The hand, the eye, and the Harrington

from the Barns collection


If I step back and just observe myself while I paint what I notice is pretty simple—and extremely simple-minded. I become less and less conscious of myself and what I want my activity to mean and far more aware of the feel of what I’m doing. When I know, with the entirely subjective certainty of someone in love, (translate: deaf and blind to the opinions of others) that everything I’m doing is exactly right, a number of conditions hold up. I’m aware of having established a set of personal rules, which I’m following at a steady, rhythmic pace, not too fast, not too slow—the quality of the brushwork, the thickness of the paint, how closely I maintain crisply defined edges and outlines, exactly what colors I will and won’t use, and what kind of sheen I expect the paint to have when I’m finished—slightly matte, not reflective, no shine at all, seemingly as soft as the cloth that supports it.

I might be the only person in the world who cares about these things, ever, but the strange thing about painting well is that these factors become all-important. I’m never focused on what the painting has to say, or what it “means,” or how “significant” it needs to be. All of these variables would appear entirely arbitrary to anyone else, but for me they become an absolute necessity. My Ten Commandments. My Noble Truths. My Rules of Order. Whatever. Once I start swerving away from those personal guidelines, and that steady Dr. Dre tempo they impose on my work, those minute particulars and private measures of excellence, there’s no going back—it’s all lumbar punctures and tracheotomies and triage. Now and then, the patient survives. But she’s on life support. Also, when it’s going well, and I’m working on an image which is precisely, carefully, representational with an obsession Monk himself would admire—where the evocation of form becomes as significant as the shape of color on a flat surface—it’s as if I feel the actual, three-dimensional thing itself emerging into relief under my fingertips, through the brush, so that I have the faint sensation of carving the figure from a block of material, sculpting it with paint. I have no idea if what I’m doing corresponds to what other painters experience, but that’s how it works, when I’m doing it well.

Years ago, I attended a poetry workshop during which Hayden Carruth talked about writing to a dozen of us sitting around the table, and he said something that resonated with me at the time, but which I didn’t fully understand until recently, in relation to painting: “When I write poetry, there’s almost a physical pleasure in it when it’s done well.”

Painting, for me, is almost entirely a physical endeavor. Absent is any conscious notion of a painting’s significance, any intention to make the image resonate as a concept or idea or metaphor in any way other than being a visual representation of the physical object or setting that I’m using as a source for the image. I’m aware of a level of evocation: a certain music or poetry that might or might not emerge, subliminally, as I’m working. But that is never something I can consciously shape into an image. It’s either there or it isn’t, happening on its own. I’m as far away from any sense of interpretation or conceptual baggage as someone having satisfactory sex is from the thought of being a parent. This doesn’t mean I won’t generate something that has a life of its own in the world—it simply testifies to a painting’s unconscious, physical, non-conceptual. . . uh . . . conception. The act of creation taps subconscious urges aligned with a craving for certain colors, certain lights and darks, certain kinds of line and shape, a certain feel of a brush in the hand, and a purely sensuous apprehension of oil paint’s flow and luster—so that when I paint, I feel most of my gestures originating in an area just south of my belly button, and nowhere near my head. My head is often listening to a podcast while all this is happening. It can get tedious this labor. These same originating sensations happen when I play golf well, or run three miles, or shoot a three-pointer. They aren’t happening as I type these words, which is neither here nor there. I don’t need them for thinking, though thinking comes in handy while I paint, but only when I get stuck. Otherwise, no thinking.

I had a mug of coffee with a friend, recently, Rick Harrington, who has been getting the sort of beauty—from a long series of repetitive, abstracted images of barns— which Rothko derived from that mythic horizon he kept doing over and over. Rick’s colors, in these hard-edged, abstracted representations of farm buildings, can be as alive and fresh and subtle as Brice Marden’s or Milton Avery’s. He has found a motif he can keep repeating for more and more surprises as long as he cares to keep painting. He lives south of my home, a half hour’s drive away, near Geneseo. He was in town to pick up his wife, Darby, at the airport, so we met at a spot called Starry Nite—in a structure like a tiny homage to the Flatiron in Manhattan—and it was like many of these one-off places where you get espresso or a latte, except that it has a unique mural, a surprisingly talented enlargement, painted directly onto the wall, of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, as well as various copies of other Van Gogh paintings, on conventionally stretched canvas.

“It’s tougher this year,” Rick said. “Last year, I thought we’d gotten through the downturn. I don’t know now.”

He was smiling, just as light-hearted and affable as he were reporting a seven-figure income, and I sat and listened, throwing in a few wow’s and no kidding’s  whenever he took a breath.

“Why do you paint?” he asked, out of nowhere.

I laughed, it was so abrupt, and typical.

“I’m trying to figure that out. Why paint. Why bother? I mean, I know why, but it’s hard to put in words.”

“It’s physical isn’t it?” he asked.

I shook my head, which actually meant I was agreeing, it was so close to my thinking, and I was so amazed that he and I saw it exactly the same way.

“It’s like sports. You completely lose yourself,” he said.

Rick looks a little like Aiden Quinn, but with more gray hair. Ten years ago he chucked every other source of income—he’d been an art director and illustrator for most of the time I’d worked with him—and plunged into painting, dragging his work to art fairs around the country, covering thousands and thousands of miles, in a van or towing a trailer. Some years he’s made serious money—not Art Basel money, but enough to pay the bills and put a kid through college. In the early years, he was thinking he’d be fishing for dinner the rest of his life. (He fly fishes and kayaks, and both represent for him the same kind of union with nature—and his own nature as a human being—offered by painting.) He went into a long, well-told narrative of a free fishing trip he’d won to British Columbia, complete with a guide, and the steelhead he snagged. It was such an enormous steelhead, a real prize, it may very well have been the fish Elizabeth Bishop once wrote about.

“You should do a blog,” he said before we shook hands and drove off in opposite directions. I said, yeah, I think I will.

1 Response to “The hand, the eye, and the Harrington”

  1. hotshot bald cop

    Preach it my brother.