Arboreal Ghosts / Last Stop This Route
I think a couple years ago I would have thought “Arboreal Ghosts” another “excellent painting” to add to my “body of work.” But what the painting really is, and I think I see this with newly-opened eyes, is another “decent color sketch in the sketchbook.” Not a work which calls for–or issues–new awareness. I don’t need to run this painting (or myself) down; “Arboreal Ghosts” it’s a good painting and I’d be proud to sell it. But I do want to meditate on its “last route” meanings.
Emotional resonance is the heart of any real art. But so far I haven’t found much in this painting. The final result is not something I want to meditate on. It’s true that sometimes after doing several more paintings I can turn back to an older one I didn’t think much of at the time and find new energies in it. So my opinion on this painting is subject to change. But what’s important about “Arboreal Ghosts” is that I was much more mindful of what was going on in executing the painting than I think I’ve ever been. While the painting process more or less forced me into the usual preordained painting path, it didn’t do so entirely, and I didn’t indulge in my usual panic at finding the thing not perfect.
I did have a vision for what I wanted this painting to be. Since I haven’t had a realistic image in mind, and I haven’t felt I’ve gotten enough back in shape for that as yet, I decided I’d go with an abstract, due to several factors:
Truth is beauty, beauty IS truth, and I do know that abstraction has had validity–even now I’m not going to get into the debate about whether abstract art is worthless or not. A beautiful image of any type has value.
- I hadn’t painted in a year and I really wanted to see if there was anything left in abstract for me.
- I had an image in mind of something like stained glass or my wife Nancy’s concept of “painting with light” in digital art.
- I wanted the activities associated with painting.
My plan was to try to do a fast, fun painting. The end result was painting number 303, “Arboreal Ghosts/Last Stop This Route.” Five hours of toil, with all the typical steps of my typical abstract improvised painting process:
- I get a vision of some abstract image, including colors, spatial relationships and lighting effects, that in retrospect may be out of reach of my current set of tools–including the paint medium itself.
- I approach the blank canvas with this current painting technology.
- The initial colors and shapes I lay on the white surface are intriguing. I briefly wonder what would happen if I stopped there, but always feel that ten minutes of work don’t add up to a real painting.
- The second set of colors and shapes is good. The third set … is reasonably good, but complicates the image.
- Fourth set. OK, now we have problems. I’m not too worried, I’ve seen this before.
- I try several different approaches, getting increasingly worried about the fate of this image.
- I step back and realize the painting is TOTALLY MEDIOCRE.
- Now fully into panicky repair mode, I pull out my old bag of tricks for fixing things. Some are wild experiments, which screw up and create more problems, others are surefire tools I’ve had success with hundreds of times before. Curiously, sometimes the screw-ups help the image, and other times the surefire solutions hinder it. But desperately I try them all. I am now officially no longer having any sort of fun. It’s still possible to learn something in this phase, but the stress pressure usually keeps that at bay.
- Exhaustion sets in, and I wind up attacking the canvas in a kind of slaphappy despair. However, on 303 I did manage to avoid the worst of this phase. I became mindful of the fact that the painting was simply not worth that amount of worry.
- At some point in the process of turning myself into an acrylic-soaked zombie, I stumble across some technique that finally does work. The image somehow comes together, it finally implies something more than itself. I can see my psychic handwriting in it, and I’m at last satisfied. Fairly confident now, I finish up a few loose ends, and this is like editing a chapter in a novel. Even if I screw up now, I can usually correct it. Warning: there have been times when I did fully screw it up at this point, and would find myself again locked into a #9 Despair/Exhaustion, but far worse than the original one.
- When done, I’m either fascinated by what’s come out, or else I “try to like the thing.” Some of these latter I grow a little more fond of later and keep around; others I overpaint before too many months pass. I never repaint immediately, though–a sign of ongoing attachment to the whole ordeal.
So what was all this effort for? What’s the point? “Arboreal Ghosts” isn’t bad. There’s even a glimmer in it of the mindfulness I applied to the whole process. But though my main goal was to do an abstract in a different way, I found myself sliding back into the familiar routine. While I was able to make minor corrections to this process, in the end what I turned out was my typical improvised abstract painting, achieved at grueling cost. No fun doing it. The energy was not there. I know I can’t really compare novel writing to painting, but when I’m writing well I’m having the time of my life. When I’m writing poorly, I’m still somehow confident that I’m contributing something to the overall effort, that mistakes can easily be corrected later, that even the bad verbiage may eventually break open some new direction.
What I began to be aware of in doing 303 was that I’ve been attached to a set of methods that “get me through the painting” but which also suck the energy out of the process. Each painting is a battleground, which might sound fine and romantic and noble, except that I learn little or nothing from each battle. I just survive it once again. The point is to emerge with “a product.” Either a product to sell, to add to a “body of work,” to define myself with, or to notch an accomplishment I’m supposed to look back on with pride. Maybe 303 paintings are supposed to be 303 Medals of Valor.
In doing 303 I saw more clearly than ever before how my ongoing set of methods pull me in the direction of the usual painting. Some examples:
- The physical processes I’ve used for decades are comfortable. The pre-painting activities still do give energy: building the stretcher, stretching and stapling the canvas, getting the water buckets, paintbrushes, palette and paints and mediums all lined up. Putting down tarps and covering the walls with plastic to protect previous works from anticipated wild paint flinging. (Or is this all like spreading sand on the deck of the fighting ship so the sailors don’t slip in the blood to come?) Gessoing the canvas the night before, seeing it huge and white on the easel or horizontal on the blue-tarped table.
- The vision of the desired image, sometimes even in a totally improvised painting, is like the battle plan. I look to it with some trepidation, but usually feel confident it will work somehow, though I should know by now that no plan survives contact with the enemy.
- I mix too much paint up for a certain operation, and feel compelled to use all or most of it. (Not only that paint is expensive, it simply must be used!) This fills up too much space too quickly, and makes the painting almost absurdly “balanced.” Whereas allowing yourself to run out of a batch of color forces you to think about different colors and see different areas as having unique properties.
- If I happen to mix up a batch of color that didn’t come out the way I wanted–which is common–I go ahead and use it anyway. Why waste the damn stuff? Or: hey, let’s experiment! It almost every case this shoves me away from what I had in mind and forces me back to problem-solving mode, as the paint really IS the wrong color I wanted in 99% of the cases.
- I see painting as physical exercise, as discharge of energy, and I restlessly fill up way too much. I may want to think “less is more,” but really I want “more and more.” Like drinking until you get sick.
- Since they involve physical processes, my current techniques involve a certain amount of effort to set up and so I become conservative with them. Deciding whether to use a thin watercolor-like approach, or a thick build-up, often determines the course of the painting before I even get started. In 303’s case, I’d intended to build the image with many tiny thick brush strokes–but this plan obviously eliminated any easy switchover to “light and airy” down the road.
- I tend to see the blank canvas as the enemy. I hate to say this, but I really do. When I stretch and gesso it I see it as a friend, new territory to explore. But shortly after getting started I see it as a large object to be dominated, physically and emotionally, as I feel it begin to work against me.
- I so often get into crisis-and-repair mode that I have to believe I unconsciously think this must be the way to do visual art. Yes, problems always arise in any endeavor. But in fiction, I don’t despair of wrong paths and mistakes. I embrace them as possibilities to be explored and altered. In a painting, each mistake is seen as a tremendous hassle, a clean-up task I berate myself for having caused. It’s odd that I never really think I’m learning anything new from the hassles. I rarely get that sense. It’s more about survival.
- Generally I rely on a bag of tricks to “finish” a painting. But surely this is the opposite of exploration.
- The emphasis on “product” always diminishes any curiosity and exploration.
In a previous blog post I maintained that abstract art is more difficult than realistic art for many of the above reasons, but in that post I celebrated the difficulty as if that alone were the meaning of art. Now I’m beginning to see that the real difficulty may be that I’ve come to the end of abstraction. While I love to draw geometrical shapes, or just mess around with colors, I may no longer have anything I want to say in the medium of abstract painting. A painting is much like a short story–not a novel, but a good story. That much effort is involved. Tossing these things off in an afternoon doesn’t feel right anymore. The “OK product” doesn’t feel right.
303 is a decent work, it’s not a dishonest product–in fact it was a teaching canvas in its own way. It’s just that I’m seeing through trying to create “metaphysical” abstract paintings, trying to conjure up the vast raw unnamable feeling that some abstracts do. 303’s main function seems to be to point out that I really do not need to do things this way any longer. It may be my last abstract painting–at least, the last one using the above methods. In fact, that’s why I called it “Arboreal Ghosts / Last Stop This Route.” Here are the ghosts of previous abstracts that once worked–just don’t take the train down here again.
Probably the most shocking realization: the pre-painting rituals seem to attract me more than the act of painting. As well as the post-ritual of putting the painting image on my web site. That’s all hard to admit. It’s as if I’m more proud of having a bunch of paintings done than in doing the next painting. “Body of work” is important to an artist, I get that. Less so for a writer; somehow I don’t feel a need to consider “fourteen novels” as a defined “body of work,” something I carry around and market as a self-definition. An artist’s body of work allows some growth and change but really, not that much. If Michelangelo had later gotten into performance art, we probably wouldn’t count that as part of his “real” body of work. It would either be “late stage experimentation” or we might even consider it senility.
The other deep attraction of painting is its vast set of sensations:
- The smell of acrylic paint. Or oil paint for that matter, or oil paint cleaning fluids like turpentine, which definitely has that abusive joy-of-sniffing hydrocarbons aspect. (I’ve found better substitutes since. Yet oil paint plus turpentine as echoed through an art school’s corridors has a definite resonance.)
- Getting my hands, arms, legs covered with paint. It’s even a sign of success when my hair is matted with it.
- Texture of paint, ranging from thin liquid to scrunching ceramic stucco.
- In line with that, a fascination with “dry brush work,” which I have a hard time achieving because I mix up too much paint and slather it everywhere.
- Watching what happens when colors mix either on the palette, in a plastic cup, or on the canvas, and the corresponding despair when two adjacent colors on the canvas start turning each other muddy. “Muddy” has accompanied me from the beginning.
- Magic and joy–this is really a bodily sensation of power and triumph–when seeing all the wondrous things that can happen–and of course the despair again, when it all blows up in your face.
Space may be the greatest abstract element. One I strive for but which I often can’t hit, as my existing methods usually fill up space far faster than I can cope with. Even the mural sized paintings I did in 2011 weren’t immune from that–whereas a tiny 6” x 9” sketch sometimes brings out infinite volume. You think Rothko was really doing flat rectangles? No, it’s the space they imply.
I think that most objective readers of the above would say that I’m in the wrong medium.
Which is why I’ve been thinking about what sort of visual art would be fun and deeply satisfying. I reject any art philosophy that says that art must be dreary and painful, that “fun” somehow equals mediocrity, that we must suffer through the art. Well, art generates problems, that’s true, and it’s difficult to know the way–but somehow all that should be a fun process of exploration and discovery. Curiosity and high energy should keep you going, not thralldom to some ancient obsession.
But what I really think is that I’ve placed my true devotion back where it belongs in writing, and that my future visual art won’t be attempting to do the kind of primary exploration I’d once assumed it should. I think that’s why I haven’t been able to find joy in visual art recently, why it’s seemed so uncertain. My blog post “My Visual Art is Somehow Literary,” seems to lay out the underlying positive movement here. Because despair about losing visual art isn’t the point. It’s that visual art just needs to serve the writing–even if it’s not obvious to anyone else how this proceeds.
A painting is a presentation–of some size and heft–and a quick doodle or a diary sketch won’t suffice–unless that image is universal in scope. It would be like publishing a random set of old diary entries as a story or a novel. “The daily” has great value, but usually is not universal, with meaning available to others now and in the future. I do like the idea that a painting should possess at least the amount of effort that I would put into a short story. Maybe not the same in terms of time, but of psychic effort and expression.
Above all–if it’s not fun, don’t do it anymore! The muse just doesn’t stick around in these abusive situations.
Copyright 2012 by Michael D. Smith
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