REGARDING THE DETAILS IN MY PAINTINGS:
FROM WHERE DO THEY ORIGINATE?
When I set out to make a painting, the narratives I work with are expressed in minutely detailed imagery. This minutia (floral patterns, architectural elements, optical patterns, wood grain textures, landscape details, figures, facial features, contour lines, etc. etc.) comes from my personal memories. These memories essentially define who I am in this world.
I do not subscribe to the theory that that we are born with a bank of universal, archetypal imagery which we use to orient ourselves; rather, I think the mind is an open template which receives and interprets our perceptions as needed to allow us to survive and thrive in the world. Memory, the process of saving and storing this information, is tainted by the limitations of our subjectivity. I can recall many details from my childhood with great clarity, but the fidelity of my recollection is often distorted by my emotional bias. My fears often enlarge the significance of a single detail to the point where it attains a prominent assigned symbolic meaning within the context of its surrounding details.
Designing a painting involves three processes: My subjective experiences, edited and codified by memory, create the visceral subject matter. My kinesthetic memory, containing the history of my physical activity, causes idiosyncratic impulses from my brain to my hand, determining the placement and force behind the brushwork. Lastly, my artistic/stylistic language is synthesized from my experiences of studying visual phenomenon and art work by others that I encounter in my search for ways to express myself.
When deciding which memory files to use in constructing a painting, I utilize a mental tool that I call the “Rapid Recognition Factor.” Processing visual imagery at lightning speed, my brain can recall images files instantly, bypassing verbal language, which is limited to operating in real time. As an artist, I have learned to trust this non verbal, intuitive thinking. My mind continuously churns out ideas and images via this oracle. My job as an artist is to select, edit, and give expression to the best of them.
To elucidate how this “Rapid Recognition Factor” is expressed in the three aforementioned processes, I offer the following examples from my own work:
#1. Details from memories that create the visceral narrative:
After losing my wife Laura to cancer, I felt a strong urge to document the emotional odyssey that my grief had wrought. Stunned with disbelief at what was happening, I did a series of small self-portraits in which I tried to capture the anxiety that flooded me. “Laura’s Ashes” (Fig. 1) documents my actions when we picked up her ashes a few weeks after she died.
Having had no past experience with cremation, I found the whole idea rather off-putting. We agreed to it because that’s what Laura wanted. For me, not knowing what to do with the box of ashes was a source of tremendous anxiety. When we picked up the ashes, the funeral home representative put them into a plastic bag with name of the funeral home on it. I took the bag from him, walked to the subway, and went home. We walked into the kitchen and sat down. I took the box out of the bag, spontaneously set it atop of the Kitchen cabinets, and instructed my children not to touch it. On occasion, over the next several weeks, I took the box down and set it on Laura’s chair during meals, returning it afterwards to its place on top of the cabinets. I became a bit obsessed with that box, and would have gone berserk had anyone tried to interfere with it.
In starting a painting one must first select the format. For this particular painting I chose a vertical rectangle, 20 x 18”. The first thing I did was draw a vertical line, dividing the canvas asymmetrically into two vertical rectangles. In the larger, right section, I drew our Kitchen table, the wall with wallpaper, the window, the floor, and a wood baseboard. I drew myself seated at the table with my hands on the box of ashes. I left the rectangle at the left blank. When I finished drawing the right section in, I was puzzled at what to do with the left section. Somehow it felt right, but also felt like something was missing.
The details in the right section come from the following memory files: The wallpaper pattern is from a recollection of a pattern I remembered from the seventies. It is a bit of an op-art type of pattern, with interchanging positive and negative forms moving in and out of plane. This kind of movement creates anxiety in me. My apartment wall is actually exposed brick, not wallpaper. For this painting the wallpaper pattern better expressed the agony of the situation. I also associate wallpaper with my father, because we worked together installing wallpaper on many of the decorating jobs we did when I was growing up.
My apartment has oak floors, as depicted. While working in the renovation business for the past several decades, the task of selecting and sorting wood by grain pattern has fallen on me more than once. Staring at wood grain for hours on end can create optical overload, resulting in exhaustion and anxiety, both of which I felt a lot of at this particular time. My apartment lacks baseboards, but I included this item for several reasons. Baseboards, crown mouldings, and chair rails all create constricting lines around a room, causing the space to feel closed in. It is similar to the tight band I feel around my head when under stress. I added the base board to the painting to contain the space, and to help me cope with my emotions and retain my dignity under the extraordinary stress of this situation. The same is true for the window; its divided lites, trimmed in stained finished wood, are formal and warm, with soft sun light coming through from the infinite sky above to soothe and heal. These architectural elements create feelings of peace and order in our otherwise chaotic world.
I drew myself using the simplest contour lines, ghostly and without color, to match the box of ashes, with which I identified so closely. In actuality the box was black; I chose to paint it white like the outer (cardboard) box it came in for symbolic reasons. I drew my ear projecting out, alert for guidance and words of comfort from beyond.
After finishing the right hand section, I stopped working on the painting for several weeks. The blank rectangle on the left looked right somehow, but still felt unresolved. Every day I stared at the painting, waiting for my mind to reconcile the image.
Then, eureka! I realized that the rectangle represents my closet door, the walk-in closet that Laura and I shared for twenty-two years and which still held her clothes and other things. The open door acts as a protective shield, blocking the viewer from looking directly at my personal agony, and also as a passage way to the other side, where Laura now rests.
Fig. 1 Laura's Ashes 18 x 20" 2005 acrylic on canvas
Fig. 2 The Pumpkins Patch 1981 38 x 72" acrylic on canvas
#2. Details originating from my kinesthetic memory:
Eye/hand coordination, developed from birth in response to the activities we learn, determines the natural expressive rhythms in an artist’s work. Like young athletes, the movements that we use to execute our work are made with little analysis of how we do them. We take for granted that we can walk, breathe, blink, chew, digest food, use tools, etc. etc. Learning to draw from observation is not difficult once you free yourself from left-brain analytical thinking, and give yourself over to your right-brain, spatial sensing/feeling intuition. In most of my compositions, the drawing, which is asymmetrically designed, combines with the color, which is symmetrically balanced, to create the illusion of movement. The key for me is to stay relaxed while working. I select colors and apply the paint in reaction to the marks I made earlier. From where does the confidence come to act and re-act like this? I am certain it comes from good muscle coordination and eye/hand coordination. And how do we call up this coordination? By accessing the muscle memory files from which we first learned these skills.
My work relies heavily on pattern. After experimenting with different size brushes, different size canvases, different studio set-ups, and working in different lighting conditions, my brain/body can now execute a certain repertoire of optically energized color patterns with confidence and ease. Trusting in my ability to do this allows me to complete my paintings with directness and an economy of means.
In “The Pumpkin Patch” (Fig. 2) the surface of the painting is peppered with small marks of color creating a field of electrically charges optics. Through repetition of color and size these marks also unify the picture plane, creating a rhythmic texture and the illusion of movement. Made quickly and without predetermined spacing, the placement of these marks is determined by my kinesthetic memory.
#3. Details originating from memories of visual phenomenon and artworks by others which determine my artistic/stylistic vocabulary:
For many years my work with the human figure and the landscape was inspired by German expressionism and Surrealism. I found a great deal of emotional veracity in both of these schools. In the past few years, having long admired such artists as James Ensor, Francisco Goya, Peter Breughel, and William Hogarth for their biting satire and social commentary, I found myself searching for ways to make a stronger statement about the human condition.
I’d been unable to resolve the dilemma of trying to express the tragedy of human existence without being melodramatic or sentimental. This weakness was a millstone around my artistic neck. I needed a more direct way to express the raw emotions - rage, despair, envy, guilt, greed, as well as their opposites, such as detachment and a propensity for oblivion – that afflict each of us during the course of our lives.
Fig.3 After Gericault 2011 36 x 48" acrylic on canvas
I began to notice that cartoon characters often express extreme emotion with no apparent restraint. They are of course comic rather than tragic, but it seemed to me that tragic emotions could also be expressed as caricatures. The question was, how? Most humans are not purely evil or purely good, but are a hybrid of the two. By what means could the complexity of human beings be conveyed apart from the classic or comic forms?
In the course of my work I have long used images of trees to symbolize specific people in my life. These proxies are often the main characters of the hidden narratives in my paintings. It occurred to me that I could make these trees more human-like in form, and have them doing human things, like walking, drinking, dancing, smoking. It’s not really such a stretch; in many of the Greek and Roman myths recorded in Ovid’s “Metamorphosis,” the gods turned humans into trees. A walk through a preserve or farm in the presence of trees that have themselves marched through time – some strong and tall, some twisted, some fallen – reveal to some of us a near-perfect metaphor for human experience.
“After Gericault” (Fig. 3) was inspired by Theodore Gericault’s 1819 masterpiece, “The Raft of the Medusa.” Gericault was one of the first artists to utilize a radical new approach to subject matter that defined the Romantic Movement. His thirty foot painting is as dark and wild a picture of human misery as has ever been painted. Depicting the shipwreck of the Medusa and the botched rescue attempt by the French government, Gericault’s painting symbolizes the abject failures of a dysfunctional monarchy. His subjects are wretched commoners, dressed in rags, lying amidst their dead and dying comrades. Facing an unrelenting sea of troubles and an uncertain future, these survivors are living a nightmare.
My dead trees present a blue collar version of Gericault’s noble commoners locked in our great humanitarian struggle. They are low brow romantics, the ninety-nine percent, the disenfranchised, the disillusioned, the naked, the old, the sick, the cold, the weak, the weary, the artists, the ones history passed by.
In developing the imagery for this painting I recalled memory files of many well known works of art. Taking a page from Van Gogh’s drawings, I utilized simple black and brown broken lines to demarcate the main forms; from Glackens, I gleaned the gray, gray water; from Caravaggio, the stark contrast of black and white. Inspired by the many political cartoons I have perused, my characters, stripped of all their treemanity, are left afloat entangled with their dead on a raft constructed of their saw-milled brethren, living the nightmare one and all. Through this synthesis of imagery borrowed from diverse sources I intend to awaken in my viewers that familiar feeling that things are not all right in our contemporary world.
As mysterious as the creative process seems, there is nothing original to be found in my work. Every single detail, as far as I can tell, comes from my memory banks. What we do as individual artists is select, edit, and synthesize those files into a coherent and meaningful statement. As much as I’d like to believe otherwise, I believe I am just a product of the larger society.