Doubting Thomas

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I am distinctly literal-minded — I really do have to see things to believe them, a tendency — or defect — that has left me disinclined to the theoretical and abstract. I prefer both philosophy and art with an empirical basis.

In my geology class at college — the next-to-last science class I ever took, sadly — I had a teaching assistant who always tried to explain ideas in three different ways:  verbally, mathematically, and visually. So for every new concept he would give us a written description, an equation, and a diagram or drawing. His pedagogic theory was that everyone has a tendency to process information best in one of these three modes, and he wanted be sure he covered all the bases rather than privileging one approach over the others. While it is surely no surprise that I process information best when it is visually presented, I find almost distressing how extreme that preference is, far outweighing any other mode of acquiring information. I can read a difficult paragraph over and over and still it will remain inert on the page, unassimilated. I understand the words. The sentences make sense. And yet they don’t come alive for me into an flexible comprehension but remain abstract, as one-dimensional as the page they are printed on. As for the mathematical approach, well, having given up on math long ago, whether from natural or societal gender bias, I’m so out of practice now that I can’t even begin to comprehend what might potentially be a more accessible symbolic language.

This literal-mindedness has both made me an artist — images appear to me, and I want to make them real — and a very slow worker. I simply don’t know if something is going to work until I try it and see, thus making the painting process a concatenation of trial and error, often painfully drawn-out. The top parts of the ‘Headcase’ paintings are like jigsaw puzzles, in which each piece has first to be invented and then jiggled and jostled around until it finds its home, or is cast aside if it does not naturally find a resting place. Recently, it occurred to me that the use of oil paint — something so fundamental to my identity as an artist that I have never contemplated anything else — dramatically slows this process, as I must wait a day or three for the paint to dry, to be able to then adjust it, move it, or put something else on top of it. My friend, the painter Cat Balco, has just started using acrylic paint and made some vibrant new paintings with it. I had never considered using acrylic paint before; have in fact been quite scornful of it, but as with so many other things in my life and studio practice that I have come down against, often with little or no basis in experience, I am reconsidering.

If I make some new iterations of these ‘Headcase” paintings (which I would like to do, on a larger scale), would the process not be tremendously expedited by using acrylics for the top part of the painting, due to their more or less immediate drying time? I would still use oil paints to paint the body as I am used to, and could layer oil paints over the acrylic once it reached a certain level of completion. Basically, I could do much of the heavy lifting in acrylic, at a drastically accelerated pace, and bring in the slower drying oil paint in the later stages. In addition to these material advantages, I also like how this division of materials would potentially further literalize the dichotomy between the body and the headspace.

I admire artists — and aspire to be one — who keep questioning themselves and their assumptions and habits, and act accordingly, as dispassionately as possible (inasmuch as that is possible). You can get too attached to certain aspects of your practice, simply because you do them or have always done them, and not see that they have worn away and no longer support you. Especially as a young artist, trying desperately to figure shit out:  when you find something that works for you, you tend to enshrine it as gospel. So it can take a while to realize that maybe something isn’t serving you so well anymore, to question its absolute veracity and usefulness.

How dangerous to say “I always” or “I never.” And how limiting.