April 2nd, 2012 / 10:35 pm

Three Reasons I Envy Novelists

i’m not a writer. i make paintings instead. i’m perfectly happy making paintings – and i’m not a particularly jealous person – but since this is a literary blog, i thought i’d talk about a few things i like about books that don’t translate to paintings…

1. books involve big time commitments. on a few occasions, i’ve been the creepy guy in the art museum who won’t stop looking at a certain object. it usually takes about 90 seconds of oggling before i become self-conscious. by the two-minute-mark, my neck hurts, my friends are wandering off and i suspect that the security guard in the corner is quietly resenting my presence.

by contrast, books take HUGE amounts of my time. even short ones. i’ve recently begun listening to audiobooks, and they make this aspect of reading hilariously literal. wanna listen to middlemarch by george eliot? it takes thirty one hours and thirty seven minutes! nearly two days of my life are needed to apprehend its contents, let alone comprehend them.

i think there’s an inevitable intimacy that comes out of this. i have to trust a book more than a painting. there are people in my life that i genuinely care about who i wouldn’t want to listen to for thirty one hours and thirty seven minutes. books are like long-term relationships.

some paintings are like long-term relationships, but most are like quickies or unwanted advances. if someone looked at one of my paintings for a day in a half and decided the experience was worth the effort, i’d either marry them or bake them a pie or file a restraining order.

books are like the oscars. paintings are like the dude who streaked past david niven at the 1974 oscars:

2. books have a middle. even the most radically non-linear literature on earth involves some sensation of being-not-yet-done. i’m reading a book called the sorrow of war by bao ninh right now. i’m fifty pages into it. that’s about a third of the way through. i’ve never been a third of the way through looking at a painting in my life.

but that’s the boring part. the good part is that i get to suspend being in the middle of a book for as long as i’d like. case in point: i’ve been reading the book of disquiet by fernando pessoa since 2007. i read two to three pages of it every couple of months. i don’t do this because it’s difficult or intimidating. the book is composed of a series of small-scale philosophical observations, and unlike a lot of similar fare, the majority of them are actually resonant and profound and beautiful. so it doesn’t make sense to gobble them all up over a weekend like it’s the girl with the dragon tattoo or something. instead, i read it like i was probably supposed to read the bible back in grade school – i pick it up once in a while, read a few pages and think about them for a few days. i’ve been “in the middle” of this process for five years now.

3. in a book, you can literally think out loud. i’m not the kind of artist who likes to put actual words in my paintings. sometimes this means that a lot of the conceptual prep-work i do outside of the studio (reading, thinking, etc.) can get lost in translation by the time someone looks at what i’ve made. this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – sometimes the disconnects are really integral to my process. but from time to time, i get an urge to lay all my cards on the table as directly as possible. i love enigmatic and elusive works of art, but i hate the feeling that i have to be coy or secretive about my intentions to make the magic happen.

i just finished an excellent book-length essay by maggie nelson called the art of cruelty: a reckoning. it’s a great book, and i’m linking to a great review of it, so check out both of them. one of the art of cruelty‘s best passages considers the work of william pope l., a multi-media artist who explores racial identity, cultural subjugation and african-american masculinity (among other things). for a few pages, nelson uses artist interviews, project descriptions, historical references and even a bit of psychoanalytic theory to iron out the issues particular to his output, which includes performances, installations and objects. eventually, this brings her to a series of pope l.’s writings, grouped together under the title “hole theory.” it’s weird stuff – some of it involves imagining martin luther king with a vagina.

despite the considerable research nelson puts into her analysis of william pope l. in general, she is unable to make sense of these writings, and she shares her delight in being unable to do so: “What on earth it says, I have no idea. I like it, though, because it bothers me, and I’m not sure why.” it’s a mundane confession, but it’s one of my favorite parts of the book. it resonates, because it’s preceded by several paragraphs in which she is basically thinking out loud. she gnaws away at the work in all of its socio-political complexity, presenting arguments and evidence. and ultimately pope l.’s work remains elusive, but not in some formalist/transcendentalist way. by thinking out loud, she presents a series of legitimate evocations. but there is no final thesis or diagnosis. this process of analysis mirrors the sensation i feel when i’m moved by a work of art – or moved to make a work of art. the best work earns its ambiguity.

i wish i could push my own thoughts to this kind of breaking point in a painting. instead, i arrange images and hope for the best.


  1. rawbbie

      I’d like to think I’m still in the middle of looking at Broadway Boogie Woogie.

  2. Anonymous

      i guess i meant “middle” in the most literal way possible. obviously, there are visual art objects that inspire an internal conversation that never concludes, but the length of apprehension is never as long as in a novel or play or long-form poem. it’s a different way of structuring time.

  3. Anonymous

      “some paintings are like long-term relationships, but most are like quickies or unwanted advances.”

      I’d say most novels are like an abortion in that they start off as either planned or as accidents and are usually abandoned or destroyed before they can be birthed, kicking and screaming, with all their imperfections and wrongness intact, ensuring that their parent will look back in agony as it goes through a difficult childhood of poor reviews and low sales before entering puberty, where it either matures or pales in the face of its peers.

      I envy you painters. Your schooling involved staring at naked folks for hours on end. 

  4. rawbbie

      I was mostly joking, but at the same time, I agree, “visual art objects… inspire an internal conversation that never concludes.” There are visual works that I don’t know if I’ll ever gain the same familiarity I have with certain novels or poems. Because, like you said, it’s a matter of structured time, and novels and poems operate closer to time, where visual art is more about space. Gaining familiarity with a visual work requires proximity. Looking at the digital Broadway Boogie Woogie is nothing like standing inches from the original.

      But, I liked this post a lot dan, thank you.

  5. Anonymous

      ahh, but not all nudity is good nudity my friend…

  6. Michael Filippone

      This is some really great stuff! You reminded me of these wonderful, beautiful, glorious things about novels that I had unfortunately taken for granted. I really enjoyed reading this.

  7. Vomithelmet McGee

      I’m going to try and look at one of your paintings for a few hours… not right now but at some point.

  8. Daniel Cecil

      This is one of my favorite posts here in a while. While almost everyone seems to be decrying the novel form, here is a post taking about why it is an exciting form. Cheers. 

  9. Dennis Cooper

      Great post.

  10. deadgod

      You offer two reasons why you enjoy being a reader, which are compelling because they’re hiddenly obvious, and one (ironic?) reason why writers might enjoy writing expositorily.  Why do you envy novelists (if you do)?

      (I like your pencil-and-gouache pictures a lot.  Flowerpots are mysterious, and barriers bar by way of texture (as well as through obduracy).  I agree with those who say that words (and music) order temporally, whereas images ordered spatially are temporally unmoored.  I don’t think your pictures are not narrative, though; I think they’re narratively evocative rather than pre-enstoried.  Rather than pushing to a “breaking point”, evocation is a cohering agent, no?, even when elusion or dissociation is the effect.  Your pictures instigate in somewhat the way that Nelson transmits.)

  11. William VanDenBerg

      Really enjoyed this. I think it’s typical of creative people to be jealous of those who work in another medium. I am incredibly jealous of people with the ability to sing well. I’m going to try all my life to write something as immediately beautiful as Neko Case singing “I Wish I Was The Moon Tonight,” and it makes me sad that I won’t be able to. It just isn’t possible to replicate that sensation in fiction.

  12. Frank Lloyd Wong

      what do painters think of doodlers and street caricaturists? are they like the nanofictioneers of contemporary letters? 

  13. Anonymous

      i definitely relate to this. “why i envy musicians” is a whole other can of worms… too many great examples to list. will i ever make an image that mirrors what it felt like to bang my head along with led zep’s “immigrant song” in the midst of puberty? probably not…

  14. Anonymous

      interesting response.

      first and foremost, i didn’t mean to sound ironic in my appreciation for expository writing. maybe i can be more specific – with expository writing, there’s always the potential that you can type up something in good faith (i.e. without deliberately withholding evidence in favor of sounding enigmatic) and convey the vulnerability that occurs when a rigorous research process arrives at no determinate conclusion. when this is done well (as in the art of cruelty, or in this great book i’m reading right now – open city by teju cole), the “cohering” qualities of explanation/analysis often become too complicated, layered or rich to form into an easily communicable thesis. this is obviously possible (and necessary, at times) in the visual arts as well, but – for me anyway – i often feel like i have to put more faith in a limited vocabulary to achieve such an effect. in my own practice, the intellectual labor is always in danger of becoming invisible or inconsequential. and if i make it more consequential, i run the risk of making something propagandistic or flat.

      some artists combine image and text to, in a way, “solve” this problem – william powhida’s griftopia is a recent example… the drawing becomes an image/text map based on matt taibbi’s book of the same name about the 2008 financial crisis. the drawing’s power comes from following the endless connecting threads of kafkaesque finance as they weave in and out of congress, goldman sacs, the fed, whatever. it’s a drawing with formal qualities (line, gesture, etc.), and it’s also a sincere attempt to make sense of something duplicitous, corrupt and extremely complicated. for whatever reason, i’m not comfortable using an image/text combo in my own work. maybe it’s the time problem – i saw powhida’s griftopia in chelsea a few months back, and i certainly didn’t stick around long enough to “read” it in any substantial way.

      I think they’re narratively evocative rather than pre-enstoried.

      this is encouraging, because i tend to think of my own work this way also. someone i think about a lot is philip guston – an artist who, for my money, puts together a world of uncertain, evocative icons that suggest lots of real-world issues (race, protest, narcissism, etc.) without amounting to a linear narrative or any reductive, singular agenda. repetition is key for me, i guess. i tend to relate most to artists who take a limited vocabulary of images and try to make them ring out in as many directions as possible. by returning to the same universe over and over again, i hope that i can make it amount to something substantial, i guess.

  15. Anonymous

      do you have someone/something specific in mind? “doodlers” can mean a lot of different things.

  16. Frank Lloyd Wong

      like, regular old notebook spiralists or envelope scratchers, non-artists who record an impulse that is born of idleness, enhanced by zoning out, and thrown out with today’s junk mail.

  17. Anonymous

      personally, i have no quarrel with any of that. the more ornament in the world, the better, i guess…

  18. deadgod

      Oh, I see I was too gnomic to be “coherent” — ha ha.

      I meant not that you‘re being ironic, but rather, that one thing you and Nelson (as I get from your remarks) value greatly in analysis is performative contradiction.  That is, you delight in (and, what, honor) the several analytic processes not at the expense of ambiguity, inconclusiveness, and a sense of inexplicable effect, but rather, as fructive of ‘results’ alongside returned attention to lacunae and failures of explanation.  Nelson plunges into, eh, thick explication, and that’s productive – there’s plenty of illumination (or not… ) to be had from interviews, psychoanalytic theory, and so on.  But there’s effect from direct contact with the work that’s not resolvable like a knowledge of the molecular pathways revealed in obtaining crystals from a powder dissolved in a solution, effects that one can indicate without mechanically determining the determinations of.

      I’d meant to suggest that your urbscapes, while they can be symbologized, color-theoried, and so on, story not indirectly (exactly), but rather, image-ly.  (I’m not sure how words on the pictures would, what, make them clearer.  They’re not unclear without text!)  I think that Guston and (maybe) you don’t ‘return to a same universe’ so much as a sense of ‘world’ is communicated in a vocabulary of images.  –not “returning” so much as relating a constitution.

  19. Nicholas Grider

      This is great.  I’m jealous of painters (I’m a photographer) because you have a power not mentioned here: scale.  When you’re encountering something visual that’s literally bigger than you are the phenomenology of how you encounter work shifts dramatically.  And I’d say you can be “pulled in” by something like that as much as with music you love or with a novel you move through.

  20. Anonymous


  21. Anonymous

      as a photographer, you *kind of* have the option of scale (in a way that writers typically don’t). only it’s more complicated and expensive to print giant high-res images or light transparencies. they look great when, say, jeff wall makes them though.

      with you though on the visceral power of scale. i’ve definitely milked that to achieve an effect many times!

  22. Anonymous

        I think that Guston and (maybe) you don’t ‘return to a same universe’
      so much as a sense of ‘world’ is communicated in a vocabulary of
      images.  –not “returning” so much as relating a constitution.

      oddly enough, i think i agree with you. “relating” is better than “returning.” there is literal returning though, in the repetition, but i always do it in the hopes that the imagery is slowly transforming itself in a more organic way than i can muster through big symbolic changes from one piece to the next.

  23. Anonymous

      “or bake them a pie” lol

  24. Anonymous

       *in a pie

  25. Anonymous

      If html giant became a site for painters to discuss work and images in addition to writers talking about literature i wouldn’t mind at all