Decoding Howard Fonda’s endless, timeless, limitless, nothingness world

Mark making doesn’t always have to be experimental and abstract. Howard Fonda is an artist who systematically mark-makes and his visual vocabulary incites gestural qualities. The artist (b. 1974) currently lives and works in Portland, Oregon, USA. He received his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and his work has been shown internationally as well as has been collected by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
Fonda has explored both figurative or abstract paintings using mark making. In his body of works he develops a methodical approach to representational depictions on canvas applying bold colours, geometrical shapes and other remarkable decorations mark by mark. In this respect, Fonda interestingly infuses philosophical dimensions behind his compositions mainly coping with universal matters of existence.
Words: Yannis Kostarias


Untitled (what? where? why? when?), 2016, oil and colored pencil on canvas, 142 x 112 cm


His paintings are personal challenges as they all are made within a single day and always consist of illustrations of spiritual foundations. Fonda explores a deeper interplay between nature, human existence and time. Thus, his themes and subjects usually reflect the artist’s long commitment to ideas on which he sometimes works for months. He also highlights that he “wade though thoughts and try to connect disparate narratives, articulate formal relationships and respect the historical anecdotes he is attracted to”.
I was glad to see in person his latest body of paintings presented at the Dot Project gallery in London, at the Thoughts from A Stolen Land exhibition. There was an equal degree and value of balance between the playful emphasis on lines, colours and shapes, and the conceptual stories on canvas; all executed to the ‘alla prima’ painting technique. Fonda’s works operate as notably secretive visual experiences, often twisting uncanny compositions and texts, that serve an additional offering to the viewer: the further engagement with the artist’s real and metaphysical world. By painting narratives of imagination, historic figures and spaces, his work manages to construct a new space within these modest-sized canvases. Yet even his motifs seem familiar to the viewer’s gaze, such as an owl, mermaid, human’s skull or a snake. Fonda’s new visual arrangements provide an alternative identification with such figures placing them in another context as well as seeking for another interpretation.


Untititled (confusing the present with the past), 2016, oil and colored pencil on canvas, 188 x 150 cm


Viewing his paintings, a kind of an artistic duality holds the visitor’s attention; watching his work from a distance, a sort of disillusion is coming first, whilst getting closer to the painting a masked image or unseen message is surprisingly revealing. An ongoing mind game is taking place around the gallery space and an intellectual dialogue over the artist’s concerns in both control and abstraction. From different angles, the same painting could be either figurative or not. Purposeful administrative layers of his multiple marks could be variably perceived, constructing a mysterious atmosphere.
In his interview with ArtVerge, the American artist elaborates on his art and even on his daily life, giving more details about his charismatic personality. What else? Well, it’s right below.
1. Art Verge: Can you tell us about the process of making your work?
Howard Fonda: Well, it’s a pretty traditional studio practice. I’m a solitary painter – a bit of a hermit, really. I taught painting at the university for years and dork-out on technique and materials. I stretch and prep my own canvas, so it really starts there – with an elemental connection to the object.
In terms of content and subject, I maintain a large storehouse of notes, sketches, quotes and half-baked ideas. Mostly just snippets or obtuse references. I play these out in my mind and sit with ideas – sometimes for months – before I actually paint. In order to take full advantage of the act of painting, I try not to sketch or conclude thoughts too much. I mull over ideas. I wade through thoughts and try to connect disparate narratives, articulate formal relationships and respect the historical anecdotes I’m attracted to, then hold these things in a loose grasp. When I do sit down to paint, I enact this flimsy “plan” and allow intuition and the moment to take over.
All of my work is made in a day. I really enjoy the tension and energy that manifests. I attempt to balance experience with intuition and ride the wave until a work’s  done. In the end, a work is either kept or painted out. It either succeeds or fails. Presence is key.
2. How would you define your work in a few words?
Everything and nothing.


Untitled (surrender your narrow future), 2016, oil & colored pencil on canvas, 122 x 91 cm


3. Do you have a favorite book, film or painting which inspires you?
Oh, so many! My admiration for those that create, and their fruits, runs deep. Though there is a LONG list of visual artists that I adore, I must admit I’m more nourished by history, literature and music. A few constants are anything by Thelonious Monk, any Grateful Dead set, Leaves of Grass, Langston Hughes poetry, Doors of Perception, Plato, e.e. cummings poems (and painting!)….If I could have only one piece of art, it would be anything by Twombly.
4. When was the latest video you watched on social media that had an impact on your mood?
I’m not a big social media person. I’m probably on the ‘gram more than anything. If I took the time to watch anything, it was likely political and, given the sad state of affairs in the States, it probably made me angry and depressed.  And since we’re on the subject – fuck that worthless pile of shit known as Trump!


Untitled, 2016, oil & colored pencil on canvas, 142 x 112 cm


5. Creating a new painting is a solitary process. If it applies to you, when you concentrate on a new artwork, does it affect your social life?
It certainly can! Because so much of it takes place in the recesses of my head, I can be a bit aloof. My poor family! Thank the gods I have an amazing, understanding and supportive partner. I work really hard to be present whenever I’m with my kids – though, I’m a work in progress.

6. Which exhibition did you last visit?
There are a few recent shows I’ve been playing over and over in my head lately. I visited that Laura Owens show in London 3 times while I was there! She is straight gangster. So badass. Rebekah Goldstein’s show at CULT in San Fransisco was a beauty, too! Such thoughtful color and awkward elegance. Fourteen30, here in Portland, arranged an amazing group of painters for “Conversations Between a Mirror and the Sea.” I got to see some of my favorite contemporaries like Monique Mouton, Patricia Treib and Pam Glick – all with serious formal muscle. Adams and Ollman just opened yet another banger here with some crazy, dope Alicia Gibson paintings and the lovely, subtle weirdness of Bruce Sherman’s ceramics. All on my mind!
7. What is your favorite time of the day?
Without a doubt, the dead of night. Though, with a 2-year-old and a 5 year-old I rarely get to bask in it any more. I’ve trained myself to function at 7am, but I’m a night-owl by nature.
8. What does your mum think of your art?
Oh, she is so proud and encouraging. Of course, she also thinks a lot of it is weird as shit, but she has always been super supportive and a big inspiration. My pops, too!

9. Is the glass half empty or half full?
Fullness and emptiness are more similar than different. Fullness allows for generosity and emptiness allows one to receive. These are both great gifts where love, kindness and knowledge are concerned.
10. What are your plans for the near future?
As always, the continual attempt to make a painting good enough to keep and to steal a glimpse at understanding.

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