Onion on a Carved Table, oil on linen

Onion on a Carved Table, oil on linen

If you wanna kiss the sky better learn how to kneel.       –U2

I posted a picture of Onion on a Carved Table a while back in a state of trepidation right before I started work on the onion, which I’d saved for last. In the post I talked about how I had to deal with the anxiety of tackling that onion skin. I worked through it, and I’m happy enough with the results that this will be in the two-artist show in March at Oxford Gallery.

I’m at the same point in a larger and more involved painting right now, hoping to finish it in time for the show, as well as submit it for consideration for the Finger Lakes Exhibition at Memorial Art Gallery. The current painting is completely done except for its most complex object, in the foreground, an ornate wine bottle holder that is more or less a family heirloom, which sits, in the picture, on the countertop in our kitchen, with the sink behind it. It is slightly tarnished silver, and capturing the way that surface shines and also doesn’t quite shine in places is enormously challenging, partly because there isn’t a flat point anywhere on the surface of that metal cup, embossed with tiny grapes and pears and vines. I woke up a couple nights ago at 2:30 and couldn’t get back to sleep, which hasn’t happened much this winter so far, so I came downstairs and looked at the progress on the painting and felt an impulse to toss it out (which must overcome any painter at some point). I didn’t, but sat down in the artificial light and worked on it for two hours, long enough to feel that I may manage to complete it satisfactorily by the end of the month. At the end of February I will have invested two months of daily work into this painting, seven days a week, longer than I’ve put into any previous work. Essentially, right now, it’s more a matter of will and desire than skill: if I can work quickly enough on the first coat of paint and then slowly enough on the successive modifications to it, within the time left to me, it will come together. But that’s more a question of character, focus, determination and perseverance–as well as an ability to suppress the anxiety that two months of work will end up wasted. It won’t. But, even if its satisfactory, the painting might not be exactly what I’d hoped or what I know I could have done, and that’s almost as discouraging as the prospect of giving up.

My familiarity with this kind of inner test of tenacity is why two recent movies about the creative process moved me so deeply: Birdman and Whiplash. I didn’t think Birdman could be equalled for the way in which it portrayed the pain of creative effort, and the joy of its fulfillment. That link between the pain of struggle and an ability to be joyful as a result of it is what I heard in my recent rereading of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy where he had already begun to suggest how art can be a counterforce to nihilism. It can reconcile you to suffering and transform it into joy. A little painting, as much as a Greek tragedy, can be a way of affirming that joy in life as a whole, with all of its unavoidable suffering and tragedy. This may sound a little pompous in relation to worries about how to paint a wine bottle holder, but when you are in that state of doubt about your ability to create something that does affirm the joy of appearances, the prospect of failure can feel excruciating. On top of whatever struggle you happen to be going through in your non-painting life–which was Nietzsche’s real subject, the agonies of life itself. Which is where Whiplash–to get back to my point–may have surpassed Birdman in the way it shows how extreme creative effort is willing to put up with any level of sacrifice, and those stakes are raised to harrowing levels in the movie, before the drummer can break through to something greater than what he’d ever been able to do, because joy was waiting there. Even if that joy is nothing but your own response to having done exactly what you’d hoped and, even so, still feeling more than pleasantly surprised by the results.

I’ve got a lot of work left to do before I get there. Six weeks in, this is the hard part.

1 Response to “Kneeling”

  1. jim mott

    The Vermeer of vegetables!