Very few artists are as serious as Ron Hinson. Very few have devoted so much of their lives to studying art history and art criticism and philosophy. He takes his art seriously, but there is playfulness to it as well, and a lot of sly humor.
Over the past quarter century Hinson has worked on seemingly endless variations of a single idea, which is to make art that is not confined to a flat, rectangular surface. Hinson builds complicated abstract or non-objective structures that hang on the wall. They are painted constructions made mostly of Masonite with densely encrusted textures built up with plaster. Although they are three-dimensional he thinks of them as paintings and not as sculpture.
As a kind of playful relief from the serious work of making these often large and difficult paintings Hinson draws and paints illustrations of works such as “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Aesop’s Fables.” He thinks of the illustrations as entertainment not to be taken as seriously as his constructed paintings, yet the aesthetic considerations of color and contrast and harmony of shape and line and texture are just as complex in the illustrations as in the painted constructions. He is currently working on a series of alphabet letters. Each letter illustrates an animal whose name begins
with the letter, such as B for bird and Q for quail. Printed at the top of each is the name used to designate a group of these animals, such as a flock of birds or a herd of elephants or a murder of crows. He’s doing them one at a time. So far he has completed the series through X for xenops, a South American bird, and he is working on Y for yak.
He first began working on the oddly shaped constructions in about 1984 or ’85 and started consistently working on them in ’86 when he did an artist-in-residency program for the Bemis Foundation in Omaha. His proposal for the residency program was to work on paintings broken out of the traditional rectangular format, influenced by cut and shaped paintings by Frank Stella and by the writings of the critic Clement Greenberg, who claimed that all painting should be true to the flat, rectangular surface of the canvas, meaning no illusory space. Hinson said he wanted to make paintings that could not be seen as a window on the world.
That has been the problem he has consistently tackled in every painting since. For most of the quarter century he’s been working on these paintings his work has been abstract, but lately it has been more non-objective. Hinson says he has been able to work non-objectively for only about 10 years. “It has been a struggle to purge representational imagery,” he says.
The abstract work, which he no longer does, may have references to things in nature or to manmade objects such as one painting that features an abstract form based on a newspaper clipping of an army vehicle, or they may be based on literature or art. For example, he has made paintings based of Greek and Roman mythology and he has made paintings based on famous works by other artists such as “Marat Sade” by Jacques–Louis David and “Las Meninas” by Velazquez.
The non-objective paintings have no references to imagery of any kind but are about the relationships between various colors, shapes and textures. Although he has worked hard to purge imagery he says he may go back to it at any time. He quotes the critic Arthur Danto who says anything is possible in today’s art world.
The artists who have most influenced Hinson are Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Elizabeth Murray, Jasper Johns, Paul Klee, and Claude Monet, among others. He says in truth he is influenced by the whole world of art, both Western and non-Western, as well as by writings about art. Stella and Murray have influenced him because of their work with shaped paintings. Klee for his subtle relationships on a small scale. He says he is impressed by de Kooning’s drawing with a loaded brush and the way energy is embodied in his work. And he says Rauschenberg is “the most significant American painter in the 20th century. He is always there as a challenge as well as an inspiration.”
Hinson talks a lot about challenge. He believes art should be challenging to the artist as well as to the viewer. He also complains that many viewers do not approach art with an open mind and do not give the work of art the sustained attention it demands. He says you cannot comprehend a work of art in a brief viewing. “I like to use the analogy of getting to know someone. To do so requires that one listen to them, and try to ‘walk around in their shoes’ rather than to fit them into predetermined categories or expectations.”
When asked about the differences between his painted constructions and the illustrations he says: “In making the painted constructions and illustrations, it is as if they are by different artists. The unifying factor might be color, which I carefully orchestrate in both cases. The painted constructions are intended to be discrete objects that emphasize form and an expressive under-structure. The surfaces are conceived as planes that carry expressive drawing with the brush and overlays of color. They require sustained viewing to discern their form and content. The illustrations are a diversion. They are light-hearted and deliberately representational, however abstract. Each series follows a predetermined format that allows freedom within it. They are intended to eschew illusions of depth, and are frankly decorative. The expressiveness of the illustrations comes from a witty conception wed with invention of shapes and subtle color relationships, whereas the content of the painted constructions is embodied in the formal relationships, including the evocativeness of the shapes.”
Hinson confesses to ambivalence about the role of a painter in today’s society. “It is an issue that vexes me. At base, I suppose, is that painters have no significant role to play societally. That does not mean there is no reason to make paintings. There is a dimension of being human that needs and responds to the arts because we have a need for the aesthetic experience. Much of what is created in the arts (including film, theater, literature and dance) is entertainment, and I do not mean that.”
“I want to avoid being just making entertainment art. I want to embody content that’s expressive of something that’s not superficial.” He speaks of the complexity of the underlying structure of his paintings saying that if one piece of one of his constructions was lost the whole piece would disintegrate.