A Facebook friend Arturo Cruz asked me recently about inspiration. He was making astute observations (as is his habit!) referencing artists that have influenced me. His questions got me thinking about originality and influence. How artists really never create in a vacuum. We work to make something new but that newness always has a patina of the individuals varied and unique influences and experiences. Arturo was asking me about my inspirations.
I was taught to be suspicious of the word inspiration. I began my formal art studies in the mid-seventies. It was a time when overly romanticized impulses regarding motivation were looked at askance. The notion of inspiration was linked to words like “divine” and thus viewed with a lot of skepticism in a secular world. “To be inspired” seemed so external to the idea of the individual’s assertion of self. It smelled like religion.
Several years later I read Agnes Martin’s thoughtful book titled Agnes Martin: Writings. It’s a series of meditations on her painting and process. It’s a book that I recommend for those interested in what makes an artist tick. What is pertinent to my comments here is her use of the word inspiration. She used it constantly. Reading this word within the context of her rigid formulaic (I mean that in the most respectful way) oeuvre was highly impactful. I started to think of inspiration as not being given to me by some divine source, rather, I started considering thinking of inspiration as the workings of my mind. The churning of memories with the moment. The overlay of history, thought and time with my actions as I painted. To be inspired entered my vocabulary.
I can’t help but see each mark I make, created in the present moment, as immediately and instantaneously surrendering to my memory of that mark. I turn and make another mark, that again mixes with my memory of everything. This process continues on and on. Each work I create is thus a compilation of momentary glimpses into and subtle mixtures of everything I am and everywhere I’ve been. They are contemplations on the infinite expanse of mind and consciousness.
Ok,….that was some crazy stuff. I agree. Yet, while writing those sentences, I was inspired. I was thinking about a whole bunch of different things, different artists, trips and moments in my life.
Here is my greatest problem as a visual artist. I can’t simplify. I recall my mentor, the painter Rodney Carswell, telling me to “settle down”. Rodney always talked about making work that was in his words, “clear”. An artist works towards clarity, I never (still don’t) fully get this although when I see certain work I can feel it. My brain always seems to be going in a hundred different directions. Even back then, in 1975, I would be making about twenty different things at once. My ideas would rapidly ebb and flow, change and shift, contradict each other, subvert the subversion. You get the idea, I was always a mess.
Yet I was a focused, driven and an impulsive mess. A big part of my evolution as a maker of things was that I had to accept who I am with what I was doing. Meaning I had to allow the thing that I was/am making to dominate. I can’t impose order or structure on this thing, it has to be.
I inherited some of the DNA of late modernist painting mixed with the moment by moment shifting sands of pluralism and Post-Modernism. This was just luck and timing. For those of you not accustomed to those terms think of this as being between rock and roll, disco music and punk. Think of it as coming of age in a time between being rooted in an idea and being untethered from ideas. Sort of mixed up and sort of not.
I was pondering this dilemma while visiting The Chazen Museum in Madison Wisconsin to see the great exhibition by the painter Dan Ramirez, titled “Certainty and Doubt”. It is an exhibition that touches on aspects of his work from the mid-seventies until the present day. I've admired his work for many years. Ramirez is an artist that is firmly rooted in the modernist ethos. He is also attempting to push it into some unfamiliar territory. Territory that seems to contain a spiritual necessity.
While viewing this exhibition that reflects on the artists relationship to modernism and his contribution to a formalist painting discourse, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own struggles. His work is clear, precise and focused.
Mr. Ramirez struggles with the formalist strictures of abstract painting combined with the romantic desire for meaning and ultimately a spiritual recognition, thus the title, “Certainty and Doubt”. It's hard to imagine a better title to sum up this particular moment. It was an outstanding exhibition that I am grateful to have seen. Does doubt overcome certainty or does certainty eclipse doubt? I don't know. I left his exhibition inspired.
But back to me.
I saw a show of Rembrandt's landscape drawings many years ago. They were these small horizontal gems that seemed to be about everything and everywhere. They were tiny but infinitesimal.
I've always wanted to make something like those Rembrandt drawings. Oh, and Turner. I forgot about Turner. The Turner exhibition I saw in San Francisco a couple years ago had a huge impact on me and the creation of this new body of work. His watercolors were especially impactful. Loose and evocative they seemed to be born of some strange alchemy.
I've been busy working on small landscape paintings and ink drawings. I call these my "Everywhere/Everything" series. Not sure why I'm calling them that except they have a kind of trippyness about them. I feel like I'm looking out at the landscape and seeing it full and with wonder. So, these are water, sky, field, land, forest. This work feels like the fullness of experience not an attempt to pare experience down to some essence. This fullness is so very compelling.
One of the things that intrigues me about what painters like to call "the idea of painting", is that a painting always places the viewer within a particular context and frame of reference. A painting implicitly assumes the gaze and attention of the viewer and that attention is essential; without it the painting would not exist. Without the interpretive attention of the viewer a painting becomes an extremely shallow, uninteresting box, a shadow really.... on a wall. Sculpture, by contrast, assumes the viewers presence but not necessarily their attention. A sculpture still exists.
The idea of a landscape image as a metaphor for awe and wonderment is a critical idea for this recent work. I understand the the landscape I stand before is a completely created space. In a very real sense the natural is the unnatural. This is what I find inspiring, the complex web of compromises, conditional relationships and contradictory thinking of contemporary life. We are so fraught! I hope these paintings of mine ponder the forbidding wonderment of life now. If you are curious about this new work, please follow the link provided below. Thanks !