Perry House's densely layered, organically suggestive abstract paintings are not as far from figurative as you can get, but they're pretty far. So it was surprising that he wanted to look at paintings of real things from the Museum of Fine Arts' Beck Collection -- a Jean Frédéric Bazille al fresco painting titled Le Petit Jardinier, and Madame Hessel Chez Elle, a dramatically backlit 1908 portrait by Edouard Vuillard. He also wanted to look at a painting by Jimmy Ernst, the son of Max, that he knew the museum had in storage. Not only could we not access that, we couldn't see any of the paintings, because the museum is preparing to move them to the new Audrey Jones Beck Building, which opens on March 25. So we cheated. We sat in the museum cafe, had a beer and looked at the catalog.
House loves the fact that he can bring his commercial art students from Houston Community College to the museum at a moment's notice, and he related what he tells them about the Bazille.
"It's an unfinished painting, and it's wonderful. I bring every painting class here. There's a lot of unfinished figures and a lot of painting from the back to the front. Students try to get so detailed so fast, and they try to one-coat it. This is a wonderful example where you can see how he's painting on top of the background, and this wonderful bush that is painted from the inside out, so the shadows are on the inside and the flowers are painted on top of that. Students would paint around all this, so it would look like it's pasted down. Also, you develop a painting, you don't design a painting. They design so much that they need to let things happen. They want to do photorealism.
"It was Jimmy Ernst's painting Audible Silence that made a major impact on me when I was young. It wasn't the content, it wasn't the subject matter, it was just the paint quality, the lushness of the paint. People think painting's dead, but as long as you have young people going to museums and falling just in love with the paint, it will never die. And that was the painting that I recollect that did it for me."
On Vuillard's portrait: "This is another great teaching tool, because students have a tendency -- maybe because paint's so expensive -- to put so much white in everything. So all their paintings have a very high key value, and this is a very dark value, and when they see this they realize what you can do. There's very little white added to this paint; it's all done with complementary colors. I've never been able to walk past this painting. I always stop, and I always see more stuff. This painting is so strong, just visually strong. He doesn't go overboard on perspective -- this table is probably wrong, this light's probably wrong, and look how flat that area is. So it's not over-detailed. Things are put in in broad strokes rather than small strokes."
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Since House had brought up an unfinished painting, it seemed reasonable to ask him how he knows when a painting is finished. "You heard what Chagall said when he was old. Somebody said, 'How do you know when your painting is finished?' He said, 'My wife tells me.'
"The idea of the unfinished painting, I suppose philosophically, is that everything's unfinished, everything changes. So you don't have something static. I'm not sure my students would care about that at all, at this point in their careers."
House sympathizes with his students who, he says, are more interested in realism than abstraction. "I remember coming here with a teacher when I was 17 at a Picasso show and just hating it, and saying the same thing everybody said, that I got a five-year-old niece that can draw better. My teacher finally said, 'Why don't you shut the fuck up and look?' And I did, and I was astounded. He could get so many different techniques in one drawing and make it work so well." -- Shaila Dewan
Perry House's paintings and works on paper are on view through February 26 at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, (713)223-8346.