Art: what makes one piece, work… or not?

From my Journal:
My mother warned me. “Never be an artist! It’s all or nothing. Artists are the most selfish people in the world!… but if you are an artist… there’s no help for you.”/

Working on this piece, having painted over my last effort on this same surface, has me thinking about failure. Not in general, but of how these failed efforts are a confirmation that I’m still learning. I had a surface to work with: a painting that hadn’t worked–covered it over with gesso. On the table, there were strips of canvas from paintings I’d trimmed after stretching. I coiled and looped them, stapled them to the board. I drew a figure on the left (it doesn’t show very well in this photo… something to remedy? or not?), then cut out another figure and stapled that over it. I found a rusted wire ladder on the street, and placed that over the figures. Then began painting. Didn’t like what I had—tore some of the canvas loose… and found that I liked the white which that had exposed. Slashed white paint on those exposed areas for greater emphasis, and on some of the canvas strips. I don’t know where this one is going, whether I can finish it and move on, or whether I will cover it in turn with gesso and begin again with something different.

WIP and pics 001

But then..what makes one piece a failure, and other a success? For me… for my own satisfaction? A complicated question. I’ve been drawing several hours a day for the last few weeks. At last—keeping to a satisfying discipline, and seeing improvement. Mostly, anatomical drawings, using drawings from old masters. The outline of the figure here is a child of that work. Almost hidden, covered over by the cut-out canvas. I think I’ve pushed past the need to prove myself… to myself… that I’m good enough to draw the human figure. It had been a lack of confidence in precisely this that had played a large part in derailing my pursuit of art 40 some years ago—something that has continued to puzzle me. What happened to me then—when I see from drawings that I had made, no evidence of lack of ability? A need for training, practice—and a few years of disciplined work, yes—but no lack of native ‘talent.’ Having come to this point, I
wanted to write out my thoughts—sound out for myself, what I’m doing, where I want to go. And maybe, understand better what had set me off on such a long, long detour from the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do, that in that, I might know better what my goals are now.

Goals. Yes–though on the one hand, I hold a deeply set conviction that what I mean by, goals, I will never see but through their unveiling one new work at a time, and yet—by admitting that I do have goals, that with each piece I make, I’m seeking out some future vision; that while it’s still play, it’s play not for the moment alone, but for the moment it makes possible for me in the next work, and the next, and the next.

That takes me back to my opening question. What makes one piece a failure, and another, a success—if not, that it further reveals… brings me closer, to that always invisible goal—or leaves it hidden. There’s what makes the failures so disturbing—makes the whole process both so exhilarating, and scary. A failure can be either—confirmation that one is pushing into new territory, learning, still learning… or it could be the end. That the goal… whatever that will-a-the-wisp that is the only light to follow… has gone out. And there’s nothing left.

It’s really like that. All or nothing. Maybe that—and doubts about my drawing skills—but I knew that for me… maybe not for everyone, but for me—that I knew it would be that way…that this was, would be, for me…  life or death. One of those fanatics people are so afraid of… but I don’t kill people…

I still don’t know what it’s about. What worth any of this has in the world beyond my obsession? I do know… that I’ve bitten the poison.

My mother warned me. “Never be an artist! It’s all or nothing. Artists are the most selfish people in the world!… but if you are an artist… there’s no help for you.”

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