I have embarked on a new project, and uncharacteristically, it is a kind of collaboration. While we were on our blissful rafting trip down the John Day river a month ago, our friend Jesse Lichtenstein, a writer and poet, asked if I would be interested in collaborating, sharing his poems and my paintings and seeing what might transpire.
I said yes immediately, even though I have never been much into the idea of working creatively with others before. I had always thought of myself as a studio tyrant, wielding absolute power over my tiny fiefdom, life or death, my way or the highway. And I am, I guess. All artists are. But having come to the point of near despair over my own work, having come to the brink of deciding to just . . . stop . . . because I can’t seem to find a way forward that feels right to me, working with input from someone else feels like a light in the tunnel, a way to make some work without laboring, camel-like, under my self-imposed burden.
Because for the past several years, I have not felt able to make work in a simple, straightforward fashion, comfortable in my skin in the studio. I have felt myself poised unnaturally under the spotlight of self-consciousness, that old well-poisoner. Every little thing I do, every move I make is somehow a reference on me. Is this the kind of painter I am? What does this say about me? My intelligence? My skill? Oh, you can’t do that! It is a pernicious kind of egotism, undermining everything I do before I get a chance to at least finish it and then assess what it might mean.
I am in search of a painting process, an art that feels completely natural to me, a way of working that regenerates itself, leading to further exploration, a deepening and complication of inquiry. I'm not talking about an unfortunate thing that happens to a lot of artists, where they find a method that works for them and simply start repeating themselves, where the work becomes a kind of brand, but about tapping a vein of work that, while necessarily narrowed to provide a certain focus, is deep and on-flowing. This search is inextricably linked to the search for self-knowledge, for how can I locate that vein if my own anatomy is mysterious to me? If I don't know what way of working best suits my particular form of intelligence and sensitivity? I have, however, long suspected that it is probably working from life. In the absence of physical data to be checked, verified, used as a springboard to more imaginative leaps, I tend to clamp down, feeling unsure of my bearings. I become anxious when I try to work solely or largely from my imagination, although that may sound somewhat counter-intuitive. I want something to look at, a tether to anchor me to something solid. Then I feel free to wander a bit, secure that I know where I am.
But I find myself blatantly jealous of all the artists who just know how they make their work, whatever their work is. And it makes me question very seriously whether I’m really meant to be doing this. I suppose there are as many different ways of coming to work as there are artists, but I particularly envy Anne Truitt’s description of how her ideas for new work came to her, in particular the absolute clarity, the lucid Platonic image of the piece simply appearing in mind, and having “only” to be physically realized.
In the last few months, I have become more conscious of how my work takes form. It sometimes happens unexpectedly. Just as I wake up, a series of three sculptures may present themselves somewhere that seems high over my head in my consciousness. They simply materialize, whole and themselves, in a rather stately way, and stand there, categorical in their simplicity. This can happen anywhere, not necessarily just after waking, but, characteristically, without any preparation on my part. Sometimes a single piece will appear; never more than three at once. I cannot make them all. Less than a quarter of them ever reach actuality. Other pieces result from a more or less conscious concentration on a particular area of emotionally charged personal experience—a person, say, or a series of events, or a period in my life. . . There seems no end to this kind of formulation. These concepts hover, already complete, it would seem, on the edge of my consciousness . . . when all this was new to me, I used to be overwhelmed and would wake up in the middle of the night flooded, inundated by peremptory demands for making these sculptures. (Anne Truitt, Daybook)
Anyway. While I acknowledge that I feel lost right now, it is fun to work on paintings inspired by Jesse’s poems, because they’re not all about me. And it is a tremendous relief. What a bore I am!