ritual denial

studio_12dec2013[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my teaching practice, I regularly send my advising group a preface letter—which comes before a second letter that speaks directly to a student’s individual work—in which I speak to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, my practice, or the program’s degree criteria. From time to time I share the letters here.]

25 November 2013

Dear friends,

I meant to think about painting this semester. I mean to REALLY think about painting. And to making paintings, too. Instead life sidetracked me and I spent a lot of time thinking about loss. I ended up writing more than painting, when I intended to pursue both in balance

It happens.

Every six months, I try to assemble a personal study plan—or something like a study plan, something that frames and guides my learning, creative, professional, and life goals.  At the summer residency, as you were assembling your study plans (in off-moments, after meetings, between things) I was squirrelling away notes that would eventually constitute my plan. With the semester coming to a close—and, given my schedule, with the New Year on our horizon—I’ve been reviewing my plan and trying to assess my success in meeting my aspirations. I’m also trying to salvage things that can be accomplished in the next thirty-days or reframe parts that may have been too ambitious; and I’m trying to integrate those unanticipated experiences and events that now feel particularly weighty. In a few cases I’m furiously trying to catch up, while in others I feel sanguine about my progress or sense of stasis. However, when it comes to painting, I feel like I’ve missed my mark, like I’ve sidestepped a commitment that mattered to me.

I really meant to take these six months to rearticulate my theory of painting. I meant to make new kinds of painting.

When Kurt got sick, in the early mornings, before I’d sit at my desk, before going to the hospital, I tore my studio apart and began to rebuild it. After Kurt died, my labor ended. My studio remains in pieces, only half assembled.

In retrospect, I think my impulse to tear apart and rebuild my studio was a means through which I was trying to deny death; through an optimistic gesture I was trying to compel a generative future. Once I recognized the futility of my chore—no labor forestalls the inevitable—I walked away from my studio. And paintings didn’t get made.

I recently admitted to my boyfriend that too frequently I feel like a hypocrite.

As a teacher I frequently reflect on the various ways that artists can integrate practice into busy lives. I talk about committing to intentional ritual practice, like writing for a period of time each day; making a commitment to being in one’s studio, no matter one’s sense of “inspiration,” at routine and predetermined times; meditating; or making space to read and reflect everyday. In theory, undertaking these disciplines, over time, allows significant works to emerge. I genuinely believe that these strategies work, and that my advice is well founded. I’ve known them to work for me.

Yet, I’ve also recently found that committing consistently to these strategies has proven to be difficult, and in the past three months—in the face of life’s busyness, unpredictability, and fullness—it’s sometimes felt downright impossible. And, even as I have been able to commit to the daily rituals of practice, I’ve found there’s something missing from my equation: the kind of singular focus necessary for turning life’s raw material into fully realized composition.

In my exhortations toward ritual practice, which frankly I picked-up from my teachers, there is an inference of linearity, an assumption that one thing leads inevitably to another. And my exhortations assume confidence—both in one’s thinking and in one’s capacity to make something of serious reflection. But can we really trust that our thoughts and preoccupations are somehow, subliminally perhaps, working on something that’s winning? Can we sort our best impulses from the authoritative chatter about what we must and shouldn’t do that’s increasingly subsuming our saturated lives?  Can we even trust that our affinities are pointing us in the right direction? And how do we know?

I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t hold inhibitions about pursuing his or her creative work. My inhibitions include the voices of past teachers—both those who critiqued my work with a narrow understanding of good painting, as well as those who dismissed painting’s relevance in the heat of their own generational quarrels.  And they include my own sense of inadequacy and nihilism regarding the relevance of anything I have to say. I have developed (continue to develop?) strategies for reminding myself that relevance has nothing to do with profundity. And it’s my intention not to be like those teachers whose parochial voices haunt me in my studio—although I know from experience that fully containing my biases, my preferences, and my own shortsightedness is exceedingly difficult. Even so, these factors too often combine in a powerful cocktail of inhibition and delay.

In relation to the kinds of distractions that I describe, and to the haunting voices of our inner (and sometimes all-too-real external) critic, I try to remember this insight from the painter and printmaker, Philip Guston:

I believe it was John Cage who once told me, ‘When you start working, everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas—all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.’

My schooling as an artist was caught up in a theoretical tension that still exists in the arts. Trained as an illustrator and painter during the last moments of Modernism, and having entered graduate school during the waning ascendency of Post-Modernism, my education misdirecting me from my affinities and strengths toward the politics of the moment. As an undergraduate I was taught explicitly that writing had little value to a painter’s life, and indeed I graduated art school a worse writer than when I began.  As a graduate student I was told that painting had little relevance to contemporary art, and it was implied that my ability to engage theory was, perhaps, more important than my competence with craft. With distance and (hopefully) greater maturity, I now see how both sets of teachers were working from perspectives grounded in the tenor of their times.  So it’s with these reflections that I admit that it’s not just life’s recent exigencies that kept me from thinking about painting, but also excising ghosts of another kind. As Jonathan Harris has framed it, my experience fits within a particular bit of theoretical tumult:

In the later 1960s the emergence of Minimalism and Conceptualism evidenced the arrival of diverse ideas and practices dialectically related to philosophical, political, and social analyses of a wide variety of kinds, many of them ‘counter cultural’, connected to socialist, feminist, ‘post colonial’, and ecological currents—pushing art and criticism into a new phase of existence and leading to these central terms themselves coming under serious and contentious strain. Painting lost out. But could the discourses of ‘art’ and ‘criticism’, so tied to the history of painting over many centuries, ever adequately offer to describe these new practices of making and thinking, representing and analyzing? When painting returned (thought it never really went away), its primary ideological and institutional place had vanished: like the fairy tale character off to seek his fortune, Dick Whittington, it had to seek a new life, with its bag of tricks cheerfully wrapped in a handkerchief on the end of a stick, and find a way of living with the other hungry creatures of the contemporary art world. (Jonathan Harris, “‘Contemporary’, ‘Common’, ‘Context’, Criticism’: Painting After the End of Postmodernism,” Contemporary Painting in Context, c. 2010, p. 35)

It would be unfair and incorrect to imply that I didn’t benefit from navigating the terrain I encountered during my schooling.  To be sure, I learned to pursue inquiry with rigor, developed a capacity to work independently, established a research practice, and, to some degree, and I loosened up enough to allow myself to learn for the delight of it. And with age if nothing else, I now have greater confidence in my sense of vision and in my commitment to the core forms of my practice.

A few weeks ago I ran into an old acquaintance. He asked me about my painting, and remarked that he remembered me, twenty-years ago, to be a very good painter. His comment prompted memories, thoughts that were buried by my willingness to accept the wrong-headed idea that painting was irrelevant. I was dissuaded from pursuing one trajectory in my work, which has proven to be undermining in profound ways.  So I now return to the place where I left off a dozen years ago; I’m trying to again find my voice as a painter, trying to gather new tricks as I refresh my acquaintance with those that have served me well.

It’s no secret that my early work is influenced by the work of the San Francisco School of Figuration (and Abstract Expressionism), particularly the work of Richard Diebenkorn. As a starting place to my current meditation, I’ve been looking at his work again and considering some notes found in Diebenkorn’s studio after his death. They are transcribed verbatim (funny punctuation, typos, capitalization and all…). I think they are relevant for many art forms:

Notes to myself on beginning a painting – by Richard Diebenkorn

1. attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be 
a valuable delusion.

2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued — 
except as a stimulus for further moves.

3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.

4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely 
expendable.

5. Dont “discover” a subject — of any kind.

6. Somehow don’t be bored — but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive 
potential.

7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.

8. Keep thinking about Pollyanna.

9. Tolerate chaos.

10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

Of course these notes are highly personal, written by an artist for himself. They are not ideas or techniques that he necessarily shared with students or other painters. And, I expect, each of us might be able to write a similar set of “notes to myself.” And, perhaps, that’s what this letter attempts to do for me.

I offer this letter, and my equivocation, as a way of underscoring my solidarity with some of the uncertainty you may be feeling about your work, to assure you that there is no moment when diligent persistence results in full clarity, and to make some things about my method transparent. Some of you may have wondered about my optimism about your work, even questioned whether I was being tough enough on you. I firmly believe that you’ll find the truth and rigor of your work through passionate and diligent labor; that you’ll determine what rigor and passion mean to you by immersing yourself in your projects; and that by naming your own questions and intentions you will excite yourself enough to continue making work. I believe that you’ll find the fuel and sustaining energy to pursue your goals by running toward your best hunches with joy, and not by second guessing my preferences, beliefs or prejudices. My job is to help you develop the tools to open the terrain that you believe is important, not to tell you where to go. It’s to engage your questions and help you follow them with skill and keen thinking. It’s always my sincerest hope that any discussion about your work is in service to helping you become a stronger and more confident artist. No one needs to walk the frustrating circle that I’ve traversed; and no one needs to hold the doubts that were projected upon me.

As for me, it’s time to finish rebuilding my studio.

There were other matters about which I wanted to think this semester, too. And to a degree I succeeded. I thought a lot about my spiritual conduct, about ethical engagement, about avocation, and about boundaries.  I also spent some time reading food writing. It started when I devoured Luke Barr’s fascinating book, Provence 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste. The book, developed initially from a journal kept in December 1970 by his great aunt, MFK Fisher, documents the convergence of a number of American food professionals in Provence during the winter of 1970. As a social history, it situates the emergence of food culture in shifting post-War Euro-American culture. Barr’s book led me to quickly read a biography of James Beard, and back to some of MFK Fisher’s essays (with more on my upcoming horizon). With regard to Fisher’s writing I am reminded of the simple, primal aesthetics of being at table, and to the way that our ability to engage those aesthetics often parallel our capacity to engage other aesthetic experience. On the topic of aesthetic reflection, considering the many books about food she’s collected, MFK Fisher writes:  I look at my crammed shelves and feast with artful reflection, for no meal is good that cannot be reflected upon with pleasure. (An Alphabet for Gourmets, 1949, p.83.)

Replace “art” for ‘meal” in this passage and you have something of my personal theory of art.

2 thoughts on “ritual denial

  1. Re: “No one needs to walk the frustrating circle that I’ve traversed; and no one needs to hold the doubts that were projected upon me.”

    I suspect – all being human, that we will walk frustrating circles and hold doubts projected upon and manufactured by ourselves along the paths we choose to follow. It is those moments – lost in the maze of life – that brings us closer to the self we will eventually get to leave behind to be free.

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