Support Systems

It’s hard to write about an inevitable part of artistic life without sounding like a self-obsessed whiner. But the truth is I’ve not been posting much lately because I’ve been in a bit of a hole. I wrote in an earlier post something about the act of painting being like skating out over a chasm and playing, keeping things light while somehow ignoring the fact that you’re on an invisible sky bridge maintained only by your own continually renewed conviction not to look down. High above an unforgiving ground, kept aloft by a confidence trick, like when the Coyote propels himself off a cliff after the Roadrunner, and only plummets when he suddenly realizes he’s not on solid earth any more. I looked down recently.

And it’s hard to get back up there faking it while you make it, without those invisible glass bricks of self-confidence to shore you up.

And no one took it away from me, either. I took it away from myself, like the Eleanor Roosevelt quote:  “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I’m the one who makes me feel inferior. For long periods of time, I can glide along, relatively serenely, privately confident that I’m on the top of the world (based on no outside verification or validation whatsoever but my own strange spring of mysterious self-approbation) and then one day the spring stops bubbling, and I fall through the ice into a vast dark sea of self-loathing, fear, and doubt.

And then it’s impossible to do much of anything, being caught up in a negative feedback loop.

I was struck by a sentence in David Denby’s review of the movie “Adventureland” in The New Yorker about “ . . . balled-up smart people who angrily reject conventional success yet remain desperate for acceptance.” Something in that jangled an over-sensitive nerve.

I thought that when I moved out to Portland last year with Dave that, despite the fact I was moving three thousand miles away from everyone I knew and loved, all my networks and support systems, that I’d be fine. Dave’s job could pay our bills for a while, and I’d finally get what I’d always wanted:  all the time in the world to just paint, full time. I’d finally really get some shit done, I thought. Well, a year or so later, I’m here to grimly report that several tired old adages have proven their longevity, namely:  beware of getting what you thought you wanted, and also that work will expand to fill the time available. In my case, without any shows or deadlines or outside pressures, having all the time in the world, I get nothing done. Or rather, I seem to be able to finish nothing, am still trying to finish the same (small!) 4 paintings I started about a year ago.

Let’s admit that making art is a frivolous and narcissistic thing to do. I’m frankly okay with that proposition, but am perhaps too much of Puritan to be able to actually believe in a life of total play for myself (in fact, making my work usually feels very serious, which is definitely a problem). I think I need to feel that I’ve earned my time in the studio, so painting can be an antidote to something else more serious, more life-like. Like a job. Having painting be IT, the only thing in my life, which has been pretty emptied out since the big move to an new city, puts so much pressure on it that going to the studio feels a bit like a dour daily chore, without the little sexy bubble of anticipation I used to have when I thought about making a new painting. And without all the rich complications of a full, busy life, my paintings suffer from a lack of inputs, the cross-fertilizing energies that underwrite and fuel art. I feel adrift in a tedious sea, and my paintings alone are not sturdy enough sails to catch a new breeze. One of my favorite quotes, from Stephen King, addresses this dilemma:  “Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.

So I have this fancy MFA from Yale that’s supposed to be a ticket to the big-tent Art World, and with regular frequency read the names of my former classmates in the NYTimes and elsewhere, doing it, making it, living the life. And it isn’t completely that I’m jealous of their success—although it is hard to feel like anonymous in exile—but what makes me wince is that I still don’t feel centered in my own work. When I do, I have such weird confidence that I almost don’t give a shit what anybody else is doing, I’m making the work I’m meant to make, that no on else can, and I’m totally absorbed in the flow of my process and exploration. Instead, right now, I’m still trying to make my way to the middle of my own river, floundering a bit, and wondering if, at age 32, I’m already washed up.