Friday, July 4, 2008

a painting break

It's past midnight, but since this is the second time I've been asked this regarding a single painting (and not the first one that has garnered this question), I thought I'd pop in to provide my thoughts on this most fascinating (to me, anyhow) question.

I don't do self-portraits, and I think I have three reasons for this that I can identify right now.

1.) as if my ego needed that kind of self-stroking.

2.) The closer to home, the more difficult the painting. I don't paint family. I do paint friends, but if they are very close friends, they are from photos from the past, or people I haven't seen in a while. There is something elusive about the self, do you know? The closer I get to myself - that is to say, in old friendships, in family and love relationships, the harder it is/would be to paint these people. There is something about what I think I know about them that completely overrides the surrender to observation that I find paint requires of me. I just can't paint them. It actually makes me I am painting strangers, and not those who mean the most to me. But that's just how it is, I can't.

3.) And the last, and possibly most interesting answer, one I'm still working out: I don't do self portraits because every painting is a self portrait. This is how I see it: despite this very real surrender of control to inspiration (and perhaps muscle memory or muscle knowledge, if you'll let me say so), every painting is the work of my hands. Therefore, however little control I feel I have over the work (which is very little. I always feel like I am the medium when I paint, and that the work asserts itself, merely using my hands to manifest. Is this crazy? I can't really explain it in any way that sounds rational, and I've given up trying. It's not a rational experience.), it must be expressing some part of myself. Or even if it's not tapping myself, but tapping something greater than myself, there is a manipulation through my body, which surely must leave its trace on the final work?

So in that way, every painting is an expression somehow of myself. I express myself through what I see in other people.

And then there's this curious issue of similar features. It still surprises me, and I think is incredibly flattering - the women I paint are generally strangers or near-strangers captured in a moment that I find strikingly beautiful, something that moves me. Either I am naturally drawn to women who resemble myself (entirely possible, and I'd bet that psychology has some strong findings to back this up, perhaps something about the familiarity of the structural elements of face that I am instinctively recognizing?), or I am grafting myself onto these faces. Either way, I never see it. Nope. But I have been receiving this question ("Is this a self portrait?") with increasing frequency - and each time, I see my painting with new eyes afterward - oh! she has my nose, or look, my mouth is there. Why is it flattering? Because I paint women that I find beautiful, and to suddenly have others pick me out of that beauty is an incredible compliment. As a woman with some body dysmorphia issues (which, I suspect, is more common than not), this is an incredibly affirming experience, too.

In a way, then, I don't do self-portraits but every painting is a self-portrait, at least a little.

And with that, I must get back to painting! The walls, that is - after two days of cleaning, we left our little apt. sparkling and perfect for the next tenant. We arrived in Seattle to a dirty apt with walls resembling swiss cheese, so riddled were they with the large holes of mollies that had been removed but not filled. It's terribly disappointing, I have to say, but we are plugging away at it, and it is going to be quite the little place in another week or two.


Verity said...

That is so interesting and totally makes sense to me. Your work looks fantastic

Sal said...

As one of the self-portrait inquirees, I wanted to give this post my full attention before responding, which is why it took so long! I love your answers and reasons because I think they reveal a level of self- and world-knowledge that so many artists lack. I'm glad you're able to take inquiries about your paintings as self-portraits as compliments, and know how that works. It's those totally oblique, unintended compliments that often mean the most, have the greatest impact on our self-image, and last the longest in our memories.

Also, as a writer and songwriter, I know EXACTLY what you mean about the work working through you. I always feel like a vessel, and am perpetually surprised by what I create. I'm grateful to work that way, though, aren't you? Better that than to have it be laborious and painful.