February 6, 2009

The Price of Sentiment

The small oil on wood painting pictured above and to the right are of scenes around central South Carolina. I have been doing them off and on for a number of years - mostly because people are attracted to them and therefore collect them. Some are in the collection of the CEO of Planter’s Peanuts (too bad peanuts are a sore subject for Americans these days and Georgians in particular). These domiciles on wood have also found their way to Washington DC and grace the walls of former senator Hollings’ home. There is one with the former aide to Lynn Cheney, so I’m told.
In my previous blog, I mentioned that what attracts me to these scenes are the textures and flat planes of colors. When I begin to block out these color planes, they look like abstract expressionist painting. Part of me wants to keep them that way, and recently I have done so. Abstraction forces people to see the beauty of the paint itself. But generally I resolve them into structures more recognizable than patterns within geometric planes of colors. In so doing is it compromise? I would have to say yes and no. A lot depends upon artistic intent. If the integrity of the abstract relationships is maintained despite detailing, then my artist’s guilt does not rise. But when too much of the purpose for the painting is relegated to sentimentality through depicting scenes that cause the viewer to pine for a bygone era, then I feel the conflict that many artists feel.
After all, if the subject matter takes precedent over artistic skill, then the involvement of the artist’s mind in the creation of the art is negligible. It doesn’t even matter who painted the scene - as long as it was recorded and can be possessed for its emotional appeal. It is a age old conflict for artists - form versus content, the what it is versus the how it is.
As an artist trained by the artists of the Clement Greenberg generation, the dispassionate science of the form in painting took precedence over the emotional evocations in the content. There may have been content in their paintings, but art educators and artists-in-training did not discuss them. Words that evoked engineering or construction were used to describe painting, or, in some cases, words were eschewed entirely. An extreme form of this approach was in the graduate school lectures of the artist Leland Bell. I recall long lectures at museums with Professor Bell standing in front of paintings making an extensive repertoire of grunts and other vocal sound effects. It was certainly a dynamic way of getting to understand a work of art through its pops bangs and whooshes of forms, but it made me tired at the end of the day and feeling that there was something at the crux of the art that remained uncovered. It made me hungry for content. Ironically, professor Bell was a brave and passionate man who made paintings that were very emotive indeed. Perhaps the idea behind his lectures was that content in painting was so self-evident that it need not be discussed. But I would have liked to have discussed it - what it was like to hear the music that was depicted in the little paintings of jazz men, or the relationships of the families in those paintings of interiors. The fault here is mine for not having asked about them.
I know that people collect my paintings of sheds, shacks, small houses, and abandoned homesteads for their content. It is up to me to imbue that content with form. As long as the form continues to hold meaning for me this does not entail too much compromise of artistic integrity.
In the wrangling between painting for the joy of the form itself and the knowledge that a certain look or subject will capture public sentiment, I have come to the conclusion that there is value to both. The former fulfills my need and the latter, my clients, with some valuable overlap between the two and discovery along the way.
I am told, for instance, that my clients like to have more than one little painting of these buildings. Some even have collections of them. I was happy to have collectors, but I didn’t quite understand the appeal of owning a group of these little paintings on wood until I was recovering from surgery one week and only had the strength to make small works. I painted a large collection of the so-called "Domicile" series during my convalescence. As I painted I placed the buildings in rows on a shelf to let them dry as I made the next set. While lying down to rest, I looked at the small series of houses on the shelf and realized that as a group they signified something very different from a single painting of an isolated house. I had the distinct impression of taking a drive. So that’s it, I thought, I’ve touched upon that quintessentially American thing - the road trip. It is that sentimental journey home and sometimes the sentimental departure from it towards the vistas of new possibilities. And who am I to question that sentiment? I’ve felt it myself when my husband and I go out on a drive to relax. We look at houses on our way ; little houses, large houses, falling apart houses, abandoned houses. The journey and the places along the way that we record perhaps speak to something that reassures the human psyche - that people were there, are there and will continue to be here, and, if need be, we can pack up our troubles and go.

1 comment:

harriett said...

I too have been conflicted with these same concerns - I suppose every artist wrestles with this at one time or another.

Excellent essay on a tough subject!