Seventeen years ago, I stopped showing in galleries. This is the story of why that happened and why I am coming back. I will be showing my portrait drawings with David Slader’s paintings in February at Portland’s Gallery 114.
My last show was in 1999 at the Mark Woolley Gallery. I approached Mark and asked if I could do a one man group show, that is, a show that filled his whole gallery that featured three of the four directions of my work at the time, my junk paintings, which were three dimensional constructions composed of found objects and paint; my abstract paintings; and the guitars and amps I had begun making. I wasn’t including my drawings because many gallery owners had explained to me that drawings were nearly impossible to sell in Portland. Mark graciously accepted (Mark is the greatest) even though I wasn’t part of his gallery stable. Mark suggested just showing the abstract paintings and guitars because he had recently shown a group of my junk paintings. We did the show. It had tons of work, a real gang of paintings along with many guitars and amps. Mark sold a number of the paintings, but the guitars and amps were clearly just a weird fit for galleries even though the guitars were unconventional and very visual.
I think, with my abstract paintings, I was probably moving into some of the same territory that led to Duchamp’s finally giving up painting. I had a very steep and exciting learning curve in my first basically twenty years of painting, but by the Woolley show my painting was degenerating into a sort of visual/formal/compositional chess game that I was losing interest in. With my guitars, however, I was right in the heart of constant discovery.
My guitars became the primary focus of my work, though I never stopped experimenting with drawing and painting. Because galleries were not a great fit for the guitars, I just stopped showing in galleries. I soon received a call from Cliff Cultreri, one of the great dealers in hand built, high end guitars. Cliff asked if he could represent my guitars. I was thrilled with the offer and accepted.
Not being associated with galleries gave me the freedom to move in ever more private directions with my drawing and what little painting I did. In fact, I really considered the guitars the core of my painting because each one involved color, texture, collage, and composition.
I began to use my drawings for two purposes. The first was social. Early in my drawing I had had to stay quiet while I worked, to maintain my concentration. As I became a more experienced drawer, I began to speak to my models more and more while I was working. In some ways the discussion kept my mind occupied so that my sensibility could function without interference. Once I could talk and draw at the same time, I started using sittings as a way of spending time with people I’d like to spend more time with. About five years ago, after the death of my parents, I asked my friend Gary if he would sit for me. Gary had had his share of losses in life and I hoped he could be a person with whom I could share my grief. Gary and I were friends at that point but didn’t yet know each other especially well. Gary and I have now worked together at least a couple of hours a week, most weeks, ever since then. By my calculations, I have drawn Gary at least 400 hours and feel I could easily study his face 400 more. He has a great, complex, and spatially difficult face that I can’t imagine ever exhausting as a subject. 400 hours in and I still feel I haven’t even come close to how I see him.
The second purpose has a long back story that I have discussed in other blog entries. Many years into my drawing I realized that the gap between what one could see and what one could capture physically through drawing grows over time rather than shrinks, that one’s ability to see into the nature of things grows faster than our physical equipment, the hand development and means of characterization through which we draw. As a neophyte I had just assumed that once I got pretty experienced at drawing I’d be able to draw what I saw. That presumption just turned out to be wrong, one of the many naive misconceptions that shatter with experience. Presented with the fact that I would never be able to capture all that I saw, I began to rethink my motivation as a drawer. What has meaning to me now is using drawing to experience the world in a deeper way. If I am wrestling with what I am observing through drawing, I notice and experience far more than I otherwise would. If the purpose of drawing becomes experiencing the subject, then the drawing itself becomes simply the residue of that process rather than the goal or purpose of the process. If the drawing as object is no longer primary, then one has the freedom to explore whatever means of making most enrich the experience. I find that what helps me most is “drawing blind”, i.e. drawing without looking at the paper. Blind drawing allows me to indulge in every way I can conceive of of breaking down or processing the subject, while also allowing each mark or realization or form of searching making to be acted upon in its full integrity without being compromised to fit marks previously placed on the page.
Now this is all slightly disingenuous because the more I worked on blind drawings the more interesting I found the residue, that is, the more interesting I found the drawings themselves. So now I work primarily blind, looking from time to time to allow movement back and forth between legibility and ambiguity, trying to find an ideal balance point, from my point of view, of ambiguous implication.
Having done hundreds, perhaps thousands of such drawings, I have begun to accumulate a handful that give some evidence of the visual quality I am interested in. A body of work has begun to form that I would like to share, simply because no one has seen it but me, with the exception of a few close friends and some of my students. Galleries are the vehicle for this kind of sharing so this year I started to contact galleries again and kept an eye out for opportunities. When David invited me share his show, the timing was right.
Actually, I don’t really like working with galleries. Art sales get too bound up with issues of prestige, and self-promotion takes more work than it has been worth to me. The act of drawing is all that I really care about. Even so, it will be fun to share what I’ve been up to all these years. See you at the show.