Heart, Eye, and Hand

IMG_7910I’m finally back on a regular painting schedule, and it’s surprising how it puts me in a better mood—helped along by a few other changes in my life. Maybe this makes it odd that I’m thinking hard about taking a year off from exhibiting (while continuing to contribute to local group shows at Oxford Gallery) in order to take all considerations out of the act of painting other than the quality of what I’m doing, based on my own response to it. It’s difficult to resist the sense that I need to refine what I do into something that will either be exhibited or will sell, or both, as a way of validating my work. It’s a little silly to be consciously trying to eliminate these considerations, at this point in my life, since I didn’t give them any thought at all for most the years I’ve been painting—when I did it as a solitary pursuit. In other words, it doesn’t take much effort to quit worrying about a “career” because that’s never been the motivation. Imagine Cezanne or Van Gogh scanning their CVs with a worried look. Being able to both eat and paint is the goal. Whatever creativity is, you’ll kill it by putting a harness around its neck. Once you start showing and selling, as I’ve been doing for seven or eight years now, those activities become a reflexive consideration—you ask, will this be anything someone will want to show or buy? In theory, I don’t think that’s wrong; in fact just the opposite. With Dave Hickey, I agree that making art people want to own ought to be a central consideration, not because it makes sense economically, but because it means an artist is trying to connect to others in a way they’ll welcome. When you speak, you hope someone is listening, otherwise, you’re . . . well . . . you’re a blogger, right? But I’m putting that aside for now. If I give myself a hiatus from questions of selling and showing, I might be able to feel free to fail in an attempt to get better results while painting in ways I ordinarily don’t give myself permission to do. (Do I contradict myself? Very well . . .)

So, in this frame of mind, I’m finishing a small, modest still life of a bowl, using methods I’ve been trying for the past year. It’s the first of a series of small ornamented bowls I’m going to paint between now and the end of the year. In this one, as in the last few I’ve done, I’m being completely transparent about my use of photography. I depict one or two commonplace things as the focal point of the image and use a shallow depth-of-field to intentionally create blurred backgrounds. What I’m building is a series of still lifes that show objects in ordinary, everyday surroundings—not simply a wall or undifferentiated space—without rendering the background as precisely as the foreground. In other words, photo-realism, but not hyper-realism. The way I’m painting these backgrounds ranges from slightly blurred but recognizable to extremely out-of-focus scenes that dissolve into softly abstract geometry. It creates a sense of depth in a way some would consider too easy, probably, because it relies on how our eyes have been conditioned to recognize the way a lens alters the view, giving distant things a gauzy aura. I suspect what I’m doing would be dismissed these days by those attuned to what’s currently respected and what isn’t—photo-realism may be commercially viable, but I don’t have the sense that it’s in critical or academic favor right now. Will that last? Probably not. Do I care? No. Maybe a little (see above on Dave Hickey). But that’s precisely what I want to take out of the picture with my hiatus from thinking about sales and shows. With the way I’m working right now, I’m able to achieve pure areas of color that just wouldn’t have the same character if I were to render everything in the image with the same level of painstaking, realistic detail. So far, I like the results. I also like how this approach is encouraging me to find the most efficient way to apply color without losing a sense of clarity and immediacy in the image, despite the lack of detail in most areas. It’s a way of painting where I feel as if I’m using the simplest possible means to get the results I like, focusing on flat areas of color, putting one simple area of color next to another, as Hawthorne said, when he talked about “spots” of color.

None of this has anything to do with adhering to a theory, or some “better” way of painting, but is the result of paying attention to how the act of painting feels as I’m doing it, and whether or not I want to keep looking at the results when I’ve made a mark. It’s a way of savoring the tactile quality of the paint, so that I’m able to spread it in thicker layers and move it around in a way that actually, to me, feels like slicing into a cake—it’s full of that kind of anticipation. I’m sure it’s how Braque felt every time he touched his canvas with his brush. If you’re a painter, you’ll know what I’m talking about: the scale tips toward the paint and the pure color you put down, and the quality of both, while the illusion you create follows along behind, seeming to be summoned up almost as an afterthought of fitting all those shapes of color together in just the right way. I’m also finding myself achieving things with very small areas and gradations of color that undoubtedly nobody else will even notice. I do, though. Someone else, looking at one of these finished paintings might say, “I don’t get it. What’s so different about it?” And there you go: that’s exactly what I was talking about earlier, just painting with only my own eye and heart and hand as a guide, for better or worse, regardless of whether anyone notices what I’m achieving.

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