Alone Together

I have been thinking a lot lately about whether social networking is worth an artist’s time. Do curators ever read that Tweet about your day in the studio? Does the “art world” notice when you post a pithy comment on Facebook? Does anyone really care about all those images you love on Tumblr or Pinterest or Instagram etc etc etc? Does any of it really matter? Isn’t it more important to spend every precious moment on actually making work?

In a Toronto Star article last year, the issue was mildly debated between super-savvy tech artists like Alex McLeod and purely analogue artists like Vanessa Maltese. But the theme of the article was marketing, as if that were the only reason to have an online presence as an artist.

I write this as I continue to debate with myself about whether my online presence is distracting me from my studio practice, if I should just shut down my Twitter account and my Facebook page and even end my blog (which I haven’t been too attentive to anyway, a common story among many well-intentioned bloggers). Would anyone really care? Would anyone even notice?

Author Jorge Luis Borges once remarked how the people who loved his work formed a community of “invisible friends”. 

One of my favorite quotes of all time is by the artist Agnes Martin: “I paint to make friends and hope to have as many as Mozart.” Although I’m pretty sure she didn’t mean Facebook friends, I wonder what she would have thought of these online forums that enable viewers and artist to connect not just through but also beyond the work of art itself. Would she have posted her beautiful writings on a blog? Would she have tweeted pictures of the sublime landscape that surrounded her secluded studio? I think she might have.

In Susan Cain’s book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts”, Cain remarks on how the seemingly extroverted and exhibitionist nature of the web was originally designed largely by introverts. Is the urge to make art similar to the urge to share our internal musings online?

There will always be the crude and uninteresting purpose for an online presence – to satisfy the cynical demands of building a brand or persona. It's boring, and when framed this way, I recoil, procrastinate and often remain silent. But when embraced as an opportunity to think aloud, to synthesize random or complex ideas, to reflect on the bombardment of images and information to which I subject myself, to delve deeper into why any of it really matters, I am rewarded with a clarity of thought and purpose that I never really have when I don’t make the effort to share it with others.

So for now, that’s my answer. Of course, it takes time to ruminate coherently -- time away from the studio, and time I will have to find and re-commit to. But maybe the studio does not offer all I have to learn. And maybe there are still some invisible friends out there who can relate to more than just my painting.

Kenny Dorham – “Alone Together”

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.

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)

Reflecting on the Image

In the last week, I've been to a couple of shows/events that have dealt with the relationship of painting to digital technologies (including photography): the show and panel discussion "Facing the Screen" at the University of Toronto, and the exhibition "Beautiful Fictions" at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I should have blogged sooner about my response to these exhibitions, but painting has been (and is) consuming me these days. But I don't want to forget some of the key ideas that sparked my interest. So for today, I'll begin with a brief mish mash of some of the ideas from the "Facing the Screen" exhibition.

At the show's panel discussion, artist Michel Daigneault spoke of the screen as a "double skin" which can be penetrated through details of the image to expose the first skin, ie. the paint. My work has always emphasized the details of an image pictorially, and in my most recent work, the painterly details in the surface are taking on a new prominence. I like the metaphor of a "double skin" since in my work now, I am questioning the screen not only as a technological skin but also as a type of mask that conceals certain desires and vulnerabilities.

Metaphors of the screen often reference a type of reflection, as mentioned by Daigneault with respect to the work of Peter Doig (see photo posted above). I admit I have not looked at Doig's work in this light, but now it seems obvious. Certainly the association of the screen and reflections is a natural one, since the reflective surface multiplies the real by way of an image. Repetition of an image is commonly used to reference technological reproduction, and has always payed a critical role in my work. But now that the images I am working with focus on images of the body, the notion of reflection and references to the mirror is an important conceptual step backward for me (backward in the sense of moving from an emphasis on the digital reproduction to the mirror's crude reflection). An exploration of the digital screen's relationship to painting undoubtedly remains in my work, but the rich associations of the mirror (with vanity, beauty, solitude, confrontation, etc) are giving my work a more sensual, emotional resonance.