I know a number of painters, hell, I am a painter, and I am willing to say that the best paintings being made in South Florida right now are by an artist named Kerry Ware.
We painters, admittedly, are an odd lot. To be a painter nowadays requires working in a period of art history (the postmodern, or, if you prefer, the post-postmodern) which is characterized by a particular kind of diffusion called "pluralism." The options of media, style, and content available to the artist are unimaginably numerous; they include every known attribute of art worldwide from Lascaux to last week, each available for remixing. The increasing availability and widening array of media technology, postmodernism's disdain for quality as an elitist construct, and the avant-garde's demand for the new has created a situation in which an artist has the freedom to do almost anything, call it "art," and get away with it. Installation pieces and art which purports to cross categorical boundaries (say, between video and sculpture or writing and photography) are very fashionable right now.
So what kind of person decides to make a plain old painting, a good one with any luck, in this setting? It is someone who enjoys the simplicity of painting, the freedom of being able to concentrate on a few formal variables, the pure, childlike pleasure of spreading color over a surface. It is someone who appreciates painting's rich history and the colossal efforts which have been invested in its advancement. Also, it is someone who can tune out contemporary art history like a bad radio station. In short, it is a combination of enthusiast, scholar, and crank.
In all of these respects, Ware possesses the ideal constitution for a contemporary painter. As an unabashed modernist, he finds the play of colors on a flat surface inexhaustibly interesting. He has heroes in art history whom he admires for their focus, skill, and sensitivity as well as the prodigious quality of their work: Giotto, Poussin, Corot, Matisse, Morandi. And in his studio, Ware has only one artistic concern, which is to make a painting he wants to look at, and he wants to look at something abstract, light, richly but not acidly colored, and endowed with an intriguing surface.
Technically, he has arrived at a means by which he can accomplish this with great success. He pours a kind of plaster over a board to give it a thick coating. On this absorbent plaster ground, thin oil paint dries to an attractive matte surface. It can be sanded, which allows Ware to remove layers of color, exposing the previous layers down to the white ground if need be. Lines can be cut into it with a razor. Ware goes through a long, thoughtful process as he applies paint by washing, spattering, and pouring, then removes and alters it, then applies it again. His surfaces seem to have been formed by age and weather rather than the self-conscious hand of the artist. The textures of the finished paintings range from scruffy and gouged to chalk-smooth. The colors, layered and then abraded away, evoke atmosphere and the effects of atmosphere, the dilapidated facades of old Italian architecture, and stucco walls which endure daily hard beatings of sunlight.
Of course, it is insufficient to create a surface, however charming, when one intends to make a painting. In abstraction, that can sometimes be a difficult distinction to make. In Ware's case, when his paintings tend toward the minimal, that difficulty can be acute. He is saved by his equally acute sense of composition, informed by an intense visual study of a great number of paintings, which tells him when one of his surfaces finally crosses over into the realm of the picture.
When this happens, the magic of painting starts to kick in. Chalky, abused areas of color become luminous clouds, shot through with intense, distant sparks. Variegated plaster rectangles take on a quality like rolling landscapes painted in the Chinese manner, infinitely spatial and majestic. The paintings are suffused with the milky light which one recognizes from Morandi's still lifes and Monet's views of his water lily pond. A thin stripe on opposite edges of a painting become the frame of a window with a great view of a distant planet. But there are no specific associations; the purity of Ware's abstraction precludes that, and we are left with an ineffable grandeur.
The transformation of pigment into light, which after all is the grand accomplishment of painting, occurs anew with each finished piece.
On behalf of our ragtag band of scholar-cranks, who strive only to make good paintings in an era when "good" and "painting" are notions viewed with suspicion from certain quarters, I salute Kerry Ware for his devotion to the narrow path he has found for himself. It is his own, it is honestly tread, and we are the beneficiaries of the great beauty which comes from his traveling it.