June 16, 2022

Mosquito Hands


When talking to collectors about my paintings, a typical question arises. How long does it take to make a painting?

Since I'm painting within the drying time of paint, it could be anywhere between two days to a week. Different colors dry at different rates. If the painting is dark, I know that I will be under a lot of pressure since a skin can develop overnight. My experience with midnight to dawn Navy watches and architectural charettes had prepared me very well for this eventuality. In fact, the wee hours are magical for me. If the painting is light, I can relax a bit. I can stretch out.

But the actual physical time of painting is only part of the story. Aside from building and stretching the panels, there's a crucial aspect most people don't factor when such a question arises.

Ideation, the x factor.

Creative stimulus. Inspiration. Visionary motivation. This is not about romanticism despite how loaded the terms are. It's simply about the wellsprings of imagination, a kind of customs passport control for the mental agents who enter the studio. Sometimes it comes in a flash. Sometimes it comes in a kind of argument / counter-argument, inspiration / counter-inspiration... an occasion that requires of course, disambiguation. This is usually, most difficult... and a sign of trouble since this means that my mind is perhaps not tuned as finely as it should.

I'm not making products. I'm not cycling random variations. I'm not anticipating a market. I'm not illustrating theory or political program. I require, I need that flash of insight, a lit imagination, what the ancients called the visit from the muse. In the 17th century, they called it afflatus, inspiration attributed to the divine. Such an event has a signature. It makes me happy. I feel elation. Wonder. I feel awe. I feel a sense of adventure. This last characteristic is most important. Sometimes, trouble arises when the vision seems too complete. What's best is to know with strength how to enter into a painting. What is usually bad is anticipating with too much certainty how a painting will end. Each painting needs a sense of discovery.

A current example.

Sometime before I met up with friend and collector Steve Shane at the Whitney to see At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth-Century American Modernism, somehow the paintings of Florine Stettheimer arose in my mind. She was a big influence on NYC early modernism of the 20's and 30's, comparable to Georgia O'Keefe. So when Steve and I turned a corner in the exhibit, it was utterly delightful to find two of Stettheimer's paintings on the wall. Kismet! Steve, also was delighted since he owns paintings from an artist who could be considered comparable. He flipped out his phone to show me the works of Thomas Trosch. I recalled at that moment James Ensor's Christ's Entry into Brussels. The aspect of Stettheimer's painting that struck me was less about her palette and more about the scale of her touch. Little bits of color, drawn one into the other with what looks like small brushes, drag scratch scratch scratch scumble right at the edge of clotted mud.

What if a mosquito painted a painting? A brush or even finger painting with its' tarsomeres (scientific classification for fingers, I love new words). Or better and to a scale more suitable to my purposes, a gecko. A brush in the grip of its sticky toe pads (or since I tend to not use brushes, think instead of palette knives, daubers and probes) would have to contend with the extremely small scale of impasto paint, the relation between mass, surface tension and resistance.

What was behind this impulse? A favorite saying of mine, especially when a collector is asking about the diversity of my painting, is to say in response that with contrast, one can become conscious. When I am painting too long in one particular vein, I tend to feel restless, or dulled in some way. Seeking out a contrapposto. Something different so that I can key up an awareness of what I had done and what is coming. I used to illustrate this as a sailboat tacking upwind. Or maybe this impulse is built into my genes? I'm a halfbreed, a mongrel mix of Caucasian and Malay. Forever interpolating my identity, I had never countenanced a singular category of who I am. Everyone is a mongrel, so I can't plant flags in any special way. It is what it is.

So after I was previously immersed in a brace of monochrome painting, I started to think of what could come afterwards. After the fields of color, drawing seemed to be a logical recourse. Beyond logic, the realm of the muse, the scale of touch emerged in my mind. To make the large monochromes, I had fashioned a plywood tool roughly the size of a fat skateboard. Beforehand, area coverage was a challenge given the nature of the paint I use and the skateboard let me think of a future when I could be in the middle of acres of canvas. Schnabel tennis courts.

And then, my boat tacked into the wind. A mosquito painter in a tiny garret.

Posted by Dennis at June 16, 2022 11:33 AM

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