Thoughts about painting

I started painting because it was what I wanted to see in the world. I returned to painting around 2018, after a decade+ break, for the same reason.  Here we are, in this moment not unlike the Modernists (where the world is on the brink of major change and our old systems no longer serve us). As we build the future, what is worth bringing from the past?

I developed as an artist in the formalist tradition– the “subject” of the work and the objects that result exist for the viewers contemplation of and relationship to the visual qualities of the forms’ surfaces and chroma. This is why my work is always “titled” untitled- the thing which is viewed is not a sign for another thing.

The work that has occupied me over the last two years has primarily been painting and illustrations using a system of drawing based on connected, isometric cubes. (As one would expect, I think, from a formalist) this is the framework within which my practice operates. In addition to being a literal compositional strategy, there are conceptual reasons for this choice- the cube is foundational to nonrepresentational painting, and cubes/grids also informed the aesthetics of the earliest generation of computer animation, which informed me as a child.

istockphoto-902929330-170667aEach  painting is or at least has some records of what I was “thinking” for a moment in time. Really, it was intuition or “feel,” rather than a knowing, at least in an intellectual sense. I enjoy operating in this space, where the very next outcome is not entirely known. The journey of working through the composition for each piece- drawing one cube, then appending another, then another- is also, for me, like automatism, the “action painting” part of my process. I don’t actively try to compartmentalize illustrating and painting techniques either- I sometimes use painter’s tape or a mahl stick, but- again- not out of a desire to be “fussy” about the work.

Despite the possible implication of a desire for order from the use of geometric forms, I intentionally build in elements of my practice which require spontaneity and choice, which is another foundational element of art making for me. This spontaneity manifests as a visual element in my two-dimensional work as I generally make choices based on tone and color when painting the “surfaces” of the cubes in both systematic and random ways, resulting in a cascading set of contradictions around the implied light source from one cube to another.

As it relates to living inside a system of contradictions, I have personally found a dialectical approach to thinking about and relating to others to be centering. By “dialectical” I don’t mean to imply I’m a follower or illustrator of principles espoused by Hegel, Marx or even Danto (though “yes” this blog does owe it’s name to one of the latter’s works, and I certainly thought I was a Marxist for a period of time during my early years as an artist). I mean, in the language of behavioral therapy (which has been a part of my adult journey outside of my artistic practice), it is possible and in fact necessary to be capable, intellectually and emotionally, of arriving at the acceptance that two apparently contradictory conditions or ideas can simultaneously be true. My work process is not dissimilar- a “cube” that shares one “side” with another that appears to have a distinct perspective. While the work isn’t a sign or symbol for this idea, my worldview is reflected in the use of cubes to “contain” literal contradictions. And I do hope this visual device for engaging viewers engages our minds as well- looking does not need thinking to be substantiated, and encountering work is enriched by context.

We obviously can’t recreate the cultural moment of Modernism, although I can relate to the epoch and even many of the aspirations of the early Modernists- we do live in a time of rapid social and scientific change to which our immediately prior worldview is unsuited. I’m sure the viewer/reader will also note that while my reaction is to make an art, like them, that is devoid of representation of that world, this is a later historical moment and therefore there is an element of representation, in that the modalities I am wielding are, now, cultural signifiers of an earlier time.

In regards the first sentence in this post/essay: I believe we have to create the world we want (again, a sort of romantic, Modernist conception). If I want a world with abstract painting in it, I have to participate by making, talking about, sharing and seeing this type of cultural activity (also including teaching btw). There is a lot to unpack in that sentence, especially about power structures, since not all of us have the same socio-economic ability to self-actualize. Because I take those concerns seriously and it requires, and merits, directness, I find it worth noting that I am not “making the work I want to see in the world” as a metaphor about and outside of society.

The irony that the project of Modernism, and the very idea of a master narrative in fact, found it’s illogical conclusion as a result of this project is not lost on me. I feel fairly confident in writing/saying that it’s clear, with the distance of almost a century since the notion of the avant garde was introduced to discourse about the arts, that it is bologna. Don’t believe me- then ask yourself why jazz still happens as an art form. Though I am not a jazz consumer, at least in any dedicated or serious kind of way, jazz shares with abstraction a modality where form and content are the same. Music was transformed by all of the same notions as visual art in the last century (Elsworth Kelly is to painting as John Cage is to music, etc.). And yet- does anyone ever say “jazz is done?” Maybe- I’ll offer that anyone who does is boring and unserious though. People keep playing, and I plan to continue painting.

Besides (in regards some master narrative) I’ve always felt a bit pretentious placing myself in the historical context of Art with a capital “A”, and/or abstraction as a project. Like all serious post-modern artists, I take inspiration from where I see fit, whether that’s video games or a certain school of painting. Being serious doesn’t mean focusing on trying to carve out space in the canon for yourself, it means focusing on your work (again, quite Modernist, no?). History decides what is art, not artists- our only job is to create. Painting after art is dead is liberating!