk away and come back I see it completely different. Then suddenly things start to fit, like a puzzle, and there’s this sense of elation from that. … You really don’t know when a piece of art is finished. In writing, you can edit it and change this and rephrase that. There’s just a sense of things fitting together in a right way. It’s definitely internal.
VENTANA: Julie, at what point did you start using words in your paintings?
JULIE MONTGOMERY: I always have. There was a point when I was in art school where I wasn’t necessarily encouraged to; you’re learning how to do still lifes and that kind of thing. But even at that time, the words started to come in slowly. I started, in school, using words as a bit of texture, creating blocks of texture on the drawings. Then as I evolved, the writing became more of a standard thing in there. For me, those words are a part of the completion process.
VENTANA: When you begin a painting, do you already know which words you’ll use?
JULIE MONTGOMERY: Sometimes. There are certain pieces that I feel really connect to certain things I am writing about. But often it’s more of an internal dialogue, a stream of consciousness. I often don’t know what I am going to write until I’m actually writing.
VENTANA: You paint in layers. So, when do the words get added?
JULIE MONTGOMERY: They are always the final layer, but I will go in and obscure them so they’re not, like, floating on the surface. I’ll obscure them so they recede back into the depth of the painting itself.
KEN MCALPINE: That’s a beautiful touch, Julie, because if you just gave this painting (#Island Passage#) a cursory glance you wouldn’t even see the words.
JULIE MONTGOMERY: And that’s actually very intentional. I want you to see the image from a distance, but then as you get closer to the painting, you start to see this other life, this other layer in there.
ROBERT PEAKE: What’s interesting to me is the interplay between these abstract forms and these words that, as you say, have been obscured. Words, to me, are some of the least abstract elements you could put on a page, because people automatically assume words mean something. … When I saw these words I thought, that’s kind of what poetry is: that sense of the submerged.
JULIE MONTGOMERY: Sometimes the words allude to that which is not being said.
ROBERT PEAKE: It’s the “space between the words,” and you literally have, between the lines, these forms that enrich the experience.
VENTANA: We’re in a room, surrounded by dusty old hardback books, and in our pockets, iPhones and Blackberries. Where is the Word going?
JULIE MONTGOMERY: It’s like what the printing press was to the evolution of society. We’re in that kind of transition.
ROBERT PEAKE: And people were terrified of the printing press. People were strapped to them and burned alive! It was really a dangerous thing to those in power.
KEN MCALPINE: That all harkens back to the power of art—they were terrified of the #Word#.
ROBERT PEAKE: There’s always an opportunity for art, any time a human being wants to express something. And no matter what the medium, there’s always a limitation, whether it’s a hundred and forty characters for a Twitter message, or…
JULIE MONTGOMERY: Or within a thirty-six by thirty-six-inch canvas.


In Ken McAlpine’s most recent book, #Islands Apart#, the Channel Islands become a modern-day Walden Pond where the author reflects on nature, civilization, and life in general. Trumpeter Books/Shambhala Publications, $14.95; buy it at local bookstores or online at

Julie Montgomery’s work will be part of a group exhibition at the Sylvia White Gallery in Ventura, August 19 - September 12 (opening reception, August 22, 3-5 p.m.), 1783 E. Main St., Ventura.

Robert Peake’s website,, is a clearinghouse for his poetry, his blog, random thoughts, recommended reads, and more.

[ Sidebar 2 ]

By Robert Peake

(After Marvin Bell's "Why Do You Stay Up So Late?")

I write under the blister of morning.
The part of my mind on salary
is still asleep. The lights
are camphor, and everything
depends on the crow.
The lament of the doves
never mattered. It was only
to bring you these crumbs
that I cracked the ice
above my bed, and threw off
the body-warm covers. I have watched
the blue light coming from
a long way off, the trees
becoming golden, and dimensional.
I rub out the dust from my eyes
like cleaning a gravestone.
I massage each finger
like the barrel of a gun.
For you, for this: an elegy
before breakfast, written
to remember myself.