by Lou Mancinelli
Whenever Germantown artist Jonathan Eckel is tempted to paint in a representational, naturalistic, traditional way with recognizable objects, he turns the canvas upside down and searches for something deeper, underneath the surface, in the intuitive element of life and put that feeling on the canvas.
Naturalistic figures started to disappear from his work about a year into the fortuitous arrangement Eckel had been offered by a local gallery in 2008, which afforded a monthly stipend for two years. He was then 28 years old and is now 33.
Over the last five years Eckel has continued to paint in a more abstract vein. Twenty-two abstract expressionist-like pieces created in the last nine months by Eckel are now being exhibited in a solo show at Imperfect Gallery in Germantown through May 24. Eckel is a 2003 Tyler School of Art painting and art education graduate who later completed a residency at the Vermont Studio Center and whose work has been exhibited at Woodmere Art Museum.
His paintings are worked, reworked, painted over and repainted. Eckel created them without sketches and without plans. The work is visceral. It may remind you of walking down a packed city street while focusing on a few passing shapes and faces.
According to Eckel, “Like a religion, I have faith that the paint will perform a miracle, making those who look upon it believers. This can be a very frustrating ordeal, and almost every painting comes to a point somewhere along the process where I consider burying it and never telling anyone where. In this grave is where that life force of creation lies.
“When one moment you could give up entirely, the next minute you are awakened to the imagery and its purpose. You know what it must be, and what was once a mistake is now the lungs with which the painting breathes … I want to use visual imagery as a symbolic language that is not literal but definitely powerful and emotionally understandable. I believe that creating art is a mystical endeavor and not to be taken lightly.”
Eckel cites 20th century masters like Picasso, abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky as influences. “I don’t even know what I’m trying to say sometimes, but they [the viewers] are getting it,” said Eckel. “That’s when you know it’s real.”
His first show was in 2003. After art school Eckel, who was raised in Glenside and graduated from Abington High School in 1998, moved to Boulder, CO, for two years. When he returned home, he took a job teaching third grade at Plymouth Meeting Friends School (PMFS).
While working as a teacher, he met local artists like the renowned Chuck Connelly. More than a handful of them made a living off their art, which inspired Eckel to walk out on the high wire. “It made me feel like, you know, hey, I gotta try this now. I thought if all else fails, I could always teach.”
When he finished teaching the 2008 school year, he decided he would not return the following autumn. He spent the summer painting. By the end of the summer, he became connected with the local Knapp Gallery, which provided him with the aforementioned stipend. It was enough to cover his rent, living and work expenses with some extra spending money. “It was very affirming,” Eckel said. “It was like, OK, I just made the right choice.”
In 2010, after Knapp Gallery was forced to close, Eckel enrolled in the Vermont Studio Center, the largest international artists’ and writers’ residency program in the U.S. After the residency he returned home and purchased a space in the Greene Street Artists Cooperative, a live/work artists’ space in a renovated, historic Germantown warehouse.
When he returned from Vermont, Eckel also contacted Woodmere Art Museum. He exhibited his work at Woodmere in 2011 and has also exhibited his work at the Main Line Art Center and other local galleries, as well as in New York City.
Now Eckel usually paints about eight hours a day, Monday through Wednesday. He waits tables two days a week to pay the bills. His vision of success is evolving. The romanticism that inspired him as a youth has developed into an awareness that there is also a business to being an artist.