A Visual Conversation: The Paintings of Alan Feltus

Journals, 2008, oil on canvas, 43 1/3 x 31 1/2 inches, © Alan Feltus, courtesy of Forum Gallery, New York, NY

Everything is possible in painting, subject to our abilities, of course. In art nothing is really new or untried. (There are variations or differences because no two of us are entirely alike. So in that sense, there are new things in art.) However, I believe that it is a mistake to try to make something new simply in order to be noticed. What we make should come from within us, and that is not about being new, it is about finding who we are.

—Alan Feltus, 2012

 Self-Portrait (with Beret and Scarf), 2004, oil on paper, 12 1/4 x 9 1/4 inches, © Alan Feltus, courtesy of Forum Gallery, New York, NY

Alan Feltus’ paintings engage the viewer on a psychological level that transcends their refinement and artistic acuity. Their restrained passion compels one to study them deeply, revisiting their cool interiors, their elegant and poised figures.

Feltus has lived in Assisi, Italy since 1987 and was attracted to Italian painters even as a young boy, wandering the halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and others museums in New York. He finished his final year of high school in Italy at the Overseas School of Rome. In this ancient city, he discovered sculpture and painting in the dimly lit churches, absorbing the milieu of a culture saturated with artistic history.

Tuscana, 2005, oil on linen, 31 1/2 x 39 1/2 inches, © Alan Feltus, courtesy of Forum Gallery, New York, NY

After returning to the United States, he earned a BFA from Cooper Union and completed an MFA from Yale in the late sixties. He was then awarded the prestigious Prix de Rome fellowship and lived and painted at the American Academy in Rome from 1970 to ’72. Exposure to Italian painters such as Felice Casorati (1883-1963) and the wealth of art in Italy influenced his vision. In Rome he wandered streets and courtyards in which fragments of ancient marble figures and bits of architectural moldings had been mounted in the walls, and he found himself comparing them to early figurative paintings of Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky. In his work, there is often a dialogue between art of the past and more contemporary work.

Back in the the United States, he taught for 12 years at American University in Washington, DC. Though tenured, he eventually gave up the position to devote more time to painting with his partner, painter Lani Irwin. After three subsequent years, he and Irwin left their home in Maryland and moved to Italy with their two young sons, Tobias and Joseph, imagining they would expose their children to a broader cultural perspective. They bought an old, in-need-of-work stone farmhouse with adjacent barn in the Umbrian hills near Assisi, and they never moved back to the United States.

 … in Italy, where the landscape is amazingly beautiful, and we were minutes from Assisi where the church was filled with wonderful frescoes and art, as are towns close by, we didn’t have to create an environment to support our needs. We didn’t have to own it. It was just there, the art, all around us…

Wine and Words, 2004, oil on linen, 31 1/2 x 39 1/2 inches, © Alan Feltus, courtesy of Forum Gallery, New York, NY

Early in his career as a painter, Feltus was attracted to paintings of the “carefully composed figure,” particularly to those exhibiting stillness and quiet, reflecting, it seems, his own tendencies to seek out peaceful spaces. As for the narrative, he does not extend an obvious one, leaving interpretation to the viewer.

I ask myself, can a painting of two figures in a simple interior space have the same drama and sense of something impending that concerns us in some way, without overtly describing a situation? And I find that it can—the painting can have that drama as much in a quiet way as when filled with things going on. In other words, the narrative in paintings can be subtle and interpreted in many ways depending on the viewer and what they bring to it. It can change through various perceptions. It can be elusive and captivating at the same moment. For me, this allows the work to read as timeless.

He works without the use of live models. Instead, he uses mirrors to study his face and parts of his body for both male and female figures. He also references vintage nineteenth and early twentieth century photos of nudes in books and on postcards, preferring these because the figures are posed, often with accompanying drapery and props.

Prelude, 2008, oil on canvas, 47 1/4 x 39 1/4 inches, © Alan Feltus, courtesy of Forum Gallery, New York, NY

I don’t work from live models other than referring to myself in mirrors. Any painting I work on goes through an evolution of changes—continuous small changes that happen as I adjust relationships and locations. Things appear, squirm, alter…disappear or remain…but they change. I see this as choreography of sorts. It applies not only to the figures in the space, but to all forms, such as drapery, a chair, a shadow on the floor—their shape, color, location. All have a gesture and weight and carry meaning.

I paint slowly, layer upon layer, making adjustments and changes throughout the process. I don’t start with an image in mind. I begin a painting knowing vaguely what it will be and allow it to find itself. For instance, when I begin a painting I might assume there will be two figures, but then a third figure may enter, or one that was there tentatively in the early stages might disappear.

Le Sorelle, 2005, oil on linen, 47 1/4 x 39 3/8 inches, © Alan Feltus, courtesy of Forum Gallery, New York, NY

His unplanned, intuitive way of working parallels the discussion of many artists who work in abstraction, and he approaches the work primarily from a formalistic standpoint.

I see the abstraction in all paintings, whether they are representational or not; they are nonobjective to me in that the composition is what is important. They must have a structure that works for me. People who don’t paint do not often see the abstract aspects of figurative painting. But I hope they will recognize something of the less obvious aspects of my paintings, without trying to understand or talk about them in a literal way.

I can relate my paintings to ones in which there may not be recognizable forms at all—those with layers of possible meaning. I use implied narrative coupled with ambiguity, and all of it is orchestrated in a way that works for me compositionally. Everything is there for a purpose, but the purpose may be hard to define, to pin down.

To state it more simply, when we walk into a room or restaurant and see people sitting together, we don’t know who they are or what they might be saying, and we don’t need to know. We can make up our own stories, and it might be more interesting to know less and enter into our own interpretation.

No Words Could Explain, 2008-09, oil on canvas, 31 1/2 x 43 1/4 inches, © Alan Feltus, courtesy of Forum Gallery, New York, NY

Feltus’ choreographed painting has parameters, but he does not limit himself in interpretation or approach. Grounded in knowledge and experience, the works are still fresh with a sense of tension between seeking and pulling back. He works with the figures in their settings as one might with a still life, composing and shaping each with the overall composition until it is seemingly complete, a process that is neither linear nor defined. In this way, Alan Feltus’ work is a constant exploration.

Painting is the only thing I have endless patience for. I have learned that if I stay with a painting that is in serious trouble, in time I will get it to a better place. I don’t abandon canvases. I don’t give up. It sounds frustrating, and it can be that, however it is interesting enough even on bad days. I also sense that the bad days are not wasted time…

Journals, 2008, oil on canvas, 43 1/3 x 31 1/2 inches, © Alan Feltus, courtesy of Forum Gallery, New York, NY