I am not crazy.

Amanda Clyne, oil sketch on board, 8" x 10", 2013

Amanda Clyne, oil sketch on board, 8" x 10", 2013

“The only difference between an artist and a lunatic is, perhaps, that the artist has the restraint or courtesy to conceal the intensity of his obsession from all except those similarly afflicted.

— Osbert Sitwell

I am not crazy.  It is a mantra I repeat regularly to reassure myself.

I am not crazy. It is easier to believe some days more than others.

When I am not immersed in my own studio obsessions, I am obsessing about breaking free of my own singular voice. I imagine running away from all professional desires, responsibilities and expectations to adopt new eyes and hands, to paint every possible subject in every imaginable way.

One day I would run away to the French countryside and paint en plein air like Van Gogh or Monet.

Vincent Van Gogh

Claude Monet

The next day I'd lock myself in the studio to attempt painterly constructions like Sasha Pierce or Mark Grotjahn.

Sasha Pierce (detail)

Mark Grotjahn (detail)

Maybe I'd travel back to China to study the elegant simplicity of brush and ink, channeling my most ardent Brice Marden and Julie Mehretu.

Brice Marden

Julie Mehretu

Perhaps I'd catapult myself to Berlin to lose my mind in the chaotic ways of Jonathan Meese and Daniel Richter.

Jonathan Meese

Daniel Richter

After that, I might try to rehabilitate reason by immersing myself in the geometric journeys of Tomma Abts or Paul Klee.

Tomma Abts

Paul Klee

And that would just be the beginning. I want to paint it all. I want to try it ALL.

I don't want to copy these artists and their work, don't get me wrong. What I want is to adopt a thousand different mindsets, a million different sensibilities and see what it's like to experience the world in each manner of re-making. I want to see more and more of the world through an endless stream of wondrous and alien eyes. But I don't want to just look. I want to touch and make and think and process all these perspectives through the endless creation of endless kinds of art. I know it might sound crazy.

It is not that I have no vision of my own or no desire to hone it on my own terms. Of course I do. But I must confess to this other deep and insatiable curiosity. Expressing just one singular perspective seems woefully inadequate as a means of grappling with and reveling in the world around me. I am reminded of this quote by Marcel Proust:

"The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is..."

Indeed. How many lifetimes would I need to paint each one? Faced with the remains of this one short life, I have begun to feed this obsession quietly on my own. My regular studio practice continues, but patiently, privately, with work I will never show, I have begun to play -- play with new materials, new subjects, play for the pure joyous escape of temporarily abandoning my daily studio obsessions and finding the million other universes that lie within me. I'm sure these playful wanderings will feed my "work", but that is not their purpose. Their power lies in allowing me to roam, untethered to anything I have done before or anything I might do in the future. It reminds me to not get bogged down in the professional trappings of being an Artist, and to savor the solitary revelry of being an artist.

Empathy as Art Practice

Oil sketch on canvas, 8" x 10", 2013, Amanda Clyne

I must confess. I constantly feel the desire to slip inside another's skin. I am fascinated by the prospect of entering the internal worlds of others, and I have pursued art for its special capacity to create this experience. Although I have not always been an artist, I have always been an avid viewer of the arts, experiencing genuine and intense personal connections to artworks that seem to magically mirror my own private sensibilities. At its best, the experience feels as if I have met a kindred spirit, sharing such a deep reciprocal bond that loneliness becomes impossible. Now as an artist, I have begun to think of the act of making art itself as an empathic exercise, and wonder how the notion of empathy may serve as a paradigm for my art practice.

The concept of empathy has been engaging the interests of those in philosophy, psychology and neuroscience, and while there is no standard definition used by researchers, there are three critical elements that seem to be agreed upon:

The Other: The experience of empathy begins with the desire to understand the mental or emotional state of another. The focus is not on the self but on the other.

Imagination: Empathy involves the act of imagining as the means to overcome the challenge of perceiving what another person is experiencing in a particular circumstance. This notion of imaginative simulation has its roots in the 18th century with the moral philosophizing of Adam Smith:
"By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something, which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them." (1)
Shared Response: The purpose of this imaginative undertaking is not merely to understand another person's experience, but to share in that person's response. Graham McFee declares empathy to be "an achievement", the result of an active form of engagement:
"...empathy is, in this way, relational in a stronger sense than, say, even sympathy. My sympathy with you (or for you) does not require that you feel anything: but at the centre of the idea of empathy is precisely a sharing of some psychological state or condition. So both your contribution and mine are required." (2)
Each of these elements seems to lie at the heart of not only viewing art but making it. It's easiest to see this in the work of artists such as Gillian Wearing or Bill Viola, where the work is made through interacting with real people -- recruited subjects in Wearing's work and hired actors in Viola's work -- and where empathy is in some way the stated subject matter of the work itself.

But for those of us dealing with images or abstract forms, can empathy still be considered a defining aspect of our approach? I like to think that it can. I feel it at each stage of my painting process. From the very beginning, there is always something "other" that needs to be imaginatively embodied, whether a person, an image, a form or an idea. And once paint hits the canvas, the materials themselves demand an empathic treatment. Any attempt to control or dominate them are inevitably rejected as futile. They seem to respond best when they are collaborators in the process, nurturing, expanding and supplementing my own decisions and sensibilities. As an image comes to form on the canvas, it too takes on a life of its own. In the midst of composing a work, I always have the sensation that the image looking back at me has an inherent form that must be discovered in dialogue with the painting itself. It is not all about me. Empathy for "others" must guide me throughout.

I find purpose in imagining empathy as the paradigm of my art practice. As a viewer, I have no doubt that empathy is an intrinsic part of art's transformational power. Now as an artist, I am finding it to be no less of a critical force in art's creation, helping to generate an empathic network that ultimately joins together the source/subject, artist, artwork, and viewer.

Mirroring Empathy

A few months ago, I started a new series of paintings that, instead of fragmenting multiple versions of one source image, I began building new portraits by combining sheer layers of multiple source images. The paintings aren't completed yet, so I have no great reveal for you right now, but since I began this work, I keep bumping into parallel universes that are signalling to me I may be on the right track.

Inspired by the connection of the mirror/image to the desire for empathy and intimacy, I felt the fates twist in my favor when I recently came across a reference to "mirror neurons". Seriously, MIRROR neurons? If things couldn't get any better, it turns out this is science's name for those neurons in the brain identified as the source of our empathic instincts. I just had to know more. To start, I found this pretty good video produced by PBS's NOVA series that explains the current research findings.

And if that wasn't awesome enough, I then came across a random Tweet about an amazing artist, Megan Daalder, (who I am now painfully jealous of!) who took this idea of the mirror neuron one step (or perhaps more accurately, a million steps) further by creating a "mirror-box" to enable two individuals to physically merge their mirror reflections into one another in real time. It is a living, breathing version of what I am exploring in my paintings, and it could not be more inspiring. I beg you to watch the video about her work -- it's an amazing story of the power of art, the promise of technology, and the mysterious science of empathy.

Failure or Freedom

I couldn't do it.  I just couldn't come up with a final composition for my show.  I loved the idea of the symmetry of having three different paintings for each of three images.  I'm sure no one will care that the third image only has two painted interpretations, but for me it has felt like a failure that I couldn't come up with anything interesting enough to paint.  I came up with a lot of good compositions, but nothing that really said anything different than what I've already said.  It felt redundant, just another painting.  It felt like failure.

But after consulting with my gallerist (the unflappable Powell MacDougall), I was reassured that I had plenty of work for the show and to simply complete and perfect the works that were already in progress.  I began to think of all the things I could do without the burden of that one final painting to paint -- and suddenly I felt liberated.  I felt like a creative person again.  I realized how much that one painting was just feeling like product and not like art.  I didn't have the time to thoughtfully resolve a new compositional structure, so I was just trying to make a nice, reasonable painting to round out the show.  Ugh.  Terrible, soul-destroying motivation.

The first day after this decision, waiting for wet paintings to dry, I started playing with some old ideas that I haven't had time to revisit and explore.  In just a few hours, I felt on the verge of a new breakthrough. Instead of feeling the weight of having to execute an endless number of new paintings to meet painfully stressful deadlines, I felt excited, inspired, awake and rejuvenated.  I was an artist again, not just a painting machine.  And I might even have time to work this new idea into the show.  Now THAT''s exciting.

I know there is always going to be pressure to create work to fill shows on tight deadlines (at least I hope there will always be that pressure!), but now I realize how important it is for me to make sure I find a way to leave myself some breathing room -- some time to play, to ponder, to experiment.

I'm really proud of the works that will be on display at my show.  That final, failed, unpainted painting will not be missed.

Daily Interest

"I would feel very badly for someone who is so boring that they can't go to a coffee shop once a day and for two minutes say something that is interesting." - Seth Godin

This blog post by Seth Godin has got me inspired to post daily blogs again. And I think his point on having something interesting to say each day applies just as much to visual artists as to writers.  Create a new image a day?

Too Much

I have too much to say. Way too much. So much that I have found myself unable to say anything at all. I've written countless unfinished blog entries, all of them totally inadequate ramblings. I have so many ideas lately, inspired by so many disparate things, I can't find the time to sort through them and articulate what it all means for me and my work. As the ideas pile up, I don't want to post my latest finding without catching up on the older ones first, but I can't seem to find the time to catch up, so the ideas pile up and pile up. I no longer know where to begin. The longer I leave it, the more the ideas shift and move, overlapping and looping around each other. They feed off each other, growing bigger and more complicated, becoming so thoroughly intertwined that I can no longer find a way to disentangle them into neat, compartmentalized postings.

I know the ideas are working their way through my paintings. I can see the influence in my latest compositions. But I continue to experience an unshakable anxiety that if I do not find the time to sort through, synthesize and articulate my responses, the ideas will start to lose their potency and will begin to suffocate within the tangled mess of incomplete arguments, fragmented thoughts and forgotten connections.

I've had strep throat this week, so my mind is fuzzy and my body aches. I'm exhausted with illness but wired from boredom, and the combination is pushing me perilously to the edge. More often than not (and especially at times like this when I'm sick), I find myself frustrated by the gap I experience between the possibilities I see in my mind and my ability to execute them in a sufficient time such that the products of my efforts don't feel like old news when they are finally complete. The speed of my body can't seem to keep up with the speed of my mind. I recently read a book about the California artist Robert Irwin (a goldmine of inspiration that I have been working through in my recent series of unpublished and unresolved blogs) in which he laments our culture's emphasis on performance:
"We are past-minded, in the sense that all of our systems of measure are developed and in a sense dependent upon a kind of physical resolution. We tag our renaissances at the highest level of performance, where it's really clear to me that once the question is raised, the performance is somewhat inevitable, almost just a mopping-up operation, merely a matter of time. " (from Lawrence Weschler's "Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees", page 90.)
I so get that! In the last couple of months, I feel myself caught in a deluge of questions that my work just can't keep up with. I know I must accept temporary resolutions, whether in order to complete a painting, post a blog entry, or write an artist statement. But be forewarned: these works are not definitive statements, they are merely a series of still inadequate working hypotheses.

It makes me return to my favorite quote that I posted on August 1, 2010 by Arnold Glimcher about how artworks are but a series of clues to the art that ultimately resides in the mind of the artist. But even that assumes that the art is fully formed in the artist's mind, and I'm not convinced that this is always so. I certainly love the idea that the art is already there, somewhere inside me, and that all I need to do is sort through the mess, excavate through the comfortable and the obvious, and free it from deep within. In fact, in moments of inspiration, like when I was reading Weschler's book on Irwin, the ideas strike me not as foreign entities, entering my consciousness from somewhere unknown and external, but much more like liberated P.O.W.s, at long last released into my thought processes from that dark, secluded place inside my mind that is otherwise inaccessible to my available modes of expression. I love that art can be the source of such liberation.

I could go on and on. There's so much more to say. I feel like I should end with some definitive conclusion to all this. But alas, I have none.

Where The Art Is

Here is an excerpt from a recent interview I found on YouTube with Arnold Glimcher, the former president of the Pace Gallery in New York, discussing the work of Louise Nevelson:
"What interests me is concepts, is the cognitive process of art. And that process is perception. How is the artist’s perception unique? I don’t think that when you see the most extravagant, extraordinary exhibition of Louise Nevelson’s work, you’re really seeing the art. These are maps or charts or clues to the process that makes the art. The art is Nevelson’s perception of the world. The art is happening in Nevelson’s head. These [the sculptures] are the maps to that art. And I believe it’s true of any artist."

In Storr

A few not-so-random quotes from Anthony Storr's book "Solitude":
"Can you imagine what it is like being a prisoner for life, your dreams turn into nightmares and your castles to ashes, all you think about is fantasy and in the end you turn your back on reality and live in a contorted world of make-believe, you refuse to accept the rules of fellow-mortals and make ones that will fit in with your own little world, there is no daylight in this world of the 'lifer', it is all darkness, and it is in this darkness that we find peace and the ability to live in a world of our own, a world of make-believe."  (Storr, p. 56, quote by a prisoner interviewed by Stanley Cohen and Laurie Taylor for their book Psychological Survival)
"...that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life, and must be always appeased by some enjoyment. Those who have already all that they can enjoy must enlarge their desires." (Storr, p. 63, quote by Samuel Johnson)
"To allow his genius to become apparent to himself it was necessary that he should dare to give up aiming to please. Cut off from everyone by deafness he discovered the vulnerability of the spectator, he realized that the painter has only to struggle with himself and he will come, sooner or later, the conqueror of all."  (Storr, p. 53, quote by André Malraux regarding Goya)

Preparing to Paint

The last week has been back-breaking, boring, tedious labour - building stretchers, stretching canvas, gessoing coat after coat. I'm exhausted. But seeing the large white stretched canvases begin to multiply and crowd my space, I am beginning to envision the paintings that will come. It has got me thinking of paint again, the physical act of painting. My three go-to guys when I get in this mood is Velasquez, de Kooning, and Bacon. This week, I came across a great essay about Bacon and his "quest to capture and convey a sensual memory experience". Paint, not just the image, was essential in his pursuit. I can't get his words out of my head:
"Real imagination is technical imagination. It is the ways you think up to bring an event to life again. It is the search for the technique to trap an object at a given moment. Then the technique and object become inseparable. The object is the technique and the technique is the object. Art lies in the continual struggle to come near the sensory side of the objects."