As I entered the art world in 2012, the idea of “contemporary” “conceptual” rained on me like how Christianity didn’t let anyone go in the 13th century.
What would attract the eye of the audience, what is my “philosophy,” what do I want to poke at. It’s got to be something riveting, poignant, controversial. I see textual art of Adam Pendleton and Hank Willis Thomas, carefully researched photographs of Taryn Simon.. Identity, race, gender, politics. My Peruvian artist friend who’s digitally reconstructing the ancient site of Chavin tells me, “Art must generate social change, art is not pure, but a device to induce critical attitude, I prefer the Greek word for art: τέχνη (TEkNe).”
Ok, fine, fine, world! I’m angry at how humans had overtaken animal space, property, sovereignty, and dignity. And now animals are going to re-invade us.
Thus forward, I went nuts around the world taking photographs of human constructs, only to insert animals into them later, either painterly or digitally. I put elephants in Italian drawing rooms. Hippos eating up nutcrackers. Black panthers on Brooklyn roofs, Hong Kong streets during Occupy Central. Led bisons into the Brooklyn botanical garden on a late March rainy afternoon, when cherry petals flooded the grounds. I 3D-printed a double-headed bison, and rammed its multiples into the Holy Church of Sepulcher. Shall we have the red communist bear invade Buenos Aires public square too? Definitely!
Yet, the most magical need for painting I felt was being amidst the forest in the middle of Pocono Trail in Yosemite. I read a lot of John Muir for years before moving to California. I snapped his quotes into my permanent life philosophy at his birth museum in Dunbar, Scotland. I hiked his hometown trail there too. In the middle of the forest on Pocono Trail, there was a foggy drizzle, that I knew will for sure turn into a storm. I would be stranded if I didn’t hurry. But I dwelled. The smell, the shingling mist, the uninterrupted chirping of the birds, the moss on the trees, and occasional rustling in the woods: I knew this very moment would never ever occur again in the future. If I came back to Pocono Trail next week, and hiked to this very spot, it would be entirely different. I felt immensely nostalgic about the present moment as I was in it. I can’t let this go, I thought. I have to “save” it, somehow. Be able to come back, as often as I wish.
So, I painted the very moment. After I returned to my studio, I recollected my feelings, sketches wrinkled from the rain, photographic references. I labored on this painting day after day after day until I was convinced that it was the place of how I remembered and felt it. If I choose to go back, I would just look at this painting: an infinitesimal moment in time and the feelings of that moment, that no photograph, video, writing, can re-produce. But personal painting, can.
Wait. What is more important? Personal fancies? Just a moment on a hiking trail, pretty please? Or being a preacher of one of the millions of things that we have to care about?
A recent event shed some light towards this question. A month earlier, I made a date with myself to paint outdoors on November 9th. Yet I woke up to a local world filled with smoke. I rarely cancel dates with myself. So I wrapped a silk scarf on my face, a ninja in fleece jacket, and headed out to look for something. I drove into an empty Foothills Park. The feel of the sky was unprecedented. I plotted my vertical canvas leaning against my jeep. I got real physical with my paints. Brushes, hands. Arm muscles that I built at the gym. In my 3 hours of en plein air at Foothills Park, facing Paradise, along with all the inhaled smoke, I felt the two were fused, in a genuine way. I did love every moment of painting the scenery itself. The scene was cathartically accessed through painting. Yet the scene I painted live is historical, is place-based, and reels me into the California identity, news, and tragedy, whether I want it or not. And I recognized the Coyote bush, because a local photographer/ecologist told me about it. I would have by-passed it were I a tourist, and never made it central in a painting. This plant will live and propagate, even with fire.
I took this painting and many others to a dinner party the following night soliciting critique on my recent works. And the majority picked out this one as their favorite without knowing what it was about. “It looks just like my drive home, I’m just passing exactly these hills and hills.” A seasoned art historian alerts, “Ah wait, wait, this one, what is this about? This one stands out.” Why did it stand out? I don’t know. I became more fixated on: Why did my 50+ hours deliberation of the Peruvian jungle with the jaguar NOT?
Every time I paint an “idea,” I feel constrained. Like recently, my friend challenged me to paint the Chinese character 鏖(ào).” It has the character deer on top, and gold at the bottom. So I devised an image of a Canadian Elk on top of a pile of gold bars. I’m illustrating a concept, sure. But it felt nowhere cathartic.
In a similar timeline that day, a few adult boys of our relations gathered to play Mario Party the switch video-game. I whipped out a 3 by 6 feet canvas, painted quickly to capture them “en plein air.” Mood. Mood. I reprimanded myself. Don’t worry about the facial features. Don’t get lost in the details. Capture the mood that a photograph can’t. I had a wild time. I joined the “silly” Mario party later and understood some of the expressions they were making and the mood they conveyed. It’s almost as if I jumped into the painting itself.
Best of all, I noticed the cushions. As if for the first time in my life. And really, yes, for the first time of my life: I noticed how the cushions were manipulated by human butts, weight, and positioning of the body. If I captured the cushions, it was as if I captured the human mark of action as well. Portrait of a cushion, anyone?
One of my long time painting mentors, who paints conceptually, often remarks to me, “I am so jealous of how you can just paint.” Why can’t You? I’d ask. Many reasons. Perhaps we can’t break unfettered from academia, or “the market.” In this thus long monologuish query, I don’t have final answers. I take a solid stance in painting, yet I’m open to experiments: eager to try kinetic sculpture, printmaking in the MFA program. I am eager to revisit my earlier experiments with abstractions, digital sculpture, photography and video. Maybe even text from a screenplay I’d write.
But, a huge many but’s:
Notice the cushions or deliver a message to “change the world?”: which is more important?
Can painting from the heart, from accidental life, be fused with an important message / concept?
Is it wrong to just feel high about the cushions? The ephemeral forest? Male bodies?
What is the meaning and power of painting?
How should painting be related to other subjects? Tools? ancient-ness? Modernity? iPads, Maya? Anthropology?
Must a painting forcibly convey political, racial, gender, socioeconomic blabbers? Or do we let the brushstroke speak of its own injustice or freedom? Where is the place of painting in our contemporary world? What is primal about painting? What can we not lose in a painting? de-French the idea of “en plein air” painting? What is the American attitude of just being out there? Plop a canvas next to a jeep? To what certain point that a piece of work is no longer a painting?