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.