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A Momentary Lapse of Perspective
Sometimes you have to step back to lean in.
I was sitting in my studio the other day, looking at some of the 100+ paintings I’ve done over the past few years and out of the blue I thought to myself, “I hate all of these.” Adrianne walked in a few minutes later and asked what was going on and I said, “I think I hate everything I’ve done.” Adrianne being Adrianne then asked, “Do you really hate it or is it something else?” I didn’t answer immediately, but of course it’s something else, right? It has to be. But that’s how it came out in the moment. To be clear, I don’t love every piece I’ve ever done—I don’t think any artist really does—but I certainly don’t hate every piece either. So what is it that’s really going on?
I think in that moment in the studio, I was reacting to something around consistency or maybe the lack of it. Over the past few years, I’ve created several bodies of work, each with a very different look and feel. I’ve got collage work that straddles the line between art and propaganda and explores themes around power, corruption, money, and war. I’ve got work that feels more like decor than art that’s just color and texture, which may be easier for an audience to relate to. And I’ve got work that’s somewhere in between. Lately I’ve started to question whether or not all of the work feels like me and whether or not it should. I think one of the challenges makers face is in finding a balance between individual pieces or bodies of work and an overall cohesion that ties those bodies of work together so that they look or feel like they were created by one person. There are definitely exceptions to the rule, like Picasso, who famously went though a number of periods making wildly different work in each of them. Does it all feel like it came from the same person? Honestly, I don’t think so, and maybe that’s part of his genius. If I look at pieces from his Blue Period, his African Period, and his Cubism Period, I feel like I’m looking at three different artists. But if I look at some of his later work from the 60s, I can definitely see bits and pieces of the earlier work woven in.
I decided to try an experiment. Because I only have a few pieces out in the studio at any one time, my own perception or experience of my work is limited. So I decided to stage my own retrospective. I pulled out a bunch of paintings from 2009 up to the most recent stuff I’ve been working on—maybe 80 or so pieces—and I leaned some against the wall, put others on a table, and I even put a few on the sofa, just so that I could scan the room and see all of the work together as it might be in a gallery show. I was looking for two things. The first was visual cohesion. Does all of the work look like it came from the same person, despite the different styles and techniques? And if I’m being honest, the techniques are mostly the same across all of the work in terms of process. It’s all paint, ephemera, texture, found objects, etc. The differences are in how those techniques are applied. For example, The New Propaganda and Grid Variations use exactly the same materials; they’re just applied in a different order. The second thing I was looking for was narrative or voice. Is there some sort of recognizable thread or bit of connective tissue that spans and binds together my various bodies of work? And to be clear, I don’t know that any of these things matter to an audience, but they matter to me, at least while I’m still trying to suss out my artistic voice. If life is a journey, I want my work to be one of the ways I chronicle that journey.
As I stood there in the basement, looking over my paintings, I asked myself the two questions I mentioned earlier. Are they consistent? Yes, I think so, but it’s more obvious the more work you see together. There’s definitely a consistency with a given body of work. I don’t know that most people would connect one to the other if they saw them in different places at different times, but seeing them all together there’s definitely a connection. Colors and textures are familiar without simply being direct lifts, and while the ephemera is more visible in some pieces than others, there is a common tone than I can see across the range.
As for narrative, when I look at the various bodies of work, I can definitely see what prompted them and where they came from, and it’s not just visible to me. I was talking about all of this with Sean a few months ago and he said that for him my propaganda work especially is absolutely a reflection of how I see and move through the world—my current beliefs and adolescent fears and anxieties were all right there in the frame. Once I really started thinking about things like bomb drills in elementary school or living with the threat of the Cold War in high school, the connections became obvious. Despite the overtly political narrative, I think the New Propaganda definitely shows the influence of design heroes like Josef Müller-Brockmann and Reid Miles. In some of my other work, I can sometimes see the impact that artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Motherwell have had on things like composition and color.
We often get so immersed in the making of individual pieces or even bodies of work that we aren’t able to see how all of it fits together—which is exactly what happened to me that day in the studio. I let my frustration over what I saw in a small portion affect how I felt about everything. It was only when I took a step back and took a wider look at my work that I was able to see how it all fit together, and to a certain extent, where I can see it going from here. I still have some anxiety about releasing it into the world, but my friend Father Bill Moore once said that releasing the work is a necessary part of the creative process. The release allows us to make more work and the final resting place of the art we make is not cloistered away in our studios, but on the walls of those who love and appreciate it. Who am I to argue with wisdom like that?
Thanks so much for reading.
Have you ever lost faith in your work? How did you get it back?
Do you see a common thread that runs through your work? How does it show up?
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