Revisiting the Past

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Untitled

Have you ever wished that you could go back to a particular moment and make changes? I’d still like to alter the outcome of a confrontation with an eighth grade teacher, a nun who grimly asserted that my soul’s destination was hell. I have more resources now, better counterarguments. I wish that I could take back a change up I threw that same year. The batter expected the pitch, cranked his bat, and hit a walk-off home run. If only I could return to the mound and throw a fastball up and in. Also wish I hadn’t engaged in quite a few pointless arguments with my wife. I understand, now, finally, that many disagreements meant nothing in the long run.

I’m not sure whether things would improve if I could interfere with my past, however. Unexpected consequences multiply in most time travel stories. Change one crucial decision, and a life suffers radical transformations.

I’ve recently come down with an older artist’s malady: the need to revise paintings once considered finished. I used to let flawed paintings go seeing them as stepping stones to better work. A growing accumulation of stepping stones fills up two racks in my studio, however. I’ve begun to paint over the weakest and to revise near misses. Why make new pieces when old ones still cry out for help?

Albert Pinkham Ryder, an American painter active in the late 19th and early 20th century, reworked his paintings obsessively near the end of his career. He stopped his beginnings and relentlessly edited the past. But Albert used suspect materials and improper techniques. He worked in numerous thick layers, and paid no attention to how well a prior layer had dried before applying varnish and fresh paint. His canvases began to grow lumps,, cracks, blots and fuzzy patches soon after he died. The current state of his work barely resembles photos taken in 1920. As years go on, his oeuvre self-erases.

Perhaps the trick lies in knowing when to swim with the tide and when to fight the current. Sometimes it’s best to flow forward with time. Sometimes reparations for past mistakes must be offered. My standard is to try to make things better when I can, and to let the irrecoverable go.

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Macbeth and the Witches

Summit

(Summit, Oil/Canvas, 30×40″)

Two leaders meet to resolve conflicts, personal and international. They stare solemnly into each other’s eyes as they shake hands. Intertwined flags representing the pride and ideals of two nations serve as their backdrop. The flags remind the powerful men that deliberations carry weight, that the negotiators-in-chief must pay the price of power by shouldering the heavy burdens of office.

The two retire to a super secret conference room with their translators and lawyers. The meeting stretches long into the night, and the only word coming out of the palace is that lackeys served refreshments after the fifth hour passed.

The world waits breathlessly for word of the results of their intense negotiations. What will they say? What new policies have been chosen? How will their decisions affect the lives of millions?

The curtains part. Two middle-aged men solemnly tread a burgundy carpet toward twin lecterns. The first man taps his mike, leans forward and says, “Beer is good.” The other nods and adds, “We like beer.”

Reporters erupt with questions: what kind of beer? do you favor lagers over stouts? how do you explain the unfathomable popularity of IPAs? will there be an agreement for tariff-free beer exchange between countries? is this the budding moment of a suds-détente?

One leader waves his hands to quiet the crowd. The other leans toward the mike during a lull in the shouting, smiles sadly and says, “We like beer.”

Pounce

Pounce, Oil on Canvas, 20×16″

Miyoko Ito, an abstract surrealist painter from Chicago, stated that she tried to think about nothing while she worked. “Nothing” can be hard to achieve when acting purposefully, but Miyoko may have meant something different. When a painter’s fully absorbed, thoughts become nonverbal. Solutions and possibilities seem to arise from the paint. Things happen on their own. The artist just aids and abets.

Kachina, Oil by Miyoko Ito

Jazz musicians who have played together for a long time speak about telepathic communication. The bass player knows where the drummer plans to take the rhythm. The piano player sets up a riff for the sax. Connections and internal commentary rise up as the notes pass by..

I’m beginning to make art more spontaneously. I’ve begun to court nonverbal moments, to paint before I think too much. The last few drawings and paintings began with random marks. One color flowed into another. Shapes appeared. Readable images eventually emerged.

This isn’t a breakthrough. My practice has slowly evolved over 30 plus years to reach this point. When I started out, I nearly panicked every time I picked up a brush. I worried about messing up half finished paintings and had difficulty finding much joy in work. Now that I’ve finally made enough paintings to no longer sweat outcomes, I look forward to the successes and failures experienced every time I decide to push paint.

And the process of finding images in the act of painting comes from the Dadaists circa 1917. The Surrealists ripped off the idea and made their technicolor nightmares. The Abstract Expressionists ripped off the Surrealists but didn’t bother to make readable images. Brushwork, for De Kooning and his crew, lead to more brushwork.

“Pounce” started out as blobs of yellow, red, green and blue and became a Disney animation gone wrong. The tiger-ish cat looks like he enjoys the hunt, and the antelope knows that his life is about to end badly.

I’m not sure where this came from or even what it means. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t really care. Thank God.

Climb the Stairs

Climb the Stairs, oil/canvas, 4×2′

I’m nearly done working on a painting called, “Climb the Stairs”. An unpleasant event inspired the layered images. As I glaze, scumble and brush toward completion, uninvited emotions come up from behind, tap me on the shoulder and say “hi”. Pain and anxiety intrude most frequently. Anger, associated bad memories and bitterness pile on and compound my difficulties.

I thought that working through this subject would serve as an exorcism, that the sting would diminish as I came to terms with my history. I realize now that this memory is a channel to more trouble. I’ve also concluded that there’s not much chance of off-loading. This negative crud has been hard-wired into the core.

But better things have come to me over the years. They’ve too have made indelible impressions. I’ve had a fortunate life for the most part and am grateful. Perhaps I’ll focus on good memories in subsequent paintings. The ugliness will always be there, but I don’t have to encourage it to take over. It’s only one small part of the picture.

Homecoming

Perhaps I’ll find balance one day and come to a peaceful reconciliation with my life in its entirety. But the next painting will have to have at least one puppy. And some butterflies. Can’t rule out flowers.

Abstraction: Poetic Interpretations of Memory

 

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Here’s a slide show of recent paintings and a drawing. These were made this year and represent a huge departure from my narrative painting series. Abstraction allows me to make poetic interpretations of emotions and experiences, and the process is more absorbing and satisfying than working realistically.

Technique: I’ve been layering images associated with specific events. Memories of a weekend vacation, a quilt on a bed, bass fishing with my father, recovering from surgery, dealing with a friendship gone bad, and an adolescent dream are the sources. I let the colors and shapes develop into rhythmic patterns and create contrasts between flat shapes and volumetric forms.

I intentionally leave hints of the original subject matter. I’ve never been a purist, never wanted to edit compositions into pristine arrangements of a few precious forms. I’d prefer, if I had the cash, to own abstract work by Paul Klee, Stuart Davis, Georges Braque, Arshille Gorky, Patrick Henry Bruce, August Macke, and Marsden Hartley. (They  included autobiographical images, symbols and references to nature in their compositions.)  I’d pass up the pure abstraction, minimalist, and conceptual artwork of Brice Marden, Robert Mangold, Robert Ryman, and Ellsworth Kelly.  (They boiled things down to sterile nothingness.)

 

 

 

What Painters Think About

Folks have asked me what I think about while I’m working on a painting.  If it’s a funny or sarcastic project, they assume that I’m cackling nonstop as I mix colors and apply brushstrokes.  Some seem unaware that canvases can take hundreds of hours to complete, and that no one maintains the same mental state longer than a few seconds.

A children’s counselor once told me that artists are insane while they make their art.  I failed to convince her that I’m lucid while working, and that no one (Van Gogh included) could make a painting work if he or she didn’t make thousands of clear-headed decisions.  I also told the counselor that she might be mistaking the nonverbal thought patterns that arise in painters’ minds for signs of insanity.  The inner monologue sometimes falls away as we work.  Instinct and feeling take over…Time seems to disappear, and painting becomes more like prayer or meditation.

Below is a recreation of my thoughts while painting.  It’s not a transcription, of course, but may give readers an inkling of what I think about before I hit the sweet spot of inner silence.

 

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Mexican Bull (oil/canvas)

Maybe I can finish this today.  No, can’t work too long.  Got to get groceries and pay some bills.  That color’s garish…No wait–It’s better than what I wanted…What the hell was that?  Sounded like a five hundred pound squirrel landed on the roof…maybe a magnolia pod.  Did I dream about that chewing sound in the attic last night, or have the rats returned?

 

DSC_0298 (2)Quilt (oil/canvas, 2018)

Oh crap.  This looks like Paul Klee.  Who am I ripping off besides him?  Hello Kandinsky.  Hello Max Beckman.  Steal from the best, leave the rest…Jesus, the left side looks like a greeting card.  Got to mess that up.  I’ll sour those colors and add a black line…Better, but still too pretty.  Might as well add bunnies and flowers.  Picasso said you have to destroy something if it looks too good too early in a painting…Asshole…I wonder if artists have to be assholes to become famous?  I’m an asshole…When will my ship come in?

A truck drives by with a dog hanging half way out the window.  It barks at regular intervals as it progresses down the street, and the noise fades and shifts key as it moves farther away.

Doppler Dog strikes again…I wonder if we should get a dog.  No time right now to take care of a dog…Hmm…that passage looks like a dog’s tail…Or is that a toe?  Meh.  It’s a blob of paint.  Ugly blob…Scrape it off…My shoulder hurts.  There goes the knee.  Is it hot in here?  Maybe I should get up and turn on the fan, stretch, but first…Well that looks better, but now I have to change five things to compensate…Patience, man, patience.

 

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Lake Louisa (oil on canvas)

Helen thinks that I’m a nut job, and that Friday student thinks I’m Donald Trump’s twin…”Who am I anyway?  Am I just my resume’?”   What was that song I heard yesterday…I’ve heard it before…Don’t have the cd, but the singer’s name is…Senility strikes again…I’ll think of it later, but her last name started with a P.  Penn…Penwright…Peyroux?  

I get up to look at what I’ve done, move that painting off the easel and stand it against a wall.

Did I just make everything worse?  Man, the middle needs a highlight, and those colors on the right look too mucky now.  When did I begin to lose all my talent…what little there is…Oh, come on now…it always looks bad half way through…maybe if I pop that red, palette knife a little white, glaze a purple over that mess and…

Judy knocks on the door to the studio and invites me to join her on a walk.  We head up Chilean Drive and talk about an upcoming visit from our daughter, the folks who used to live in the house at the corner, and the north wind that’s bringing another cold front.

When I get back my mind is clearer, and I look at the painting with fresh eyes.

It almost looks done!  When did that happen?  Time to spray for elves…Now I’ll just accent that scrabbly field of yellow, twist a red line along that edge…Might be done…Should I sign it?  I hate signing a painting…You get close and a signature screws everything up…An act of hubris and the gods of painting smite me…Can’t think of anything more to do on this one, and it’s good enough…for now…Ah, the familiar feeling of partial defeat…But that other painting in the corner is calling me…Maybe that one’ll turn out better…Wait a minute!  I can fix this one if I…maybe…That’s better…hmmm…

(Silence.)

 

Happy Paintings for Well-Adjusted People

I’m due to give a power point presentation at an opening for a show at Daytona State College on March 29th.  I’m going to try to explain the history of some of my work, the influences, etc.  Here’s a cut down version of what I have so far.

My grandfather told stories about his boyhood in Dayton, Ohio, how he saw the Wright brothers flying their airplanes over the church steeples and department stores, how he got a job mucking out shops downtown after the 1913 flood inundated half the city. His baby sister, my great aunt Margaret told jokes, as did my great uncle Norby. They were at their best at funerals. If anyone looked a bit too glum, they’d make a quip and lighten the mood. So, I grew up on stories and jokes.

When I got to grad school, my professors expected serious artists to do three things: paint big; use thick paint; make it ugly. Bigness, thickness, and ugliness were signs of a desperate need to communicate the raw essence of one’s soul. At the time I painted small and thin, but my still life objects were ugly enough to earn me a partial pass. I began to paint still lives that were little tableaus. I arranged figurines, toys, posters into set ups that told odd tales.

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Penelope, Oil/Canvas, 1989

Years later, I grew desperately tired of painting still lives and began a series of narrative paintings with figures and interiors created from memory and imagination. Stanley Spencer, Balthus, and Philip Evergood were sources of inspiration. I painted stories about everyday life and my personal history. “Every Day” is a portrayal of the rituals of married life, of intimacy that eventually becomes mundane.

Picture 004

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Every Day, Oil/Canvas, 2000

I took up another subject: blue collar life. Third Shift is the story of a man who comes home early in the morning from work. His wife’s schedule opposes his. All he wants to do is to collapse, but she has other things in mind. The Night Factory is a bit of working class surreality. The men and women build things even in their dreams.

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Third Shift (top), The Night Factory (bottom).

I began to think about combining words and images to tell jokes and farces.

The main sources for the paintings in the show are 19th century portraits and illustrations. I’m drawn to the stiff formality of the former, and the exaggerated drama and sentimentality of the latter. I enjoy undercutting them by making ironic juxtapositions and hinting at unfortunate back stories. Paintings by Magritte and collages by Max Ernst and Hannah Hoch are lurking in the back of my mind when I work on these pieces.

 

Top left:  Hannah Hoch.  Bottom left:  Rene Magritte’s Premonition.                                           Right:  Max Ernst collage.

Sometimes the words are at war with the image (what does it all mean anyway?). Sometimes the joke is on me when I devote long hours to craft an image that is nothing more than a punch line for a stupid joke based on a pun…all that effort and technical knowledge to create something pointless and silly…Sometimes I create open-ended narratives. I like to short circuit a story by using vague texts that hint at multiple plots. My fables are open-ended, and outcomes are only suggested. The picture becomes something more than an illustration if the meaning isn’t fixed.

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Inseparable, Acrylic on Board and Canvas, 2018