Friday, December 19, 2008

In Praise of Stripes

To the extent that the world is striped it is a happy place.

I call your attention to the following: awnings, beach umbrellas, cabana huts along the Riviera, gondolier's shirts, straw hats, tigers and zebras, barber poles, candy canes and silk pajamas, breton sweaters, skunk and raccoon tails, flags and bunting, bumble bees, circus tents, popcorn vending machines, racing cars, towels and ties, frogs and fish, Edwardian swimming costumes . . . 

Among striped objects it is possible to find things sad or ugly, but unlikely. Prisoners uniforms come to mind, as do guard houses and crossing gates. There is something admonishing or even of a warning nature in stripes, potentially, something that cautions, warns, shouts and screams. Why do prisoners wear stripes? Do the horizontal bands counterman the vertical bars? Is there some rhyme or reason there? Or are (were, for the custom has passed) a prisoner's stripes a mere attempt to inject some gaiety, charm and wit into their otherwise gray, dreary days? In which case why black and white stripes; why not red and yellow?

But I refuse to see stripes in a negative light. Stripes have always been my friends. Even the stripes on the American flag can arouse the patriot in me. 

I wrote a story once about stripes, about a boy searching for red and gray wide-striped pajamas like the ones his dead father used to wear. I wrote it fifteen years ago, or so. Just recently my brother shipped me a package for Christmas. I couldn't wait and tore it open. Inside, a lovely pair of English pajamas: pure silk, with red, gray and blue stripes. I put them on straightaway. They felt so soft. Silky. Silkier still for being striped, the vertical lines of color slithering cool over my flesh like bright tandem snakes.

Stripes were meant to be gay. Imagine the gay nineties without stripes! They embody the spirit of summer and celebration, of endless days soaked in sunlight, of shady awnings and umbrellas angled against blazing days. Sailors adorn their gray ships with striped uniforms; the blue and white stripes meant to symbolize, probably, the sea—but also to add a note of cheer between bouts of warfare and seasickness.

The gondolier's striped shirt is emblematic of his masculinity: he can get away with it, so he does. His cousin the pizza vendor also wears stripes, thinner ones of red to go with the pizza sauce. Butchers, too, wore stripes once upon a time, likewise red, though in their case the red stood for blood. But in all cases a note of joy is attached to servitude.

With pajamas, too, the case is such: for just as the gondolier is a prisoner of his gondola, and the pizza man must whirl his pies, and the butcher must wrestle with bone and gristle, and the prisoner serves time, the pajama wearer is a servant of sleep. 

Even awnings and umbrellas serve: so you see the bottom line as it pertains to stripes: joyful obedience. Any wonder a sergeant earns his stripes? Or that a tiger doesn't change his?

I say that a joyful obedience is all we can ask of life. It is what the religious prophets called for and what anyone who has lost his— or herself in servitude to a higher cause will claim as the source of bliss. As a writer, as an artist, I have known such blissful surrender, such gay and happy imprisonment. I have known the pain and pleasure of artistic discipline, the forces of creativity arranged in bright, regimented rows: inspiration, talent, craft, labor. 

Stripes are nothing if not enterprising.

So I invest in striped sheets, striped socks (I have two dozen pair), striped sweaters and shirts, striped tea and coffee mugs, striped bed sheets, towels, upholstery and linens. Color my world striped. Whatever happened to Stripe toothpaste? 

Civilization  should be striped: that is, it should be brightly disciplined, colorfully tame, cheerfully regimented. 

Like Tommy Steele's blazers in Half a Sixpense. 

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The World is My Mentor

To relax this is what I do: I sit down at the computer pretending to be the curator of the world's largest and most important museum of contemporary art. I am the ultimate arbiter of fine art, the highest court, the judge of judges: my word is final.

I execute an image search, sometimes for something specific ("sunflowers acrylic"), sometimes not ("oil on panel"). What I want are pictures to look at, images of paintings, mostly of artists unknown--at least to me. Good, that's how I like it.

With each search dozens, hundred of images confront me. With lightning speed scan through them, dismissing most as too dull, too clichéd, too poorly executed, too glib, to earnest, too silly, too harsh, too ugly, too insipid. Nothing is easier to dismiss than a painting. It takes so little effort to look at one, and even less effort not to look. Ninety-nine percent of what I see I dismiss. How nice to be the curator and not the curated!

The other day (or evening) I came across the painting above. I had no idea who the artist was, or even if the artist was living. It might have been the work of some amateur, for all I knew, or even that of a child—but I very much doubted it. You see, I have an excellent eye: for what it's worth, and if I say so myself, I think I have one of the best eyes. I know good work when I see it, and—except when applied to my own work—I seldom doubt my judgement.

Do you find these statements conceited? You shouldn't. When someone merely states facts, they shouldn't be called immodest.

When an image strikes me I do two things: first, I download it to my computer, to be stored in a folder where I've collected other favored images. Next, I look up the artist in the hope of finding other pleasing images and, with luck, of learning more about him or her.

In the case of the above painting, the artists turned out to be one Stephen Newton, a painter living and working in England who is also a writer and professor, presently a visiting lecturer at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle, England.

Sometimes an artist's work moves me so I must tell them. I did so with Mr. Newton. I send him the following simple email:

Dear Mr. Newton,

I was trolling for good art online (a form of relaxation and inspiration) and came upon your good work. I just wanted to say how much I like your work, the honest simplicity of the paintings especially. For me the challenge of painting is to arrive at solutions that are honest, simple, sincere—and yet not simplistic, and that invite the viewer both into subject and surface. Your “solutions,” I think, are efficient and elegant.


A few hourslater Mr. Newton replied:

How kind of you - and in a way apt, as I am just making my way to a PV of my latest show. Keep in touch,



Having just finished my ocean liner painting (see below) I could not resist. I emailed back:

May I send you one painting of mine? Just one? I would love to have you see it.


"Yes," Mr. Newton replied promptly, "please do—but I tend to be honest in my opinion!"

I wasn't afraid; in fact I was thrilled to know that I would get this man's honest opinion. To be taken that seriously by a real artist—not by some gallery owner or other self-appointed "expert," but of someone who really knows a thing or two about art—as Mr. Newton clearly does, judging both from his own work and from his writings about art, some of which I had meanwhile read. I wrote back that he should be as honest as possible, and to take his time; I was not in a hurry. Indeed, he did not write back until the following day.

Dear Peter,

Having 'slept' on your work I can make one or two c omments. Bear in mind that I am responding to the painting exclusively - I do not know you, what age you are - or background. Usually in a tutorial situation the work can be put in a context: what are you trying to achieve and how I could help you to do it, what artists you admire or have drawn upon. For example if you said you liked Alfred Wallis or Paul Klee for instance, then I would understand why your design is rigidly structured and compartmentalised. Indeed, the word 'design' was to the forefront when looking at your work. If I had just seen the image without any contact from you at all, I would have assumed it was a design of some sort - painted of course, but still a design. It looks like a design for a wall mural, or printed textile, card even, or maybe a contemporary stained glass window depicting a modern Noah's Ark. Bear in mind that acrylic paint compounds this effect, being very plastic, unremitting and hard.

I'm not sure why the idea of Noah's Ark kept coming into my mind. From one perspective it looks like a medieval image of Noah's Ark - the black stars against a thick blue sky seem very icon-like. It's interesting that you say that you have had a hiatus in your painting (two years?). It's as if you have constructed a personal liner - or ark, which you have packed with your own motifs or artistic forms: shapes, lines, dots, circles etc., which are sailing off with you to a new beginning, or new start in20painting?

Of course it is a powerful and striking image, difficult to categorise because it is not really primitive or faux-naif, or naive or childlike. The image is very tightly and rigidly gripped suggesting you are pretty determined in what you do. But it is not really painterly and elements in the ocean seem to suggest you are searching for a licence to be free and painterly. When your motifs disembark maybe they will be set free to serve you in the future. Clearly I can understand much better the comments you made on my work—for I think that they could equally be said of your own.



My response to this was pure delight—and I wasted no time telling him so:

Dear Stephen,

I can’t tell you how happy and even thrilled your response to my painting has made me—though having read some of your writing I am not the least bit surprised by it’s astuteness and sensitivity. We do have things in common. My own compact critique of my work as a painter over the past few years is this: the painter mano-a-mano with the illustrator, with the illustrator, alas, always winning.

You mentioned A. Wallis and Klee as influences. Spot-on. I have a book of Wallis’ work on the shelf here next to me, and of his compatriot in St. Ives, a Mr. Crane. And next to that book one of Ben Nicholson’s work—Nicholson who was himself (as you know) influenced20and inspired by these two “primitives.” Other painters I’d add to my favorites/influences: Debuffet, Rouault. I love both deeply. But then I am also very interested in so-called folk or naïve art, in work that is pure-hearted, as opposed to so much so-called “fine-art” (with quotation marks duly noted)—the sort of art that (alas) curators always favor over work that is more authentic, more sincere. Work that tries to be profound is never so. Given a choice between forced “profundity” (another word that more often than not should be straight-jacketed by quotation marks) and no profundity at all (Wallis) I’ll take the latter anyday.

Funny, too, that you should mention Noah’s ark; another friend made the same comment about the painting, though there are no overt references to the ark, and though I had no such intention (my intention, for what it’s worth, aside from considerations of color, design, texture, pleasing effects of that sort) was the painted equivalent of a golden retriever running up to and jumping on your lap, to capture a sense of innocent and even ignorant glee. Why must or should paintings be sober? Why does so much “serious” art lack even a trace of charm or wit?

We both have dealt with icons in our work. For me the totemic objects have been ocean liners (specifically the Titanic and Queen Mary), the Empire State Building, sunflowers, the Pantheon, and the blue bridge spanning the Spuyten Duyvi l to link the Bronx (where I live) with Manhattan. But practically any subject—a typewriter, a portrait—can be given this iconic treatment, as you do with your upholstered chairs and doors. (You’ve seen Charlotte Salomon’s gauaches? Your work reminds me of hers).

I adore symmetry; I have no interest whatsoever in the effects of natural light, or in so-called linear perspective (which, anyway, is curved). Your paintings hold pretty much all the things I value in painting; and the most important: that the technique of a painting conveys a sense of joy in its own making, that it makes you want to paint. I used to admire paintings that look as if they took all kinds of time and effort (Church’s Niagara Falls!); now I pass them by in favor of paintings that look as though they were arrived at easily, simply, with minimal effort. But then I keep looking until I’m assured that looks deceive...

Yes—I am “searching for license to be free and painterly.” In works like yours I find it. Now to put it to work.

Thank you so much for this. I will treasure it. I hope your show is a great success and that we keep in touch.



Saturday, December 6, 2008

Painting Again

I hadn't painted in months. This is what happens: I swear that I won't paint again, that I've had it with brushes and paints, with color stains on my pants, my shirts, my carpet, my skin. I will give myself fully to dry words; I will stop cheating with that other mistress—the wet, messy one. I won't so much as look at a painting book. When I pass by Utrecht or one of the other art supply stores, I will avert my glance from sale tubes of bright paint, easels, fancy watercolor sets, and other items on display in the window. I will be pure of heart.

It never works. After two months I'm starved for images, and not just for images, but for surfaces coated and scumbled and crusted in and with paint. I start going to galleries and museums. Most of what I see I merely dislike; the rest either offends or inspires. One good painting--that's all it takes to set my heart ablaze and make me want to dig brushes loaded with paint into grounds rigid and flexible. I long for endless hours in the studio among pots, tubes, buckets and plates of paint. I long to get away from dry words and to dirty my fingers and clothes with bright plastic colors.

And so this past weekend, saturated with a longing for texture and color, for the the things I merely feint at with words, I put on my painting pants—a pair of gray trousers splotched with paints of every color—and a slate blue t-shirt likewise spattered and smudged and daubed and smeared with motley hues—and went into the studio. I found a clean stretched canvas still wrapped in cellophane and pulled it from the high shelf where I store large paintings. I put some music on the player—Chopin etudes. I took down my jars of paint and laid them out on the stainless steel table. I filled three coffee cans with cold water, and grabbed some brushes from a fourth can—one large flat, one small flat, one Japanese sumi brush. I pried open a big plastic bucket of white gesso. I arranged the canvas on my drafting table and started.

I had in mind a painting of a ship, an ocean liner. A big, bright, beautiful ocean liner, with three burning red funnels. Ocean liners are for me what bowls of fruit were to Cézanne, what hay stacks were for Monet, what clowns and judges were to Rouault, what bulls and satyrs were to Picasso. They remind me of those trips to Manhattan I took with my father as a boy and return to me my child's sense of unmitigated joy.

I start with the ground, the surface. I dislike the texture of canvas--especially of cheap cotton duck. Why anyone paints on it I can't understand. I always want to do something to it first. This time what I did was this: I took sheets of colored paper, mostly hand-made with lots of rag in it. I cut and crumpled them up and glued the wrinkled pieces down in random patches using thick coats of acrylic polymer medium, like someone papering a wall. With the entire surface coated I trimmed the edges. 

Then I began to paint. I started with black, creating a matrix of thick sloppy black lines that would serve as the architecture or the armature of the painting. Here you see Rouault's influence. No one ever made more of black as a color than Rouault. The drawing is everything. This is what most people who set out to paint fail to understand. For painting drawing is the equivalent of point-of-view. It is the foundation of everything that follows. To be any good even an abstract painting must be built on a solid foundation of drawing. No drawing, no painting. If i am any good at all as a painter it is only because I draw well (on the other hand if I am no good at all it is for the same reason).

One the matrix of lines has been created, then it is time to paint. I lay in thick coats of colors, working dark to light, letting the colors spill over the black lines, knowing that the matrix can always be reinforced if need be. I try very hard to be careless. All good painting is the result of happy accidents. Anything that follows too closely to a plan is doomed to failures. Artists must take risks. The risks are where all art happens. The rest is preparation. If we are careful at all in what we do, it is by way of preparing for happy accidents.

In and out of the black lines I work my colors, always being careful to NOT be careful, trying against every force of reason in me to defy the urge for precision. Precision matters only in so far as it accentuates and draws attention to what is fortuitous and spontaneous and incidental. When one looks at a painting, precision seduces one; but what resonates is always incidental. Only accidents really matter.

I worked all day and into the evening. I could not get the color of the funnels right. I was unhappy with the blue of the waves. The smoke from the stacks was too rigid. The whole painting was too rigid. I painted over sections, always letting the colors underneath show through, hoping for more and better accidents and incidentals. This is what painters do. After all these years I am still not a real painter, but I can dream.

At last I finished. There was nothing more to be done but to make it worse. I wrapped the finished painting in a gold frame found in my closet.