Not that I’m especially unhappy with the art I’ve been creating lately, as compared with how much I’m unhappy with the art I used to make (with an exception I may not get into, but let’s just say Winter ’00 / ’01 was a unique period of creation for me), but that lately I’ve been feeling unhappy with all the art I make. Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out what’s been nagging me about it all.
I think I figured it out. I think Mandy helped me figure it out. ((ie: I blame her. I blame her for making me hate myself in a new way. For making me see just what’s wrong with me.)) How we got there:
Among other things, primarily I am an artist and I am an author. Every year in November, for the last seven Novembers, I have participated in National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo is pretty all-consuming, most years, so psychologically there’s an entire month where I’m not doing anything but writing and thinking about writing from day one to day thirty. Then in December, suddenly I’m not writing and all the pent-up everything else gets a chance to gush because (especially after such intense writing every day, all the time) I don’t even really want to be writing. In several years I’ve done more new paintings in the last two weeks of December and/or the first two weeks of January than the entire remainders of the years. I’d hoped to be able to continue that tradition this year, because I’d also been working on a novel from about July through October and hadn’t done much painting after September. I really wanted to get some new painting done. And then for the first 2-3 weeks of December I was editing and otherwise preparing for print two new books (the novel and the NaNoWriMo project, More Lost Memories), so I didn’t really have time for painting (or for the mental space to allow for it).
Over Christmas break (my wife is a high school English teacher, for those of you who don’t know her), I’d intended to try painting something with Mandy. This was part of my hope to be able to get some painting done. I’d be able to finally get back to painting (I have a couple of unfinished pieces from last Autumn staring at me all the time, right now), I’d be churning out new work on some of the dozens of new canvases I’d bought on Black Friday, and maybe Mandy and I could work together on one or two of them. Except that didn’t happen. I didn’t much paint over Christmas break. A couple of mini-paintings at the beginning of the month that didn’t sell at First Friday (well, not that month, which was what I’d made them for – they both sold at this month’s First Friday), and some godawful yellow thing. Then, in January, after she’d already started back at school again, I started painting something new. Mandy came home from school one day, saw me painting this, and reminded me I’d said we would paint together.
So that night I set aside my painting, set up the table and got out some materials and asked her to paint a background with the extra blue and green paint I had still-wet from the piece I was working on, while I cooked dinner. After dinner, when the background was dry, I asked her to pick a color and a shape (this is a method I’d used several times in the past to get paintings started when I didn’t have ideas, I’d call people up out of the blue and ask them for a color and a shape and just start from there. For this project to be collaborative, I’d fully intended, when I asked, to go back and forth with her, for me to paint whatever she suggested and then let her paint and then me and so on) and she picked orange and oval/egg-shaped. And I went and got orange paint and promptly remembered I was supposed to be heading out the door for a vendor meeting with the Roosevelt Row people, so I gave her a couple of brushes, the paint, and told her to paint her orange egg. I came home and immediately felt terrible.
My wife, who has no prior painting experience and no formal training, who insists she can’t draw and isn’t and artist and is terrible, had surpassed me on her first attempt. There were things about how she had painted it that I have been looking at in other people’s art for decades and wishing I knew how they did that. She’d actually gone through my paints and … well, her grasp of color and of how to use and mix paints to create the desired colors surpass most first-year art students I’ve met. Except she did it unconsciously. It wasn’t a master work, it probably wouldn’t have won any awards, but the moment I saw it, my heart dropped. Almost as much as it did when I saw his first 2 paintings. (Come to think of it, that’s around when I’d stopped painting much, last year…) I’ve been painting off and on my whole life, and increasingly over the last 12 years, and my wife’s first nothing of a painting crushed me.
I stared at it. I tried to talk her into telling me what else should be in the image. More insistently, I tried to talk her into painting whatever else should be there. I didn’t want to touch it. I didn’t know what to do with it. (That’s not entirely true – that first night, the only thing that occurred to me is pretty much what I did with it, but I pretty much don’t like it or think it’s a good idea.) I stared at it for hours. I stared at it for days. Day after day it stood there, in the living room, taunting me, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. Finally, finally, a week later, I set to work on it. It took me several hours, and I really feel it’s pretty much just derivative of the other painting (which I’d finished after another few days), and I’m not sure if it’s done. You can take a look at it. I’ve been looking at it for most of a week, trying to figure out what to do with it, whether it’s done, whether it needs anything, et cetera.
Tonight, staring at it frustratedly, feeling awful and wanting to go to bed and wanting to be painting or otherwise getting something done, I think I figured out the problem. I think I figured out what, about my art, has been making me so unhappy lately:
All my art is flat. As I said earlier on Plurk at the moment I figured it out: “It’s all flat. There’s no light. No depth. No space, just the plane. Not just 2D in medium, but in conception as well.” I thought about my art. I looked at the art in the room (about a dozen of my finished paintings are in my living room right now). I walked around the house looking at my art. I went to wretchedcreature.com and looked at the art I’ve since sold. All of it. Flat.
Sure, yes, most of it isn’t “figurative” as such. You could even go so far as to say that’s my “style” of artwork. But it doesn’t change the fact that the difference between what Mandy painted and what I painted is that it created the illusion of depth, of light interacting with something. Yes, something floating strangely in a color field without a shadow, fine, but have you seen what I paint? Even when I do something semi-figurative (EX: ‘audacity of hope’, ‘eat to fill the void’, ‘low moan, wide hat’, ‘darkness looming’), it’s completely two-dimensional. No light, no shadow, no depth, no weight. Just color. Just line. Just image; no thing. I paint nothing.
Lately a lot of my work has been consumed with words. With painting excessively stylized representations of words. Taking the lines of the letters, stretching them, distorting them, aligning and mis-aligning them, transforming the lines into borders and the borders into shapes and the shapes into maps of color. Geometric, sure, fine, and simple, yes. Not just the old ideas of ‘pussy___’ and ‘puppy___’ or the actually conceptually interesting ‘SEX&LOVE’, but something more pure (more purely simplistic) with pieces like ‘bleh’, ‘begin’, ‘cold’, ‘gaping’, ‘red joy’, and ‘big kiss’. I’m no Rothko. Yet somehow I’ve basically just been painting color fields.
I don’t know what I want to do. I don’t know what I want. I don’t know.
But I’m unhappy with this, right now.