Archive for March, 2011

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.


-W.C. Fields
Okay, maybe those aren’t the most inspirational words ever uttered.
But I’ve been thinking about the nature of failing and succeeding ever since reader Tom Seltz posed a few questions on the subject to me the other day.  I wrote yesterday about how failure for what I do was truly subjective, completely comprised of shades of gray.  But as I thought about it through the day I came to same conclusion for what is considered success for my paintings.  The perceived success of a piece is also truly subjective.  It has happened many times that a piece that I felt succeededgreatly for me has languished and raised little attention in the galleries.  I know that this doesn’t necessarily designate it as a failure but it points out the subjective perception of art.
I think this differs for various types of art.  Obviously, in portraiture there are more objective aims that must be met in determining the success or failure of a piece.   Ask anyone who has taken on a portrait commission.  I immediately think here of a portrait of George Stephanopoulos that was painted by Joseph Solman in the 1990’s when Stephanopolous was still part of President Clinton’s team.  Solman, who died  in 2008 at the age of 98 and one of the leading lights of the Modernist movement of the 30’s, painted Stephanopoulos in tints of green.  I thought it was a spectacular painting, a rousing success, when I saw it but Stephanopoulos had a differing view, seeing it instead as a failure, refusing to buy it.  Two polar views of the same painting.  Sadly, I can’t find an image of it to show here.   Painters who work in an ultra-realistic manner face the same objective viewing of their work. 
My work tends to be more about expression and emotion rather than sheer representation so this creates even more gray area for objective analysis.  I don’t really care about exactitude in rendering so long as the emotion that I’m seeking comes out and a sense of rightness exists around whatever I am depicting.  While I don’t have a great concern for the object being perfect, it can’t be absolutely wrong.  This emotion and sense of rightness are the main objectives for my work  so there is little to go by as far as judging a work a failure or a success.  And I like that.  I would rather the individual judge my work for what they see and sense in it rather than than by having them judge how it compares to reality.
I know I’m way off target here and not sure I’ve made my point  but I’m leaving it to be at this point.  Keep in mind, this is just thinking out loud here.  I may change my mind about the whole thing completely by tomorrow. 

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In response to yesterday’s post concerning a very large blank canvas that is waiting patiently for me, I received several very interesting questions from my friend, Tom Seltz, concerning the role that failure and the fear of failure plays in my work.  He posed a number of great questions, some pragmatic and some esoteric,  that I’ll try to address.

On the pragmatic side, he asked if there is a financial risk when I take on large projects like the  4 1/2″ by 7′ canvas of which I wrote.  Actually, it’s not something I think about much because every piece, even the smallest,  has a certain cost in producing it that, after these many years, I don’t stop to consider.  But a project such as this is costlier as a larger canvas is more expensive right from the beginning simply due to the sheer size of it.  The canvas is heavier and more expensive and there is more used.  I use a lot more gesso and paint.  And while the cost of materials is a larger cost the biggest financial risk comes in the time spent on such a project.  It takes longer to prepare such a large canvas, longer to paint and, if it works out, longer to finish and frame.  This is time not spent on other projects.  Wasted time is by far the biggest risk in facing such a project and that is something I have to take into consideration before embarking on large projects.

He also asked whether I can reuse the materials if I don’t like what I’ve painted.  Sure, for the most part.  Especially canvasses.  Actually, the piece shown here was such a piece.  I had a concept in my head that floated around for months and I finally started putting it down on this 30″ square canvas.  I spent probably a day’s worth of time and got quite far into it before I realized that it was a flawed concept, that I was down a path that was way off the route I had envisioned.  It was dull and lifeless, even at an early stage.  It was crap and I knew that there was no hope for it.  I immediately painted it over, mainly to keep me from wasting even more time by trying to resuscitate it,  and this piece emerged, happily for me.

Tom also asked if I ever “crashed and burned” on a piece or if the worst sort of failure was that a piece was simply mediocre.  Well, I guess the last paragraph says a bit about the “crashed and burned” aspect, although that is a rarer event than one might suspect.  The beauty of painting is that it’s results are always subjective.  There is never total failure.  It’s not like sky-diving and if your parachute doesn’t open you die.  At least, that hasn’t been my experience. 

Mediocrity is a different story.  That is the one thing I probably fear most for my work and would consider a piece a failure if I judged it to be mediocre.  I have any  number of examples I could show you in the nooks and crannies of my studio but I won’t.  They have a purpose and some have remaining promise.  The purpose is in the lessons learned from painting them.  I usually glean something from  each painting, even something tiny but useful for the future.  But most times,  the mediocre pieces teach me what I don’t want to repeat in the future.  A wrong line here.  A flatness of color there.  Just simple dullness everywhere.

But, being art, there are few total failures, and many of these somewhat mediocre pieces sit unfinished because there are still stirs of promise in them.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come to what I felt was a dead end for a painting, feeling that it was dull and lifeless, and set it aside.  Months and months might pass and one day I might pick it up and suddenly see something new in it.  A new way to move in it that brings it new life.  These paintings often bring the greatest satisfaction when they leave the gallery with a new owner.  Sometimes failure is simply a momentary perception that requires a new perspective.

Okay, that’s it for now.  I’m sure I have more to say about failure but it will have to wait until a later date.  I’ve got work waiting for me that doesn’t know the meaning of the word failure and I don’t want to risk that it might learn it.

Tom, thanks again for the great questions.  I’m always eager for good questions so keep it up!

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Here’s a shot from my studio at about 6:45 this morning.  If you look out the window to the lower right of the canvas you can see one of the deer who seem to be always in my yard trying to find a bit of grass that is finally showing through the remaining snow.  The canvas itself has been hanging around the studio for a couple of weeks now since I stretched it.  It’s a looming presence at 4 1/2 ‘ high by 7’ wide, easily the largest canvas I have ever faced.  A long way from the tiny paintings, some as small as 1″ square,  with which I began my career.

As I said, it’s been hovering for a couple of weeks and the sight of it is both exciting and terrifying.  On one hand, it holds the potential for something big and exciting.  But on the other hand, it sits like a black hole threatening to absorb everything around it.  It’s so large that to fail is to do so on a grand scale with nowhere to hide the flaws.

So it has just sat there, waiting for me to face it.  I don’t know if today is the day to start the journey into whatever this will offer or if I will again set it aside and do something different.  Something  smaller and less daunting.  Normally, I just start and kind of let the painting take me where it will without a lot of foreplanning.  But I’m torn here, thinking that I need to at least have a clue of the final destination for this large piece.  Some sort of plan.

But I don’t have one.  I’m tempted to go with a huge version of the new work with a sky full of clouds, thinking that the visual impact of it on such a scale would be really dynamic.  I can somewhat see it in my head and if I can catch the right subtlety of color that I’m seeing, it would bang off the wall.  But there’s a little hesitation on my part and I’m not fully committed yet.  And before I start something on this scale I want to be fully invested in the belief that I will draw something alive out of this. Sitting here now, I’m beginning to feel that I need another few days to consider it more, to try to see something more concrete in my mind before I embark on this journey.

Hmm.  We’ll have to see what comes from this.  I’ll let you know.

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This is a new painting that is a variation of the new work I showed here last week.  If you read yesterday’s post you’ll probably recognize the the look and feel of this piece as being the antithesis to the feelings I was experiencing myself and seeing in the darker work of Grosz.  This is a painting that is forward looking and filled with positivism.  Oh, it has dark edges and traces of something ominous lurking beneath the surface of the colors but it takes an optimistic, almost triumphant stance.

This is a larger painting, 24″ high by 48″ wide, and just glows in the studio amid the other strongly colored work around it.  The color is vibrant and bold and decisive.  It puts itself forward and demands that you look at it whether you like it or not.  And I think this is a piece with which the viewer will make that decision very quickly.  I don’t think there’s a lot of middle ground here.  It is demanding and not subtle, not for those who seek something that blends into its surroundings. 

But it is in the same vein as the bulk of my work.  Despite its bold feel, it is filled with quiet and space.  The quiet is a bit different, like an exultant outward quiet rather than an introverted, examining quiet.  I don’t know if there is actually such a difference in magnitude of quiets but if there is, this painting is of the more vibrant, even loud,  sort of quiet.

I also see this as being very empowered.  The central figure of the red tree is beneath a large sky and a vast open landscape but doesn’t seem overpowered or overwhelmed by its place in this scenario.  It seems to be larger than life and defiant of the clouds above, pushing them away to claim its view of the sky.  In fact, I call this painting Push Away the Clouds

As my words attest, I feel pretty strongly about this piece.  Whether others will see it in the same way is beyond my control so I’m not worrying about it at the moment.  For now, I’m using it to pushing away my own clouds.

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I woke up in the dark this morning after a fitful night of sleep filled with horrible dreams.  I don’t want to go into the details but they were awful and constant, each sweeping from desperate scene into yet another.  Dark and tinged in deep colors of black and red.  Hopeless in the scope of their finality and, though I am hesitant to use the word, there was a sense of apocalypse.  I was shaken.  I’ve had many horrifying dreams over the years but they seldom felt so vast and desperately final. 

 As I trudged down to pick up my newspaper I tried to sort out the dream and try to find an equivalence in imagery that I know that captured in some way the feel of these dreams.  As I neared the studio the dark paintings of George Grosz done in Germany in the years before World War I came to mind.  They were forebodingly dark and angry and just the overall look of them made me think of the darkest corners of man’s mind.  The red tones and the way they filled the picture plane along with the chaotic nature of the compositions brought to mind the nightmarish feel of my dreams.

Grosz’s work changed over the years, especially after moving to the New York in the 1930’s where he lived until the late 1950’s when he returned to Berlin, dying there in 1959.  His American work is often considered the wekest of his career, less biting and more esoteric.  There were exceptions such as 1944’s  Cain, Or Hitler in Hell, shown here, which reverts back to the colors and nightmare feel of his early work.  Very powerful work that may not sooth one’s soul but rather documents the darker aspects of human existence. 

I don’t know if my own nightmares have an effect on my work.  Perhaps they come out in work that seems the antithesis of them, work that seeks to calm and assure.  I don’t really know to be honest.  I know that I want to put last night’s visions behind me.  To that end, I think I should get to work and let my nightmares dwell in the work of Grosz for now.

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“Then who do we shoot?”

These five words uttered by Muley the sharecropper being thrown from his family farm by bankers near the beginning of The Grapes of Wrath echo in my head.  He is frustrated by the seemingly crooked game of cards his world has become and wants to know who has been dealing him these losing hands from the deck of life that is so stacked against him.  And all he gets is anonymity and buck-passing.  He is flailing at boogeymen.

I had John Ford’s classic film of John Steinbeck’s novel on in the studio as I worked yesterday, a ritual I perform at least once a year.  I never cease to be amazed at the topicality of the film in almost any hard time and am moved by scene after scene in the film, even after all these years.  It has long been one of my favorites and has shaded my view of the world since I was a child.

I remember distinctly the first time I saw the film.  It was a very snowy day during our Christmas break.  I couldn’t have been more than 10 years old and my brother and I sat down to watch Ed Murphy’s Hollywood Matinee, a daily showing of a film from the Syracuse TV channel that we were able to pick up with our antenna that laid on the roof of the the old farmhouse in which we lived.  Ed Murphy was a boozy white-haired local TV/radio personality who introduced the movies, which were usually cut haphazardly to fit in extra commercials.  Murphy also presided over the Dialing For Dollars portion of the show where he would pull a telephone listing ( a Syracuse phonebook cut into pieces) and call a lucky listener for a cash prize.  I can’t remember exactly how the rules worked but I remember a lot about watching that particular movie.

I remember thinking how Tom Joad was not a particularly good man, especially as a hero.  He had just been released from prison and talked about killing a man with a shovel in a fight.  He had a quick and angry temper but a tenderness when dealing with Ma Joad and his family.  I also remember seeing in the faces of the bank men and the bosses at the farms and orchards that same mean-spirited bully attitude I  could see in the faces of bullies at school.  actually, there was a great familarity in the whole movie.  I could see traces of my family and many people I knew in the Joads.  People pushed and prodded and never quite able to gain their footing, never in control of their situation.  We weren’t Okies but these people were everywhere–average people who struggled on small farms or worked long hours in factories.

This observed familiarity with these characters has only grown over the years.  I recognize more and more people in the faces of those downtrodden Joads and see many scenes in the film that are  analagous to situations in our times.  It’s a movie that I feel is a must-see for everyone.

Here’s a nice review of the film from the New York Times (short ad at the beginning-sorry!) that includes a couple of clips including Muley with the bankman and Tom’s farewell to Ma, which may be my favorite scene in amy film.

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This is a 30″ by 30″ painting that I’ve finished in the last week or so.  It’s very much in the manner of other work that I’ve been locked in to recently, with a green/blue mosaic sky light breaking in contrast over the horizon.  There is a large difference in this piece in that there is more attention paid to the trees surrounding the central figure of the red tree.  There is less open space  and the assemblages of trees create compositional masses that appear almost monolithic in appearance which makes for a warmer, less stark feel while still maintaining the same effect compositionally.  I have used these large grouping of trees sparingly  for some time but did use themmore often in the years before the red tree made its first appearance in 2000.  I was browsing through some older work and realized that they had not emerged in my work in some time and there seemed to be a place for them now, particularly in this style of work that I’ve been focusing on recently.

I call this piece The Hidden Heart for the way the red tree is held in a pocket with the trees and hills around it.  There’s a feeling that it would remain unseen but for one following the field rows that seem to forge a trail to it.  I often refer to the red tree as the heart in my paintings probably because they often are the focal point of the paintings with everything revolving around them.  Or maybe I’m thinking of the red in the tree as being symbolic of life blood.  Maybe both.  I’m not completely sure.

As I said, this piece has less starkness and more warmth than some pieces while maintaining a sense of quietude which is enhanced by the scope of the sky above.  There has been a lot to look at in the studio recently but this piece continues to draw my attention and I am continually filled with a sense of completeness by it.

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