Recently, I’ve been interested in making paintings about one thing, as opposed to many things.
Working as a writer for twenty years has something to do with it. Early on, I found that any writing assignment, whether a three-word headline or a 25 page paper, could succeed only if I identified a single subject and structured everything else around that. I’ve been going through the same exercise with watercolors. Typically, they begin with too much or too little happening. I keep working until a single visual event emerges. My aspiration is a poem without words.
Indeed, one of my heroes is the poet Sharon Olds, whose poem, “The One Girl at the Boys’ Party,” is a model of poetic focus. Here, words and pictures coalesce around her daughter’s math ability, with the metaphor extended through the rest of the poem:
When I take my girl to the swimming party
I set her down among the boys. They tower and
bristle, she stands there smooth and sleek,
her math scores unfolding in the air around her.
. . . they will
see her sweet face, solemn and
sealed, a factor of one, and she will
see their eyes, two each,
their legs, two each, and the curves of their sexes,
one each, and in her head she'll be doing her
wild multiplying, as the drops
sparkle and fall to the power of a thousand from her body.
I discovered “one thing” in my watercolors during the summer of 2018 while working on Tupistra Tupistroides, a watercolor on a frail botanical print that became more and more layered, complex and unfocused. I needed to bring it to closure before the paper fell apart. A single blue shape in the middle foreground did the trick. In another painting, Red Flag, I recognized at the last moment the importance of a flag-like shape on the upper left that preceded the rest of the marks in the painting. In Triangle, the ovoid shape depends on the underlying blue lines to exist, but is nevertheless the defining event. All the other paintings in this group are environments where predominantly one thing occurs.
I work with oil and canvas, watercolor and paper, and the feeling is similar to working my vegetable garden or pruning tree limbs. The painting is an ecosystem with its own laws and gifts – weather, gravity, wood, plants, rain, hot sun, erosion – so I enter cautiously and try to leave no trace. My goal is always a poem without words.
One of the reasons I make paintings is to quiet my thinking, and its offshoot, worrying. Thinking and worrying are intimately connected to time, especially the awareness that time will run out. Instead of thinking and worrying, what I do is improvise. To improvise, I make rules and set up an instrument -- various materials ready to go -- and for a period of time forego everything else. In the end, improvisation is a kind of hyper-focus, when time stops.
Now, instead of worrying about global warming, people, shelter, reputation, suffering, and money, I operate in a small ecosystem of pigment, liquid, paper or canvas, tools, and my own impulses. The choices are infinite, but less infinite, so to speak, than in the ecosystem of the real world.
When I’m painting, I try to put the tendency to think and worry to good use -- sublimating it through instant feedback that says “go” or “no-go” to every action. Whether it's too much darkness, not enough complexity, too much allusion, not enough history, too much geometry, not enough singularity -- when I'm sorting these out, I feel like one of the materials, which is a peaceful state.