Sometimes I use a computer to get ideas, as here where a collage of images has been alterred in lots of fun ways. I use things like this as sources from which to draw and paint. It’s then that I fiddle around with the image using my own computer (the one between my ears).
For those unacquainted with the painting of Jennifer Bartlett, you are in for a lush surprise. Ms. Bartlett makes some of the most beautiful, ostensibly “modern” pictures that you’ve “never heard of.” Actually for a period in the late seventies, she was the queen of painting and has done quite well commercially since her august beginning with a landmark work called Rhapsody. Meanwhile, each of the squares in the painting above, modeled after Rhapsody, called Swimmers is one foot square and made of thin steel. The grid of white is the wall showing through the individual panels. And what is visible here is just a detail of an enormous image.
I know what writers suffering from the famous “writer’s block” feel as I try to describe this picture. I find myself at a loss for words. I am not tongue-tied by admiration exactly, either. Other painters have produced paintings that I prize over this one — Monet in his Nympheas, for instance. What causes me to stumble for words is the sheer enormity of trying to explain what Ms. Bartlett is doing, as well as my awareness that I am not certain myself what she’s doing or why I find it so compelling.
Suffice it for now to observe that she has, in this picture at least, portrayed water in a most unwatery way. As a consequence of being mesmerized by her ocean, I now have an invisible grid overhanging my koi pond of thought.
As I have already mentioned I’m painting koi these days. And the koi painting is a very abstract and free image since the fish are moving and their precise shape and anatomy is not visible. My koi sometimes won’t even come to the surface to greet me. Then at other times they fly out of the water as though they’ve momentarily forgotten that they’re fish. Consequently I see them as fluid distortions that blend with the water in which they live, and their presence reveals both surface and depths.
So it seems odd that I should be thinking about little squares, but I am. For a long time, I’ve had a complicated emotional relationship to the works of another artist, American contemporary painter Jennifer Bartlett. (More about her later.) While she certainly did not invent the square, to which delight I think we owe thanks to someone among the ancient Greeks, she did give the square rather more of a high profile than it had enjoyed in a long time. Even there, of course, she borrows (whether knowingly or not) from a famous precursor Pierre Bonnard — who saw squares everywhere, even in the foliage of the trees.
Perhaps it is not strange then that I look at my koi paintings with an eye to discerning the grid that possibly overlays their pond. If I sought a very precise rendering of the image that I’m painting, as I translate from a reference photo to the canvas, I might impose a grid over the photo and block it in square by square. Since it’s interpretation I seek and not a photographic idea, I have no motive to desire such precision. However, the idea of the grid still beguiles me. I think of each square as a window that opens up a more intimate view of that section of the picture as though we might open a door onto some little corridor of reality. I want to peer into those squares to see what each one holds.
But the grid that overlays reality, conceals as much as it reveals. Ce que tu montre et que tu cache … there is this elusiveness, this ineluctable something, this je ne sais quoi that persists. It is the mystique.
[Top of the post: Photograph of a shower curtain (with a design in blue squares behind which can be seen parts of a paper mache fish), photo by Aletha Kuschan]