Saturday, February 21, 2009

Head Paintings

In my waking life, I've been a figurative painter and illustrator. But in my dreams, or just lying in bed, I was an abstract expressionist.

For years I dreamed paintings—if "dreaming" is the right word, since often the paintings appeared with me still awake, dozing off, sleepy but not yet sleeping. At first the paintings (here, too, the term doesn't quite fit: they weren't paintings at all; they were hallucinations, visions, or a combination of both) came to me unbidden. I would be lying there with my eyes closed in the dark, having just switched off my bed lamp, when suddenly my mind's eye would turn into an art gallery, with image after image presenting itself. But unlike a gallery where you stroll from painting to painting, this mental exhibition consisted of a single fluctuating canvas or screen on which one image gave way seamlessly to another, and another, with colors, shapes, and textures melding, shifting, swirling —like the flames of a fire or chips in a kaleidoscope.

Something similar used to happen to me when I'd go swimming in my favorite lake. Afterwards, I'd lie sunning myself on a flat rock at the shore. With my eyes closed, the combination of sunlight and blood vessels produced the most thrillingly brazen abstract paintings behind my eyelids, works that could have given a run for their money to any by Rothko, Gorky, or Miro. By squeezing my eyes or shifting my head a little this way or that, I could adjust the paintings, alter their shapes, their hues, even their brightness and intensity. I could "conduct" them like Toscanini conducting a symphony.

But the paintings I saw in bed were different. There, no sunlight explained the phenomenon; the room was in complete darkness. Nor did my blood vessels contribute in any way to what I saw (here, too, "saw" is probably the wrong word. Imagined?). Nothing physical accounted for the display. These "paintings" were purely the work of my unconscious, with no collaboration from outside.

And they were good paintings, very good paintings. Describing abstract feelings with words is hard enough; describing abstract paintings is all but impossible. And there were so many, and no two alike. 

But let me try.

Picture lichen or mineral deposits growing in all different colors and patterns on the surface of a perfectly flat, even rock, or flowing, multi-colored lava, swirling and spreading itself across a smooth surface. Sometimes these molten colors arrange themselves within crude geometries of rugged, rough line—as if snared by a net. Others were grouped in geometrical patterns, like the bricks of a wall (I think of Sean Scully’s “brick” paintings; but the bricks is mine were smaller, less rigid, and more crustily textured). Sometimes, out of the colors and textures, faces would emerge—grotesque and likewise crude, as if drawn by a child with a blunt crayon. 

Much of the beauty of these visions lay in their perfect randomness, the sort that painters, who are always hoping for happy accidents, struggle to but rarely achieve, a randomness both arbitrary and inevitable. (The closest thing I’ve ever achieved to it lies on the shelf of my easel, where a coral-like thick crust of paint has accumulated over the years: at this coral-like crust of paint I would gaze admiringly and think, “Why can’t you paint like that on purpose?") If  you’ve ever looked with an artist’s eye at a patch of concrete, or a cracked wall, or the side of a garbage dumpster plastered with torn bill postings, you’ve known the beauty of randomness.

And yet the images I saw night after night for a dozen nights were remarkably consistent—works produced, as it were, by the same hand. The paintings changed; but the "artist" remained the same. More impressive still--at least to me--was the fact that, though entirely unfamiliar, the paintings on display felt like they were mine. I'd never painted anything like them, and yet I felt that I ought to paint them, that no one else would or could. Consciously or not, they were informed by my aims, principles, and desires. Something in me had created them.

But here again the word "created" isn't right. Doesn't creation involve effort? Yet no effort was expended; the paintings simply appeared. It made me question the whole notion of creativity. Supposing I had a magical button the pressing of which would transform my mental paintings into physical works on canvas. Would that be cheating? Could I truly take credit for "creating" them, in that case? If the artist doesn't labor to produce his visions, does that make him less of a visionary? Would it render his visions any less valuable, or valid?

As someone who has worked with computer applications like Photoshop and Illustrator, I am fascinated by the whole concept of a "virtual image," one that exists not as paint or some other substance on a ground or in any tactile form, but only as a series of pixels whose colors, in turn, are determined by binary values. With a computer, the artist doesn't actually "paint" anything; he simply assigns those values to an array of pixels; there is no "painting," per se. And yet effort is expended; work is done. Hard work, as a matter of fact. And a product is achieved; an image that can be shared with others is produced.

My head paintings were different. They were shared with no one but me. In fact the only proof you have of their existence is my word. If I say they were beautiful, if I call them masterpieces, you have every right and reason to doubt me. And yet I swear it's true. But before you write me off (and accuse me of immodesty, to boot), let me repeat that I didn't make the paintings; they were made for me out of a mixture of memory, experience, and desire.

And sometimes with a little prodding from me. For as with my eyelid paintings, I taught myself to "conduct" them. And so, for a dozen or so nights, night after night, in collaboration with my unconscious, I "head painted" thousands of head paintings—an output surpassing even that of Picasso in its abundance and variety.

At first I welcomed this abundance; in fact I couldn't believe my luck and even felt blessed. But after four or five days I also felt exhausted, since along with whatever pleasures they offered, each of these thousands of head paintings came with an obligation to go to the easel and produce the real thing. For a while I kept a sketchpad on my night stand, and tried to reproduce, in rough outlines and color notes, the best of the best of these offerings, switching the light on every five or so minutes, with notes accumulating, displacing sleep. I was reminded of that episode of the Lucy show, the one where she's working on a cake assembly line that keeps going faster and faster. And anyway my task would have been impossible: the only way to do justice to paintings isn't with a pad and pencil, but with paint on canvas. After ten nights I felt like shouting, "Enough, already!"

At last, the images stopped coming. I made them stop. I forced myself to think of other things. If a "painting" popped into my mind I mentally batted it away. I needed my sleep.

* * *
Like a fawning grandparent, the unconscious gives us more goodies than we can ever need or use. In his book Musicophelia, Oliver Sacks tells the story of Berlioz' "lost symphony," how the composer supposedly woke up twice with the same symphony fully formed in his mind, only to put it out of the same mind, his situation at the time being such that he could scarcely take the time to write down a symphony, even one "pre-composed." It happened again, and again Berlioz put it out of his mind, but this time with the remorse a parent feels for an aborted child. Thereafter, night after night, Berlioz awaited the return of his dream symphony, but it never came back. He never forgave himself.

On the other hand, some "masterpieces" may best be left to the imagination. That may be their natural medium, the soil in which they flourish. They don't belong in the real world, exposed to harsh daylight and the even harsher scrutiny of audiences and critics. They are too personal, too private, to delicate. Like those bodies perfectly preserved in peat bogs, once exposed to oxygen they disintegrate into mud.

I was going to attach an image to this post, but then I realized there's no point. No actual image, my own or anyone else's, can do justice to my "head paintings." In this they have something in common with most if not all fantasies:

They're better left in the mind.

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