New Painting: The Permanent City


The Permanent City, Oil on Panel, 24 x 36 in., 2017

In the fall of 2016 I found myself in the office of Thornton Lathrop, head of the department of Industrial Design at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD). A request was made to see my drawings with the possibility of bringing me on board to instruct young architects and industrial designers in the much-neglected art of drafting by hand. I felt out of place in the west end of MIAD's first floor surrounded by models of buildings and computer renderings. Faced with the prospect that the oil painter, a lonely specialist who answers to no one, would need to convince an engineer that he, too, could be capable of technical skill. With my portfolio sprawled across a conference table I was being a bit apprehensive. Surely this technician who designs cars, machines, and buildings would detect every mistake and miscalculation in the draftings of an oil painter, and certainly one who taught himself. But as we spoke it became clear that we might have more in common than I assumed and the professor reassured me that what he saw impressed him.

The meetings, drawings, reading, teaching, and thinking that followed introduced me to the paradigms that dictated the world of architecture and design before the advent of the digital age. There was plenty of catching up to do. I already knew perspective but was unaware of the language and structure of engineering drawing: chain dimensioning, single stroke lettering, orthographic views, title blocks. In the process of adjusting my drawing approach I fell in love all over again with the world of geometry and decided that I would become an expert at this. A connoisseur of these dated technologies who could protect them from extinction.

Drawing for The Permanent City, Graphite on Paper, 24 x 36 in., 2017

In January 2017, as I began the semester teaching for Professor Lathrop, I decided to create a project of my own. A tour de force in geometric perspective - a city so well designed it could exist forever. I labored over a sheet of watercolor paper for several months. The preparatory drawing took 70 hours to create and I'm sure an architect at his computer could have designed the building in a fraction of the time. But it just wouldn't be the same lovingly detailed diagram replete in the joy of envisioning impossible things. A poem for all of the architects who once sat in front of their drafting tables for hours on end, pencil in hand, creating worlds from scratch.

The efficiency of the computer isn't a bad thing, architects have clients and budgets, after all, so time is precious. But when the day came when they put down their pencils and picked up a mouse something was irrevocably lost. I hope this project found what that thing is; an orderly but human beauty, vibrating from line to line across this sheet of paper.

Detail of the central spire of The Permanent City

In front of my pictures I have stood many a time with an intrigued stranger. They often want to know where the computer came into the process and I then have to explain its absence. Their question makes logical sense: computers are good at making complex things. Maybe the day will come when I embrace my historic moment and turn to the technologies of the present for heavy lifting. But at least for now I prefer to spend my time at work surrounded by shiny metal implements and to return home with my fingers black with carbon. I like to figure things out the way Titian or Rembrandt might have 400 years ago, with rulers and bits of string. In that same regard I view drawing the way they did; it is an art that operates behind the scenes which serves to create oil paintings. So the drawing enters the archive with the rest of its brethren and the painting is destined for the gallery wall.

After months of battle The Permanent City took form, another one of Matthew Lee's lonely utopias, aging and overgrown with vines, waiting an eternity for human arrival. With soaring architectural monument to human ingenuity whose windows lead only to ambiguous void. It was a big, time-consuming gamble, a project that ate up over half of 2017. But of all the pictures I've churned out over the past few years this is one is my best. It's certainly the most detailed painting I've ever made but in addition I think the image sums up my argument in a way that is more concise than previous attempts. It suspends contradictions nicely, it's a beautiful and colorful world but also lonely, cold, and indifferent.

Detail of the lower central area of The Permanent City with pyramid and forum

Detail of the central area of The Permanent City with pagoda and staircase

Detail of the far left of The Permanent City with bridge and guardhouse

The Permanent City will be on public display at the Nohl Fellowship Suitcase Fund Exhibition from Monday, August 21st through Sunday, October 8th with an opening reception on Thursday, September 7th from 6:00pm-8:00pm. The show will be in the Frederic Layton Gallery on the river level of the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (273 E. Erie Street, Milwaukee, WI, 53202). Food and drink will be available and I will be in attendance.

Previous posts about this project:

The Permanent City I, April 12th, 2017

The Permanent City II, May 9th, 2017

The Permanent City III, May 26th 2017


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