Archive for March, 2019

Complementarity, a la Niels Bohr

Again while running, two songs came up in my playlist rotation, and the lyrics struck me as a good description of two sorts of people, with two different visions of the world. But maybe not. It seems I fit into both of these groups. Why do both of these songs feel true at the same time . . . 

Time Hard, The Pioneers:

Everyday things are getting worse
Everyday things are getting worse
Everyday things are getting worse . . .
I took him down to the market place
And them laugh at my dog
You never see smoke without fire
I said
Oh,
You gotta hold your head up high
Everyday things are getting worse
Everyday things are getting worse
Time so hard, why oh why oh lord

Getting Better, The Beatles

I’ve got to admit it’s getting better (Better)
A little better all the time (It can’t get no worse)
I have to admit it’s getting better (Better)
It’s getting better
Since you’ve been mine
Getting so much better all the time!
It’s getting better all the time
Better, better, better
It’s getting better all the time
Better, better, better

Hey, somebody be Vermeer

Girl with the Red Hat, detail, Vermeer, National Gallery of Art

While I was running today, it occurred to me there ought to be a contrarian challenge directed at idealistic and/or gullible art students before they get launched into the world. Someone should dare them to leave behind, at their death, fewer paintings—or works of any sort—than Vermeer or Piero did. Of course this isn’t difficult. Anyone could leave behind three dozen paintings. Three dozen supremely painted ones, though, is still a challenge. Vermeer’s A-game isn’t in evidence in every one of his 36 extant works. There are around twice that number from Piero della Francesca. The seed to be planted here is that you would spend so much time on each of them that you have a far better chance of achieving something near that rarefied level of quality, without going full-throttle OCD. Finish fewer than most, not more, but make each one count in a way few artists can. It would run counter to most of what the commercial art world herds people toward: don’t get on a track where you’re working for another solo show every three years, don’t try to come out of art school and sell through a metropolitan gallery for significant sums, quit worrying about building a CV with awards and honors, and so on. The whole point would be to ignore the entire system that turns an artist into a one-person factory and simply focus on producing a small number of supremely realized works of art, on your own terms. This is all slightly self-justifying though I have no intention of reducing my slow output even more. Yet I’m thinking about this because my own production has slowed down in the interest of getting things right and focusing on a single series of larger paintings. But the Vermeer Way would be more extreme. For someone thinking on those terms, it would require a day job, or some other humbler and/or more nefarious way to make enough money to get by, short of becoming a professional gambler or day trader—and it would probably mean not having children, though a marriage or other domestic partnership could certainly help, on the economic end. It pays to be gay in the art world, in many ways, but the greater chance it gives you of being childless is a major logistical advantage. Mostly though it would be a way of focusing, while in the studio, on nothing but the quality of the work itself, leaving aside all motivations related to quantity. Imagine posting one image every three or four years on Instagram. You would have six followers, but it would be an event. At the very least, you and a few others would know what you’d done, though you might feel like Crash Davis breaking his minor-league baseball record in Bull Durham with only Susan Sarandon paying enough attention to realize he was a record breaker. Worse fates could be imagined.

Arnot’s 76th Regional

A couple weeks ago, I was pleased to deliver two still lifes to the Arnot Art Museum for the 76th Regional Exhibition. The show will run from March 16 through June 14. My two contributions are Breakfast with Golden Raspberries and Begonias and Dahlias.

Better belated than too soon

He was experiencing one of man’s keenest but least understood drives–information compulsion. –Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities

I devote myself to painting, and then writing about painting, and I deposit any checks that come my way when someone buys one of my paintings, but I’ve never strategized any of it as a career.  I do have a career, but it isn’t the point, that’s all. It seems like a way of warping the whole activity into something it isn’t. A CV resembles a parasitical, invasive life form, imported from the world of business, the way sparrows were brought to North America from Europe. I’m a professional artist, but that term seems almost an oxymoron, and I don’t really think of myself as professional (except for my diligence at the easel) any more than Socrates would have thought of himself as a professional philosopher or Jeremiah Johnson a professional badass. I always think of Van Gogh when I imagine the system in which artists now vie to get onto a career track–prestigious MFA, straight to prominent gallery, applications for grants and residencies, keeping a running tally of awards, all of it as dutiful as the path of a white collar organization man in the Fifties. I keep my CV fresh, I list my awards and summarize my shows and sales. Yet it feels as if I’m applying for a job as a comptroller whenever I submit my CV upon request. Where would Vermeer have found himself in this system? Imagine his exhibition history. After a lifetime of work he’d have had enough for one big solo show at Zwirner, with maybe some other artist to fill out the adjacent space. 

My work always takes more time than I would like, but at that constraining pace I know I’m doing good work. The more I become committed to my best possible work, the less new work I have to show, though I’m starting to find ways to shave a little time from the process and actually do more during a day of painting, which is nearly every day of the week.

This puts me into a bind as far as hewing to the ostensible necessity of building a social media following. (In book publishing, this has become brutal. Publishers more and more have no interest in authors who don’t have a following.) As much as I like it—Instagram is the only social media I really use with any regularity, other than this blog which is social only in its availability to anyone. I recognize social media as yet another “professional” taskmaster even though it’s promoted as a service. If you are already known and have a serious following, it can be extremely useful, as is Twitter, which I don’t use at all. If I were far more famous, I would enjoy posting almost anything that seemed worth photographing on Instagram just as a way of being open about who I am. But I’m not, and Instagram isn’t going to get me there. The companies that own these platforms want you to think they will get you there. It’s a lie to make social media feel compulsory, in both senses of the word. They want people to feel irresistibly drawn to them but they also want the stream of content to begin to feel like a duty, an obligation, a necessity. Social media uses FOMO, the fear of missing out, to drive most users (sounds like “drug user” doesn’t it?) to work harder and harder to build a following and get likes, but all of social media has an inherent Catch-22. You need to have a following already by other means to even get noticed, which means there’s no way to gain followers unless you already have them. There are always rare exceptions as in the case of emergent YouTube stars, but any kind of time devoted to Instagram is better spent in front of an easel. Continue reading ‘Better belated than too soon’

Have razor, will paint

One would think only action painters would be honored as action figures. When you fail to get that Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Genius Award recedes beyond the horizon and MoMA looks less and less likely to put you into its permanent collection, take heart, as always, from Van Gogh’s non-existent career. Even if all else fails, a century from now they might make an action figure of you, only by then it will be fully animatronic and equipped with AI to keep painting in your style, perhaps even better than you do now. At last, action figures will live up to their toy category.

From the back of the package. Wait for it:

Full Name: Vincent Willem van Gogh

Occupation: Painter

Weapon of Choice: Straight Razor

I like how he comes with two heads, the one before and the one after he used that razor to turn his ear into a Valentine.

Skulls and jars and unmethodical doubt

I had a recent email conversation with Chris Pulleyn, an old friend, a former employer, and a central figure at the Rochester Zen Center, where I’ve been a member mostly in absentia for a couple decades. She asked me a few questions about the relationship between my still nascent meditation practice and my painting–so that she could publish some of my work and our conversation in the Center’s publication, Zen Bow. It was a wonderful gesture on the part of the people at the Center, and much appreciated. One thing that was fun about the conversation was that she had a hard time seeing common ground between the few paintings of skulls I’ve done—which struck her as very Buddhist, being emblems of mortality and impermanence—alongside my candy jars. It forced me to think about how much meditation has governed not only the energy I bring to painting, but also influenced my understanding about how painting works. What follows is a condensation of the Q/A in Zen Bow.

My first encounter with Zen was in college, when I was a student at the University of Rochester. With a friend from my dorm, I attended my first workshop, run by Philip Kapleau, the center’s founder, in the early 70s. I began sitting then, and have been doing it off and on ever since—constantly trying to establish a daily habit. After I joined as an actual member in the 90s, I spent some regular time in the morning at the center but I’ve drifted into simply sitting at home. It was more than taking up something like yoga. It was, for lack of a better word, a philosophical pursuit.

I came out of high school with a kind of corrosive sense of doubt: a tenacious questioning about the possibility of meaning that seemed urgent but unanswerable. The nature of this doubt is hard to describe without muddling it up, but it was difficult and life-changing and psychologically “totalizing,” to use a word I hear in other contexts now. After contending with this state of unrest for a couple years, as a freshman at UR, I finally got around to reading J.D. Salinger’s Glass family stories, which introduced me to a variety of spiritual traditions: Vedanta, Zen, Russian Orthodox Christianity. His fiction offered me an intersection of references to a variety of spiritual paths. I was so impressed by Salinger, in addition to my curriculum in English lit, I made out a reading list of Salinger’s favorite authors and read them, one after another, as if he had introduced me personally to each of the writers themselves and said, “you two should get to know each other.” Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust, Henry James, Keats, Coleridge, and so on, (some of whom I’ve been going back to reread now after all this time.) As a result, I spent the summer after my freshman year at UR reading all of Proust and most of Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard was crucial—my parents were Presbyterian for a while in my teens, and I still consider myself a Christian who uses Tolstoy and Kierkegaard both as an excuse not to go to join a church, but a few of Kierkegaard insights were very close to the paradoxes one faces in Zen practice when trying to break through how the mind entraps itself without realizing it. (I think the conscious, egocentric mind is itself often a sort of self-sustaining trap.) In addition, I made a list of references to spiritual disciplines and other writers mentioned in Franny and Zooey: Ramakrishnma, Mei MORE

INPA 9

Monopoly Board Tokens, oil on linen, 40′ x 40″

I was pleased to learn recently that Monopoly Board Tokens was selected for inclusion in Manifest Gallery’s 9th International Painting Annual. They received 1313 entries from 399 artists and picked 122 works by 73 artists from nearly half a dozen different countries. I was included in the INPA 8 as well, which is available, and will be shipped soon for anyone who ordered it. Thanks, Manifest. Note: this is one of three paintings in a triptych: as part of the triptych it’s entitled Renunciation: Monopoly Board Tokens.