I keep starting out projects with the intention of creating a loose painting that is, hopefully, evocative and substantial with the figure alone–the figurative work of Alice Neel, Marlene Dumas, and Schiele all being prime examples of this. I then get frustrated because, well, if I could paint like Neel, Dumas, or Scheile we wouldn’t be having this conversation. So I end up creating a narrative by overwhelming the composition with props and a set, if you will. It really is a bit like a production in that minimal and abstract set design is often far more effective in theater than attempts to create thorough, representative depictions of a setting with elaborate props and painted, scenic backdrops. The thing is, if that minimal set is ineffective and does not manage to stimulate the audience’s imagination, then you better be prepared to pull out the gewgaw bag and do some embellishing.
I admit, though, that I am entertained by the embellishing. I think that storytelling is a major trend in my work. I’ve always been interested in emphasizing unheard dialogues that I observe or imagine between people and their environments. This is likely the reason that I’ve grown to enjoy the medium of photography so much. After all, that’s what a photographer is: a storyteller. Should I then allow myself the indulgence of committing my energy and supplies to the prolonged, and possibly fruitless, process of developing a fleshed out narrative when this really is not what I admire most in paintings? I love to paint. I love to shoot photographs. I enjoy creating photographs that tell stories, and I enjoy looking at photographs that tell stories. Likewise, I enjoy creating paintings that tell stories, but I do not enjoy looking at paintings that tell stories. I much prefer paintings that are simply expressive because of the way that the subject is rendered (line quality, color, etc). This is my goal as a painter. I find that paintings that rely solely upon narrative should often be photographs or writing. I am not at all belittling photography as a medium (I am a BFA Photo student for goodness’ sake). I am not implying that these compositions are unworthy of being painted. I am suggesting that if the paint itself, and the way in which the paint is used, is not participating in the discourse introduced by the piece, then there is no reason to spend $13 on 14 milliliters of oil paint. Take, or better yet, make the damn picture.
I did, though, state that I enjoy painting, and it goes without saying that I’d love to be able to paint like the artists mentioned above. Does this mean that I ought to focus my attention away from incorporating narratives in my painting? I am not sure. I’d like to consider the following–I know that for me, of all the art forms and artworks I have appreciated and experienced throughout my life, I find that music is undoubtedly the most effective medium when it comes to doing that thing that art is supposed to do (I can not identify that “thing” and I won’t attempt to, at least not in this post). But you sure as hell don’t see me trying to write a record or getting up on a stage to assault the ears of innocent audiences. That is because I know where my talents lie, and I am separating personal entertainment from my actual ability. I do not believe that I should pursue music rather than visual arts for this reason. Ultimately, my art is for me to create and others to experience.
I am not sure whether this applies to the narrative versus expressive painting dilemma. I think, or at least hope, that I have more potential to create an expressive painting than I do to miraculously gain a musical sensibility. I suppose that this means I should keep trying to develop my ability to create the types of paintings that I admire most. I think that settles it.
I will commence projects with the intention of creating expressive, figurative paintings, although I do not think it is wise for me to force myself to rid my paintings of stories, props, and backdrops just yet. I have always struggled with finding a balance between caring too much and caring too little. It seems that I am constantly being encouraged to loosen up, but in the past, I have found that once I am finally able to free myself of all the bullshit in my head and tension in my hand, I stop caring entirely. I won’t even bother wiping off my brushes and I use spare paint on my palette rather than retrieving the colors I actually desire. It has always been one extreme or the other. If I were to go into every project with only the product in mind, focusing on making a painting that emulates the work of artists I admire, I would instantly get caught in the middle of this dichotomy. I would care so much about whether I would be satisfied by the final results that it would be impossible to release that tension. Maybe, I can instead treat the first few days working on a painting as a period to explore expressive mark making freely and develop my painting skills. I could then use the narrative element as a ploy of sorts. I will inevitably be unsatisfied with the results of my attempt to create an expressive figure, but this will not result in my complete surrender to failure as it has in the past because I will allow myself the indulgence of conceiving and executing a story.
I suppose that the question I am posing is: to what extent should we, as artists, aim to create work that emulates our personal predilections? Does this matter at all? Perhaps what we really need to consider is the incentive when it comes to enduring the creative process. In what ways can you reduce boredom and confront your creative blocks to ensure that you maintain your enthusiasm and follow a project through to its logical conclusion?