I will have 3 drawings at Tennessee State University as part of the Nashville Visionaries show, curated by Carl Pope. The reception is Thursday, January 31 from 4-6 with an artist talk at 6:30 for those that are interested.
This week has been spent in search of a zero point. A desperate way to describe it would be to refer to it as “bottoming out” but let us stay positive. Matthew Fisher describes breaking with a certain period of his work as a desire to draw or paint “nothing”. He had drawn and painted soldiers for a number of years in response to the Iraq War and, at some point, needed a way out. I am not sure what led to the shift other than the burden of the themes and all of the “stuff” that was required to flesh out a scene: objects, natural phenomena, multiple figures. That process can all take its toll, at least for making art. It grinds down your will to walk into a studio and think, “I have to paint grass all day.”
Here is where I am right now. I have invested about 5 years of studio work to creating drawings and paintings in response to a few refugee crises. I would never consider it political art, just human. 5 years of internet searches on Syria, ISIS, the Central African Republic, etc brought a lot of imagery onto my screen that I will never un-see. Crucified children, members of ISIS juggling decapitated heads, corpses that have been tortured beyond recognition, capsized boats where people drowned, bodies washed ashore. I have the fortune (?) to only have to see this through a screen. These images are recorded because people much braver than me are living through this and smuggling footage out to sympathetic people or they are on rescue boats in the Mediterranean or part of the liberating forces trying to save their corner of the world. When I am finished for the day, I can go watch Star Trek or Doc Martin or something. I am not living this, just reacting to it. Prior to this body of work, I made drawings to battle through an unhealthy, 18-month period of nostalgia. Prior to that I made an entire show about death that was dismissed as me “relaxing” and “just drawing landscapes”. That show was probably misinterpreted because prior to it, I made a body of work about a murder that happened near my house in college. My attempt at subtlety was a bit too light-handed, I guess.
I think about all of this with these occasional bouts of nostalgia that I get. This is not having a song or smell trigger a memory and then it is gone. Nostalgia is that plus an ache in the chest that stays with you for an extended period of time. It is walking around in a fog of overlapping times. A twenty-year-old memory superimposed on top of what is happening right in front of you. This is no different than my history with sleepwalking. When you are sleepwalking, your eyes are usually open, so your brain is processing real time space even if you are not conscious of it. Your brain is stitching together the reality in front of you with the imagery conjured up in your dream. The closet door in front of you is both a closet door and a subway door at the same time. A bookshelf, full of cassettes, is a both a bookshelf, full of cassettes, and a bench at a restaurant where you are waiting for your party to be seated. And in your dream, you wonder why the bench you just sat on is covered in cassettes. And when you wake up in the morning, you have to pick all of your cassettes up off the floor.
Nostalgia is never a longing for the way things used to be or a desire to return to a simpler time. It is a desire to return to simpler version of yourself; a desire to be naïve and innocent. You know the world is not and never has been innocent, but at some point, you were. That is what you miss. A lot of people my age hear Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” in the grocery store and are reminded of junior high and remember that junior high was not great but at least it was just junior high that was not great. Existence was otherwise tolerable and enjoyable most of the time. It was not that junior high is awful and you also had to look at photos of dismembered ISIS victims. You were immune to the true horrors of the world. The bully in P.E. that ran drug deals before you were subjected to a Lord Of The Flies situation in a junior high gymnasium was the worst thing on your plate most days.
“Sound of Silver talk to me
Makes you want to feel like a teenager
Until you remember the feelings of
A real live emotional teenager
Then you think again”
I think about this with the refugees I read about. I am in my mid-40s and I have this kind of longing for the innocence of winning Earth’s lottery to grow up in a comfortable, middle class, 80s America. I have stayed within that social standing for the past 30 years, but I still miss it? How do you feel if you are a mid-40s Syrian? What must you long for in your past that in no way can return to you? I miss a grocery store when it closes, and the grocery store did not even close, it just moved. I miss a farm when it is sold, and houses are built on it. What if your grocery store and everything within a mile of it was blown off the map? What if the farm was now a battlefield? I can at least drive by the movie theaters I used to go to when I was a kid. None of them are theaters anymore but at least the buildings are there. Then consider that your son or daughter will never even have the luxury of nostalgia for a time when life seemed innocent and you will not be able to explain it to them so that they understand. Their only shot at that kind of feeling is in the future and therefore not guaranteed. They were born into death. I cannot wrap my head around any of this.
I live with a belief system where this world is but a shadow of a future glory. Art is a shadow of a greater creation. Our innocence, if we experience it at all, is but a portion of the glory to come. This nostalgia that I carry with me, and even encourage some days, would unravel my mind if I thought it only pointed to the past. I embrace it some days because it points to a glorious future.
None of that points me in a direction in the studio but it is helping to eliminate some options to get to that zero moment. In some ways, it is a decision to choose joy and seek it out. That sounds escapist and maybe it is. But if you look at what Netflix, etc produce today, they are simply choosing to pursue dystopia. No one really needs to hear Ted Bundy interview tapes. This is not a need for the greater civilization. The decision to make a movie about that and then put it on Netflix is banking off murder. You can argue that it helps us understand the criminal mind, but most people do not really need to understand the criminal mind. To embrace this is a choice as much as choosing hope and joy. I do not keep score but, in my mind, there are only a handful of movies and TV shows that have an optimistic view of the future, mainly Star Trek and Back to the Future 2. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy at some point.
One studio decision, for the moment, is to move away from the figure. It is too loaded, and I want to make too much of it. Even an isolated head has too much baggage. That leaves me with landscapes for now. I am still batting .500 in terms of the final product, but it is ok. This is all experimentation and learning. If the worst thing that I do for the next few months is paint “pretty” Fauvist-inspired landscapes, then that still could be more beneficial to the people that see them than my last body of work.
Lyric for the week:
“Glory to you/Glory to you/Take me there/Take me there” – INXS, “Suicide Blonde”
Quote for the week:
““I wouldn’t give two cents for life if there were not something infinite, something deep, something real.”
Vincent van Gogh December 21, 1881”
The Book of Matthew
Paul’s Letter to the Colossians