Saturday, April 23, 2011

Human Rhinovirus

I have often thought that a truly representative film of a serious painter's life would be quite boring. In order to make great paintings, it is necessary to sit or stand quietly, and do the work. For every hour that Schiele spent hounded in court, or that Picasso spent having women throw crockery at him, or that Caravaggio spent knife-fighting with the Jets:

Caravaggio on a typical Thursday night

...for every hour of that business, there were probably a hundred of work in the studio which would be mind-numbingly dull to watch.

Generally speaking, I am a partisan of the level-headed-life school. I have known bohemians and hipsters, heroin girls and traveling rockers, lotharios and histrionic tyrants and cafe philosophers. All of them were leading interesting lives, and without exception, they failed to produce anything of note.

My own life is of little narrative interest. I have a telecommuting job that is not art, which pays most of my bills. I do it at a place and time of my choosing, although I always choose a coffee shop, and the morning. I spend some time on correspondence early in the afternoon. I go to the studio as frequently as I can, and I try to get home early enough to spend some time with Charlotte. We make an effort to see our friends. Until recently, we had a cat.

This is what you would call the modern form of a middle-class existence.

There is some poet, or something, whose name eludes me now, who advocates for this sort of existence, in order to provide a stable foundation upon which aesthetic flights of fancy can be built; that the energy for drama which resides in every human heart should be reserved for the work, not the life. I think this poet, or whoever he was, had it about right.

Also, consistently with my always-be-wrong approach, he had it wrong, and I bloody well have it wrong too. Somewhere, there is an optimum balance of drama and life, and it is not on the setting-your-watch-by-Immanuel-Kant's-afternoon-stroll end of the spectrum. It may be near it, but it is not there.

I was happily reminded of this by an incident earlier this week. A while back, I showed you this painting, Industrial Object #1:

Industrial Object #1, 36"x36", oil and silver leaf on canvas

Charlotte happens to be out of town right now, and I had been planning on painting Industrial Object #2 last week. Then I was colonized by our friend the cold virus:

This gave me aching joints, a facial headache from sinus pressure, a runny nose, a sore throat, nausea, chills, and dizziness. I decided to try the one-two of megadoses of vitamin C and sleeping in. Eleven hours of sleep later, I could still barely concentrate or summon the will to move. By 3 pm, I hadn't gotten out of bed. Being a good Protestant (I'm not actually a Protestant), I felt massively guilty at my lack of productivity. So I hauled myself up, put on some clothes, and walked the 1.1 miles from my apartment to my studio, very slowly. Then I walked up the four flights of stairs to my studio - also very slowly. I had a bitching headache by the time I got to the top. So I sat for a while in the comfy chair in my studio, feeling like maybe this was a stupid idea and I should go home and get back in bed.

Then I sat down in the uncomfy chair to paint, figuring that once I had a paint brush in my hand, I could settle into doing that, and get it done. I started working on Industrial Object #2, and had to fight the urge to stop as I tackled each new section. I was in a blurry wooze of sickness, but I managed to paint for 9 hours, and painted the entire thing:

Industrial Object #2, 36"x36", oil and silver leaf on panel

This wasn't smart and it certainly didn't make me get better faster. The painting itself is cruder than I might have done if I were on top of my game or weren't rushing it. But by god, I really like how it turned out, and I like that it was a stupid move to paint it when I did. It felt invigorating to carry on painting in the face of opposing force.

It is good to cheat circumstance sometimes, and to carry on melodramatically when you ought to stop. None of this should be taken into account in evaluating the work - the work is the work, it doesn't matter how it was made. Rather, it will make you a better artist - or at least, it will make me a better artist - to replicate on any available scale that elemental dying and being born again which characterizes the true artistic act.

It is in dying that the senses are heightened, that the irrelevancies are scoured away, that the final sums are tallied and the ledgers all thrown out. It is in the interval between dying and being born again that the soul, bared and permeable, is exposed to the fundaments of the universe, to the mighty forces that undergird existence itself. It is in being born again that a new world is made, unencumbered by the assumptions, inertia, and detritus that gradually ossified the old world. The new world is fresh, richly colored, and characterized by a continuous state of revelation and discovery.

The artist must, absolutely must, find some means of accessing this new world at regular intervals, or the work becomes stately and old, and soon dies.

A life of continuous adventure leaves no room or energy for the work. A life of Kantish regularity leaves no room for life. The optimum is somewhere in the middle path: a path that gives you substance yet allows your substance to crack often.

A virus gave me the opportunity to walk the middle path this week. All hail the virus.

Postscript: It should be noted, even so, that a movie of this entire episode would have consisted of a dude sitting in a chair, wiping his nose, drinking orange juice, and painting. Very boring.


  1. You've got to stop living on the edge like this.

  2. I know. I failed to mention that after I finished the painting, I went and fought in the Spanish Civil War.

  3. Oh that was you! sorry about the sabre slash.

  4. No apologies required. I was, after all, fighting for the fascists.

  5. I don't always take the time to read your blog, but whenever I do, I am delighted. Rhinovirus!

  6. Caitlin! I'm glad to delight you and delighted that you check in here sometimes. Thank you - and watch out for those rhinoviruses.

  7. Interesting auto biographical post! I have read a few posts now that include that "What's wrong and What's right" stuff.
    I think that a story is only as interesting as the person telling it.

  8. Dan - I'm glad it's interesting! And do you mean that I'm taking on a moralizing tone? Because I know this is a tendency of mine, and if I'm slipping into it, I'm very grateful to you for pointing it out. Despite how it seems, I try not to be preachy.

  9. Oh, you know what, I realize you're probably talking about that whole "wrong/right" thing I've been on about lately. You used the clever hiding-in-plain-sight technique to convey this information. I have a natural bias toward formulating rules and principles, so the dichotomy is natural to me, and I am often forced to correct myself, because my generalizations are so frequently incorrect. This may come across as tedious philosophizing, because it is, but it's really the means by which I tackle problems that other people are able to tackle intuitively or content to wing. So, uh, ha.

    Also, I was just looking again, recently, at that nude you submitted to the Nerdrum competition - I like it quite a bit.

  10. Daniel,
    LOL! There were several good points in the post. More than just one response could cover. I choose to defend and support you, even when you may sound like you are having a knife fight with yourself. (smile)
    Just on the subject of story telling.
    We know that there are hours/days of routine work in a studio and to us, it may not does not seem like a place were Indiana Jones or Lara Croft hang out... but to the audience, the act of making a painting, the thought behind it and the physical effort of doing it, can be as interesting and as challenging as a safari in Africa...when told well, and I am enjoying your dialog.
    Thanks for the comment on the Odd Nerdrum piece, It seems that the value of the entire event was to connect with you and others, making good work and thinking about Art.

  11. On the other hand a truly, really truly, representative film of anyone's life would be quite boring.

    On another other hand, even fictional heros, the Indiana Joneses the Lara Crofts, would be dull dull dull if the movie makers didn't 'cut to the chase.'

    I just did a rough, back of an envelope calculation and found that the average person spends well over 70 days of their lifetime sitting on a toilet. Luckily this is one of the many many important parts of a life (parts that without which, there would be no life.) that are passed over by biographers, fiction writers and movie makers. ;-)

  12. Shouldn't the plural of Rhinovirus be Rhinoviri?

    Bursts of creativity notwithstanding, get well soon. Great post as always.

  13. Dan -

    Sorry it's taken me so long to get back to you. I think having a knife fight with one's self is a good idea, but all the same, I'm glad you've got my back during those little bouts.

    I completely forgot about the glamor of painting when observed from the outside. I think a good fifteen minutes of actually watching painting should take care of that. It is much the same with film. These things can remain appealing and attractive - but glamorous? I think not. Anyhow, I'm very happy you enjoy my retelling of this particular story.

    I'm also happy that you got so much out of painting that nude - that's great.

    Jim -

    OK, sure, if you included the toilet part, most anyone's life would indeed be fairly dull. Maybe selected toilet anecdotes would be diverting, but the entire epic of the toilet? Yes - dull.

    The most exciting stuff I do as an artist, to outsiders, is probably hanging out with naked people. I have also dissected cadavers and drawn people having sex (more on that soon). I think, however, that after hour 2 of any of those activities, it would start to lose narrative interest to an observer. I considered becoming a battlefield illustrator for a while, but I found it difficult drawing two people moving around with the sex thing, so I figured drawing 100 guys firing guns at each other on the run would be even trickier. Nonetheless, there are battlefield illustrators, and some of them are quite good.

    Ed -

    First of all, shut the fuck up.

    Second of all, I'm feeling all better now, and I'm glad you enjoyed the post!