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. I see my work in a formalist tradition, meaning its subject is giving contemporary people an image that is created without reference to a natural thing or place, and an experience that’s grounded in their sense of sight and contemplation through the same of the work in front of them.

Each  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 is, for me, like automatism, the “action painting” part of my process. Using geometric shapes- cubes- as “action painting” tools, rather than “traditional,” gestural marks, underscores that the artist’s prerogative and specifically choices- moving through the creation process as a series of reactions to what transpired directly before- is part of the subject of this work.

All of the compositions (for my paintings at least) start with a single isometric cube, and then develop “outward” from there, whether I start them directly on the canvas, on paper or using an overhead transparency projector. The three “sided” isometric cubes imply dimensional space of course, and I do see these works as “places”- at least, implied spaces. I also recognize the cubes are and have surfaces and I do, intentionally subvert this structure by the use of color, tone and line- again, getting “lost” in the space of making a decision and then painting my way “out of” the situation holds a fascination for me that has no other solution but to continue making work.

I don’t actively try to compartmentalize illustrating and painting techniques. I also sometimes use painter’s tape or a mahl stick, but not out of a desire to be “fussy” about the work. In other words, I don’t utilize geometry to imply order or discipline.

 

I would be thrilled if someone said “I feel like, aesthetically, this work lives in some place “between” early modernism and the graphical elements that comprise imagery of the early computer age.” The wire-framed, isometric (or literal) cube is foundational to both and is literally a foundation in this work.

 

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. It is not lost on me at all that their epoch gave rise to the modalities to which I’m drawn. 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 are cultural signifiers.

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 “making the work I want to see in the world” is not some clever metaphor about society.

Related to power- it is hard to overstate the influence that the group of artists known as Abstract Expressionists had on me during my formative years as a painter. They were not without shortcomings as individuals though, specifically their exclusion of some great women painters who were eventually recognized as part of the canon, with no thanks to most of their male counterparts. While my motivations and inclinations about painting are much different than they were when I made my first abstract painting in 1992, the full historical context of the Abstract Expressionists’ work should never be ignored.

This period of American painting was/is also a pivotal contribution to the idea of a master narrative in Western painting. 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 “just” painting.

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. History decides what is art, not artists- our only job is to create. Also- *I, personally, think the installation work of Robert Irwin, not the painting and sculpture of Minimalists, is as close to an example of a “logical” evolution of formalist abstraction into “pure” visual experience for the viewer. Irwin made some good paintings, too, and I am so glad I got to see his retrospective at Hirshhorn.