Yet it is in this loneliness that the deepest activities begin. It is here that you discover act without motion, labor that is profound repose, vision in obscurity, and, beyond all desire, a fulfillment whose limits extend to infinity.” —Thomas Merton
In 1985, artist Greg Day painted One. It was his first painting. He was twenty-one years old and a student in the rigorous six-year architecture and architectural engineering program at the University of Kansas. For months, he had been envisioning the image—a single white pole, slightly curved to the left, vertically bisecting a horizontal field—and finally felt compelled to commit it to canvas.
One was conceived as a study of light, an exercise by the artist to suggest dimensionality and form through gradations of tone. The color palette is almost exclusively black and white, although there is some warm ochre in the far left. The addition of the ochre is important as it strengthens the composition’s intimation of space and injects a note of naturalism to an otherwise austere, artificial setting.
Unwittingly, with the creation of One, Day embarked on a course of aesthetic inquiry that continues to challenge and fascinate him to the present. Elements within this first, small painting serve as a visual lexicon for his later, mature work. The physicality of light and the division of space, for example, are concepts that have become central to his art and bear witness to his architectural training. He also remains committed to a limited palette, although some additional colors—principally rich reds and blue—have appeared in more recent works.
Most notable, however, is the inclusion of the pole as a compositional device. His initial use of the form in One, was “as a suitable shape on which to render the effects of light.” In subsequent works, such as Family and the monumentally scaled Franklin Street Nine, the artist includes poles not only for their formal attributes, but also consciously employs them as standins for human presence.
The dialectics of presence and absence or solid and void have since become a hallmark of Day’s art. By 1990, he was juggling a career in architecture with an earnest intention towards painting. The dichotomy of his personal existence became fuel for his art. “When I first started painting seriously I rebelled against straight lines,” he says, “which to me represented the architectural work I was trying to get away from.”
A painting from this period, NJE58, is one of dozens of similar images that he made in the early 1990s, representing the female figure through abstracted curving shapes. Executed primarily in shades of black and white, the series reflects his intense interest in shadows from a physical, as well as psychological and philosophical standpoint. “Shadows had been my thesis in architecture school,” he says, “I also studied the work of the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and his theories of people’s ‘dark side.’”
This triad of concerns—physical, psychological, philosophical—have come to provide the underpinnings of Day’s aesthetic approach. By the end of the 1990s, his images were completely non-figurative and more obviously referenced his architectural background. In works such as 20 Degrees Three and 20 Degrees Twenty Two, both from 1996, straight and angled lines supplant the earlier interest in curved forms. A much more complex, layered, and textured treatment of the surface is also introduced. In these works, multiple translucent and opaque paint layers combine to create the images, which resemble segments of invented floor plans or street maps.
The increased complication of form and materials evident in the paintings from this period are indicative of Day’s absorption of deconstructivist theory, the tenets of which were actively disseminated and debated in academic circles in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “In architecture school,” he says, “I was fascinated with Deconstructivist Architecture and the philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and the many architects who practiced it.”
Offered as a contradictory response to the purity and minimalism of modernist “form follows function,” deconstructivist theory advocates complexity and the subversion of expectations. Thus, its adherents maintain, the deconstruction of form is best realized in reaction to an archetypal construction. In Day’s paintings, the rectilinear grid provides the prototypical motif to be challenged. Extending the lines in his compositions to the very edges of the support, he confronts the physical limits of the rectangle. Overlapping and tilting the interior lines and forms further complicate the image and imply a dimensionality beyond the painted surface.
In his seminal work, The Elva Project, Day advances these ideas to their apex. A theoretically infinite painting, The Elva Project began in 1996 upon his return to the United States, after two years living abroad in England and Prague. His recent experiences of dislocation, travel, and re-connection may have prompted his idea for this expansive and conceptually rich work for it suggests a road map for a particularly intriguing and mysterious journey. Nearly fifteen years later,
The Elva Project continues to occupy Day’s attention, providing a rewarding and seemingly limitless framework for his unique aesthetic explorations.
Based on a schematic drawing produced with the aid of architectural software—if printed out full-size, the drawing would extend over one mile—The Elva Project represents a culmination of Day’s thinking, practice, and training to date. Composed of separate sixteen-bytwelve-inch birch-ply panels, the basic “units” of the painting can be joined by bolting them together, creating a composition that is in theory without limits. Each panel is a discrete painting, distinct in surface patterning and texture, yet connected visually to those surrounding it. While select sections have been isolated and exhibited by the artist as finite pieces of art, the units themselves are not interchangeable; each has their specific place in the overall design.
As a metaphor for human existence, The Elva Project speaks to the individual quest for recognition and acceptance; for uniqueness within conformity; and for the possibility of personal freedom within structured society. An ardent fan of the writings of Kobo Abe, author of Woman in the Dunes and Box Man, Day says, “I'm really fascinated by how he describes space, usually pretty depressing, but with hope.” Some might interpret The Elva Project—and by extension the survival of humankind—in a similar way.
Elva was Day’s maternal grandmother. He says he never consciously set out to title the project after her, but simply began referring to it by that name. Nonetheless, the luminous, subtly textured paintings that collectively comprise The Elva Project give rise to notions of generational connection, the acts of creation and conception, and the endurance of the human spirit against ostensibly endless odds. As Estragon, in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, says, “We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?”
Suzette McAvoy is the former Director of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and the former chief curator of the Farnsworth Art Museum.
Greg Day was born in Brunswick, Maine, in 1964, and grew up in rural Brooks, Maine. From an early age Day was fascinated with space, light and urban landscapes and became determined to study architecture. He enrolled at the University of Kansas where he completed the rigorous Architecture/Architectural Engineering program, a six year dual degree. It was during his time in college that Day discovered his other passion: painting.
In 1987 Day moved to New York City where he worked as a lighting designer and architect, while also furthering his painting practice with the help of a Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation Grant. Day has since become a devoted and active artist, but considers himself more a “builder of paintings.” Day has shown his work in Maine, New York City, England, and the Czech Republic, and it is in collections throughout the U.S. and in Europe. In 2006 he moved his studio to Bath, Maine.
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