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On the top floor of an old loft building in New York City's Garment District you will find a painter, David Spiher, working on wooden panel paintings in colors as deeply influenced by nature as by the modern commercial fabrics that flood the dress shops on the street below. Light fills the studio, illuminating dozens of resonantly abstracted paintings that remind me of reflections of the city in shop windows, architectonic spaces, and lushly felt landscapes.
David is originally from industrial Northern Indiana, with an MFA from Ohio State University and has a 10 year bid painting in Boston behind him. After visiting the Henri Matisse and the Cy Twombly retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art (where he broke into tears before Matisse’s “Still Life with Blue Tablecloth”), David began to manifest long held ambitions and in 1994 he moved to New York City, set up a studio on 37th street and began to follow his calling.
The tension between the physicality of his materials, luminosity of color and a desire to communicate what can only be experienced finds clear expression in a painting like “Perfect Timing”, 2006. The embrace of the physical material, of the paint itself, and his desire to capture color and light is brought to bear in the entire body of his work, whether expressed in his more handwritten gestural paintings, the geometric photo based collages, or in his most recent and turbulent land and seascapes. Whether dragging, scumbling, scraping, brushing, wiping, or dripping his paint, he still manages to end his journey with a clear and vibrant image.
In conversation, we talked about his translating the experiential in his pictures so that the viewer can sense these feelings in a visceral way that sidesteps narrative and illustration. David has spent the last couple of summers painting on Fire Island, and in works like “Protect Me”, 2005 you can feel the evident chop of the ocean, the snap of flickering light on leaves and the scratchily drawn line of silhouetted trees blown. “Rhubarb Leaf”, 2005 emphasizes his themes using a color palette that ranges from sun baked to buttery, with equal attention paid to the impastoed surface where paint can be brushed on as thin as saturated glazes or laid on as thick as cake frosting.
In paintings like “February Conversations”, 2006 and “49 Days (at 6s & 7s)”, 2006 he explores the idea of using multiple part panels and sequential images, much like the work of the late Joan Mitchell and Ellsworth Kelly. By creating illusionary edges next to actual physical ones he creates a systemic tension that sets his vibrant light to shuttering and can nail down the shifting unsettled compositions. Highly aware of his influences, his internal studio conversations often wander into more gleeful concrete theorizing such as “What would happen if two completely different painters like say Louise Fishman and Agnes Martin had a baby - what would that work, those paintings, look like?” His most recent work has taken, what for me is, an even more exciting direction. In a painting like “Birch Grove”, 2006 David has been using irregularly shaped wooden panels to paint on, reversing his usual practice, dividing and shadowing the object, searching for order in disorder. These paintings take on a more playful adventurous aura that mirror the painter’s attitude towards his own life.
David Spiher is one of those rare painters whose work truly comes from his love for the actual act of painting, and out of that heightened awareness of freshness and spontaneity it becomes possible to navigate the moment. Spiher’s “babies” turn out to be beautifully felt, rich expressions which remind me of how robust and sassy life can be. All this from a small studio on 37th street.
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