Desert Devotional: The Anza-Borrego Paintings of Jane Culp

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Editor’s note: Many people paint the desert but only a few embody the ur-qualities of the early desert artists. Jane Culp is one. She lives in an off-grid straw bale cabin perched above the Anza-Borrego desert. From this solitary outlook, she observes–and participates in–the natural forces that pulverize granite and push tectonic plates.   

Winter Ravens Nest Peak

Her life is a veritable how-to manual for desert artists and mystics, linking her to greats like Agnes Pelton and Carl Eytel, who lived a monastic life in the rocks above today’s Palm Springs Tennis Club. We’ll have more on Culp and her upcoming exhibit–Predator Country–at the John Davis Gallery in New York in May, 2018. In the meantime enjoy this spirited interview by artist Larry Groff, excerpted from his Painting Perceptions blog.  

A Conversation with Jane Culp by Larry Groff

This past spring the painter Jane Culp invited Celia Reisman and I to visit her home and studio complex in the Anza Borrego desert area about an hour and a half from our home San Diego. Ms. Culp bought a large expanse of property here in 2000 and eventually built her studio and strawbale adobe home which looks over a wide vista of pristine desert-mountain wilderness. She has been living here full-time since 2009. I would like to thank Jane Culp for her enormous generosity with her time, talking at length about her background, painting process, and thoughts on painting. Ms. Culp has had many solo shows including the John Davis Gallery in Hudson, New York, The Painting Center, New York, NY and the Bowery Gallery in New York City. She has been reviewed by John Goodrich in 2014 Jane Culp: Suspect Terrain who stated:

These paintings have something of the quality of devotional works, as if the artist sought to subsume herself in the conjuring of the transcendent, using purely traditional means. (Imagine, in the twenty-first century: composing in paint!) This may be why they convey such a strong sense of the moment — a moment belonging to both the artist and nature, as if their exertions were simultaneous. One suspects that Culp relies on the drama of the desert to trigger and shape her ongoing engagement with nature. It’s fortunate she’s found her motif; her landscapes at John Davis are as vital and original as any being produced today.

Lance Esplund in the Wall Street Journal, 2010, stated:

…Ms. Culp arrives in these expressive oils, charcoals and watercolors at a place of structural clarity and composure—while making palpable the rush she feels interacting with nature. Her pictures’ restless skies and stepped, sharply carved mountain peaks retain the vastness, monumentality and naturalism of their subjects. Yet ultimately she is painting not the landscape but the thrill of engagement.

Diagonal Rift

Larry Groff:   What made you decide to be a painter?  What were your early years like as a painter? Who were some of your biggest influences?

Jane Culp:  I began to draw at 4 years to make sense of the world, there was no decision or choice.   My painting teachers, Fred Conway and Arthur Osver at Washington University art school taught me love and reverence for the painting masters, Rembrandt, Tintoretto, Rubens and Cezanne while working from life figure sessions. My MFA at Yale was tough going, perceptual painting was cast out by Pop Art, and my scholarship withdrawn.   Living in NYC in the 1960’s was raw but a fun challenge for a midwesterner with no money nor influential friends. I have a lot of adventure stories from NYC about staying alive, and understanding the larger reality of politics, and painting. They said “if you can keep painting for 10 years after school then you will continue to paint for all your life.” I did because I wanted so badly to have both the freedom and individuated path of painting to give my life meaning. Using body based BioEnergetic therapy, I painted my way into Abstract Expressionism from the Renaissance with Gustin and de Kooning, and later for my landscape years, found painting articulation with Soutine and Titian.

Jane Culp, photo by Esther Jansen

Jane Culp painting in the Borrego Badlands

Larry: When did you first come here to Anza, California and how did you go about building your home and studio out here in such a remote desert area?

Jane:  In 2004 Dorland Art Colony burnt to the ground in a wildfire. Dorland had been my landscape painting refuge from NYC for nearly 20 years. Cabins were considered only a “skin” to separate you from nature while living within her cycles. The Anza land looked like a national park in its sheer beauty, so I spent my sheckles and bought 60 acres where my friends: a painter, a kayak river guide, and a surfer, built a studio for me like one I had at Dorland. The Mojave desert winter proved to be unbearable while living in my studio so I built a small but high tech, solar powered off grid straw bale cabin. It’s very quiet with 2-foot thick straw walls, environmentally friendly but endless work to keep up. That’s my bargain with this magnificent land–to live with it gently and leave a small footprint.

Badlands Dark Brothers

Larry:  You recently helped the book The Unpicturelikeness of Pollock, Soutine & Others: Selected Writings & Talks by Louis Finkelstein come into being. Louis Finkelstein was your late husband and you own many of his paintings. Can you tell us something about why this book is such a great read for painters?

Jane:  Louis was a real perceptual painter, and he wrote from his painting experience sifted thru his tremendous classical knowledge of both the history of art and of human culture. He was a renaissance man. He wrote about large ideas, about what he saw, read, experienced and understood. He analyzes art fashions with knifelike, surgical precision. His writing is dense with ideas and insights and may sometimes comes across as difficult because of his passion for particulars and articulation. It is challenging to digest his writings but they yield a painters feast of content that is immediately relevant in the studio. His writings push painters to be the best painters they can be. He believed in the possibilities of the written English language; that thru it we could define our human condition and the language of painting.

Storm Over Black Leaf Canyon, Montana

Larry:  What was it like to be married to Louis Finkelstein? Can you talk about how he influenced your work?

Jane:   Living with Louis was vital, fun, and made me stretch intellectually.  We were passionately in love, that never changed. We worked hard at painting everyday all day, and dinners were late and sweet. He was an intrepid chef in his apple green apron, all the while gesturing with forks and knives while booming out art ideas with his distinctive accented NY voice. At breakfast he gave extensive art history lectures to me at 8am while I was still torpid, or put forth important art ideas on the crowded freeway while I weekly drove us to NYC (he was a rotten driver) from Stillwater NJ, our landscape painting spot. All his waking hours were consumed by painting, reading or writing about art; he never stopped. He taught, painted and wrote with great dedication about seeing the world and its values in terms of painting and its ideas. He lived with the highest of intellectual aspirations and his facial expression was of curiosity when he died.

Larry:   You’ve likely been asked this a million times, but what keeps you drawn to paint these forms for so long?

Jane:   I love rocks, I don’t know why.

Larry:   Living things, like trees, seem to be less visible in your work however your rocks are alive in a different sense.

Jane:   They have an active history.  They were formed by wind, rain, and by tectonics that push up and crack apart as the rain filters through. And so the West is full of young rocks and young land being formed. The East is full of old used up rocks with trees growing over everything and in your face. So I like the West where I can see what has happened to the earth and what is still happening. I’m totally captivated by this. Why? Because it speaks to me. Because I can look at a rock and  feel its history in my body.  I’m close to the earth, the sky is over me and huge. When painting, my body is very close to the rocks, the landscape is all quite alive.

Joshua Tree Boulders Talking

Larry: You paint these mysterious, monolithic forms in a rather harsh, barren environment. You live and paint where there are few people around. You’re not painting in a studio or school where lots of other artists around. Why this attraction to solitude?

Jane:   I use to love to watch the ants build things in my grandmother’s rock garden. I turned over every rock to see what was going on under it. I still feel the same spellbound curiosity about nature.  I cannot get any peace where there’s a bunch of artists fighting with each other. I tried studio painting for years, and I hated it. I hated people around me and making noise. I don’t want to know what they’re doing. I want talk with nature, and if I’m going to spend my time painting, which is hard enough, I’d rather be painting someplace that I love where I can hear my feelings  speak. When I moved here, I felt I had moved into my drawings. As Ellen Meloy says in her book, The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky:

Of all the things I wondered about on this land, I wondered the hardest about the seduction of certain geographies that feel like home—not by story or blood but merely by their forms and colors. How our perceptions are our only internal map of the world, how there are places that claim you and places that warn you away. How you can fall in love with the light.”

Alabama Hills

Larry: So do you think having the solitude affects the level of your concentration when you’re working? Do you find that your head is in a different space if you don’t have other people around?

Jane:   Yeah, I’m extremely distracted by people. I wish I weren’t. It’s been a bane to my existence.  Out here I feel in harmony with my surroundings, like birds following me around, watching.  I feel quite peaceful here and I don’t know what else to do with life except find a little peace. I certainly can’t change the present world situation much.

Self-portrait with friends, 2015

Jane:   I can help my friends the birds and little creatures by making a wildlife refuge here. Keeping this land wild for them. I think wilderness has its own order and this resonates in my being. I cannot stand an artificial enforced order. When a rock cracks it has a reason for cracking. When a rock is smooth, it has a reason. Visual forms that have consequences are vital. Every thrust of movement I see in nature and feel when I’m drawing has a direction, has a consequence because I see it in  the  landscape in front of me having consequences. I  feel it and try to paint that. I can’t feel that in the East with the trees, houses and weeds in my way, they garble my brain.

Larry:    The other thing that you mentioned too was the color out here. That the color out here is so important to you versus what’s back East.

Jane:      Green, I hate the Eastern green.  Back East it’s all fat opulent green which just sits there vegetating and takes up all the space in summer.  In spring it’s a chorus of shrieking green.  The colors here are elemental, my pigments contain them and they explain how the earth moves. I love the warm reds and oranges of the earth, mysterious in their color layering that follows  folds created by tectonics in the earth. The light colored sandy grit of decomposed granite underfoot is the scrubbed remains of rock and then there is that bit of turquoise light that hides within violet shadows…

I think the color here has a lot more individuated character, it fits the forms. The attempted greens of the scratchy little brush are sparse, deep dark with orange umber black in them.  I like the shape variety of clouds in the always changing big sky. The West has different clouds than back East, the winds tear and pull at them incessantly fighting for their moisture. Those elliptical clouds formed over the Mojave desert are just killers. They are amazing beings. You can see what’s going on in the weather patterns out here so much easier than back East. Nothing is buried. It’s all obvious. I can’t spend time trying to find where the bottom of a tree comes because there’s a bush in front of me. I don’t want to, and I’m not sure I even want them to overlap. I just want to see the nature of the beast in front of me, the nature of the creature, the nature of the mountain, the tree, the rock, whatever it is. I’m not interested in static patterning and design, instead I’m curious about uncodified irregularity. So it has to be a natural order for me to spin the story. I can’t paint intuitively without movement and natural order.

Mountains Above Palm Desert

Larry: Maybe what you’re looking at out there in the desert, these forms, the rocks and everything; it’s almost like they’re containing you. You have this expressive energy with making the art, but these forms help keep everything in check. It’s keeping that expressive power in check, channeling it into responding to what your response is to the desert forms. Perhaps it’s that you are really an abstract expressionist painter that stays within the visual boundaries of what you’re looking at. You’re completely free as long as you stay within these boundaries. If you have unlimited freedom …

Jane:   You can’t do it.

Larry: Then there’s no structure. There’s no composition. The thing just sort of falls apart into mush.

Jane:  It’s flabby.

Larry: Flabby, good way of putting it.

Jane:  It’s true.

Larry:  I don’t see your paintings as wanting to be naturalistic, They seem more like a strong expressionistic response to nature. You’re going at it in different ways. Obviously not the same way that Corot, Monet or California plein air painters would do it. Aren’t you painting it more along the expressionistic lines of Soutine or Oskar Kokoschka…?

Jane:  To me they are naturalism in a very real sense: I think we are just starting to see Nature for what it is, not as a cooked concept. Ironically, we are seeing Nature just as we are losing Nature. Maybe my paintings look strong and expressive because I try to be one with a sparse and chiseled landscape, but I really am trying to paint what I see, feel and know. I guess the expression comes from the feeling of identifying with natural forces.

Yes, those painters and Titian too, hopefully.  Have you ever seen any of Titian’s drawings? How many times he changed them as he worked. First the figure was leaning over the woman and then he moves in toward her, then closer still and then reaches toward…all in the lines of one drawing. His paintings are like that too. So I would include Titian with Soutine, I really think they are buddies. And they move. That’s how they do it. Things are moving always in the process of becoming and then they do become alive to us otherwise the painting becomes a static design or a surface pattern.

Read the rest of the interview on Larry Groff’s Painting Perceptions blog:

The Predator Country; Wilderness Paintings of Montana and Southern California is slated for May 24 through June 17, 2018, at John Davis Gallery in Hudson NY.

For more on Jane Culp:

Raven Eating Snake


11 comments for “Desert Devotional: The Anza-Borrego Paintings of Jane Culp

  1. wonderful reading of a woman who speaks her truth/both hands filled, not with guns but paint brushes! jane culp’s art is outstanding, both soft and strong. thank you, dear ann, for the inspiring article.

  2. Thank you for this Interview and conversation with Jane Culp. Jane and I have painted together in the Eastern Sierra at the top of the mountains in the cold fall weather and she has taught me much about art making. She is a wild and free spirit sharing her inspired works. Let’s paint again Jane!

  3. What a wonderful interview with a special woman! Her loving words for the desert and its freedom are so true. Having been bitten by desert magic I understand her intense feeling for these landscapes. Bless her for her 60 acre refuge keeping it wild and for her art. Thank you for this interview and for this site. Thank you God for Jane.

  4. just downloaded so i can un pack in the shifting light all the activist art ideas that do not travel
    electronica ( like bottlesof rare wine) .
    are u coming east in may , say yes and i will tone down the greens.

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