Scandal

Moby killed a small brown bird. I would call it nondescript except that it would certainly be known to any backyard birder. He came into my studio with it dangling limply from his mouth and when I picked him up to throw him out before he could defile the body he growled at me, unconvincingly, like the tiny tiger he is.

He lacks the capacity to understand why I am angry at him, or even to know that I am. He has done something perfectly, instinctually natural to him, and there is nothing to be upset about except our own culpability:  that we allow him to go outside, where he has the opportunity to kill other, smaller creatures. It does not make me feel any better that the (for us) untenable alternative was having a house soaked in the piss of a petulant cat.

I couldn’t bear to move the body at first. I hoped against all logic that perhaps with time to rest, it would magically reanimate and flutter off. I kept painting, periodically spying around the corner of my canvas to see if perhaps that wing had shifted over a bit? or was that a tiny tremble of breath at all?

It did not come back to life.

Its body was shockingly weightless when I steeled myself to pick it up at the end of the day, a few straws wrapped in tissue paper; feathers mussed, slightly, by my cat’s lethal jaws and paws, a tiny clod of dirt caked on the underside of its beak. It had been so freshly alive, so newly departed when Moby brought it in, that it didn’t seem like a corpse exactly; I felt the consciousness of a unique living creature, only just turned off. Its eyes were closed, almost formally.

‘Children often say things that seem extraordinary to us precisely because the big questions are not yet “famously tricky” for them. Oliver is obsessed with death at the moment and he’s also only six. He can’t bear it, it hasn’t become part of How it Is; it’s still a scandal, a catastrophic design flaw; it ruins everything. We’ve got used to the face of death — although the experience is irreducibly strange. He hasn’t found the trick of putting a hood on the executioner, of hiding the experience with the fact. He still sees it as pure experience. I found him crying over a dead fly lying on the windowsill. He asked me why things have to die and all I could offer him was tautology:  because nothing lasts for ever.'

 

— At Last, Edward St. Aubyn

I know it is immature, a child’s view of death, but like little Oliver I still retain a strong and similar feeling that death is a “scandal, a catastrophic design flaw.”

One of my earliest memories is of sitting in the backseat of a car being parked by one of my parents, and being mutely horror-struck by the realization that when I died people would still go on about such mundane business, driving around in their cars, looking for parking spots, backing into them, putting coins into the meter, all as though something unthinkable had not occurred; and with the unapologetic egotism of a child, I felt an existential affront that the world would not cease to go on without me—me, for whom it had been created!—to witness it.

I was, and remain, indignant.

The worst part of my local avian tragedy is the fear that this was not just a random bird, but a bird I had come to think of as my daily companion in the backyard, the bird that has been warbling away atop the spiky protection of the neighbor’s holly tree all summer. I remember thinking that his song was lovely, and being happy he had such a redoubtable fortress to sing it safely in. I suppose I may impute his death by the absence of his song in the coming days.

This is the second bird Moby has killed. (It may be time to fit him for a catbib.) A year and a half ago, I made this painting to commemorate his first victim.

Dead Bird

I am starting another painting to commemorate the second. It seems the very least I can do.

6/100 Household Objects: Small Blue Level

The series of ordinary household objects has continued, although I am (ahem) quite behind in posting them to this blog. This was finished a year or so ago. I don't hate the finished version (at the bottom), but in retrospect, I mourn the beautiful looseness of the first version. Level 1

Level 2

Level 3

I do wish I hadn't nailed this particular butterfly to the wall in the quest for a greater precision, and looking at it again, while it kind of hurts, is reminding me to stop sooner next time, a lesson I only seem to learn at the rate of one millimeter per year.

The work is the death mask of its conception.

— Walter Benjamin

 

 

 

"The dream of a perfect novel drives writers crazy"

But there's no reason to cry. If it's true that first-rate novels are rare, it's also true that what we call the literary canon is really the history of the second-rate, the legacy of honourable failures. Any writer should be proud to join that list just as any reader should count themselves lucky to read them. The literature we love amounts to the fractured shards of an attempt, not the monument of fulfilment. The art is in the attempt, and this matter of understanding-that-which-is-outside-of-ourselves using only what we have inside ourselves amounts to some of the hardest intellectual and emotional work you'll ever do. It is a writer's duty. It is also a reader's duty. Did I mention that yet?” — Zadie Smith, "Fail Better"

Possible Though Unlikely

At times, whatever he might say, he was surely lost in a cloud of unknowing; but at least it was a peaceful cloud at present and sailing through a milky sea towards a possible though unlikely ecstasy at an indefinite remove was, if not the fullness of life, then something like its shadow. — Patrick O'Brien, HMS Surprise

Perfectly Average Things

The problem with nonfiction these days is that everybody wants—this idea of a personal vision is very important. “Where do you stand?” I find all that pretty tiresome. I’m not ever saying anything unusual, you know? I’m just trying to think about general things just a bit more specifically. I’m not claiming to any unusual emotions, tastes, opinions—I have a very average taste in most things. It’s not that. It’s just trying to express, as precisely as you can, these perfectly average things. — Zadie Smith

Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

Zadie Smith

We Do What We Can

It's been too long since I've posted, and not because I don't have a lot of work(s in progress) to share. I kept thinking I was about to finish something and present it here all wrapped up, forgetting that I started this blog in the first place to show and talk about unfinished work. Anyway, I keep leaving paintings hovering on the brink of being done, afraid to fuck them up in their final moments, and going on to start other things, and right now I have about 7 paintings that are almost done . . . but not quite. Andrew Sullivan, whose idiosyncratic blog I spin through daily, linked to this wonderful short essay today, a meditation on a quotation from a Henry James story about an author who, having completed many books, dies but before he is able to create his master work. The essay briefly examines his famous exclamation:  "A second chance! That’s the delusion. There never was to be but one. We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

It's well worth a read.

And while moving from Henry James to Sheryl Crow may seem like a bit of a jump, I was reminded of her song, "We Do What We Can." It's jazz-inflected, with some fun time signature changes and great mournful lyrics. I've always loved this song but nobody ever seems to know it.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgudApovkQw]

The Painty Mire

When painting goes well, it seems to hinge purely on some mysterious internal factor, not on any objective quality of the piece being worked on. If the gods will it, magical transformations can happen in any painting at any moment, but if the mood isn’t right, for whatever reason — if lunch didn’t sit well, or a phone call caused agitation, or someone stepped on an ant in Australia — well, then a bout of thrashing in the painty mire usually ensues. One day, I am cruising along and can do no wrong; it feels like every time my brush touches the canvas I am in love with the mark it makes. I can finish a painting in one happy, charged day. And the next day I can do no right, sweating it out in the studio for eight hours in increasing desperation. But perhaps you only get to have those perfect days of smooth sailing in exchange for all those days when perspiration did not end up equalling inspiration.

The relationship between perspiration and inspiration is perverse, not to say inverse, exactly, because you do have to work to build up your craft, but it seems that pieces usually come together on the days when you’re not working so hard on them. You have to have one to get the other, just not at the same time, generally.

The truth is that the piece of art which seems so profoundly right in its finished state may earlier have been only inches or seconds away from total collapse.

— Art & Fear, David Bayles & Ted Orland

I guess there just different kinds of paintings, different ways to end up with something good. Sometimes it comes easy, and sometimes you have to get to that point where you don’t give a fuck, the thing is so bad —you’ll do anything to it — and that recklessness, that utter disregard for the precious object, can sometimes lead to an unexpected and wonderful breakthrough, something that you could never have set out to do sequentially and deliberately.

The secret (your methods) to painting needs to be discovered everyday. This is necessary because these secrets only work for a little while.

— Ken Kewley

100 Household Objects

I've started a new project, which is going to take me a couple of years, at least. I'm going to paint 100 household objects.

This is the first one in the series.

Dave is always telling me to write shorter posts, more often. So that's all for now. More household objects to come.

 

So True

 Artists don’t get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working. — Stephen Destaebler, from Art & Fear

 

Don’t wait for inspiration — it comes while one is working.

— Matisse

 

 

 

Over time

After getting so excited about Dave's portrait last month, I have been persuading friends to model for me. It turns out that writers are good subjects, because they not only have flexible schedules, but can keep themselves occupied by thinking deep thoughts while they are sitting and giving me their faces. Zach went first, and was a lovely subject. I was surprised to find myself, in the first few moments of beginning the painting, deeply shy of looking so directly and hungrily at the face of someone I didn't know very well. It's both an intimate and demanding thing, this gaze. You never look that intensely at someone's face in ordinary life; there is no social equivalent.

Here's the first state:

And here is the finished (mostly? I still feel like poking at it a bit with a brush, but judiciously) version:

What with my newfound interest in painting people's faces, I finally watched the Alice Neel documentary. I've never truly loved her paintings, but I deeply admire her energy and commitment to keep working, all those years in obscurity. And I carefully transcribed this Robert Storr quote from the film, because I think it is the perfect philosophical/metaphysical explanation to anyone who asks what the difference is between painting from life and painting from photographs:

The business about the difference between painting and photography becomes crucial in the sense that the photograph does capture somebody in a manner which freezes that person in an instant. Painting never freezes in quite that way, painting takes place over time. But the mere fact that painting is not a second arrested, but is a relationship of seeing and of the seer and the subject means that painting contains duration somehow. When you look at a painting you’re seeing an extended moment, you’re seeing time happen, not just time stopped, which gives the photograph a somewhat more obviously morbid characteristic and painting a less morbid one.

Yesterday, I started a new painting of our friend Jesse, or "Ole Pretty Eyes" as we like to call him:

He is threatening to get a haircut and shave, so we'll see how different he looks at the next sitting.

And I also started a self-portrait a while back, that I want to pair with the portrait of Dave as a diptych, so that we're looking at each other, a la Piero della Francesca's portraits of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza. But then I realized that while I can do the face from life (or a mirror, as the case may be) I will need to work from a photograph to get the eyes looking in the right direction (i.e. towards the painting of Dave, not out towards the viewer). So photographs do have their uses in painting, even from life.

Finally, I also recently re-read Dave Hickey's essay, "This Mortal Magic," from his classic book Air Guitar, in which he riffs on Storr's notion of painting containing duration, and therefore being less morbid than photography.

It’s not so much what we do, or even what happens, it’s the way things overlap and intersect:  I was sitting at the desk in my office, in my apartment in las Vegas, reading John Shearman’s observations on the historical circumstances of Renaissance portraiture. Shearman had begun by positioning these portraits within the lives of their sitters, sketching in their lives before and after the paintings were made. Now he was suggesting, on this evidence, that the technical obsession with capturing the palpable vivacity of the sitter in Renaissance portraiture was very likely due to the fragility of life in that period, to the poverty of communications in Italy, and to the mobility of the class of people who had their portraits made—arguing that the portrait, where it hung, functioned less as a picture or a documents than as an icon of the sitter’s actual presence in the space from which she or he was absent due to death or duty. Thus the passionate vivacity of these pictures. The sitter was supposed to be there.

Reading about these short, perilous Renaissance lives on a quiet, desert morning in the late twentieth century must have sharpened by awareness of time whooshing by, because I suddenly remembered that I had to make a telephone call. Closing Shearman’s book, I pulled over my Rolodex and flipped it open immediately, accidentally, to the late Scott Burton’s card. I wasn’t surprised to find it, since I stopped  clearing dead people out of my Rolodex years ago. Throwing those little cards away into the trash is a very depressing chore—and leaving them there, with their disconnected numbers intact and their abandoned addresses appended, is a way of remembering, of being reminded in the midst of life. On this occasion, seeing Scott’s name there, on the little white tombstone of his file card, in the midst of reading about mortality and Renaissance portraits, made me think of how nice it would be to go somewhere and see a full-blown, luminous sixteenth-century portrait of the artist in his glory.

I could have pulled an exhibition catalogue off the shelf and looked at a photograph, of course, but photographs are nailed in the moment of their making and when the subject is dead, this distance from the present only reminds you of that. I would have preferred an image that reminded me, persuasively, physically, that Scott had once been alive, that we had told some jokes, had some laughs—something that caught the little tremor that flickered around Scott’s upper lip, always threatening to burst into a smile or a sneer, you never knew which. That’s what painting used to do—what only painting can do—and does no longer, and this seemed a pity, since regardless of fashions in image-making, we continue to die at an alarming rate.

Veering

I've been dipping in and out of the new book of Philip Guston's collected writings, lectures and conversations, and I loved this exchange between Guston and Clark Coolidge (who edited the book).

PG:  Well, there’s something I think I’ll probably constantly keep vacillating or wavering between, movement or no movement. I think it’s true of my whole past, as far as I know my past, to be fascinated by the one and the multitudinous. Sometimes I’ll put a lot of forms into a picture and think:  Why do I need all that?  I really don’t need this multitudinous feeling of forms. The world is filled with multitudinous forms. I really am looking for one form, a static form, from which the multitudinous forms come anyway. Like that bulging book we’re looking at now. It’s a sculptured book and yet it’s done very simply, in a very minimal way. It’s one of the best books of the series. There’s just something about having a single form which is there in a space. There’s no movement to speak of visually. It’s just there, and yet it’s shaking, like throbbing, or burning or moving, but there’s no sign of its moving. Now that book, I may be reading my things into it that other people don’t see, but I don’t think so.

CC:  No, I see what you mean. It’s vibrating.

PG:  It vibrates! In other words, it’s like nailing down a butterfly but the damn thing is still moving around. And this seems to be the whole act of art anyway, to nail it down for a minute but not kill it. That’s what I mean. Whereas in the act of painting sometimes, when I don’t feel so all together, and I want to keep in motion, I’ll paint movement. I mean, I’ll just put down a lot of things. And finally that doesn’t satisfy me, and I always wonder why it doesn’t satisfy me. But it doesn’t sum it up for me. There’s no need for it. That is to say, instead of painting all those forms moving around in the pictures—what the hell, I could just as well pull up the shade and look out the window on the street. Why do I have to do it? I don’t have to do it on canvas, but I want to do what nature doesn’t do. I mean, I can look out and see trees blowing, wind moving, and things are happening. I don’t have to duplicate that. But what I don’t see is a single form that’s vibrating away, constantly, forever and ever and ever to keep vibrating. And that seems to be magical as hell, enigmatic as hell, really. Gee, I never said that before, that way. Now that book is really moving.

CC:  That goes back to my feeling that we’ve talked about before, that in art you always work between opposites. Between stopping and going, stasis and movement, abstraction and figuration.

PG:  Yes, that’s right.

CC:  I think it’s like a machine that keeps us going, like electricity.

PG:  It’s a tension between the two.

CC:  Between gaps, between poles. Which causes a lot of our dissatisfaction, because we go more to one side.

PG:  You mean, a necessary dissatisfaction.

CC:  Yeah, because at any one time it’s more one or the other.

PG:  Veering.

CC:  When we’re toward this, we think maybe that one’s wrong.

PG:  That’s right.

CC:  But we don’t realize that we’re constantly moving. You never really stop anything, unless you die. Wherever that is.

I love his description of the act of art as being like nailing down a live butterfly for a moment, without killing it. That really is the trick. Ninety percent of the time my butterflies die on the table.

Portrait of Dave

The other day I got Dave to sit for me. We spent about an hour and a half, and came out with this:

I was happy. Even unfinished it somehow captured how Dave looks to me. It was painted with acrylic paint and was really fun; I've been feeling more comfortable with acrylic paint recently. I've also been wondering (sacrilege!) if the color isn't a little brighter and more vibrant than oil paint. I'm becoming a big fan of Golden's line of OPEN acrylics. They stay wet and workable on your palette for hours and hours, but dry pretty fast on the painting, and if I want to speed up the drying time I just blast it with a blow dryer.

Yesterday we had a second session and I finished it. The whole thing took about 4 hours total, split between the two sittings. I want to do more portraits!

Painting is Talking With the Hands Made Permanent

I recently found this meditation/musing on painting by Ken Kewley, an artist whose work I was not previously familiar with. It’s wonderful. It’s pretty  long, the kind of thing you can dip in and out of, pulling out little inspirational nuggets when you need a nudge in one direction or another, a jumpstart, a friendly hand, a reminder of something you know deep down but keep forgetting. It’s had me in a good mood all week long.

A few choice quotes:

Love colors as writers love words. It is the love that comes through when the mind gets out of the way. Don’t think too much. Trust your instincts. I try not to worry about what I do not know, what I have been unable to teach myself. My inabilities serve me better than my abilities. That art is not something that is learned and then practiced, it is a form of communication and one is always trying to say something clearer

. . .

You are emphasizing what interests you and minimizing other things by putting them in the service of your true passion and leaving out altogether what distracts. Keep it simple.

. . .

As far as keeping a painting fresh to the end, you cannot lose site of the reason for starting the painting in the first place. That first excitement, that one big relationship, if the details slowly obscure that relationship the painting becomes dull, then it is necessary to dig back in and pull it out even if it means upturning days of work. In the end nothing is lost and it will be more exciting for being harder found and deeper felt.

. . .

I tend to like paintings where the abstraction is strong. By this I mean that the paint, the colors and shapes, are distinct, like strong actors in a play. Going towards abstraction does not mean going away from representation. It is more like describing something real by other means than illustration. It is like describing an apple with your hands, forming the shape in the air with your hands, by enclosing an imaginary object with two hands. You do not try to make your hand look like an apple. Paint takes over the role of the hands and does not hide the fact that it is paint. Painting is talking with the hands made permanent.

. . .

Paintings are not finished, they are stopped.

. . .

Do not work too hard, but work all the time.

Hiatus

It's been a long time, unintentionally. Or rather, with the best of intentions — 'write blog post' written on my to-do list every week for, well, four months now.

Summer was lovely, but is sadly, I think, officially over now. It being October and all. And this glorious sunflower took a nose-dive shortly after this picture was taken and is currently lying face-down in the rain. Which has also, officially, started.

More later, though. And paintings.