Notes on Precision, Part 1

For the past few years my hand has relaxed, the paint and it’s subject become more suggested, less insistent and precise.  This relaxation has been deliberate and perhaps inevitable.

Many people who are aware of my work now only know it as it has appeared for the past 15-20 years or so.  There is a period preceding this work which most know nothing about.  This period predates websites and social media and because of that is less familiar.  It was marked by stained, unprimed canvases, radical shifts in paint application ranging from staining, to heavy, thick cracked and sagging painting and globs of gesso and precisely taped off and clean edged shapes.  Often, all within one canvas.  It was a period of learning the possibilities of what the materials could do but also an insistence on allowing the surface of the canvas be just that - a surface, made of cloth which held the impressions of paint in its many manifestations.  It was a not a ‘window”.  In some ways you could say I treated it more like a chalkboard - written on, erased, revised, written again, etc.

This era was a time of great upheaval in my community in San Francisco; AIDS was terrifyingly out of control, we had just entered the Gulf War and many were afraid of what terror that could unleash.  San Francisco had recently endured a very serious earthquake and the casualties of it were everywhere in displaced people and cracked unusable buildings and roadways.  Perhaps my work reflected this sense of upheaval, uncertainty and things broken.  

As time went on, my work also moved on and I found new places to live and work across the United States.  These new environments found expression in my imagery and new narratives found a voice in the work.  For a number of years the paintings continued to be opened ended but also started to contain more specific and concrete images.  Also, there were more literal landscapes and interior spaces depicted.  I found myself quite seduced by the possibility of creating believable illusions of objects in space.  I was never encouraged or really even trained in this way of art making so it was an exciting period of self-teaching and trial and error.  

As time went on, the images within the paintings became more and more concrete, tied to the seen and understood world and the painting surfaces grew less agitated and more subservient to the narrative and illusions I was so enamored with.  Simultaneously, my paintings were starting to sell more regularly.  (Perhaps a connection there?  Possibly.  More on that another time).  While my career was improving my personal life was becoming more challenging and uncertain and as I look back, I think something very interesting started to take root.  Rather than the work reflecting the turmoil around me as it did earlier in San Francisco, it instead became a place of certainty and precision - and alternative to my personal turmoil.  

Perhaps it was a salve, a calming tonic with which I could find some certainty and balance. In the studio creating very clear, clean and orderly paintings I could find some order.  Nothing terribly wrong in this. For many people, art making is the activity which helps them make sense of and feel stable in the world.  My previous meandering process turned into more of a straight line and the paintings reflected this new sense of clarity and order.  But, these self-made illusions don’t last for long.  Or at least for me they don’t. 

Notes on Precision, Part 2


While the seduction of a clearly understood image coupled with a clever narrative held my attention for a long time, I began to grow dissatisfied with only that.  As is common with me, I grew bored and needed more.  I found that I could begin to quietly address my growing concerns for the natural environment in these paintings and I conjured up the description “allegorical realism” to describe them.  I wanted to point out the challenges I saw facing the natural world, in particular what I described as “the silent inhabitants” we share this planet with.  In this way I could use my illusory and narrative skills to reflect my concern with what was happening to my beloved natural world.

As I’ve said many times, I did not want to hit people over the head with a strident, environmental point of view but rather, through symbolism, allegory and even humor, slip in a subtle message about threat, imbalance and loss.  This was and continues to be satisfying.  However, as the years progressed so has my awareness of what is and is not happening in our response to the greatest threat to life on the planet - human caused climate change, resource depletion and greed.  Was it enough any more to create soft-edged fairy tales which sort of point to the issues?  Was it realistic to expect my deep sorrow and concern for the issues to be expressed via a quiet, precise illustration?  But, I also knew I didn’t want or need to create images filled with horror and despair.  Could there be a middle way?  

As I’ve considered this for the past few years I’ve wondered if my need for a precise and tidy image has become a self-soothing fantasy.  In other words, I can create an image which subtly points to an issue via clever symbolic mechanisms like fragile teacups, a tenuous house of cards, a bird or elephant balancing on a tightrope, etc.  This is the work many of you know me for.  I love these paintings.  But, on a personal level I have been wondering if the high degree of precision in which they are rendered is insincere.  By this I mean, am I using the tidiness of the imagery to create a soft edge, a buffer between what I know is true in the world and what I would rather have.  The world is most definitely NOT a tidy place.  By using my working methods to tidy up a corner of it - one painting at a time, I could feel a little better.  And, my audience would feel better too.  As to say, “it’s going to be okay, don’t worry.  Everything in this painting is digestible and maybe even soothing”.  But, it feels there there is a disconnect between the image, the concept and it’s execution. Given my past described here, it’s starts to feel disingenuous.

So, I find myself seeking some middle way.  A way of being true to my core beliefs and concerns as a citizen as well as honoring my beliefs as a painter.  I remain subject ridden - and gratefully so.  I’m also falling in love again with the paint as it finds it way onto the canvas - in unexpected and sometimes messy ways.  I remember thinking of the canvas as a chalkboard, always in flux and holding visible residue of it’s history.  I see the world outside and within as beautiful smoky mirrors from which I can glean a small phrase or a story which will find it’s way via paint on canvas.  The old work I described earlier remains alive within me, it’s always been there and so many years later is as alive and pertinent as it was when first realized.  It’s a very interesting and very difficult time to be in the studio.  This is a great adventure but as with all true adventures, there is a tremendous amount of not knowing.  Not knowing what is next or how to get there.  Which is not all that different from how I feel about being in the world right now - many choices, much not knowing and much to learn.

What or How?

Again, I feel as though I’ve used everything up.  Another bird and teacup??  An animal on a tenuous perch??  I’ve squeezed these ideas dry.  So, I look to others and how they find subjects or at least a starting point.  Peter Doig for example, he often starts with a photograph either taken by himself or found.  It’s only a starting point but it seems to get him into the painting.  Many  artists do this - Cecily Brown is another, her finished painting bear virtually no resemblance to the starting figurative imagery and yet it seems she needs to have that foundation to get going and ground the thing.  Why then am I so determined to come up with ideas and create from thin air?  Is that really realistic?  Is it necessary or helpful?  I’m starting to think not.  


Have I been asking the wrong question all these years?  Maybe the question isn’t ‘what shouldI paint’ but rather, how shall I go about painting whatever I choose to paint.  My journals are littered with decades of asking this question - what is the subject, where is the subject. etc.  Usually, the question was answered as I looked out the door or took a walk in my neighborhood.  No mythic scenes, no epic depictions, usually in the end, just things I know sitting around outside.  I’d find a topic and exhaust it.


So, instead of what  to paint it feels that I should and can paint everything.  A face, a tower, a fish, a boat, the stars, a tall tree, etc., etc., etc.  What ties these all together is far broader than a unified and predictable subject  but rather, my point of view.  This point of view is grounded in Love.  Empathy.  That sweet, slightly painful tenderness and vulnerability I feel as I walk in this world.  If I can be as quiet and truthful about this as I’m working, inevitably the painting will be infused with those attributes and THAT is what I’m painting.  The subject is irrelevant.


I know that if I can clarify my thinking - answering what my essential point of view is regarding my life, how I experience it and what I believe to be true, then the foundation upon which to build would begin to be clear.  I’ve done this before, probably less consciously and those foundations served me.  But, like a home, or a seed pod, a shirt or snake skin, I seem to  have outgrown the previous conditions and need to renew this process again.

The Digital Devil

From ‘The Remains of the Day” but Kazuo Ishiguro where the main character, Mr. Stevens is looking back over his life in general and in particular, his often awkward and strained relationship with the housekeeper, Miss Kenton.


“But what is the sense in forever speculating what might have happened had such a moment turned out differently? One could presumably drive oneself to distraction in this way.  In any case, while it is all very well to talk of ‘turning points’, one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect.  Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; bit of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had.  Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding.  There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable."


Thinking back over the past 10+ years and decisions made, actions taken and consequences realized.  Some years ago I made a decision to allow reproductions to be made of selected paintings.  A number of factors came to bear on this decision; numerous people were contacting me describing how they could never afford an original painting but loved my work and asked if prints were available.  This request interested me in the sense that the reproductions could allow some aspect of my work to be in the hands of those who could never afford it otherwise.  I deeply understood this - I could never afford to by one of my paintings either.  Also, I liked the idea of a ‘passive’ income - something that would pay my studio rent and not intrude too much into my day to day studio practice.  I created parameters that would make me feel better about this - limited editions, signed and numbered and all printing done by a printer of my choice so I could oversee the quality.  


While the decision to venture into this world wasn’t taken lightly, I forged ahead, certain it was the right thing to do despite some galleries and fellow artists cautioning against it.  I went forward and soon after started to realize increasing interest in the prints as well as sales.  It was working.  Then, surprisingly, other requests started coming in.  Interest came from licensing companies wanting to license certain images for use on greeting cards, coffee mugs, jigsaw puzzles.  I was surprised because I had always thought of my work as ‘fine art’ not coffee mug designs but nevertheless, the requests kept coming.  It was seductive to have more of a trickle of money coming in without doing really anything other uploading a high resolution file and signing a contract.  I tried a couple venues thinking that no one in the ‘art’ world will ever see these and my reputation as a fine artists will remain intact.


Anonymity, and the idea one could shield certain aspects of one’s life from the public has been nearly destroyed by the internet.  I have a robust online presence and as such, every decision mentioned above is now available to be seen, acted upon and sometimes judged.  Perhaps I was naive or willingly blind to these consequences but now, I have a strong online presence as an creator of paintings as well as an artist whose work can be found on jigsaw puzzles, greeting cards and prints.  And, while I would like to minimize or eliminate the reproduction products of my online presence, there is very little I can do about this digital footprint.  


It’s been suggested to me that no serious gallery will take an artist who makes prints (no less puzzles and coffee mugs) seriously.  I suspect this may be true.  However, there are many new galleries and collectors that embrace this new mercantile sensibility in a fine art world.  In particular, the so-called Pop Surrealist movement is a world filled with numerous ways to acquire some aspect of an artist’s imagery from prints to t-shirts, cell phone cases, etc.  But, that isn’t my world.  While I have following in that realm of the art world I see my work best presented to a wider, less specific audience.


As I look back to a series of decisions made - some for good reasons like creating greater accessibility to my work and a few foolish decisions like licensing my artwork for mass produced, consumer goods all in the hope a a few thousand dollars a year in ‘passive’ income was unwise.  I fear my reputation has been seriously damaged and I now must try to rectify the damage done.  I fear those seemingly small ‘turning points’ may, as Mr. Steven said above, ‘would render whole dreams forever irredeemable’.  Time will tell.



The Beach

The shore, the beach - lands end, waters end. A place of endings and beginnings.  The point where change is constant - the sand and rocks constantly rearranged, tides rise and fall.  Marks made, erased.  A place of redemption - decisions made, regrets perhaps, eventually washed clean by the incessant tides.

Interestingly, I now live very far from any ocean and yet I feel it's transformative and primal power as I reflect on where I stand now.  While the constant flux of water meeting land is not part of my world now, I sometimes feel I live at the meeting point of two similarly large and different entities - the vast Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains.  I live where these two opposites meet - not unlike where the water of the sea meets the land.