Paint, brushes, laughter

Candy, candy, candy, I can't let you go . . . Iggy Pop

Two days ago, after putting in a long morning of work on a large candy jar painting, I spent nearly three hours visiting with James Hall at the Oxford Gallery, and it struck me that I’ve started a blog ostensibly about the painting life—what it means to be a painter—but all I write about so far is what it means to paint. The life keeps getting left out, except for that trip I described to the Home Depot in Brooklyn and back. There’s a good reason: what does one say about standing before an easel for six or seven hours a day? It’s a pretty uniform predicament, being a painter. Unless you surrender to the academy and become a teacher, or go into graphic design and help your clients sell whatever—digital printers, Diet Cokes, domain registries—it’s a life lived on the fringes of solvency. You work in the hope that a few lone collectors (usually people as singular and unusual in their focus as you are, if you’re lucky enough to be singularly unusual) will discover your work and pay you for it. You will notice I refrained from using the term eccentric here. I recently got an email from Vernita Nemec, the artist who directs the activities at Viridian, where I show my work in New York, and the gist of the email was that we all need to think of ourselves as sales people, greeting potential customers, introducing ourselves, establishing a human relationship with the buyer. It’s true, of course. I do it myself with people who have bought my work. But my first emotional response, on reading that email about how we’re all in sales no matter what we do in life, was to think of a story that Sam Kinison used to tell, which was as hilarious as it was scatological in the worst way—if you know him you know the story—the one that ends with his screaming, “It never ends!”

It’s true. Buyers are the real heroes of a painter’s life, the people who keep it going. My visit with James the other day was amazing in a number of ways, but the most delightful moment was when the conversation turned to the subject of his customers. As expected, the conversation meandered through remarks like, “The real precursors of Impressionism were Delacroix and Manet.” And “This painter was the model for the doctor in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.” Yet we also traded what could only be called some very fun gossip. We walked around, looking at the Tonalist paintings he’d assembled, and he would rattle off amazing little anecdotes about the artists, the work itself, and stories about whose studio assistant ran off with what other painter and how George Fuller gave up painting and became a tobacco farmer and then, when his crops all failed, went back to painting, as a Tonalist now, suddenly finding himself immensely successful at the end of his life. And so on. Jim seated himself on a little bench under a couple of the paintings, at one point, and I crouched on the floor, like two guys hanging out on a front stoop, and he told me about one of his favorite collectors.

“She’s brilliant. A physician. She’s also a nuclear physicist. She worked on the nuclear project at Berkeley, and back then the government had to put her through the gauntlet of clearances, so they had all this information about her on file, and right after 9/11—I mean days—they contacted her and asked her if she would agree to translate Arabic documents for them,” he said.

“So she splits atoms, heals people and reads Arabic to fight the terrorists,” I said. “Oh, and she buys a lot of paintings.”

“Yes. The first time I saw her, the first time she walked into the gallery, she was wearing waders, a flannel shirt and a big floppy hat. She had on a pair of socks. On each sock were the words, Bite me. I thought she was a bag lady. She’s one of my best friends now.”

Try to convince me this buyer isn’t more interesting, as a person, than any artist she patronizes.

A devotion to a creative vocation almost always produces a marginal life. You have to accept it and realize that the dialog that sustains you is usually not between you and a buyer or a critic or a dealer, or even another artist, but between you and your own mostly unrewarded devotion to a certain kind of excellence. It’s true in any field—music, writing, visual art and comedy. You see the long lists of bands you will never have time to even sample on iTunes, all the poets publishing in the little quarterlies, all the artists at all the hundreds and hundreds of galleries in Manhattan, everyone working their own corner of obscurity, not even hoping to emerge, never expecting to “break out,” as my literary agent used to say, when she was my agent, until I couldn’t stand the endless, fruitless advice on how to, as it were, whore myself out to Hollywood, as Holden Caulfield said of his brother, D.B. Those were dark, stalled years, where I had given up all sense of confidence in my own talent and resigned myself to doing work for the promise of a check. You can’t think about the reward, or the response, or even the reasons for doing what you do, because in a certain sense they are very thin indeed—you focus only on getting it right, whatever it is, and the mystery of why it seems to matter so much. And, meanwhile, you try to make a living in other ways. There’s a self-evident absurdity to this pursuit that never goes away. From a certain angle, it’s just ridiculous for an adult man to spend so much time painting, especially when you choose to paint in a way that’s completely immune to the masturbatory rhetoric of conceptualism that surrounds visual art, the bloviations of the “artist statement” and the critical theorist. I choose to paint images that offer no purchase for theory, for left-brain vocabulary—images that rely for their effectiveness on strictly visual means, on the play of light, color and paint.  I’m in the process of spending the next six months doing more large candy jars—images based on tiny clam sauce jars from a Wegmans supermarket filled with various types of candy, enlarged and rendered on canvases four feet by four feet, to the point where they work both as abstraction and representation. If they work, they work for reasons that can’t be intellectualized, the way abstraction works. They provide sustenance to the right brain, and only the right brain, or they don’t work at all. Pure painting, as it were. If there’s any theorizing to be done here, it’s entirely subordinate to what’s being delivered by means other than the intellect.

Now, what does this vocation mean, in terms of my daily life? It means that last year I took on a ghost-writing assignment, spending more time writing than painting, in order to have enough money in the bank to work for two years doing nothing but painting, or writing for that matter, unless of course another money-making opportunity comes up, which it hasn’t, though I wish it would. I’m about midway through this window of solvency. It means I rely on my wife, Nancy, to drive into the city every day and teach third graders how to multiply and spell and create gingerbread houses, as their token art project, since the district can’t afford to employ anyone to teach art in elementary school anymore. Her teaching isn’t simply about passing along skill and knowledge. She’s a wrangler, herding twenty bright, well-meaning but hyper-active children through six hours of instruction, almost always with one or two or three demons to make her life miserable. Two years ago, it was a little smirking kid she called Snoop who, in response to her request for three examples of nouns replied: “Jail. Night stick. Grey Goose vodka.” This was a second-grader. He went on to become the bane of another teacher’s life, and was caught extorting $100 from a little Asian boy whose ass he threatened to kick unless cash was produced the following day. Amazingly, the boy brought an envelope the next morning: his parents were counting out the day’s receipts from their retail concern and apparently the kid simply pulled a Benjamin from the stack and brought it to school. This year, Nancy comes home with other similar stories. One kindergarten teacher found herself facing a little five-year-old, reprimanding him for some disruption in class and the insolent little miniature gangsta looked up at her and said, “I’m going to fuck you up.” You either go pale at the thought of civilization’s collapse or you laugh pretty hard at this. I laughed. She sent him down to the principal, and he sauntered into the head office and called their administrator a dumbass. It’s depressing, disturbing, but it’s also pretty funny, given that these miscreants are like super-sized collectibles you could lift off the floor and lock in a glass case on your wall. Which is probably what ought to be done, with some of them. It’s Monty Pythonesque. Yesterday, a little kid, in the process of being scolded by another teacher, raised her hand and said, “Talk to the white because the black ain’t listening.” Apparently, a little variation of the “talk to the hand” meme from years ago which went, talk to the hand because the brain ain’t listening. Generally, Nancy’s classes are filled with well-dressed, energetic, bright kids who listen and help out and put their own work in. But at the fringes, this tiny percentage moves in and out of the building, these little wanna-be players, and they can wear her out. As Nancy puts it: “Bravo should do a reality series on this school.”

So, worn out, Nancy pulls in late in the afternoon, and comes in to tell me these stories and then, perfunctorily asks how my day went and I say, “Well, I painted five jelly beans.” I’ll let you work out the conversational permutations, once we’ve reached that point. I always want to reach for that essay Wallace Stevens did about why it still makes sense to be writing poetry in a time of war. It would not help to say, “The white ones are so much easier than the reds.” It’s true. I could do ten pieces of white candy in half the time it takes to paint the colored ones, yet divulging a detail like this, as if it would make my pursuit more interesting–well, it wouldn’t help. I know it sounds ludicrous, and I can stand back and laugh at myself, even though it doesn’t deter me, doesn’t diminish the passion for getting it right and knowing that the end result does everything a painting is meant to do. It just sounds nuts, that’s all.

Which brings me to the subject I’ve been heading toward here. I spend most of the day laughing, while I paint. Not because it’s all that fun to stand there rendering a highlight or a shadow on an M&M. It’s because I listen to podcasts. I may be the only painter in history who laughs off and on, almost continuously, as he works for seven or eight hours. For the sake of argument, I’m leaving aside the random lunatic institutionalized outsider artists, who may have outstripped my ability to laugh out of context. What I’m saying is, basically, as I paint, more often than not I listen to podcasts hosted by, or about, comedians: Marc Maron, Sound of Young America, Mike and Tom East Snacks. Maybe I’m not always laughing. Smiling at least. Snorting now and then. Nodding with agreement nearly all the time.

Maron, in particular, is a marvel. I read about him in the New York Times and promptly subscribed, and his interviews on WTF have become a central addiction of my painting life. They’re funny, but they’re far more than that: people now walk into his garage, where he records the conversations, and they tell the most astonishingly embarrassing things about their careers, their childhoods, their sex lives, and though this is just standard fare in this Age of Public Exposure we’re suffering through, it’s done in a way entirely different from some tearful Barbara Walters Q&A or Dr. Phil appearance. It’s just two guys, or a guy and a woman, talking over coffee, laughing and speculating and being open about the way life actually works. What has emerged over the past six months of listening is how much the life of the comic resembles, in its fundamental motivations and its sense of marginalization, the life of painting. Comics now occasionally identify themselves as “performance artists” on Maron’s show, and, I assume, in their daily lives. At first, when I heard this, I thought, Spare me yet another chance to be pretentious. Yet I think Louis C.K.’s show on FX is proof that this is not a misnomer: if you want to hear what contemporary life in America involves, listen to the best stand-up comics. You’ll find out, and you’ll laugh as you do–it’s the best truth-delivery system we’ve got. Like painters going back to a canvas for years, comics routinely talk about how it took them two or three years to finish a joke properly, or more commonly, how to set up a final line. They know a line that will make people laugh, but it can take forever to figure out the best way to get to it. Maron talks about how much he has come to love the “lobby waffle” on the road. I almost shouted: “Yes!” On my trip to New York a few weeks ago, to help at Viridian, I stayed at a hotel in New Jersey that served the most amazing free breakfasts, virtually in the lobby with an iron for making your own waffles. You put up a show, you hope something sells or at least gets talked about, and then you move on to the next show. It’s virtually the same kind of life—OK, so maybe there’s no cocaine or groupies waiting outside after the opening. (On the other hand, maybe that is the way it’s like for some painters, just not for the suburban family guy who wins awards and gets shown in London, but is still a husband and father and a lugnut with a broadcast spreader for fertilizing the back yard.) C.K. had a very funny episode recently, in his show where he’s a father who happens to do stand-up and doesn’t even get a hint from women that they would like to take him to bed after any of his routines, which wouldn’t have bothered him–it wouldn’t have even crossed his mind–if Steven Wright hadn’t taunted him into hanging out at club for a while, hoping for some eye contact, which of course never materialized. In other words, being a creative entity is a job, with the least possible security and regularity, glamorless, mostly solitary, and yet somehow intensely interesting and compelling for the one doing it. It’s hard work. Low cash flow. Long years of obscurity that usually never abate. No dental. But there can be a lot of laughs, as well as a lot of satisfaction in getting it right, if you make a point of paying close enough attention to what you do—and download the right kind of internet radio to help you keep doing it.

2 Responses to “Paint, brushes, laughter”

  1. Bob Shea

    Excellent reflection, Dave. Your voice is clear and engaging. Great sketch of the “bag lady” buyer.
    My thought is, yes, from an economic standpoint artists of all media need “buyers” but it’s really about audience, buying or not. To me the artist implicitly want to share his/her vision in whatever form, apart from the necessity, the drive to do “it.”

  2. dave dorsey

    Yeah, it’s always about getting through to people one way or another, if you can. Dave Hickey talks about how art has drifted away from that connection to buyers, and more or less says that if you can’t find a market–in other words do something that means enough to people that they’ll shell out something for it–then you should look for another line of work. A little harsh, but an interesting way to offer a corrective to so much of what gets produced.