Roger Mason Paintings
American Artist Magazine presents:

THE KINETIC WORLD OF ROGER MASON

BY JAMES GERALD CROGHAN

Working strictly alla prima, New York artist
Roger Mason paints in bright pigments with
swirling brushstrokes, attempting to capture the
emotional core of an experience as it's happening.


Visiting Roger Mason's studio is like taking a trip to an amusement park: All of the senses are bombarded at once. First, there is Mason-showman, musician, painter-carrying on several concurrent conversations, often with the same person. While we were discussing his paintings, a variety of characters (potential customers and friends) wandered in and exchanged words with him. Undaunted, Mason continued to be interviewed, or at least addressed, while at the same time engaging others who wanted to schmooze. At one point, a woman brought in a bouquet of helium balloons. Mason immediately inhaled some of the helium, changing his voice to that of a Star Trek alien.

Next, there is the studio itself. At the time, it was on the second floor of a triangle-shaped building on Main Street in Chatham, New York (Mason would eventually be displaced so the landlord's chiropractor son could open a holistic health center). While most artists accumulate objects that are interesting to them, Mason's selection reaches deep into the soul of America. His collection sports bits and pieces of iconography any middle-age Boy Scout would be proud to own: a dynamite detonator, a pinball machine, and a soda dispenser.

More kinetic than the toys, however, are the paintings, which the viewer comes to realize are extensions of the artist himself. They, too, carry on multiple conversations with the observers, pulling their attention first here, then there, and back again. They form a party full of interesting characters you feel the need to meet again and again in order to get to know them better. To that end, I visit the artist's studio and home several times in the ensuing months, bonding first with one painting and then another. Each time, Mason and I would talk about his philosophy of life and painting. For him, the two are synonymous. "Painting and music are my life," he says. Many artists have said similar things to me over the last twenty-five years. What Mason means by this is immediately apparent His world, with all of its primary colors and emotions, is the world that comes alive on his canvases.

Perhaps unwittingly, and certainly without guile, Mason has become the chronicler of small-town life in Upstate New York, where an urban sensibility interfaces amiably with the last vestiges of rural America. He likely fell into this role because he paints directly from experience. In a real sense, painting is his experience. Mason does not, as many painters do very successfully, reinvent an encounter from a photograph. Rather, he attempts to capture the emotional core of the experience as it's occurring.

Mason goes into the world in search of what he calls "juicy subject matter." Often, people congregate while he's working, whether it's on Main Street in his beloved Chatham, outside of a transvestite bar in Paris, at a theater in Colorado, or while retracing Van Gogh's steps in Arles, France. "Working 'in the situation' is a pain-and lately a little bit scary- but I hope to evolve from this," the artist says.

In order to work outdoors at night, he tapes an ordinary flashlight to his hat. "The French love it!" he says. "Street lights are blue-they distort color perception. All colors change at night." Mason says he thinks of himself as a "closet surrealist." His advice: "Put out as many colors as you can. There are a lot of great new oil-paint colors." A favorite is Old Holland's rode goudlak, or, as Mason calls it, "transparent orange," which gives the appearance of incandescent light at night.

His paintings don't begin with a drawing. In fact, a beginning looks more like abstract expressionism than realism. Very quickly, the work takes on a life of its own. "If it's not breathing in twenty minutes, it probably won't work for me!" says Mason. "I'm a musician. I don't understand this cerebral stuff. Is there life or not?" On the day of my last visit, Mason had just gessoed over five painted canvases to take with him on a short painting trip to Colorado. "They didn't speak to me," he explains. "So why not try again?"

Mason uses his critical eye after the work has been completed-not during the creative process, when it might be a deterrent to his inspiration. Many artists, regardless of their medium, could benefit from this approach. The difficulty, however, is admitting when a painting doesn't work and not investing it with more time than it deserves.

Not surprisingly, Mason considers composition more important than detail. His paintings are organized as fields of color-often primary and strong-that play off each other. "The color fields are important. The details are for tourists," he declares. Clearly, Mason doesn't strive only for verisimilitude. To obtain the color fields he wants, he mixes all of his colors, using as many as he can on his palette.

Dynamically, the fields of color don't stand alone. For example, Mason often uses a figure to set up a relationship within the painting. The Red-Haired Girl was painted in two stages about one year apart. Picture, if it's possible, the painting without the girl sitting on the doorsill. The light and the landscape are American; the time is summer. The image of the girl speaks of the innocence and ennui of sma1ltown life. She's both protected by her environment and a prisoner of it.

Juxtapose this painting with The Girl at Rue St. Denis.

Here, too, the dynamics of the figure give the painting its resonance. The XXX-rated moviehouse section of Paris explodes with meaning when a young girl leans against the doorway of a striptease establishment Without the girl, the meaning would be two dimensional. The innocence and fear manifest in her face suggest she, too, is a prisoner of her environment The colors in this painting are dramatically different from those in The Red-Haired Girl. These choices reflect not merely external perception but also the psychological reality of the figure as imagined by the painter. The swirling reds and pinks become an analogue for the fallen ingenue's internal experience.

The figure is similarly used in The Audition, in which a young girl stands in the spotlight facing an empty theater. Here the hues of dark purple and cobalt blue evince spiritual and narcissistic interiority. Not unlike the girl on the Rue St Denis, this young woman is waiting to be recognized. Here, however, modesty overshadows the exhibitionism inherent in auditioning. As in the other two paintings, the yearning to be seen is an isolating experience for the girl/woman.

Whil the viewer can imagine some sort of resolution in these paintings, in none of them does it seem imminent Rather, it appears time has stopped for each of these women in her particular setting. This sense of perpetuity is true as well of the dog Hercule, whom we find slumbering on an unnamed Polynesian Island in Hercule Lies Sleeping. You can't imagine this scene ever changing.

In Jesse's Barn and Delson's Department Store, what appears to be the same 1951 Chevrolet is the main figure. In the former painting, the car looks ready to lunge forward and escape its confines. In Delson's, it acts as a bridge between the out- side and the inside. We see the car both as dangerous and as an indicator of life on Main Street, Chatham. The Chevrolet is an old car on the street of an old town in a contemporary painting. It seems to be about the same age as the artist. It's an entity in a historical setting, honoring its past but bringing its reality into the present.

Mason studied sculpture at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. From 1972 to 1982, he says, he "did one painting a year" while working as a musician on Broadway. He began by painting his dreams, influenced by the idea, if not the form, of Australian aboriginal art. It was while he was on tour with the play Foxfire, starring the late Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, and Keith Carradine, that he began painting in earnest. He credits Tandy and Cronyn with supporting and encouraging him during these early days and is proud they bought several of his works.

Early on, Mason found that he couldn't think about money while painting or when selecting a subject. "If I think about money when I'm doing a painting, I mess it up," he says. This obvious exaggeration is rooted in the very real phenomenon of split attention: It's hard to serve two masters at the same time. For an artist like Mason, who is so dependent upon his own experience for his paintings, this sort of schism would immediately be apparent.

As he looks to the future, Mason imagines continued exploration of "the poetry of the light in situations" as the key element in his compositions. "I'll do a whole production number that reads as, say, a street, but often the painting is really about a shadow," he says.

Perhaps in a more real sense than the chiropractor who has displaced him from Main Street, Mason has developed a holistic approach to life. For this artist, experience comes prior to materials or techniques. They're merely tools he employs to execute what he calls his "love affair with the world."
1986, acrylic, 30 x 34. Collection Dr. Vicki.
Soda Fountain
1990, oil, 28 x 29. Collection the artist.
Mailbox
1993, oil, 31x30. Collection the artist.
Girl at Rue St. Denis
1991, oil, 30x36. Collection the artist.
The Audition
1990, oil, 33x35. Collection Keith Carradine.
The Red-Haired Girl
1994, oil, 28 x 30. Collection the artist.
Hercule Lies Sleeping
1986, acrylic, 32 x 35. Collection Keith Carradine.
Delson's Department Store
1985, acrylic, 22 x 24. Collection the artist.
Jesse's Barn

E-mail Roger Mason • Cell Phone: 518.929.0083
home paintings contact of coctails and cohibas

roger mason
2009