The following are some rambling notes I made in preparation for a possible gallery talk at the opening of the exhibition Disparate Acts Redux: Bailin, Criswell, Peters at the Butler Center of Arkansas Studies in Little Rock, August through October, 2015.
BEHIND THE CURTAIN
Sammy stayed with AbEx but let it evolve into something difficult to categorize. Just as in a great symphony you discover something new every time you hear it, every time you look at a painting of Sammy's you see it differently.
In the '80s, David, who had gone into theater in response to the announced death of painting, now drifted back into the graveyard of visual art, translating his scripts into stark charcoal dramas on paper.
Because after Modernism there was no direction you had to follow. It wasn't a dead end, it was a garden of forking paths, a liberation. Artists were free to follow their own personal obsessions and not be called reactionaries or dinosaurs.
Changes in styles and materials and media of course still happen with social and cultural changes, but those are external. The inner parts, the processes of creativity, don't change. They are the same now as they were 35,000 years ago in Chauvet and Altamira, and most of those parts are unconscious. Creativity is mostly letting your unconscious override your conscious, rational mind - the mind that tries desperately to become unique! - or rather allowing it to give direction to your rational mind. But creativity feeds on discovery, which means a change in perception. So there's the problem: finding and executing changes in a changeless process.
The true artist, the addict, like the three of us, can't keep doing the same things over and over. We each took different paths but we're alike in needing that fix, that hit, which is stumbling across something new, a discovery, whether it's a sudden hypotenuse in a painting of rectangles ...
. . . or a concave curve in a model's thigh
. . .
. . . or the way a stroke of paint looks over charcoal.
Yes, later we may find that we discovered that before, years ago, but as long as we don't realize it at the time, we're good!
I remember David's despair when he thought he had exhausted Kafka as a source . . .
. . . the same way I felt when I had brought
my Grand Inquisitor series to an end.
And I know Sammy is as concerned about this as David and I, because recently when I was cleaning out my bookshelves I came across an interview in a magazine from 2003 (Pasatiempo, Sept. 12-18, "Pleasurable Tones" by Craig Smith, p.54), where Sammy said, "When you look back at Pollock or de Kooning or Rothko, it looks so serial." He said he knew there was a progression in his own work too, but "the tone and mood from one painting to the next can jump more dramatically" than most of the guys he used to look at.
So it's important for all of us to stay at
that edge - that doorway to the abyss that we haven't yet experienced
- or think we haven't. The trick is finding the door.
But those of us who are neither suicidal nor
able to cure our addiction have no choice but to keep hoping
to find those doors, going deeper into the maze. Or maybe trying
to get out. The maze, the labyrinth, keeps showing up in David's
drawings, from the early Midrash series to the recent
Dreams & Disasters.
Lately, I've been following the crumbs of my earlier work, back out of the labyrinth, avoiding the Minotaur, making prints of old images, hoping the Muse will take pity on me. But the Muse has no pity. She will sing only when she's damn ready. All three of us know the agony and terror of confronting a blank canvas or paper, alone in our studios, and the joy when the lightning strikes. And the fear when it doesn't.
Because the truth, the unknown entity lurking behind that door, is not only an object of desire - it's also scary. We live our normal lives on this side of the door, in a state of denial. We have all the animal drives for pleasure and survival, but we're the only animal that knows it was born and is going to die. Art, religion and even science were born not only out of our need to find order in chaos - to tell a story - but also out of this terrible knowledge of our finiteness, our transience. We ate that apple from the Tree of Knowledge and have been trying to deal with the consequences ever since.
We hide our animal pleasures - which is why you didn't see my videos in this show (they were deemed a little too truthful for this public venue) - and repress our human fears. This is necessary. It's like when you're driving down the road, seeing only what's necessary to get safely where you're going, editing out all the rest. As Sherlock Holmes said, you're seeing, Watson, but not observing. Observing can lead to dangerous things - like a wreck, or a painting. To live our lives we have to steer a course down the middle, avoiding the pleasures and the terrors, or else social order would collapse. But the artist holed up in his or her studio, in search of that monster Truth, doesn't have this luxury. We have to try to find that door to what is either too much fun or too scary - or, as in my case sometimes, both at once.
I see now that my Crab King Crossing expresses both desire and dread! (The crabs are crossing A1A on the Florida east coast to the beach for their annual spring orgy. A lot of them didn't make it.) At the time I saw it as a confrontation with the Other, and it is that too. But the Other only allows us to see ourselves through his or her eyes. And the artist painting himself is his own Other. Thinking also about my Dies Irae painting ... Day of Wrath.
And I suddenly realized what the "worm" in some of Sammy's paintings is! Many of his shapes and motifs, like David's, have a way of reappearing and evolving in his paintings, and one of them is this convoluted, twisted, tubular, organic looking thing. Thinking about transference, as the psychologist call it, is what led me to this interpretation.
Transference is kind of a tricky concept. According to Becker and Jung, we transfer our fears and desires to an object - our job, our family, whatever - thereby avoiding facing them directly. But what if the object is one's art, which demands honestly confronting both fear and desire? It looks like in that case transference loops back on itself, feeding on itself like the Ouroboros, the self-nourishing world snake. That's what Sammy's worm is! - to me, that is, surely not to Sammy.
Here's one example - that black thing lurking on the right like David's labyrinth, a python swallowing its tail.
Becker says, "The real world is simply too terrible to admit; it tells man that he is a small, trembling animal who will decay and die." But for the artist that too can be an inspiration! For the artist the truth, no matter how terrible, can open the door to his or her creativity, and as a creator, he once more becomes a god who has conquered his mortality - even though he has done it by confronting the very fact of his mortality! The Ouroboros indeed. Art with a bite.
"With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens, is also the capacity to destroy it."
Which we are doing. Even as we create and discover new things, we're sawing off the limb we're sitting on. This can be depressing, but for an artist it can also be perversely inspiring, and it has shown up in my art from time to time, as in Penthesilea . . .
El Dorado . . .
. . . Two Men on Stilts, from back in 1991, and many others.
And my favorite, a destroyed drawing from several years ago . . .
. . . in which only the ghosts are left. Even the room is starting to fade.
And Sammy's paintings are also equal measures of creation and destruction.
If you look at them with an archeologist's eye, you can imagine whole civilizations under the surface, created and destroyed during the painting process, leaving only glimpses of their past glory, like Ozymandias' trunkless stumps, eroding in the desert. So in a way, their work is as scary as mine! If I may translate another of Sammy's titles, "Appearance is only momentarily accessible."
So even if the work we're producing in the isolation of our studios is bleeding but not healing, as Schjeldahl says, maybe that too can have the beauty of truth.
PS. At the risk of being morbid, I can't resist
giving David the last word:
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