The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.

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**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 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




Ashes Round the Yard


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.


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, 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.



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




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


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