Philosophy • back
As a young man I had a famous artist visit my studio and tell me how all the young artists want freedom without discipline, a statement that felt directed at me as he studied my paintings. When his big show opened in NYC I understood why he examined one painting in particular. He copied it.
Sharing ideas for a time took on a new dimension for me, one that was rooted in mistrust. Picasso famously said that good artists borrow, great artists steal, however in art it is those who come to new discoveries first who are most well known. Unless you're a woman. But then the adage, the truth reveals itself is true at times.
Art is communication, and communications are shared pieces of information. Being protective of ideas isn’t a bad idea, at least until you have publicly displayed your paintings, but one cannot keep ideas to themselves, at least not for too long. Ideas have a way of being in the ether of the subconscious collective. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than by Hilma af Klint, the first person to make abstract art, beginning in 1896, codifying her ideas on a series of canvases that as far as it is known, was never publicly shown, from 1906-1915, although in 1910 Kandinsky would be known as the starting point for abstract art. Later in the 1930-1940 there was the Transcendentalism art movement. (Art history seems to gloss over the connection to spiritualism that abstract was formed in).
In 1945 Janet Sobel showed her work with Guggenheim, work that Jackson Pollock would see. Two years later in 1947, it would be Jackson’s Pollock’s paintings that would steal Sobel's glory.
As a curious side note about the subconscious collective, late 1990’s I began writing a screenplay with my writing partner Jeremiah Murphy about a depressed hit man who was recently prescribed anti-depressants. Within two years or so later, literally a block away (you can see the location they used from my window) they began filming “Analyse This,” a film about a psychiatrist who’s patient was a mob boss. I recall talking to another author who claimed the same thing happened to him, and gave me the advice to never write anything while connected to the internet. I’m not so paranoid or self important to think that Hollywood is monitoring my activity but I do think once you put an idea out there, others who are in tune with the subconscious collective taps into fragments of an idea.
Ideas are meant to be shared, and if your mission in life is to progress arts and letters, then at some point you have to let it go. I am no longer guarded about my ideas, I feel secure enough in my own legacy to let the ideas out.
In my many decades as an artist one would think I would have all my ideas and thoughts about my own experiences and journey as an artist figured out. But it’s not the case at all. The intellectual side of my work is something that is well developed in terms of having a conversation with an artist in a mentor like way, but whenever I try to codify my thoughts, it’s soon abandoned because it feels like a ball of twine that is far too tangled to sort out.
This is not surprising because all my thoughts about art target the actual production of art and not something like colour theory or any esoteric ideal. Or not exactly….
1. The world doesn’t need another Basquiat or Dali, they need (insert your name here).
The first idea that needs to be understood is that the world doesn’t need an artist who paints like so and so. So and so already existed, explored their ideas, got their fame, and died. (Or probably died and then got their fame). If you paint like so and so, you are only guilty of creating derivative art, which is fine if you are young and shifting through your influences. If you want to paint like Dali, get it out of your system quick. The goal is in finding your true voice. This doesn’t mean that parts of your influences should not be celebrated or at the very least acknowledged from time to time in your work. I know one artist who’s paintings sell for around $14,000. A tidy sum, and his art is but a rip off of the Impressionists. But he seems to think he's some master when he is only a copyist.
Artists get stuck on what they like, and what they like becomes their definition of what art is. In truth, if you are not redefining art in your likeness, your not doing your job.
2. You don’t have to tap into anything.
There is no creative well to tap into. How many children do you know who don’t have creative talent? I have never met a child that can’t draw, paint, sing, dance, act, creatively play, play music, etc. Creativity is human, to express ourselves and to make things is human. It requires no degree, no long line of artists in your family. It requires you retaining and cultivating the child within you. This doesn’t meant there isn’t anything to tap into however.
3. Your life, your experiences, emotions, thoughts, belief system, interests, your art.
By now even the youngest artists have a wealth of experiences, emotions, thoughts, etc. Whereas so many artists need a starting point of a photo, an idea, a sketch, or a form of inspiration to tap into, in truth you have already developed all you need to create great art. If you need inspiration or to tap into something, tap into yourself. It’s far more interesting than a painting of flowers or a composition taken from a photo of you and your former camp councillor back when you were 12.
4. It’s all about nature. So go climb a tree
Ideas 1, 2, and 3 boil down to one word. Nature. And not just “out in nature is a rock.” But also the nature of something, an object, a thought, an experience. What I do in my own practise as an artist is to recognise that my creative self and what I paint about, and how I paint is all part of the nature of being me. Of being a human. It’s more than that too. It’s the nature of being honest, and not being afraid.
5. Ideas only slow down the assembly line
When I start a canvas, I go into it without any ideas. I have had to develop ways to turn off my critical mind during this phase of a painting, and created an exercise to activate that part of my mind. The best way to describe this method is basically the automatic drawing the Surrealists would practise, combined with critically looking at each picture, and then taking the best ideas and doing the same thing, automatic drawing, then critically selecting those efforts you most like.
In the end what you will have is a small stack of jumbled piece of work that for some reason you like. Then you take those pieces and make a drawing out them.
If I was to do this exercise I would have a stack of about 30 pages. I go through them very fast with a tool, be it a pen, marker, pastel. If I have spent more than a few seconds on each one, I am doing it wrong, I am allowing my critical mind to participate. The next phase is selecting about 20 of the pages quickly, this is how you teach your eye to see. You take the pieces that most resonates with you instantly, and even if it resonates poorly, and using the same tool or a different one, do the same thing. Now select 15, and repeat. Once you get down to either 10 or 5 drawings or whatever you feel comfortable with, take some time, really see them. Study them like they are already some masterpiece.
Then start to fill it in deliberately to make a piece of art.
I used this method for a period of time back in 1998-2002, what this did is help take away my critical thinking about what is good, instead it taught me to see the faintest hint of something beyond the jumbled scratch marks. And then in the end, it allowed me to critically think about what I was seeing and its possibilities as a work of art.
If you do this for a long enough time the jumbles become deliberate gestures. How I came up with this is that I kept doing this sort of grid thing on my paintings, sort of interlocking boxes actually, and I didn’t know why. Then one day I was looking out my window on the fourth floor, and realised I was painting Manhattan. Instead of my critical mind creating an element in my paintings, my experience of what I was used to seeing out my windows began to be encoded within me.
Trust in the being. Much of our tastes and ideas are not even our own. Our aesthetics unwillingly get subverted by society and culture, giving us a list of should be’s, could be’s, of good and bad, of education, of art history, of your influences, of what society or culture says or likes.
Be the caveman or cavewoman.
Another example is if I paint a blue line out of nowhere, I keep it there, and figure out it’s use. In this I have no fear of a bad painting or making a mistake, I allow whatever was natural within me to come out. This blue line needed to come out for reasons I don’t get. But later in the development of the painting, that blue line might be a horizon line that I didn’t realise needed to be there. In the end it may no longer be a blue line, but a distant city scape, or whatever.
6. Just do it!
What I have found is that most of the artists I know whether I have mentored them or not, if they are educated or not, whether they are famous or new, they all have one thing in common. A blank canvas is their enemy. They will sit with a blank canvas for days figuring out what to put on it. They will look at sketchings, or start sketching. They will look at photos, magazines, online photos of whatever. They will go out to nature. They will study another artist, as the blank canvas stares at them, beckoning them to start.
If you have this natural creativity within you, and all these experiences, why not trust the animal within you, the being that you are and just start painting. Trust that the being knows what it wants to say and how to say it. Lets get to painting and not thinking.
Finally, once you have started, you will naturally allow your critical mind to take over, and that is how it’s suppose to be. You make a mess, if you will, and then find the painting within. You trust in your experiences, education, emotions, whatever… and put it together.
Note: My ideas are not anti-education. I am a self taught artist who believes that an artist should be highly educated. Indeed, learning about art and art history was the first thing I taught myself and was mentored about by an elder artist.
I am often asked where do I get my ideas. I remember once watching two men move something huge in a cardboard box, and all I could see was four legs and a rectangle. I realised that anything can become a painting. And if anything could become a painting, anything you do on canvas could also, if you knew how to see it.
There is allot more to my thoughts on creation, such as shapes that come natural to you. It is something I speak about to the Indigenous artists I mentor. They come from cultures with strong symbolism that informs them on an inherent level.
Are my ideas revolutionary? Well… for me, yes. It’s opened up a world that takes me back to the original reasons I began to create art professionally in the first place. When I found the power of art by painting a portrait of a beautiful woman who has a seductive stare, and accidentally making her into a this sorrowful looking person who looked like she was about to cry. I realised that I was painting my emotions. It was the first time I could honestly say I could hold my emotions in my hands and if I wanted to, I could take these emotions, crumple them into a ball, set it on fire, or just hang it up on my wall as a reminder of that moment in time when I was homeless.
With my methods I realised I was having conversations within and with my audience that I never knew I wanted to have or could have. I realised this at a show when a lesbian couple were going to buy a painting from me and I listened to them explain how they saw the painting as a woman holding the world in her hands. They asked for the title and it was arbitrarily titled “woman holding baby.” It really wasn’t a baby, it was a circular thing, but it looked enough like a head that I just titled it the first thing that came to MY MIND. I had a theme at the time, of a ball being held under a chin, in the air, on the top of the head. And certainly none of these balls were baby heads. My title was utterly arbitrary. I dictated to them something that had no actual meaning to me, but just simply looked like something that in my hastiness for a title, was a baby’s head. I transformed a symbol of power to these two women to a symbol of conventional domesticity.
I don’t title my paintings for this reason, because I want the audience to take from the painting something that has a meaning to them, and not one dictated by a title. To make the piece of art truly their own by finding their own meanings in my paintings.
My paintings have been described as mysterious in terms of their meanings. To be perfectly honest, I usually have no idea what the painting means to me. Sometimes I do..
Is my idea new? Well… in part I came to this from a place of compulsion, drawing those interconnecting boxes that was actually Manhattan, the windows and buildings, and seeing that action for what it meant and its implications led me to a certain direction and also made me look at ways to develop my ideas. I am also a member of the Outsider Art/Art Brut movement, which certainly believes that fine art can come from outside of the academic genres of art.
My ideas was born from posing a thought to myself, “how to make art that means something by creating nothing? The answer for me was to create a sort of alliteration to meaning.”
Began in 1999, over 23 years later,
I'm still working on it.
Much of art history is a form of reaction. Some of the reactions are to economics, religion, social hierarchy, politics, and of course to the works of other artists. My art is not so different in that it too is a reaction.
There is a danger in reacting against something, especially if that something belongs in the canons of art history. But the new cannot exist until the spell of the old has been broken. It is not my intention to be a philistine, to reject something based upon ignorance or taste. What I am reacting against is a form of decadence in art.
It is important to know that reacting against something isn’t a form of completely rejecting it. It’s more like drinking tea with or without sugar, a preference without rejecting tea as a whole.
Thank you for reading!