On Painting

Another cross-post from Horizons of Significance,

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I’ve been thinking about your paintings and what you wrote about them.

Part of the reason I’ve waited to respond has been wanting time for my thoughts to percolate.

It’s so good that you’re painting. Carving the time and dealing with the logistics. That’s tremendous and shows the tenacity I always saw in you, good job!

“My first painting evolved with ease…. …and so begins the long drawn out process.” That’s where art lives, in the space between those two statements.

I like these two paintings, they’ve grown on me too.

What I wrote about in Drawing Distinctions applies to painting as well. It’s a navigation between assumptions and accidents and perception and development. This happens at its own pace and keeps you continually off-balance. The tendency is to see this as a bad thing and “short-circuit” art into some sort of production.

Paintings are footprints. They show where you’ve been and point towards where you’re going, all from within a deep fog where everything is confusing and maybe you can see back a few steps and ahead a little into the glare or gloom.

It’s a practice.

A practice differs from a process, it has elements of ritual, stretching a canvas, cleaning brushes, sweeping the studio, — it used to include a lot of sitting and staring and smoking cigarettes. — it still should include a lot of sitting and staring!

The outcome is a gift of grace not something we have “controlled into being.” We are responsible for it. It is more a series of obligations than some form of superficial benefit. We need to give paintings what they need. We need to do what they say we should do next. We need to save them from destruction, by others sometimes, most often by ourselves when we don’t understand what we’ve done. It’s scary or uncomfortable, and we destroy it, instead of waiting to hear what it has to tell us, waiting to see what it has to show us.

Painting grounds us, literally. As footprints, paintings show us where we have touched reality. They are the cleanest connection between our interior selves and the outer world.

Painting, and paintings, can help others by showing them a path someone has taken and by our ability to share the results in a tangible form. Whatever grace has adhered to the work feeds others by showing that grace is possible and that it can be shared and held in the mind and between people.

None of this is about a career, or having a clique, or even just simply fetishizing the work we’ve made. These are all inimical to what painting can be.

Just briefly, let me explain the problem with fetishizing the work. We admire a painting we’ve done. It strikes us as having captured grace in some way. We value it for that. This is fine. It is a joy we can have as painters. The problem comes when we use that painting to build a temple to our own egos instead of seeing it for what it is, a manifestation of grace that has come through us. As soon as we fall into that trap, we derail the entire enterprise. We become addicted to a superficial result. We try to repeat it, control it, give ourselves the rush on a regular schedule. This takes us further and further from the practice. Makes it less and less likely we will ever be touched by grace again. Our reactions spiral us out of balance. Is this the work’s fault? No. It’s ours.

We are confronted with Being and one response is to paint. What we do when we paint is to attempt to capture what we can perceive of being and discover how we can transform those experiences into an object that holds some of the wonder we feel in the face of being. Being is infinite. Our perceptions of it are particular and could have an infinity of potential manifestations. We navigate a course that explores within those boundaries. It’s dizzying to see the breadth of freedom that leaves us. It is easy to close off avenues in a capricious triage, just to narrow it all down enough to seem manageable.

There’s the rub! Capricious and manageable are false choices. By necessity we are limited, by who we are and who we are not. Our practice will narrow itself, without our hacking away at potential branches. We may find we’ve cut away precisely the branches that would have been most fruitful. Of course we’ll never know once they’re gone.

We hunger for the manageable. There are limitations imposed on us, some are general, others specific only to us. These limitations, and our discovery of them, and where they will lead us, are legitimate aspects of the practice; but they have nothing to do with managing! How can we be wrestling with the infinitude of being and struggling to find grace and think we can manage it?! There lies short-circuit and hubris leading to thwarted failure.

Talent, as a result, is a boon and a curse. Whatever we bring into painting may help or may hurt us. It’s all in how we respond. This is another way of saying that it’s all our responsibility. That is where our greatest joy as painters can come from, knowing we are responsible, that we are stewards to the work. Knowing we have found a realm where we have mastery, the kind of mastery that is possible for us to maintain, mastery over our own responses. Knowing that as we work we don’t hurt anyone, we’re not violent, we’re not coercive, we only suggest.

We may teach others through what we do, but predominately we teach ourselves. We enact a practice that lets us take our human condition, mix it with time and a few basic materials, and make some things. In the process, in the act of carrying out this practice, we move our selves. We can deepen our understanding, as we deepen our awareness of the mysteries of being. There are few other paths anyone can take that can do as much.

Keep it up!

It’s dangerous to be too specific in talking to a painter about their own work; but I do want to say I find both these paintings to be authentic and powerful. These are good steps, or leaps, to have made!

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