Wednesday, December 24, 2008

An evil mistress

Red Warner’s New Year’s message

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Dec 24, 2008
pictured: "Mockery," digital print by Red Warner

“Painting can be an evil mistress. She can love you tender, and she can love you raunchy, and she can rip your guts apart.

“When you put that last stroke on your canvas and you know you've done it right and you step back to look at what you've done, a deep sigh comes all the way up from your loins, and you say ‘Yes! Yes, by God, I did it.’

“But it can also be like a cramp in the pit of your stomach that wrenches your intestines and won't let go, because to make a painting you have to reach deep down inside and pull it out, and when it doesn't come it's like the dry heaves. And the loneliness of it! The loneliness is unbearable. You're all alone in a huge loft, and you're slinging paint with concentration so intense it's exhausting, and when you finally set your paint bucket down and step back to see what you've done there is not a soul to share that moment with, be it ecstasy or be it loathing because you've experienced a rape or a battle or the most tender of caresses, and it was all between you and that goddamn canvas. And suddenly you get this memory flash from back when you were in art school and your professors ripped your work apart, and you look at your painting, and you can't even see it. You haven't the slightest idea whether it's art or crap. So you grab the freight elevator down to the street and you walk to the corner bar and get gloriously drunk.”

This statement comes from Red Warner, a painter, a man possessed by demons, an artist who can no more not make art than he can stop breathing. Warner has a graduate degree in art and has spent a lifetime painting, but still he is filled with doubts about his own work. He looks at the paintings stacked against the walls in his loft and wonders if this physical evidence of a lifetime dedication to art is worth the effort.

OK, there is no real Red Warner. He’s a character I made up, the protagonist of my novel Until the Dawn. But he is, in many ways, the epitome of every halfway decent painter I have ever known. I know from reading biographies of many of the great artists of the past that the best of them harbored just the kind of doubts Warner expressed in this opening statement. I know Paul Cezanne did. I know Jackson Pollock did. And I know from talking to many contemporary artists here in the South Sound that they too are often wracked with the same torturous doubts and are obsessed with the same need to push themselves to become better and better and better.

I also know that when these artists show their work in area galleries it is like stripping naked and standing in the spotlight for the entire world to see. They are putting not just their art on display; they are putting their raw, naked and very humanly blemished selves on display. Knowing this, how can I dare to criticize their works week after week? Who am I to say whether their work is worth viewing or not?

I could site my master’s degree in drawing and painting and my years of teaching art and making art, but let’s face it: that doesn’t really mean much of anything. When I express an opinion in writing — and it is just an opinion no matter how educated it may be — I am putting my reputation on the line just as much as the artists I am critiquing. That’s why I usually try to be very gentle in my criticism.

I hope my words have been and will continue to be educational and entertaining — and not too hurtful.

Best wishes for a wonderful and creative 2009.

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