We Do What We Can

It's been too long since I've posted, and not because I don't have a lot of work(s in progress) to share. I kept thinking I was about to finish something and present it here all wrapped up, forgetting that I started this blog in the first place to show and talk about unfinished work. Anyway, I keep leaving paintings hovering on the brink of being done, afraid to fuck them up in their final moments, and going on to start other things, and right now I have about 7 paintings that are almost done . . . but not quite. Andrew Sullivan, whose idiosyncratic blog I spin through daily, linked to this wonderful short essay today, a meditation on a quotation from a Henry James story about an author who, having completed many books, dies but before he is able to create his master work. The essay briefly examines his famous exclamation:  "A second chance! That’s the delusion. There never was to be but one. We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

It's well worth a read.

And while moving from Henry James to Sheryl Crow may seem like a bit of a jump, I was reminded of her song, "We Do What We Can." It's jazz-inflected, with some fun time signature changes and great mournful lyrics. I've always loved this song but nobody ever seems to know it.


Painting is Talking With the Hands Made Permanent

I recently found this meditation/musing on painting by Ken Kewley, an artist whose work I was not previously familiar with. It’s wonderful. It’s pretty  long, the kind of thing you can dip in and out of, pulling out little inspirational nuggets when you need a nudge in one direction or another, a jumpstart, a friendly hand, a reminder of something you know deep down but keep forgetting. It’s had me in a good mood all week long.

A few choice quotes:

Love colors as writers love words. It is the love that comes through when the mind gets out of the way. Don’t think too much. Trust your instincts. I try not to worry about what I do not know, what I have been unable to teach myself. My inabilities serve me better than my abilities. That art is not something that is learned and then practiced, it is a form of communication and one is always trying to say something clearer

. . .

You are emphasizing what interests you and minimizing other things by putting them in the service of your true passion and leaving out altogether what distracts. Keep it simple.

. . .

As far as keeping a painting fresh to the end, you cannot lose site of the reason for starting the painting in the first place. That first excitement, that one big relationship, if the details slowly obscure that relationship the painting becomes dull, then it is necessary to dig back in and pull it out even if it means upturning days of work. In the end nothing is lost and it will be more exciting for being harder found and deeper felt.

. . .

I tend to like paintings where the abstraction is strong. By this I mean that the paint, the colors and shapes, are distinct, like strong actors in a play. Going towards abstraction does not mean going away from representation. It is more like describing something real by other means than illustration. It is like describing an apple with your hands, forming the shape in the air with your hands, by enclosing an imaginary object with two hands. You do not try to make your hand look like an apple. Paint takes over the role of the hands and does not hide the fact that it is paint. Painting is talking with the hands made permanent.

. . .

Paintings are not finished, they are stopped.

. . .

Do not work too hard, but work all the time.

The Bridge of Sight

I've been reading The Eye's Mind: Bridget Riley, Collected Writings 1965-2009 with great pleasure recently, in particular her essay "The Pleasures of Sight," from which I excerpt here:

. . . whatever the occasion might be, the pleasures of sight have one characteristic in common — they take you by surprise. They are sudden, swift and unexpected. If one tries to prolong them, recapture them or bring them about wilfully their purity and freshness is lost. They are essentially enigmatic and elusive. One can stare at a landscape, for example, which a moment ago seemed vibrant and find it inert and dull — so one cannot say that this lively quality of sight is simply ‘out there in nature’, or easily available to be commanded as wished. Nor is it a state of mind which, once acquired, can bend the most stubborn and unrewarding aspect of external reality to its own purposes. It is neither the one nor the other but a perfect balance between the two, between the inner and the outer. This balance is a sort of convergence which releases a particular alchemy, momentarily turning the commonplace into the ravishing.

Naturally, as a child one is more open to such experiences. When one gets older these tend to take place less often — that is they seldom appear any longer as pure revelations. But this does not mean that one has come to see things as they really are or any more truthfully. The damage is mostly done by the daily round with its heavy load of pressures and preoccupations which comes between, like a plate glass window, and through which one can certainly see but through which no vision can penetrate.

It seems to me that as an artist one’s work lies here. I realised partly through my own experience and partly through the great masters of Modern art that it was not the actual sea, the individual rocks or valleys in themselves which constituted the essence of vision but that they were agents of a greater reality, of the bridge which sight throws from our innermost heart to the furthest extension of that which surrounds us.

I discovered that I was painting in order to ‘make visible’. On one hand I had to make something which had this essential quality of precipitating itself as ‘surprise’ and, simultaneously, there was no way of knowing with what one was dealing until it existed; so that in order to see one had to paint and through that activity found what could be seen.


Embarrassingly Earnest

I was leafing through 'Hawthorne on Painting,' a slender volume of quotations and aphorisms as remembered by his students from his Cape Cod School of Art. I was reading it because I'm very interested in Charles Hawthorne's approach to painting, and to teaching painting, which is primarily concerned with what he calls "the mechanics of putting one spot of color next to another — the fundamental thing." Anyway, I hope to write more on this idea of 'color spots' at some later date, but I was rather struck by the opening paragraphs of his book:

Anything under the sun is beautiful if you have the vision—it is the seeing of the thing that makes it so. The world is waiting for men with vision—it is not interested in mere pictures. What people subconsciously are interested in is the expression of beauty, something that helps them through the humdrum day, something that shocks them out of themselves and something that makes them believe in the beauty and the glory of human existence.

The painter will never achieve this by merely painting pictures. The only way that he can appeal to humanity is in the guise of the high priest. He must show people more—more than they already see, and he must show them with so much human sympathy and understanding that they will recognize it as if they themselves had seen the beauty and the glory. Here is where the artist comes in.

We go to art school and classes to learn to paint pictures, to learn our job. Our job is to be an artist, which is to be a poet, a preacher if you will, to be of some use in the world by adding to the sum total of beauty in it. We like to do it. There always have been and always will be people of our kind, who like to look at nature and make representations, and others who like to look at what we do.

We must teach ourselves to see the beauty of the ugly, to see the beauty of the commonplace. It is so much greater to make much out of little than to make little out of much—better to make a big thing out of a little subject than to make a little thing out of a big one. In every town the one ugliest spot is the railroad station, and yet there is beauty there for anyone who can see it. Don’t strain for a grand subject—anything is painter’s fodder.

— Charles Hawthorne

A deeply unfashionable notion of the purpose of painting. And yet, I confess to a secret sympathy with it. Beauty—uncritically sought—cannot be the only criteria in art, of course, and yet . . . isn’t it more nourishing than the idea of the ‘critique’, which currently holds sway in the highest art circles? Perhaps the best art combines both:  critique without beauty is a dry pill to swallow, beauty without critique a flabby, undisciplined thing.

Certainly, I feel myself moving in the direction of the small subject, of seeking the beauty in the commonplace, of eschewing grand subject matters or statements. More and more I realize I have no grand statement to make.