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???

 

 

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

Painting, power, provocation

When I, a white woman, make paintings of Rory, a black man from the streets of Oakland I’ve been intimately connected to for the last 5 years, I’m not trying to tell people what to think about race, class, power or anything else. It’s more like I’m trying to uncover unconscious conditioned beliefs about these things.  A painting is a mirror for projections.  To engage, viewers must be willing to recognize that what they see are their own projections, rather than blaming me for making them feel some type of way. In other words, is the painting saying something or are they seeing something? If they see Rory as powerless because I painted him, does that mean I’m the one saying Rory is powerless? Maybe they are just unable to see Rory’s skin color and power as compatible. Or maybe they are unable to see the relationship between a black person and a white person as equal.

Maybe that’s the way they see it, but it’s not the way I see it. I know Rory better than anyone and vice versa. He is the most powerful person I’ve ever met. He’s no chump. Not at all. He doesn’t need to be painted into a white man’s royal world on top of a horse a la Kehinde Wiley to claim his power. He doesn’t need to be granted power by me or anyone else.  He’s got it already. That’s why he decides to pose like a reclining nude, playing to my gaze. He doesn’t have to maneuver or hide or project an image of the version of power that colonized the world. Being a person who has struggled my whole life with maneuvering, hiding and projecting an image, I love and admire him for this powerful way of being in the world.

If we can only recognize power as winning, we are a supporters of the white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist game in which, in the words of Beyonce, “paper is the best revenge.” I don’t buy that version of power and I don’t sell out for it. Why would I? It has nothing to offer me but isolation and despair.

Here’s what’s ironic: This work I’m making now, which comes out of genuine love and connection, is proving to be more provocative than past work that had a definite critical intent.  This tells us something about the power of love to destabilize power.

Painting Nature: West Oakland to New Mexico

In the modern human’s search for some kind of truth transcendent untainted by culture, power or falsity, we often look toward nature: Thoreau, the American West, the Romantic traditions, even in our restaurants that claim to bring to the table the rhythms of the farm. Having spent my childhood and 20s in the woods, my nervous system is tuned to these rhythms, and when I moved to the city at 30, my sense of dislocation was immediate and profound. However, I had come to know that freedom is elusive even in the wildest places, for we are culture as much as we are nature, and I needed to go to culture to fully know my own nature.

Before the move to the city, I had been graced with an awakening of my senses that felt like redemption after years of struggle in addiction and anguish. The visible world revealed itself to me, and, in what I guess you would call an ecstasy, I started painting. For the first time in my life, I had a purpose I could believe in—to bring my vision to the world. After the move to the city though, it was as if my spirit left my body. Painting became a tortuous struggle, made even more painful because I knew it was a gift I could never return, but doing it only revealed how far and fast I had fallen. I often thought of the phrase, “banished from the garden,” made even more relevant by the fact that I was now living away from my redwoods and meadows and at the intersection of Fell and Webster in San Francisco where the traffic never shuts up. I stuck it out because I sensed that my wholeness was not separate from society, but depended upon a reconciliation with, or a reshaping of, culture rather than a removal from it.

So there I was feeling wretched in loud restaurants among well-groomed people with resumes.  And after six years of miserably trying to inhabit urban spaces that felt disconnected from essences, constructed for commerce and a false comfort built on oppression and exploitation, I found myself in the hood, and life got real again.

Nothing is there that has been designed for any other purpose than what it’s really for: fences are meant not to charm with their novelty, but to keep danger out and the dogs in, liquor stores for quick fixes to insurmountable problems, cars being fixed in the street without concern for the aesthetics of oil spills on the sidewalks.  Beautification and ornamentation are reserved for what’s really important: the autonomous body, while the rest of it–the sidewalks, the walls under the control of the city—are littered with trash, the useless visibly useless in the gutter.

The chaos and despair that are the product of our wealth and so-called comfort and so-called meaning is undeniably visible. There are no businesses with walls of re-purposed wood meant to communicate sustainability and moral justification for spending $16 on a cocktail while people a few blocks away scrape together $1.25 for a can of OE. Billboards and their messages are diminished by the unstoppable waves of graffiti, marketing campaigns of the human hand and arm. There is no interest in well-designed beautification projects that involve inserting parklet nature into the concrete jungle. Nature isn’t cultivated, referenced or honored. In the words of Jack Pollock, the hood IS nature.

It’s the red in tooth and claw variety of nature that our designed world lets us forget until car accidents, illness, and nature’s strongest player—death—comes for the body. My body knows instinctively to hit the floor when gunshots crack right outside the window. My skin is sensitized and vulnerable, waiting to be punctured. In the morning, a long line of blood all the way down the block and around the corner, leaking from someone running.  I make myself cry with compulsive fantasies of imagining Rory lying bleeding in the street or me screaming at the police to stop, watching helplessly as his body is injured. I don’t know why I do this—preparing myself? I watch a gun come out of a man’s pants and I run in a zig zag path to be a harder target to hit. I rush in, jacked up on adrenaline, between a man with a knife and the woman he’s trying to stab before he knocks her unconscious, and watch them hug it out the next day, a bullet hole in my front door. Life is most immediate at this basic level: the preservation or the destruction of the body.

Let’s not forget, however, that the hood is the product of culture, its existence brought into being by ruthless colonial greed. The hood is a creation of a culture that has no use for it other than to pick off members of its population to feed its prisons and scapegoat fantasies. It’s what happens when a culture doesn’t want to face reality and so they pawn it off on someone else. We say we want nature but we want to contain nature, just as we say we want life, but only if we can contain it safely out of reach of death. Our legacy of manifest destiny keeps us believing there is more, that we can keep running, as we run over everyone else and over our own limited lives. Once in visceral contact with the truth of this limitation, my own chronic pain was healed. I had seen it for what it was: the pain of bourgeois attempts to distance ourselves from the nature of our suffering. My life-long alienation from culture was my self-preserving refusal to believe the lie that false comfort is better than real pain.

Living in this environment that reflected the real in me gave me a ground to stand on, and my painting came back to life: my paint roller backgrounds inspired by endless graffiti cover-ups, textures of cement, patterns of brick, cheap siding and chain link, piles of garbage like paint scribbles blotting out the sidewalks, the chaos of tree branches pruned with no aesthetic consideration and growing back with consideration only for the sun. Cultural neglect and disregard created a vacuum that was enlivened by the softness of human skin everywhere, hands touching, hands making transactions, bodies tensed against constant threat, then relieved in moments of oblivion or laughter. Gestures, facial expressions, movements the purest form of human expression not only visible but necessary to preserve the soul, human nature reigning, constructed culture a threat in the form of police, self-doubt, and hopelessness. I felt and saw all of this and I wanted all those bored, dead-eyed people eating in restaurants with their haircuts to see it too and push the plate back and give a shit.

So now here in New Mexico with none of this: no people outside on the street, no street, no neighborhood, no buildings but for postcard barns on the horizon, painting in the way I have been would be artificial, a grasping at the past and doing the disservice of turning a felt reality into an idea commodity. Nature here is expressed in sky and grass and light. It’s vague and without narrative. I don’t know how to translate it into paint or art or even if I want to. I don’t know what I want to do other than move around in it or simply absorb space into my skull through my eyes. I don’t feel compelled to translate it, honor it or represent my vision of it, the way I did my surroundings in Oakland. I think then I was motivated by wanting to attend to what has been denied—in myself and the dominant culture: the awareness that, when death is literally around the corner (as it always is), life is valuable in and of itself. With nothing added. Every single person’s life.

But this place feels empty. Do I seek out people to paint? Meh.  Nothing feels necessary. My perspective is so broad here. Everything is diminished under the sky. Nothing calls for attention. What does an artist make who has disappeared? Who has found her nature reflected in empty space?