Curiosity and the Artist

PROFILE-March 2010

by Suzette McAvoy
Photography Irvin Serrano

A studio visit with Frederick Lynch

For someone who loves art, there is perhaps no better way to spend an afternoon than talking with artist Frederick Lynch at his home and studio in Saco. “Art,” he says, “is perhaps the most interesting subject there is to me, and my art the most interesting of that—not out of ego, certainly, but out of curiosity. I make art to see what happens.”

Lynch and his wife, Jan, who is also a painter, have lived in Saco since they were married in 1996. Their house sits in a large, open meadow and is filled with art—not only their own, but works from numerous other artists, a number of whom are close friends or former colleagues from the art department at the University of Southern Maine, where Lynch taught for more than 25 years.

Examples by Jeff Kellar, Lauren Fensterstock, Alison Hildreth, Rose Marasco, Noriko Sakanishi, Sharon Townsend, Abby Huntoon, Paul Heroux, Peter Bennet, Sam Cady, and Richard Lethem are just some of the works on display. Not only is every wall and horizontal surface brimming with art, but Lynch is clearly fond of every piece. As we look at the collection together, the generally soft-spoken artist can’t refrain from expressing his enthusiasm. “Oh yes, I love that. Don’t you?” he asks. Yes, I do.

At age 75, Lynch is the consummate “artist’s artist.” He is a maker of pure forms whose sole intention is furthering aesthetic inquiry. “Art is the most useless thing in the world,” he tells me, “and that is what makes it art. As soon as it becomes purposeful it loses something of itself.” He admits to being a “ruthless editor” of his own work, to the extent of having conducted “annual bonfires of things I didn’t like. It’s very cathartic,” he says. “I’m not an archivist, nothing is sacrosanct; you can always change it.”

“Aesthetically gripping”—a phrase he credits to art critic Roberta Smith—is to him the highest accolade for a work of art and the goal he strives toward. “My art is about aesthetics,” he says. “All other positive associations, invocations, or implications are bonus points, incurred with the advantage of a second look.”{igallery id=”5280″ cid=”130″ pid=”1″ type=”classic” children=”0″ showmenu=”0″ tags=”” limit=”0″}

For more than four decades, Lynch has been mining his own art for inspiration, producing an idiosyncratic body of work that encompasses paintings, drawings, prints, and, most recently, painted wooden reliefs. His art is greatly admired by other artists, critics, curators, and serious collectors of contemporary art. “Fred is a long-standing figure in the Maine art scene, and his work is highly regarded and avidly collected, especially amongst other artists,” says Sage Lewis, curator of the exhibition Division and Discovery: Recent Work by Frederick Lynch, now on view at the Portland Museum of Art.

Twenty years ago, the museum presented several of Lynch’s paintings in a group exhibition that was part of its Perspectives series. That exhibition was my first encounter with the artist’s work, and I recall it vividly. At the time, he was making dynamic, uniquely shaped paintings called Cutouts that retained vestiges of the still lifes and figural works that preceded them. Complex and many layered, the Cutouts incorporated, among their varied elements, bold stripe patterns inspired by men’s shirts and ties.

The stripe motif gradually consumed the artist’s full attention and became the dominant theme of a striking group of paintings produced in the early and mid 1990s. The Stripes have richly textured surfaces and exquisite coloring, and they marked Lynch’s embrace of pure abstraction.

Stripes, in turn, inspired the Counterform series that followed. A gloriously inventive group of playful, brightly colored paintings, the Counterform works are all vertical in format and anchored by a central striped circle surrounded and interrupted by angular forms. The shapes that result from this geometric interplay are differentiated by changes in color and pattern. Often this pattern is composed of three small marks that flit across the picture plane, changing hue as they move from one delineated shape to the next.

In talks he has given on his work, Lynch often shows a photograph of mole tracks in his backyard—the triad pattern of lines left by the moles is nearly identical to the one used in his art. This chance encounter with a found natural pattern spawned the artist’s Division series, a large group of paintings that he began in 2002 and continues to work on to this day.

The Division paintings reflect Lynch’s fascination with the “idea that repeated sectoring of a given area can produce infinite shape variations.” Containing upwards of 15,000 lines and as many as 1,500 to 2,000 individual shapes, the Division paintings almost defy description—they are entrancing, visual explorations of space, color, geometry, and line. Lynch says that, although he finds the process of creating them to be “physically tiring and mentally puzzling at times, it is also very logical and natural to me.”

Most recently, he has been making painted wooden reliefs, called Segments, along with related pen-and-ink drawings. The drawings, which have the quality of nineteenth-century engravings, are “almost obsessively accurate” renderings of the sculptural reliefs. “I tried to translate every nick, every texture,” he says. While he works systematically, he eschews the formulaic and mechanistic, intentionally cultivating “deviations, mutations, and the unexpected” to ensure the work “won’t become predictable.”

As we make our way downstairs to the studio on the day of my visit, Lynch says he “took advantage of the time” and got “some work done on a drawing” while awaiting my arrival. He is admittedly a bit of a workaholic. “Any time, I can, I work,” he says. The studio reveals the intensity of his focus—it is tidy, with orderly stacks of paintings lining the walls, and a worktable and shelves filled with recent sculptures and other pieces in various stages of completion.

“I like to paint. I like my studio,” he wrote several years ago. “I spend most of my time there combining things that I remember and imagine with things that I see and feel, translating all this into images that I want to look at. My intention is beauty; my goals, pleasure and joy.” When asked if this still holds true, the artist pauses a moment before replying, “Yes, I think so, I think so.”

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