shot of solo show 3

I just got back from a long, lively conversation with probably the most accomplished painter in Western New York, Tom Insalaco. He called yesterday and asked to meet for coffee. He was dropping off a painting at Oxford Gallery and then heading to the Joy Adams lecture at Axom Gallery. So we met at Barnes & Noble. We talked about general cultural decline, the economy, the Pacific vs. the Gulf of Mexico, spastic young men in wheelchairs who make Tom nervous when they are in the proximity of great Dutch paintings, computer billionaires, Odd Nerdrum in prison for tax evasion, the Arcadia gallery in SoHo, the merits of acrylic vs. oil, but more than anything else we talked about Van Gogh and Vermeer. He’s reading the recent book which presents nearly a thousand pages on Van Gogh’s life plus the theory that Vincent was shot by two young men fooling around with a gun. I brought up the two great V’s because they appear to have painted with little or no thought to personal reward or recognition, as Tom himself has done, making a living almost entirely from teaching art. On the subject of Vermeer, Tom said the painter had at least one buyer who acted as a patron, but I maintained it was hard to believe he could have made a living from his work. Van Gogh stands as the finest example of devotion to painting without recognition or reward, and Tom agreed. “He wasn’t crazy. He was highly intelligent and well-read. He and the rest of his family wrote letters constantly to one another. He spoke four languages fluently. You look at the surface of those paintings, the thick impasto, and not a scratch, not a bit of grit—how did he manage to get them back from the fields without damaging them?”

He paused.

“But was it a fulfilling life?”

His remark reminded me of that Ingmar Bergman line from My Dinner with Andre: “I could live in my art, but not in my life.”

With the opening of my solo show at Viridian Artists still turning circles in my mind, I was in the mood to reflect on why anyone should take up painting. The only sensible answer is, don’t, unless you can’t help yourself. I had no sales and don’t expect any (though don’t let that keep you from doing something rash, if you’re a collector in the mood.) My impression is that, like the economy in general, the market for most artwork has sunk into a trough that’s either a cyclical lull or a new age of stagnation. The high end may be selling like Wall Street securities—I don’t know, is it?  Jim Hall, at Oxford, was telling me recently that art sales are depressed everywhere, along with other high-value collectibles. With his large archive of 19th century Tonalist work, he monitors auctions and other channels, so he knows, and Oxford itself has had few sales over the past couple years. I know Jim and his wife, Jinny, aren’t in it for the money, though they certainly aren’t doing it for charity—it’s a passion, like making art, with a constant internal state of questioning about its value and viability. As a gallerist, Jim does essentially what most painters do, devoting himself to something for its own sake, rather than as a way of chasing money or prominence or power. So if making money isn’t the motive, and it never has been for me, then why paint? Or, should that question even come up? If there’s a purpose in the act of painting, doesn’t that box it in? And if there is no fixed purpose, other than to make the best possible picture, how does the act of making that fit into the world of normal, or at least sensible, human behavior. The most salient question may be as I suggested up above: “Can you live without painting?” If you say no, you’ve discovered the only reliable motivation. This is probably impossible for anyone who lives in the world of commerce and industry or government, or any other practical human activity, for that matter, to grasp. And yet so many people translate art into economic terms, and money governs so much of what gets noticed.


The experience of having an opening is an emotional theme park ride. It felt like such a self-exposure, which is painful to begin with. But it was also an event so unpredictable and fluid and hard to decode that I ended up being able to conclude nothing from it, though I found some simple moments deeply gratifying. I woke up in our affordable room in New Jersey the next morning feeling gloomy and confused, mostly from having gotten so little sleep, but on our drive back to Rochester my wife, Nancy, cheered me up, remembering things she’d noticed at the show while I was busy talking with people who came to see the work. Clusters of young people stood in front of a hamburger or a skull and pointed to aspects of the paintings, talking head-to-head about it. People came in and took a lot of photographs, including some with actual DSLR cameras, not just cell phones. Nancy noticed a number of people posing for Facebook shots in front of paintings. A few of the guests found me and talked about the work. But what really cheered me up the following day had nothing to do with the opening. It was, once again, to get a phone call from my 89-year-old mother with another story of workers who came to the condo where she still lives with my father, also almost 90 now. A couple young women, college students on summer jobs, showed up to wash their windows, inside and out. When they came in, they went up to my paintings and started asking questions and admiring the work. One of them said, “I’m an artist. I’m studying welding, and I want to become a sculptor. I love this bowl.” Bottom line: This student stood in their living room and took the time to enjoy some paintings. That’s all. I know it’s a little pathetic to feel good about something that ought to be taken for granted, that other people will want to look at it—Dave Hickey had a few simple, brilliant things to say about that—but nonetheless, this happened in a place where viewing art wasn’t the point at all: what happens in my parents’ home is mostly centered on keeping my father alive and mobile and independent. With a little window cleaning thrown in occasionally.

This student then went from one painting to another doing what a whole string of workers have done in the past: she asked about the paintings. Carpenters, plumbers, house painters, carpet installers, almost everyone who comes into their place—and the same has happened in our house in Pittsford—have stopped to take a look at the paintings and discuss them. It has nothing to do with their purpose there. It’s time they could be spending on their next job. It sounds both egocentric and maybe self-defeating to share my feelings about this, given the fact that approval by people involved in manual trades hasn’t traditionally been considered an indicator for quality in art, but for me, and for Van Gogh, by the way, it’s what art ought to do: communicate and console anyone, not just the trained or highly educated or someone versed in postmodern skepticism. The window-washer was looking at a small still life I’d done of a ceramic bowl we’d bought on a drive through the Southern Tier years ago with the same couple who attended the opening with us—Brian and Sheri Colao. They were my only friends to show up for the opening. (And not just people from the Rochester area or elsewhere failed to show, but the only friends and acquaintances of mine in New York City to show up were my few supporters among the members at Viridian.) Brian and Sheri collect original prints and a variety of crafts, and have a few of my paintings hanging in their place in Pompton Lakes. They drove us into Manhattan for the opening, then introduced us to the menu at Cookshop in Chelsea, for a late dinner and then drove us back to our car, still in their driveway, in time for us to get to sleep at midnight in our room in Parsippany. So for this college girl to notice the bowl we’d bought on a trip with the Colaos years ago seemed to bring things full circle. The way laborers notice my paintings, either in my parents’ home or my own, makes me want to paint more than anything else. It brings in no money—when one of these previous workers actually asked how much it would cost to buy the one hanging in their kitchen, and they told him the fairly modest price, the subject didn’t come up again. I almost gave it to him, and I should have, but didn’t. I’ve given away far more paintings than I’ve sold.


The opening in Chelsea made me happy, eventually, though it was more of a gauntlet than immediately gratifying. At several points, during the influx from the art safari that migrates through Chelsea on Thursday evenings, I felt like a small wounded bird in the grip of a large but mercifully well-fed cat. A young guitarist, William Benton played beautifully, facing into the corner, as if he’d been a very bad boy, and in the best possible sense, he was. Lauren , on the clock as assistant director, took some great photographs of the show she’d had a huge influence in hanging. Vernita mingled and answered questions about the work. And some of my fellow Viridian artists showed up and either shook my hand or gave me a hug. (Thank you, Maxine. Thank you, Bob.) Maybe a dozen or so people flowed in at the start and spent time studying the work, talking with me about it, and then there was a dead calm of about twenty minutes. Nobody walked through the door. Nobody stood in the hall. Vernita Nemec, our director, came by and said, “Don’t worry. It comes in waves.” Later Lauren Purje said, “I was thinking what did I do wrong?” Then the second wave, much larger, flowed in and stayed until the end. I’d known that New York has a surplus of very good-looking young people, but it was an uncomfortable surprise to see so many of them at close quarters precisely when I was sweating so visibly. Early on, there was a wave of people who slowly went through the show, actually paying attention to qualities of the painting, including a pair of artists who talked with me for a while about their favorites: she loved the blueberries, and he admired the jelly bean bullets. “That’s definitely a New York City painting. You’ve shown in New York before, right?” he asked. Well, no, but I hedged, and it felt as if I were nodding and shaking my head at the same time. It isn’t easy. He said, “There’s an idea behind it. You can interpret it in a number of different ways. The work can’t just be visual. There has to be thinking behind it.” I pushed back a little with my cart-and-horse notions of how ideas need to tag along behind an exploratory immersion in formal challenges: “The formal struggle is what I think gives rise to multiple meanings, if there are any at all. The diaper pins attracted me because of the formal properties, the color and the grid of metal. I ended up with an image that’s a prison of pins even though they are all unhooked and open.” They both seemed to like this perspective, and he riffed a little, in reverse, on the notion of objects ostensibly trapped in a jar without a lid. And so it went, in an enjoyable way; and so the whole evening went, up to a point near the end when it turned into a party of thirsty nomads hunting free wine. I could have kept things going until 10, if I’d had our server opening more of that premium Yellow Tail—nothing but the best at this level of the art trade—but we shut it down about half an hour past its scheduled end.

My little circus is in town until the end of June, if you’re interested in taking a look. Otherwise, a couple brief videos of the opening can be found here and here.

2 Responses to “Solo”

  1. Joseph Taylor


    You really are a wonderful and talented painter and artist. You should be very proud. I’m proud to know you, even if it’s just virtually. By the way, I read everything you wrote here; you’re a pretty darn good writer too. I enjoyed your musings on the show. Congratulations.

    Joe (from Lonely Furniture)

  2. dave dorsey

    Thanks Joe! Appreciate your thoughts.