Making Bold

Tom Jones drawing, bronc-riding cowboy

Tom Jones drawing, bronc-riding cowboy

They say seek forgiveness, not permission, if you’re bold. I make bold here to respond publicly to a fellow blogger with whom I am enjoying a rewarding exchange of views — one of several bloggers who kindly respond to me with discriminating and sensitive comments, and I thank you all. He’s an artist and writer, and here I talk to him pell-mell (I hope to cite his blog soon, but I’m uncertain of the protocols for that at present, and would like to consult him first):

I’ve read all your latest comments and they’re echoing for me as I write this. Your remarks just keep on ringing bells. It’s so stimulating to talk about art with you. When I say something like “don’t-give-a-shit” painting, after feeling clever for a moment I regress to “uh-oh, that sounds cocky and glib.” I’ve said before that I’m a passive-aggressive expressionist. I’m torn between bold sallies and remorseful retrenchings — whatever that means. In fencing you thrust and you parry. And I think you “lunge.” What’s it called when you back up like hell? “Retreat” sounds a little wussy! Yes I’m a wuss.

I admire painting that’s… daring. Your work is daring. It springs from elsewhere, the haunted imagination lassoed with fiery technique. I’ve always wanted to live “elsewhere.” One of the many Waterloos in my life is that I will die in Texas, whence I came. I “fondly” call it a buttcrack state, along with its southern sisters whose glutes sandwich the Mississippi. I would like to have expired at a remote time in the future near Colby College, for example. Or Bard. Or Salamanca or Soria in Castilla la Vieja. As it stands, I’ll just tell my son to scatter my ashes somewhere in the yard where they don’t blow back into the house.

Your remark on “trained” eye is insightful. “Seasoned” eye would have been good. I’ve internalized the shibboleth that says true artists earn the right to paint unconventionally (daringly) by having traversed the rungs of rigorous academic training first. Like all received wisdom I’m sure it’s rife with exceptions (is Basquiat one?), but you show the marks of having mastered much craft. As you say, you’ve gained your eye with much looking. And your ear for music with much listening! — another thing I admire.

I spent most of a summer in Paris once and hung out at the Louvre. One day I was staring at a painting — I wish I could remember the picture precisely. Its title was something like “Tâche violet” (or “violette”? — I’m not sure of the gender). A lady came up beside me, looked for a moment, then turned and said in French, “What is it?” I answered, “Madame, it’s a ‘Purple Splotch,’ ” simply quoting the label. I thought I was so smart and hip. “What you see is what you see.” (I know “violet” is a closer match, but I like “purple” for the story!)

To give you an example, I have a book of Milton Avery’s work, and I like his work. It has something of the feel I noticed in Henry Taylor, sort of a willed coarseness (?) — a terrible word, I’m really going out on a limb which will probably break off as soon as you blow on it, but it feels good to ramble. In much of my writing I edit my stuff until it’s terse and clenched to a fault. But do you recall the literally *white* face on the horseback guy in Taylor’s painting? It’s stark and startling. Some of his portraits look like he has literally shit pigment on the canvas. The eyes have no nuance whatsoever. Yet those paintings grab me. I didn’t post a couple of his pictures that are truly wrenching. I’m loath to court controversy on my shingle, and we’re all full up with arguments anyway.

Painting like Taylor’s and Avery’s gives me a feeling not so much of “I could have done that” but rather “I should have done that.” How dare they thwart my expectations so seductively! As a hobbyist I labor to model plausible representations in the oils my dad left behind. I’m OK with that, I didn’t make the sacrifices necessary to be an artist, but as a viewer I’ve been a fan of painters like Kandinsky and Mondrian. Degas was my early idol. I have half-sleeping in my brain a moonscape by Albert Ryder. Was it “Albert”? I haven’t thought of him in years. I liked the so-called Ashcan painters. The gritty urban scene was exotic to a country boy longing for escape. Eliot wrote of the poet’s duty to find beauty in the not-beautiful — I paraphrase him drastically and from memory. It reminds me of a phrase by a friend who is a “Texas poet.” He speaks of the “bluebonnet plague” that swamps our Sunday landscape painters. Ouch, I think I’m one of the pack, though my landscapes usually try to be faces. And I paint during the week. At least not sunsets though. Yet! (But they *are* so pretty.)

Copyright (c) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day, and watch Netflix and Prime Video for entertainment. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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4 Responses to Making Bold

  1. cindy knoke says:

    Blogging is such a surprise to me. Not because of what I post, but because of the amazing people I get to meet.

    • JMN says:

      I couldn’t agree more. I think of what I post as having only relative value, but more so as a kind of “bait” to attract dialog and communication with other people.

  2. Eric Wayne says:

    I make a lot of typos. In my last comment I quoted you as “Poor or get off the pot”. Ugh! I guess you know I meant “Poop or get of the pot”. To continue:

    I’m sure we are all imperfect and have our flat spots when it comes to art. We don’t have the scope or experience to appreciate everyone else’s unique vision at any given time. When I was 18 I looked through the Jansen (Sp?) book of Art History, and my very favorite painting was of “The Last Supper” by Emile Nolde. If you search my blog you’ll find I recently did a cover of it. Another day I’d certainly prefer Bacon or Van Gogh or Monet or El Greco… Cezanne often leaves me very cold, especially all the green and orange Mt. St. Victoire paintings. Cubism bores me to tears. I usually find Matisse threadbare. And so, I know that quite often the works which do not impress me (including a lot of jazz here) don’t do so because of my own myopia. In short, there are things in life that other people appreciate that I can’t.

    My particular likes are what they are. I’ve always been a bit disappointed when it turns out that all the boys in class are attracted to the same girl, for example. I prefer that there are is a plurality of likes and dislikes. My likes are not definitional, not qualitative assessments of value. They are subjective, relative, personal, fluid, and time-bound.

    So, for example, I prefer Kerry James Marshall over Henry Taylor (for now, anyway). I could make arguments as to why, but a large part of it is I’m just much more impressed with the skill and complexity of his painted images. If someone else likes Taylor more, all the better. Each artist needs an audience, and if everyone had my disposition 9% of artists would have to marry their day jobs.

    Just a note about the idea of artists earning the right to, uh, “paint unconventionally (daringly) by having traversed the rungs of rigorous academic training first”. I can’t think of a single real example of this being true. People claim it of Picasso, but I haven’t seen that much that actually proves it, and his early paintings under the tutelage of his father might also have been helped by his father. His Rose and Blue period paintings do NOT show a high level of academic accuracy at all. Rather, I find that people who go too far into mastering all the academic ropes are then bound by them. Whoever masters realism tends to be a realist painter. Van Gogh never learned to draw or paint properly by academic standards.

    Much more likely one will see a fairly competent seeming image that looks like the artists mastered the craft first before going off in another direction, but it’s not really the case. I have very persuasive examples of my own, but I can’t draw anything I imagine from any angle. I get bogged down with the lighting and shading, perspective, anatomy and so on. I certainly would have rebelled against any teacher that forced students into the drudgery of academic realism. If one paints by rules that exist independent of ones own birth, how is ones are an individual expression?

    Painting with oils and without having mastering all the various techniques is perfectly legit. You aren’t going to get any resistance from me on that. I rather liked your portrait of that woman with green eyes and puckered lips.

    • JMN says:

      Your remarks are lucid and luminous. I must do some more looking and searching on your website. I’d like to seem more of your work and also your writings on art. So much of what you say resonates with me. I find my own observation about academic unconvincing, too. Slightly servile, perhaps, something I don’t admire in myself. Your investment in commenting is much appreciated.

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