Here's an excerpt:
by Leigh Hyams
Painter Philip Guston used to say “Frustration is one of the great things in art. Satisfaction is nothing.” That’s true, but not quite true, because satisfaction can be downright dangerous to a working artist. Glorious moments of ecstatic joy are permissible from time to time. Momentary relief comes in flashes of ‘knowing’ that this time your painting ‘works’—flashes that come with anxious pride and quiet joy but strands of doubt always linger under the surface. The pleasure seldom lasts overnight and by the next morning Dissatisfaction is operational again.
It’s really what keeps us going all our working lives, though. Each painting we make teaches us more about painting and more about what we DON’T know about painting. And this is lucky because facility for artists is a trap. Unless we take chances we die in art. Facility comes with the territory, whether we want it or not if we work hard enough and long enough, but it can get in the way of being truly creative.
Attitude is everything. We have to put away our half-baked ideas about what is acceptable, forget our previous experience or lack of it. Curiosity and fearlessness are the essential ingredients, plus a willingness to Do The Work—not just study it or talk about it. We must give ourselves permission to fly with paint, to work freely, openly, dangerously, to follow our hunches, act on irrational thoughts. And also to take time for quiet critical study of what we are doing. We become more adventurous and, at the same time, more discriminating, able to discern areas in our paintings that need clarification, color or shape changes in sections (usually background areas) where our attention wavered, where we were not wholly present.
Occasionally we paint beyond our understanding and work comes out of us that’s different from anything we’ve done before. It may or may not be opening a door to a new way of working, but we must not automatically ‘judge’ it with the same set of parameters we’ve been using until then. Note its strangeness, its unfamiliarity and see what’s there to learn from it. We have to trust the creative process, knowing that with each drawing or painting we make with our whole hearts, our understanding of the richness and profundity of visual language—non verbal language—will deepen.
Enrique Martinez Celaya says “The meaning of art is embodied in the way it is made. It must pass your test of authenticity, of being real. There must be nothing that looks false in a painting. The difference between a good painting and a bad painting is that level of conviction which a painter can bring to a canvas.” It’s easy to drip or scribble or get a painting of a watermelon to look like a watermelon, but it’s really hard to do it in a way that means anything.
It’s impossible, of course, to make a drawing or a painting without using visual language—space, color, line, texture and value—but it is the rightness of their relationships on the canvas that makes a work of art in any era, any style or media successful, that gives the images involved the strength to move us.
Many people, however, while studying a painting are only decoding the symbolism of the images, experiencing nostalgia, or personal memories and associations, unaware of the passion and complexity of the visual language which forms the painting. There are museum visitors who look for ten seconds at Rembrandt’s portrait of himself as an old man and think “That looks like my grandfather”, and then pass on to the next painting on the wall. They are telling themselves stories, experiencing memories, nostalgia, not experiencing art—non language reality.
If you genuinely, deeply look at a real flower the reality of it is a non-language reality. It is simply, uniquely what it is, and can’t be described in any language. When a botanist tells us the species it belongs to that’s not the flower, it’s only information.
The large flower images in my paintings are not flowers. They are paintings. They exist as works of art but they are also a vehicle that can point beyond art work. It’s true that some of the shapes can be named—that’s the stem, there’s the stamen—but if you are open and keep looking at the images themselves, words stop having any meaning.
A painting of worth is far more than a surface to be seen on a wall. (Think about that Rembrandt.) It deals with another kind of reality. The true experience of a painting can’t be represented. It’s not visible in the painting itself, yet it is there. It’s FELT. The experience itself exists somewhere in the space between the canvas and ourselves. It doesn’t take place on the canvas. It becomes visible only when we understand that it’s not there on the canvas. Once I saw a man staring at one of my paintings on a museum wall. He didn’t move when I came up to him but said, with his eyes still on the canvas, “Will that painting ever let me go?”
Artists make drawings and paintings and they make us. If we are working from a clean true need to paint, not trying to get rich and famous or get into the Museum of Modern Art, there’s a kind of focus in the process that forces us to be honest. Drawing, for instance can sear you, strip away everything that’s not essential to you. The process changes us, affects choices we make in the way we live our lives, makes us try to live with the same excitement, awareness and integrity our work demands.
But week after week, year after year, many of the images on canvas or paper which carried our passion, skill and sensitivity when we made them, eventually lose much of their personal significance for us. The power they held during the making has transferred itself into us, has become part of who we are as artists and human beings. But the power itself remains intact in the paintings, the good ones, and can enter and affect attentive viewers for centuries after they are made. Consider the frescoes at Pompei, the cave paintings at Lescaux, Mayan murals at Bonampak, canvasses by Agnes Martin, Anselm Keifer, Picasso—not to mention the Benin bronzes, the Elgin Marbles, Mancha Pichu, the Unicorn tapestries, and centuries of vital art-making from the entire continent of Africa.
The Celtic people in northern Scotland and Ireland believed, and probably still believe, that there is an exact moment each day when twilight ends and night begins when there is an opening between the worlds for a split second that one can slip through and enter the “other” world. Many artists search for a way to create this kind of opening in their work—an entrance that viewers can slip through into a non-verbal private internal experience, a jolt of awareness that wakes them up, takes them out of an everyday state of being, a reminder, perhaps, that right now they are actually breathing and alive and part of an immense mysterious universe.
It takes courage, fierce honesty and a little madness for artists to make paintings that are alive and meaningful irrespective of subject matter, style or media. And irrespective of the commercial art world—the lure of money and fame. A life in art is a journey not a destination, and painting, far from being a commodity, is a necessity of life.