A conversation with Larry Francis
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
A conversation with Larry Francis
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Elizabeth Johnson: In John Thornton’s video, Larry Francis Is Philadelphia’s Most Enjoyable Artist, you mention growing up among model trains and planes. Do you think that makes you see reality as a sort of toy world? A place to play?
Larry Francis: Perhaps all art is a toy representation of real life. We lived over my dad’s bicycle shop. He built model airplanes (some of his own design) and train platforms with houses, landscaped hills, and bridges. My mom was always making centerpieces or other crafty projects. I drew things and took art classes in high school. Between 11th and 12th grades I sold my motorcycle to attend a summer art camp, where I did my first oil painting with the teacher’s paint. My parents bought Time Life books for me on American art and world art. My favorite thing was watching black and white movies on The Late Show. I think all this mixed together with the craft of making things.
EJ: In the Thornton video you mention The Hearing Garden, your painting that’s based on a shop of the same name, and you tell of the day a rolled-up bamboo shade revealed the shop’s hidden, dark interior. Do you roam the neighborhood seeking mysterious or enticing views? Do you paint from memory if you don’t have a canvas handy? Does seeing something regularly make it “more yours” to paint?
LF: It’s important for practical reasons. In the cityscape paintings, I want to work directly from the subject as much as possible. Most of my painting sites are familiar to me, and The Hearing Garden is a good example. I was drawn to its color and architectural arrangement. Seeing the shop’s interior added to the subject’s color and shape. I’m always thinking about composition. Additions, subtractions, chance: they all play a part. I worked some weeks onsite, some days I could see inside. I took photos, painted figures in, out, and then in again.
EJ: What about folks wanting to talk while you're painting? Are they an interruption or do you enjoy the interaction?
LF: I do talk to people, it’s part of what I do. Art is for everyone. Sometimes, this keeps me entertained.
EJ: How did you come to put yourself in Divine Lorraine Hotel? Does story enter while you are working?
LF: That hotel has an interesting history. It was part of the set for the movie Twelve Monkeys. I liked the look of it, with the fenced-in field, and I wanted to paint a slice of the changing city. I added a man looking at the area where buildings were about to go up, and some figures walking along the sidewalk, but I didn’t like how they came out.
LF: So, I painted myself in, doing what I’m usually doing. Many paintings hang around the studio for a while before a change of a figure: I tape painted figures onto the painting and move them around for days, weeks, months until the right arrangement presents itself. Sometimes a story emerges.
EJ: The paintings Mystery Road and Woman in Nature suggest drama. How did you arrive at these images? Are they assembled from photos?
LF: There were different inspirations for these works. Woman in Nature came from many pieced-together photos by other photographers. I liked painting this floating world with everything receding into the blue-green distance. I had made painted boxes with this subject earlier. Mystery Road comes, in part, from a family story. It’s largely invented.
EJ: Night Light, Night Electric, and Evening feel personal since they seem to be in your backyard at night when most of us are at home. Were these made during the pandemic?
EJ: In the Thornton video, Loving and Painting Philadelphia, you say, “...this show is about daylight, my next show will be about night.” Do troubling current events influence your use of darkness?
LF: Over the winter break of my first year at art school, I did one somewhat successful night painting, Trolley Car on a Snowy Night. This subject related to the work of Edward Hopper and John Sloan (all the Ash Can School artists painted night scenes), and I have done night paintings intermittently since then. I did night porch paintings as a sort of summer subject in the winter. They required dark silhouettes of buildings, trees, a dark ocean I would invent, then brightly lit objects or people would fill the porch, which used bright prismatic color against a dark ground. I did do one painting related to the pandemic: a sunset, with dark walls and lit windows showing small figures playing music. This was after seeing pictures of people in Northern Italy playing music from balconies, when the pandemic was bad there.
EJ: The Gift features you and a woman. It feels theatrical and brooding. Did you edit it more than you would a plein air scene? Did she make any comments about the painting that were worked into it?
LF: It’s me and a model; we’re actors in a play, I suppose. The colors she wore, by chance, worked out well. I made many sketches and studies in gouache, I took photos, and then worked on the painting during quarantine. I’m not sure if she ever saw it. I thought of the painting as melancholy: it’s a party with not much in the way of guests. The colorful balloons and streamers, with the night sky, may give the figures or the painting that brooding feel, perhaps an unconscious effect of the pandemic. I love the feelings expressed in the paintings of Watteau.
EJ: Do you relate his trio of melancholic Pierrot, the trickster Harlequin, or the love interest Columbine from the commedia dell’arte to your own work?
LF: Certainly, my use of paint and color is quite different, but many artists give hints of directions to follow. For example, The Italian Theater, his group of performers at night, is a painting of interest, when you find yourself painting figures at night. His wonderful Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera and Gilles express fleeting happiness, which may relate his personal fragility. I saw a Rembrandt show in Boston a few years back, and it made me think of Method Acting. The figures in his drawings, etchings, and paintings, like “Method” actors, were intent on portraying real emotion. Rembrandt, from the moment of making etchings of himself grinning in the mirror, was focused on capturing the real look of human interactions. Artists like Watteau or Hopper are less wide-ranging in what they portray, but they do make convincing images of the life they show in their work. This has inspired me to do what I can from a mixed soup of influences, from the art of past and present, and the life around me.
EJ: I love the painting Fishing at Midvale for its jam-packed, rife-with-rhyme, composition. Are there days that you paint more accurately to life and other days that you favor invention? And is it the subject matter or scenery that affects this decision? Was this painting highly edited to make the composition telescoping and tight?
LF: Most of the landscapes painted onsite are found compositions. I try to find geometry in what I’m painting, because it can determine the shape of the canvas and the viewpoint. Then I make small adjustments in the movable objects to improve or re-enforce the geometry.
EJ: I’d like to talk about the new paintings you are showing this fall. Several have a shadow in the foreground: By the River, Saint Joe’s Rowing, Yudy’s Beauty Salon. The shadow evokes change across distance and a sense of longing, since we always are interested in what we are separated from. Myself, I want snow in the summer and autumn leaves in spring.
LF: The foreground shadow has different effects in different works. Initially, I used it as a device to create space, and draw the viewer’s attention to lit objects farther back in the picture. The psychological meaning of the shadow is hard to quantify...
LF: ...For example, someone once remarked that I had used a long straight shadow through a park seen with a beam of light along a pathway, traversing the length of the painting like Hopper’s railroad tracks. The difference in my painting, is that there were figures in the shadow, and in the light, implying that they can move through the light and shadow. Hopper’s railroad tracks isolate the house in the painting from the viewer, alluding to a feeling of loneliness.
EJ: In your painting, Car Wash, I sense nostalgia for depicted surfaces such as old-fashioned signs and a graffitied van. Saturday Night And Sunday Morning seems to tell a story of two guys out on the town in a mid-century commercial district. Water Ice recalls casual days of childhood. But these paintings don’t feel sentimental. Do you think about counterbalancing sentiment in paintings, so they’re not overly sweet? Do you consciously temper the sweet side of life with reality?
LF: Because these paintings are of actual places, they may have more weight. I think a real portrayal of modern life would include more paintings of malls. The sign Jay’s Elbow Room portrayed in Saturday Night And Sunday Morning was a spot I passed for years on trips up to New York, that I often thought of painting. I got up at 3 AM to go there and make some studies in gouache. I introduced some figures from other pictures. I love these small shops, which perhaps remind me of my dad’s shop.
EJ: I love the harsh sun of Salt Marsh. Did you consider adding figures but chose a feeling of desertion?
LF: Yes. I loved that yellowish and greenish marsh grass with blue sky and white building in bright sun. I thought of including figures. In some paintings, you can feel the absence.
EJ: You are skillful in depicting different kinds of light. Picnic at the Water’s Edge feels backlit in early afternoon, Ridge feels like late afternoon, Industrial Age feels like early evening. Do your paintings, with or without figures, evoke the melancholy of time passing by depicting specific times of day?
LF: Depicting light has always been a main motivation in my work. Both Industrial Age and Ridge are early morning paintings.
LF: People often recognize morning or evening in particular paintings; however, visually, they look much the same. The figure in Industrial Age was added as a worker responding to the morning bell, and as a note of color relating to the sky. I had a strong feeling about the figure set against the background of old industrial buildings with the row houses: in another era, this area would have been crowded with workers. In Ridge, the busy avenue just naturally called for populating, the notes of color helped with the rhythm of the piece.
Picnic at the Water’s Edge was painted in early afternoon because I wanted to capture sunlight coming through yellow leaves. The arrangement of clouds helps to give a feeling of light to the leaves. Over time, figures were added to give a feeling of arrival. Mad River Road uses fleeting light to illuminate buildings, against a cloud bank in the background of early morning fog, emanating from the river a block away. My goal is to keep finding new subjects to paint, in the city and elsewhere, with a beautiful sense of light and some bit of life.
edited by Matthew Crain