"Art is our floundering shown. And in the light of contemporary art one might even say: our floundering shown up" - Henry James
I came across this quote several years ago. I had it posted on my website for a while. I like the honesty and directness of it. I appreciated the heart and vulnerability of it. I have tried to find its origin several times since. Mysteriously it seems to have disappeared. It has left the building (or was it the internet?).
It is a quote that has provided me with a few interesting conversations with well intentioned friends. They suggested that I remove this quote from my site. Claiming it unwise to admit to floundering and worse, to make that public on a “marketing tool” like a website. Which reminds me of another wonderful quote that I treasure, which states: Be vulnerable, only the dead are not.
When I begin a painting I consciously start with an idea of the colours I want to use. I will consciously choose the size of canvas. I will consciously use a specific tool. Once some of that well considered paint colour is on that specific canvas with that said tool it seems something else takes over and most often chaos quickly ensues. The great master painter Willem de Kooning said most artists’ work with doubt or even out of doubt. He was speaking of the same apprehension that James was expressing in his quote. It is not comfortable to feel such unease, but it is the only way I know how to paint with enthusiasm. I do not really want to know where I am going with a painting. I want to be in dialogue with a visual language that continues to surprise me. The trick is to stay engage with what feels at times to be a dialogue of complete gibberish! Trust and doubt are trying companions.
The quote says that art reveals to us our humanity. It is in our nature to flounder. We are the floundering species. Who would we be if we did not flounder? Without floundering we would not have questions, for we would have all the answers, or none of the answers. Art reveals “us” to ourselves, and our floundering “shown up” is always a surprise.
The abstract expressionist Mark Rothko made huge paintings so the viewer would have a more intimate experience. One would not expect that would be the result but indeed it is, and this is what I experienced with Celaya’s paintings.
The oil and wax painting on canvas, titled The Guest is 92” x 118” (233cm x 299 cm). I had viewed this painting on line several times before facing it head on at the LA Louvre Gallery this past December. I could not have imagined the impact this powerful painting would have on me.
The Guest, I assume, refers to the small man/child positioned in the center of the painting. He is surrounded by a massive, bleak landscape. He stands on a cut (down) tree as if it were a stage or perhaps a pulpit. Although he appears heroic in his baby blue matador garb his open face is both one of fear and anticipation. One senses he is utterly unprepared for the vast decisions or tasks that surely lay ahead.
A feeling of sadness wells up in me as I ponder this painting. The little matador appears oddly old before his time, yet simultaneously stunted in his growth and maturation. I sense he is underdeveloped... unmade, incomplete. He looks diminished, traumatized.
The Guest is poignantly distressing to view. The small matador clings to his little limp red blanket, alone in the world. He is a matador without a bull. He wears the traditional stylish pink stockings that would reveal his quick foot moves to an audience, if he had one. He poses as a bullfighter a sport which some traditionalists consider to be a culturally important art form, while others view it as a cruel blood sport without morals. The arena has changed. His surroundings are dying, his culture is dying, and his own nature is threatened. His purpose is threatened.
We ourselves are The Guest on planet Earth, participating in a culture masquerading as strong and moral while upholding our traditions at any cost. Our actions have denuded our home and forever changed our arena. The pulpit is now a cut down tree.
note: The above discourse and interpretation of this painting is solely my own. I do not know the intention of the artist. There was no artist statement available at the gallery. Which is just fine by me, as I prefer to have my own experience and make my own judgements. Enrique Martínez Celaya is an artist I deeply respect. In December 2012 I went to LA to specifically see this exhibition.
Where does this powerful desire to make art come from? I wish I could give my own brilliant answer. But I am still intrigued by the question and have been researching the solution off and on for some time. The two answers below, to me, offer some insights. The first one may be true enough but it is the second explanation that provides a substantial answer to this complex and universal question.
The first is given in one of the many Buddhist Mandelas, this one being the The Wheel of Life that revolves through six realms, each an aspect of human existence. We humans travel back and forth through them all while some of us spend more time in one or another until we can break free from desire and attain enlightenment. The Beast Realm is driven by basic survival instincts like sexuality and hunger. The Hell realm deals with states of rage and anxiety. The Hungry Ghost realm depicts our insatiable yearning for relief and fulfillment usually through addictions; as we are constantly seeking something outside ourselves that we hope will sooth us inside. The one that I noted as hopeful and speaks to the question of why make art, is The God Realm where we transcend our suffering through a sensual or aesthetic or religious experience. Not that this pastime of aesthetics (art making) will save us from our spiritual truth as this Realm is also tinged with loss, but I suppose temporary relief is better than nothing. The other two Realms I cannot recall but I am fairly certain they are just as gruesome as the others.
So we can say that we make art to try to heal our selves so we may relieve our suffering.
The other answer as to why we make art and frankly much more satisfying to me is to be found in one of my favorite books on art, The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell. I first read this book in 1996 and have re read many articles in it since. Motherwell gave a talk in 1963 when he was invited to participate in “The Creative Use of the Unconscious by the Artist and by the Psychotherapist” His talk was called “The Process of Painting”. In it he describes his studio/work habits and this section is rich and thought provoking. Yet what stood out specifically was when he speaks of “the intimacy of the marriage between the artist and his medium...” It is too long for me to retype here but well worth the read. I want to share the following section.
“Now, if a creative person in the arts is a person with an extraordinary capacity for love, who for whatever reason, say because of his early experience with his mother, as an example, cannot direct his love toward another person in full strength, but who nevertheless, must love, he therefore directs his love toward the other thing in human existence as rich, sensitive, supple and complicated as human beings themselves; that is to say toward an artistic medium, which is not an inert object, of conversely, a set of rules for composition, but a living collaboration, which not only reflects every nuance of ones being, but which, in the moments in which one is lost, comes to one’s aid; not arbitrarily and capriciously but seriously, accurately, concretely with you as when a canvas says to you: this empty space in me needs to be pinker; or a shape says: I want to be larger and more expansive; or the format says: the conception is too large or too small for me, all out of scale; or stripe says; gouge me more, you are too polite and elegant; or a gray says; a bit more blue, my present tone is uncomfortable and does not fit with what surrounds me.”
I found Robert Motherwells narrative to be very touching; that love and the experience of empathy between the artist and the artist’s medium to be a reason to make art felt so respectful, even humbling. The idea that the art itself has its own “life” and can and will flourish without the artist continually imposing one’s will upon it is a leap of faith I had never before considered. Beautiful.
Open to the Public: the Before and After of the Langley Art Tour
What does it mean to open my studio to “the public”? I imagine, like many artists, my studio is the most intimate space in my life, maybe second to the bathroom! Of course the public would not know this. They come in after all evidence of any artistic floundering is stored safely away in closets and cupboards. I have tidied, cleaned, vacuumed, dusted and organized this space beyond recognition. It is no longer my studio but a gallery of sorts.
All is order and calm. My work lined up on the walls, well lit and hanging smartly.
Before the studios transformation my paintings were in different states of process, many sandwiched between chaos and a barely acceptable sort of repose. I seldom invite anyone into the studio (except trusted friends) during my months of “creation”, even if they are not judgmental, I am! It’s bad enough that I may have bits of colored paint drying in my hair and dripping down the walls. As Motherwell writes, “One goes into the studio naked, and comes out bruised”.
The studio holds my art stuff, the tools, paint, drop cloths, tables, canvases, paper, oh, the paper...how much paper does one artist need? All this mark making paraphernalia is spread about just a grab away from where I need it to be. But more importantly, the studio also contains my personal process. The studio is a safe zone. A room ‘of one's own”. I work in a flurry of energy and ideas. As well, during a productive painting session I may dance, write, read, sit silently, look for long periods of time (occasionally with my head in my hands, somewhat dramatically).
Then there is the music. It must be just right. Talk radio is forbidden.
So, to open my studio to the public requires a death. An end to all that.
And when the time comes for me to begin again...oh the chill...the space that was once my cocoon is unfamiliar, distant and worse, it’s “clean”. To begin again is daunting. The blank canvas is now even more starkly unwelcome. I have to put all that chaos back into place, once more. I must re inhabit, re ritualize this space again. It can easily take me a month or more to find my rhythm, my mojo. Faith is required.
You may ask, why would I open my studio in the first place, if it were indeed such an ordeal.
Let me just say, I have my reasons, all of them quite simply practical. Perhaps I will share more about that in these notes at another time.