I always find it hard the first few days getting back into the studio after seeing certain shows, you know the memorable ones, I felt this after seeing Palermo at the Hirschorn and now De Kooning at MoMA.
Sometimes it is easier to look at really old masters and keep it in check although it sure would be something to paint with the conviction of Carravaggio and I mean in the sense of having a belief in his subject matter, which for the most part was the Christian narrative.
When I wander in to the studio and am confronted with a blank canvas or more recent work of my own, the first thought usually is what the (insert your favorite expletive here)!
What does it mean to put brush to canvas? Why this thing called paint? What is this image or motif? Does this have any meaning? Should I have listened to my parents and gotten a real career? What the hell am I doing?
The first inclination is to wrestle with the thought of tackling what is on ones mind. I personally find that I have to destroy things; that I have to push it to ugly. This is my personal thing, not a prescription at all for anyone else. I have a very good artist friend who has his shit down before he goes to work. He works on it, adjusts it, wipes them out, destroys them and starts again but he doesn’t struggle with motif as I do because he has it down. I admire the ability to work like that, to think like that. Me? I just can’t although I have tried. For me when I start working with his kind of mindset I have to stop and get messy, wipe it out, stain it, defile it and then some because I just don’t have the faith and belief in images like that. But that said, he admires that I tackle my things without a safety net, we're like polar opposites who envy each others commitment and approach, not to mention each others final results.
That might sound like a strange thing. De Kooning was possibly the last of the “old fashioned painters.” Figure, ground, people, landscape. For visually voracious people like myself and my generation that might not be so easy, especially if your mind and brush somehow wander into abstraction or non-objectivity as your theme. And what exactly is this thing called a theme to begin with?
In a little over ten years from the beginnings of analytic cubism the various forms of visual vocabulary were defined for 20th century Modernism. You had Mondrian and de stijl, Malevich, Rodchenko, Kandinsky…. But a monochrome by Rodenchko is different than one by Blinky Palermo, not only in paint application and behind each one is the history of previous painting and what art means for that particular time and place, in short the cultural conditions are there to be discovered in the context of time and place.
At least that is how I see it and it makes it hard sometimes. Because what I am trying to do is somehow recognize these voices and work through them. Influence is such a dirty word now but it’s a necessary part of ones education and then trying to unify what seem like contradictory impulses, for De Kooning it was to paint like Ingres and Soutine. Ouch.
Anyway, found myself deciding to take a ‘failed’ canvas today, one that was buried in the rack and work on it. I was in a very sour mood, not wanting to talk or see anyone. A friend was working in my studio today, letting him work on his things in my space; I’m like that for some reason. Wasn’t too happy to see him but squeezed out a large clump of white, mixed it up and started to wipe out and then redraw this damn ugly mess. No intention, no idea, just rambling mess. Took out a few small primed canvases and started to paint on them, ugly paintings based on Styrofoam blocks from computers and tech gear lying around that I’ve kept for just this purpose. To play and let loose. I ended up making four of these small ones and then going back into the 5 foot by roughly 5 foot monstrosity relaxed. The small ones look like they could have been shown in Berlin about 25 years ago, garish and harsh, and the large one? Like some ugly African cubist mask but based on this Styrofoam packing bit floating in the middle field and the residue of the past incarnations of the painting providing my ambivalent ground.
By that time I was happy my friend was there and we started to talk our art lingo, laugh about silly ideas we had for work that despite how ‘silly’ they are we'll explore. Because that is what the studio is for me in a way, a research and development laboratory for deadly serious play and the final irony, if you can call it that is these things that I call ugly are what my friends call beautiful.