With spontaneous brushwork and vivid color, David FeBland's oil paintings emerge as unforgettable snapshots of "the guy no one remembers," as he says.
David FeBland's paintings reverberate with the energy and intensity of urban life. Elevated trains rumble overhead, and passengers emerge from the cool dark of subway stations. Yellow cabs and bike messengers weave in and out of traffic. Buses roar by. Pedestrians of all shapes and sizes, races and ages--all seemingly oblivious to the noise, traffic, and people around them--pursue their own agendas.
Although there is a definite narrative element to FeBland's paintings, the tale is never explicitly told. Reminiscent of Garry Winogrand's or Robert Frank's black-and-white photographs of the '50s, '60s, and '70s, the paintings say something about American life, but the story is archetypal, not personal. The images resonate with the unconscious, like a message revealed in a dream.
Photography is an important element of FeBland's work. He carries a camera with him almost constantly as he bicycles through New York City--his home for the past 20 years--and photographs scenes that incite his imagination. His paintings are not about the city however; it is simply a convenient place to observe life and the way people interact. The artist sees his camera as a tool to catalog information but doesn't rely on it to do his compositional work for him.
Despite this resistance, FeBland believes that most 20th-century art has been influenced by photography. "The camera imposes an unnatural frame upon a scene, and it's allowed us to look at the world that way. When it became a popular journalistic form, it completely rewrote the rules of composition," he explains. "My work, for instance, is not comfortably contained within the shape of the frame. Subjects and objects are sliced, cut, and dissected in ways that we only learned to do after the camera was invented."
What separates his work from many contemporary figurative artists, he says, is that his paintings are both interior and exterior. "They're about me, but they're also about the world I perceive--the observable world. Most modern art is either iconographic or about the artist's inner life, and though what's happening in my life has a great impact on my paintings, there's another story I find more compelling. I'm interested in how human parts fit together in the larger picture of life, and how space impacts people. Because of my background in liberal arts and environmental design, I was reading urban theorists long before I knew anything about creating art."
That reading continues to influence FeBland's painting to this day. In fact, FeBland didn't set out to be an artist at all, and although he was well-schooled in modern art, it wasn't a formal education. "My mother was an artist," says FeBland. "I was dragged to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as a 6-year-old. Instead of a Bible on a stand, like you see in some homes, we had a book called Art in America After 1945. By the time I was 6, I could tell you the difference between Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline. I could tell you anything you needed or wanted to know about the Abstract Expressionists, and I knew about Hans Hofmann and the drip painters when I was 8 or 9." The artist adds, "I had to find out about Rembrandt on my own, though. I was 20 before I knew who he was."
FeBland's first passion was political science, which he studied at the University of Cincinnati. After graduation, he spent a semester at The University of Manchester in England, studying town planning and design. He later earned his graduate degree in landscape architecture from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1974.
After completing his education, he worked as a landscape architect in Boston for a year. When the company went bankrupt and FeBland was laid off, he realized he wanted to be an illustrator. "Working as a landscape architect, I found myself attracted to any application of images on surfaces we might have been designing at the time," he says. "In graduate school, I wanted to spend more time on the presentation than the design. After I was laid off, I decided to pursue what I was struggling to achieve anyway and began focusing on shapes, colors, and forms."
He applied to the M.F.A. program at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, but was turned down because he already had a graduate degree. He ran a business in Boston for about a year to earn some money, took a few months of art classes, and then convinced his wife, Lynda, to quit her job and move to New York City.
"I put together a portfolio of wildly over-painted and ill-conceived work and dragged it around to every magazine and agency that I could think of," he recalls. "I started getting assignments, spot illustrations for $50 and then $200, and all the while I was teaching myself to draw. I didn't see myself as an artist--I wasn't trying to express anything personal. What I was trying to do was produce commercial images and find a market for them." Over the next 10 years, he developed a niche doing what he calls "high contrast, very graphic black-and-white work and lots of logos" for advertising agencies on three continents.
At the age of 40, he discovered he needed something more. "This was 1990 and I was looking for a studio because I was working at home and it was a very claustrophobic situation," he explains. He found a spacious, affordable loft in SoHo with several other artists and took it on an impulse, even though it seemed completely impractical. "There wasn't anyone to take packages, and it was filled with dust. I had copy machines, faxes, things like that, and I was working in a very precise way, so I certainly didn't need shards of 19th-century dirt falling on my work. But I rented it anyway, and it must have been because some inner voice was saying `Do something else,'" he says with a laugh.
The inner voice had a plan in mind--even if it wasn't clearly articulated. "When I took the studio, I decided there were several things I wanted to break away from in the way I approached my illustration work," he recalls. "Primarily, I began to work nonobjectively. I also dramatically changed my scale and began working on seven- or eight-foot canvases."
FeBland had been painting in gouache for several years before renting the studio space. "I've traveled abroad almost every summer for the past 25 years, the last 15 of them on a bicycle," he explains. "Because I usually went to very warm climates, the gouache wash would dry quickly and I could layer over it, so I'd been unconsciously experimenting with glazing as well."
The next few years were a period of exploration. FeBland began working with acrylics, but also continued using some of the methodology that he'd used as an illustrator. "I was making friskets, so I wasn't painting so much as taping and cutting things," he says. After four or five years, during which he moved completely away from figuration and then back toward it, FeBland realized that he was a figurative painter and that he wanted to be a good one. It was then that he made the switch from acrylics to oils. "I liked acrylics because they were fast, but they didn't have the luminosity I wanted, or the flexibility. They just dried too quickly," he explains. "I found that I'd build up my paints and put a wonderful brushstroke in, and a few hours later, it would have disappeared." Because he had never painted with oils before, FeBland had to learn to master that medium as well. "It was difficult. Oils are very slippery. I read some books on oil painting and learned more about them. I persevered and got better with them, and I finally cobbled together a methodology that I was happy with."
Today, he uses acrylics to prime his paintings and then begins to lay down thin washes of transparent oil pigment to establish the color ground. "I tend to go from thin to thick to thin again," he explains. "There's a lot of moving back and forth." To allow for glazing, he often uses alkyds, either mixing them into the other oils or using them alone. "There are places in the painting, particularly toward the end, where I like to work with glazes, and I want an oil surface that will dry at least on the surface so I can continue to glaze."
The most difficult part of the process takes place during the final stages. "There's a point at the very end where I want to achieve a spontaneous, fresh sense of brushwork that requires intense concentration," he says. "This is when I do final nuances of folds in the fabric or anatomical gestures that are fresh and done very quickly. If they're not right, I wipe them out and do them again. I won't finish that painting until they look spontaneous."
An initial observation is always the impetus for a painting. "I'll see something and have an idea. Some come fully formed and some evolve, sitting in my mind for a while in a kind of passive state. Eventually I'll do a very quick sketch and begin a painting from there," the artist says. FeBland can spend anywhere from days to months on a painting, but he doesn't work on the same painting every day. "Sometimes days or weeks will go by. I've even come back to a painting after several months," he adds.
What is it that captures his attention and makes him respond to a scene? Though the trigger is intuitive, not intellectual, it's clear that his early passions for political science, as well as for urban planning and landscape architecture, come into play. FeBland is interested in structure--political, social, and spatial. "Manhattan was designed in the 18th century and today it supports a microcosm of world culture. My perception of the order lying beneath the apparent chaos echoes one of my central goals as a painter--to express clarity, purposefulness, and reason in the world," he says. He is equally interested in decay and renewal, and by the subcultures and how they exist within the larger culture. "I like to take the guy no one remembers and build a painting around him," FeBland explains. "I separate him from the subculture he belongs to and cast him in a starring role.
"My paintings record something that had an impact on me, some perception or insight that I have had--the kind we all have all the time, but often can't find the language to express," he concludes. "I feel lucky because I've finally developed a language capable of expressing these kinds of perceptions."
FeBland is represented by Fraser Gallery in Washington, DC, and Valley House Gallery in Dallas. An installation by the artist will open January 16 at the Marsh Art Gallery at the University of Richmond. In addition, he will have a solo exhibit in May 2001 at Fraser Gallery, and he will be included in a show at the Museum of the Southwest in Midland, Texas, later in that year.
Elizabeth Forst is a New York City-based freelancer who writes frequently about photography and art.