A dozen paintings and a playlist

Process is nothing. Erase your path. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs. I hope you will toss it all, and not look back.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Here are the twelve paintings I did for my show, together in one post, at long last (a week later!)

No pictures of the show itself, or the guests, because there was no photographer present. There’s no way that I could have done it, I was so busy just trying to have a word with everyone present that I unintentionally neglected my own friends (who were good enough to come and entertain themselves, and then leave without making a fuss.) David went home to his blog and wrote a post about the show on the very same night! Which puts me to shame, as I didn’t manage to do that, myself. I must say, there certainly was a good turnout, thanks to the big group show (16 artists) that opened simultaneously in the large gallery next to my ‘intimate’ little room.

Six days later, and I am deep into other things already…

(WordPress introduced their photo gallery feature just in time! Click on a thumbnail to view the whole gallery in a scrolling format)

Looking back on the paintings themselves with a calm and detached eye, I can honestly say that the process was more rewarding than the finished product. And that’s exactly as it should be, because I have never done anything like try to paint several works for a show before, and could not expect to make ‘amazing’ work just like that. Painting these, I was acutely aware of my ignorance—not just of the technical skills necessary to manipulate paint or treat a figure—but also my ignorance of what it is about painting that makes it come alive, what is that elusive kernel that drove (and still drives painters) to pursue this craft all their lives?

Like any art, you start out and it’s all about you, and all about pretty, and all about being liked, and all about trying to make things look realistic…the slavish reproduction of objects and faces around you; that’s fine, but it’s called ‘early work’ and is only valuable in a poignant way. It’s not seriously any good, but you have to go through that shit and come out the other end, and then maybe you will make something good.

I’ve recently read Annie Dillard‘s The Writing Life, and many of the things she says about a writer’s life are true about any artist’s life. Things can be split into two piles: The Good and The Bad. It is essential to a writer who wants to rise to a level of serious mastery and worth, to be able to tell one from the other. There are no greys, even though there might be small parts of really good writing in a sea of bad writing. Dillard relates a story about a photographer who worshiped the work of a certain master, and wanted to learn how to take photographs the way this master did. Every year, he took a selection of his best work to the senior photographer, and asked him to go through it. Every year, the old man divided the work into two piles: good and bad. There was a particular photograph, a landscape, that the master put into the bad pile. The next year, the same photograph appeared again; again he put it in the bad pile. This went on for a few years. Finally the master asked the young photographer, “Every year you bring this photograph, and every year I put it in the bad pile. Yet you keep bringing it back. Why do you like it so much?” To which the young man stammered, “Because I had to climb a mountain to get it.” Again, from Annie Dillard’s book:

How many books do we read from which the writer lacked courage to tie off the umbilical cord? How many gifts do we open from which the writer neglected to remove the price tag? Is it pertinent? Is it courteous, for us to learn what it cost the writer, personally?

The moral? Your finished work must stand alone in the world. You will not always be around to hold its hand and tell the touching story of how you made it. The process is important to you, yes, because you learn from process…but the process doesn’t matter in the least to the finished work, or to the other people who will view or experience your work. Sever the umbilical cord to your work. You may be an emotional and loving person, and may be emotionally and lovingly attached to your own life (well, I hope you are, anyway) but don’t burden your work with that. It doesn’t cross over well. Your work is either good, or bad, and if it’s bad (i.e. mediocre, self-centered, naive, empty, shallow, banal), banish it from your life (not without gratitude and a certain amount of introspection, certainly you needn’t hate it…but be firm) and go out there and do it again, and again, and again, until you get it right. Until it unmistakably, unquestionably belongs in the Good pile.

Friends have protested when I told them this. They think my work is “wonderful” (whatever that means). Okay, fine, but that doesn’t tell me anything about the work, though it tells me a lot about my friends. Do they reserve a special criterion for works by friends like me—because they want to encourage and cheer me up—as opposed to the critical appreciation they show works by Dali or Drysdale? How can someone who likes Matisse or thinks Goya is “wonderful” then turn to me and tell me they think my work is “wonderful” as well? I mean, you’re really a lovely person, but be serious, will you?

Your friendship and well-meant sentiments are cherished, but your art criticism is not. You do not care whether I fail or succeed…you will probably love me, anyway. But that doesn’t help me. Honesty helps me. It will help me to get better…or even help me to finally see that I may never be anything but a so-so painter. So that I can then decide whether to spend more years (and the years are flying by, the funnel narrows, the opportunities to do something else, and get any good at it, are dwindling) trying to get something right, or acknowledge that my paintings will never be any good and that the years might be better spent doing something else.

No, I’m not giving up just yet…stupid to stop after one’s just begun! There are bits in these paintings that have something…very small areas, here and there, something honest and raw and true. Even I see them. But that is not enough…the price tag is bigger than the gift, right now. This whole show is just that…a visual representation of what the effort cost me. I had to climb a mountain to get it. When the show ends, I won’t keep the ones that didn’t sell, to rot in the bilges of a boat, to live on singing mediocre hosannas to the novice painter that created them. I will, most likely, paint some over, and cut others up for book covers, and erase my tracks, and not look back. The only way I can possible move is forward.

The show came with a playlist on cd, because music played such an important role while I was painting. I wish I could include some sort of player on here, but my blog is limited, and I am in a hurry to post this, before even the strong emotions about the show’s aftermath fade away and I don’t feel anything but weary of the paintings:

  • Profile of The Artist:                     Do You Swear To Tell The Truth The Whole Truth And Nothing But The Truth So Help Your Black Ass     •     Amanda Palmer
  • They were an Irish bunch…         Anti-Pioneer  •     Feist     •     Metals

Dirty Old Town     •     The Pogues     •     Rum Sodomy & The Lash

  • Reading Monsoon Dervish         The Pirate’s Bride     •     Sting     •     Symphonicities
  • Lady Kitsune                                  Foxy Lady     •     The Cure     •     Three Imaginary Boys (Deluxe Edition)
  • Smoke Reality                                Smoke Reality     •     The Naysayer     •     Smoke Reality
  • Birdhouse In Your Soul              Birdhouse In Your Soul     •     They Might Be Giants     •    
  • The Sulking Chair                        The Perfect Girl     •     The Cure     •     Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me
  • Crying Like A Cat                         Edna St. Vincent Millay     •     Beth Lodge-Rigal     •     Children On a Ride
  • Debussy                                           The Holy Egoism of Genius      •     Art of Noise     •     The Seduction of Claude Debussy
  • Senbazuru                                       Princess Mononoke     •     Marco and his friends     •     World of Miyazaki Hayao (Koto and Shakuhachi Duo)

Because the Origami     •     8in8     •     The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective

  • Pyromanicat                                   Stray Cat Blues      •     The Rolling Stones     •     Beggars Banquet
  • Mitzi                                                 Ragtime Cat      •     Parov Stelar     •     Coco, Pt. 2
  • Ton Katze                                        Morph the Cat     •     Donald Fagen     •     Morph the Cat
  • Afterword                                       Chromolume #7 / Putting It Together     •     Stephen Sondheim     •     Sunday In The Park With George
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8 thoughts on “A dozen paintings and a playlist

  1. Ok nat, the umbilical cord has been severed, it seems. and reading through your thoughts on this (beautiful btw) is like giving some of my own frustrations a name. your brilliant, you know it, and when something else comes out of you that doesn’t quite match – bummer. I guess its our minds that offer such fantastic visions, our hands just cant quite keep up, then poof. off it went with the dust and smoke and litany of blahs.. often, I know its bad without having to hear the blunt retorts of a real critic (perhaps because my own inner critic can be extra severe? relate?). dunno… the book you read says it all a lot better and without much drama, brava.

    I do think that its useful to feel this kind of anguish over our creative work. its part of what it takes to master something. a bit of blood-letting, some sweat – its important to fail. we need it. what we dont need is to exaggerate the bad into worst. by the way, you might like “A Diet of Masterpieces Makes You Fat: The Virtues of Bad Art” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMOmXrDhNVo).

    Speaking of failures, this is far from being one. Friendship aside, I like particular pieces more than others. My favorites are Birdhouse in Your Soul (feels so good inside), Crying Like a Cat (LOVE!), Pyromanicat (sazzy), They Were an Irish Bunch, Senbazuru – in that order. And parts of others like Smoke Reality, Reading Monsoon Dervish, etc. I believe you had a great process experience though, the explorations are evident in your work. An artist friend of mine once told me, when something inspires you to create, don’t just make one drawing/painting – make a series, even all at once! Suddenly you’ll realize you have enough works to make another exhibit! and this time, it’ll come together singing. now, whether its a bad or good tune is really up to who sees/hears it. Keep painting Nat! 🙂

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    1. What a sweetheart! So nice that you gave it so much thought. I need to think of a reply, now. Can’t at the moment, am writing on the go in the library…waiting impatiently for my favorite hole-in-the-wall Indian takeaway to open at 11 o’clock, because I need Anu’s fiery VINDALOO to live! 🙂 Will write you soon (and privately, I think)

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  2. MY LOVE! Im so happy to see your works posted finally! let thy babies be birthed! 🙂 while I struggle to install my own baby’s diaper, let me read through this and construct a proper reply. I love you, just wanted to say first of all.. and I’m happy you made these

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  3. Ha! You’ll just have to Suffer!
    Great post though. Brutal!
    I’ll spare you the praise, and pissing in pockets.
    Of course we are biased! Art is biased, isn’t it?
    You contaminated the petri dish and the germ is spread, lol, but not too far I’m sure.
    Technique must be important but I’m not an artist or an art critic, just someone who was invited into the process via this blog. Wasn’t the process all part of the exhibition? But your audience must have been mixed. Some who know you, some who have read your blog and maybe some who claim neither.
    You’ll just have to live with the fact that some of us don’t necessarily know what is good art and just react to the feeling we have in our gut when we see, hear or feel something we like!
    Maybe you could use a new disclaimer on your next exhibition… To those naive fools who like what they see: “You don’t know crap about art!” 😉

    (Don’t suffer too much, but please keep painting)

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    1. Yes, a great painting! But not by Rembrandt, as it turns out. I think it was discovered in the 1980s that Rembrandt didn’t do this one. It’s not a forgery, was simply mistakenly attributed to Rembrandt when some other painter had done it. And if you are familiar with his other work, you’ll agree that Man with the Golden Helmet is totally uncharacteristic of him. I never did learn the name of the Dutch painter who actually painted this.

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  4. Good, thought-provoking post. Here’s the problem, however: if you want a constructive criticism (as opposed to “oh, that’s marvelous”) you have to ask for it and be clear about what you want the person to address. Otherwise, most people are reluctant to offer a real critique–and rightly so. I’ve tried to offer thoughtful commentaries and felt instant uneasiness in the other person. And I do know how to couch my comments so they don’t sound mean or aggressive. Honey’s better than vinegar any day of the week. But one must always be careful… 🙂
    best, nadia

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    1. I understand. But I do know that when faced with a work of art (and the artist a total stranger, and not standing nearby) most people do manage to say what they like or don’t like about the work, without having to be prompted or asked for constructive criticism. I believe that most people can intuit whether a work is good or bad, whether it has substance or not, whether it feels ‘true’ or not. I guess it is asking a lot of my friends to put their friendly feelings aside and be objective, though. That personal connection makes all the difference; suddenly, honesty is less important than tact. 🙂 I confess I am so weary of this sugar-coated hypocrisy that’s become the norm…what is so wrong with us all that the circle of friends now functions as a support group therapy? Are we damaged?
      I think too much. Thanks for your insight, Nadia! I will think on this for a while, I’m sure. (More thinking! Round and round and round…like chasing one’s own tail…)
      XX Nat

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