Len Chmiel’s painting, his art and his life as a painter, gardener and vintner flow in the vein of ‘aestheticism’, very much in the same sense as artists such as James McNeill Whistler who avowed the belief that fine art and design carry equal status, and that art need not have a moral or didactic purpose; the pursuit of beauty is enough. The Water Series is, in many ways, a culmination of Chmiel’s lifelong artistic pursuit. The six paintings that make up this series come from on-the-spot paintings created over the last twenty-five years, and speak to his innate design ability that is ever entwined with his own aesthetic and deep understanding of art. As with Whistler, Chmiel understands perfectly that fine art is a melding of design and beauty. Through the clarity of pure water, Chmiel shines like no other American painter today. -RF
“I have spent God knows how many hours trying to figure out what is going on with water. My fascination began when I started to fly fish. It’s just mesmerizing: cross currents and eddies; how the depth of color intensifies, becomes richer below the surface; how water can be flowing in one direction but around a rock, it can turn back on itself against the current. Fascinating.
There is a saying that goes: ‘Mankind owes its existence to the sun, a few inches of top soil and the fact that it rains.’ Without water, life ceases to exist. But beyond the necessity of it, people are drawn to water, the sound, the motion; everyone wants to be by a creek of clean water. It’s human identity. We’re nothing without it.
What is my intention behind these paintings? That they require more than one reading; that the design of the big shapes and small shapes complement each other; that the entire painting is just water. There are no shorelines or trees or obvious anchors that most landscape paintings rely on. I do not want the water to be incidental. The water is essential.” - Len Chmiel, March 15, 2010
Morning Glory Pool, Yellowstone, 1975. I was there with Buffalo Kaplinsky painting for a show. It impressed me so much as a great abstract painting. It has this eye that looks like you could peer into the center of the earth. It doesn’t look ominous; it’s just pretty, with all the colors from the minerals that deposit on the banks. Actually, a funny thing happened. When I was painting a kid came along and stood behind me for a while. Then he went over to Buffalo and asked, “Hey man, does that guy do drugs?”
Buffalo Creek, Wyoming, c. 1988. I was up there with Bob Barlow and Kang Cho on a painting trip. This was another one when I was on top of a bridge looking into the water. That green rock was so rich, a glowing jewel in the water. It was nowhere near that bright – that was my hit on it. One thing that impressed me was the black spots. Those are the bubbles from the surface that cast shadows with glowing rings around them. The water was so clear that day that you could see the shadows of the bubbles!
Gin Clear, Frying Pan, Colorado, 1991. I was on the Frying Pan and it was winter, February. I walked by this scene and contemplated it and thought, ‘Naw, no one is going to understand this.’ So I walked up the creek a little way and saw a scene with sunlight and trees, and thought I would paint that instead. I went to the truck for my gear and on the way back I looked at this scene again and thought, ‘Hm…it’s weird but why not?’ I set up and pulled this one off. If I ever have to love one painting, it’s this one: compositionally; color; the skill; it’s the way I love to use paint because of the viscous quality; how much I love the water; plus it took every ounce of artistic skills I’d acquired to paint it. I’ll never sell the small study.
Looking Right into Nelson Creek Spring, Montana, 1988. This creek is well known to fly fishermen; it’s just outside of Yellowstone National Park. The thing that intrigued me was the motion of the water, it was not flowing fast and was very clear – I stood above it looking into six feet of absolutely clear water. In the large painting I will probably add a trout because there was a huge trout just sitting there when I painted this, about a six pounder. I want to give viewers something to recognize, to establish the visual clue that it’s clear water that they are looking into.
Taylor River, Colorado, 1990. I was up in Crested Butte, Colorado just walking the banks of the Taylor with a friend looking for something to paint. It was gorgeous everywhere but none of the scenes were intriguing to me. I looked at this scene and wondered what I would do to enhance it. What attracted me was the big color pattern and the richness, and because it was so abstract. When I’m outside working, I don’t start to paint until I’m satisfied with the abstract composition and how I can resolve it. I make my eyes go out of focus, I make a frame out of my fingers, and I frame different elements until finally the composition comes to me. Taylor River is mostly about the richness and transitions of colors. It’s about the opposing light and tree reflections and that one little rock out there.
Yuba River, California, 1984. This was from an extended painting trip of California. I was in the High Sierra below Donner Pass looking at the abstraction of the rocks. This painting, like all the rest, is abstract but, like the others, it has a wonderful “ah-ha” moment when it opens up to the viewer and they recognize that they are standing in front of something real.