Think Tight, Paint Loose

My sister thinks my problem with finishing paintings stems from a deep-rooted need to prove to viewers that I’m a “good” painter, that I need to always demonstrate what I can do. To show off my technical skillz, such as they may be. And that this means that I keep on painting the shit out of my paintings, when I should really just stop. To recognize the possibility of doneness in a work at a much earlier stage than I usually am able to. (This may, of course, be the work of a lifetime, compulsive wannabe over-achiever that I am.) I’m sure she’s not wrong exactly (I came to painting late, and spent my twenties striving sincerely to be a “good” painter . . . by which I meant a fairly limited notion of being able to paint things"realistically"), but that isn’t the only thing, either. The lived part of the experience is just looking at a painting and being irritated by certain parts of it, feeling very strongly that things remain to be fixed, improved, perfected.  Of course, usually when I finally am done with a painting and have “fixed” all the parts that were annoying me, when I look back at pictures of its earlier incarnations I see a looseness and openness that I then find really appealing, that makes the tightened down final version feel uptight and closed-off. As evidence I submit before and after shots (not terribly high quality, unfortunately) of the Ikea chair in this painting of our old living room.

Looking at these photos I think my sister is right, goddamnit, why couldn’t I have stopped a bit earlier, preserved some of that airiness? Damn my literal-mindedness, my compulsive need to neaten things up, to (literally) color within the lines. If I were a writer, I could just go back to that earlier draft, because I would still have it saved on my hard drive. But unfortunately for painters, the earlier drafts are gone for good, irretrievably overwritten by layers of hardened paint. There is a recklessness to painting. Every mark you make obliterates a previous mark. The one-way path presses relentlessly forward. Potential regret stalks every swipe of the brush.

Stop me before I kill again, as my old painting teacher Nancy Mitchnick used to say.

The finished painting, of the living room in our old apartment just before we moved:  (for some reason it doesn't seem to reproduce well, I don't know why. It looks infinitely better in person.)

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The thing is, my ideal painting has both precision and looseness in it, specificity and a dash of what-the-fuck. While I admire the hell out of Euan Uglow’s paintings, for their rigorous observation and carefully balanced compositions, not to mention the beautifully nuanced colors, ultimately I yearn for something to mess them up a little. Just a little. To offset —or set off— all that perfection.

Ideally, I want to build up some parts of my paintings to a fine level of finish, while also preserving looser, earlier stages of other parts. But it is such a difficult balancing act, trying to have it both ways, and I pretty much inevitably end up going too far and then having to mourn earlier stages of the painting. Going too far in the pursuit of consistency (a la Emerson:  “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”), and ironing out all the lively imperfections that create the very contrast I’m trying to achieve.

I think maybe this kind of both/and scenario is what I was trying to achieve with my hybrid figure paintings in a very literal, subject-focussed way, by fusing a more polished academic style of figure painting with something more improvised, whether observed or imagined. Maybe those figures were me being overly literal again, taking my taste for both finish and freeness in a painting and kind of just illustrating it, making the paintings about that contrast in a super obvious way rather than just having it serve the painting in subtler ways. Because it’s slowly become clear to me that I can do a lot of different things within a more cohesive way of working; I don’t have to smash two really different styles together and be so schizophrenic about it. In working from life, I am finding incredible leeway for both precision and invention:  I don’t have to look to myth or fantasy to find subject matter with the possibility for both — both are amply present in the quiet strangeness of ordinary objects and daily life.