So, I blew right past the first anniversary of this blog without noticing. Woo hoo! One year of posting not nearly enough!
OK, so I'm working on a painting. Here's the painting so far:
The model is Alley, about whom I've written before. The canvas you're looking at is 5 feet tall by 3 feet across, and it's actually the left half of a two-canvas painting. Alley appears in a reversed pose in the second canvas, also 5x3, and the two of her are holding hands.
I don't know about you, but I learn about my own paintings as I paint them. They generally start with the simplest thing - some kind of an image, even just a combination of colors, which has no concepts attached. I'll just be walking along, and this idea will pop into my head, and I'll like it enough to paint it.
So I had no idea what this Alley painting was about when I started it. But it's been showing itself to me as I painted. First, I found out why I thought to have Alley stand like that. Here's the reason:
That's Augustus St-Gaudens's Diana, originally designed for Stanford White's Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. I've seen it many times at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and had gotten its 19th-century classicism of figure stuck in my head. This classicism is different from actual Greek classical sculpture; there is something sleeker and thinner about it. The forms are less pronounced, certain facial characteristics (a more heart-shaped face, a narrower nose, eyes more widely spaced) are common to the genre but not to its Greek origin.
Alley, from the angle in my painting, looks like this angle on the Diana. Let's look at another angle so you can see how similarly their torsos are structured:
Well, OK. I learned that. So I started thinking about why, beyond the resemblance, this St-Gaudens image resonated with me. I placed the cultural context of the Diana against the lighting I chose for Alley's face. She has that proud pseudo-Greek forthright gaze, but her eye is sunk in darkness - she herself is lit, but she is looking into the dark.
To me, this second element completed the concept I was seeking. The painting is about the dead end of reason. The Diana represents for me the last great gasp of baroque classicism, of enlightenment idealism. Choking beneath the weeds of the modern, this sculpture was a final burst of decadent creativity from a dying worldview, a worldview based in the concept that rational analysis was a legitimate method, and the steadfast application of this method could reveal a truth, called The Truth. It was a worldview that was profoundly shadowless. Just as Socrates considers, and then dismisses, the very possibility of evil, so this rationalistic worldview did not accept that unreason might abide, might be built into the fabric of things. All present irrationalities were problems not yet solved.
This is a worldview with which I have a lot of sympathy, even though it was an attenuated and aestheticized echo of itself by the time St-Gaudens came along.
Now, this Alley I have groped my way into showing, is an Alley coming from the land of bright shadows, of form and optimism, but her eye is shadowed because she is looking into darkness. I might like to live in the aerodynamic world of St-Gaudens, but I cannot; I know what has happened since. So my variant on this goddess looks into the dark. She is standing at the very dead end of reason.
This is what the painting means to me now - sure. But the painting is less than half done. The second Alley faces the first one, and her face is lit. Perhaps I will find out that this is hopeful. But I think I will find out that it is uncanny. The two of them mirror one another, and they will stand (eventually) in an intricate, abandoned maze of arches and staircases. I think that I will find, in the end, that this is a painting about the fearfulness of analysis in a region that is beyond analysis. In this region, to persist in analysis is itself unreasonable. Reason, in this context, is like an unwelcome tumor. The brutal irrationality of the space refracts reason, producing two where there was one. Beauty, form, hope, humanity - all of them are unwelcome in the cold inhumanity of the seething, irreducible complexity of the uncharted maze.
It is just as likely, however, that I will conclude the painting means something else entirely. In the meantime, I am simply painting it.
I meant to include this link - it's a post describing a very similar process which my friend Kevin Mizner went through in a painting he's working on:
I did think to write this post before reading his, but I would say I'm damn near ripping him off. The similarities and contrasts are worth a ponder if you're a painter yourself. He writes well about the evolution of his painting.
Much, much more on the rather dubious contentions made in this post, here.
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