24″ x 30″
The song “Lazy Moon” was written in 1901 by Bob Cole and Rosamond Johnson, performed in unfortunate black-face by Oliver Hardy of all people in the 1930 film Pardon Us, then redeemed by Harry Nilsson in 1973, the version I know. The last line is: “What’s the matter, are you sleeping?”
If you put that line after the following passage from the epic of Gilgamesh, you could have the opening scene of a short play starring Gilgamesh and Oliver Hardy.
Gilgamesh (startled awake in the Forest of Cedars): Did you call me? Why am I awake? Did you touch me? Why am I so upset? Did a god pass? Then why do I feel so weak?
Hardy (singing): What’s the matter, are you sleeping?
30″ x 40″
Continuing with paintings within paintings theme. It’s remarkable how many old photographs of musicians include paintings; the musicians posed in front of paintings, or painted backdrops, have paintings on drums, and so on. There is a lot of improvisation in these paintings, of course, this drum has a kind of figure encountering a ghost at sunset.
Here’s another painting with a painting in it.
24″ x 30″
One pushes paint against a canvas and, predictably, a mark is made. But every mark is unrecoverable as weather. Direct transmissions from the body, no pure concept, contaminated by countless non-verbal impressions which collect to make, when it goes well, a coherent image. And somehow a highly-personalized idiom evolves, for better or worse, which is only somewhat in the control of the painter.
Maybe it’s too corny to say ‘painting is like life’, but there it is. Maybe those who love painting feel that connection very intensely. So is basketball – like life, I mean – and also handwriting, and a cheese plate, and math.
I try not to paint “about” the Old South, but this one has its fingers near that fan. It is, to me, eerily quiet for a painting of musicians.
18″ x 24″
Or is apprehending an image necessarily a language-based process? Is it ever actually a simple absorption of mark, substance? As if vitamins, odor, or toxins? Is the mind ever without language long enough?
Lack of language response to image indicates indifference: unremarkable.
Or revelation: speechless.
(The first is common and long-lasting; the second, rare and fleeting.)
Here’s King Oliver and his band, a pianist and her double.
I travel across this Workaday post from left to right. I might say this is a memory of a room in which I learned a thing or two about drawing.
I start a new paragraph, and then write about the painting that is posted above and make a reference to an art historical quotation, properly attributed of course, about how a painting, before being “an anecdote, or whatnot, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order” (Maurice Denis).
I start a new paragraph and make a footnote about Georges Perec’s “Species of Spaces and Other Pieces”1 and how he took such better care of his writing desk than I take of my palette.
1 even though there is nothing to clarify.
Sublimating the actual into the apocryphal – a phrase borrowed from Faulkner. Apocryphal, spurious, of questionable authority.
While this might have been painted from a photograph of my grandmother as a girl, it only remains so if I say it with words, in a title, or accompanying text. Without words, the image opens back up into the silent nature of painting. One of the greatest tensions between text and image, I think, is that text has the ability to make a claim – be truthful and authoritative or spurious and deceitful – while images do not, not on their own. They just sit there being colors and lines arranged in a certain way, more or less full or empty of meaning, based on the taste and temperament of the viewer. For all the similarities between writers and painters, this seems a fundamental difference.
Anyway, it was actually my mother.
12″ x 16″
For as long as I can remember I have had a recurring dream about a house. The plot line of the dream is a variation on a theme. I am in a situation where I have no where to live and I remember that I actually own a large house on a hill, perhaps a family house. I once lived in the basement of this house but left a long time ago, was relieved to put it behind me. The house is not a a good place, not loving, but haunted, bereft, a place of dread, and I’m faced with the prospect of having to go back to live in it again. This is not really that house, and neither is the other one, but something close.
I wasn’t quick enough to write it all down, but to paraphrase the rest – to make the right choices first so the mistakes are fewer, and when that’s not possible, to embrace the mistakes.
6″ x 8″
The walls and floor of our apartment aren’t really red, and this painting isn’t at all based on Matisse’s “Red Studio” at MOMA, which I haven’t seen in years though I do remember enjoying it.
The stone wall is there, however, outside the window, like the one in Peter Doig’s otherworldly painting “Gasthof zur Muldentalsperre“, which I also wasn’t thinking about when I painted it.
Sometimes I think painting is the act of wringing out whatever imagery has been soaked up by the mind over the years. The best results are an uncanny assemblage of existing references – unique and not at all original. Which is of course frustrating but simplifying. An enjoyable process nonetheless.
But please walk softly as you do.
Frogs dwell here and crickets too.
Ain’t no ceiling, only blue
Jays dwell here and sunbeams too.
Floors are flowers–take a few.
Ferns grow here and daisies too.
Whoosh, swoosh–too-whit, too-woo,
Bats dwell here and hoot owls too.
Ha-ha-ha, hee-hee, hop-hoooo,
Gnomes dwell here and goblins too.
And my child, I thought you knew
I dwell here… and so do you.
– Shel Silverstein
11″ x 15″
“Something offered is not offered; something finished is not finished; nothing changes.” (from Gilgamesh proverbs 3.107)
That odd saying is in some conversation with Herakleitos many centuries later: “Everything flows; nothing remains. [Everything moves; nothing is still. Everything passes away; nothing lasts.]”
Gilgamesh proverbs are bizarre and great. Here’s another favorite: “The runaway slave girl only pretends to sleep.”
12″ x 14″
After his best friend, Enkidu, dies, Gilgamesh suffers such grief, he is “as a man who wanders too far from home; like a ghost that will not go down.” Here he is rowing to see Utnapishtim to talk about eternal life. Spoiler: turns out there isn’t any. Having said that, I’m still talking about Gilgamesh, so maybe in that respect.
10″ x 15″
The poet and painter worked in a highly personalized idiom and with a face of wonderful birdlike French-ness (or Belgian-ness).
(excerpt from “Carry Me Away” by Henri Michaux, translation by Eli Siegel)
Carry me away into a Portuguese boat of once,
Into an old and gentle Portuguese boat of once,
Into the stem of the boat, or if you wish, into the foam,
And lose me, in the distance, in the distance.
11″ x 14″
Early each morning I sit on the couch with my daughter Vivian wrapped in my robe and drink coffee and we listen to an audio recording of the Epic of Gilgamesh. On the back of this wooden panel is written what Gilgamesh kept saying when he was startled awake in the Forest of Cedars. I love the cadence of these questions and the confusion upon waking of a demigod so many generations ago.
Did you call me?
Why am I awake?
Did you touch me?
Why am I so upset?
Did a god pass?
Then why do I feel so weak?
6 1/5″ x 10 1/5″
The ancestral blocks are coming in handy for some more studies in color. The great classic book, The Interaction of Color by Josef Albers has recently been translated by Yale Books into an interactive app for the iPad. I highly recommend it for people interested how color is deceptively received by the eye. It’s very not as heavy as the book.
Stacks of colored bars appear to have a fracturing affect on these two. For stability, I referred back to the original frontispiece from A Child’s Garden of Verses.
As the painter Paula Rego said: “Every change is a form of liberation. My mother used to say a change is always good even if it’s for the worse.”
Enough government stuff, here are some Vikings. Vikings sojourning in a land of many colors. Each color is incrementally informed by the tone that comes before and after it. I’m practicing palette discipline. It could be that Vivian’s name and her nickname Vivi has called up these Vikings. All the V sounds and the slow, determined exploration of new worlds. No plundering, no marauding, just rowing and watching. Take that, Congress.
I was up in he middle of the night making this painting, while Vivian lay next to me in her bouncy seat. I thought “My mind is surprisingly sharp for not getting much sleep.” When it was time to get back in bed, I picked up Vivian and on my way out of the room, tried to turn off my painting with the TV remote control.
This is a hard-boiled son of a gun, related in theme to a number of paintings I’ve done of orphans, frontal group portraits of children. Some of the children in the Orphans paintings may in fact be orphans for all I know, but more the point for me is that the source photographs are old enough to nearly ensure that all portrayed have all lived and died. Then it’s not the child, but the image of the child, that is the orphan.
The surface of this four foot square canvas has been worked and scraped many times over the last year, was nearly cut off the stretchers recently. Then I saw a grainy photograph of my great uncle’s second grade class that was recently published in the Baton Rouge newspaper. The caption recalls the two-room school house, the mule-drawn bus, the hand-me-downs. I put the canvas back on the easel again and they hopped right on.
The origin of this image is an ancestral memoir recounting a journey from Natchez, Miss. to Shubuta, Miss. in 1863.
“The party consisted of my Mother and myself, my uncle George N. Monette and my cousin Billy Phillips and my Negro nurse Emeline Netter. Although I was less than two years old at the time, I can recall as if yesterday little incidents of that journey, – the drive over rough country roads through the great forests of virgin long-leaf Pine which then covered that part of the State, the stopping at times to rest and eat lunch under the shade of the trees, and sometimes at farm houses in the “clearings,” – my uncle and cousin jumping from the wagon and walking up the long hills to ease the tired wagon mules, and at last the meeting with my dear Father at the little town of Shubuta.”