The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.

Like**/Interest

**The question of “liking it” was first posed to me by Enrique Martinez Celaya in a workshop at Anderson Ranch Arts Center (c.2016). See also his short journal post http://martinezcelaya.com/journal.html#2012 of October 28, 2012, “Like”, for a thought experiment that quickly reveals the problem of the “Like” button.

What does it mean to “like” something in your work, or to be “interested” in something in your work? These are terms that I hear quite often in critiques and studio conversations, and I think I know what is meant by them, yet on further reflection I begin to wonder what is actually being said. Discussion of work often seems vague and much of the language used tends to function as shorthand for received cultural or historical ideas. Is being “interested” in some topic or phenomenon, or “liking” some aspect of its appearance enough to bring work to life?

Most of the time, these words are simply bad habits that we pick up and use because they are readily available. Our daily conversations rely on similar kinds of common phrases and in many ways there is no reason not to use ordinary language when discussing one’s work. However, if we prod at this a little bit, the use of these terms may also reveal certain kinds of assumptions about what art is, and how it operates, that bear closer examination.

The “like” button is a ubiquitous feature of social media and its role as affirmation of shared tastes, positions, attractions, and opinions, is one of the bases of online communities. This “engagement” is also a prime source of data mining by companies in an effort to “target” advertising that is customized enough to be effective. Both of these facets of the “like” button point to similar aspects of “liking” work. Namely, it invokes pleasure and consensus as the privileged gauges for the work’s success. Further, it suggests that viewing art is a kind of consumption, indistinguishable from other things that one likes, such as chocolate milkshakes, detective novels, or luxury cars.

“Interest”, on the other hand, seems to signal engagement with the intellectual concerns of an artist’s work or to point to its relationship with social and cultural currents. The term partly connotes enthusiasm for a subject while simultaneously framing that enthusiasm as a kind of analysis. The connection, or lack thereof, between “art” and “life” is what is at stake here. Interest, in this sense, might be thought of as a way to integrate the allegedly sequestered realm of art with the messy urgency of political struggle and social context.

But, how often are these terms used as a justification for work that is half-baked? As an attempt to laminate a veneer of social significance to objects that are mostly invested in flattering the maker’s own sense of self-importance? How often is it used to erect a protective cordon around some minor intellectual territory or conceptual brand? How often is pseudo-scientific objectivity pulled like a shroud over the emotional void at the centre of one’s work?

These are questions that I have been grappling with in my practice. At some point a couple of years ago I realized the extent to which these attitudes were crutches for me to prop up work that hid more fundamental problems. By positing an interest in a subject, I can distance myself from being implicated or copping to the less intellectually appealing motives for making it. By asserting that I like some aspect of the work, I can dispense with the need to assess its relevance.

The result of this questioning, so far, has has been a shift in how I think about my work and the processes I use to make it. For example, I have changed the way I approach painting, in an attempt to be less attached to a particular image or method of working. I have been trying to allow myself to make more assertive compositional choices, with freer handling of the paint and the drawing, and, maybe, (hopefully) less encumbered by ideas and needing to appear smart.

Beacon, oil on canvas, 70 x 60.25″, 2018

Images have appeared in the work that are difficult to account for in terms of interest or liking. Is it possible to say that I’m interested in butterflies? Probably not, although I recognize that people are “interested”, in the sense that these are insects that occupy an important ecological niche, are endangered species, and so on. I also acknowledge that the cliché symbolism of metamorphosis and tacky Facebook memes are never far away from the image. If environmentalism, naiveté, irony, or kitsch doesn’t explain its presence, why is the butterfly in the painting?

It is partly what it signifies: an ephemeral or fragile beauty, a natural creature, but an “other”, relatively commonplace, but delightful to encounter, caught up with its own existence and struggle. It is also an image that derives from a child’s sculpture, and so is connected to a sense of presence, an implicit critique of my own disconnection. The butterfly glows with vitality, illuminating the weeds and other signs of disrepair in the yard. This little event takes place against the impassive backdrop of dark houses, trees, and a predawn sky.

There is nothing interesting here, but it does evoke certain conditions: my own feeling of barrenness,  of being lost, envious of my son’s creativity, but also the sense that he is a beacon of some kind that calls me to do better, the consolation of familial love and the natural world, the hope for the possibility of regeneration.

To the extent that this painting might function at all, it has nothing to do with “liking” any part of it, or the things that it pictures. It’s not really based in an interest in butterflies or trees or stars, but about what these things, in this configuration, painted in this way, might suggest.

Beacon, detail

 

 

A Dream

A dream woke me up this morning: I was at a studio workshop, and all of my friends from previous workshops were there. The teacher wondered casually if anyone had worked on their statement since the last time we had met. I had finished mine recently, so I volunteered. Instead of a typed version I read from my journal notebook.

I waited to see if anyone else was going to volunteer, but everyone was waiting for me to start. In the gap, the teacher said “Do you notice how I’m going easier on this group, especially after your experience with _______________ [I can’t remember the name but it was invoked like the name of the Devil]. No one said anything. I had the impression that it was someone that everyone else knew, like a guest that had been there that had become a personal enemy of the teacher’s and had attacked the students in some way. I was disconcerted because I didn’t know who he was talking about, I had missed the event.

I started to read my statement but it wasn’t what I remembered writing. It started with something like “My art is about …”. Even as I was cringing at how bad it sounded, my hand-writing became less and less legible. It changed into an image, partly like the surface of a Philip Guston abstraction with feathery lines and smudges, partly like the edge of a parking lot where rows of cars were separated from scrubby trees by a chain link fence.

I was embarrassed that I couldn’t read my own writing so I started trying to describe the image as if it were my artist statement. I tried to fake it but after a couple of sentences I petered out. Everyone was looking at me and I could feel the shame of having wasted the opportunity through dishonesty.

I woke up and the dog was pacing around the bedroom, trying to get at the cat. She wouldn’t settle down and I finally had to take her outside to shit at 5:30 AM.

Ashes Round the Yard

birdsweb

Pair, oil on canvas, 48 x 66″, 2018

Ashes Round the Yard began with an urge to shift my work towards a more improvisational process. This impulse was based, in part, on my observations of my then six-year-old son, and the realization that my current methods lacked the urgency and directness that I envied in his drawings. As the work progressed, I began to understand that the animals, landscapes and simple architectural constructs that appear in these paintings might constitute a fictional world where it was possible to reflect on predicaments in the real world.

The images take as points of departure my immediate surroundings, such as rooms in my house, my yard, and especially my children’s paraphernalia: the pattern on a baby’s sleeper, finger puppets, stuffed toys, kindergarten sculptures. The paintings depict ordinary objects that reference mundane existence, but that also evoke my own, often contradictory, relationships to family and fatherhood: responsibility, love, frustration, aspiration, regret, aging and the passage of time. The imagery also suggests to me a kind of search. The animals are guides and surrogates, both showing the way and lost themselves, the landscapes both threatening and holding the promise of new paths.

fortweb

Stronghold, 48 x 36″, 2018

Although the work stems from my domestic life, I don’t think of it as autobiography. The situations in the paintings point to the pressure of the “other” on the “self”, a dialectic that in turn throws longing, attachment, and loneliness into relief. Some of the images edge the territory of kitsch, and although I may find them embarrassing at times, I use them without irony or sentimentality. In making this work I am trying to build a bulwark that I can raise against my own cynicism and detachment, an antidote to numbness. These conditions are in no way unique to my life, but instead seem to be pervasive. I hope that in the encounter between the images and their somewhat crude material embodiment, between viewers and the paintings, that the dragging undertow of everyday life might be set beside glimpses of more its more luminous qualities.

summoned_web

Summoned, oil on canvas, 47 x 36″, 2018

Been a While

It has been a little more than three years since I published anything on this blog, and about the same amount of time since I finished any writing at all. During this hiatus my life has had a few turnarounds and the studio work has undergone corresponding shifts. Writing has necessarily had a lower priority, but I have begun to miss the activity and discipline of trying to put my thoughts into some coherent form. Although my journal has continued, there hasn’t been much happening in there that I would want to foist on a public, however small.

In any case, I have decided that it might be possible to take this platform up again, as a way of submitting some of my thinking to an audience other than myself, in the hopes that its weaknesses and gaps might be put under some pressure and expose aspects that need revision. I realize that there may be no such audience, and that the posts may be just crumbs on the water, but if you are reading this, you have my thanks and my hope that you will find some value in the writing.

 

nothingmore_web

Nothing More, ink and flashe on found and pasted wrapping paper, 41 x 30″, 2018

 

 

“My Intention” by Czeslaw Milosz

“I am here. Those three words contain all that can be said – you begin with those words and you return to them. Here means on this Earth, on this continent and no other, in this city and no other, in this epoch I call mine, this century, this year. I was given no other place, no other time, and I touch my desk to defend against the feeling that my own body is transient. This is all very fundamental, but, after all, the science of life depends on the gradual discovery of fundamental truths.

Snowmass, Colorado, 2015

Snowmass, Colorado, 2015

I have written on various subjects, and not, for the most part, as I would have wished. Nor will I realize my long-standing intention this time. But I am always aware that what I want is impossible to achieve. I would need the ability to communicate my full amazement at ‘being here’ in one unattainable sentence which would simultaneously transmit the smell and texture of my skin, everything stored in my memory, and all I now assent to, dissent from. However, in pursuing the impossible, I did learn something. Each of us is so ashamed of his own helplessness and ignorance that he considers it appropriate to communicate only what he thinks others will understand. There are, however, times when somehow we slowly divest ourselves of that shame and begin to speak openly about all the things we do not understand. If I am not wise, then why must I pretend to be? If I am lost, why must I pretend to have ready counsel for my contemporaries? But perhaps the value of communication depends on the acknowledgment of one’s own limits, which, mysteriously, are also the limits common to many others; and aren’t these the same limits of a hundred or a thousand years ago? And when the air is filled with the clamor of analysis and conclusion, would it be entirely useless to admit you do not understand?

I have read many books, but to place all those volumes on top of one another and stand on them would not add a cubit to my stature. Their learned terms of of little use when I attempt to seize naked experience, which eludes all accepted ideas. To borrow their language can be helpful in many ways, but it also leads imperceptibly into a self-contained labyrinth, leaving us in alien corridors which allow no exit. And so I must offer resistance, check every moment to be sure I am not departing from what I have actually experienced on my own, what I myself have touched. I cannot invent a new language and I use the one I was first taught, but I can distinguish, I hope, between what is mine and what is merely fashionable. I cannot expel from memory the books I have read, their contending theories and philosophies, but I am free to be suspicious and to ask naïve questions instead of joining the chorus which affirms and denies.

Intimidation. I am brave and undaunted in the certainty of having something important to say to the world, something no one else will be called to say. Then the feeling of individuality and a unique role begins to weaken and the thought of all the people who ever were, are, and ever will be – aspiring, doubting, believing – people superior to me in strength of feeling and depth of mind, robs me of confidence in what I call my ‘I’. The words of a prayer millennia old, the celestial music created by a composer in a wig and a jabot make me ask why I, too, am here, why me? Shouldn’t one evaluate his chances beforehand – either equal the best or say nothing? Right at this moment, as I put these marks to paper, countless others are doing the same, and our books in their brightly colored jackets will be added to that mass of things in which names and titles sink and vanish. No doubt, someone is standing in a bookstore and, faced with the sight of those splendid and vain ambitions, is making his decision – silence is better. That single phrase which, were it truly weighed, would suffice as a life’s work. However, here, now, I have the courage to speak, a sort of secondary courage, not blind. Perhaps it is my stubbornness in pursuit of that single sentence. Or perhaps it is my old fearlessness, temperament, fate, a search for a new dodge. In any case, my consolation lies not so much in the role I have been called upon to play as in the great mosaic-like whole which is composed of the fragments of various people’s efforts, whether successful or not. I am here – and everyone is in some ‘here’ – and the only thing we can do is try to communicate with one another.”

(from To Begin Where I Am: Selected Essays, pp 1-3, 2001)

IamhereA

Sackville, New Brunswick, 2015

 

Being a “painter”

palette

I wonder why being described as a “painter” can so often be aggravating? I recognize it as an accurate description of my concerns as an artist, the methods and materials used to externalize these concerns, as well as the histories and discourses that frame them. I spend a disproportionate amount of my time painting, or thinking about painting, or teaching painting.

And yet, in certain contexts, the term feels condescending. For many people in the art world, “painter” is a label that attaches as a kind anachronism, a throwback to a pre-“post-studio” era. It is also, therefore, a mark of being not quite bright enough to understand that what you are doing is no longer relevant.

In general, I describe myself as an artist. But the truth is, without painting and drawing I wouldn’t be an artist. I don’t make my work in order to be an artist, rather, I am an artist because of my work. This may seem like a nebulous distinction, but it has implications for the ways I think about what I do in the studio.

Even when what I’m making isn’t painting as such, I’m thinking about it in relationship to painting. My sensibility is pictorial, and image-making is the basis for my responses to the world. The labour of applying paint to a support, the patient building of mark upon mark, layer upon layer, decision after decision, is also a mode of thinking.

My work isn’t “conceptual” in the way that this word is often used in relation to artworks – that is, as a diagram of thinking that is conveniently available to the initiated viewer – but, it is informed by all sorts of ideas and experiences that are external to art. These ideas are filtered through the process of making, often in ways that are obscure to me, and they govern or shift the choices I make in the work.

Crucially, the reverse is also true: making my work illuminates and informs my life. For me, drawing and painting are the ways that light is cast on the world, they allow a kind of search that I don’t find possible in other forms. The focused combination of physical, emotional, and rational energies that are brought to bear when I am painting clarifies how I relate to the world, and ideally, how I am living my life.

Finally, there are the objects themselves, their specific amalgam of spirit and dirt. When I’m standing in front of a great painting or drawing, the sense of vitality, experience, and hope that has been conjured out of inanimate mud seems as close to a miracle as I am likely to encounter. When I ask myself why I am a “painter”, these qualities are my answers. And, when asked why I “still” make paintings, I try to keep these things in mind, and then answer “because I don’t know any better”.

Piet Mondrian, The Gray Tree, 1911

Piet Mondrian, The Gray Tree, 1911 (Wikiart.org)

 

A Walk in the Park (in memory of Sally Bean)

Sally on the boardwalk

Sally on the boardwalk

 

I walk my dog every morning. Between 25 and 60 minutes a day are spent moving through the small, rural town that I live in, silent, except for occasional commands to “leave it”, or a brief exchange of pleasantries with the few others who are awake and outside before the business of the day is begun. Sometimes I have a point and shoot digital camera with me, that I point and shoot at things that catch my attention. Sometimes I simply make a mental note and move on.

The activity of walking and thinking and looking, both alone and in quiet companionship, has become the raw material for the work I do in my studio. By attempting to remark on the unremarkable, I am trying to make fleeting thoughts and elusive feelings more concrete. By producing first snapshots, then drawings and paintings, I am trying to render my lived experience more tangible and available for reflection. The impulse of the work is aimed at probing the relationship between my subjectivity and the material reality that is its precondition. Autobiography is not the concern, but rather, an attempt to understand the ways that my life is ensnared in wider orbits of meaning.

The work that I have made in the past few years has been overwhelmingly involved with picturing the remnants of processes and actions: digging, cutting, piling, dropping, scraping, falling, building, growing, dying. Debris is saturated with the stubborn thickness of things. The implacable presence of objects and chunks of stuff puts a check on my big ideas. It reorients my attention and makes manifest my utter rootedness in the physical world.

Despite this emphasis on the empirical and the mundane, I don’t consider the works themselves to be transparent representations of reality. Rather than windows or mirrors, I regard them as traces; signs that exist in their own right, but also point outside of themselves and their depicted subject matter. They relate at oblique angles to both my experience of the world and my responses to it.

When I follow my dog along a path, guided by her extraordinary hearing and smell, I am introduced to a world that is largely unavailable to my senses. The perceptions that guide her snuffling search through dead leaves, or that compel her to dig and lick at an apparently banal patch of grass or tree trunk, has led me to understand that what I take for granted as the ‘visible world’ is an astonishingly thin layer of reality. When I follow my work along a path, I am hunting for similarly invisible and compelling tokens of ordinary life.

sketch

sketch

Trust

Painting studio critique room, Anderson Ranch, Snowmass, Colorado, 2015

Painting studio critique room, Anderson Ranch, Snowmass, Colorado, 2015

Some of us are lucky enough to have a few fellow artists or a mentor that give us consistent and rigourous criticism of our work. But too often, the brutally honest comment is withheld in favour of the polite and understandable need to avoid alienating your community. After all, many of us have worked hard to assemble a group of like minded peers to soften the sense of isolation that accompanies work in the studio.

In a critique situation, many things are at play: the insight and judgment of the critic; your own understanding and investment in your work; your confidence, or lack thereof; the critic’s interest, or lack thereof; everybody’s ego; the general level of openness and comfort with the discussion at hand. For me, the central element in a successful critique is trust. Without it, the process is at best futile and at worst damaging.

This is true both when the critic is another person, or when it is the artist themselves, in the assessment of their own work. The critique dialogue is about subjecting assumptions to hard scrutiny, through relentless  questioning, and unpacking of ideas and confusions. The conversation ought to be aimed at the illumination of the work, and most importantly, identifying ways to make the work, and the artist, better. Without trust, that dialogue can easily sour to defensiveness, evasiveness, cynicism, crushed egos, hurt feelings, loss of confidence and will.

Trust and respect are deeply entwined with each other in this process. To me, trust is the ability to be in a vulnerable position with another being, or yourself. The potential to be hurt by someone else, or by the person inside you, is a present danger when the ideas and aspirations that you hold most dear are being taken apart and ruthlessly probed. Respect, on the other hand, is the ability to take trust and shelter it gently, with an understanding of its fragility. It is also admiration for a person’s actions, integrity, and how they meet the world.

These are mutually dependent and reciprocal qualities, and the ability to extend them to others rests on the ability to extend them to oneself. The loss of these qualities is easily achieved, and spreads like a stain to one’s work and life. Re-building self-trust and respect is an arduous process, with no guarantee of success, but I have found that going back to the studio and starting the work again can be a good place to start.

work in progress, 2015

work in progress, 2015

 

Live / Work / Space

Weldon Street studio under construction, 2015

Weldon Street studio under construction

What is the function of the studio?
1. It is a place where the work originates.
2. It is generally a private place, an ivory tower perhaps.
3. It is a stationary place where portable objects are produced.
The importance of the studio should by now be apparent; it is the first frame, the first limit, upon which all subsequent frames/limits will depend.
Daniel Buren, The Function of the Studio

Studio: from the Latin studium meaning eagerness or zeal. (wikipedia.org)

I have recently moved into a new studio space in the attic of my house. Although this move was dictated by practical concerns, it has also led me to consider the benefits of a live/work space, as well as to reflect on the purpose of the studio for my work and my life.

Is the studio just a means-ends set up, as Daniel Buren seems to suggest in the epigram quoted above? An ivory tower for the production of luxury goods? Is it, instead, as Daniel Arasse puts it in reference to Vermeer, a pictorial laboratory?

I prefer to think of it as the latter, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking. The fact is, that so far my work is made in a space that is called a studio; it hasn’t yet become a cottage industry for luxury goods, but maybe that is just a matter of time. A certain amount of experiment, critical thinking, and labour takes place in the studio, but maybe laboratory is overstating it. I think it is a space of inquiry, of work on questions that don’t have any fixed answers, a place where I try to build meanings out of the fragments of life.

For me, the studio is a prism that gathers the different wavelengths of life and both breaks them into constituent parts, and weaves them back together in a slightly different form, one that allows new understandings and questions to arise. By folding domestic and work space together, I hope that these two spheres will become even more closely entwined.

Weldon Street studio, 2015

Weldon Street studio, 2015

 

 

 

From “The Faraway Nearby” by Rebecca Solnit

“Writing is saying to no one and everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure, that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a deeper place than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?”
(The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit, Viking, 2013, p. 64)

nearby

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