Painting rules

It does of course but here I am referring to the rules I associate with my own painting. Or at least guidelines which, when followed, lead a certain direction. Who doesn’t like rules (probably lots of people, and good for them- rebel on)? Maybe a better question would be “Are rules useful?” For generating some types of painting, I would say “Yes.”

If you’ve been kind enough to read the words on this blog from time to time you’ll know I center the word formalism a lot. Formalists can have a lot of rules, I guess, or perhaps just a few. I think the general one we share is making our primary concern an attention to what our work gains from a focus on line, shape, and color. Surface should also probably should be on the list.

“But Sterling” you may say (or perhaps above was too boring to merit reading a third paragraph) “formalism sounds so empty.”

First of all- consider the viewpoint from which this argument is made (that a painting is an empty container that one must fill with something “else”). To this painter, that sound like devaluing the intuitive, the creative, the spontaneous, the impulse that is outside of words. In short- it assumes painting is more like a book than a song. I disagree, at least in the case of abstraction.

Perhaps consider this article by John Yau writing for Hyperallergic, one of the better Art e-rags around today, about the oustanding colorist Harriet Korman. Yau contends her work aspires to the state of music.

I also recently enjoyed this article by Laurie Fendrich of Two Coats of Paint (another outstanding source of art writing) where she discusses pleasure and beauty, with many references to the late David Hickey, in the context of the most recent Whitney Biennale. For the tldr crowd- there is a view of art (that I think applies broadly to abstraction) that our relationship to it is more immediate than words. The strange magic of knowing something this deeply is awe inspiring.

Maybe read this interview with Andrea Marie Breiling as well.

What does all this have to do with rules? Nothing more or less than noting that attention to and focus on the physical qualities of painting a) is a rule, b) is sort of outside language and c) isn’t “empty.”

Experiments in Form

Yesterday, I packed up some recent work for a group show install that has me pumped up- what an amazing group in which to be included!

Curated by Charlotte Russell and on view at Hartwell in Raleigh, Experiments in Form features artworks by five Triangle-based artists, Sterling Bowen, Abie Harris, Mar Hester, Pete Sack, and Natalia Torres del Valle. Through their own unique process and materials, each artist experiments with spontaneity vs. control, interconnectedness, and the process of making. Below is a pic Charlotte caught of me installing an original composition made just for this show.

The show will be up through August so plenty of time to check it out. Follow Charlotte on IG to get the latest on this and other shows she’s curated, including a reception (TBD).

Building Blocks

While painting is certainly my go-to medium, and I have work in progress, I’ve been spending a good chunk of my limited studio time lately building more of the wooden cubes that are the compositional elements in my installation work. Part of the reason for the shift in focus- beyond the fact that my focus tends to shift regularly (I don’t imagine that’s surprising to anyone who follows this blog)- is a series of proposals I’ve done or am working on that I hope will create some opportunities to interact with new spaces and create new, unseen compositions with all of the new elements I’m making (including an idea that is taking shape for how to engage an audience directly in co-creation, a follow up on the cube selector project)*.

My process for creating the cubes has a few stages. The primary material (scrap wood left over from the addition to our hone that included my studio) is assembled into either 6-sided cubes (second image) or masses of scrap (first image). In the latter case, the mass has to be squared up on a miter saw. The cubes are puttied and sanded, and then painted. After that, it’s time to assemble the end results with help from my studio assistant…

The end result are objects which I see as proxies for brushstrokes. Each of the cube’s 6 sides have unique surfaces/textures (a stand-in for impasto) and the color may be consistent/monotone or varied. The range of possibilities is vast, and yet constrained (by a single construct- “cube”- and a limited chroma/pallet). I’ve mentioned in my thoughts on painting the interest I have in truths that superficially seem to be contradictory, and in this body of work, the dualities at work are chance and planning, as well as the rigidity of a geometric form and the intuitive abstraction (something one would anticipate to be more fluid).

BTW, “yes,” building compositions with blocks has other, older associations for me than early Modernist strategies to foreground basic compositional strategies. While it might appear that I’m referencing early childhood play here (I’m not) it’s critical I think to be transparent about associations and also, while spontaneity and intuition are not in and of themselves “play,” the inner certainty that leads to choice isn’t necessarily different for me now, and a sense that something is “right” (compositionally) isn’t diminished because it’s origin is not semiotic or language-based. *Also, hopefully my next update will be regarding at least one of these opportunities manifesting in the form of a group show in Raleigh, stay tuned…


I’ve been working on a series of installation pieces that I call remixes for some time now (below, dates to May of ’20). They began when I realized there were some elements of paintings that (as a whole) I didn’t feel resonated, and began to cut up the canvases and thumb-tack the parts to the wall, rearranging them as if the cubes or clusters of cubes were individual compositional elements. Remixes belong to my generation so I’m quite comfortable owning that nomenclature and “yes,” I’m also down with the idea that the experiential element of music is quite often similar to the experiential elements of visual art (and I’ll note that just because music remixes are the most familiar instance of this modality, remixing is not unique to the media).

To me, the act of intuitive “play” without a known or pre-determined outcome- an objective- is what makes much formalist abstract art, well, non-objective. There’s something more with these reassemblies than the element of play though- they create or imply space (that they exist in it) by their proximity and overlap. The “pop” between these “layers” is something I’ve thought and written and talked about over many years, and I’m certain the appeal has something to do with the influence that cel animation had on my aesthetics (which in many cases is cooler than anything I’ll ever make, see example from Akira below).

Of late, the compositions I’m exploring have not only scaled up (compare first image below of an early iteration to the last one) but also attempted to engage a more bombastic combination of chromas (second image). One of the things I learned when I showed them recently, too, is that, to enhance and foreground their experiential and temporary qualities, they should change each time they are shown. I’ve also recently purchased some lights so I can use one of the walls in my studio as a canvas (stage?) to work through new ideas/configurations (and capture the resulting compositions in hopes that I can also create some new opportunities for them to exist outside my studio).

Also been thinking about some of the artists I’ve enjoyed over the years that have at times made work that engages negative space and/or implied space: Elizabeth Murray’s frenetic cartoon energy that defied the notion of the painting as a rectangle; Stella’s late work that reflected back to society the impact of digital imagery that overtook hand-drawn graphic design at the end of the 20th Century; Al Held’s non-sensical labyrinths; and Elsworth Kelly’s always amazing ability to energize the space around a shape.

Beginning is just a word

Getting the image below in a text from a friend recently reminded me of the emotions around this painting which I considered a real success at the time I did it in 2018, and I think it has aged well. I hadn’t completed a painting I like this much in almost 2 decades. It felt like a beginning, at the time.

Talking about art a good bit lately may be why I’ve felt reflective, maybe a little nostalgic. From thinking about why I started making art (well, drawings) as a kid and then into college, to how the body of work that is occupying me now both goes back to grad school at the end of the ’90s and is rooted in the circumstances for starting to make Artwork again in 2018 (so I’ve revamped and expanded on what was initially the bio on this site to make these 2 essays about these distinct time periods).

Anyway, all the talking and writing has me in word mode, and rethinking my thinking about what I’m doing over here pushing around wet, colored plastic suspensions onto canvas with a hairy stick, so I’ve recorded some new thoughts about my practice as well.

Talking Art

Going to do Studio Snacks with the BASEMENT crew on Tuesday 3/1 at 8pm- (Zoom link ). Studio Snacks is a series of 30-min virtual studio visits for North Carolina-based artists. Visits can be held privately with the BASEMENT curatorial team or be open to the public; they can be spaces to informally critique, share work with community members, and/or receive feedback privately.

Got to do a talk recently, too, with a couple of friends, Jackie and Adriana. We have all looked at and talked about each other’s work a good deal over the last ~4 years. A good time was had by all!

I’ve also done live conversations on Instagram. I post them as reels afterwards. I’ve done one with Cindy Morefield, Barb Cherry and Reuven Wallack, and am looking forward to doing one soon with my friends Barbara Anne Thomas, who has work in a show at Blue Spiral in Asheville and is represented by ArtSuite, as well as Elisabeth Efron who has a great show at Anchorlight of some amazing photo-based encaustic work. If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to this blog to get bi-monthly updates on when events like these happen.

Tools of the trade

So as I mentioned above is the basis for a new piece I’ve started. It has foregrounded a number of tools that I employ, including of course using the process of making unplanned studies as a way to surface ideas for finished pieces.

I recycled the composition from an earlier piece (made sense to me since I am also recycling the support) which required a photo from my tablet, desktop software, a stylus for tracing and then isolating and printing the copied cartoon on a sheet of acetate (which involves a printer and of course a transparency projector). I don’t think I’m the only 45+ Gen X’er with a fondness for analog technologies. Technically I could have used the projector and a sheet of acetate to trace the cartoon, completely side stepping any digital device- something to think on… I plan to reuse the transparency later in the painting, too, to repeat the cartoon in red. Tape and the use of a maul stick eventually feature as other “technologies” I’ll leverage to get at an aesthetic that blurs the line between drawing and painting.

Yes, I’ve been painting

Quite a bit going on, actually.

First things first, top left is my first finished piece of the year (small, 20”x23”). Both it and the one to the right were developed from studies. The one on the right is going to be the first in a small series (top left below). My first shaped canvas is still taking shape (I’m hilarious, I know) and I finished a composition for a second- every time I took a photo of the finished piece at an angle (last two images in the gallery below) I became more convinced this is a strategy to pursue.

Also, and… the study bottom left below is scaling up. I’m recycling the composition from an earlier piece. I’ll have a work in progress page for it once I get the drawing transferred. AND…I’m also updating a small earlier piece with a cartoon (it didn’t have one in its first life), the sketch is pictured far right below (the first iteration is far right in the top right photo in the first gallery above).

Drawing from things in the past


Been working on a smaller piece based on a study loosely based on a drawing (or at least the approach of drawing on acetate as a proxy for using acrylic with thick, clear isolation layers).

Also thinking about how some early Modernists put compositions together, in particular how Weber, Picasso, Leger and Braque used a narrow chroma range with a high tonal range and a really dark dark (at least they did during their analytical cubism phases).

Restarts aren’t clean breaks sometimes

I’ve written about processing the value of having shown work, and making studies to generate new ideas. I’ve also started a new piece (based on an old one) that to me feels less about running off in an entirely new direction and more like… veering.

As soon as I got the drawing onto the canvas, which was stapled to the studio wall, it became clear that a container for all these containers would be more dramatic if the angles weren’t all 90°. Shaped canvases require learning about mitering acute and obtuse angles- the first take (pre-“research”, IE YouTube) was of course entirely wrong.

Thoughts and reactions on Dimensions

So, I’ve had a little more time to process since my last update regarding the direction my work- or my painting at least- has headed since I installed my (solo!!!) show at Golden Belt’s Grand Gallery, Dimensions. And the thing I keep coming back to is gratitude, for this opportunity. It’s an incredible privilege to have the capacity to make work that doesn’t need to exist for commercial purposes- it’s liberating and I hope I can hold on to that context for a bit longer. And I won’t lie, some folks who are farther along in their careers than I (due to their work and commitment) have taken me more seriously lately, which is validating if perhaps a little egocentric (I am a frickin’ artist though…).

Some details- the natural light in the space is amazing, I’d have taken the opportunity to hang this show just to get some of the images I got.

This is what I wrote as a statement for the show btw fwiw icymi: “Dimension is a noun meaning “a measurable extent of some kind.” Dimension also has another meaning- “an aspect or feature of a situation”- which, again, references attention towards the visual character of a thing. The contrast between the features- including the physical dimensions- of the cubes is the source of each piece’s dynamism. The cube assemblages-which are not attached permanently to each other or the wall-foreground gravity and light in a way that paintings cannot. I treat the cubes as proxies for brushstrokes as I spontaneously assemble them into temporary compositions that are never repeated. The process for making this installation relied on reacting to the cubes themselves and to the dimensions of the Grand Gallery. For many of us “dimension” also refers to time (an element of the sculptures as they are temporary) and space (which they physically occupy). For me, these untitled abstractions are an exchange of energy and experience with an audience- a dynamic that requires space, and the passage of time.”

Studying what’s next

Having two shows this fall (group show at 311 Gallery and a solo at Golden Belt) has been amazing and validating, and work of course- first time showing both the cubes and remixes (which was a technical challenge). It also felt like closure. So in that context I’ve felt drawn to move the paintings in a new and slightly different direction. A practice based on formal investigation and experimentation probably should, right?

Having the cubes and the remixes up and together on walls with the paintings also made me want the latter to be even more distinct. So I’ve begun working through what I’ve wanted to “push” more from the prior work and thinking more about the edges of the cubes and how I incorporate line. Some early examples below, at least 3 of which are likely to be further developed (“yes” the two in the bottom left are an example of a spot where I’m far enough along to start responding to earlier studies with newer ones).

(Re-)mixing it up- update!

One of the series I’ve been developing for the last year are what I call re-mixes. These pieces make use of the many studies that I’ve done to develop approaches for finished paintings.

The most intriguing part of these works is that they appear to occupy space- the same space- because they overlap in the same way that layers of cellular animation would. But the space is completely ambiguous.

The piece below is the newest (and largest) one I’ve done, you’ll see at the link above it is composed of elements from several prior remixes. It is installed in Durham in my Dimensions show.

Artist(s) Talk(ing)


Super excited to have the chance to do another Instagram artist talk with my friend Barb Cherry (if you missed my last one check it out).

Barb is a figurative painter who like me is a based in the Triangle. We’ve probably been in a dozen critiques together over the last few years so I’m assuming this one will go deep since we already have a good report. Tune in!