Thinking About A Painting From 28 Years Ago

A few weeks ago I received an email from a woman who, with her husband, bought a painting of mine, Violet Dawn (below), from the Peyton Wright Gallery in Santa Fe, NM, dated 1991. So, it would have been purchased in 1992 or ’93. She and her husband are looking at what will become of the art they have lovingly collected over many years, including quite significant names: Ruscha, Basquiat, Motherwell, Thiebaud, Kandisky, Brice Marden, and lots more. I am proud and humbled to be in such company.

As they are looking to eventually donate their collection, she asked me to write something about the painting they bought, Violet Dawn, to help facilitate registrars and curators wherever it may eventually land. Now, this is a painting I created 28 years ago! I dug out my box of slides, 4×5 transparencies, announcements and artists statements and got after it. Starting with the kind of motivation that’s powered by vanity (I am one of my favorite subjects to write about) I headed down a rabbit hole of memory. What I found there, and what I am to do with it will be the subject of this and likely more posts to come.

Violet Dawn, 48”x64”, acrylic on canvas, 1991

First of all, I’ll say that slides sucked. You can read more of my rant about it below.

But what’s more interesting is the mental and emotional process I went through, reflecting on how I saw myself then: my ambitions and goals, doubts and demons, the victories and the concessions I made, opportunities given – some squandered, some realized- and to put that next to how I see myself and my artwork now was a little disconcerting. Staggering might be a better word, because the changes in style and subject matter seem pretty stark. As does the fame and fortune I anticipated that hasn’t materialized yet. I accept that I did what I thought was best, but I wish now that I’d made different choices. Who doesn’t, I wonder?

Could I have dug deeper to find a way to continue doing what was popular, and seemed likely to have provided that most precious and elusive brass ring: a sustained living as an artist? Probably, since anything is possible, but since the past is immutable self-flagellation is pointless.

I didn’t realize then that if you don’t make the decisions about the artist you want to be other people will make them for you, either out of self-interest or in their effort to help. It’s difficult for a lot of us to know or see other people’s agendas when they’re offering help. Being over-sensitive, an introvert, a little naive about how the world (people) works, socially awkward when it comes to self-promotion, makes many of us are not the players the system was made for.

The answer? Belief in yourself, and practice, practice, practice until you are supremely confident in your skills? Sure. But continuing to show up to work, so the muse knows where to find you seems to be the first and best method for success in this field. Luckily this field gives us all kinds of ways we can define success for ourselves.

In the absence of making a living, gaining recognition, support from anyone other than family and close friends, we’ve been performing pirouettes of rationalization and modifications to keep going for years. Living outside the system has left us scrambling for much of what we do as artists. We find ways of convincing ourselves to keep showing up, at least for another day. In my recent case, having someone still happy with a painting after 30 years gives me hope that perhaps I’ve got one more painting worth making.

The rant about slides:

I found the slide of the painting and took it and 59 slides of other paintings and sculpture – 3 sheets of slides – to have scanned so I can I have a digital archive of my past work. I was struck, going through what was hundreds and hundreds of dollars on slides, remembering the many hours not only the actual photographing, but then taping and labeling them, organizing them to send out with statements and prices: this was the standard, accepted, affordable technology at the time, and now it’s been outdated for 20 years.

How long before we switch again to the next best tech, or has it happened and I’m behind the times? I suppose it’ll all have to be transferred again whenever that day comes.

Slides were a pain in the ass. We needed plenty of slides to send out, and mostly you couldn’t count on them being returned. You had to shoot enough of them to not have to have duplicates made, because every time you duplicated a slide you would lose fidelity to the image. Plus, in order to be sure you had the right exposure, you shot at the setting that showed the correct f-stop, then shoot them again at a lower f-stop, then again at the next setting that was a stop above the “correct” one. By now you had shot 7 or 8 at each which makes 21- 24 photos. For the first painting. Repeat for each painting, twelve paintings to document comes to, say 250 to 288, photos, each of which then needs to be developed, then the good ones had to be taped off so there was only the painting and black. No background, just black, so even if the painting was exactly the same dimensions as the view finder in your camera, you had to be sure you got all of of the painting, so the only other option was to shoot against a black felt backdrop.

Many of the same issues apply to digital “slides”: cropping, adjusting the color, and probably a couple other things I can’t think of, but it sure is easier and cheaper (once you buy the computer and software). So much easier, and better in every way.

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