Mother Lode (2009)
The idea here was to produce work that would be different from what I usually do: I wanted something more personal.
My work, it seemed to me, had focused too much on the results it produced, rather than on the process of painting. From the moment I began a painting, I knew exactly what I wanted it to look like finished, and worked toward that goal as best as I could. My interpretation of the photos I used as a reference was limited to altering scale, framing, and contrast of the original work and, later, isolating certain elements, usually people, from a photo, leaving the rest either blank (i.e. white) or black, or even cutting their shape out of a piece of board. But essentially, my work consisted of sifting through thousands of pictures, and painting technique. I found these self-imposed limitations useful because I feared my energy would be dispersed if I used it indifferently. A blank canvas has a lot of power, and I wanted to make sure I was well-armed for the struggle to make each canvas mine. Also, I was simply happy producing images in that way for many years.
But for some time now, my feeling has not only been that I have pretty much exhausted the spectrum of possibilities within the limits of that modus operandi, but also that my chosen method prevented me from having a deeper, more personal and more sincere painting experience. I got the impression I was too categorical and defensive in many ways, battling to keep control and focusing on reaching goals rather than allowing my canvases more room and engaging in a more dynamic dialogue with them. Furthermore, I found that my attitude prevented me from interacting not just with the public viewing my paintings, but also with the work produced by other painters, dead or alive, as though I was using my own painting as an opaque shield to hide behind rather than as a more permeable surface. You might say I felt like my own work had locked me in, left me standing in the dark.
To guide me in possibly changing the way I approach painting, I told myself two things. The first was that there was a good reason I had been painting the way I have been painting so far: I enjoy it. No matter whatever obscure secret torment might be masked by my choice of reproducing photos in a fairly realistic fashion, it simply fascinates me to see how a canvas goes from looking like a piece of fabric to representing a three-dimensional reality, and that is an important part of why I paint at all. Yet I felt simultaneously trapped by a realism that left little room for interpretation. To solve the problem, I began using old painting rags as ‘innocent’ abstract backdrops for my figurative subjects to see how the two would interact, as is evident in a number of works. Later, this led me to tentatively producing my own abstract landscapes (as in The Deep End V), using only my intuition as a guide. In Gone, by way of homage (amongst other things) to the masters of abstraction in painting, I used Franz Kline’s painting Mahoning (hanging behind actors Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in a still from the film Manhattan) to see if I had learned anything.
The second thing I told myself was to be more transparent. Transparency is nothing other than honesty in abstract terms, and, like any respectable artist, I felt I needed to be more honest with myself in my painting, chase out the demons of habit and complacency, and encourage myself to pursue any new route that would open itself up to me if I felt it was worth exploring. My plan, upon a friend’s recommendation, was to translate this technically by literally mixing my paint with more water and building my images up more slowly, and in transparent layers, laying open for the viewer the process involved and allowing accidents, drips and brushstrokes to show through. In The Deep End IV, it came as a great relief to not go further in painting out the figures in the image. As a left-handed painter, I had started doing this with the boy on the far right and became very angry when I noticed I had acted almost mechanically. I left him looking somewhat wooden, his expression stilted, as a tribute to the lesson learned. Painting Braves right afterwards, on the other hand, I started out sanctimoniously admonishing myself to be transparent and light and spontaneous and once again had to override my preconceived ideas when I realised I simply wanted to paint this one in great realist detail, which I then went on to do.
My feeling, in looking at the results of this exercise, is that I didn’t go far enough. This is no surprise to me: change always thrills me, but it scares me too, and I know that progress in my life is necessarily slow as a consequence. My endeavours have also confirmed my old tenet that everything is a question of measure.
Independently of what these works look like, however, and whatever their shortcomings, I am happy to report that they have given me something I hadn’t felt so intensely in years: the simple intense pleasure of painting.
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