Friday, June 19, 2009

Art & Pain

This week I am working on a sketch for a new painting in my "Giants of the Desert" series. When I am out in a landscape I often look for stands of Saguaro cacti that are visually powerful, which set a strong image in the landscape. While walking in a field where there were no trails, I stumbled across just such a stand of Giant Saguaros on the Sutherland trail at Catalina State Park, and have set out to paint them.

This week I also wanted to take this chance to thank all my dear friends and collectors who have chimed in to wish me well as I have been trying to facilitate a recovery from my back ailments. In all honestly, I ended up getting so sick from my medications that I took myself off all of them two weeks ago - and to my own surprise, I feel 75% better! I am still struggling with some issues, but the improvement is significant. This week I also found myself thinking of a gentle rebuke from my wife; when she mentioned that I talk about my ailments too much! After thinking about it, I had to admit that she was probably right. But as I was kicking myself for such negligence towards my friends and their own lives...the reason WHY occurred to me immediately. I remember once telling my wife this scenario; imagine that every ten seconds a little creature in your shoe bit you on the foot. For days, months, weeks, even years - sure as clockwork, this little monster bit your foot. Naturally your attention span would be ruined. It would be hard to have a conversation. It would be hard to be fully present in the moment. It would be hard not to fear the future if again and again you got bit. So it seems to me that a chronic pain issue is much like that - it forces the person suffering this situation to be too much IN themselves...always turning the problem over in their minds, always waiting for the next bite. Always dreading the inevitability of it. But hers was a fair rebuke, and I accept the criticism openly.

Of course when I am thinking about art, I also got to thinking a lot about art and pain. One of the most poignant examples of this, we all know, is the struggle of Van Gogh, which is well known to most people. It always seemed to me that what Vincent did which is so incredibly heroic, was that despite all the turmoil in his personal life, his own battle with insanity, poverty, loneliness, lack of love, and art in general - he somehow managed to internalize all of that turmoil, and when it exited him thru his brushes, the resulting canvases were some of the most beautiful expressionist works done by anyone. I try to fathom the extent of his suffering and it boggles the mind - but it only boggles when one realizes that despite everything, Vincent created beautiful works that were full of energy, heat, passion, and a love of the beauty of the world. How many desperate individuals, locked in mental facilities around the world could find it in them to still create such breathtaking beauty? Perhaps more than we know...but it is only in the acknowledgement of this that we can appreciate Vincent's triumph over pain. True, the waves did crash in over him eventually - but he stood the force of the tide, internally and externally, for a long, long time. Long enough to leave a body of beautiful work, and many of the late ones especially - extracted from pain and re-rendered beautiful in the world. That, my friends, that is an accomplishment!

But, as I have discussed in earlier blogs, Van Gogh's case is not exactly unique in art. Just this week I saw a fantastic documentary on the abstract artist Mark Rothko, called "Rothko's Rooms". What was most interesting about Rothko is that, after many years of struggle, he did experience the taste of true success in the later part of his life. However the struggle that was integral in his work remained. He himself said that a sense of the tragic notion of the image was always present in his mind. When one begins to try to understand, in a worldly sense, why one still feels this strong sense of tragic, even when your works are going for big money, the answer reveals itself to be that the tragic, for Rothko, was a certain state of mind that could not be affected by anything external to it. So it would not be changed by success or the vestiges of it. And when one looks long and hard at the late, dark works of Rothko, notably some of the Seagram's murals and the black works that went into the Rothko Chapel - a real sense of beauty and subtle tragedy does emerge. As if the artist were making works that were the visual and emotional equivalent of the universe before the big bang. Perhaps it should be surprising that an artist, so much IN his own mind as Rothko was - should end his own life, much as Van Gogh did. Even I know that the struggle to create has a tendency to hollow out a person.

It could be said, perhaps, that struggle and art are the same thing. The attainment of great images does not generally deliver itself on a silver platter. Rather it is always in front of you as you go chasing after it. The thrill of the chase is enough for some people. For others, the thing must be captured to be enjoyed and expressed. But you go on after it because you don't know what else to do. Most of us know we can't turn back now. We are too far down the road - so we struggle on, with bad backs - sometimes with unhealthy minds - to try to shove it all aside for a deep breath of beauty.