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thoughts about painting

My first love was music. I came to painting late, following a career as a jobbing composer and music producer working in NZ theatre, film and television. In my late forties I began to find in painting a way of making things that seemed to bring me closer to mystery than my musical limitations allowed.

I should probably start by saying that I don't really know what's going on when I paint. I don't have a particularly powerful or precise visual imagination. Nor do I consciously work something out and then put it on canvas. Though I used to draw quite a lot I rarely do any more. Painting and drawing seem more loosely connected now than they used to. I don't work with studies or cartoons. I seem to need to paint something to begin to see what it is. Painting has always been for me more a process of discovery than of assertion.

I read a lot. I think a lot. Maybe not that well, in terms of analytic precision and rationality. Too much, for equanimity. Everything merges into everything else. I'm a bit obsessive. Painting's about everything, really. Life. Belief. Feeling, thought, connection, isolation. Birth, love, death. Etc. Also colour, form, light, dark - and instantly we're into metaphor. Again.

The writers of words about painting matter, but maybe less than they think. The map is not the terrain. At some point the picture has to be seen as itself. In its own terms. Whatever that means. Language is hard to escape, but one must try. I see painting as more akin to music than it is to literature.

We have so many images now, so many facile ways of making, distributing and accumulating them, yet every single one has at least the potential to matter, to reward concentrated attention.

Because I sell so few, paintings are piling up around me, stacked against the walls in places a dozen or so deep. I live among them and at times within them. An odd sort of life. I would like to be able to see all of them at once to see what goes on between them, to see what wandering alongside them, through them, might add up to. Which is an inadequate representation of trying to see a whole life in a single glance, and as absurd as trying to put life and meaning in paint on canvas in the first place.

I put them up and take them down. For the quarter century I've been at it there aren't that many of them. The stacks mutate, though the paintings at the back tend to remain there. There are canvases and boards I've had for more than twenty years, that have been painted many times, mostly leaving no record of what has been obliterated. Occasionally I photograph things in progress, but the habit hasn't stuck. I am a bad and uninterested archivist, with only a rough idea in a lot of cases of when a painting has been finished or abandoned. Times blur, memories come and go, naming of people and things now entails a frustrating delay I have no choice but to accept. Days and weeks go by with little to make a show about.

Sometimes my paintings seem to matter, they seem alive, they add something that wouldn't exist without them. At other times they appear as an indulgent ruminative folly, more or less misguided, and of dubious value in a world that cries out for practical sanity.

There are apparently two broad strands in my work. One is figurative, human, theatrical, rhetorical, emotional and occasionally comic. The other is visually more abstract but no less subjective.

There are abstractish liminal landscapes. Horizons.

My paintings are in some way connected at the source, but are I hope distinct from one another. I have not actively sought a coherent style or ethos, or brand, or determinant practice, though such a thing could probably be scrabbled into existence if someone felt it to be necessary for marketing purposes.

For as long as I can remember I have been drawn to drama, melodrama, and the coincidences and fatalisms of narrative. Harmatia, hubris and nemesis. The shapes and gestures of story-telling, the representation of emotional states and progressions, the temporal immobility/mobility of the still image, the potency and fecundity of symbols and icons. The seductive inescapability and fluid boundaries of history and myth. The shifting temptations of ascribing meaning.

I suppose the ideal could be the making of icons. Not just concepts, illustrations, arguments, explanations or propaganda. Maybe something approaching the religious could be essential, if religious means not dogmatic but transcendent, illuminating, darkening, transrational, arational, irrational, but also rational to some necessary but immeasurable extent. Apocalyptic in the sense of revelatory. Myth and magic and mystery. That which binds us. Reach invariably exceeds grasp.

Exhibition is an inadequate and misleading term. So is show, though it does imply something is happening that hopes for wonder and a fertile suspension of disbelief. I can't think of a succinct term for something like 'this is a fragment of a world to wander about in, to inhabit for a time, for those who are willing. Not to stare at, but to stare into. Perhaps to stand inside and stare out.' Hard to make something worth that.

The older I get the more my mind becomes a derelict mansion of stuffed and empty rooms and rambling passages, attics and basements, whole wings boarded up by denial and amnesia, others open to storm and drought and tsunami, life-giving and pitiless sun. I paint accordingly. Sometimes I find out what I meant. Often I don’t.

Easy to fall short. Easy to fall.

‘The spirit desires to remain with its body because without the organic instruments of that body it can neither act nor feel anything.’ Leonardo.

Until it doesn't.


 


 


 

 

 

The idea of painting is old and resilient.

It might be helpful to consider the difference between knowing the name of something, and knowing the thing itself. The description is not the painting. The rationale is not the painting, as the painting is not the word. The urinal is also just a urinal.

The physical object is the painting - the digital representation, useful as it is, is not the thing itself. As facsimiles proliferate beyond human capacity to absorb, I want to stand up for the silent, still singularity of painting.

I think a painting worth keeping if it can sustain concentrated looking. Watching a painting to see what happens.

It is easy to lose the desire and right to watch and to listen, easy to be seduced by fashion, ideology and style, by speed and restless surfaces. I have sometimes thought, though less frequently as time passes, that we live in an age that is averse to stillness.

It is necessary to resist the falsehood that value lies in the gift of fashion and influence, or in the banal orthodoxies of critical legitimacy and commodified rebellion. The art market is rarely if ever about value, and the academy is frequently unwise.

I have been a slow and laborious learner. Painting is difficult, though no more difficult than most occupations and less than a lot, and always an attempt. Some attempts have more life than others.

In the face of ordinary human events, let alone war, oppression, mortality, art has duties, and not merely to itself. It seems good to me to at least try not to be trivial. This is not to exclude frivolity, which is an altogether different and precious thing. As the risks of blind self-absorption and personal and tribal narcissism are high, so is the need for scrutiny, and for mercy. Pictures arise from the particularities of one’s own life and the life around it, within a familiar zeitgeist or several, direct or circumlocutious attempts at meaning based on what has been experienced, learned, noticed, felt, absorbed, explored, seen, and often on what has not been understood, maybe can't be understood.

 

It has rarely seemed to me that trying to construct a coherent theory of art would be an expansive or creative thing to do – how could such a thing not be exclusionary, procrustean? How could it be truthful beyond dogma and ideology? How could it contain real surprise, real humanity?

(Where did this peculiar and insecure insistence on an artists's statement come from? Would a songwriter or a novelist bother with such a thing?)


 


 

 

I have a memory from when I was quite young, a mental picture of the physical presence of the bible. I imagined it as a robed woman with the head of a lizard, standing in a waist-high crude coil pot with a green glaze. She held a heavy opened book in both hands, and intoned from it in words I couldn't understand.

I have no idea where this image came from. I was sent every Sunday morning with my brother and sisters to a Presbyterian Sunday school. Our parents rarely if ever went to church, but my mother, out of some sort of duty, or possibly for protective colouration in a small town, or for companionship, for a while attended a women's society called the Fireside Club. All I recall of it is that they made a sort of mosaic of the burning bush out of coloured pebbles, and displayed it at the annual village flower show from which the scent of freesias flowed down the main street.

My parents were not believers. My father told me later that they thought we should know about Christianity, and the thin-lipped tedium of Presbyterianism made it the least likely denomination to seduce us into belief. Also they wanted us out of the house on a Sunday morning.

My grandfather said 'who said God said, and what's in it for them?'

I remember the dissonance between the swept and laundered order and security of the church, and the strangeness and cruelty, the dust and sweat and blood, of the stories they told and the pictures they showed us. I couldn't see, didn't want to see, what this terrifying world had to do with ours. Samson tearing down the temple to crush everyone in it, David triumpantly lifting the dripping monstrous head of Goliath, a discreetly suggestive Salome with the equally bloody head of the Baptist on a plate, Abraham holding a knife to Isaac's throat, the Grand Guignol of the crucifixion itself, the stoning to death of my namesake Stephen, Sebastian transfixed by arrows. All in a painted land of sand and stone and vast skies, where it appeared to have rained only once.

 

These scenes of torture and murder were pervasive yet their violence was never actually acknowledged. I could almost smell the blood and feel the slicing edges of the blades. It was impossible to reconcile these sensations with the quiet order of the church buildings and their rituals, the dull and lifeless bleating of repetitive hymns, the twitching boredom inflicted by sermons. I thought that either other people didn't experience this terror that held off and disrupted sleep, or they thought it didn't matter, or at least they knew how not to be afraid of it. Life was full of mysteries.

What the child absorbed: that religion is boring and frightening, contradictory and incomprehensible. That Christianity, for all its talk of peace and love and forgiveness, is sick with violence and pride and a love of cruelty and death, and the humiliation and fear at its core. That pictures and stories have real and palpable power. That things that are made up have real effects in a real world. That there is right and wrong, and wrongness is to be despised and punished. So it is necessary to be right, and weak and dangerous to be wrong.

 

 

Fixing a title to a painting is both suggestive and limiting.

It provokes or imposes meaning, it invites particular ways of looking, it evokes narrative and history and location, it encourages some kinds of connections and associations and discourages others. Some titles are expansive, others reductive. A painting changes with its name. I find myself as reluctant to assign titles as to avoid them. I find them and their effects endlessly fascinating.

I recently contemplated an exhibition of many paintings with only a few titles. I was going to call the exhibition Panic, with a group of paintings all named Pan, a second sequence all called Panic, a third all named Sacrifice, ending with a group whose naming I hadn't decided, maybe Catharsis, or Deliverance, or Sanctuary.

I changed the name of an abstractish landscape from Revelation to Panic. The painting also changed.


 

Sacrifice - to make, sacred.

I was brought up to be a scientific materialist in a household which ostensibly prized rationality but was often driven, hardly unexpectedly, by over-flowing emotion.

I have been a slow learner in most possible ways, prone to anxiety and sometimes dangerous depression, often fractious and as unsure of my ground, my legitimacy, as I could be strident in defence of it.

I am old enough to have seen the recurring patterns, to be painfully aware of the consequences of error and fear and procrastination, willed blindness and simple foolishness.

Belief moves mountains. Belief invites massacres.

If joy is a disturbing compound of delight and terror, which seems likely, then the balance of the elements matters. Happiness is not the same as joy.

People and the natural world are the necessary reservoirs and voices. Also music.

Paintings woven through with the idea of haunting.

Being haunted, by past and future, memory and forgetting, roads not taken, roads taken, love given, love received, love rejected and withheld, love fulfilled and betrayed, remembered and grieved, honoured and traduced, by accident, by intention, by neglect, by decree. Cruelty and kindness, courage and fear, misapprehension and connection. Work.

So what does it look like? What does it feel like?

When you look around you, at what is outside and what is inside - how do you tell? - even the dullest day contains ecstasy and terror if you allow it to show, and every state, every fate you hear of or could imagine is possible, and you can only bear so much of that but it is hard to turn your head away. Glimpses into others as they live and love and cope and fail, keeping things alive and sometimes hopeful.

Faces and bodies and landscapes and abstractions all hold their possibilities and realities, wishes and accommodations, victories and defeats, understandings and errors. Gatherings and losings. Facts and counter-factuals.

What lies underground, underwater. What has been buried and drowned. Where are the sunken slave-ships?

The visible that is hidden, the hidden made visible. Calypsis and apocalypse.

Who has agency, and who does not.

Because now feels like an endtime, a time to pull in the threads of history and tie a noose. The land burns, the sea overflows and engulfs, rivers fall from the sky and everywhere there is waste and poison. Time itself has been looted and squandered and we are close to exhausting our species allotment of it, just as we have wasted the allotments of so many other species.

So it goes, and so it will go, until we are gone. The universe will go on after us as it did before us, and the echoes of our brutish vanities and our loving glories will soon have died away.

So much for the empty glass. If depression is a consequence of dysfunctional denial, as a dying friend of mine emphatically asserted, and denial is not working, then the anguish of knowing what is going on somewhere all the time and everywhere some of the time undermines cheerful resilience, sometimes terminally. It doesn't make cheerful resilience any less necessary or any less magnificent.

After 25 years of painting I still have not lived within a community of painters. I used to live within communities that made music and theatre, films and television. Now you could fairly say I am too much a recluse, and my painting is the folly of a recluse, only made possible by turning away from a busy world it's not very good at thriving in. I do not assume that what I do is essential, or even legitimate or valid. I can see that it is out of time in many available ways. I lack a cause or a mission, my politics are wistful and of my life and time, also out of time, and not all that well connected to living. The bloody necessities and inevitable outcomes of revolution will have to go on without me, unless I am thrown under it and required to pay my long-standing debt to the skeletal piper. I don't even have a coherent theory to hang my painting from.

For me it seems that painting has been a record and memory and speculation. On what I have experienced, felt and believed, imagined. I have bugger all certainty or conviction to proselytise. I can only speak in the languages that I belong to, not try (pretend?) to speak in languages that belong to others. I can never learn as fast or as much as that would need.

There is no rounding off, no summing up. A mucky legacy. At times the paintings have seemed to matter, to be something worthwhile. I do think some of them are beautiful. A lot of the work probably isn't helpful. It's the workings of a person whose character and condition are well represented in the pages of the DSM, whose mental health and grasp of reality and connection have often been tenuous and unreliable. There is an excess of sadness and probably of anger, directed inward as much as outward. It is not reasonable.

 

 

 

Forty hears ago a despairing artist hanged himself. In his thirties. The reasons are complicated and only he knew exactly how they unfolded, but one of them was lack of money. Later, the resale value of a single one of his canvases might have enabled transformation of his discarded life. This is not a unique story.

Three years before the painter hanged himself I cut my neck. I survived not by intention but by serendipity and surgery, love and care. I thought I learnt more and better and more reliably from it than it turned out I did.

I was born in the same year as the painter and we went to university in the same city. I never knew him though my brother did. The brother of the mother of our children wrote a book about him. The painter and I were both drawn to and studied the work of Germans in the early part of the twentieth century, painters in his case and composers in mine. Beckman, Dix, Grosz. Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Weill. Also, of course, Bosch, Breughel, Goya, Beethoven, Berlioz, Turner, Mahler, van Gogh, Munch. European men, familiar with ecstasy and terror and the aspects of the world that they could see and know.

In later life I became a friend of the woman who was the painter's widow and mother of his son. I had turned from music to painting in my late forties. It felt like, and continues to feel like a kind of coming home.

That painter burnt early and fiercely. He painted with a vivid and visceral and passionate energy, purposefully using a mind-altering pharmacopeia to stretch his imagination. He was undoubtedly immensely talented. I associate his work with risk and intensity, a brightly coloured Dionysian world of paradox and darkness, the mysteries of ordinary things painted to be extraordinary. He seems to have found his purpose quickly, and made a substantial body of work in a relatively short time. Who knows the painter, the person, he might have become? Little point in speculating. His loss was brutal, and the waves from the stone it hurled into the lives around him are still surging, decades later.

I didn't know him and can't know him, but I find myself thinking about him increasingly often.  

We all live with ghosts. Epecially our own.

The time in front is less than that behind. Things have been made and done. There is no going back. The love made might be more fraying strings than seamless fabric, but some of them hold, even if mending connections with the dead is a losing game for a single player. Leave all fair, said Katherine Mansfield. That would be good.

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