Columbia University in the City of New York

Harriman Institute




Overstate, Understate, Tell the Truth: Paintings from Saint Petersburg, New York, and Yerevan
Please join us for an exhibit by Benjamin Lussier, PhD candidate, Department of Slavic Language and Literatures, Columbia University.
From the artist:
Painting is one activity where truth is not a question of correctness.
The title of this exhibition comes from a saying attributed to the great American landscape painter Charles Movalli. Movalli’s original version, “overstate, understate, never tell the truth,” was meant to encourage his students to let go of the mistaken idea that it the painter is in the business of creating visual ‘reproductions’ reality. While his point is well taken, my own reflections on the task of painting have convinced me that is necessary to challenge Movalli ever so slightly. While he is undoubtedly correct to say that a painter should dispense with the idea that he needs to to faithfully reproduce what he sees (or thinks he sees), I contend that it is the painter’s task to say something true about the world. Overstate, understate — that is how you tell the truth.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that painting is more than simply a mode of self-expression. It should be seen as an epistemic project. The arts are simply one mode in which human beings go out into their world, experience it, know it, and try to say something new about it. I find it telling that the Russian word for art that Slavonic iskus, from which the Russian word for art is derived, finds a close parallel in the Latin experimentum. “The whole fact is,” as Robert Henri reflects in his insightful book, The Art Spirit, “art and science are so close akin they might very well be lumped together.” A painting is first and foremost a search for new vision, a process of discovery that can’t happen in any place other than the end of a brush.
I began this series of paintings about 8 months ago when I decided to take my easel abroad with me to Saint Petersburg. A painter just beginning to seriously explore the plein air tradition, I found painting on location a fantastic way to get to know the city, which I already knew quite well, in an even more intimate way. As a graduate student, I have the great privilege of traveling abroad between semester, a tremendous opportunity, but one which can also be disorienting. For me, plein air painting is an ideal way for me to feel more present and grounded in cities I am lucky enough to visit and to share my impressions of these beautiful places with the people who live there, as well as with friends and family when I get back home.


About the Artist

Benjamin Lussier is a PhD candidate in the Department of Slavic Language and Literatures at Columbia University. He was exposed to the art world at an early age by his father, David, by whom Ben was periodically instructed in the basics of painting and composition through childhood and adolescence. After a long hiatus, Ben began to take up the brush intermittently in the summer of 2014 and has since become a committed landscape painter inspired by the impressionist tradition of plein air. His work will be featured later this month at the Hudson Valley Art Association’s 83rd Annual National Juried Exhibition at the historic Salmagundi Club on 5th Avenue.