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.


  1. "I'm sorry for the silence lately.... Plus I was busy. "

    Ha! Busy? Actually you've been 'busy' playing with the other kids on facebook! :-)

    I did write a longer post here, deeply philosophical, delving to the heart of the background query settling it once and for all... however.... I went to look at your 'deep red' & when I clicked back my post was, alas, sigh, lost.

  2. You're fired.

    Also, you'd be surprised at how little time I spend on Facebook. I type quickly and I drink a large quantity of coffee.

    If you feel up to re-typing your thoughts, I'd love to hear, but I understand how dispiriting that is.

  3. It is possible to conceive of the universe as all one thing, a defining characteristic of that thing being an ability to manifest in an infinite variety of forms. It is also possible to conceive of any given being or thing as existing only as a network of relations to everything else. These ideas have been around at least since Lao Tzu and the Presocratic philosophers and are found in scientific concepts such as the holographic model of the universe.

    Choosing an object to focus on, and separating it from its surroundings, is one approach to this, to see "a world in a grain of sand", as Blake put it, because of course that grain contains all the principles of the whole and implies the whole. Kind of funny how separating an object can lead you, philosophically, to a view in which such separation is illusory! A great example of the paradoxical heart of things.