I may not be a great painter now or ever but I will continue to paint because there is nothing like it on Earth
“How do you know when a painting is finished?” “When the viewer regards its mysteries.” Painters get that question thrown at them a lot. The public is intrigued by how one comes to think something is done that has no real attributable practical application. You build a house and know it is done when you can move in. A car is done when it is ready to be driven and so forth. But a painting? There are many answers to the question but the one that works for me is when a viewer has to grapple with what you have made. Art for me has always been a shared experience, it is probably why I began in the most collaborative medium theatre.
Painting however can be a very solitary and isolating thing to do. You can work for a year on a series of works with very few people seeing them or getting feedback. Exhibiting the work seems sudden although you have planned for it for months. It’s like a vortex; one day you’re are covered in paint, alone, staring at a square of colours and forms that are supposed to “be something” and the next you are in a room with the work on the walls and watching people wander around looking at them. Disorienting doesn’t begin to define the experience.
Then something amazing happens. Somebody says to you, “Your work reminds me of long car drives I used to take with my brother up north, he’s dead now. I loved those trips.” Your paintings are now something else, embedded into consciousness, a part of an ethereal aspect of existence and its many layers. They mean something to someone other than just you. You’ve added a drop into the ocean of feeling. You’ve connected.
The thing is, the paintings are never made with any reaction in mind. That seems impossible to achieve. Painting for a market, painting with a knowing reaction in mind, can make some work superficial because the expectation creates an end game and can kill the creative pulse. What is on my mind when I paint? Things like camping, loneliness, love, trees, snow, mole hills on my lawn, bonfires, weeds, turning leaves, clouds that keep changing all the time. How green is a colour that doesn’t seem remotely organic event though it is the main colour of the forests that I am surrounded by. Why sunsets actually look like wounds to me. How much better my work looks in daylight than in the studio. Why is it that the only songs I know by heart, word for word are Morrissey songs? How much I miss running, damn knees.
Lately I have been pouring over my Rauschenberg books. While I am uncertain as to how I feel about all his work, and that some of it seems extremely bogus, he sure could paint. After looking at Ace for hours it becomes an epic story of a landscape, with modernity forcing itself onto the ancient crust that is the surface of our Earth. I don’t think Rauschenberg ever left New York City once he moved there and so I have no reason to believe that he was ever even inspired by the natural world but this is what I SEE, what I EXPERIENCE. The sort of detritus aesthetic of his work seems like the world I live in; piles of wood, refuse, shacks, highways, gravel etc. But when he paints he transcends that and turns the work into something that seems part of the natural cycle.
Rauschenberg is part of my studio family, along with Rembrandt, Twombly, Breugel, Canadians John Brown, Clint Griffin and Tom Thompson, Cecily Brown, Turner and many others. I love all of them, and kind of like a religious person or someone who has children, I have immersed myself into a nurturing role and made it a responsibility to keep their extraordinary creativity part of a wider culture. They turn up in my art work, in my art statements, and usually in conversation because it is through these other brave painters I have come to understand that painting is remarkable and a gift to our human experience – it has helped make us us and continues to do so.
Rauschenberg image from Google images.
State of the Arts returns October 30th just in time for Halloween!