Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Joy of Painting

The Joy of Cooking was clear. The joy of cooking. Not The Joy of Being a Cook. 

The joy of painting. Not The Joy of Being an Artist. I'm not sure I have ever seen any Joy of Being an Artist. Not any that wasn't completely delusional. Not any that wasn't a charade. It is a cliche of the first order to say that the pleasure is in the doing. Cliches are cliches because they are tiresomely true. The joy is in the painting.

It is like the real estate cliche. The joy is in the painting. The joy is in the painting. The joy is in the painting. And you have to keep saying it and never forget it.

Lately I find I avoid my artist friends because they are caught up completely in being artists. There is no joy in painting when you do that. I recently had the misfortune of trying to cheer up an artist at an opening who had just humiliated themselves at an auction where they had had to talk about their work to start the bidding; and no one bid! They just stood there as the egg was dripping off them.  I gave them every possible piece of sunshine regarding their work, and threw in a boatload of extra. It was like snowflakes in hell. They didn't want to hear about their work; they wanted to hear about their career, their success, their glory, their immortality, their fame and fortune--how great they are.

Now I have a friend who would be old enough to retire from teaching who is actually going to go into an art program(read school) and has to scrape up the money to pay for it. Money he doesn't have. Money he wants to bum from other people. And why does he really want to do this? Because he might be "discovered." Discovered by people who are still waiting to be discovered. He doesn't want to go to learn; he wants people to tell him how great he is. The last thing he wants is someone breathing down his neck while he is doing the one thing he loves. The last thing he wants is someone trashing the one thing he loves. Picking apart the one thing he loves. 

It is like these people who force their little girl up onto the stage. He is literally sacrificing this innocent thing, the joy of painting, for some greater glory. I've seen and known these artists with the greater glory. Half of them killed themselves. The other half were just miserable. There is no joy in being an artist. There is joy in painting.

Three painters I regularly enjoy talking to about art recently had their big shows. I haven't spoken to any of them at all since. I suspect they think it is because I am envious of their good fortune. Not so. I want nothing but the best for them. What I would prefer not to do is listen to them go on about how they were not selling, or not getting the attention they deserved, or not getting the parade carrying them off the field. At an opening a week or so ago I made the mistake of speaking to an artist because their work was an incredible relief. It was fun and funny. Then they proceeded to tell me how it wasn't their normal work. That their normal work was all about war and stuff, but they didn't think people wanted to see that. It was like stepping in dog doodoo. I spent ten minutes trying to get it off my shoe. People are the only creatures who make their own pain. Artists too often make the mistake of rolling around in it.

I love hearing about these people who achieve glory and success in some field like politics or movies and then turn to painting for pleasure. They really enjoy it. They love to paint. They never ever ever achieve any success as an artist. Never. Not one of them. You can't get in the back door. Not Winston Churchill. Not DH Lawrence. Not Garcia Lorca. Not Lawrence Durrell. Not Henry Miller. Not Anthony Quinn. Not John Lennon. Not Paul McCartney. Not Anyone. But. But they thoroughly enjoy painting. Sometimes I like their work just because of that. The joy, the innocence, the naivite. It is what is behind the appeal of outsider art. The joy of painting.

But not in the art world. Art World. In the art world that is just a load of hogwash. Something else is going on. Can you guess? Not the joy of painting. In point of fact, the opposite would probably be true. Isn't that sad? I think it is where Richard Tuttle and I parted ways; the sheer dismissiveness for the joy of painting; the sneer for those who felt it. Art is about something else. It is pain. Reminds me of the Crusades(killing for the love of God). The worst he ever dressed me down was when I really loved this little piece of his. Big mistake. It was all about his pain. Why didn't I see that!

I have work by Garcia Lorca, Henry Miller, and Lawrence Durrell hanging on my walls. Right up there with works by Pollock, de Kooning, Guston, Motherwell, Resnick, Picasso, Braque, Walker, and Jensen. Right up there with work by my children. The Pollocks and de Koonings have to meet those standards, and they do. Maybe it explains their success. The paradox of it. If you forget you are lost. The joy of painting.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Everyday Olympians: Tilting at Windmills

Drop the Ball. Muddy the Waters. Shoot Yourself in the Foot. Tilt at Windmills. Put Off. Turn the Tables. Fake It. These are just a few of the events of the Everyday Olympics: the Olympics for the rest of us.

These are our skills. The things we really learned from our families and teachers. We're good at this stuff. We deserve to be recognized! If we can't medal we can at least be contenders. We could have all been contenders!

Over in the Media Pavillion at 3pm is the Fault-Find Floor Exercise, and we've already had our first scandal! The shoe-in for the Gold has been disqualified! Shocker! It seems he worked as a successful management consultant his whole life, staying in shape well past retirement. Fortunately, amateur status is still observed. Apparently there was also some question as to whether he was taking steroids. 

This evening, over at the Aquarium, Muddy the Waters will be held in the four Olympic pools simultaneously. Bring your glasses. At the same time Putt Off was supposed to be taking place in the Youngian Arena, but was postponed until later on in the Games. This is an event that often gets concluded some six months later, if ever. 

Tilt at Windmills is a fan favorite, along with Fight for the Right to Be Wrong, and Drop the Ball. Shoot Yourself in the Foot would be right up there, except that by the time the Games start, hardly a country in the world can field a team due to injuries. 

Of course for some people the Opening Ceremonies are the most fun.  The competitions haven't started and the entrants are still good-natured. This year the United States once again enjoyed the roll of host nation and as a result lead the way with this season's Queen of Da Nile, and you know who you are. The problems start immediately after that however, with the Japanese Involve Everyone Else in Your Argument team getting everyone in a huff. Getting everyone in a huff used to actually be one of the premium events until they dropped it when the French kept cheating and winning.

The raciest event is always Cover Your Asset. This year promises to be no different, with some of the biggest assets in recent history making their way to the Games. These are the true Everyday Olympians, which is why this event is saved for last.

News Flash! This just in! Over in Jack Horner Stadium they finally have a winner. Canada and Switzerland tied for the gold and Tibet took the bronze in Hide in a Corner. Happens every time, and still the Tibetans cry foul! Of course, in Cry Foul they did take the gold, so why complain?

My personal favorite has already taken place, and this event always leaves a pit in my stomach. Drop the Ball. I was so proud to see my wife on the stand. It is her fifth medal in these games. I swear, she is so fast you would never know she ever had the ball. 

I trained all year for Nit-Picking, but who knew the competition would be so stiff? I didn't even make the US team! My wife suggested I try out for Nagging, but even there I was out-classed. I'll be ready next time. Watch out! I've beefed up my regimen.

So that's it from this Everyday Olympics. Until next time, have a Happy Holidays, and remember: you have skills that could make your family and teachers proud! Bring home the gold! Just do it! (Oops! That's THEIR event!)

Monday, November 17, 2008


What remains salient at this point, after attending yet another art
opening, is that besides never accepting another drink, you just never
know; life will surprise you everytime.

Last Friday I went to Pierre Menard to see Duncan Hannah's show:
Cautionary Tales. Initially I was there to apologize for my hanging of
his work almost 30 years ago in the NewYork/New Wave show at PS1.

DH has to be in every way the anti-Resnick. Why should I have been
surprised? It has been my experience that nevermind what the work
looks like; every artist of even the most minute consequence is a
blowhard and a bully. DH was just like his paintings: mild mannered/
well mannered, and quizzical.

What a pleasant surprise. I wished I hadn't geared up with liquor
because I ended up being the other.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Sun Shines Brightly...

The sun shines brightly when you're up on a pedestal. It is hard not to enjoy it; it is hard not to want it. The sun shines brightly when you're on up on a pedestal, and it is a temptation that is very hard to resist.

It takes falling off of few times to get the message, and it takes longer than that to fully understand. There is a lot going on there. In the end, however, we all get it: beware the pedestal.

Life is filled with traps; pedestals are only one of many. Sure, we let ourselves go there because we're really looking for something else. Love. We only find out it wasn't love when we fall, and we fall far. It is a long way to the bottom. The thing about the pedestal is that it is secretly about the person or people who put you there. They need you on that pedestal; they want you on that pedestal! Why, because they are there! They've put you there for company! Their company! Up on the pedestal with THEM! One happy family. One big party! And it is even easier to knock you off it than it was to get you up there in the first place! You can be replaced! So: beware the pedestal!

You can learn these lessons from parents, family, friends and the workplace. As an artist you can learn this lesson a thousand times, and you can still take the bait in the bat of an eye. We want to be loved, and getting love for our work is almost better. Of course, pedestals are for ideals, and as soon as it is discovered that we are just human: whoops!

Still, it is hard not to go there. Then, of course, on the flip side is how we handle those we've put on our pedestals. No doubt they suffer the same awful fate when they don't conform, or we feel betrayed by their fallibility. Sayonara! The past couple of years we have watched this play out on the political stage. Whatever I may think of Bush, I don't understand all of these people who voted for him, and who have now thrown him under the bus! But there you have it. 

Obama is very careful about being on our pedestal. All of us would have jumped a long time ago. With him it seems that the more he shuns the pedestal the higher we put him, and again, there you have it.

Artists have a similarly tricky situation. It is hard for them to succeed without accepting the pedestal. It is part of the landscape. Many artists have tried to have it both ways. Richard Tuttle comes to mind, and long ago he counseled me to never confuse the two(the work and the pedestal), even as I watched him dancing up there on occasion(do as I do, not...). Staying real, staying down on the ground, well, the only people telling you that often seem more like people who are just envious or jealous of your apparent good fortune instead of people who actually have your best interests at heart.

Picasso tried to have it both ways. He even said something about living like a poor person with money(instead of letting money make you a rich person). He may well have succeeded. Too many of us would jump on that bus so fast that the world would spin out of orbit in our wake.

Richard Tuttle was also smart enough to know that being on someone else's pedestal was just an expression of their narcissism. That it was about them and their needs, hardly about him; and he wasn't about to accept that bargain. He mentored me because I needed it, not because he wanted to be my mentor. And of course he paid too high a price; as "no good deed goes unpunished!" The only mistake he actually made was thinking that I might have been smart enough to get it. I wasn't. At that point I was still not wise in the way of pedestals. Now I just hide from them like a man who can't swim and moved to the desert. Eventually I will drown!

But there you have it.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Meet Challenges; Have Life

There is the fork in the road. We never have much more than a split second to make the right turn, the right decision. Similarly there is that point where we are faced not with a decision, but a challenge. It is that point where we are literally facing a hurdle, where we can charge forward and jump as hard and high as we can in order to clear it, or we can balk, and stare at it and go back.We can run away!  It is the four point turnaround in basketball. It is the difference between living and dying!

I can't pretend I haven't balked at my fair share of hurdles, but this much I understand: we are our challenges. Yes, you could even say, we are our problems. If we take them on we have a life. If we run, then we are always on our heels. Owning our problems can mean owning our lives. The well kept secret is that when we can say "It's my problem," we've already made it manageable; we've already started to take it on.

Artists get to understand this in a fluid way. It is part of the process. Making something, anything, at some point presents challenges. Not meeting those challenges means the process breaks down, stalls, comes to a halt. The challenge is not just part of the process, it is what makes us who we are and what we will become. Artists instinctively understand that not only is a challenge our friend, it is the one friend we have, and have to have. Without a challenge we are nothing. It is amazing what kind of challenges artists create for themselves sometimes. It confounds other people. "Why would you do that," they ask.  Not much different from someone setting off to climb a high and dangerous peak. What's that all about?

By accepting, even embracing challenges, artists own their lives. It makes them strong. It makes them free. It makes them alive! What could be more valuable?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Surrendering to the Sublime; Part One

Joan Snyder; Seed Catchers, 2007, Oil, acrylic,
berries, paper mache, burlap on canvas, 36 x 48"

There is this place. It is as light or as dark as you make it. Call it the glass filled half way. Always filled half way. That is the point. Call it half full, half empty. Your choice. You can look for the light until you're blue in the face. You can measure forever to see if the glass is half full or half empty. Won't make any difference. I heard this Rabbi tell a story on television to illustrate a point: when a boy called up to God and asked why God wasn't taking care of all the terrible things in the world, God said that he had, he said: "I sent you." There is this place. Welcome to the inner life.

This is a rich place. This interior space; it is at once the spiritual, emotional, intellectual/mental, intuitive, psychological domain of the self and of all selves; the shared self. The soul. Everyone has one. It is the place that the outer world speaks to, if we let it, if we listen. We probably aren't listening enough. This is the place that among so many things, art speaks to.  Some artists look to and at this place, and what they do in response is what their art becomes. Some artists live in this place. Some artists seek it.  Joan Snyder seems to go back and forth. 

I've admired her paintings for about twenty years now, and sometimes the relationship, my relationship to her work, takes different turns. I felt the same way about the work of her friend, Porfirio DiDonna. This is to be expected. I feel it in myself, in my own work. I see the journey. I see the ups and downs. The inner life(inner light) is not the same as the sublime. All inner life is not sublime and all that is sublime is not inner life. Where they intersect, however, they are one. Where they intersect, they are inner LIGHT!

I'm just not sure that the inner life is something you seek. I could be wrong.  If you do you become a seeker, it is like the premise of the law of attraction; you just get a lot of seeking. I believe that the inner life, the sublime, is something that is always there. We don't need to seek it, or talk about seeking it; we just need to stop fighting, to stop being afraid, to just be, to just surrender. When people say that they are looking for "peace," we understand what this means; that there is no peace. 

These new paintings by Joan Snyder strike me, literally, as mostly about seeking and less about the other thing. But the show at the Nielsen Gallery in Boston is entitled "and seeking the sublime." It gives me no pleasure to say this, quite the contrary.  There is no way in my mind, however, that anyone could lie about this. Ignore this. It is so painfully obvious. The paintings rub our noses in something else; and that stuff we smell is her pain. Welcome to Joan Snyder's garden, an essentially dark and savage beauty filled with anger and sadness. Suffice it to say that these are not her "pretty(a term Resnick threw at me to dismiss his paintings from the Fifties--clearly he didn't think the inner life was a pretty place, and he killed himself to prove it)" paintings. But maybe she didn't name the show. Maybe she let the gallery or whoever wrote the catalog make their pitch.

Ordinarily I would refuse to say anything. Whatever Snyder's struggles are, they are hers, and she is entitled to them. Bless her for them. That is understood. I would never argue with her paintings, or her pain. She has my complete sympathy and understanding. 

What I can argue about is this bit of spin. Seeking the sublime. Reminds me of the idea of trying. If someone says: I tried to save so and so. What that tells us is that they didn't save so and so. That they failed. And that is what they should have said. Don't try to score points by talking about trying. In the words of the moment: don't put "lipstick on a pig."

Seeking the sublime. How about "struggling" with the sublime. What this tells us is that she hasn't found it, and we won't either when we turn to her new paintings. What we will find instead is gaping wounds. Lots of them. The show would have been more aptly titled Gaping Wounds(My Stigmata by I. M. Bleiding?). Then we would know what we were in for. We could decide if we were up for that. We could decide not to go. We wouldn't be tricked into thinking that we would be in for THE SUBLIME. I have to add that I am now one of those recovering Catholics who finds the image of the Crucifix macabre, so that could be where we part ways. Sorry. More drawn to the Mother Mary. I think Bernini had it right with St Theresa.

I don't need to go to see Joan Snyder's work to find the sublime. I have some works of hers in my home, and I find them plenty sublime enough for me. I own my own responsibility anyway where the sublime is concerned. So I will look at these paintings in greater depth. I will feel their pain, the depth of their pain, and her pain. I will let them be. I will surrender to them. If going through the pain... ok, ok... so be it. That is the inner life. And that just might actually be sublime.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Experience Versus Theoretical Knowledge

A few months ago someone who worked for the Obama campaign pointed out in answer to a query on foreign policy that the candidate had taken a course on the very subject in college. The interviewer laughed, and rightly so. The interviewee was offended. Life is strange.

I laughed too, of course, because my immediate thought was that maybe the person who taught the class might be more qualified to run for office. Then of course the little voice in my head said: those who can't do, teach, and then I was back where I started.

Experience does matter. I come from that school. The Jimi Hendrix are-you-experienced school. Experience is everything!

But wait, there's more. Apparently dyslexia is a "condition" that separates those who are more comfortable with hands-on(read: true life experience) with those who prefer the theoretical(read: fantasy). And the theoreticians want to call the shots!

After reading about dyslexia it turns out I'm their poster child, and, apparently so is George Bush. What is comforting, and not surprising, is that dyslexia experts and specialists disagree, violently. Gee, didn't see that coming.

Not entirely unrelated is the whole concept of reading. My wife is a very fast reader. I'm not. She was instructed in reading. I was not. They told her that speed was everything. They told her to just keep reading even when she didn't understand what she read. She was taught to read down the center of the page, every fourth word, that kind of stuff. Who are these people? If I don't understand something I don't move on until I get it. I will read something over and over until it sinks in. I don't care if it is poetry, philosophy, or instructions for operating a band saw. I read for content, comprehension, and results! I've always been fascinated by how my wife has nothing to say about the four hundred page novel she just ripped through. If I only read the first page of a book I can tell you about it. But apparently I'm dyslexic.

I love how everything is a condition. Apparently we're not just different. Apparently there is an ideal, a perfect model, and the rest of us are deviants. Sounds vaguely familiar, doesn't it? Hitler! I always love it when you find out that these perfect models were the real deviants: males judges wearing women's underwear under their fancy robes. It was like the dysfunctional craze; turned out we were all dysfunctional.

Apparently art is the big tent for everyone that doesn't fit it. Welcome on board! Crazy isn't it(we're going crazy; want to come along)? John Lennon sang about it. Herbert Read wrote about it. Carl Jung even made it seem normal. Then again, it's all a Catch 22, no? Hobson's Choice, or Morton's Fork. We're either psychotic or normal-neurotic. One kind of dilemma or another. Take your pick.

So who do you want? Who do you want to be? Do you want to have taken a course in flying a plane, or have actually flown a plane? Do you want the pilot to be someone who took a course or someone who has actually flown? Choose wisely. Do you want to learn about love and sex from someone who read a book, or someone who actually has been in love and had sex. Do you want to learn about sex from nuns?

I talked to an artist not long ago who was doing an exhibition about the war in Iraq.I can't remember his name. Harvard and Yale ties I think, which should apparently be enough. I said, oh, wow, have you been over there? He said no. He didn't think that that was important. I wondered aloud what he possible had to offer on the subject. Needless to say I was not convinced. Sex from nuns. Who are these people?

PS I was inspired to write this in the heat of the primaries. Now I'm inspired to add something. Do I support Obama? Whole heartedly! 

So what changed? McCain is a pilot after all. He has some experience flying a plane(and being shot down!). What about Obama? Well, Obama is my vote. Just one vote. We all get one. You have yours. I believe that there are other questions where the pilot is concerned, and I have been forced to consider these. 

For starters, where is this pilot taking this plane? Not a bad question. How will he get us there? What kind of judgments will he make? How will he handle the inevitable surprises and challenges? Etc. Obama is exceptional, and I believe this. That makes him the exception that proves the rule. I don't think we can afford to ignore this. To not consider the exception is to ignore the opportunities that are put before us. To not consider the exception is to turn our backs on hope!

So in the end it isn't even who's flying the plane, but where it's going!  The experience thing is very reasonable, and I believe that; but sometimes we have to go beyond that. We have to go with a gut feeling. My gut feelings have served me very well, so I trust them. My gut tells me Obama will fly our plane where we need to go, have to go, but also to someplace new and positive-- someplace that will restore the potential that is ALL our lives! 

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Kiss

Life kisses us. It just happens. Think about it. Ok, maybe it also kicks us in the pants or teeth. But more importantly, no matter what, no matter what a jerk we are, life kisses us. Life kisses us, and to paraphrase Lauren Bacall, it's even better if we kiss back.

Kiss back. Not much going around since the perfect storm of this white house and the twin towers. People aren't kissing back, they are kicking back, but it is time for a change. Am I guilty of kicking back? Absolutely! I like the three strikes rule, but that's not turning the other cheek. I can't say it was ever easy even embracing the idea of turning the other cheek, but to actually do it? I get it now. Turning the other cheek is less an invitation as a preemptive forgiving.

Yes is the price of admission. An artist is just someone with a yes for making magic alchemically. And it isn't about the magic object but the magic experience, and we accept the object as a vessel for that. ALL the artist has to do is say yes and then, even harder, keep saying it. It doesn't matter what anyone else says. We know that, but it's still hard, like turning the other cheek.

Making art is kissing back. Not kicking back. Sometimes we are confused. Kiss back. Kiss back even when it feels like life isn't kissing. Just kiss for kiss sake!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

John Walker Painting Survey at Nielsen in Boston

Charred, ashes, a swath of detritus spread across miles and miles of a scorched earth, flotsam and jetsam littering a muddy shore, left behind by the tide or a storm, it doesn’t matter. The elephant in the room, the desperate inner child, the man on fire; these all come to mind standing in the glow or wake or shadow of John Walker’s always epic and often towering paintings. On the other hand we get the kind of chalky radiance of frescoed starlight, the closest thing to Giotto these eyes have seen in this world, in this place, in this muddy messed up twenty-first century where less and less is what it seems, where real, the real, is anathema and truth is a joke, scoffed at, ridiculed, kicked in the gutter. And for what?

That’s probably what John Walker would like to know. Can anyone tell him? Instead he’s getting hammered, a hammer the size of a wrecking ball, driving him into the ground, driving a shaft the size of a tree trunk down his throat, telling him that lies are truth and shit is fresh cream.

These many years, these many paintings, tell this story. The call of starlight; the promise of starlight. The shit/mud/magma/primordial ooze that we stand in as we look to the stars. The shit/mud/magma/primordial ooze of a species that cares only about outward things, about power and pretense and position and posturing and primacy and prestige. That pees on everything. He is holding up a mirror. He is holding up a lamp. A lighthouse on the distant shore. Yes, it is shit. Embrace the shit if it brings you closer to the earth. Lie down in it. Lie down in darkness. But look to the heavens. Look to our better selves. Look for salvation and light.

John Walker carries his paintings in his paintings along with everything else in his life. They are of course part of his story, part of his personal mythology, so why wouldn’t they be there. Bits of shapes, words, figures of sorts that reference the things that matter to him, scars from loss and from experience, like falling from a tree or being scorned by a loved one or being bitten by a snake; and wrinkles on our face, smiles or frowns, that we get from what life washes onto our shores or rains down on us. These are all there in the paintings; relics, touchstones, stains, souvenirs, heirlooms, mementos. All the things that shape his life.

There are also his beliefs, his dreams, his hopes, his heartbreaks. It is a kind of world according to John Walker. Not much different from what we get from every artist, really, but today we’re talking about him. Because he has been there, been around, from Birmingham to Melbourne and back again. Because he has been painting and hanging it out there and leaving his mark and defying the odds and getting up and getting knocked down and getting back up again and painting and painting and painting. And it is all in the paint; trapped in its amber, laid out on its mud flats, singing its song, for all who will listen whether we're listening or not!

The first time I saw one of his paintings was almost thirty years ago. Circa 1979. A painter friend of mine and I were looking through a gallery window. A closed gallery somewhere in downtown New York. This is what I remember. We were awed by his painting. We knew his work and he was already legend. The painting was one of the monument shape series. The sort of erect phallic obelisk in the landscape that looks like something broken, at once organic and geometric. It was a figure/ground of sorts. Figure in a landscape. He wasn’t the only person doing this at that time. Other painters come to mind. But it was almost like a sculptor’s painting. Strong, powerful, solid. And yet it was also abstract. Fiercely abstract. Fiercely ephemeral. Real bravado paint; juicy, sensuous, wet, flying. Constable/Turner meets Brancusi/Stonehenge. Again, landscape and figure--horizontal and vertical. Don Quixote's windmills (the later paintings invert the shape, now female, of rebirth and resurrection, pushing down instead of up, below the high horizon--Ahab's white whale, or the pass at Thermopylae).

Over the years he has found new reasons to paint, new memories, new shapes, new dreams, new landscapes, and his legend has grown as the mythology inside the work has grown. His oeuvre has always been intense. And intensely abstract in the way that we come to them. They just act abstract. Maybe skulls, lambs, words, horizons, but abstract. They are landscape but they are flat. They have light and depth but they seem to be much more about surface and texture. They are thick and heavy and dark even brooding but they shine. These are not qualities unique to the world of painting. These are not paradoxes unique to the world of painting. Spanish painting comes to mind. Goya, El Greco, Velasquez, even Picasso. They were not afraid of darkness and they used it to make light. So does Walker. If as Richard Tuttle once reminded me, black speaks about white, and despair speaks about hope, etc, and viceversa, then this is the ground we stand on with Walker. His sprawling scatological crusts of dark paint frame the light, his little crumbs of rainbow lead us down a crevasse.

Is there rage in these paintings? It causes tectonic shifts beneath their surface, and strikes out of nowhere like a mid-western tornado. Is there longing, and poetry, and a gentle hand? Surely. Like God or Shakespeare, Walker feels all things, and gives all things. Love is like the dew, it settles on the horse turd and the rose alike--Larry McMurtry once wrote something to that effect. In John Walker’s paintings the love also falls on both. We stand before his “frescoes,” his Giottos, we look up at them, like we watch Rembrandt’s side of beef, or Lear or Macbeth splayed before us on the stage:Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

We are happy to witness this in the paintings. It is his plight, and in the end it is our plight. Life is a dubious experiment, as Jung said. Can we find peace with this? Should we find peace with this? Or should we be trying to talk to the manager, or whoever’s in charge? After all, what the hell is going on? Right? I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore! Help us, Dante, help us Tom Cruise. What is this Divine Comedy? What is this existential joke/nightmare? John Walker serves up a slab of paint. It is as cathartic as Aeschylus and as searing as the deep blue sea. It rocks us. We walk away changed, and no matter whether he or anyone else knows it, we remember. Thank you, John Walker, and rock on!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Calling

My most recent entry mused about that call an artist hears and has to answer; why this of course becomes the artist's calling.  When I was a boy living in Rome, walking home down Via Margutta, I would turn into #48 and all was right with the world. It was the most beautiful and enchanting sight. I know people experience this, they turn into their driveway, come around a bend in the river, fly over a piece of mountain, and their heart lifts because they are home. This was my favorite home growing up. It wasn't about feeling safe or being back in my own space. Via Margutta was beautiful, and as a ten year old I felt it intensely. It is more responsible for me being an artist than almost anything else, and it is especially responsible for the artist and person I am.

I've joked about how Richard Tuttle gave me grief as a young man for my blind devotion to beauty, about how else could he have thought otherwise considering he grew up in New Jersey. Not fair, of course, because beauty is everywhere, but there is something about certain kinds of beauty that day in and day out cause you to wonder, to be enchanted. Some people are not easily enchanted, and they are proud of this, who knows why. They like to say that they are not easily impressed and they take comfort in some sort of sense of superiority that this gives them; they are picky. You have to feel for the picky ones, perhaps a question of imagination, or the law of attraction.

#48 was a simple doorway compared to #51 where they shot Roman Holiday ten years before, (one scene right under our window as a matter of fact); but everyone agreed #48 was a vision when you looked inside. Stone steps led up a long stairway framed by dusty carmen pink walls, plants, flowers, and vines and sculpture to an archway which supported the stairs to our apartment on the top floor. Through the archway one could see the tops of the pines of the Pincio, and the sky. It was as magical as a dream. Our apartment had three floors and a terrace on the roof that looked out over every hill and dome of the golden city, the top of the Spanish Steps to one side, the twin cupolas of the Piazza del Popolo on the other, etc., etc., etc.

That doorway is always with me. It is part of what art is to me, and what calls me. Of course anytime we talk about art, it is always from where we are standing, like looking at a building or a flower, we can describe what we see from that perspective at that moment. The rest is from memory. Memories of doorways.

One of the strangest questions I am sometimes asked is how long does it take to make a painting. As long as it takes, of course. We're not talking about boiling an egg after all. But the questions persist. How do you know when a painting is finished? Now that is an interesting question, because of course even the artist wants to know that one. The answer might be the same as for the first: that it depends.

It depends on what the artist is up to. You could say that a painting is finished when it purrs. Like a car when you start its engine. When a painting is somehow complete it will purr and you will hear it purr, that's how you'll know. But that is not enough for some artists. Purring is just the beginning for them. 

As a parent you bring a child into this world and at first you are thrilled that they are alive and well. It's huge, but it is just the beginning of course. Soon you have help them to eat and stand and walk and swim and catch a ball and read and so on and so on. Maybe it ends, maybe it doesn't. But when you've achieved one of these milestones at a child's side, because surely you share in their triumph, you think for a split second, well, I've done my job, there...but it passes quickly and you are on to the next challenge so fast you can barely catch your breath. It keeps you going, it keeps you climbing to the next level. 

Painting is the same. Maybe a painting seems finished because you have brought it to life. Maybe you want that painting to just be happy. Maybe you want that painting to go far. Maybe you want that painting to make you proud. These differences will factor into how long a painting takes and when it is done. Parents are different and so are painters. Some are cats and let their babies fend for themselves; other breeds never let their offspring leave home.

Where I fit in between these two is a concern. Recently an art dealer who wants to help me, and I've definitely alienated a few of them along this line, suggested I let her rent my paintings to companies that need something on their walls. She chided me for mourning a painting I had just sold. She asked me if I was nuts. They are not your children, she said. Here was my reply:

I'm sorry this is so hard for you to get about me. Imagine if you were a painter, and everyday that you painted you were surrounded by the family you loved, that each painting was painted in their presence, and was fed by your life with them, well, that would be me. I am not a greenhouse painter. I am not a corporate painter. I don't go to a studio, like an office, and punch the clock. I paint where I live and I live where I paint. If this is nuts, then I am nutty. I can't imagine doing it any other way if I can help it, and I feel very fortunate to be able to do this. Maybe a dozen years from now when they are all grown up and I am not so fortunate, maybe I'll be there, but I don't think so. There is nothing in this other thing; this painting like a businessman. I grew up in Europe and was influenced by a non-commercial art world. I remember how my European friends used to complain to me when I lived in New York. How commercial the art world was. I ignored both. 

My paintings mean something to me,J. I wouldn't do them if they didn't. I'm not knocking them out, especially these days. Each one is a place on a journey I try to make count every second. I put learning very high on my list. Learning and growing. Each painting is as much about where I'm going as where I am, and where I've been, but MOST of all, they are about where I am at that very second, which is why they are always changing. If they don't change, then I need to be afraid. It means I'm not learning or growing. It means I'm not alive. It means I'm not paying attention, to the world or myself. Maybe this will help. I spend a lot more time with each painting these days because I can. Not so much about time spent working, as time spent paying attention. I'm really happy about that.

No word. I've never made any secret of the fact that I'm sentimental. A good thing in my mind despite how it plays out in the world. I'm sentimental up front and no one has to like that.  It is who I am, as a person and a painter. Doesn't make for good corporate art, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm still in that stairway in Rome, and my paintings are finished when they take me to the top.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Making Something of Something

I was talking to my friend, Ulick Mahoney, at his extensive exhibition of paintings at UMASS Boston's Harbor Gallery yesterday, and one of the things he said to me was that he only felt good when he was working/painting. He may not have said it exactly like that, but that is what he in effect said. I understood.

Artists need to do what they do, to paint, or write, or compose music; to realize something about themselves and the world in some external way. People who aren't artists don't need to do this. They're fine. Artists do what they do because they have to. If they don't, they don't feel like themselves.

I was just explaining this to someone who wanted to be an artist but never got around to it. Artists, real artists, don't work that way. They can't help it. Calling them driven is wide of the mark. They have to make something to feel ok, to fill some need in themselves, to fill a hole, and it isn't about just accomplishing something either. It is about making something that connects them, grounds them, COMPLETES them. Artists are artists to complete themselves. Other people feel relatively complete already.

Which brings up another way of looking at it. Artists DO NOT understand how other people can't, don't, won't make art. They don't understand how other people can function, be happy, feel complete without making art. Artists would go crazy if they couldn't make art. Should I say crazy-er? This is what makes artists seem so arrogant to other people. It makes them seem like they know something other people don't know. It makes them act like other people have missed the boat. 

Again, they can't help it. It our world of therapy, yes, we probably wouldn't have such a thing as art if everyone was NORMAL. Like Woody Allen once explained in a joke at the end of I think Annie Hall: this guy would commit his brother who thought he was a chicken but, he explained, he needed the eggs.

Ulick's show was pretty amazing. A primordial sea of color and paint and marks and shapes. A tribute to how he has completed himself through his work. He confessed that he spends every nickel he has on canvas and paint, that he scours the art stores for deals, that he is convinced he has somehow saved money when he buys a lot of supplies on sale.

Sitting there in the gallery surrounded by his paintings he is awash in their glow; he is himself. Not as much himself as he would be if he were in his studio painting, but not bad; he gets a kind of closure, a sense of summation, a chance to take it all in and see how it adds up and maybe where it might be going. 

Ulick paints with a fierce fusion of mark and marklessness. Collectively they take off, get lift off, they become almost something like a trip to a planetarium. The installation reinforces this experience of the work. Together they do more of what they already do individually. I would have to say that they indeed "add up."

So what is it about making something, making art, that completes the artist? It is more than connecting the dots, connecting with the world. One could do that in one's mind. No need to make it physical, no need to realize those connections in a concrete way.

So what is it about the physical nature of making something that to an artist is like adding an arm or a leg that everyone else already has? This completion is about something more like the way a dog marks where he has been. That was what what so interesting about graffiti art; it did that in such a direct way: Kilroy was here. Like planting a flag on the moon.

When you look at Ulick's paintings you get a sense of that. He is not just going into space, he is working it, like the sculptor he once was, and then he is leaving a record of having been there, having experienced it, but he is also leaving a record that he WAS there. That makes him feel good, feel ok with himself. He needs that for himself. Other people don't. Other people might need other things. This is what gives the artist a sense of power, of meaning, of property, even. Of security even. They have made something. It makes them feel real, worthwhile, maybe even lasting. These are their children. This is their line. It will keep them alive. It will make sense of what they were. It will prove that they were here.