Why Paint?

“Wittgenstein…had the concept of what he called the unspeakable. He said philosophy operates in the realm of the speakable, but eventually we must confront that which cannot be said…and that’s where real authenticity then flows back into the world of community and speech. But it comes from a place of utter silence and unsayability. How could it be otherwise? What hubris it would be to expect that the small mouth noises of English could encompass being. That’s a primary error that all philosophy chooses to makes at the beginning of its enterprise in order to…set up shop at all. These are lower dimensional slices of a reality that is ultimately unitary, ineffable, unspeakable and dazzling.”
said by Terrence McKenna as part of a talk heard here


I was 30 when I quit language for the first time. That’s when I picked up painting. Here’s the story:

I graduated from college in 1994 with an interdisciplinary degree which just means I changed my mind a lot about who I thought I was. As I switched the tassel on my flat top hat from one side to the other, the door to my future opened up into the abyss. I realized that every single inclination I had toward any action—from career choice to relationships to leisure activities—I could not trust as truly mine. When I imagined myself doing something, I found that what I was really imagining was how I would appear doing the thing. Different ideas had different audiences. None of them were me. This was terrifying. I also read Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums at this time and an on-the-road type of life that involved writing and meditating seemed like, if not a route to truth, at least not phony.

I quit my job, sold my Dodge Colt, left my roommate in our apartment to pay the rent by herself, bought a VW bus to live in, a notebook to write in, and started obsessively doing stream-of-consciousness writing. It kind of worked. I wrote things I had never thought before. Images rolled out in my mind’s eye and onto the page simultaneously. It felt like I was constructing a self from the raw material of being.

I ended up in various cabins in woods in Mendocino County and spent my 20s filling notebooks with sentences, my looping cursive barreling through line after blue line. There was an endless supply of words. They piled up on top of me, tied me up in my own mind. I traveled to some very far reaches psychically, but I couldn’t find a place inside that felt like home.

By the end of the decade, writing became a terrible burden. I wanted it to take me somewhere real and it was only taking me farther into abstraction. I wouldn’t have articulated it that way at the time, because all I really knew was abstraction. I just felt trapped.

At 29 I made what felt like the most momentous decision of my life. I quit writing, without any other plan for fulfilling my destiny or identifying myself.  What had been my lifeline had become a shitty tuna net choking an innocent dolphin. I was the dolphin.

Then it happened.

In the weeks after I stopped writing, I had a mystical awakening. Or maybe I was just relieved to not be living under constant pressure. Maybe that’s the same thing. But, you know the YouTube videos where blind people are given special glasses that let them see for the first time, and they are just looking around in awe, double, triple, quadruple taking at the wonder of sight and form and color? My experience of seeing was like that. It was like, once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see amazing grace. The seeing itself felt deeply meaningful. There was nothing to be said or thought. The world was luminous and numinous. Being and form were the same.

Hearing Terrence McKenna say what he said reminded me of this time (that has faded or maybe I just got used to it) and gave me some philosophical context for my thoughts about the process and purpose of painting. The place I go in painting (in the best moments) IS “unitary, ineffable, unspeakable and dazzling.” Then we talk about them, trying to say what can’t be said, but we know it when we see it and seeing it makes us remember that even if we can’t say it, it’s still there. Then there’s how thinking we can say it can keep us from seeing it. Let’s keep seeing and saying in balance. I just said a lot. See???



Weez on painting

The conversation around race and representation in regard to my art continues to expand as more people add to it, which is, of course, the goal. One of the paintings hanging up at my show Hello Cruel World at Guerrero Gallery right now depicts my friend Weez in his prison cell. We conceived of it together and I executed it. I told him that I might take some heat for being a white artist making a painting that could be interpreted as being “about black suffering,” especially in the wake of Dana Schutz’s Emmett Till painting. He and his partners in prison came back with a response that added another piece to the puzzle of my understanding of art, culture and power. He said that you can determine an artist’s sincerity by how the works looks and feels–that aesthetics mean something. (Susan Sontag: “All aesthetic judgement is really cultural evaluation.”) We equated this way of evaluating–the look and feel–with street smarts as opposed to book smarts. When your life depends on knowing another’s true motivations, you don’t listen to the words spoken (the political positioning of an artist statement). You listen to the body language, the vibe, the words that aren’t spoken. It’s the same with looking at art. If you know real, you see through fake. If you don’t know real, you read the artist statement. In academia, people are taught to ignore the signals from their bodies, their feelings, their hearts. If an argument is logical it must be truth. I think this is why people who aren’t educated in the arts see the realness in my art and those who are educated sometimes see only the signs and symbols and what they were taught these symbols mean and how they should be arranged and never get as far as feeling the work. I report on this not as a defense of my work, but as a point of learning for us all about how the criteria for evaluation varies across social groups and that if we are truly interested in revolutionary or subversive ways of thinking, we should listen to the wisdom coming out of the streets and the prisons.

I want my art to part of charting the territory between social groups. Our separation is the new frontier.

Image and self in painting

Sometimes the revival of the self or of a painting that’s not working requires destruction. In painting and in life we have to destroy the surface to allow the real to show through. At many points in life, the shame was too much to bear and we covered the real with an acceptable image. We think this image is who we are. We sometimes have to obliterate the image and come forward again, stripped.

For me, in painting, rendering images naturalistically masks my imperfection. To the extent that I can do it I can claim a level of mastery. And I can’t do it very well. If I could, I might never get free, because mastery itself is a compelling master. I want to kill my master and master the art of honesty. I want to be a slave to the real. When I paint a figure it shows that I can do it but it doesn’t show what I am. It takes skill to hide what we are. It takes courage to show what we are.

I was struggling with my painting after the old master, Titian, admiring his skill while feeling inconsequential and bad at painting. I was also struggling with myself, feeling weak, sick and sad—like a homesick child. I reacted to this vulnerability in my painting by refining the images over and over all day, covering my fear and shame.

I remembered being at summer camp and hiding my homesickness, putting on an act of good cheer. This betrayal of myself was commemorated by a fake leather amulet given to me by counselors for being a “good citizen.”

This time I refused the control of the show, and made myself transparent to the people around me.

Then, back in the studio, when I approached the closed up painting, I was able to destroy the controlled surface. I scribbled out the carefully painted figures with black and gold and outlined the images over the scribbles. I want myself and my paintings to be seen through. This porousness in life and in art is what makes the real visible.
Beforetitian low res before

Aftertitian low res

The sinister insistence on happiness

To stay afloat on top of it…

“Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it.”
From Elizabeth Gilbert, American writer of bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, 2006

“The admonitions to be happy, voiced in concert by the . . . sanatorium director and the. . . propaganda chiefs of the entertainment industry, have about them the fury of the father berating his children for not rushing joyously downstairs when he comes home irritable from his office. It is part of the mechanism of domination to forbid recognition of the suffering it produces, and there is a direct line of development between the gospel of happiness and the construction of camps of extermination so far off in Poland that each of our own countrymen can convince himself that he cannot hear the screams of pain.”
From Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno in Minima Moralia, 1951

Cultural appropriation hullabaloo with Lionel Shriver

Article here:

Lionel Shriver’s Address on Cultural Appropriation Roils a Writers Festival

I do think that the appropriation police are often operating out of a fascist mentality. But I also think that Lionel Shriver, from this description, is being an arrogant, cruel white person. The reason people are reactionary is because they have been hurt. So be gentle and empathetic and don’t wear a fucking sombrero–asshole. And ask yourself, what is your creative freedom in the service of? If it’s in the service of truth–the kind that sets us free–do what you have to do. If it’s in the service of fortifying your own ego, you’re just causing yourself and everyone else more suffering, so why bother? More compassion, less intellectual stridency from all sides would go a long way toward empowerment. The real kind that benefits everyone.


Some existential mid-life birthday prose:

What else is there to do but to keep walking? When you’re lost with no food or water, you should just keep walking. It’s days like this though, when you see the same landmark for the 45th time, that you face the fact that you are indeed going in circles. For the 45th time you say there must be another way. You stop and sit and wait for direction. None comes, so you get up and keep walking. My clothes have changed, my face has changed, I’ve built up callouses so my boots no longer give me blisters, I even carry different things, but the lost feeling remains. It could be that this lostness doesn’t originate in me, but in the bad maps that promise a destination. This lostness may have started when matter left its home in the void, and I’ve been wandering in widening circles ever since.

No Face

Been looking at this painting I just finished (The Keys to the City, based on Velazquez’s The Surrender of Breda) in regard to the current political situation and had a revelation:  power wears many masks–Trump masks, Clinton masks–but ultimately its face is the blank reflection of not recognizing our own power (and responsibility). Look at all of us on the left, united by personal connection and shared struggle–a 3rd party. At first I thought I was making a painting about the power of not trying to win–surrendering the keys–but now I’m thinking of surrendering the keys as a cop-out. The way I painted my face doesn’t suggest a peaceful empowerment. It looks like the despair of accepting the weakness of no face and leaving untapped all the vital power contained in the intimacy of shared struggle.









The Keys to the City  /  96 x 72  /  acrylic, spray paint, glitter on canvas

Velazquez-The_Surrender_of_Breda smaller

What Gold Means

After Jesus’s mystical teachings were appropriated by the church, the luminous presence of the divine in material form (the light in our eyes, the aura of plants, etc.) was relegated to the heavens where its grace could be doled out by the guys in charge. This removal of holiness from the body and the earth left a spiritual vacuum in the European heart. This vacuum is what the colonizers set out across the globe to fill–with gold, the next best thing to the light of God. In churches, in art (mine included), the presence of gold stands in for the absence of God. I use Hobby Lobby glitter instead of gold leaf  to make missing God affordable for everyone.

According to the gold fiend himself, Christopher Columbus: “Gold is a wonderful thing! Whoever owns it is lord of all he wants. With gold it is even possible to open for souls the way to paradise!”