kernel of optimism - studio update

February ’23 Studio Update

Confessionals get tiring to read. But when I started writing these studio updates, they were meant to give some insight to all the stuff going through my head that affects my work. So here’s another month, wrapped up in anxiety, in the midst of a wild streak of productivity. Sometimes, you’ll even find a kernel of optimism through it all.

There’s always questions about how much you actually deserve in life. There’s never any guarantees, and endless labor never offers any promises. Dogged determination, however, sometimes shows some progress. I still think it’s wild that during the lowest points, I always find some weird gear that puts blinders on and just dive into a new, wilder, more intense body of work or side project. The past couple of months have put all of that into sharp focus. 

Since the start of the year, I’ve finished off four paintings, made great progress on four others, filled a third of a sketchbook, and made drastic inroads on a new side project as well. 

new oil paintings - kernel of optimism - february 2023

Progress, New Work, Old Questions

My series of paintings of Viking funerals, Charons and solitary voyages are moving along nicely. I’m proud of the work. Thickly painted canvases, loose in a manner Cezanne would be proud, hang on all the walls of my studio. I’ve tapped into my intuitive nature of color and have assuredly walked through almost an entire series of the paintings. I cherry picked sketches from my sketchbook, leaving behind a slew of other ideas that have already morphed into a new direction. Once I make new stretchers in my woodshop, the next stage of paintings will begin in earnest. It’s a rather exciting time to have such a quantity of ideas and momentum dense in the air! Still, there’s the constant ringing in my head of disappointment and untapped potential. 

The questions of hard work and limited success haunt me. Listening to sad music can sometimes reinforce those dark thoughts, warping the reality around me. Late nights and wistful lyrics are a dangerous combination. I’m always reminded of a quote from Shadowlands that says, “we read to know we’re not alone.’ I’ve been reading a lot lately, and feel music fills the same role. Music and books have always been a part of my life, but sometimes there’s a nagging feeling in my head questioning if its actually me where that wistful longing and sadness is originating, with those arts just reinforcing my narrative.

Part of my concerns is with time itself – I’m no longer the young weirdo in Austin putting together outlandish unicorn art shows and Danger Derbys, inspiring other artists to make equally weird additions to the fulfilling group efforts. Time is a strange beast. During my time in Ireland, I was always reminded to never worry about time, because ‘God made plenty of it’. It’s been a quiet mantra of mine in studio ever since. 

new oil painting

In and Out of Time

When people ask me how long it takes to finish a painting, I invariably disappoint them with my answer. I never know how long it actually does. Sure, I can point to weeks or months on a calendar and wave my hand at a bunch of work and kinda say I did all this in this time, but I know it’s not a satisfying answer. Those people have jobs and responsibilities, kids, real appointments. Time is regimented and broken up. I look at time radically different.

Time spent in studio, actively painting or just staring, watching paint dry as I ponder colors or composition for hours, doesn’t move the same way. It’s valuable time, my time, my career and my thoughts – it is as invaluable as it is immeasurable. If I come up with some side project, a show or crazy idea, I’ll spend endless hours working on it. Time is irrelevant. It never matters if I pull an all nighter to get things done. It’s time well spent, and what makes a lot of my life valuable to me. I never find myself racing the clock, trying to finish before five, or having to drop everything to run someplace else. I’m lucky that way.

Jack Levine and Commitment

I recently reread an interview with Jack Levine. He discussed the creation of Birmingham ‘63, a virulent painting of police attack dogs and black schoolchildren. A friend suggested the idea to paint something about school integration in Birmingham. Levine replied, “Mind your business. Art, as Wordsworth once said, is pure emotion recollected in tranquility. I’ll do it if and when I feel like it.” He ruminated on the idea of the painting, “And because he told me to do it was at least equal to the desire not to do it.” “To commit yourself to a big canvas is like getting married, I don’t want to get involved. I want to be happy.”

“The grimness and sorrow of the subjects of Birmingham ‘63 and The Spanish Prisoner are downers for me, as they take months and sometimes years to complete, and you’re working with the subject all this time. The police dogs being unleashed on black protesters was a big theme, and it moved me.”

Jack Levine, Commitment and Ambivalence, Paintings and Prints 1960-1975, DC Moore Gallery catalog, 1998

Back to Work

That interview left me feeling not so alone. I’ve spent most of the past three years kicking around a series of large, politically charged canvases. The weight of painting racist police riots, a pandemic, insurrections and a radicalized Supreme Court has pulled me down. Knowing it could take Jack Levine years to grapple with the same themes, same size canvases, and the same level of exhaustion alleviated some stress. 

I recently started pulling out some of those political canvases, tightening them up, reworking things with fresh eyes in hopes to resolve the entire series. It feels less embarrassing to have spent this long working and thinking about them. I started with some ideas that brewed over the past couple of months for my January 6th painting. It was fine, merely resolved, but never felt complete. The additions of red and white Nazi flags, a klansman bearing a cross and a clown in the middle of the action reinvigorated the entire canvas. I’m hoping its the springboard that allows me to finish up the other canvases. With years of thought and staring, I can now visualize what needs to get done. 

It’s been a balancing act with those large canvases and my Charon paintings. I’ll glide between the two series every few days, sometimes making some fast progress. Some days are slower, but still feels good. In addition to all of that, I’ve taken on a new side project to address some of my anxieties I listed at the start of this creed.

Racing Against Time

In an attempt to achieve the unattainable, I’ve started working on a portfolio of sorts. The intent is to send it along to the world, gallery owners, art folks and see if I can establish a beachhead, setting up some success and a wider audience. My idea came from Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise, his own portable gallery/portfolio/display, with reproductions of his work (including sculptures of his readymades and the Big Glass), artist statement, bio, writings, etc. It’s a kind of functional, dimensional business card/website. I had the distinct pleasure to handle one in the Yale Art Museum ages ago and it was a stunning experience that always stuck with me. 

Of course, I jumped right in on the project. A few close friends stayed abreast of the developing situation. Delighted by the odd left turns my focus takes me, they encouraged my every whim. I simultaneously scaled the project up and down, narrowing the focus on my work, with a diorama of my studio. Other images show off my work. A new bio, artist statement and biographical writings provide the backbone of the effort. A mini sketchbook, along with a couple zines of writings compiled from this website, flesh everything out. 

It’s a fun, expansive project. Thoughts vacillate between this being the biggest vanity project of my life or an obituary. It’s also an expensive production as well. Printing costs these days border on ‘unconscionable’. It may bear fruit. It may not. I will spend countless hours on this. Late nights, early mornings, long walks pouring over endless details in my mind. 

The Irrational Truth – A Kernel of Optimism

Time, limitless and endless, always feels like it’s on my side. I’m fortunate enough to have carved out a life that most days, I have it at my disposal. But time, often like relationships, is good and always there until it isn’t. As an artist, there’s an underlying anxiety that you’ll never finish your life’s work in your life’s time. The best we can do against those odds is summon the irrational, radical willpower to push on through the depression, anxiety and hopelessness. 

Music this month: It’s time to pretend.