Most of the time, painting has been a solitary activity for me and the studio the most private place. Yes there have been exceptions. Sheila Gregory and I did an entire show quite a few years ago of collaborative paintings – paintings on auto parts, a painting on a punching bag, painting on the wall of the gallery. We did those works alternately though, like a game of Go or chess, in which each of the players makes a move then waits for the other to play. Even today we work on mosaic projects together, but again the work is done is sessions, one person at a time.
I’ve never been comfortable showing people unfinished works or let them into the studio for that matter, as if I have to guard the process, guard the wellspring – that place I go in my imagination seeking that elusive miracle let’s just call making a painting. These days I don’t work when others are around, the exception being Sheila Gregory, who I trust totally and completely on all matters related to painting. Tonight I came across the most remarkable bit of video, featuring Philip Guston working in the studio and talking about the work. Fantastic!
I don’t think I could work if someone was skulking around with a camera, that’s for sure. I’ve long admired Philip Guston for his paintings and also for the way he has articulated his struggles as a painter. It’s fantastic to see him sitting there in the studio talking about the destruction of a painting.
There’s another film of an artist at work in the studio I really enjoy. It’s the 1962 short documentary – which you can watch on YouTube – The Reality of Karel Appel. I love watching him handle the big globs of paint. “I paint like a Barbarian in a Barbaric age,” says Appel. “I don’t paint,” he says, “I hit.” Wonderful! In parts we hear jazz as Appel works. Now that makes sense to me. There was a time in my life as a painter when I liked to have Ornette Coleman or Sun Ra blasting in the studio while I worked. I even made a painting once called Ornette Coleman, in recognition of his importance to me at that time.
Many moons ago, I shared a studio space with Stan Repar. Actually there were four of us paying for the space, but most days it was Stan and I making paintings there. There was a wall between us but one or the other of us could always walk around the wall to chat. Stan worked by daylight with 000 watercolour brushes, capturing level upon level of veristic detail. I, on the other hand, was madly improvising with big brushes, reinventing my paintings time and time again. Our work was so disparate it seemed as if sharing a space maintained some mysterious balance in the universe. Looking back, I think Stan was one of the few painters I could have successfully shared a work space with. I admired the paintings he was working on and I think that was amplified because he was making paintings that were a world apart from my own.
There is a moment in the creation of every painting (and similar I’m sure in the creation of novels or poems or movies or tunes) that I think of as magical. I say that because it can’t ever be explained. Back to Phillip Guston for a second. He once wrote: Sometimes I scrape off a lot. You have on the floor, like cow dung in the field, this big glob of paint… and it’s just a lot of inert matter, inert paint. Then I look back at the canvas, and it’s not inert – it’s active, moving and living.
That’s what I’m talking about. When it happens, painting is thinking is painting is thinking. There are no longer any explanations or barriers. You simply do it, and sometimes the results can be surprising. Maybe that’s why I prefer to paint in private.
What happens when you change direction? That can be scary because when you’re consistent you build up expectations and the more expectations are built up the greater the inertia and the harder it is to change.
I interviewed the painter Ron Bloore once for WorkSeen magazine (which later became Artword). Ron was my friend and my teacher. When we did the interview, he told me about visiting Isphahan in Iran. As well as being a painter, Ron was a Byzantine scholar. He was visiting Byzantine chapels, showing up early in the morning and staying there as the light changed. The tesserae on the mosaics were at unique angles so when the light changed as the morning progressed, the effect of the mosaic would also change. All the better to glorify the Kingdom of Heaven. Bloore told me that after a morning in a particular chapel, he returned to his hotel. His partner Dorothy asked him about the morning, where he had been, and Bloore told her he had been in the heart of God. Subsequently, he started painting using nothing but white. Now that’s an eye-opening change in direction!
Guston, who I keep going back to in this post, experienced two giant changes in his work. It is almost as if he had 3 careers, first as a social realist painter, then as an Abstract Expressionist, then finally making the strange, dark paintings of his late career. Reaction to those changes wasn’t always great when they were happening. I admire his courage.
In October last year I made an image (I want to say painting, but is it a painting, really?) I call Slant 5. I can’t even tell you just how it came about, really. I had a 5 sitting in the studio just begging to be stuck to something.
This simple image has been haunting me since. I was already well aware that I had reached the end of a series of paintings, and I was starting to think differently in a fuzzy sort of way about image-making and my approach to it. Then out of the blue comes Slant 5. The thing is I really didn’t know where this was going to take me – I just hoped it was going to take me somewhere. At one point I thought about one of the songs Bob Dylan made when he found religion – gonna change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules. Is that what was happening, or was this some kind of side-track, an abberation? Time will tell.
Of course I managed to find numerous dead ends in subsequent months. I’ve felt like I’ve been on a creative roller coaster. I’ve made a bunch of new works which I’m going to exhibit at Yumart Gallery in October, but I’m way too close to these things to say much about them – way too close and way to full of doubt, I suppose. Some of them scare me. What is this I’m doing? I think I’m more nervous about an exhibition than I’ve been in years, and more excited too.