Thoughts on Not Thinking

Thoughts on Not Thinking

Gallery shot from Recent Paintings, January 2013, LGTripp Gallery

Lately I've gotten somewhat skeptical of least thinking too much. I finally found some evidence, or root of this in my thoughts about recent art works which in my estimation have been the most successful: I didn't over-think them.(Yes, it's very hard to actually get away from thinking, as the title of this post implies). Another symptom of this fatigue of over-thinking is just that: being tired, mentally and visually tired of all the things to think about, and just trying to avoid being tired out from more. So, really, one impetus towards making a change in the way I approach art making was fatigue. It's a funny thing, that combination of desiring to make things, but not wanting to think about the making too much; wanting to lose oneself in the actual manufacture, without over-thinking the whys, whats, and wherefores.

My tendency is to over-think things; lay things out via thoughts; catalog them; record them; hash over them; redraw them many, many times; re-consider them; and then finally pick through the resulting piles and find which way I'd like to / most need to go. This has consistenly worked for me...but several times throughout my art-making life I've noticed that this becomes over-worked; becomes counter-intuitive. 

One previous time that I noticed that thinking was becoming too prevalent, was around 2004, right before the time when I was included in a group show of young artists at Fleisher-Ollman Gallery, called Meatball (as in, hash it up; roll it up; make something new and delicious). One of the paintings, which subsequently was bought, was a painting on a found piece of wood: a lacquered panel, three sides of which (top and sides) had shallow molding affixed, creating a "broken frame" of sorts. At the time, I was painting versions of cross shapes; on this one, there was (if memory serves me) a white or cream cross at the top. I don't remember much more about the making of this painting, except that I was feeling stuck on it...and very quickly, nearly instinctively, painted a hot pink cross below the cream one, and let it drip down onto the bottom of the lacquered panel. This is a technique which I've since used now and again, but this was the first occurrence of it...before this, it had not entered my mind; I'd become fairly rigid and closed with my edges and lines: hard-edged, some might call it.

It immediately became evident to me that it "worked", as artists will say. And I hadn't really thought that much about it. This is a large example of many lessons along the way, in my fledgling "serious" studio practice, that have stuck with me, about the balance between not-enough-thought, and over-thinking.

The flip side of this is that, once it is seen to "work", it can become a technique which is used over and over, with more thought than before...and it too might need to be brushed aside with a new, fresher, more instantaneous reaction, to break through that wall of thought that has gotten too high to bridge.

Two of the pieces that have worked really well at the studio recently, here nine years later, have both returned to that instantaneous, reactionary technique - not necessarily dripping or drips, although that could return at some point. In these cases, I simply went quickly off an impulse: in one, to join two pieces of found paper together, and make it into a painting surface, on which I painted a shape directly from my sketchbook; the other a quick decision to make a partial circle on a found faux wood panel, based simply on an impulse that that shape would "work" on that particular shaped panel. Now, one of the ways in which I characterize my art work to people when they ask, is that my formal decisions are largely intuitive: I decide one color based upon the last, and then the next shape upon the first, and so on, until that particular conversation is finished. But though this is a pattern, it still is a pattern which cycles in and out.

Another important point to make is that, in these two examples, I was really reacting to the formal reality of the shape I was painting ON, not simply looking for the best shape or color to paint ON it. In other words, I was living up to something I use to explain my work to others; namely, that I react to the preexisting visual matrix, or reality, of the surface...this is especially true of working on found surfaces or objects. It is a manner which fits me well, and perhaps that is as good a lesson as any to take from this.

Another instance, more recently, where I noticed over-thinking, or overt control of painting got the better of me, and thus the works, was on a few of the new paintings for my recent show at LGTripp Gallery, in Old City. Granted, I was under time constraints, and sought (almost unknowingly) to control my production by using taped-off lines; rulers, and straight-edges. Now, again, I've used these tools to good effect in the past, and still use them sparingly, but here there was a bit too much control; the images became a bit too stifled and dictatorial. I still think they are strong pieces, but they are of a different kind of spirit from my more recent work, which feels more natural, effortless almost.

A telling comment from a LGTripp gallery visitor, which I wrote about in a previous post, was also a word to the wise: "why the hell didn't you just PAINT those lines?" As opposed to laying them out with tape, I'm guessing. He thought my taped lines were, in fact, tape; but still: touche, sir. I've tried to become more confident and rely upon my hand skills and quality brushes more since then.

Home Slice, 2013

It's funny how this tendency goes in cycles...and I'm sure it will cycle the other way again. But perhaps as the studio life goes on, and lessons sink in more deeply (I've heard it takes eight times to remember something permanently) those cycles will become larger, and the spin will be less radical; less apogee and perigee, and more consistency. 

But maybe radical is something that's okay at times? I'll stop thinking about it now.


Learning to Un-see
Ellsworth Kelly

 If you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet, especially on the pabulum-pushing, top-ten type sites like Buzzfeed, et al, you’ve likely come across a version of this phrase: “you won’t be able to un-see this!” This usually refers to a visual double entendre, or unfortunately candid celebrity snapshot. This is supposed to be a bad thing – perhaps in the “so good it’s bad” sense – but nevertheless, bad; a thing you’d like kind of like to “un-see” once you’ve seen it.

Several things that I’ve seen recently caused me to wish that I could un-see things – in the sense of retaining a mystery of unknowing; of not recognizing – and subsequently, taking in the formal elements alone, without social, cultural, art historical, religious, or even corporate or institutional reference, or definitiveness. I suppose my question became: can this tendency be undone – can things, definitions – be un-seen? Do I already un-see things without knowing it?

Robert Irwin: Light and Space White Cube, London, UK, MINUS SPACE
Robert Irwin, Black, 2008.
Two twentieth-century artists quickly came to mind, when I considered this question. One of them was Ellsworth Kelly – mostly because he is never far from my consciousness, being someone I consider an artistic soul mate. And of course, because I believe he is uniquely prescient in being able to “un-see” things, nearly at will – and then being able to see them anew. And that’s when Robert Irwin came to mind. Several years ago, I read the book Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees, and though I remember few specifics from the reading, a few lessons burnt their way into me, one of which was, you need to relearn your seeing, and reeducate your eyes, and thus your brain (or is that vice-versa?). Kelly was an Irwinite seemingly at birth; I’m a disciple; yet I’m positive that all of us need to get better at 1) un-seeing, and 2) re-seeing.

I’ll give you a very specific and recent example of what is meant here. This week, while driving to the studio, I was studying a bumper sticker on the car in front of me. It was a longish, purple blob – landscape-like; horizontal – above which a white, grass-like shape popped up – like a “Kilroy wuz here”, but with only his flattop haircut showing. Puzzling over these shapes, and why they were an appropriate sticker for a car bumper, I noticed the text “Do It Twice Daily!” and still it remained puzzling. Finally, I realized it was a stylized toothbrush: beautiful bubble broken. (It’s likely the text is what pierced the bubble finally; text has a powerful way of doing that). And immediately I wished I could un-see the toothbrush. 

Here’s where the average, normal person would have lost interest – unless he hadn’t yet brushed his teeth that day, or he was a dentist nodding in agreement. But the purple blob and weird white grass shape were intriguing, and I wanted to return to the mystery that had popped and been lost. This is the re-seeing of a seasoned artist interested in formal elements: what artistic plant might this seed develop into? Once these basic materials (line, color, shape, etc.) are taken back to the studio, or sketchbook, and reworked over and over (as long as they seem useful or interesting) then the action starts reversing: returning to another sense of un-seeing; divesting these basic elements of all, or most, or one of the references listed before. This is the re-seeing as un-seeing. And it’s partly out of a desire to return to the pure state before the realization; an almost child-like mystery of a before-unseen thing: the “what is that -” question without the adult judgment of accumulated references, encapsulated in “-supposed to be?” This is also a crucial part of an artistic education which assists all artists, even those interested in “realist” or literal interpretations of the world. Even a portraitist needs to un-see the sitter before she can re-see or reassemble the picture before her; the piece-to-be. Recall those middle-school drawing lessons preaching the logic of breaking the world into cubes, spheres, pyramids, and cylinders. Paradise regained after paradise lost. 

Once this skill is developed, I’m positive one can begin seeing immediately past “toothbrush” and “text” directly to the basic shapes and other formal elements in everything around them – without losing the ability to avoid walking into trees or signposts – and know everything is potential, vigorous seed for inspiration, rumination, and perhaps eventually, finished work. This is related to what I’ve come to value about being an artist: that “polyglot” ability to take absolutely anything, and use it to feed one’s inspiration. The skill of un-seeing is an important component of that ability. And suddenly not only does a toothbrush become a landscape, but a landscape might become a toothbrush. The bubble has been broken, but who wants to stay locked inside the tension of a bubble, no matter how beautiful? Learn to reproduce it; since art is artifice, after all. 


Equivalents: Calligraphy

Tag; Sunoco station, Oxford Circle, Philadelphia, February 2013

Manuscript; "This Letter Written by Mi Fei", 13th (?) century China


New Year; New Maxims

The impromptu color combinations on my stirring sticks often suggest color combinations that might work in the paintings.


Every year, I try to encapsulate some lessons I feel I'm learning, or need to begin learning, for my artistic practice. This year, they emerged while frenetically preparing the paintings for my latest show, and were fine-tuned while talking with both friends and strangers at the show's opening and First Friday receptions. They are as follows (with some explanation): 

Loosen Up

My tendency is to be very tight with my paint application, relying heavily on taping, masking, stencils, tracing, compassing, and so on. One visitor, a stranger to me, but a fellow painter in his sixties, complimented my work at the exhibit, but then said, "these lines (pointing to a work with harshly taped yellow lines) make me say, why the hell doesn't he just paint it?" And then he laughed and reminded me that he liked my work, and that he felt he had the right to speak with me this way, since he had been painting for fifty years or so. I was fine with this, and thanked him for his candor, and realized he had touched on something that I'd been feeling tapping me on the back, but hadn't taken the time to mentally articulate. Thus, the first maxim: not a hard rule, by any means - I'm not going to give up the tape, the stencils, or the masking, since these are my tools - but I'm also going to keep a reminder near that I should also rely on those other, even simpler tools at my disposal: steady hands; quality brushes that make a good edge - a human edge - all by themselves; and an ease of application which comes from knowing these tools well. 

Mix it Up

This one is loosely based on a maxim from a previous year, where I saw the need to begin adding more diverse paint application styles to my repertoire: not just straight, flat paint, but scumbling; spraying, with spray paint or stiff brush; thin paint layers, and layers bleeding through each other. In other words, allow the paint and other materials to be all that they can be; get them to do as much as is possible. Make the paint itself the most versatile tool it can be. So, in a way, this maxim is a reminder that this needs to continue. I thank the work of Corey Antis, which I sat with for hours at a time while monitoring Tiger Strikes Asteroid, for originally pushing me to this realization.

Keep it Up

Ultimately, the most simple and the most challenging one of the three: consistency. At my new location, I've resolved to eek out as much time from my week as possible, without unduly stealing from other important parts of my life, to spend in the studio. Keep plowing forward, expecting a good crop to result. An old adage, but a good one. This is tempered, of course, by my feeling that I need to squeeze out of every element in a picture the most it can provide. In other words, work with less elements, but make each element work as hard as it possibly can for the overall benefit of the picture. This is not easy, but very satisfying when it is working well.

I plan on making a sign of these to hang in the studio this year. Let's see how they look at the end of the year, what they might lead to pictorially, and which maxims might emerge as I move on.

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