the art of the unfinished painting

Over the summer, I started painting regularly for the first time in my adult life. Like everyone, I was looking for some relief. And even though writing is usually my go-to for creative practice, I didn’t want to write. I wanted something that I could do which I wouldn’t end up using as a measurement of myself. Writing is a big part of my job — there is a way to separate, or at least fan out, academic writing and other kinds of writing (and, yeah, I did write a poem or two) — but in the end I looked to painting as something which would help me free myself from the idea that anything I made had to be any good. With writing, I was inevitably hitting against the fear that whatever I made would ultimately reflect me, be the mirror of me. And I was, to be honest, worn out from that way of thinking.

With painting, I never know where to begin. And here’s the difference between writing and painting for me specifically: ideas for things to write occur to me all the time, even if I don’t actualize all of them; I almost never know what to paint. I don’t have the instinct. When I first started painting, I found famous originals to try to replicate, looking through online museum holdings, an MFA art book I have to hand, and taking screenshots of the artists I follow on instagram:

One of the things I like most about painting is that I really have no idea what is going to happen once I put brush to paper. (With writing I generally have an idea — and I usually have a very specific plan — but maybe I need to challenge myself more by writing in different genres.) And with the painting, it very often didn’t (and still doesn’t) work out. Like, at all. Many of them were bad, and many continue to be bad. But because I was going into it without the pressure for the painting to be anything, I was a bit more free to take in whatever I was able to about the experience.

Most of the summer (with a few exceptions) I was painting on 4×5¾ Fabriano postcards — once I was done, I would put them in a mailbox and send them off to friends and family. Basically, my idea was: I can paint, and not get too attached to the outcome. And I can let the people I love and miss know that I am thinking of them during this time of deep isolation. I learned things from replicating the paintings of others, and eventually started making my own — again, very haphazardly and experimentally. I painted abstractly, and — naturally, given our confinement — I painted some domestic scenes (mostly spouse and dog). I participated in several amazing and life affirming life drawing sessions run by the UK based anti diet riot club. And I started sending friends more elaborate paintings based on their interests. After a time, I eventually started using gouache as well as watercolour.

Somewhat recently, I started another replication — this time of a Renoir painting (c. 1869) in the MFA:

While I did do some planning (i.e light sketching — more than I usually do!), I will not fit the entire painting onto the paper. I will only manage a portion of the original because of this. (In this respect, I am — accidentally, trust me — replicating the exclusion style which Manet used on purpose.) I started the painting weeks ago, and for a while didn’t think I was going to continue. And yet every now and then I kept picking it up. And lingering on the details. As of writing, this is as far as I’ve got:

I have to say that, putting together this blog post, I cannot believe how much painting I have actually done over the last few months. I’ve been painting here and there, now and then, in dribs and drabs. A small thing which I took up as a way to find a sense of personal relief and to be expressive without also being self-constraining has resulted in a number of these artefacts. It’s hard for me not to see a message in all of this, as well as in the unfinished painting. I thought I had already learned the lesson (from writing my book) that large tasks are accomplished by small and sustained daily efforts. But, again, I didn’t enter into the whole painting thing expecting anything in particular, or trying to achieve anything in particular. In fact, it was precisely the notion of “achievement” that I was trying to avoid — because I think humans should do pleasing and meaningful things for no reason other than the fact that they are pleasing and meaningful. I may or may not finish that painting and that’s fine — because finishing is not the purpose of the painting. Painting the painting is.

Painting has also been a tool of counternarrative for me: it has shown me that I’m capable of something that I had — I now realize — tried to convince myself that I shouldn’t do, and couldn’t do. The should part comes from the fact that so much of contemporary life is geared towards work and productivity — but it is possible to work and to cultivate the parts of life that are in service of nothing other than vibrance and vitality of living. The could part connects to larger patterns of self-narrativizing, wherein we set our own limits by imagining our capabilities in narrowly defined ways. Honestly, it does make me wonder what else I could do, if I found a way into the thing that was meditative, meaningful, pleasing — and not geared towards an external goal. And to be honest, having this thought does fill me with hope. As for the unfinished painting, well, it stands for the time within which it was produced: a time of deep pain, uncertainty, and clearing away, which nonetheless created the conditions for looking inward, for cultivating practice and patience, and for being tender enough to appreciate the things which are surprising and incomplete.

Paul Cézanne, Fruit and a Jug on a Table (c. 1890-1894), Boston MFA
Paul Gauguin, Still Life with Teapot and Fruit (1896), Metropolitan Museum New York
Edna Boies Hopkins, Love Apples (c. 1910-1913), Boston MFA
Frank Walter, Black Trunk, Pink and Blue Sky
Georgia O’Keeffe, Pink Tulip (1926), Baltimore Museum of Art
Emil Nolde, Irises, Boston MFA

Tom Habinek, realism vs. the ‘glob’, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; tempora cum causis (11)

Ancient. Last weekend was the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies. Since I was still back in the UK with my family over the New Year, I missed most of it, but I was there for the last day to take part in the panel commemorating Prof. Tom Habinek, who sadly died last year. Tom was my PhD advisor, and a major influence in the field of Roman Studies. The event was very poignant, but fitting. On Sunday evening I posted my part of the panel, which you can read here: “Tom Habinek on ‘generativity’.” 

Modern. In an essay originally published in 1971, “The Culture of Criticism”, Hayden White describes the frustrations of Ernst Gombrich, Erich Auerbach, and Karl Popper (respectively: art historian, philologist and literary critic, philosopher of science) with the avant-gardists as typified by, for example, the abstract expressionist, Jackson Pollock. Each of these scholars held an attachment to realism; in some cases considering realism, in historiography and art alike, to be a means of resisting authoritarianism, with its power to overwrite the experience of reality by means of ideology. White (2010*: 105) writes that for these critics, historical, literary, or artistic realism, i.e. an attempt to represent reality as it actually is or was “results from the controlled interplay of human consciousness with a shifting social and natural milieu.” In the face of the fact that realism is supposed to reflect the human perception of reality, the avant-garde is taken by these critics to be a frustration of perception rather than a refinement of it. More than this, this break with tradition is a challenge to perception. White writes (2010: 107): 

“The surfaces of the external world, so laboriously charted over the last three thousand years, suddenly explode; perception loses its power as a restraint on imagination; the fictive sense dissolves — and modern man teeters on the verge of the abyss of subjective longing, which, Auerbach implies, must lead him finally to an enslavement once more by myth.”

(The fear of “myth” — figured as an antitype to so-called “rationality” in tandem with “realism” — has probably produced a number of negative results itself.) By the end of this essay, White (2010: 108-110) points to one of the real comforts of realism, one which lies in its hierarchical nature. Realistic art or narrative reflects a grammatically syntactical worldview, i.e. a mode of composition which privileges certain ideas over others, and arranges information around that privilege; whereas artefacts of the avant-garde might be interpreted as paratactical — presenting discrete elements “side-by side” (= παρά) in a “democracy of lateral coexistence” (2010: 109).

In Washington DC last weekend, I found myself face-to-face with Hans Hofmann’s Oceanic (1958) in the Hirshhorn Museum. I was really struck by the large heaps of paint in certain parts of the work, which I have now affectionately come to call “globs.” It feels appropriate!

Inspired by that visit, when I returned to Boston I wanted to go and look closely at more oil paintings in the MFA. Last night we got up close with some more excellent globs from Lee Krasner (Sunspots, 1963) and Joan Mitchell (Chamonix, c. 1962):

Digitization is vital, and I depend on it for my teaching and my scholarship, and I would never want digital resources to be taken away from me. But there is pretty much nothing like looking a glob straight in the eye, if you get the chance to. You can get a general sense of texture from a photograph. But the glob is just so noticeable IRL. Krasner applied oils straight from the tube onto the canvas for Sunspots, and you can tell. Looking at that painting tells the story of its making. As for Mitchell’s Chamonix, you can see the movement of her body in its wide, energetic strokes. Each is a record of embodiment, one which figurative, narrative, and supposedly veristic accounts tend to leave invisible. Back to Hayden White (2010: 110) one last time:

“The avant-garde insists on a transformation of social and cultural practice that will not end in the substitution of a new elite for an old one, a new protocol of domination for the earlier ones, nor the institution of new privileged positions for old ones — whether of privileged positions in space (as in the old perspectival painting and sculpture), of privileged moments in time (as one finds in the older narrative art of fiction and conventional historiography), of privileged places in society, in privileged areas in the consciousness (as in the conservative, that is to say, orthodox Freudian psychoanalytic theory), of privileged parts of the body (as the genitally organized sexual lore insists is ‘natural’), or of privileged positions in culture (on the basis of presumed superior ‘taste’) or in politics (on the basis of a presumed superior ‘wisdom’).”

* “The Culture of Criticism” (1971) is reprinted in The Fiction of NarrativeEssays on History, Literature, and Theory (2010), edited by Robert Doran.


Excerpt. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. 1987: 44: “I thought about myself and art: that I could catch the likeness of anything I could see — with patience and the best instruments and materials. I had, after all, been an able apprentice under the most meticulous illustrator of this century, Dan Gregory. But cameras could do what he had done and what I could do. And I knew that it was this same thought which had sent Impressionists and Cubists and the Dadaists and the Surrealists and so on in their quite successful efforts to make good pictures which cameras and people like Dan Gregory could not duplicate.” 

Daily Life. We spent New Year’s Eve walking along the shore at Troon. 

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