Monday, September 19, 2011

What I Did On My Summer Vacation, Part II: Zone of Rightness, Zone of Comfort

Ambiguities abounded in the last post. It was unclear to what extent my current zero-background tendency is a philosophical conclusion, and to what extent it's a matter of fleeting preference. It was unclear whether monism is exciting or boring. It was unclear whether I am going through a period of creativity or depression.

This series of blue Leah paintings is very interesting to me, in that I know much less about it than I usually do about my work. I'd like to expand the region of ambiguity now.

You may recall that a little while back I wrote a long post about the violent conflict between paint as representation, and paint as paint. I didn't exactly advocate for this conflict, but I certainly described it in glowing terms. I have been told that this blog can be something like an art class. If that's true, it is worth continuing to remember that I am not the teacher here. I'm a student, and I'm learning from writing. So that post, about the wonders of brutal paint handling, was me learning, by writing, about a particular painting technique I am very envious of.

I don't mind confessing envy - I see paintings all the time which inspire the thought, "I wish I painted like that." I don't follow through on most of these thoughts, but I'll cop to having them. I am envious of the techniques of the painters I described in that post - Pacula, Monks, and Wright. Their techniques seem to me both intensely sensual, and philosophically profound.

When I was writing that post, I tried mucking around with thick paint a bit, in Deep Red #4:

Deep Red #4, 2011, oil on canvas, 18"x24"

I was kind of meh about it. It's not bad, but it's not a revelation either. And we're in the revelation business here.

Then I decided to go back to the way I do actually paint, the way I like to paint, for these blue Leah paintings. But something interesting happened along the way. Consider this, the face of Blue Leah #3:

Blue Leah #3, 2011, oil on canvas, 24"x36" (detail)

Much of the paint is smoothly handled. Not so smoothly handled as Ingres, but I do not prefer that particular extreme of smoothness:

The Virgin Adoring the Host, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1852

To me, Ingres often reads as too smooth, his figures over-rendered to a waxen lifelessness. Not in his best works, but in many of the rest of them. Not my path. Even the smoothest, alabasterest skin has roughnesses, discontinuities. The paint must represent or mimic these abruptnesses of the flesh, or the painted flesh will not represent or recall the true flesh. It will fail.

So - my flesh is generally smooth, but not utterly smooth; it is not smoother than its inspiration. And that's how I handled most of the skin on Leah's face.

But in the highlights, you can see that the paint is more jagged, more distinct.

detail, Blue Leah #3

This does not strictly represent reality. The real highlights on her skin were smoother. But the interaction of those highlights with the eye was not. The tiniest of motions causes even a medium-gloss surface to scintillate. The scintillation may be subliminal, but it is there. The light flickers. It doesn't flicker between light and dark, but it does flicker between light and other light. What I painted here was a simile for the scintillation of an observed reflective surface.

Stepping away from representation, however, we have in low-key form that fracturing of the representationalism of the paint, a muted repetition of that descent into the maelstrom, which I so extolled in the Rock and Roll post. If my example painters were Eurydice, who blazes trails, I was Orpheus, hurrying after.

I have always used this trick in highlights. So has everyone else. Consider, again, Greuze:

Study Head of a Woman, Jean-Baptiste Greuze

It is clear enough in the photo, and it is dead clear in person - the highlights of the cheek and nose are a high-relief froth of paint. The shadows are thin as tea. This principle is such a commonplace you can even learn it in art school: paint the highlights thickly, and the shadows thinly. It is an intuitive application of my personal element of design, information density. The eye perceives less information density in darks. Painting darks thinly mimics this natural cognition and heightens it in the painting.

So, yes, I've always done that. But I did it more in the Leah painting, and more boldly. It felt just right to me; I slipped into a zone of rightness. I was painting, and I was thinking, "I am painting, right now, precisely right."

I had a very good time doing that.

Here is the expanded zone of ambiguity about these paintings: Being me, I immediately began to wonder if my feeling of well-being and rightness were correct. There is a different zone that can trigger exactly the same sensation - the zone of comfort.

The zone of comfort is the region within which we do what we already know how to do, and moreover, what we know full well we know how to do. From the beginning until now, it has been a long struggle toward painting for me. When I first picked up brushes, I could scarcely figure out how to get this revolting dyed suspension from the brush onto the canvas. Later, I went through a long period of finding it faintly absurd that so much agonizing and argument has gone into the application of a viscous fluid to a flat surface, where it sits, with a slatternly mobility, until a ridiculous oxidation process gradually polymerizes it into something like permanence. Later still, I was able to make a picture with this archaic medium, and gradually refined my skills until I could do things that, to me, seemed marvelous. I am still refining my techniques, and I am still getting better at it.

But here I sat, confronting the blue Leahs, and thinking - do I like this because it is a summary of the skills I already have, generated from a region of comfort? Or do I like this because I have broken new ground, and am acting from a continuous performance high of athletic dexterity shockingly mastering the impossible?

Well, I don't know. It is very, very difficult to distinguish between these two sensations. There may be no perceptual difference between them at all. The difference emerges later: either you find that you have become better, that your artistic muscles, as it were, have firmed - or that you are already well along the road to complacency and corruption, having accidentally followed a fork which diverged, oh so slowly, from the true path.

I look at the blue Leahs, and I think: by my lights these are good paintings. But what kind of good paintings are they? Do they bode well or do they bode ill?

Time will tell.

Update 9-29-11

Here's a treat for you - artist and friend Fred Hatt has just been writing about nearly the same topic, in his usual thoughtful and engaged way, and illustrated as always with his beautiful work. It appears each of us was writing almost simultaneously, totally unaware that the topic was on the other's mind. This is always fun - the same theme refracted through two analyses.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

What I Did On My Summer Vacation, Part I: Monism

I'm sorry for the silence lately. I didn't have any thoughts that, at the time, could be well-organized into language. Plus I was busy.

This summer, I've been working on, among other things, a series of blue paintings of Leah. The first one was the subject of this post:

Blue Leah #1, oil on canvas, 24"x36", 2011

Once I had painted that, I wanted to continue with the general compositional idea and see what I could do with it. Solving a problem once is good; but in my experience, solving the same problem several times in a row often leads someplace interesting.

As I mentioned before, these paintings are noticeably larger than life sized. You lose a certain intimacy with oversized figures. Intimacy is up there with confrontation in my list of important modes of interaction between viewer and figure. But also up there is character, soul. And what I lost in intimacy at the large scale, I hoped I could make up for in soul. This, of course, you must decide for yourself. Here's the second in the series:

Blue Leah #2, oil on canvas, 24"x36", 2011

Many things are going on with me here. I am approaching an aesthetic crisis of the concept of the background. I put a lot of work into backgrounds, but I have never been in love with them - I have to force myself to conceptualize compositions with backgrounds. Sometimes my backgrounds are cool design ideas:

Red, oil on canvas, 60"x36", 2009

Other times they turn out to deeply influence the meaning of the painting:

Emma Twice, oil on canvas, 48"x48", 2009

I am not feeling the backgrounds right now. I'm sure I'll return to them. But lately, I have been preferring, rather than ginning up an interest I do not currently have, to confront the problem head-on. Being me, I've devoted some thought to what this disinterest means.

Here's what I think it means. I think I am going through a period of obsessively following a cognitive tendency of mine: to conceive of Being as a matter not of space, but of object. We've talked about this before. But lately it is more extreme - when I think of anything, I think of people and objects, and I think of them absolutely isolated from any coherent surrounding space. These are both recent paintings:

Deep Red #3, oil on canvas, 18"x24", 2011

Industrial Object #2, oil and silver leaf on panel, 36"x36", 2011

In one, the objects fill the space entirely. In the other, the object occurs in a metal-leafed non-space.

So I have been considering modes of no-background painting. This helped motivate the recent Hockney-inspired painting:

Self Portrait as Hockney with Piera as Peter in
David Hockney's "Model with Unfinished Self Portrait," 1977,
oil on canvas, 48"x36", 2011

The Leah paintings also represent steps in this direction, although they are not so radical as another painting I am working on, about which, more soon.

This foregrounding, to the exclusion of backgrounding, of the figure or object, strikes me as part-and-parcel of a kind of monism from which I have long suffered.

The Wikipedia definition of monism serves well enough in this context:

Monism is any philosophical view which holds that there is unity in a given field of inquiry. Accordingly, some philosophers may hold that the universe is one rather than dualistic or pluralistic.

I have a tendency to wish to drive the universe toward being all one thing. As if, if one could see and vivisect reality clearly enough, the differences would dissolve, and there would be one utter thing. I am a kind of itinerant unified field theorist, without the common decency to actually learn the physics. Less charitably, you could call me a dirty-hemmed mystic.

My intuitive monism has two faces. On the one hand, it can make everything as dusty as a geometry proof. And on the other, it can render any object to which it turns its eye into a talisman, imbued with mysterious and intense power.

Obviously, I vote for the latter. But the presence of the former indicates to me that my monism may be a symptom of depression. It is very annoying, being unable to distinguish whether you are experiencing your most acute insight, or simple depression. But there you have it. So long as I keep making paintings, I figure it all comes out for the best.

Perhaps you're having trouble following what I'm talking about, this idea of a monism of aesthetics. Consider, then, a couple of examples of people whose work goes the other way. Here we have Jan Steen:

The Egg Dance, Jan Steen, c. 1674

Steen was a Dutch painter whose paintings of chaotic and debauched household gatherings are so iconic to the Dutch that they, a very hygienic people, apparently insult one another with the snub, "You have a house like a Jan Steen." Steen's universe holds many things.

Here is contemporary painter John Wellington, a really nice guy whom you would be lucky to spend some time chatting about art with:

Red Buddha, John Wellington, 27"x24", oil on panel

Wellington's dazzling universe, like Steen's, is a universe of many things. One of my favorite filmmakers, Fellini, is a proliferating-things man:

still from Federico Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits, 1965

But my favorite filmmaker, Tarkovsky, is, like me, a monist:

still from Andrey Tarkovsky's Solaris, 1972

I am reminded of a self-disciplining line which repeatedly goes through the mind of an imprisoned character, in the novel Metropolis: "Stillness, silence, immobility." This line has never left me, because it is like me, in my monistic mood: citizen of a universe occupied by a single thing. A single thing, yes, and it cannot move, because motion occurs in space, and space arises when there are two things, not one. But in this single thing, all is subsumed, and the thing is all, and there is no sound or motion.

But if you will give me my one thing, and your own consciousness, then there are two things, nearly. And though the one thing does not properly move, it transits an event horizon and arrives on your doorstep with tremendous force, shattering force. In this monistic mood, I am not interested in delighting you with color and shape; I want your encounter with the paintings to take on the quality of blunt force trauma - to crack your head and let the Absolute rush in, as it has rushed in upon me.

Thus Leah:

Blue Leah #3, oil on canvas, 24"x36", 2011

Look, let me add another caveat here - I have been sitting in my studio, painting and thinking these thoughts, but I have been thinking these thoughts in a kind of confused and indeterminate way. I am leery of writing them down because words impose a rigorous analysis, and there is nothing like rigorous analysis for logically drawing out a latent extremism. Extremism often does not serve our goals; leaving things unsaid is important, it allows us to harvest the fruits of our thoughts without exhausting the soil. So as usual - a good deal of skepticism, please. This is not me. This is not a philosophy or a prescription, it is a simplified record of a mood.

More soon, much sooner than last time.