Friday, January 25 at 8:00: Diatom Deli/Michael Hix/Vitakari are performing at The Crying Wolf:
Quite possibly, the most rewarding work that I did this past week was painting our bedroom and hallway. The work in the studio was inconsistent. I finished a graphite drawing and it was terrible. It will be shredded by the end of the day.
It is going to be ok.
If I type that enough, I will believe it. The studio this year is going to be difficult. Failure is going to be the default setting.
I had not painted for over 15 years when I decided to pick up a brush again. For those who do not know, I did not walk away from art for 15 years. I spent that time hunched over a drawing table for 60 hours a week making tightly-rendered graphite drawings. My re-entry into painting started on a Monday and on that Wednesday, I sent a text to a friend that said, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this.” The response was, “Man, it’s been TWO days.” Apparently, I need a quick return on my investment. There were many rough months. I kept thinking, “I should at least be able to get back where I was as a painter before I quit painting.” I looked at images of my old work. What I realized was that I was a terrible painter when I left graduate school. Rotten and undisciplined and untrained. I was probably better as a junior in undergrad than I was in all of graduate school. That discovery about my ability, or lack thereof, was both a discouraging realization and source of comfort. I never was much of a painter so I should be kind to myself and cut myself some slack. I had learned a lot in the 15 years that I was gone from painting. I had worked at an art museum and seen thousands of gallery shows so I finally knew what a painting should look like and picked up some tips as to how to construct one. Keep in mind, I made it through undergraduate and graduate schools with little more knowledge about painting than developing a work ethic, building a stretcher (barely) and where the art supply store was located. I probably should have redirected that work ethic into something more practical. To put things in perspective, I made it through 6 years of art school, and no one ever taught me or my classmates how to make a glaze. A glaze. The staple of painting for 600 years. It never came up. Oh, we read Foucault and I listened to everyone’s cheap therapy sessions about Catholic school and Susan Faludi during group critiques, but basic materials and techniques never seemed to make it into the conversation. That is fine if you know what you do not know. You can get a book and figure it out. But I did not even know that much. I was in the undergraduate painting studio one night and saw a guy copying landscape paintings out of a book. I asked him why he was doing that, and his response was, “No one around here is going to teach us this so we have to figure it out ourselves.”
I was starting at zero after my 15-year break. It took a while, but I found a groove and hacked out work that I was willing to put my name on and hang on a wall for public inspection. I stand by it all. I only regret putting one piece of art on a wall for a show and that was a drawing about 12 years ago and, of course, it sold. It is out there misrepresenting me, or more than likely, it is in a storage facility in New Jersey misrepresenting me.
This week, I made a bad drawing and started some bad paintings in the same way that I usually make paintings and drawings that I like. It was not the failure that bothered me. It was the detachment that I felt from the whole thing. I started drawing in 1998 to stop painting. I did not paint for a couple of months and planned on leaving graduate school as a confirmed non-painter. Two years of “Is painting dead?” killed my interest in the pursuit. After a couple of months of making ink drawings, my painting professor said, “You have to make some paintings because I have to give you a grade for your painting class.” I was surprised by the ultimatum because it did not seem to be very “grad school”-ish, but it was a good first initial slap to cure me of academia. The sooner that I was freed from having my work judged by series of arbitrary semester reviews, the better. For the time, the thought of not getting out of graduate school, or even worse, going back for another year, was enough motivation to get me to paint. I finished my first year of graduate school and thought, “Good grief, I have to go back for another year of this?” I painted my thesis show over the course of three or four months. I had a committee meeting, and everyone said, “This looks fine.” No one was enthusiastic about it, but the work did not merit enthusiasm. It was just done and that was enough for everyone, including me. I left the paintings sitting for a week and then got angry and frustrated one night and painted over every one of the pieces that were to be my thesis show. I painted over five 6x6’ paintings in one evening. There was no backup plan. A faculty member saw them at some point in the next two days and freaked out on me. I do not know if it was concern for me or concern for the reputation of the department or something else, but it was unpleasant. I could not put those paintings up on the wall with my name next to them. They were awful. I did not sleep for the better part of three weeks and came up with something else. The new work was awful as well, but I was ok to put my name on them. I also left most of them in the studio when I graduated to be destroyed when the building was demolished two months later.
I tried to paint after I graduated, and it was a constant failure. I had moved to Philadelphia and was surrounded by legitimate paintings for the first time in my life and I then knew what I did not know, and what I did not know was everything. At some point I started drawing and I figured it out faster than painting. 15 years later, my career was pushed into a tightly-rendered graphite/silverpoint corner. I displayed some ink drawings in a show with the graphite drawings people expected and a curator said, “I don’t know Rob. I don’t know about these ink drawings.” Ink drawings. That was too crazy for me to make. You are the graphite guy. Be the graphite guy. We have you slated to be the graphite guy until 2045. Needless to say, I was done being the graphite guy. This is not to say that I regret any of this. Hardly. I accomplished more in that time than I expected to achieve in a lifetime. In my mind, I will always be the guy that got through school and did not learn much yet still managed to carve out something and had some good people supporting me along the way. I just do not want to do that for another 40 years.
Most people have more than one job in their lifetime. Some people make lateral moves because that is as much as their training and their reputation as a worker allow. You run the register at Kroger until they make you mad one too many times, so you go run the register at Aldi. Other people start with a job and are promoted up through their organization over the years. Beyond that, a group of people advance by being headhunted or constantly applying for jobs that are a step up from wherever they are at any particular time. Right now, the art market does not want the artist version of that. Figure out the thing you do and do that as long as air still fills your lungs. Some artists are more than happy to do it. Either that or they make incremental changes in their work that no one ever notices but them, and those changes that no one else can see are satisfying. This is not how the ball continues to roll forward. Pick an artist worth a damn and tell me they peaked at 33 and rode that for 40 years. I am not saying that I am great and that my greatness cannot be contained. I am saying that I am willing to take the risk. The possible outcomes of this risk include: complete artistic failure and anonymity for the rest of my life, artistic success and a collective head shrug from a disinterested audience that feels sorry for me, success in making new work and agreement from the outside. Those are always the options though.
I am either giving myself a promotion or making a lateral move. The next year will determine that. I sketched/painted some heads on a few small canvases this week. Two are ok. Two are bad. 50% is not a terrible starting place. That said, the good ones are good from a Freshmen Painting perspective. There is nothing in them that indicated an artist that had been hacking away at it for 20 years made them. That is the bar which must be used.
I have to make a lot of bad drawings to arrive at a new visual language for myself. I have to figure out a new way to move my hand in order to make new work. I am so tired of taping off shapes and stenciling forms. All of that gets put away and “pure” drawing is returning. Once I make some advances then I can start painting again. It will all be bad, but it is going to be ok. I am not a terrible artist. I do not have many stupid ideas. I know how to magnify strengths and hide weaknesses. It is going to be ok. That said, I am also somewhat prideful. I try to stomp on that every day but, it creeps up on me nonetheless. This pride cannot go unsatisfied so, in a small way, graphite guy is back. I’m not going to sit at a desk for 65 hours a week and sweat over the work again like I used to, but I am going to satisfy my need for success by slowly picking away at some drawings while I am doing all of this other stuff. That is it. It is not a huge revelation to say, “Stop doing the thing you do not want to do and start doing the thing that you do want to do” but it is all I have right now.
In other news, my family and I finally joined the church we have been attending for the past three years. I am not sure why we dragged our feet so much, but it is good to have a place that is officially home after years of being a “regular attender”. If you need me on Sunday mornings, come find me at City Church of East Nashville.
News story for the week:
The Nashville Symphony will be performing Olivier Messiaen’s Turingalîla Symphonie in April.
Here is a NPR story about it being performed in Baltimore.
Favorite tweet for the week:
Quote for the week:
“And so, I reckon that I am now at the beginning of the beginning of doing something serious.”
Vincent van Gogh, December 21, 1881
Lyric for the week:
No lyric for the week. Just listen to some Debussy piano works and chill out
St Augustine: City of God
Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning
Vincent van Gogh: Letters
The Book of Matthew
Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians