Horse and cart

Breaking Free, Cutting Loose copy

Breaking Free, Cutting Loose, oil on linen

In painting, it can be hard to keep the cart behind the horse. For me, normally, paint comes first and everything else follows along behind. There are many ways to be clever and cerebral with a work of art, and most of them lead away from the subconscious drive to paint—a painting can too easily become a dutiful illustration of an idea. In my solo show in a couple weeks at Viridian Artists, entitled Polarities, I was drawn toward an idea of contraries as a basis for juxtaposing one kind of painting with another—or opposite principles within a single image. I arrived at the title and theme by looking at the work I’ve done over the past five years or so and seeing oppositions everywhere in the way I’d painted—in ways I hadn’t consciously registered while I was doing the work. At that point, I started working on some ideas for a few more paintings to complete the show. I was letting the idea of polarities serve as a basis for creating images that would fit, neatly or not, into the theme. For some people, this would be an occasion for applause, paintings that have “something to say”, work with a conceptual dimension, but I saw it as a Faustian bargain. Clever often means contrived. For the most part, though, the concepts here followed the work, sitting obediently in that cart securely behind the urge to paint.

I did one painting, Treaty: Jelly Bean Bullets, after coming up with my theme, though it took me weeks to arrive at the title. I kept stapling little notes at the crest of my easel’s middle strut, just above the upper edge of the painting, each note bearing a fresh, potential name. Armistice, no, Gun Control, no. Cease fire. Ugh. At first I was going to pair one of my candy jars with a jar full of empty Luger shell casings I found at Etsy, where they’re available in bulk as a craft supply for people making “steampunk jewelry.” Leave it to the Internet. I did a study or two of the empty shells and then at some point I saw how easily jelly beans could serve as bullets. I had my image. Yet, for me, this particular painting is the most problematic one in the show. It’s an affront to my principles as a painter: hatched as a way of visualizing an idea. Granted, in its favor, it’s a vague enough idea, but this particular painting is clearly set-up, arranged, and there’s no way to interpret it as simply an image of something I stumbled upon in my daily life, which is how you could look at most simple still lifes, even my candy jars. Somebody left the lid off that jar of candy, hm . . .

One other painting, maybe my personal favorite in the show, and the most recently finished—a large jar full of diaper pins, Breaking Free, Cutting Loose—emerged as a way of gratifying purely visual appetites. It did what so many of my paintings do, pairing color and shining metal, tumbling a set of soft, round and motley pinheads into a grid of keen, cutting metal. The oppositions are formal, physical, sensory, not intellectual. Yet I purchased the diaper pins once I’d settled on a theme for the show by following, again, the suggestion of a friend, Sheri Colao, who thought of diaper pins as an opposition to a painting of an urn I’d planned to do. I didn’t find that pairing compelling, so I started out planning to do two large jars, one full of open pins and one full of closed ones. The oppositions would be mostly visual and physical, with the pointed pins both secured and unsheathed, but I ran out of time (though I may still complete some more). In the process, once I’d completed the painting, I recognized polarities in the image itself that served perfectly well—and again, the title didn’t come to me until after I was done painting. A little jar full of modestly blood-drawing possibilities from an assortment of objects named for their safety—reach in and you will almost always prick a finger—yet, oh, the irony of all that unbridled liberty, all those loose and unhooked pointy objects, trapped in a jar. I started thinking of the 60s and the way all that liberation ended up with Altamont, AIDS, and a culture now as obsessed with money as it ever was. Everyone wants their share. Who wants to imitate Thoreau these days? So much for all that liberation. Wow, now that’s a lot to read into some diaper pins. Concepts have a way of taking over. In this case, the ideas weren’t there in the genesis of the painting, but assembled around it in my mind, like metal shavings around a magnet, once it was done. The painting doesn’t need any of them: it does most of its work in a purely perceptual way.

The skulls in this show were a detour, with no intent in mind other than to see if I could tackle the formal challenge of a skull’s complexity. I did them following suggestions from two other artists at Viridian, Lauren Purje and Susan Sills. Lauren owns a skull of her own and includes them in scenes she paints—anything good enough for Durer is good enough for her. Susan urged me to paint two skulls she herself owned—skulls from a cow and a baboon. She gave me her cow skull which now sits on a stool in my studio, and she loaned me her baboon. It was used by a tribe in Africa as a way to bless a newborn baby—a little particle of the skull was broken off and hung around the baby’s neck to ensure that it’s fontanel would grow shut properly. The human skull was loaned to me as well, from Chris and John Pulleyn, who came into possession of it when Chris’s father shipped it to her, having owned it for decades: it had been a gag gift from one of his professors in dental school.  In the painting, it sits on the box he used to ship it to her, with the words “actual human skull” scrawled on the side with a Sharpie. Imagine sending off a Fed Ex that way now.

I loved painting those skulls. They didn’t strike me as ominous or dreadful, but fascinating and ultimately beautiful in their weathered contours, like driftwood. The human skull had absorbed the color of the soil in which it was buried, and the others were equally distressed by a period of exposure to the elements. The power and beauty of those bones, in the way that certain lines continue through different planes of bone, from a jaw up through the rampart of an eye socket, reminded me of how lines move through a painting by Braque, becoming one continuous edge for different objects flattened onto the canvas. I loved the challenge of indicating the form of something so complicated in both its shape and its color—with tinges of yellow and blue and green and brown in a surface everyone thinks is supposed to be white or gray.  So the motive and impulse to paint a skull had nothing to do with the theme of this show, and yet, once they were done and sitting around the studio, I realized how much they stood in contrast to the lush vitality of the floral still lifes I do, and another pairing emerged, the most fundamental in the show.

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