Thinking Things Through

The Painty Mire

When painting goes well, it seems to hinge purely on some mysterious internal factor, not on any objective quality of the piece being worked on. If the gods will it, magical transformations can happen in any painting at any moment, but if the mood isn’t right, for whatever reason — if lunch didn’t sit well, or a phone call caused agitation, or someone stepped on an ant in Australia — well, then a bout of thrashing in the painty mire usually ensues. One day, I am cruising along and can do no wrong; it feels like every time my brush touches the canvas I am in love with the mark it makes. I can finish a painting in one happy, charged day. And the next day I can do no right, sweating it out in the studio for eight hours in increasing desperation. But perhaps you only get to have those perfect days of smooth sailing in exchange for all those days when perspiration did not end up equalling inspiration.

The relationship between perspiration and inspiration is perverse, not to say inverse, exactly, because you do have to work to build up your craft, but it seems that pieces usually come together on the days when you’re not working so hard on them. You have to have one to get the other, just not at the same time, generally.

The truth is that the piece of art which seems so profoundly right in its finished state may earlier have been only inches or seconds away from total collapse.

— Art & Fear, David Bayles & Ted Orland

I guess there just different kinds of paintings, different ways to end up with something good. Sometimes it comes easy, and sometimes you have to get to that point where you don’t give a fuck, the thing is so bad —you’ll do anything to it — and that recklessness, that utter disregard for the precious object, can sometimes lead to an unexpected and wonderful breakthrough, something that you could never have set out to do sequentially and deliberately.

The secret (your methods) to painting needs to be discovered everyday. This is necessary because these secrets only work for a little while.

— Ken Kewley

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.)

____________________

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.

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.

Moving House

condensation view 1 For a long time, I’ve been so unhappy in the studio, and with my work. In fact, feeling miserable was the primary motivation for starting this blog a year or so ago. I wanted to do something that made me feel that I was at least a little bit connected to the outside world, that the hours I spent in the studio were not meaningless, uncounted by anyone except myself, and to post updates on my slow daily progress on the internet, so that, even if nobody ever saw them, it was at least a gesture, some small public proof that I existed.

(You know, if a tree falls but no one is there, et cetera et cetera, only my version was, if a painter spends 8 hours a day in the studio, but never finishes a painting, let alone shows it to anyone else . . . is she really an artist? (And how long before she goes completely MAD?))

And the months wore on, and paintings didn’t get finished, and I got more and more fed up with myself and bored by the limits of my own brain, and less and less happy to spend my days within the narrow four walls of the studio. Life was going on outside, without me.

condensation view 2

So I kind of just stopped for a while, this past summer. Not completely. But largely. I experimented with acrylic paint, with an eye to having a less-toxic alternative in the event of pregnancy & motherhood. And basically hated it. And got really depressed thinking about having to give up painting when we decide to try and have a baby if I couldn’t find a workable alternative. (Even though I was already depressed and not really painting anyway—there’s nothing like the thought of having something taken away from you to make you desperately cling to it.) I started a collaboration with my friend Jesse, a poet, which got off to a promising start, and then stalled due to my lack of follow-through (although I hope it could potentially enter a new and different phase, maybe less trying to create a specific correlation between a poem and a painting and more of an ongoing conversation between makers of different kinds).

And I thought a lot about happiness, and what Art Means to Me, and whether I could maybe just stop doing it, and what other kind of job I might be able to do without hating it too much and maybe making actual money at, and whether being afraid that if you don’t have children you’ll regret it terribly later on when it’s too late is really a sound enough basis on which to launch a pregnancy attempt or whether really, truly, sincerely wanting to be a parent in the full knowledge of how it will likely lay waste to your life as you know it is the only ethically valid reason for bringing another human being into the world.

I didn’t answered any of those questions, really, but I did come to a few realizations apropos of my studio practice — that is to say, painting — the most important being that no, I cannot give it up. Painting is such a fundamental part of my identity that even if I stopped doing the activity, I would still think of myself as a painter. David pointed out that in my horrible nightmare, I was going to be caught on the evidence of my painting glove, which he thought spoke psychological volumes about my self-identification as an artist.

Another realization, which was not so much of a realization as the compounding reinforcement of a feeling that I’ve had for some time, was that I am happiest, truly happy, when I’m working from life. Looking at something in the world. And conversely, that I am not happy working out of my own head, despite years of trying. I’m just not that imaginative. I end up feeling sterile, and the paintings stunted. I had a conversation with Catherine Murphy as I was about to graduate from Yale about working from life, how I thought that was the direction I was going to go in. So I've had this inkling that it would be the right process for me for a while. I don’t know why I’ve resisted it for three plus years, though. My old friends, fear and doubt, no doubt.

condensation view 3

Another snippet of the Fairfield Porter interview with Paul Cummings:

PC: Do you think that painting is more of an emotional thing than an intellectual thing?

FP: No, I don’t think it’s more emotional or more intellectual. I think it’s a way of making the connection between yourself and everything.

PC: How do you mean “and everything”?

FP: Well, I mean “and reality,” which is everything. In other words, you connect yourself to everything, which includes yourself.

PC: Through the painting?

FP: Yes, through the process of painting. And the person who looks at it gets it vicariously. If you follow music you vicariously live the composer’s efforts.

PC: But don’t you think the person who looks at a painting has en entirely different relationship to it than the person who has painted it?

FP: Well, for one thing they see something that is hard for the person who’s painted it to see. I mean they see the person who has painted it and they see his emotions, which he maybe doesn’t see.

Porter’s brief, unsentimental description of painting from life resonated with my own experience very strongly:  that it’s about connection, both inward and outward. Restating it in more flowery language won’t improve it, so I won’t try. Only: YES.

I’ve been walking around these days and finding the world to be almost shockingly beautiful. Feeling connected, feeling awake, looking at everything more than I ever have before. Everywhere I look I see paintings, waiting to be made. Forms and shapes and color masses before me coalesce into paintings, group and regroup into new compositions, waiting for someone to translate them into paint. Houses, trees, cars, telephone wires, our television, a wind-up red ladybug, the cord to my laptop, the view from my bathroom window. Nothing too mundane to be beautiful. Where even to start?

condensation view 4

I’m in a hurry to finish this painting of our orange living room, because, among other developments, we’re buying our first house and moving in less than two weeks! It’s almost incredibly to me, but true. With gratitude to parents and grandparents for making it possible. So I hope I can pull off this painting, in the midst of the packing and the frenzy. And I’m looking forward to all the new paintings I hope to make in our new home.

Orange Room 1

Orange Room 2

Orange Room 3

Orange Room 4

Orange Room plant detail

Orange Room house detail

Orange Room computer detail

Getting it Wrong

My painting is bad enough to warrant constant practice. —Fairfield Porter

 

You have to get it wrong before you can get it right.

 

Or maybe the italics should be: You have to do it wrong before you can get it right.

 

This sentence came to mind this morning while I was painting away, happily. (Happily! Did you read that?? I have not painted “happily” in lo these many moons. Indeed, I did not know if I would ever care to paint again for the better part of a year now.)

 

I’m painting an interior scene—the living room in our apartment, which is painted a melony shade of orange. We didn’t choose it—our landlady, Jean, did—but luckily orange is maybe my favorite color. Also, it helps fight the Portland winter grays.

 

I’ve never done this before—painted an interior. Just set up and painted right in my own house. But I’m loving it. I’m not sure how well the painting is going to turn out. I’m not sure it looks like anything right now. But every day when I paint on it, I experience pleasure. Pleasure in the process of painting. And when I’m done, I always experience a bit of a let down when I look critically at the painting, and it doesn’t look as good as it felt. But I’m not letting that distract me too much. I think this could be a sea-change.

 

I was reading my Fairfield Porter book, a painter I love, and envying his practice. Painting his household, his family, his rooms & furniture, the landscape around him. And I found myself wanting to do the same. And feeling like I couldn’t. That it somehow wasn’t serious enough as an enterprise. That it was also boring, and bourgeois, and archaic, and not a cool contemporary thing to do. And that it wasn’t a focused enough project, that it would be scattered and piecemeal. And then I just thought, fuck it. Having a more narrowly focused project (pictures of figures turning into trees, for example) wasn’t working for me anyway. So maybe I’m not a project artist. And this feeling that my overall work has to be “about” something, preferably something based on critical theory is just a hangover from graduate school. That is to say, more or less bullshit. And maybe, just maybe, things will come together somehow anyway. Over time. If I can manage to keep painting over the Valkyrie chorus of my own nay-saying.

 

I am not trying to interpret any slogan or phrase in my painting. The visual arts are non-verbal and direct; modern education is verbal and indirect . . . The experience of a painter while he is painting is about the nature of the paint—that is his most direct experience—all other things, like what he is looking at outside the painting, what he remembers, what he thinks about with the left-over part of his mind, all talking to himself, etc., and all translation of outside sensation, insofar as they have to do with the painting, have to do with illusion. Therefore the realism of my paintings is its illusory side. What illusions this evokes in the spectator is mostly beyond my knowledge.

—Fairfield Porter, Interview with Paul Cummings, 1968

 

The thing that I am experiencing very intensely with this painting—besides, of course, always and forever “the nature of the paint,” as Fairfield says—has to do with getting it wrong. By which I mean, when I go to paint anything, I initially always have it in not-quite-the-right place, and not-quite-the-right color. And I used to be very discouraged by this and think, why can’t I get it right? If I were a better artist, I would get it right from the beginning. But what I’m seeing more and more clearly is the utter fallacy of this idea. In fact, the only way I can see how something should look is by painting it and then seeing how it isn’t quite there yet. I have to paint it first so that I have something to compare with the world in front of me. That first attempt is not just a regrettable error, to hasten past on the march to goodness and rightness and doneness, it’s an unavoidable, deeply necessary part of the process. The wrongness is what gets you to rightness. Only actually making something allows you to see how it can be adjusted, moved, tweaked, changed, to better reflect reality or express yourself. You have to write the first draft before you can write the second draft, let alone the final draft.

 

I’m not sure I’ve fully expressed how revolutionary this is to me. Maybe it sounds damningly obvious. But to actually experience this in action feels nothing short of of revelatory, hitting home with the force only a truism can bring to bear when you suddenly realize that its cliched wisdom actually applies to your own, unique existence. (And yes, air quotes and eye-rolling accompany that "unique.")

 

And furthermore, if I actually just painted a painting perfectly straight from the get-go, everything in the right place, nothing to be scraped out, or moved or repainted ten times, the surface of the painting would be about the most boring surface ever. Smooth and flat, with no history of its own making:  no brushmarks, no depth, no layers, no impasto, no glimmers of colors showing through other colors, in short: none of the physical qualities that I love about paintings. The haptic stuff. The textures you want to touch. The actual paint, built up on a surface that both makes an image and is a thing itself. All the reasons I started painting in the first place. Whoa.

 

You have to get it wrong before you can get it right.

Immanence?*

Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind. —Emerson, Self-Reliance

*defined by Webster's Third New International Dictionary as1: the state or quality of being indwelling or inward or of not going beyond a particular domain:  inherence:  as a: the condition of being in the mind or experientially given b: in Kantianism:  the condition of being within the limits of possible experience — contrasted with transcendence  2: the indwelling presence of God in the world

Recently, I realized that I tend to do some of my best thinking while walking. On Sunday, Dave and I went on a glorious hike up the side of Mt. Hood, and as soon as we were following each other down the trail, feet padding softly on the forest floor, the words just started to flow. Having my body engaged in the repetitive motion of walking seems to free up my brain. I think part of it has to do with the movement, and part of it comes from not having to look at someone’s face while you’re trying to articulate something. I’ve noticed that I always get writing ideas when I go running, which have generally evaporated into the mental ether by the time I’ve gotten home, showered, and made my way to the computer. And whenever D and I go for an after-dinner stroll around the neighborhood at dusk, peering at houses, previously inchoate thoughts seem to well up and spill over into speech.

forest path

For some reason, we were talking about god. I started it.

I said that I think belief in god, or in some sort of intelligence or consciousness or disembodied force underlying the creation, basically just comes down to a feeling which you either have — or you don’t. Dave says he doesn’t, and never has. From his early childhood he remembers feeling, simply, definitely, that there was no god. I asked him if that was a scary feeling, if the universe felt cold and empty and threatening. He said no, but that staring up into the stars is scary even if you DO believe in god, unless, of course, you believe in one of those pajama-wearing, bearded, father-figure types, who’s prone to intervention, and will whisk you off to your own personal salvation.

god light

I always have had a god feeling, I think, although it has evolved considerably, and blinks in and out nowadays. I do remember being terrified by death at a very early age. We were driving around in Boston’s Back Bay, looking for a parking spot, and while sitting in the backseat staring out the window I had this shattering epiphany that one day, I would not exist, and people would still be driving around looking for parking places, living their lives, going on without me, not even noticing or caring that I, ME!, wasn’t around. How was that possible? In the fullness of my consciousness, enthroned in the unthinking egotism of a child, my mind simply could not contemplate its own non-existence. Really, I’m not sure my so-called adult mind is any better equipped to contemplate it. Apparently around this time I made bedtime a hassle, refusing to go to sleep, crying when my parents left me. My father eventually soothed me by telling me that although my body would, one day, die, the essential part of me — my soul, consciousness, the true Self — was eternal, and could never be destroyed. I think this was a comfort, but I can’t remember now.

sunstar

Anyway, I have a more complicated religious/spiritual background than Dave, who was raised in a household that was more culturally than religiously Jewish.  I was simultaneously brought up in the Catholic church, and, in case that wasn’t enough, a cult (a term I am not employing frivolously) devoted to an interpretation of Advaita Vedanta. So there’s certainly a lot to write about there. But in brief, I was exposed to a lot of religious/spiritual doctrine as a child, and I do remember one period when, at bedtime, I would lie in my bed and imagine I was holding God’s hand. Except that since He was God, His hand was unthinkably enormous, and all I could do was hold out my cupped hand, and He would rest the tip of His massive finger ever-so-lightly on my palm.

Mist lifting . . .

I got over that kind of conception of a “relationship” with an anthropomorphized, father-figure type of god pretty early, it seeming to be pretty clearly a child’s conception of a god. But what I can never quite wrap my head around is how many millions of adults stay permanently in this phase. I mean, even though I know that faith is the primary virtue in most monotheistic religions: Have faith. Be like a little child. Leave everything to God. Just believe.

Well, I don’t believe in ‘faith’ anymore. Anything that makes simply believing a virtue is out in my book. In fact, nothing seems more pernicious to me. Why should we simply have faith? The world is incredibly fucked up, and we should be questioning, questioning, questioning, and if the answers are not forthcoming, because, goddamn, these are the hard questions, then we should not fall back complacently on some cliche like, god works in mysterious ways. It is hard for me to respect people who have never challenged their belief system, stepped outside it for a moment, doubted, experienced the dark night of the soul without the anodyne of belief. What if there is no purpose to our lives, what if the universe is vast and chaotic and random and our insignificant lives have only what little meaning we are able to construct out of them in this world, right now? What if there is no grand design and the stars are just dying suns, unimaginably far away? What if there is no antidote to entropy? What if we really are alone here, and when we die, we simply cease to exist?  If you haven’t at least entertained these thoughts as equally, perhaps more likely, possibilities than the alternatives proposed by religion, if you have remained safe in some comforting safety net of faith, then, I’m sorry, but I don’t find such faith a virtue, nor do I respect whatever religious doctrine requires it of you.

To stand in doubt, to acknowledge that we don’t, we can’t have the answers, that anything that purports to explain the universe is just a nice story for children, that our certainties are few and mostly unpleasant, is the only honest stance.

Where is my god feeling now, you ask, after such a rant? I tried to describe it to Dave as we hiked along (and engrossed in conversation, missed the trail turn-off and hiked a good, oh, three or so miles out of our way. It was pretty, though.).

mt hood 1

Somehow I do, still, have that feeling. I cannot justify it or even explain why. I just feel that there is meaning in life, in the universe. I just don’t think it’s understandable or provable. I think it is an irreduceable mystery, and has to be.

mt hood 2

Rather than “top down,” my god feeling is more “inside out.” It’s a feeling that at the core of things, there is . . . something. I imagine zooming in with a giant microscope, first to the level of the cell and its amazing, industrious workings, then to molecules, then to atoms and their tiny electrons whizzing around, and then to . . . subatomic particles, I guess, and then to . . . space. Farther in and farther out.  Oceans of space. Permeating everything. And when I imagine that space, it doesn’t feel empty, but full. Full of what, I don’t know. Something ineffable. And that’s neither religious belief nor scientific fact, just an inchoate, incoherent feeling I have.

Dave on a rock

Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion . . .

It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on our memory alone, scarcely even in acts of pure memory, but to bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day. Trust your emotion. In your metaphysics you have denied personality to the Deity, yet when the devout motions of the soul come, yield to them heart and life, though they should clothe God with shape and color. Leave your theory, as Joseph his coat in the hand of the harlot, and flee . . .

The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure that it is profane to seek to interpose helps . . . Whenever a mind is simple and receives a divine wisdom, then old things pass away—means, teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now, and absorbs past and future into the present hour. . . If therefore a man claims to know and speak of God and carries you backward to the phraseology of some old mouldered nation in another country, in another world, believe him not.

— Emerson, Self-Reliance

mt hood summit

Too . . . bright . . . can't . . . see

Poetry Project

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. On the John Day

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!

Confessions of an Egomaniac, Pt. 2

. . . . . continued I humbly plead, admit, that yes, I thought I was special, somehow, that I was going to be some kind of star. To tell the absolute truth, that insidious and misleading feeling still persists at some level, despite my attempts to root it out. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that there are a lot of smart, talented, funny, amazing people out there, people with interesting stories doing cool things, people who probably actually are special, more special than me, anyway, by any kind of objective yardstick. And I recently realized that either this would eat me up, or I could decide to become an appreciator, to cultivate a genuine appreciation of other people’s talents and worthy accomplishments, so I didn’t curdle into an unwarranted and unbecoming bitterness. To remind myself continually that life is really not a zero sum game — really — and that the achievements of others don’t reduce our own chances of achieving success someday. And this may sound terribly obvious, especially if you haven’t spent your life laboring under the delusional burden of incipient greatness, but if, like I have, you’ve spent your whole life with an internal monologue which is constantly running down/picking apart/criticizing other people and their works, all to maintain the ego’s fiction of specialness, well, this notion of appreciation is pretty fucking revolutionary. (N.B. This does not mean surrendering the use of one’s critical faculties altogether, and mutely accepting the mountains of shlock and crap in the world, just actually acknowledging when stuff is good. And maybe even trying to find something positive in things that aren’t.)

Try this:  put an activity at the center of your life and work very hard at it without satisfactory results. Have no community, make no money, remain very isolated, and see how long you still feel like doing that activity. Not so much.

I was reading a New Yorker article a little while ago on solitary confinement and how it literally makes people lose their minds, and while I’m not seriously comparing myself to a prisoner in solitary, it did make me reassess how lonely my daily routines are, how empty my life feels.  And how unhappy and bored I am. Maybe that’s why I can’t finish any work: I just don’t have enough input in my life to be able to put anything out. A simple equivalency problem. My equation isn’t balanced.

The studio has come to feel like work, like a sort of dreary duty that I dutifully perform, but am only too happy not to do on the weekends. I’ve lost that joy in paint and all its possibilities by heaping such a heavy load onto it — the desire to succeed, the fear of failure — that it’s too freighted to do anything fun or quirky or unexpected or playful.

What to do? Well, first of all, clearly I need a job. Hopefully an interesting, challenging job, with community and variety. Something that requires me to take painting out of the lonely center of my life and push it a little to the side. I honestly think I’d get just as much done as I am now, if not a lot more, if I were busier. The more you have to do, the more you get done, you know? And the less you have to do . . . well, in my case, I get nothing done. When you have nothing but time, nothing seems to matter very much. There’s always tomorrow, so why force yourself to finish something when you could just go home and have a cocktail? Also, and equally importantly, if I had something that I HAD to do (like a job), painting could again be the thing I WANT to do. The exciting thing, not the dire thing.

We moved to Portland in January 2008 because Dave got a job at the public radio station, so I left my adjunct teaching gig at BU and moved to a new city where I had no job, network, family, or friends. In retrospect, I suppose it’s not surprising that I’ve had a hard time, but in the beginning I thought it was going to be great, thought I was going to get what I’d always wanted:  Dave could support us for a while and I’d have lots and lots of time to paint. I’d always thought a social life was overrated, anyway. (Until I didn’t have one!) My plan was to kick ass in the studio, finish a body of work — say, 10-12 paintings — and then shop them around to galleries in the hopes of getting representation.

That was the plan. The reality is that I’ve slaved over 4-5 small paintings for over a year — and haven’t even managed to finish them. And so I’m forced to confront the fact that I have failed, failed at the goal I set myself.

I have a dear friend who says that embracing failure has been the most liberating thing in her life. She, too, is an artist with fancy degrees from from fancy schools. And so I’ve been asking myself recently if I can be brave enough to embrace my failures, to get over this reflexive need to “succeed” at things, and even if I actually want to be liberated. If I can realize that the model of success I had envisioned for myself maybe isn’t particularly interesting, anyway; that there might be weirder, richer, more complicated, wholly unexpected successes out there in the universe. Or even the possibility that I might not be successful . . . but that I might actually be happy. (And if I can shed my Ivy League mentality that happiness is the consolation prize for the losers who just couldn’t hack success.)

The question I am continually asking myself now is, Am I flexible enough to change:  my paintings, my mind, my life? To realize that if success or failure is always relative to how you define the goal, that maybe instead of beating myself up all the time, I should just redefine my goals?

A Side-Benefit of Procrastination

I understand the blessing of laughter better than I used to, having — I hope — outlasted some of the portentous solemnity to which, when I am tired or frightened or insecure, I am sadly prone. A light heart has more virtue than romantic agony. — Anne Truitt

It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.

— C. K. Chesterton*

I must do the work that I am best suited for . . .

— Edward Weston*

So I had been working up to a really melodramatic post about how I had realized that I had FAILED as an artist, and was humbly trying to embrace my failure and learn from it and move on to other things after renouncing my art-making career, but then I put off writing the post for long enough that things changed and I didn’t feel exactly that way anymore. One of the biggest things that I realized was that I was — understandably — depressed after being unemployed for a year and a half, and what I really needed was a fucking job. So more on that in a bit, but here’s the post I had been writing, in two parts, to give you the flavor of my misery.

Confessions of an Egomaniac, Pt. 1

When I look at images of my past work, I feel a heavy weight descend onto me, inducing a thrashing, panicky feeling, like, how can I have so little to show for all these years of struggle? Everything I’ve done so far feels labored, tortured. I long for lightness, less effort, more playfulness, yet can’t seem to shed my burden. I feel within me the potential to make serious, good paintings (necessary self-confidence or misguided megalomania?) but cannot seem to figure out how to bring this intuition of my own potential to fruition; mere “talent” never sufficing but always being subject to a myriad of other factors: timing, will, luck, sheer cussedness, the vagaries of moods. My greatest fear is that I do have everything I need to make it happen . . . and still will somehow manage to fail myself. That I am, deep down, secretly just lazy.

Failure has always been anathema to me, as an uptight, overachieving, upper-middle class girl with no sense of humor about myself. I always had to succeed at things, and not only to succeed, but I wanted to be the best at whatever-it-was, a tendency so innate it has to be genetically wired. And I have been good at things. And have worked hard, I think, although never hard enough, in my personal accounting. Painting was the thing I actually had very little natural aptitude for. In my first college painting class, I was both completely seduced by the materials, and completely stymied by them, utterly frustrated at my incomprehension and incompetence. I still remember crying in class over our first still life assignment. My set up had a yellow background, and gray rubber mice on a plate. As my canvas dissolved into a smeary mess and I dissolved into tears, I felt as though I had landed in another country where I didn’t speak the language, so I couldn’t ask anybody for directions, and furthermore, had no idea where I was supposed to go, anyway. I simply had no clue how to translate what I was seeing to the canvas, or even how to SEE what I was seeing. But I nevertheless wanted so badly to make something beautiful. I was so determined that I was going to be able to paint that I threw myself into it, and worked very, very hard in my twenties to acquire the skills I lacked on my own.

So my history with painting has been one of effortful striving, and insecurity, and fear that I would be unmasked as not particularly good at this thing that I desperately wanted to be good at. And now I’m 32, and I have my fancy MFA from Yale, and I’ve made a few paintings I was briefly kinda happy with, but for the past two years I haven't been able to get a body of work together, literally can't seem to finish a fucking painting, and I’m wondering many things, among them WHAT the hell is wrong with me, WHY I’ve been working so hard with so little in the way of results, and HOW LONG I can keep this up. Did I think a career in the “art world” would make me happy? So I would finally get some kind of validation from the world, validation that yes, I was “good at” painting? As though the artist’s ego were not a black hole that swallows validation like a guppy and goes on ceaselessly vacuuming the universe in search of more?

How have I gotten myself into this state of confusion? What is this painting thing all about for me? The only thing I do know right now is that it isn’t making me happy.

In her excellent blog about her search for the principles and secrets of happiness, Gretchen Rubin writes that one of her revelations was that her happiness is not the same as other people’s happiness. I recognized the truth in that, but thought immediately, "But I don’t even KNOW what my happiness is!"

to be continued . . .

*Thanks to Gretchen Rubin's site also for the Chesterton and Weston quotes. So apropos I could not resist them!

Doubting Thomas

woman-headcase-16 woman-headcase-15

woman-headcase-14

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.

Working Methods

Until recently, I have considered the one of the most important aspects of my work to be the contrast between the smoothly rendered body parts and the more expressionistic passages, what a friend described as “your combination of brushless articulation and gestural painting.” But the more I compare my experience painting in these different ways — one privileging my own perceptual experience, the other less about my experience and more about attaining a final result, and as such, a little tedious — the more I wonder what conclusions I should be drawing from it.  And it poses the larger question of how important the artist’s experience is, whether it necessarily informs the work as it is perceived and received by others. Could one be bored making a great painting? Or brilliantly engaged making something that turns out to be nothing special? It’s hard for me to believe that the artist’s experience of making doesn’t imbue the work with a crucial energy that continues to vibrate through the viewer’s experience of looking. But maybe I’m just a sap. At any rate, working directly right now is so engaging that I have considered jettisoning all aspects of my practice which aren’t based on observation, although this could well be my inherent extremism, kicking in reflexively to pass sweeping judgment on a situation, given any new nugget of empirical data. I have always struggled not to be so all-or-nothing, to live with conflicting information. To accept that all the ambiguities of life and art cannot be resolved into congruity by an act of will.

The same friend also wrote, “I think your painting is more focused than you think, and concerning the hybrid part that you worried about -- it's traditional, don't you think?  Those Florentines were drawing from life, inventing, and carefully copying other artists' work in town, the equivalent of using photo support, perhaps.” I found this incredibly soothing — nothing new under the sun, after all — and it relieved my self-inflicted pressure to justify working in different ways by always combining them in one image, by making paintings that are at least partially about that combination.  Which as my sister pointed out, is really hard. Why not separate it out, she asked? Make a painting that is completely invented. Make a painting of a plant, from life, and don’t feel you have to turn it into Daphne all the time.

I got excited by this idea of deconstructing my practice as I had conceived it, and suddenly ideas for possible new work rushed in, some to be made from life, some from imagination, some from photographic sources. And while no doubt the source material and working methods do contribute to the meaning of the image produced, are they really the most significant aspect of the final product? A painter should use all the tools in her tool box to make the images she wants to make, but must she necessarily get so hung up on the significance of the hammer, the chisel, the drill? Does the work always have to be ABOUT what it means to use a hammer, or the deep meaning of a chisel?

There is a time-delay between my thinking process and my working process. My thoughts, unencumbered by matter, race on ahead. But my hands, which have to actually do the work, fashioning images out of the stubborn raw materials, lag behind. So I will have been planning works in advance, with ideas for paintings lined up like airplanes on the runway, waiting to take off, and this virtual schedule feels vital to me somehow. I am so slow to finish things that I compensate for feeling like there isn’t enough new work in my studio by having a mental list of the things I’m going to do next. But then new data inevitably comes along in the process of making something, with potential import for the next thing, and I don’t know what to do. Must I use the information immediately, and toss out my existing plans, or should I carry firmly on, finishing the paintings as I had them in mind, and then incorporate the new thinking? Changing plans immediately and entirely feels like a loss, like throwing away work, but it also seems impossible NOT to adjust my ideas, given all I learn along the way. No doubt I have created another all-or-nothing false dichotomy, however. I suppose the answer will lie somewhere in the middle.

In many ways, I feel like a child-artist, still learning and figuring out who/how/what I’ll be when I grow up, while all around me my peers and friends go determinedly about the business of having proper careers in art, seemingly already very clear about what it is they do, and how they do it. I envy their clarity, their certainty.

Contingency Plan

As of recently, I have found working from life to be vital and nourishing in a way I have not previously experienced in my studio practice. Standing there, looking at a plant and making marks in response to it, I am just so . . . happy . . . that it occurred to me that maybe this was the perfect solution to my painting woes, a way of working that finally lets me fall in love with my own process after all these years, and trust in it. Because in painting this way, making “mistakes,” getting it “wrong” at first is not merely to be tolerated and swiftly covered up, but inevitable, ineluctable, deeply necessary:  it is the record of the process that itself becomes the finished work, not mere preparation lying unseen underneath some ultimately achieved surface. Things are corrected, adjusted, moved multiple times, even obliterated, but with the intuition that the impossibility of pinning down matter in an endlessly vibrating world is somehow integral to the attempt to do so nevertheless. (Plants, always moving slightly in relation to the light make particularly good subjects for experiencing this.)

With this attitude, working from life feels like the cure for the malady of experiencing every painting in progress as a potential monument to my own inadequacy. For the problem of hating my work while it was in progress, of feeling almost ashamed of its unfinished state, impatient that it didn’t look the way I wanted it too yet (and anxious that it never would, no matter how hard I tried).  A remedy for the notion of absolute truth, a tyrant since childhood, since, if nothing else, painting from observation makes nothing plainer than the absolute contingency of everything in relation to everything else.

Asymptotes

Indirection, oil on linen, 24" x 24", ongoing. Some years ago I worked out a nice little metaphor for the path a painting follows toward completion:  an asymptote, a curving line that forever approaches tangent with the x or y axis but never gets there. The concept of the asymptote is perhaps the only fragment that remains from my career in high school mathematics, and it likely survives only because of what I felt to be its poetic pathos:  the idea of the endless approach, of getting closer by infinitesimally minute increments, but never meeting; of shooting out forever into space yet never making landfall.

Anyway, I looked it up to check my recalled definition, now 15 odd years out from my last math class, and I found I had the gist, but had incorrectly identified the curved line as the asymptote, which in fact refers to the straight line of the axis - the line that is never reached.  The word comes from the Greek asymptotus - "not meeting." Webster says it is “a line that is the limiting position of a tangent to a curve as its point of contact recedes indefinitely along an infinite branch of the curve.”

I’m a bit thrown, having to adjust my analogy, although I suppose it is simply a question of re-labelling. The painting is still the yearning, thwarted curve; but it is not an asymptote, which instead describes what the painting - or rather I - strive for, the unmoving, straight line of completion, an unattainable horizon.

(Yet how can two lines verge so close as to be indistinguishable, but never merge? To me, this is incomprehensibility in microcosm, the infinite parsing of zero; as staggering as the more grandiose and equally unthinkable infinity of the universe, writ so large across the emptiness of the sky that the only possible response is to ignore it. To make the sky the inside of a box-top, a flat blue lid clapped over my daily course.)

Several years ago, a sentence came into my mind that has lingered, perplexing me, not being in the habit of receiving and parsing private orphic utterances:  “Only the unfinished has life.”  I saw how this was literally true - in that a “finished” life necessarily requires a person’s death - but couldn’t figure out what it might mean in relation to actual paintings. But I begin to see now that this does not mean something as obvious as leaving paintings in the tantalizing but mannered state of non finito, but something far more delicate and interesting: to intuit when a work has come to a certain balancing point, a kind of energized repose, when continued earnest effort will only deaden something lively. To leave a work while it still vibrates, subtly, in its course toward the asymptote, to not push a painting so far along in search of an idea of completion that this vital pulse becomes too small to detect. I still find this maddeningly difficult. Apparently unable to stop myself, I keep pushing things till they lie flat on the wall, overthrown.

Apropos of this I find myself quoting yet again from Anne Truitt, whose temperament I feel a hopeful kinship with, and whom I have constructed out of her ruthlessly lucid, deeply humane writing as my own personal sage. This very morning in the chilly sapphire pre-dawn I dog-eared a page in Prospect at the following passage about her own process of finishing work.

Parting from a work of art is a skill. During the 1950s while I was teaching myself how to be an artist, I used to keep bearing down on the work under my hand until I felt it was finished. For some years I failed to realize that each work had a timing of its own, that in some subtle way it finished itself. Once I had learned to pay more attention to it instead of to myself, I began to notice that nothing in art is ever “finished.” I could transfer many of my habits to my work but I could not enjoy the satisfaction of having completed a task - as I was accustomed to finishing the dishes or making the beds or completing an academic paper. Instead, I learned to catch the moment when a work trembled on the threshold of becoming an entity, and to take my hand off it, leave it be. By the time that my work began to appear in my mind in the 1960s, I had fixed this phenomenon as a fact and could accept the corollary fact that every work I made was a failure when looked at in the light of what I had conceived that it was going to be. No matter how faithfully I folded concept into a material form, something evanescent and ineffable remained aloof. Concept resisted facture, and matter resisted the imposition of concept.

Indirection, oil on linen, 24" x 24", ongoing. (most recent stage)

Apropos of Finishing

I mentioned in an earlier post that I am reading the journals of the sculptor Anne Truitt. This morning I re-read a passage from Daybook which touches so directly on the difficulties of finishing a piece of work that I had to post it, given that my last post dealt with my own struggle in that regard.

An undertaking, [Gurdjieff] says, begins with a surge of energy that carries it a certain distance toward completion. There then occurs a drop in energy, which must be lifted back to an effective level by conscious effort, in my experience by bringing to bear hard purpose. It is here that years of steady application to a specific process can come into play. It is, however, in the final stage, just before completion, that Gurdjieff says pressure mounts almost unendurably to a point at which it is necessary to bring to bear an even more special kind of effort. It is at this point, when idea is on the verge of bursting into physicality, that I find myself meeting maximum difficulty. I sometimes have the curious impression that the physical system seems in its very nature to resist its invasion by idea. The desert wishes to lie in the curves of its own being:  It resists the imposition of the straight line across its natural pattern. Matter itself seems to have some mysterious intransigency.

It is at this critical point that most failures seem to me to occur. The energy required to push the original concept into actualization, to finish it, has quite a different qualitative feel from the effort needed to bring it to this point. It is this strange, higher-keyed energy to which I find I have to pay attention - to court, so to speak, by living in a particular way. Years of training build experience capable of holding a process through the second stage. The opposition of purpose to natural indolence, the friction of this opposition, maintained year after year, seems to create a situation that attracts this mysterious third force, the curious fiery energy required to raise an idea into realization. Whether or not it does so attract remains a mystery.

Everything In Its Place

Last week, I started work on a still-life of the stolen apples, and stopped after several hours, in frustration. The set up just wasn’t quite right, the composition did not feel inevitable, and most importantly, I didn’t have that poised but relaxed feeling in my belly telling me that all was well, that I had taken enough care in my preparations, and could trust in my own observations to carry me through the process ahead. Is it the beginning of self-knowledge/studio wisdom to actually stop myself before I’ve gone too far? To notice when things just don’t feel right, and actually acknowledge it, rather than repressing the information & carrying on, hoping to wrestle success out of the materials? To pull back, reassess, and start over? My self-flagellating angel says that it might be, BUT, if I were really smart, I wouldn’t have even started until everything, inside and out, was in its place.

I basically knew that I wasn’t quite ready to put brush to canvas, but was impatient to get going – in part because the apples are getting soft, despite being kept in the fridge – and in part because, I get so anxious about how long everything takes. About not having enough finished work with which to present myself to the world. About not being good enough/smart enough/adept enough to finish things faster (or self-possessed enough to be unworried about how long everything actually does take). And despite myself, and, I think, worst of all, I feel a little guilty about painting fruit, like – oh, this isn’t a SERIOUS painting, cool young contemporary artists don’t paint APPLES, so just hurry up and get this little self-indulgence over with so you can back to some real work, work to get noticed with. It is a small but malign voice lurking in my stomach that says these things. I know that whatever an artist decides to pay real attention to is worthy of that attention. And yet I am still undermined.

If you are paying attention, things will tell you when they are ready. Subtle forces align, and when you are attuned to them, the work flows. Forcing things which have not yet coalesced into vision, plunging in and hoping despite experience to the contrary that this time, I’ll figure everything out as I go along, has never yet resulted in a happy working experience for me, the kind when I am standing quite still, and yet vibrating with energies.

In my heart of hearts, I always know when a painting is going to go well. A kind of vision of the painting as it could be arises in my mind’s eye, not in specificity but in spirit. And I have to keep learning to wait for it.

New Year's Resolution: Pay Attention

For some twenty years now I have begun each day with a period of quiet. During this time I experience a state of mind in which I am to a degree detached from my daily life. I like this feeling, and it occurs to me that I have even begun to prefer it. If a dollar is offered to a person clutching a penny, the penny can be dropped without privation. Turn, Anne Truitt

I’ve been reading the journals of the artist Anne Truitt, recommended to me by a friend, the painter Matt Brackett, with great pleasure, struck by the clarity of her insight into her own life as an artist and mother, in its struggle and richness. This passage sparked recognition of a similar experience, one that used to be fundamental to my life and that in fact I had already begun to reconsider more urgently in recent months.

My parents have been religiously meditating since the early seventies – a mantra-based meditation, like TM – and for me the daily practice of meditation at dawn and dusk, and the interval of deep quiet that steals through the house is as normal and natural as the sound of the television probably is to the rest of America. I learned to meditate in my teens but never took it up seriously until I was in my twenties, when for a few years I rather fervently committed to a practice of twice-daily meditation in the morning and evening. The evening session tended to get lost in the end of the day pile-up, but I took real pleasure in my morning ritual. Rise, make very sweet tea, read a little, and sit for 20 minutes or half an hour sometimes. Connecting with that deep stillness, still quite close to the surface shortly after waking, had the power to set my course for the day, to put me in real, observed contact with the surfaces of my lived life, to notice things, fully, as they fleeted past; the texture, color and weight of the threads that wove my daily fabric.

As time passed, though, I gradually got into the habit of reading the New York Times online while I drank my tea, and then various other sites, and stopped going directly to meditation. I spent longer and longer at my computer, drawn out into the virtual world, before I would sit down to meditate. And when I finally withdrew my attention from the screen in front of me, it had not the same integral quality that it had before I spilled it out on the Internet. Some of it had been lost, frittered away, clinging to the sticky strands of the Web. An apt name, I find. It lures me in, and by the time I extricate myself, it has taken more from me than I have extracted from it. Through the computer, I reach too easily for anodyne distractions – blogs, news, celebrity gossip – which lull me, and dull my desire for stillness with the distraction of current events. At any rate, after a couple of years, and certainly for more complicated reasons than a mere burgeoning internet addiction, I drifted away from my meditation practice and have not recovered it to this day, although I make periodic attempts at it.

But however it has happened, the fact is that for the past several years I have been indulging in dreaminess, wallowing in a twilight state of attention deferred. Confronted with a decision, unwilling or unable to make the effort to pay full attention, I'll think hazily, “Oh, I can figure that out later.” It’s laziness. And yet I feel half-paralyzed in my trance, despite the fact that in the moments when I wake up momentarily, I feel a thrill in the vividness of the world and the sharpness of my own perception.

And what I’ve come to feel is that the loss of my meditative practice and the enhanced consciousness it helped bring to my daily life is a real loss – not a mere spiritual exercise, undertaken for well-intentioned, high-minded notions about being virtuous, something that is a nice idea but sort of adjunct to life as it is actually being lived. I’ve begun to realize that meditation gave something concrete and valuable to my real life, my artistic life. The power to actually pay attention to things, both so subtle and internal and so large and encompassing as to be unseeable in the usual course of events. Being awake enough to observe things more accurately and make decisions more confidently, instead of as dimply perceived stabs in the dark, buoyed by vague hope that it will all work out somehow.

I've been feeling as though separated from things by a kind of transparent scrim, a thin but tough membrane, keeping me from actually experiencing the world, and from clearly confronting my own work in the studio. I want to break through it and yet cannot. It cannot be rent by a violent act of will, but only dissolved through the slow, steady, patient application of attention. By recommitting and refocusing the power of my own consciousness to my daily life. And the daily practice of being quiet, of emptying out the mind is the best – indeed the only - way I know how to do that. I am grateful to my parents for giving me a taste for stillness from a very young age, and for teaching me that I could study the nature of my own consciousness, like a scientist making observations of something constant under ever-changing conditions.

When I used to attend a weekly meditation group, we would talk about the difficulties of practicing, day in and day out, without letting the flotsam of daily life get in the way. I remember an analogy of filling a jar with stones: to ensure that you can fit them all in, you put the biggest, most important ones in first, and then all the other, lesser rocks come second, and must fit themselves in around the primary ones. Meditation is fundamental to each day, the stone you put in the jar first. (Before the internet.) Otherwise, you go to put it into the jar only to find it already filled with small, rubbishy pebbles, and there is no room left. I suppose it's a simple question of prioritizing.

stone-jar1

I am afraid:  afraid of remaining half-asleep and missing the very middle of my life, just when so much is beginning to come more richly into focus. To wake up, I know I simply have to start paying better attention to things, and in this, meditation is a real aid. I have fallen out of practice, but know I can begin again, and that indeed, deciding to pay attention is not a decision you make once and have done with, but one you must make over and over again, in each moment of every day, week after week, year after year.

Stay tuned . . . and that is as much an exhortation for myself as for anyone who may happen to be reading this.

Less is More

h20-peony

I am enamored of this greenish yellow color, which goes from a pale verdant gold to a murky, dark algae.

Working in watercolor is good practice for me in doing just enough. In holding back. In stopping. In conceiving something clearly at the outset, and carrying through, not second guessing myself if the process unfolds more slowly than I hoped. In knowing the limits of the medium:  unlike oils, you cannot push past a certain point. It cannot be overworked and then turned around, the way you can sometimes save oil paintings by pushing too far, and then still farther. Once a certain freshness is gone, it cannot be regained. Watercolors, unlike oil paints, do not embody the possibility of their own resurrection. It is a more fragile medium.

I felt as though I were walking on a kind of tightrope making this. I was aware of the balance of my body, and my breath, the way I am when I practice yoga. Judiciously deciding when to move and when to stay my hand. It seems to me that so much of what I need to learn, as an artist, and as a human being, is this: when to stay my hand. When Paul Newman died recently, I heard a re-broadcast of an interview with him on Fresh Air, and something he said so struck me in its simple relevance that I wrote it on the studio wall. Terry Gross asked him about his career and he said he wished he had a chance to take another crack at his early films. She asked him why, and he said, “Less is more. I was working awful hard in most of the early stuff.”  I sense that I am still very much in that place, early in the arc of my development, still working awful hard at everything.

The feeling of performing a balancing act is due to the specific constraints I place myself under when I work from life. My feet must stay within the outlines I have traced on the floor around them, and I must not sway too far in one direction or another, or slump (as I am wont to do) into my customary hunched posture. I must continually close my left eye, as I recheck the placement of my head relative to the plant, and the plant to the grid I have drawn onto the wall behind it, which corresponds to a grid on the paper before me. This chain of contingency built, link by link, in order to control both the overall composition, the array of shapes within the rectangle of the page, and also to be able to unravel the specific & intricate tangle of leaves and stems before me. It is both an intellectual and bodily task. I analyze and interpret visual data, but my capacity to do so is based on my physical stamina. You wouldn’t believe how tiring standing still in one place can be.

In all of this, I establish parameters and boundaries and yet hope to transcend them, to surprise myself somehow. I build a structure inside which I can, carefully, relax.

h20-leaf-drawings

I want to make more watercolors, to reinvigorate myself and make works on paper in a day or two, instead of the months I spend on an oil painting. It is refreshing. And yet I know from disappointing experience that for me there is no faster way to undermine my own expectations than to set up a nice, lofty, unrealistic goal, something like: from now on, I will make four watercolors a week. In dark moments, I fear that I am lazy, unable to provide for myself sufficient impetus to rise as early as I should, to efficiently fill and utilize my hours. But I hope that I may yet be subject to improvements, and that my work may benefit from them one day, as well.

Of course, I know that to try and “improve myself” in order to improve my work is to doom the undertaking from the start. Refining one’s consciousness cannot have any particular end other than itself, or it perverts the entire enterprise. Although the process brings with it many side benefits, it is short-circuited if they are conflated with the primary motivation. It is a paradox. You have to genuinely want only a little stillness and clarity, and in going after it, your life and work can benefit in material ways. But if you’re really after stillness as an aid to “self-improvement,” you mostly get more anxiety in the pursuit of yet another result.  Listening to Paul Newman talk about working so hard as a young actor, I recalled a sentence from the Bhagavad Gita which sometimes rings in my mind when I meditate, quiet yet sonorous:  in truth, I do nothing at all.

How to take that paradoxical knowledge into the studio, the site of all my most freighted doings?

Capaciousness

I was re-reading Daniel Smith’s article about Lewis Hyde in the NYT Magazine recently, and got to thinking about this notion of a creative or cultural commons. In the article, Smith writes about distinguishing between

"rivalrous” resources, like drinking water, in which one person’s use by definition competes with another’s, and “nonrivalrous” resources, like the English language, which cannot be depleted no matter how many people make use of them.

What are the nonrivalrous resources of art? I guess there is a distinction to be drawn here between the world of art, and the art-world. (What is this so-called Art-World, anyway? Why is it always spoken of as though it was an alien planet, separate from the quotidian one we inhabit in our ordinary lives? Don’t we all have our own idiosyncratic art-worlds, which we reinvent daily, as the process of making and thinking about our work meshes and clashes with our lives? And is the cultural commons of art a kind of virtual park in which we can take the dog for a walk, when we need a break?) I think some kind of distinction is necessary, because there is clearly a commonly held feeling that the art world, per se, is a zero sum game. If one artist gets a grant, a residency, a show, a good review, well then, that means there is one less opportunity for you to get ahead. Thus your peers are your rivals, your colleagues your competitors. I suppose that in every field, fellow practitioners are also rivals, but I can’t help imagining that other fields, better compensated to begin with, have more clearly defined and less subjective standards of what good work is, and with simply more resources to go round, that the competition must have less of a desperate, bitter sting to it.

But enough of the art-world.

A painter friend with whom I recently shared my blog commended me for opening up my studio in this way. He observed the secrecy with which many artists cover their studio practices, to protect both whatever they may have managed to discover for themselves, and also their insecurity about things they may fear they are doing “wrong.” It isn’t that I don’t experience this impulse to protect myself, very strongly. But I’ve come to the point in my life where I’m tired of being ruled by fear and insecurity, and I don’t want to hide in my studio trying to protect my own little ideas, because there’s no faster way to watch them diminish and gutter out. And I don’t ultimately believe in the artist’s equivalent of a secret ingredient, one that cannot be divulged or else others will make works that taste the same as yours. There is no secret ingredient. We all have the same raw materials:  the nonrivalrous resources of art: the deep well of art history, the endlessly recombinant elements of visual language. And we all have something unique: our own character, a stew whose flavors that can never be exactly replicated by someone else, and which will always impart its own distinct savor to our work. Ideally, of course, sharing our work would help us make it stronger, by further refining & distinguishing our ideas from others’. At any rate, even if we don’t share our work, to pretend to ourselves that we don’t need to, or that we work better in isolation, is to delude ourselves, and perhaps even harm our practice, or at least limit its potential development. Smith writes that Hyde takes pains to debunk this idea of the solitary genius, asking

 . . . what might the creative self look like? Do we imagine that self as “solitary and self-made”? Or as “collective, common and interdependent?

Hyde plumps decisively for the latter, as the Smith describes his views on Benjamin Franklin’s inventions:

“Hyde shoves aside each of Franklin’s “discoveries” to uncover thick foundations of pre-existing knowledge and scientific collaboration. The point of all this is not to prove that Franklin wasn’t a genius but to show that his genius didn’t burst out of thin air. “It takes a capacious mind to play host to . . . others and to find new ways to combine what they have to offer,” Hyde writes, “but not a mind for whom there are no masters, not a ‘unique.’ Quite the opposite – this is a mind willing to be taught, willing to be inhabited, willing to labor in the cultural commons.”

It’s something to aspire to, this notion of capaciousness. To be bigger than our own small selves, to be open to discourse with people who disagree with us, to risk a conversation about the things we all hold so important. To share our ideas without being afraid of being ripped off, or exposed as fraudulent, unoriginal, pretentious, stupid. To see things in a new light, to be enriched by others’ understanding of ideas we have grappled with, to feel solidarity with others engaged in the same work we do, each of us alone.

I guess this blog is my small own attempt at accessing this mythic creative commons. To take the risk, as private, hermetic as I am, that sharing my ideas, process, journey will not harm me, but might in fact, enrich me. To see how capacious I can become.

 

Surrealism

At the recent open studios, a woman asked me if I was influenced by the Surrealists, Magritte in particular. I suppose I can see why she asked me that, but the fact is that I’ve always rather hated the Surrealists, especially Dali. Surrealism seems like poster art for adolescents, to be repudiated in adulthood. If I had to pick, I guess I would choose Magritte – even though his paintings are kind of one-liners, some- of them do have a workmanlike yet poetic gravitas. But no – I pretty much never think about the Surrealists in terms of conscious influence (although it would be appropriately ironic if I were being unconsciously influenced). Despite the goals of the Surrealists to plumb the depths of their subconsciousness, it does seem pretty apparent that, as Peter Schjeldahl wrote in his essay Sexy Surrealism, “in Surrealist dream pictures, the discovery process ends before brush touches canvas. The rest is whistle-while-you-work, academic execution.” And at any rate, merely plumbing ones unconscious doesn't mean particularly interesting work will ensue. Isn't it all fairly predictable, anyway? Sex and all its sweaty permutations; Mom and Dad; fear of the dark; the scurrying of the ego in the face of annihilation. Surely the role of an artist is not only to dive into the wreck, but then to distill this murky brew. To be both a spelunker and a rather stern editor. Otherwise, isn't it just kind of masturbatory?

I've been wondering: if an image does not thoroughly conform to accepted norms of realistic depiction, is it automatically surreal? I looked up ‘surreal’ in some online dictionaries, and it turns out the word basically means ‘dreamlike,’ as in “marked by the intense irrationality of a dream; unbelievable; fantastic” or “characterized by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtapositions.” I’ve just never been that into dreams per se, my own or anyone else’s, and especially not as predicators of spiritual truths. I don’t remember mine, and I’ve never been party to the retelling of someone else’s dream without smothering a yawn. At any rate, there are tons of paintings (most of them?) out there that are not totally realistic (whatever that means), that contain incongruous elements or are just plain bizarre, and by no stretch are they all by actual Surrealists. Take Holbein’s painting, The Ambassadors (1533), just for one. Hello, strange distorted skull shape, just hanging out there, front and center, all casual-like? Yeah, yeah, anamorphic distortion, memento mori and all that, I get it, but, um hello? Really fucking weird!! I guess my plaint is this: can’t a work of art be a bit surreal without being accused of . . . Surrealism?

It’s certainly not that I don’t like incongruous juxtapositions, because clearly I do. In fact, my paintings owe a certain debt to Surrealism for the idea of the Exquisite Corpse. This was a parlor game played by the Surrealists, wherein a piece of paper is folded into thirds, and one person draws the head, another the torso, and a third the legs, all without seeing the others’ work, so the finished figure is a strangely trifurcated composite. I build my figures somewhat similarly, in horizontal layers – the feet painted one way, the legs another, and the torso yet another, or indeed, as something else entirely. I don’t know why I don’t want/can’t seem to paint a figure all one way . . . but I can’t, for some important, inchoate reason. The notion of people – and paintings – as kinds of composites is integral to my thinking and working process. In another Schjeldahl essay about Joan Mitchell, he wrote about what she learned from Arshile Gorky, and they are lessons I aspire to for my own work:

Mitchell absorbed Gorky’s earlier modulation of Picasso and Surrealism into a formal language of counterposed line and color and thick and thin textures. Gorky understood that emotional eloquence is an effect not of theatrical gestures but of varied contrasts and rhythms, in which surprising disjunctions join in a harmonious whole.

I hope my own disjunctions, both painterly, and personal, can eventually attain the same unity.

What is Art For?

I read with interest the article “What is Art For?” by Daniel Smith in the NYT magazine this past weekend. It is about the not-very-well-known author Lewis Hyde (I had never heard of him) who nonetheless is kind of famous among creative types for his 1983 book “The Gift”, which Smith writes, “tries to reconcile the value of doing creative work with the exigencies of a market economy.” Smith writes that

for nearly a decade [Hyde] had been struggling to explain – to his family, to nonartist friends, to himself – why he devoted so much of his time and energy to something as nonremunerative as poetry. The literature on gift exchange – tales, for example, of South Sea tribesman circulating shells and necklaces in a slow-moving, broad circle around the Trobriand Islands – gave him the conceptual tool he needed to understand his predicament, which was, he came to believe, the predicament of all artists living ‘in an age whose values are market values and whose commerce consists almost exclusively in the purchase and sale of commodities.’ For centuries people have been speaking of talent and inspiration as gifts; Hyde’s basic argument was that this language must extend to the products of talent and inspiration too. Unlike a commodity, whose value begins to decline the moment it changes hands, an artwork gain in value from the act of being circulated – published, shown, written about, passed from generation to generation – from being, at its core, an offering.

This really resonated with me, and it made me think again about the woman who asked me at Open Studios what I wanted to do with my art (and about my imagined, sarcastic answer), and I realized that when I’m done with a painting, I’m really finished with it – I don’t have anything more that I want to do to it, or with it. What I want is for other people to do things with it; namely, hopefully, think about it, maybe admire it, even better, buy it and keep it for themselves as some kind of talismanic object, in accordance with their own reasons and desires, which may have little to do with my motivations for making the thing. That others would find a painting of mine valuable in some way in their own lives, if not in quite the same way I do. That is what I most hope to “do” with my art.

 

The stuff about art versus commodities in a market economy also reminded me of one of my favorite passages in Dave Hickey’s essay, “Dealing”, about his stint as a gallery owner in Austin, Tx.

            Finally, as to my complicity in the hedonistic commodification of art, I can tell you two things: First: Art is not a commodity. It has no intrinsic value or stable application. Corn is a commodity, and so is long-distance service, since the operative difference between bushels of corn and minutes of long-distance service is the price. Price distinguishes commodities that are otherwise similar and destabilizes the market, where price likens works of art that are otherwise dissimilar and stabilizes the market. When I trade a work by Kenny Price for a work by John Baldessari, as I once did, I am not conducting a commodity transaction, I am hopefully engaging in a subtle negotiation of analogous social value.

            Second: Art and money never touch. They exist in parallel universes of value at comparable levels of cultural generalization: Art does nothing to money but translate it. Money does nothing to art but facilitate its dissemination and buy the occasional bowl of Wheaties for an artist or art dealer. Thus, when you trade a piece of green paper with a picture on it, signed by a bureaucrat, for a piece of white paper with a picture on it, signed by an artist, you haven’t bought anything, since neither piece of paper is worth anything. You have translated your investment and your faith from one universe of value to another.

            If you can’t tell one universe from the other, that’s your problem, but not an unusual one, since art and money are very much alike, in both embodiment and conception. To put it simply: Art and money are cultural fictions with no intrinsic value.