Something Finished

Oil on linen. 16" x 12". (I never know whether height or width should come first). Still untitled. I think of it as tree-legs (man version), but hopefully something more . . . better will come to mind eventually.

This painting is small, because it was meant as a study for a larger version of the same idea. I had a made a large diptych (2 canvases, each 6' x 3') of tree people for a show I had back in the fall of 2007 at Boston University, and was deeply unsatisfied with it. I had been rushed, trying to finish the paintings before I even quite knew where they were going, and it was an unhappy experience. I decided afterwards that for me, having a show wasn't worth it if I wasn't happy with the work in the show. Given that I appear to be painting ever sloooooooower, this will probably mean I won't have a long list of shows on my resume like so many of my peers already do.

Anyway, being still hung up on this image of a body metamorphosizing into foliage, I thought I would try again. I'm not an artist with a thousand and one teeming ideas; I tend to get an image stuck in my head, something both iconic and mysterious to me, and I have to figure out how on earth to realize it. I usually don't know how I'm going to do it, which is somewhat terrifying. For a long time, I thought that real artists always knew how they would go about making their work, and it made me deeply insecure, because I didn't - and still don't, to a certain degree. I have to actually make the painting to figure out how I'll make that painting, which means that a certain percentage of the time, I fail. This, for obvious reasons, is hard.

Getting back to this particular painting, I have found it deeply helpful to spend the time working various things out on a smaller canvas before scaling it up. I'm trying to find the right balance of control and freedom in my process, which involves both carefully rendered parts and looser, more contingent passages. For anxious person like myself, I'm beginning to discover, a measure of control is necessary in order to feel free, somewhat paradoxically. If I set certain parameters for myself so I don't feel like I'm thrashing around in a void, I actually feel freer to improvise, more open to chance and serendipitous discoveries and larger detours from where I thought I was headed. I don't want to know from the beginning exactly how a painting is going to look finished. In this interview with the Brooklyn Rail, Amy Sillman (a hero of mine) describes her process as  "[a] conversation at first, until it comes to be about undoing it and trying to redo it and making it get to something that has meaning that wasn’t the original meaning, and then I’m stumped and surprised. That’s the whole game right there—to be surprised." I wouldn't say that thats my whole game, but I do certainly want some element of surprise. Otherwise there's no risk at all, and how boring is that? You have to bet something to win something.

Although the larger version will doubtless differ in many, unforeseen ways from this one, my hope is that I have managed to avoid several months of flailing around on a large canvas, feeling desperate & wasting paint, before figuring the painting out. I've also decided that maybe I'm just not a super large-scale painter, and instead of making this 6 feet tall, it'll only be 4 feet tall. I'm hoping that will do away with my anxiety about covering all that square footage. I think maybe I have a bit of a large-painting hangover from Yale, where serious paintings were a minimum of 8 feet on the smaller dimension, and could easily stretch out to well over 12 feet on the larger. Oh, and also they had to be made very quickly. During critiques, Peter Halley, the head of painting at the Yale School of Art, used to expound his theory that all the most significant 20th century works of art were made in a day. This, and other such grad-school absurdities, used to make me feel crazed with frustration and rage, like Alice in a looking-glass world. But it's just too patently untrue to waste any more ire on it now. 

More tree-people paintings-in-process coming up soon.