On Painting

Painting is popular, and that puts it in danger of becoming trite. In contrast, I refer back to our oldest paintings-the ones in the Chauvet caves, and marvel at the unity and sparkle, the gestural integrity of the line, now, over 40,000 years later. No separation between spirit and animal, between writing and painting, or the artist and the shaman. The painting is the story. The cave painting shows the masculine function (whether we are male or female) of navigating the external world, of the hunt for what will give us sustenance. The feminine function is shown in the small sculptures of women found on the floor of the caves, holding the moon. The notches in the moon demonstrate an awareness of cyclical time. For how long has the moon been appearing, disappearing, and coming back again? In this day it is easy to have forgotten the sky, and the miracle that the moon mirrors the same cycle that is in our female body. And what about the stars- some shining down on us now in spite of the fact that they have died millions of years ago? This is a powerful image of the paradox of timelessness and brevity- reminding us that we are all made of the same (star)dust, and will return to it. Why do people go to see paintings?

(from Tim Ingold talking about Kandinsky):

They go, presumably, to see the paintings, and so that they can say that they have seen them. They think that artists are people who paint things, anything. And they suppose that once they have ascertained what a painting is of, and perhaps the intention of the artist in painting it, then they have seen it. They might perhaps admire the facility with which the subject matter has been rendered by the artist, or even seek to place the work in a social, cultural or historical context...Having accomplished all this, Kandinsky is telling us, they are no closer to experiencing the work of art as a painting than they were at the outset....

What is painting?

Painting is not about outward appearances, but awakens the inner life of our being, our imagination- the painting conveys an atmosphere. It is not about following trends. I long for the connection with otherness I can sometimes stumble upon in the act of painting– when consciousness is closer to a dream state. Annie Dillard describes it beautifully:

hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail.

This helps me understand why, in spite of my love of drawing, and pleasure in drawing what I see in the natural world- why I am compelled to paint what I cannot see, to "tap" (my word for listening inward) a long time before I have any idea what I am painting. It must come, for me, from the inside out. It takes a long time. How do you let an image find you?

I feel an affinity with Kandinsky's movement toward the abstract and Chagall's devotion to the dream world. This does not mean an absence of substance or content. It does mean staying away from literal or representational forms that limit or imprison the ability to grasp what cannot be said- or dictate meaning to the viewer. Good poetry serves the same purpose. How does one write or paint about the nameless things? We all know the phrase we cannot enter the same river twice. This is also true for  painting and poetry with depth– we enter anew each time- there is no fixed meaning.

Representation of an external object can be well rendered and lack any life of its own. One can master rhyme and meter in a poem and not take us anywhere. What I respond to in a painting is a sense of timelessness and immediacy. This is what I strive for, and may never achieve- the ability to convey the timelessness that transcends the world of objects coupled with the freshness that is not self-conscious.  What I reach for is fueled with the urgency of making room for what we cannot measure or see or taste or smell or hear or touch.

Another Night in the Ruins

I am superstitious, so it is too early to say much about the new series of paintings I am working on- or send out any images of these developing works. It will be at the New Editions Gallery in Lexington, KY:


Rodney Hatfield's paintings (shown at the link above) include ones I am compelled to return to.

For now I will post an earlier piece of mine that is in the Berlin Museum, Akademie der Künste, which has a feeling that is commensurate with ruins.

Ancestor Gate
Ancestor Gate

I want to thank Galway Kinnell, who is the inspiration or ground for the series I am now working on. He has given his permission for the subject of these paintings to be the contemplation of his poem, Another Night in the Ruins. I keep returning to his phrase:

our one work is to open ourselves