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...
Fig. 1 Laura's Ashes 18 x 20" 2005 acrylic on canvas
ART, SCHEMES, DREAMS, AND NIGHTMARES
During my freshman year of college I experienced a baptism-by-fire radical assault on my dearest beliefs and assumptions about reality. It all began in my art school foundation design program. I entered the program in 1970 on the heels of twelve years of Catholic School education and the Sixties; and I quickly learned the meaning of the words, “they don’t call it Liberal Arts for nothing!”
A fine arts education is meant to open up your mind to new ways of seeing the world; I was not disappointed. In addition to our studio classes we studied the full gamut of art history from the Lascaux cave paintings to the Italian Renaissance, and right through early modernism and Pop Art. In foundation design we were introduced to the Surrealist artists and writers. I was impressed with their willingness to explore the irrational parts of the mind, in their search for inspiration for their art. I found the work of Magritte and Delvaux, who both worked with dream imagery, to be particularly fascinating. Disgusted with the political and social status-quo of Post World War One Europe, the Surrealists recognized Freud’s idea of the subconscious mind as an oracle of unmet desires and repressed emotions as the perfect metaphor for the social turbulence of the day. They set out creating a radical new art, abolishing the academic aesthetic hierarchy in favor of new styles reflective of the changing political and social dynamics of modern European society.
Inspired by the Surrealists’ radical approach to art, I began experimenting with different techniques to express a seemingly endless stream of imagery that came to me in a spontaneous, effortless fashion. In addition to long hours spent in the studio, painting, I also delved into analytic philosophy, existentialist philosophy, poetry, American literature, and art history. Excited by this frenzy of new ideas, I searched for a common thread to tie all that I was learning into a cohesive statement.
For many young artists in the nineteen seventies, the themes of the Surrealists, Existentialists, and early Modernists still resonated; we identified with the Surrealists, and like them, felt the part of misfit and outcast. Uncertain of our role in society, we felt isolated and marginalized from the mainstream. Like a singer without a song or an actor without a script, we weren’t sure who our audience was, or what our subject matter was supposed to be. In earlier times, artists were supported with commissions to paint portraits of the monarchs and nobles or to decorate palaces and churches with illustrations of Biblical stories and historical narratives. Their task was clear: follow the assignment and express it with clarity. Unfortunately for many of us contemporary artists, the answer to the question, “for whom are we painting?” is, “ourselves.”
For me, the conundrum was: Can I make paintings for myself that also have some meaning for others? Is self-expression alone a worthy reason to dedicate my life to making art? I decided that recording my personal narratives is a worthy endeavor because my personal story, if well told, would bear witness to the time we live in. To ensure that my narrative is relevant to others I tasked myself to identify and develop themes that resonate emotionally with others.
Through my somewhat arbitrary and unsystematic reading of twentieth century philosophy I learned that the existentialists investigated emotional, political, and subjective experience while the analytic philosophers investigated logic, mathematical reasoning, and objective thinking. I was equally attracted to both, and used ideas from both in formulating my art work. My content was emotional but the structure I used to present it was logical.
From the get-go I was attracted to drawing and painting. What I love about drawing and painting is the challenge of expressing the three dimensional world in two dimensional space. Using a shorthand language of shapes, line, and color, we can create both dead flat abstraction and full Illusionistic space. The picture plane is a philosophical gateway into an artificial, imaginary world, which exists in its own time and space regardless of what the artist is depicting on it. This fact makes painting a complex abstract language with many variables and eccentric features. This language has an inherent philosophical nature – the artist asks “What is reality?” and the painting responds, “Show me!” For me, looking at a painting unleashes a line of Socratic questioning, an unpeeling of layers and layers of implied meaning and assumptions which sometimes turn out to be false signs and mere illusions created by our minds in our desire to quell the uncertainty that we face each day of our lives. In some cases the more we look at a painting the less certain we become of what it is we are seeing. Our emotional capacity to process metaphor and allegory is fed by our desire to interpret and understand the world we live in. Painting is an inquiry into reality. We discover reality through our individual experiences of the world.
Every generation has it defining crisis; the Surrealists had World War One; we had the Vietnam War. As the anti war movement grew and society became more polarized, I felt my creative impulses build. The resulting conflict and anxiety formed the spark for my artistic yearning. I wasn’t sure what I would do with it, but I knew I had to do something. I could feel the pressure building inside.
What with all this uncertainty and the angst of being at the crossroads of the end of my childhood and the onset of adulthood, is it any wonder that at the ripe old age of eighteen anxiety seemed to be the overriding theme of my life? I now had at my disposal the language of painting to express and possibly exorcise this anxiety, but I still needed to find the right subject matter to carry this theme metaphorically...
LAURA’S GHOST IN ITALY 2012 36 x 48” acrylic on canvas