Donald Elder led me through the garden in front of his Saugerties home. Over the last 18 years, he has slowly landscaped it, creating three ponds and erecting a pavilion resembling a Chinese temple. Elder pointed out ornamental ginger, bamboo, and a rare Japanese fern. The garden follows the contours of the land, and incorporates local stone and wild plants. Though not a practicing Buddhist, Elder has long esteemed Asian culture, dating from his military service in Thailand and Vietnam in the late 1960s. (He worked as an MP—military policeman.) War is never pleasant, but Elder’s service was transformative.
“Gardening is a great hobby,” I observed. Elder nodded: “You get lost in it.”
We looked back at the garden together. “These little ponds you’ll see in some of my paintings,” Elder remarked.
From there, we drove to Elder’s studio. He showed me a number of oil paintings on paper. Elder’s work is influenced by landscape, and varies in style from literal to abstract. His new show, opening June 5 at the Elena Zang Gallery, will be much less pictorial—as if the colorful essence of spring flowers could be extracted from their shapes, unleashing a primal, almost pugnacious energy.
Do I imagine an influence of Chinese calligraphy in the brushstrokes of his latest work? (Or perhaps the inspiration of graffiti art?)
Elder has been painting on canvas since he was 12. “I’ve never wanted to be anything but an artist,” he explained. “When I was a boy, I never wanted to be a cowboy.” He studied at the Pratt Institute, the Art Students League, the New York Academy of Art, and had two residencies in Italy: one in Florence, one in Valdottavo. (Elder also briefly studied bookbinding.) Twenty years ago, he moved away from New York City, into the mountains.
Elder doesn’t work from photographs, or paint outdoors. “Everything is from my memory, or my imagination,” Elder notes. “When you walk in the woods, nature is very abstract.” In his canvases, shadows play in the woods, lurching shapes rear up in your peripheral vision as you walk in the pictorial forest. Another influence is water’s distortions—particularly reflections in ponds.
Elder applies paint by brush, palette knife, and bare hand. The result is bristling and zealous. He allowed me to rub my fingers over a painting. “It feels like Braille, doesn’t it?” he observed. I thought I saw collage in one of the canvases—an article from the New York Times buried under the first layer of paint. But it was just dark, parallel brush marks. Elder creates an atmosphere of ambiguity, of the almost-seen. He works devotedly, every day, usually on several paintings at once, slowly cultivating each canvas.
“Is this painting done?” I asked, pointing towards a large work that looked like Monet’s water lilies. “Almost,” Elder responded. “It’s going to come to life a little bit more.”
Clearly, Elder’s painting is a type of gardening.
“Donald Elder: New Work” will be exhibited at the Elena Zang Gallery in Shady from June 5 to 23. The artist’s reception is from 2-5pm on Saturday, June 5. (845) 679-5432; www.elenazang.com.