Art with meaning—what is it, how does it relate to our painting and why do we care? What does it look like? Can it be created without a skill-set? Does an audience recognize it? And does it matter?
I want to be able to put “it” into simple terms, but they elude. I look to those who have endeavored to explain. They write pages and pages in an attempt to clarify or prove something for which there is no clear path or proof. So far I have found only cumbersome explanations with references to myth, religion, philosophy, psychology, native cultures and, of course, art history.
Academicians also seem to be unable to hit the heart of the matter. Most boil it down to historical evolution and oh-so cerebral explanations of symbols and significances addressed to other academics. I think it is simpler than that. And there are many others who agree, like Robert Hughes, (creator of the book and television series on Modern Art, Shock of the New, and long-time critic for Time magazine); Michael (I Love you) Kimmelman, (“the most acute American art critic of his generation,” in the words of the Australian writer Robert Hughes) and James Elkins (E.C. Chadbourne Chair of art history, theory, and criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago), to name a few. But neither they nor I can quite get a handle on it. “It” is elusive. I usually know it when I see it, but not always when I, or if, I do it. It’s experiential. It has to do with motivation, energy, being present and seeking some truth.
What I know is this this: There are paintings that say something authentic and meaningful in a universal language. They haunt. They exhilarate. They creep around in our memory. They have been done by geniuses and by novices. They can be ugly or beautiful. They can be simple or complex. They can be thickly layered with intricate drawing or thinly dripped or poured or painted primitively. They can be black and white or brightly colored. They can be big or small, done on the wall of a cave or in a sketchbook. They are not overworked. Questions may remain, but doubt in the doing does not. There is a sense of commitment, immediacy and magic. And one does not need the artist statement to be moved by them.
This is what we strive for. But there is no formula, no Google Map directions, and no recipe. It does involve more interest in the process than the outcome. It requires being fully present for at least part of the effort. It contains a knowing despite the feeling of being completely unsure. It needs a willingness to let go of an idea, a favorite color or stroke, or the most proficient passage of the piece. And in the end, every mark needs to be there and nothing more. It is about using heart and soul and the unconscious as the dominant guides. And even though composition and the formal elements determine “readability” it is not about any of those things. They are merely tools.
I remember when my teacher told me to draw the thing before us. I carefully rendered what I could discern in the lights and darks and the lines. When he said “Oh JoAnn” with so much disappointment I knew what I was doing wrong. I was trying to perform; to please; to reproduce and recreate—not simply connect, react, be present and create.
Is there an endgame? No. It is a pursuit for the sake of pursuing. These exhibitions mark progress along the way, but even their importance needs to be discarded. To want to be “good” you have to let go of wanting to be “good”. It is simple but not easy. And it is complex but not difficult. As I write this I feel the thin wire on which these thoughts balance. Afraid of falling, afraid of sounding stupid, but swearing with conviction that these are things about painting and what we do in ArtHouse 23 in which I believe.