Monday, February 19, 2007

Okay, that thread was getting too damn long

Pipe down, you guys, okay? Take your Gamblin war outside. I mean it. Life is too short.
First, an observation. The painting "Curtain" intrigued me, and I made it my desktop wallpaper for a while a couple of weeks ago. Although I certainly can see the curtain contained in the painting, with the yellow floor it resembled to me the edge of a forest, suspended in a dusk sky. It would take a long time to explain this, but certain cirrus cloud formations sometimes (to me) look like broad swaths of deserts with snowcapped peaks. It's merely a matter of perspective shifting, the orange sky is the sand, and the clouds are the mountains reflecting in the distance. It takes effort to see the sky in this way, but while I sound utterly insane it is possible to see this given the correct meteorological conditions and an open mind. Even with the removal of the orange floor (sky) it still looks like a fantastical yet spooky treeline, to me. I guess a lifetime spent looking at and traveling along treelines will do that to a man.
Actually, I intended the 'orange floor' to give you the feeling of light, just light, flowing up under and behind the curtain, blocked by the dark heavy line at the bottom, glowing through the top. So I guess it's not a complete failure, if you're getting 'sky' from it.

I look at treelines, too; in fact I have spent my life staring at all things organic, and growing things, and moving around with them as though I could get inside and become them, with the result that now any random mark I make tends to follow some sort of organic pattern, more or less. I'm still not hugely happy with the painting, but after slapping a 'brown-pink' glaze over the bottom yesterday, which somewhat intensifies the glow, I've come to the conclusion that it is what it is, and trying to make it something else will only make it worse. I'm glad you like it.
Ok, for the questions. I have driven past an art school once or twice in my life, and that is the sum of my training. That said, why is it necessary to use canvas, as opposed to other materials to paint on? I understand the material itself is resilient, but isn't it possible to paint on some other surface and achieve the results you want? Aside from black velvet Elvii (is there a plural for Elvis?) prominently displayed at the finer east Texas trucking establishments, I cannot recall anyone using alternate materials for the backing of their work. Is there a reason?
In the course of my career, I have painted on:
construction palettes
scraps fetched out of dumpsters
lids of tin cans
lauan (high-quality plywood veneer)
various other types of fabric, including silk, velvet and prints
walls of buildings
dead flowers

Each of these materials takes paint in entirely different ways; it's like a completely different activity, with a whole different set of results. Therefore, once you get good at something and like the results, it's difficult to switch to something else. Perhaps a major reason that most painters paint on canvas, then, is that we're creatures of habit, and basically lazy.

However, I can also tell you that burlap, muslin and bedsheets are for shit; they disintegrate within short order, and the burlap has too loose a weave to hold any detail at all. You have to prime them all, of course, but even under an acrylic primer that could survive nuclear war, they still rot.

Metal is good, except that the paint peels off it. Glass and plastic have the same problem. I know a few people who paint on aluminum.

Wood is great, except that it's heavy. I once made a piece on a construction palette that weighed about forty pounds; it was a nice piece, but schlepping it around was a real pain, and it was impossible to hang on a normal wall. It ended up being a sort of standing sculpture. You don't want your entire oeuvre to be like that; life is difficult enough.

Also, when you paint on a rigid surface like wood, the painting is much easier to damage and much harder to fix. You whump a canvas painting into the corner of a table, it gives. You do the same with a piece on plywood, you get a nice lovely triangular scratch, and the paint color that matches is back in Mexico.

The benefit of wood is that you can use rigid materials like encaustic (wax paint), oil sticks, and collage. It's also much easier to get a perfectly smooth surface.

Cotton duck canvas is the preferred student-grade medium, being cheap and durable. I hate the stuff. It's ugly, and the machine-woven texture is a cliché on the order of a Thomas Kinkade print-on-canvas, pretending to be a real painting. During the many years I used it, I put on so many coats of gesso by hand that the texture was completely eradicated, replaced by a subtle texture made by the marks of my hands. That texture became the basis of the vibratory energy in the painting.

Now I use linen, and a whole lot less gesso. A piece of linen is a gorgeous thing, all by itself; it is organic, irregular, rich and poetic. You put one stroke of paint on it, it already looks like a Degas. So that is what I'm sticking with. Even though it's $150 a roll.
My second stultifying question is style. Dig if you will the picture that does not fall into any of the known "schools" or is an amalgamation of two or perhaps more styles - does this negate the piece because it was not strictly Impressionistic or combined Realism with Surrealism? In addition, if the artist is completely ignorant of both of these schools and yet paints within the confines of a few varying styles does that automatically render his burgeoning masterpiece into a festering piece of shite?
Painting in a non-named style, in this day and age, does not 'negate' the piece, unless you mean 'disqualifying it from a plein-air kitsch art fair,' which is a GOOD thing, in the context to which I (and the other artists reading this blog, hopefully) aspire. If you are painting in a recognized style, such as Impressionism or Surrealism, in this day and age, you are not considered an 'artist' by anyone who writes for, or reads, Art in America, Art Forum, the New York Times, or anything in the art blogosphere. You are considered a commercial craftsperson, if you are considered at all.

You see, the one required quality of anything regarded seriously by the avant garde art world is newness. (Do not even get me started on Jeff Koons. Just don't.) The nastiest, most dismissive thing ever repeatedly, snottily said to a struggling art student during critique is, "That's been done." (Or, "that's kitsch," which comes almost to the same thing.) You may, of course, borrow from the vocabulary of recognized styles out of the past, but if you're just making an Impressionistic painting, welcome to Hotel Rooms, Inc.

If the artist is ignorant of style, period, he is termed an 'outsider artist,' ignored while alive, and lionized after he dies, penniless, in a mental institution. See Henry Darger.

I wonder if the lack of training or knowledge would provide the painter a unique, fresh perspective or merely damn the fledgling artist to a life of noisome craft shows and loving renditions of the King?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Clean up

It's a lot less fun, and excrutiatingly painful at times, to go back and finish a second-rate painting after knocking out a first-rate one. But here is where I'm leaving 'Curtain,' at least for the moment:

It could be better. But at this point I don't think that fussing will make it so. The main point of the painting, as I conceived it, is the tension and the contrast between the crusty stuff and the glowy stuff:

Which is more or less what everything is about, really.

I know what the title of my next show will be. Fanfare please:

The Implicate Order
"In the enfolded [or implicate] order, space and time are no longer the dominant factors determining the relationships of dependence or independence of different elements. Rather, an entirely different sort of basic connection of elements is possible, from which our ordinary notions of space and time, along with those of separately existent material particles, are abstracted as forms derived from the deeper order. These ordinary notions in fact appear in what is called the "explicate" or "unfolded" order, which is a special and distinguished form contained within the general totality of all the implicate orders..."

--David Bohm, 1980

"I don't know how you'd paint that."
--my brother, 2007

I could go on and on, at the moment, about how Bohm's theories of the implicate order integrate nicely with what Ken Wilber calls the 'perennial philosophy,' exemplified by Eastern mysticism--that space and time are illusory, the nature of mind is unbroken unity, and that the world as we see it is a projection of a filtered mind.

But since, in general, I despise artists who yammer incessantly instead of creating, I shall get back to work, painting the scarcely conceiveable.

I will say, however, that for me, the implicate order=God.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Prep work

I helped the family clear out my aunt's house after the memorial service--probably one of the most emotionally draining tasks there is. I would have preferred to just leave everything as it was for, like, a year or so, but there were a lot of practical issues to be considered.

So it's done, and I'm back in New York with an inherited fur coat, some flamboyant jewelry, and a Kate Spade handbag. My aunt had excellent taste. Her last letter to me said "Keep New York going for me;" I think she would like to know that some of her more exotic items--the silver choker shaped like a tiger, for example--were swanning around the hippest places in The City. I'll endeavor to do them credit.

Meanwhile, the best recipe for pensive moods and emotional discombobulation is prep work. Luckily, I was overdue for a lot of it.

I am very proud to report that I have graduated, in my own estimation, after twenty years, to 'professional grade' paint. Behold, three hundred dollars' worth:

When I was a very lowly student, I bought my paint at the hardware store. There was this brand called 'Pictor' which was about ninety-nine cents a tube. The colors were irregular, the consistency varied at random from oily-puddle to stuck-stiff, and you could see the specks of pigment that hadn't been properly integrated.

I did this on purpose, partly because I had no money, but mostly because I didn't want to feel that my supplies were inordinately precious. It was important to me to be able to experiment, and if this involved using eighteen tubes of ultramarine blue on a failed canvas that went directly into the dumpster, so be it.

And let me tell you, nearly ALL of those canvases went into the dumpster.

Over the years, I upgraded my paint quality at regular intervals, partly according to my finances, but mostly according to my own assessment of my skills. I used Utrecht and Winton for years--moderately priced, decent quality, comes in huge tubes. I could splash it around, then scrape it off and throw it away without wincing. Since moving to New York I've largely been using Georgian, because Pearl had a sale on it right as I was stocking up. And I splurged on Williamsburg when someone gave me a gift certificate to Jerry's.

But man, after trying my first tube of Gamblin, I knew there was no going back. It's not just paint. It's sort of like the difference between fois gras and Braunsweiger, or truffles and a Hershey bar. Dense, smooth, sensuous, pure--yum.

Then I was out of beeswax medium. I make my own, from a recipe in that invaluable tome, Formulas for Painters. I recommend that every painter own a copy; for some reason I ended up with two. I think I accidentally swiped one from Nancy in Mexico. Oops.

My beeswax medium is a paste, similar to Dorland's, but golden and slightly grainy, rather than white and bland. I get the beeswax in blocks at the co-op, whack them up, melt them down, and mix the wax with Damar varnish and turpentine.

Isn't the color pretty?

Chris, I owe you an apology. They DO actually, now, make eco-sensitive Damar varnish, with 'isoparaffinic mineral oils' and 'natural orange terpines' in place of oil of turpentine. When I actually looked at the label on the Damar varnish that made up sixty percent of my usual recipe, it said "Danger! Combustible. Harmful or fatal if swallowed. May be harmful by breathing vapors. Overexposure may result in nausea, headache, confusion or instability."

Well, that explains it.

So my new medium smells like honey and oranges. Whoopee. I also remembered to start melting some Damar resin crystals in odorless mineral spirits, so that I don't have to spring for the pre-made varnish next time. I always forget until I need it now, not in the six weeks or so it takes to dissolve. These two jars are now on the windowsill, to be shaken every morning at breakfast. Look, there are buggies in the resin!

In my home, nothing ever goes to waste. Clothing goes from 'good' to 'massage work' to 'studio work' to 'paint rag'; by the time a piece of clothing leaves my hands, it is an unrecognizable grayish lump. Tin cans are recycled into paint mixing vessels; glass jars and squeeze bottles are for various mediums. I don't even buy Baggies or Saran wrap; I just rinse and re-use the grocery bags. I don't buy Tupperware because take-out Chinese food now comes in fairly sturdy plastic containers, which can be re-used for over a year before they disintegrate.

Something deep in my farm-wife soul rejoices in this.