There’s always so much more to say, but this is already very lengthy. I needed to move forward from Coyoacan I. A lot had gone right, but it was inaccessible. I had included a vast playlist with the piece that it was really better stripped of, I suspect, because I was supposed to be working in a time-based medium. I bought headphones especially for the piece, my own being too ratty, but during my formative crit nobody wanted to touch them. I didn’t think the art was that successful, but I wasn’t distraught about that fact. Matter-of-fact: It did not succeed. Part of the problem was that it had been a preachy info-dump that anyone not versed in Trotsky, Rivera, and Kahlo would have a hard time unpicking. During the crit my classmate Ruby said she felt overwhelmed. Well, yes. I could have predicted that response, and should have. I wasn’t angry, or sad, but I came away from my first crit thinking… “Oops.”
I decided to talk to an older comrade in my political party about the work, given my work was political in nature it seemed right to consult and discuss and nut out those aspects of the art with him. He felt, he said, like I was still finding my voice. It wasn’t immediately helpful feedback, but underlying it was a more sophisticated attitude towards art than I had really, yet, developed. I read, as he recommended, some essays by Marxist sociologist Alexsandr Konstantinovich Voronsky. These really were helpful, particularly an essay entitled The Art of Seeing the World. It was a powerful reminder that I was straying towards the stale, empty territories of socialist realism (which Voronsky contemporarily opposed), when socialist art can of course be something more akin to a generally humanistic, optimistic, materialist art. If I wished to communicate with my audience, it could simply be that I wished to imprint on them the beauty of a mushroom, or the elements we might celebrate in seeing another’s face interpreted with a spark of authenticity in paint, or the raw pain associated with a body, charred, and left to rot in the Pike River mine’s dark interior. Art could draw us nearer to the beauty and horror of the world, so that sad little motifs – the cake that might have an almond in it in Katherine Mansfield’s Miss Brill – take on a real significance they could never have were “cake” and “almond” just words, just signifiers for something we never really access like the philosophically idealist semioticians and discourse analysts who entirely composed my course reading materials would insist.
My comrade then added that there was an artist in New York he thought was doing important political art named Anne Lafond. Lafond is a lovely painter, and some of the subjects of her recent work seem very exciting to me, for example a painting entitled “Egyptian Bloggers” which had light pouring through a scene of young Egyptians at laptops in very natural, convivial poses. Immediately I cared, because the painting seemed both topical and optimistic, and her painterly style much more sophisticated than what I am currently capable off. What really caught my eye, though, was her recently established Window Studio, a sort of pop-up studio in Brooklyn:
When I set up my painting studio in the storefront window at 356 Marcus Garvey back in September 2012, I wasn’t sure how things would go. I didn’t know how comfortable I would feel painting essentially in a fishbowl, with the people passing in the street able to look in and see what I was working on. Would I be distracted? Would people be interested or not? Would they come into the store? What would their reaction be?
I first came up with the idea because I wanted to be able to paint portraits of the people that I see around me every day in my neighborhood. I wanted to work from life, not from photographs, and I wanted to get to know something about the person I was painting, since I think a great portrait communicates a lot more than just what a person looks like. I also wanted to be able to talk to people about the work, to bring art into people’s daily lives.
“Okay”, I thought, “isn’t this a way to move forward?” I had already moved so far from the provocation at this point, yet I also felt I was tapping into deeper, smarter senses of art and history. I was still so conflicted, though, and remained so right up until the day of my final submission (today/yesterday, I am redrafting this hopefully within the hand-in time frame as the second half’s draft has been… …flabby). If I did this, would it be a performance? It weighed on my mind, the question of whether or not it was just theatre of some kind. Lafond’s blog posts persuaded me, though, that I should push forward. It sounded fresh and healthy, like she really was meeting people, connecting, with her project.
I took my easel outside my house, which is on a main drag between a couple of suburbs. I set up, and I began to paint the buildings across the road, having nobody to sit for me yet. I felt like, perhaps, I should reach out to Lafond by email, but I was too shy to contact an artist much older, and more accomplished in skill and theory.
My lecturer had recommended I look at Leon Golub, the explictly political artist he could think of off the top of his head while marking my formative crit response. This was great advice, as I discovered not only that I could appreciate Golub’s giant paintings, but also his violent painterly processes which worked up his themes, and then to go a step further I discovered that Lafond had co-authored an insightful article about Golub in 2001. I took more scrappy, messy notes, some of which I quickly lost, but all the same I was building up a clearer understanding of how I was to think about art in the future. Golub’s work drew him towards despair, and I knew if I continued to obsess over “political degeneration” of important historical figures (I had thought of continuing the work with Kahlo and Rivera by moving onto the important UK labour leader Gerry Healy’s political and, indeed, philosophical degeneration), I could just wind up miserable, and cynical, feeling even more lost in an art world that, every Critical Studies lecture, looked more and more like an academic wilderness.
Anyway, I got painting, and in the interests of not taking up any more of anyone’s time, I’ll present Windy Studio as a link to both some audio, and the Facebook album I made public further into the project. Everything about the studio is slap and dash, partly so that I can run inside during the rain, partly because every week I find myself having to go into overdraft so that I can both paint and eat, and yet I feel like as a whole the project has come together nicely, and in a way that reflects the impoverished lives lived by a lot of my subjects who come from the Housing New Zealand properties I never, before I began painting outside, realised were in my backyard. I want no pretense of glamour, but I do want a solid, practical workspace. I cleared out the largest room in my house, not having any intent to “perform” like an uncomfortable fool by continuing to paint outside when it rains (something some of my classmates seemed to think would be artistically interesting or exciting). This space, formerly our bedroom, and with a window facing the street, is now a permanent studio for when/if I have to sacrifice my art training at Massey in order to pursue a possible livelihood in teaching. Windy Studio has both an exterior and interior presence in my house, and set hours: 11.30am-5pm, Wednesdays and Thursdays. How I will maintain all this if I must become a teacher is… …unclear, but it is certainly an invigorating project that should produce great work and development for the time being.