Essay by Jane Fudge
Solo Exhibition Brochure at Vance Kirkland Close Range Gallery, The Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49)
"A Dream within a Dream"
- It is a view both familiar and strange.
Here are the homely commonplaces of after-school snacks and the canned raw material of home cooking. Here are remnants of dinner out, those little trapezoidal cardboard boxes that entomb Chinese leftovers. They are the same kind of boxes in which dime stores once sold doomed goldfish to hopeful children. Here is the detritus of the studio, jars of gessso and flyspecked still lifes. Here are spent wine bottles, beer bottles, a Ukrainian Easter egg, the used up milk cartons that in reality bear a plaintive entreaty: Have you seen me? Empty, empty, yet full of meaning. Revealed by a tarnished-silver light are loveingly neglected, straggly indoor plants and slightly dusty fruit. Gorgeous flowers sip from impossibly delicate vessels and sometimes hover, imperishable, in midair.
Enter stranger, the world painted by Daniel Sprick. An inheritor of pictorial tradition that goes back at least as far as ancient Rome and later compelled the best efforts of such Northern European masters as Roger van de Weyden and Jan Vermeer, Sprick finds much yet to be revealed in the still life and the interior. His ultra realistic oil paintings continue and expand old dialogues about appearance and reality, the relationship of art and life, the revelation of the multiples in the simple. Although he is a man who is devoted to the meticulous representation of everyday things, Daniel Sprick's career as a painter began with visions of flight.
"I began drawing," Daniel Sprick explains," at age four. Dad showed me how." Airplanes were a passion. The youngster associated their graceful contours with movement and eventually made elegance in drawing the equivalent of flight. Balsa wood gliders, looping and banking, focused Sprick's imagination on the beauty of line. To this day, Sprick relates an "exquisite line" to being airborne. Each painting, he says, is his search for "just the right launch," and exercise that must conclude in a perfect landing. Today he is both a widely recognized artist and an experience pilot. His exhilaration in flight informs such affectionate bits of iconography as the DC-3 (buzzing Leonardo da Vinci's canon of human proportion) on the side of a milk carton, and the precarious feats of levitation performed by knives, eggs, and other unlikely objects in Flora Spirited and other works.
Tensions between interior and exterior, tradition and experiment, distance and intimacy, charm and weirdness, and literal representation and emotional expression fill Daniel Sprick's paintings. Viewed through this works, the artist's world is a small one-studio, hallway, a studio table, a window-yet it encompasses a kind of cosmic vision. "I didn't know you could be a professional artist until I was in my mid-twenties," Sprick recalls. "I thought it was too late for me."
Nevertheless, Sprick began with an energetic examination of historical painting styles. He studied with Ramon Froman, a flower of John Singer Sargent, who introduced him to Sargent's slashing, illusionistic technique. By the mid-1970's Daniel Sprick began serious work as a plein-air impressionist in New Mexico. A lifelong love of drawing and native technical mastery of paint led him in retrograde fashion to Hon Ruskin-like close observation of nature in 1980. He started with a series of botanical subjects. However the great tradition of figure painting was something about which Sprick felt ambivalent. "Transitory things are hard," he observes, "and portraits and figures can be a pain." (His inspiration, John Singer Sargent, would agree.) Since he paints relatively slowly, Sprick concludes that asking a living model to pose" eight hours at a stretch day after day" is not practical.
Although Sprick shies from discussing a codified iconography for his paintings, he is indebted to earlier masters. The painters of the Northern Renaissance, Robert Campin (the Master of Flemalle), Roger van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes, the van Eyck brothers- Jan and/or Hubert- "leave me feeling both helpless and empowered," Sprick says. So does Giovanni Bellini's almost hallucinatory style. The archaic and modern qualities that seem to converge so effortlessly in the works of these early painters continue to fascinate Sprick. He admires the ability for these artists to create a believable look at invisible realms and supernatural happenings. For example, the miracle depicted in Jan van Eyck's Virgin and Child with the Chancellor Rolin (1433-34) occurs in a luxurious room but is ignored by two passer-bys seen through the balcony window. Such tangible yet elusive apparitions live on in secular form in Sprick's vision of a hovering egg in Flora Spirited, or in the artists' own shadowy personal appearance reflected in a mirror in All We See or Seem.
Sprick paints with intensity and even joy. He keeps an eye out for signs of transcendence in the everyday, yet he has a completely contemporary sense of irony that is illustrated by the following parallel. The Master of Fl-malle and Roger van der Weyden furnished their imaginary (but convincingly painted) interiors with the same props again and again. A certain kind of bulbous, blue-figured import ceramic made a regular appearance in both artists' works, usually as a flower pot for the Virgin's symbolic lily. Daniel Sprick updates this familiar motif with prosaic but no less beautifully decorated milk cartons. In Dusk and Vapor, one milk carton label reads, "Vapor Calcium Fortified," while another proclaims, "The Dusk Fat Free Milk, " Daniel Sprick enjoys these near-surreal enigmas and plants them frequently for viewers to find , a kind of hide-the-thimble game folded into his beautifully realized works. In Calcium, another carton is embellished with the androgynous creamer of Edvard Munch and stuffed with partly disarticulated human bones. Despite its macabre overtones, Calcium could well illustrate Walt Whitman:
My foothold is tenon'd and mortis'd in granite,
I laugh at what you call dissolution,
And I know the amplitude of time.
(Song of Myself, 2)
Another source for Sprick is Jan Vermeer, the Dutch baroque painter of intimate domestic interiors. In Vermeer's inhabited, yet extremely quiet, rooms and corners, magic comes from an earthly, not supernatural light. Yet magic it is. A Vermeer-like glow infuses many of Daniel Sprick's paintings, often falling on objects from some unseen source. It spreads arbitrarily through his interiors, picking out this tangerine and that bottle, causing their color and form to bloom, submerging other parts of the painting in warm shadow. From Vermeer too, comes the suggestion of worlds within worlds. Oriental rugs imply distant exotic places (and perhaps Sprick's obsession with flying via magic carpet as well). Paintings and fine art prints tacked to walls, tantalizing reflections in a blank television screen, figures half-seen through distant doorways enhance the notion of time and distance. Daniel Sprick also revisits the tradition of the still life as memento mori. Yet again, in these contemporary works, the traditional images of decay and dissolution, faded flowers, broken china, eggshells, a human skull---are leavened with humorous elements such as nibbled cookies and a seeping stain that spreads from a paper bag to the book it stands on.
For all his devotion to the realist tradition in painting, Daniel Sprick's views are entirely contemporary, and he emphasizes the abstract underpinnings of his and others' work. "All art is abstract, of course. The art is to extract the parts of reality we can use and leave the rest." While the content of his paintings reaches for transcendence, Sprick is pragmatic when he describes his works' formal properties, and the preparation he makes for each one. He is not enamored of laborious painting techniques. The smoothly pained, jewel-like surfaces of Daniel Sprick's images belie the simple, shortcut methods he sues. He paints on masonite primed with gesso. For smaller works, Sprick makes a charcoal sketch directly on the support before beginning to work; larger paintings demand separate studies and preliminary drawings.
"Painters who go in for verisimilitude need to start with things that cooperate," he says with a smile, explaining why he rarely paints anything in motion. And he makes light of his choice of still-life material: "I'm fundamentally lazy. I don't have to look very far for things to paint. I like the shapes of milk cartons because they look like architecture, diminutive houses. And I enjoy inventing the calligraphy. In that way, I guess I've been influenced by Pop Art- though I really don't have much sympathy for it!"
This is another example of the equilibrium of an artist who rarely paints people, yet who admired and learned from both the flamboyant portraiture of Nicolai Fechin and the restrained and detailed works of Han Holbein. "Much of my drawing experience comes from portraits," Daniel Sprick says, "and painting is really nothing but drawing." A note of pride rises in his voice then fades. "I should do more drawing." He remarks softly.
---- Jane Fudge
Jane Fudge is assistant curator of modern and contemporary art at the Denver Art Museum, and a visual art and film critic.
His Exhibition was organized by Dianne Perry Vanderlip, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Denver Art Museum.