Art is an interesting discipline. If you stick at it long enough, you assemble a body of work and after a while, you can look back on that body of work, in order to try to discern some kind of pattern, meaning or message from the oeuvre. If, like most people, you don’t really assemble much of a body of work of your art, during your lifetime, which seems to be the norm these days, you don’t get to experience that moment. It’s rare. But when you do experience the moment of assessment of your body of work, it can be a confronting, surprising experience.
I’ve been painting for at least five years now, having never made much significant visual art before, in my life. I came to painting quite late in life. Because I have been reasonably consistent in my application, though, I have actually assembled a fair old body of work. I recently took some time to contemplate what I was looking it, when I viewed the work as a body. What was the overall theme that emerged?
I hope you will bear with this self indulgence. I promise you that the result is a little surprising, or at least it was to me. Consequently, you might get something unexpected from reading this post, even though it is unashamedly about my own work. You might look at your own work with new eyes and find the emergent theme.
Before I get to that, I should state how I paint. I don’t really have a plan. There is very little conscious thought or planning that goes into my work. It is executed with a great deal of immediacy, spontaneity and free expression. My style emerged all by itself, pretty early on, because I didn’t really know how to paint any differently. It just comes out this way. Sure, I studiously learn techniques, but when I step up to the canvas, it’s always like it’s for the very first time. What I paint is always a fresh treatment of the subject matter available to me, which is almost always posed life models. I have no idea what is going to emerge on the canvas. I paint quickly and energetically. The whole thing is a bit like a dance, for me. The paint goes on and I flow with it. My mind is not really thinking about any particular thing. It’s just watching the paint flow and the colours contrast with each other. Plenty of observation, plenty of striving to see the lights and the shadows, but not much effort spent on colour mixing or choice, these days. That comes naturally. I let the paintbrush and my subconscious do the talking (or painting). There is very little conscious forethought or planning involved.
The books I’ve read and all advice has been that I need to have an artist’s statement about my practice. I haven’t had the vaguest notion of how to write one. I didn’t have a clue what my art was about. It just was what it was: colourful, visually startling, bright, vibrant, semi abstract, affecting and surprising. But that isn’t what artist’s statements look like.
This morning, I had the idea that I should write a blog post, because it’s good to keep writing regularly, but I didn’t have a clue what to write about. This post came to me while trying to not think about something material that was a big frustration. In a moment of disciplined relaxation, I realised I should put this blog post together and get it out there. Suddenly, it all coalesced in my mind. This theme emerged too.
So what were the preoccupations of my sub conscious mind, now that I have re-examined my body of work? I don’t think I was entirely prepared for the answer and it sort of set me back in my seat. I was, I have to say, stunned at the realisation. You see, in my other art forms (writing and music) there is a very deliberate, conscious theme I am working away at (and maybe that’s why I don’t produce as much finished writing and music as I do paintings). I know what I am trying to say with both my music and writing. In both, I am waiting for a style to emerge, but I already know the message. In my painting, a style first emerged and then later, a theme. It was the other way around.
Much of my work is about the human body and its relationship to light and colour. I paint in false colours, but I don’t really know why. It just looks better to me that way. When I lined those canvases up and asked myself, what are all these paintings saying to me, I had to conclude that they were saying the following:
Memory is short, delicate and fragile. As a result, we are all almost invisible.
That’s it. That’s what my mind is concerned about, when it is idle and at rest. When I am not thinking, my sub-conscious is telling me, telling the world, that life is short. Our existence is contingent on what people remember of us and those memories fade quickly, are easily lost and distorted and can vanish in a heartbeat. The memories of our existence reside in the minds of other people, as well as our own, and when we lose contact with them, or when they pass away, that connection is irrevocably broken. With that loss of connection is a loss of our own substance.
Nobody new knows what you did before, who you were, what you thought, how you lived, or what you passionately believed in. To every new person you meet, you’re like that blank, anonymous canvas, waiting for new memories about you to be etched on their consciousnesses. Because our existence is only made substantial by the memories of us that we and our friends hold of us, we are all so precariously close to total invisibility. If it weren’t for the people that remember you fondly, take the time to ask how you are or who chat with you and engage in conversation with you, when you or they strike one up, you would fade into oblivion. Many old people do. The older you get, the more lonely, isolated and forgotten you can become. We live in memories.
I know I had great grandparents, but I never knew them. I know the smallest amount about them, yet they had lives, loves, projects, desires, goals, frustrations, triumphs, misfortunes and moments of sublime happiness. I don’t know anything about those. Nobody does. Everybody that had a memory of them has gone. There is now no way to recreate those very real, very substantial lives, which resulted in my presence on Earth. Their essence has, in a very real sense, gone forever, even though their genetic inheritance is carried on in my own children.
So that turned out to be what my paintings were saying to me. Every second is precious. Every moment ephemeral. Every human connection a thing to be treasured. We are all connected by our collective memories of each other. Culture, society, a people, are all characterised by what we remember about our collective circumstances, struggles and triumphs. We are not alone, yet we can so easily become so. We are each other and we’re all so close to not being at all.
Pretty startling theme, really. More startling than the colours.