Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The wild and lawless days of the post-Impressionists

client's taste

It will not surprise you that most of my fancies lie in the representational world. It may surprise you, as it did me, that I was so taken with this painting.

I saw it at a client’s home a few months ago. I am usualy very strict about NOT sharing things I find in people’s houses directly -- privacy and all that -- however in this case I feel okay about this blurry snapshot. It really was not about the other things in the living room (which were equally engaging) but all about this painting, about two feet tall, with such beguiling depth and detail that I honestly had trouble working around it; it was so captivating. They have a sofa perpendicular to this thing and oh how I long to lie there in the evening and consider that painting.

Abstract art is such a difficult topic. It’s honestly hard for me to get “into” it because I think the openness of the genre (that “pfft I could do that!” feeling) has made room for a lot of stuff that is not good. And something being not good itself has been incorporated into the aesthetic, (What is “goodness” anyway? Who’s to say this is good and that is not?), so it’s sometimes hard to tell the blowhards from the curious explorers. And because of that, because of the pretentiousness of some painters I have known, and for many, many other reasons, I have to say anything Jackson Pollack flavored has always turned me off, because it’s just so hard (for me) to tell if the artist is trying hard or just, well, going through the motions. If you will.

(I should hasten to point out that I’ve never seen a Pollack in person. And also that I am glossing over a LOT about intent vs. result, pictures to look at vs. pictures to make a gut reaction vs. pictures to tell a story, skill vs. happenstance, training vs. talent, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, polished fine artist vs. folk artist, artists painting for other artists vs. artists painting for an audience, relevance of painting in the 21st century, et cetra. Many other things. Come over for coffee or a glass of wine and we’ll paint the town red.)

(I should also point out that I love cubism and those “abstract” forms that take what one sees in life and plays with what can be seen. Illustration is, in a way, abstraction. It’s simplifying what you are seeing or dealing with and squeezing them down into something a bit more manageable, making the scene pleasing / dynamic / challenging to the viewer. I am clearly not voting for absolute stoic realism. It is not abstraction I am objecting to, it’s those paintings that don’t move you. For me that category becomes very wide. And I don’t think I’m alone.)

It had been well over a year since I’d painted anything on canvas, but seeing this painting made me get my messies out and tinker that very night. Because I’d seen that and thought: that’s wonderful. I feel like I can do that. I want to do that.

And it was interesting to try. Because no, as it turns out, I can’t do that.

Well no, that’s not true. I can apply paint to canvas and make layers and use colors and shapes and lines. But my method of doing this has become so different from the canvas-based method. I’m thinking of the base player in my Mom’s church choir who once brought his guitar during a particularly thin choir turn out during the summer. I remember being fascinated by his playing, because he didn’t strum chords. (And guitar mass is a pretty chord-strummy affair.) He would pick each note separately from the six strings. He played guitar just like he played base. I came to painting having drawn all my life, and for lack of any teaching I would often paint just like I draw. My technique is a bit more sophisticated than that now, but it’s still very much suited for the kind of thing I do, and not the kind of thing this unknown painter is doing.

A few days ago I stumbled upon Michelle Armas’ work, a lot of which is also refreshingly substantial. I was delighted to find she is doing her part to dispel that pfft I could do that feeling by posting a blog entry about the steps she goes through to make a painting. (Or, more specifically, how painting commissions work.) I love the way she talks about her process, the fact that she acknowledges the stopping, the stepping back, the self-evaluating. (A very, very important step. One of the key reasons why pfft... gets dispelled.)

Somehow her work, that blog entry, that painting I saw; it all has me thinking about interplay of colors, shapes, lines, spaces and all with a vividness I haven’t felt in a long time. I find myself scrutinizing with renewed attention the colors I see in all the flowers blooming in the neighborhood. My early morning crayon warm-ups have taken a much more gestural quality, and I’ve shifted from starting with sleepy contour lines of the tree out my window to scribbles of light color and experimenting with different colors and line thicknesses on top of that. None of it is worth sharing, but all of it starts my brain off on a good receptive direction. It ensures that I will remain a bit more hungry for Good Art Things all throughout the day.

It's these sorts of paintings that make my heart sing most. Paintings that without the use of any objects of any kind still manage to have me on my toes and squinting, getting lost in that sea of color and shape. Is it just the applicability of the picture-field? Like watching clouds? There's a shape, now there's another, or maybe it's something like this. Those choral pinks and teal-green colors make me feel a little edgy. But that pale grey-blue keeps it contained, I think. Isn't that strange how those greens drip but that one does not? It almost looks like a crowd waiting in line doesn't it? Oh really? It made me think of diving into an ocean. Maybe footprints. It's making me think of what we were talking about the other night, remember? Thinking about how things can never stay the same but always move into something else, away from where they are. You know what I mean?

These paintings. The catalysts. Paintings that engage, ignite, that encourage reaction. Paintings you'd want to explore for hours. Singing paintings. Canvas that says something. I'm waking up to these sorts of paintings again, and I'm glad.