Julie Montgomery pursues a vision of painting that combines a zen-like appreciation for the value of spontaneity with a meticulously planned process. Blending rigor and freedom in this way allows her to create convincing landscapes that retain the compositional integrity and shifting layers of color one ordinarily associates with pure abstraction.
In her current show at MichaelKate Interiors Gallery in Santa Barbara's Funk Zone, Montgomery displays the confidence of a mid-career artist who has found a balance between the immediacy of nature and the sophistication of the contemporary. Although her most ambitious work thus far is a triptych called "Mariposa Green" in tribute to the landscape of northern California, where she was raised, Montgomery now lives and works in Carpinteria. The intimacy and style of her studio space reflects not only her background -- she grew up in Sonoma, where her parents restore antiques -- but also her career as a fashion model, which has taken her for extended periods to both England and Japan. Right on the beach, and adjacent to the train tracks in a complex that includes not only other artists, but also woodworkers and crafts people of all sorts, it's a remarkable spot on greater Santa Barbara's vivid art map.
To visit Montgomery, a group of us took Amtrak's Surfliner from the station on State Street in Santa Barbara to Carpinteria, a journey of approximately ten minutes duration. From the Carpinteria station, it was an easy walk alongside the tracks that led us to the former loading dock that serves as her front porch. Following the way pointed out by a small sign that says "Entrée des artistes," we encountered a long room dominated by large canvases, sketchbooks, and natural light.
Montgomery paints in acrylic, and she begins by layering all the paint she plans to use directly onto the canvas. Once this "block" of pigment has been mixed and spread, she has a limited period of time in which to carve into it with palette knives, spread it again with large brushes, and finally scrub parts of the surface with rags containing small amounts of a secret miracle solvent that turns out to be 409. When I asked Montgomery to explain the logic behind this somewhat unorthodox procedure, she said, "I started working this way for practical reasons. I moved from using Conté on paper to painting in acrylic on canvas because that process worked better for me. But I've also always been interested in sculpture, and that's part of it as well. By mixing the paint on the canvas and then drawing on that surface by scraping, I was able to get the reduction effect that I had seen in the foundry. The chemistry of it is unpredictable, which is part of what makes it interesting."
Within the first hour or so, these acrylic pigments begin to harden, so it is very important that Montgomery know where she is going when she sets out. Leafing through her many sketchbooks, one sees an artist's hand in evidence that is meticulous, line-oriented, and seemingly quite far from what's on the walls. I asked her about this, and then about what gives her the ability to work with such an unstable, abstract-seeming arrangement and still end up with recognizable landscape images. "I feel so close to my subject matter with these paintings that it seems to pass through me onto the canvas," she says. "The drawings in my sketchbooks are more archetypal figures, but the canvas gave me different constraints to work with and against, like the sense of a band at the top and the bottom of the picture. That cued my response, which was to draw landscapes."
But how does she bring together the alchemy of mixing paint with the science of rendering? "There are two things going on," she says. "The first is that in this process, I have to work quickly, so it becomes about the action of it. I'm not working from photographs, although I am very interested in and influenced by photography. When these landscapes come through, they become like Rorschach blots -- different people see different places and things in them. For me to draw something imprints that image in my body. I establish a subconscious relationship to the shapes, and that's part of what I'm using when I paint. These images are my dreamscapes, but I see them more as windows than as mirrors. I'm drawing from my inner life, but I'm looking outwards, either at the world or at the surface and the materials. I love solving visual problems using math and geometry, but I am also passionate about the beauty of things like wood grain and marble. I think of what I am doing as setting up a situation with these ingredients, and then participating in that situation by painting."
Digging a little deeper as I studied the grid-like structures in her "Mars" series of paintings, I asked Montgomery to say more about the idea that she is doing "action painting." She said that she does "work on the composition first, but once I've set up the canvas and applied the pigment, it becomes a drawing exercise in which I am working against the clock. I have to be quite deliberate with my decisions at that point because within an hour or so the paint will set. I work fast, and although I have still got the urge to do very exact stuff, something that you can see from my sketchbooks, when I am painting in this way there's a feeling of spontaneity that's important as well. I find the intensity of the emotion is there in the urgency of the act."
"I feel a strong connection to the environment and I think my work reflects that. The way I work feels like skating to me, or running downhill. It's one of those activities where you throw yourself forward with a kind of deep inner trust. I think in part my fascination with layers of color began when I spent lots of time going to the museum in order to look at Mark Rothko's work in person."
One of the subtlest aspects of any recent Julie Montgomery painting is the inevitable ghostly trace of her handwriting that barely interrupts the smooth panels of color. She has a habit of writing fragments from her journals onto these canvases, and then erasing them with a cloth until only the slightest, mostly unreadable shadow of them remains. It's a barely detectable, somewhat private, and very personal touch. When asked about the writing, she said that, "all of my recent paintings include elements of writing, handwriting that I do from my journals on to the canvas, and then I rub the surface to obscure the words so that they can no longer be read. I've been in the habit of doing this for fifteen years now. It adds another layer of texture to the image, and it gives the work a personal relation to me through the hidden message and through the presence of my handwriting as shadow form."
And what do these whispered passages actually say? "They are phrases," Montgomery told me, "like I remember one was 'remembering the breath of a new born dark place.' In my writing I try to connect with the elemental rhythms of life, like night and day. I look to my work and my writing for a connection with pre-existence, and an immersion in a sense of trust and freedom. When it's going well, I can relax into it and know that the work will be there for me. It's a hollow bone, and when I ring the bell, the stuff breaks free." This poetic dimension, slight as it may be in terms of the visible, nevertheless sets the tone for these unusual, and unusually moving images of landscape--both the one outside, and the one that we all carry in the interior.