|"The Primary Impulse" Catalogue Essay by J. Gill Holland
August 26, 2008
Contact: J. Gill Holland
"Here is how I paint. I try to stay loose and not be afraid to change and obliterate, whatever, at any time. I'm pushing toward an image that changes with the paint, that may evolve or regress. Oil paints and mineral spirits (turp) are so familiar that I seldom consciously consider how they will be used. Do anything-canvas on the floor, upside down, flow or spill the turp, blot, smear-anything. All the time I'm reacting to what is happening. The fluid paint keeps closing in (if I'm lucky) on an image that suddenly and finally seems right. While painting, even when feeling tired and lumpy, intuition stays edgy and a chance may come, when, like a marksman squeezing off a round, I'll see the canvas explode." (1988)
|A page from a color theory manual created by Douglas Houchens during his studies at the Richmond Professional Institute. He used this manual as a teaching aid throughout his 25 year career at Davidson.|
That is Douglas Houchens' voice to a T, his dance with chance, his marksmanship. It is the voice of a master. The canvas is filled with light and movement. In the presence of his oils the eyes meet LUX, first light, sprung to life.
These words reveal the way of a master teacher too. Doug has always been an intuitive teacher, and on any day illumination may pop like fireworks inside those lucky enough to be sitting at his feet. "Generous, accommodating and spirited"-- Alex Porter, a 1960 graduate, used these telling adjectives to describe Houchens as a teacher. Over four decades later a student in one of my own classes in Poland last spring said that seeing this art was simply "a very liberating experience." The class had just seen slides of Doug's work projected against the bare back wall of the classroom.
In 1953, when Houchens came to Davidson, the college had had a Fine Arts Festival for five years. For three weeks every spring the campus was dedicated to music, poetry, theater and art. Famous speakers came from afar, but students were at the heart of the whole celebration. A festival spirit infected the community. However 1953 was the year that the festival budget had to be trimmed because revenues were down. Football games with Georgia Tech, Harvard and N. C. State had been discontinued. The arts committee rallied, Houchens the new man jumped right in, and the show went on.
The minutes of the three meetings of the Committee on Fine Arts that February tell the story. Houchens took the lead. He lectured on "the sculpture lantern-slides," arranged exhibitions of textile designs by Davidson artist Helen Abernethy and color woodcuts on loan from Richmond Professional Institute. The contemporary arts scene was the subject of the festival that year. Students from Davidson sang, painted, sculpted, drew, made woodcuts, and displayed their photographs. He made a motion that a "late afternoon of recorded selections of the best modern composers" be played. He acquired slides on modern sculpture and showed a film on the work of artist Mark Tobey. The minutes for the meeting of February 3, 1954, read, "Professor Houchens mentioned the American Federation of Art as a source of art exhibitions, and it was his suggestion that we rent for $135-160 some 400 running feet of contemporary art." Houchens was hot! The Fine Arts Festival was a sparkling series that lasted twenty years. My wife and I remember the festivals in the spring of 1962 and 63. There hasn't been anything quite like it since. It was something special for the small liberal arts college of its day and remains an ideal of what a spring campus dedicated to the arts might be.
|Doug Houchens and his wife, Maggie, in their Davidson home. |
In addition to taking the lead in such campus activities and in the classroom, Houchens made art all the while, as he had done for years. The faculty activities reports for 1966 read, "Doug Houchens spent as much time as possible painting in his backyard while his family enjoyed the Lake." This passion had always been with him. After graduating with a BFA in 1940 at RPI (Richmond Professional Institute, now VCU) and serving in Europe in World War II, he went to New York to paint. From 1946-51 he lived on Rivington Street. "I lived with a friend from the army on the the Lower East Side. Our tenement was six flights up with two apartments on each floor separated by a shared bathroom. There were locks on all the bathrooms but being on the top floor we didn't bother." The rent was $15.00 a month. There was no heat, a gas stove and a bathtub in the middle of the kitchen. The three-quarter-length portrait "Lily" was painted then. "In this painting the forms are distinct and there is a certain amount of architectural rigor." He met Margaret Torbert, an Alabama lady who was studying to become a concert singer, and they were married in 1951. "My wife, Maggie, and I met in New York City in the late forties, a time of art theaters, 10 cent subways, and jazz music everywhere." They have been a team ever since.
In 1953 Houchens studied with Hans Hofmann, the famous abstract expressionist, in Provincetown, Mass. "Here I learned the importance of the picture plane, not to disguise the surface by rendering the subject realistically through modulations of tone but exploit the surface by exploiting the plasticity of the media. By pushing and pulling shapes and colors, a feeling of dynamic expansion was created. . . . I had wanted to move paint around more than I had been doing. But as a student, I was discouraged. Hofmann liked what I was doing. He doesn't care whether you paint realistically or not, as long as you can control it, making something work in a plastic way . . . just get that space working in as effective a way as possible." Much of the work was "destruction." Hofmann taught that "magical new things come out when you destroy." An example of this painting and repainting and destroying is "Atrium Angel, Santo Domingo," which was begun in Oaxaca on a sabbatical leave in 1960-61. "This canvas was painted entirely in this country. The canvas I started in Mexico I completely wore out."
|Houchens pictured on the fire escape of his studio on Rivington Street in New York City, circa 1946. |
A second sabbatical was to be in Mallorca, where Houchens painted some of his glorious oils and began creative film-making. His letter to the Dean of Faculty of February 15, 1969, requesting the leave says a lot about the man's creative teaching and his understanding of the ever-growing power of film in our world. "Creative film making is now one of the most potent forms of expression among the arts. The artist-film maker creates a very personal type of cinema that is not in any way commercially motivated. This experimental medium speaks primarily with images and their interrelation rather than on a prosaic, factual, prose plane. It speaks as poetry, sometimes on a subliminal level, and always through the impact of visual stimulation based on a complex organization of design factors and on associative values. It embraces the brash and tender aspects of today's culture, the science of Freud, and the heritage of our past.. . . . Art departments of colleges and universities are utilizing this new vocabulary, both through exhibitions and studio endeavors. They have to do so or admit to antiquarianism." "Admit to antiquarianism"? Not a bit of it. He adds: "Incidentally, no college or university in North Carolina or Virginia offers any course in creative film making although the technique is utilized in the studio area." Davidson would lead the way.
Houchens had introduced film-making into the curriculum the year before. After living like natives in the village of Dej‡ near Palma-"no hot water or anything like that"-the family returned to Davidson. Houchens returned armed with "heightened awareness" and new equipment to teach an independent course in film-making to half a dozen students. The results were dramatic. "Each student made a very fine film. Two were shown at Alumni Week here . . . they were that good." This is "utilizing a new vocabulary" of the new world of mixed media to capture "the flux and movement of life."
|Houchens' later work, like this painting, took on a more abstract and colorful appearance. |
Through the next years "Academy Awards Night" marked the climax of the film-making course. A full house viewed the student-made films and awards were given with much fanfare. Here is a description from May 9, 1978, from a farewell by the present writer to one of the retirees in the last faculty meeting of the year: "Cunningham [Fine Arts Building] might well be the Paris of the campus, and there last night Doug Houchens was making the awards for best student art and manning the projector showing films his students had made in film class. These films were delightful works, all skillfully done-and again we sensed the magic of a true teacher that has surrounded Doug ever since he came to Davidson twenty-five years ago, picked up at the train by the young assistant to the president at the time, a Mr. Sam Spencer."
The film Houchens made in Mallorca, The Movie, was a beauty. He introduced it to my classes in twentieth-century fiction when we studied James Joyce's experimental novel Ulysses. What he said about his film was equally true of that novel: "Images of art and places and people are symphonic and symbolic in arrangement, rather than logical and literary." It was a thrill to watch Doug on the job. He said, "I hope the film will praises the creative process itself. Nature and natural forces, qualities of light and space, examples of man's highest endeavors, people in their strivings (including artists at work) and relationships will be fused through dissolves and juxtapositions which will depend more on contrasts and similarities of form, color, light, and movement of life rather than unwind a static presentation of 'facts.'"
"Static" is a word unknown to Houchens's art.
The dynamism of film goes back to the beginning. This is how imagination grows:
I try to paint how I feel about things-what touches my sensibilities. Some films that I see become part of my interior life. The first was Robin Hood with Douglas Fairbanks, in 1922, when I was seven. Walking with my parents into that darkened Richmond theater and down the aisle to greet those overwhelming images of graded light, moving as the organ played, put me in a world of wonder and delight. I remember Will Scarlet clutching an arrow wound and as he opened his hands I saw astonishing black blood.
|Painting of a female in repose. |
Old movies may lack color but they can give your imagination a stronger nudge than many of today's high tech productions. A world built only in darks and lights is more removed from what we see around us and we can focus on the emotional richness of the drama, as in a Rembrandt etching. . . .
Many of the better old movies have been released in video format and I have a few, including Robin Hood. Old movies are friendly. They play to our human interests and concerns and we recognize the art and integrity of their presentation. (1988)
Houchens let me show slides of his work in Poland where my wife Siri and I spent spring semester of 2003 at the University of Lodz. This was the arena: a cartridge of slides, a projector and the back wall of a classroom. The students looked at his colors with fresh eyes and jotted down their impressions: "Thursday [the lecture class] was different. Professor Holland told us to turn around so we would not face the window. He was struggling with a strange-looking contraption [the projector!], opening new windows on a bare wall. Then they were closed. It felt as if for that moment we were inside the painter's head, through his eyes looking at his canvases. Then again the lid would fall and rise and we were in another painter's head."
"Angel" was a favorite. "The artist uses the colors connected with the sky, that is, blue and white and grey. The combination of these three hues conveys movement, energy and liveliness. The angel seems to be in motion, flying or just drifting in the air. The colors show the spiritual nature of angels, their lightness, sublimity, delicateness." Another wrote: "I choose 'Angel' because it's spacious, a wonderful combination of cold colors, which all together create space within the frame."
"In the landscape with house on the coast, the sky resembles masa per_owa [mother-of-pearl], constantly moving and shifting with circular moves. All of his paintings seem to be moving really fast and there's a snapshot of this movement, perhaps a movement in time."
|Houchens at the wheel. |
"Maggie in front of St. Mark's" drew the most attention. "The people, animals and buildings look as if they were translucent. They are there, but they aren't there in fact. . . . To me the things I see there are ghosts, creatures and objects that don't exist in fact. Maybe they are a reflection of some mistakenly photographed reality of one of the parallel worlds that exist next to us, but we don't realize it? Maybe the painting is a vision of dead people's spirits visiting our world? Douglas Houchens has filled his works with some strange power that appeals to me. . . . It invites me to some visionary, insane dance. 'Maggie in front of St. Mark's' whispers, "Come. . ." and terrifies me even more. On the other hand, though, I want to come and I want to join the spirits, the unknown that is starring at me from the canvas." The essay closes, "I'm sorry, but I have to finish this essay because it's getting more and more chaotic as a result of my fear. I will have to ask prof. Holland to take this picture away from me as soon as possible."
Of the same painting another wrote, "The figures of people are hardly recognizable and I would never bet where exactly Maggie stands, it works on and stimulates my imagination . . . the answers are somewhere inside of me but I am still forcing my eyes to operate better, deeper, more thoroughly. . . . I'd love to have that picture myself. It is extremely powerful and the author managed to depict a very floating and beautiful moment.
"Some of his paintings resemble a purposely spoiled photograph. When you are in the darkroom developing pictures you sometimes make a mistake deliberately and the picture becomes something different from what it was supposed to be. You may then see something completely different from what you had seen in the eye of your camera. That is a very liberating experience. The works of Douglas Houchens have the same kind of quality to me and therefore they have made an enormous impression on me."
A final word must be said about the portraits and self-portraits. In his master's thesis "Contributions of Expressionist Painting to the Art of Portraiture," Houchens writes that establishing empathy-he uses Hans Hofmann's application of the term to portraiture-with the subject is essential for art to live. Unlike the classicist concerned with form, the expressionist "attempts a return to nature and the human spirit. . . . The classicist strives to win freedom from life by self-willed creation whereas for the expressionist, the thing created is an expression of life itself" (39-40). Through empathy the artist knows the "worth" of the human face. After discussing masks in the pictures of Ensor and Kirchner, we read: "Custom sanctions the wearing of masks at carnival time. To uncover one's face becomes an act of importance, involving significance and the emotion of a shared secret" (31). This revelation is keenly felt in his self-portraits, where one feels the power of the secret double, the Doppelganger.
|Painting of a chair. |
One recognizes this "worth" in Houchens' portraits. "Until the Greeks, living man was never the subject of artistic representation. With the Greeks man acquired while living that soul which earlier had been something into which death changed him. Thereafter the art of human portraiture depicts the soul of the living." In these sweeping words we are led into the inner sanctum of portraiture (30).
Through art and teaching Houchens still reaches deep inside students and lovers of art, and it is no surprise to hear even from those in Central Europe. It reflects honor on the college that she continues to recognize that accomplishment. The Douglas Houchens Studio Art Award for the best junior studio student was established in 1988. In 1993 the Douglas Houchens Porch was christened with the new Katherine and Tom Belk Visual Arts Center. In the spring of 2003 an anonymous benefactor endowed the Douglas C. Houchens Professorship in Art. May his art continue to thrive and his success shine before the world!
--by J. Gill Holland
Sources: In addition to personal knowledge I have drawn upon interviews with Douglas Houchens by Harriet Doar in The Charlotte Observer (April 18, 1965, and July 21, 1970), Bill Giduz (Dec. 10, 1990) and Mimi Sherman in Lake Norman Magazine (March 2001) and other material in the Davidson College archives.
Posted By: Bill Giduz