August 23, 2014

You Will Know

The words floated up from the depths in my mind. One word at a time.




This summer, I have a short period of time that I can spend in Spain. Six weeks total, two of them with my wife, stealing away from tourist/vacation mode to prepare and stretch canvases. A four week window. With a show opening up in NYC on September 7th, I've got some important fish to fry stateside. But I wanted to leave behind in my wake in Spain as many excellent paintings as I could generate. I had Ramon, my carpenter, build out panels that I could paint on, in sizes small medium and large (5xS, 3xM, 3xL) and he delivered them in the first week. I brought canvas in my checked in luggage. By the second week, I had them stretched and sealed, ready to be painted. After that lay four weeks and the question of how many I could paint in that period of time.

An office metric, I use the rule of thumb of one painting per week for planning my calendar. That's enough time to gather my head, plunge into the painting and resolve it within five to seven days on average. Over the years, I have settled into painting within the parameters of alla prima technique (to paint all at once while it is wet). I like it for the advantages that constraints expose, I find virtue in the pressure, I like the simultaneous irony of courting failure and the capability to erase failure. Success this summer meant delivering as many great paintings as I could possibly generate within a short time frame. Eleven wonderful paintings in four weeks would be godlike. But, dear lord, I am made of such crooked timber.

(I painted eight.)

On the evening that those words floated to mind, I was tired. There are many kinds of tiredness. This was the one where your body isn't completely spent, and the mind still works, but it's as if not all of the modules of intellection are all online, it's was as if some of them were in a standby mode. I was tired but to rest would be costly to the rhythm of my work. Enervation. Sometimes a big meal can inflict it, but this time the fatigue was of a class as that found in marathons. The fatigue came from repetitive cycles of paintings. I was dumping out the sack of my mind, and like a magic act where something spills out even after one is convinced that the bag is empty, I kept finding avenues of exploration that required a subsequent painting to suss out.

Before I left NY for Spain, I had changed up my usual approach to painting and the thread kept unwinding for quite a while. It still is. Whereas I used to enter into a canvas knowing that each stream of paint applications would leave behind a combinatorial sequence that would result in a composition... this time, I'm starting with a masking off the canvas and then from there to alternating actions of order and chaos, each tempering each other into a narrowed sharpening of the painting as a whole. The change is that the composition would be resolved first and not last as in the previous approaches.

The former compositional question was settled upfront and all my attention could be focused on tacking between the systemic and the feral. The mask is an order with balls, but then it is obliterated by the next few passes of paint. Once the mask returns once the tape is lifted, the order returns but not so simple as it was before. Usually I think that it is too stark even so, so subsequent measured passes of paint condition and soften the severity of the ordered system.

Paint is applied with an acute awareness of how it was derived from the earth, separated and refined, distinctions made. Painting involves a controlled blurring of these categorical distinctions, black white red blue and yellow. Primaries become secondaries and tertiaries with every touch. Paint is delivered by tools and excess paint is kept to the side (carefully removed from the tools) for use later in the final stages when it is flicked back on to the painting, like a Dirty Martini with the brine cutting the purity of the mix. The flicks are of marbled paint, encoded with information specific to the painting itself, the complexity of which becomes logarithmic with each touch. Refined paint returns to the earth one way or the other via operations of human action.

As the masking evolved from vertical stripes to curves suggestive of volumes to the breakdown of geometric order into figural suggestion, I tend now to draw -with an actual pencil- more than ever before, to settle the issue of the composition. Making and breaking, I had to break the idea of picturing, so I pictured the breakage of the idea of picturing with an image derived from the cracks in Duchamp's "Large Glass". Since I had friends who have broken their screens on their cell phones, the theme is everywhere, all around me. And so this thread is still unwinding without an end in sight. Endlessness is a creature of the intellect. We are finite creatures. Thus we torture our finitude with the ambitions of our mind.

Rest, a.k.a. the sleep/ablutions/finding-food cycle, is expensive in terms of time and unpredictable in length. anything could happen. You could oversleep. You could meet someone at the cafe and get invited to a party or just for a beer... it's hard to say no when the camel's nose is the suggestion that it would only be for a small moment. You could eat slow food instead of fast (because you are sooooooo tired of what is immediately available) and push what could have been a 4 hour respite to eight or ten. As long as it was possible to recover while in the saddle, or in the studio as it were, then the best bet was to persist and let the wave of weariness pass. Louie Kahn used to sleep on a mat in his office. There could be yet another phase of painting ahead. Stuff could get done.

And so it was in this mental state that I had exchanged emails with Justin Wolf and Peter Hionas about the design of the catalog for the upcoming show (September 7 - October 5, 2014 at Hionas Gallery, NYC). Specifically, the title. We used a provisional title, "Affirmation". This was taken from a blogpost that I had written called This One's Optimistic: Pincushion, which was a meditation on what is the nature of an affirmative approach to painting in the aftermath of the oceanic epoch of postmodernism. Definitions were hazarded and assumptions mapped the terrain, the principal of which is that if the postmodern era was constituted of acts of negation (oooh, a spicy assertion!), then an expression of an antonymous nature -in the affirmative- would have to be more complex, it would have to be washed or marked by the postmodern experience.

"Affirmative" is insufficient to itself as an idea in terms of painting in the early 20th century, as as a species of writing, it is too direct, too analytical, too rational to convey dimension, offer surprise and to be pregnant with meaning. Blockheaded. So it was, during the evening that those words floated to my mind, that I was trying to come up with an alternative. What's better than "Affirmation"? Creative problem solving 101: you externalize your mind so see what's in it. So I started a list:

Affirmation Too flat, simple, direct, academic and plain.
More Than Affirmative This is the title I threw on the Evernote File mentioned above.
Affirmation, Annealed. I'm rifling through the Thesaurus.
Annealed Annealing is a slow cooling, I was thinking of hot steel plunged into cold water...
Tempered ...and this would be more correct to the idea (of a transition or reconciliation that strengthens).
Say Yes, Again I answered in the affirmative and added eternal recurrence.

The list goes on for several other entries but it makes me nauseous, even to copy and paste. You get the point. The title has to come from the class of imagination and not rationalism.

So in the slanted sunlight of my mind, cutting the fog, slowly arose the three words in succession.




At first, I thought: nice. But why? Should I trust this? Should I write them down? At this point I was trying to stave off real rest with cat naps, shooting for fifteen minutes and erring at forty five. Maybe I had dreamt it all? At any rate, I didn't have the energy even to write the words down, or at least I didn't summon it. So I let them go, like a fish in catch and release. If the idea is strong, it will return.

Hours later, I wondered just what was that idea, that title that came to me so? The words arose again in this theatrical fashion, a picture of a picture of words in my mind. This time I was more alert. Again, I did not write them down, distrusting their charm, the attractiveness of the near-visionairy aspect of it all. As I returned to this decision not to decide, the memory of those words began to fade in the same rate as they arose, and again I thought that if they were meant to be, I would remember them. The next day, refreshed, I remembered indeed and did write them down this time. It was time to cook the fish.

Posted by Dennis at August 23, 2014 1:26 PM

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