Both sides now

February 27, 2021

Interstate 90, Front. New Haven, Connecticut. 1980. Oil on panel. Approx: 12 x 16 in or 30 x 40 cm.

Interstate 90, Front. Somewhere around New Haven, Connecticut. 1980. Oil on panel. Approx: 12 x 16 in or 30 x 40 cm.

Interstate 90, Back. Somewhere around Old Saybrook, Connecticut? 1980. Oil on panel. Approx: 12 x 16 or 30 x 40 cm.

Interstate 90, Back. Somewhere around Old Saybrook, Connecticut. 1980. Oil on panel. Approx: 12 x 16 or 30 x 40 cm.

I’ve been attracted to creating paintings on both sides of a panel for a long time.

The idea to do so first occurred to me back in the late 70’s when I began painting on panels instead of the stretched canvas I had trained on. Illustrated here left and right is a highway scene from Connecticut, 1980. One view was straight on photo-realism (see above, left), while the back side was a playful attempt to break up an alternate yet related highway image by eliminating one section of a photograph, enlarging it and re-inserting (see right).

But this two-sided approach doesn’t occur to you if you paint exclusively on canvas. For, ever since the sixteenth century artists have steadily moved away from panels towards canvas. There are good reasons for this: canvas is lighter and more flexible than wood; it’s much easier to create (and store) large scale works; technically it’s less challenging; plus, the advent of acrylic paints and acrylic gesso in the 1950’s put the hammer in the coffin. So why bother? Well, I can only say that for me it’s always been a certain kind of (stiff-necked) tactile sensibility. I stick with what I can relate to, even as I have chalked up self-inflicted wounds.

View of the Predijkherrenrij, Front, Bruges, Belgium. 2010. Oil on panel 44 x 54 cm.

View of the Predijkherrenrij, Front, Bruges, Belgium. 2010. Oil on panel 44 x 54 cm.

View of the Predijkherrenrij, Back, Bruges, Belgium. 2010. Oil on panel 44 x 59 cm. or 17 1/4 x 23 1/4 in.

View of the Predijkherrenrij, Back, Bruges, Belgium. 2010. Oil on panel 44 x 59 cm. or 17 1/4 x 23 1/4 in.

Thus, soon after I returned to painting in 2003, I began to imagine the resurrection of the double sided painting approach, with an integrated view. At that time I created a view of the Predijkherrenrij in Bruges near to our apartment. I painted one side of a panel fully realistic and the back side fully abstract. However, in the preparation phase I had already created ask a carpenter to give it a rotating inner core. This would allow for four different viewing options. See the two linked views illustrated here, left and right.

Anna Front after a few small repairs and cleaning.

Anna Front after a few small repairs and cleaning.

Anna Back. Oil on panels. 44.5 63.5 cm or 17.5 x 25 in.

Anna Back. Oil on panels. 44.5 63.5 cm or 17.5 x 25 in.

When you paint on a wooden panel, you prime the back side as well. Initially you may do this for archival reasons since preparing both sides seals the panel from moisture. You’ll have less chance of it warping in the future. Then you also quickly realise that it’s equally viable as a painting surface(!). If you visit museums displaying works from a fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, you can see that it was often the case that both sides of the panel were painted then, too. Of course, foldable altar pieces were done that way. It was part of the original concept. You might occasionally find it in portraits, too. For example, an artist might have used the back side to experiment with trompe-l’œil effects. However, since it’s not an option intrinsic to a stretched canvas, as an approach, it’s all but lost.

Now I have recently completed a third front and back piece. The front side was completed in 2011.  See linked image to the left. However, due to many technical reasons which I have documented here and here, the back side was not completed until March of 2021. See linked image on the right. No one in their right mind would conceive of the substrate for a painting – which itself is intended to express an essential unity – to consist of twenty five separate panels. Physically, it’s a contradiction in terms. Yet that is precisely what this project consisted of(!). Despite the fact that it has finally come to a successful fruition I don’t think I’ll try it again (ever). There must be easier ways to do this. 😉

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