A 20-minute video shot from a vacant office near Boston’s North Station inspired a handful of John Bonner’s rainy day paintings. It offered the perfect angle for him to watch the crowds trekking across the street on a sopping wet day.
“It’s a great place to see from if you want to look down on people,” said Bonner, whose exhibit, “People: Public, Private,” is now on display at McGowan Fine Art in Concord.
From this angle, he said, you can see the alternating umbrella patterns, the beautiful colors the asphalt takes when wet.
Even in the paintings without figures, the angle of each image is immediately noticeable: it looks as though “Tilted House and Speedboat” is painted from the view of a car. “Tilted Mansard” seems to be painted from the front lawn of a neighbor, and “Portland Street from Car Park” from an the upper-story window in a large building.
“I love what another artist said about John’s work, which I think sums it up: ‘He does sloppy well,’” said Sarah Chaffee, McGowan Fine Art curator. “It’s referring to the way he slashes on paint. He doesn’t feel the need to pick out every detail.”
Though the edges in “Pedestrian Crossing,” for example, aren’t as refined as those in a more realistic piece, there is something very real about the swing of the woman’s hips, in the way she holds a shopping bag, purse, umbrella and cell phone at the same time. “Walker and Column” is another painting from an above perspective, and though it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why, it too seems to capture just the right likeness (and glossy shadow) of a woman walking in the rain.
Bonner said that wet tar “just affords a lot of painterly possibilities.”
“It’s quite a challenge to get water to look like water, to make reflections look like reflections, and it’s magic when it happens,” he said.
Wet streets aren’t out of the ordinary, but in “Rain Effect,” Bonner challenges you to look at the orange, white and blue reflections on a road you’d normally pass by.
Bonner prefers to paint the things he sees daily.
“I paint the places I am in my life. The idea of going to a beautiful place and painting it seems like a strange thing to me. ... I’m trying to capture those fleeting things in ordinary life that you don’t pay attention to,” Bonner said. “I think there’s poetry in that.” (He used to draw strangers on the long ride to and from work. Once, he realized only partway through that the person he was drawing was linguist, political critic and MIT professor Noam Chomsky.)
The process he used in painting this body of work is quite new, thanks to 21st-century technology.
“I film on high-res video. That way, I can isolate particular actions that people make if they cross the road. As you look at each frame, there are some positions that are much more suggestive and more graceful. I compile those images and stitch them together in a way that might be pleasing,” Bonner said. Though sometimes, he admitted, he has to backtrack when the image looks too perfect. (And sometimes when he walks around Boston streets with a camera, he gets funny looks, which he never notices until he watches the video.)
Some artists are very touchy about using photography to paint, but Bonner finds that it’s extremely helpful. It cuts down the drawing time and enables him to spend more time painting, which is what he’s most interested in doing.
“The only drawback is that sometimes, a high-resolution video is not high-resolution enough. Some paintings fail because there are not enough detail in them,” he said.
Nonetheless, because of these opportunities, he said it’s a fantastic time to be a filmmaker or an artist. He said it’s quite amazing the things you’ll notice the second time around on video: people in summer shoes and T-shirts during a cold, rainy day, people carrying funny-looking or multiple bags across the street.
“I like the feeling that they’re paintings and they’re real at the same time. There’s a kind of excitement in the fact that it’s just paint.”