The legacy of Modernism for me was the misconception that we’re responsible for moving the Art Flag forward into new territory. Since, realistically, this is nearly impossible, I’ve spent years feeling insecure about my efforts: when you’re charting new territory there are no signposts pointing the right way.
Often we accept forward momentum because Art History is taught in a linear fashion, with one epoch leading to another. Additionally, Modern Art theory dominates in the academic establishment. There’s value in all art education, but what I discovered through my own practice is that without a clear understanding of what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it, I can’t fully explain, defend, or feel confident about my work or be at peace.
I remember the discussions about form verses content that dominated many of the art critiques in my advanced painting classes. There was the group arguing that meaning was derived from the formal elements – this color opposing that line expresses my angst about relationships – while others would say that no, that color brushed against the line creates either a pleasing or jarring visual sensation without any meaning other than it looks like an apple. Some would obliterate everything into an overall pattern – I actually did a painting that was white with horizontal graphite lines and gave it the artspeak title of Silence Lost by Slow Gradations. The goal was to incorporate Hans Hofmann’s theory to find “an internal order existing between objects rather than stress their separate identities.”
Over time my attitude began to change about how I could express this internal order. There’s always a meaning in art that is ascribed by society at large, so the whole argument about trying to communicate order through form but not content began to feel too obscure for me. I reinvestigated Cezanne, Sisley, Fechin, Sorolla and others, not the way I had learned about them, as precursors to the Modern Era, but as artists I connected with emotionally. I was trying to find a visual language that felt more natural, and discovered that each used a narrative, directing our attention throughout the picture while establishing meaning and internal order. Narrative, which comes from subject matter, content and meaning, and internal order, which – to me - means beauty.
So I decided that perhaps I was trying too hard to communicate my ideas. You know, reaching too far out there for techniques that would seem cutting edge but in reality came up a bit short. I began to relax as the pressure to invent something new disappeared. I began to paint in a far more relaxed way, too. I quit imposing limitations on what I should do and realized that by aligning myself with this conversation from the past I could contribute modern concepts about our world without the added frustration of inventing a new way of doing it. I realized that when you’re fixated on what's going on in your own head, it’s easy to forget that other people want to appreciate what you're saying, too. And I don't believe society should have to learn a new language just to understand my painting.
The funny thing is, I think you have to get old enough in your art practice to understand this, to give credence to the idea that the real value should be in the message and not the messenger. So now I say, okay, I want to talk about a way of life that is rapidly disappearing, and I want to do it in this particular landscape. How did Levitan or Sisley communicate this? And by this I mean how did they use light, or place, or selected objects to communicate an emotional narrative that goes beyond the “this is an apple” approach.
Maybe some people will say oh, that’s so passé, but that’s okay with me. I don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I’m happy with what I’m doing. I’m excited about exploring the next idea using a visual approach I don't have to defend with a dissertation that - in the end - bores everyone, even me. And it’s what I’d be doing anyway. Painting.