I finished a painting the other day and kept thinking it looked so familiar. And not in the usual way. By now, thirty-plus years in, there are several recurring motifs. Books, window views, rooms, coffee shops, public transportation—these and a few others are what I do. Variations on a theme. Repeat repeat repeat.
The new painting is a doorway view from the mud room to the living room to the kitchen to the bathroom. A few years back I drew its opposite from the kitchen. But it was more than this current setting which was causing the déjà vous. It was the doorways.
Here’s one from twenty-seven or -eight years ago. The apartment was in Logan Square and I was still in art school. As a symbol or a metaphor, a doorway is pretty fucking obvious. But I’ve never imagined that my work plumbs depths, so I don’t mind whatever meaning there might be being right there on the surface.
Here’s the opposite view of the previous one. That apartment was a lot bigger than my current one. I was living with other people, which required more doors, hallways, rooms. The funny thing about this one is that soon after I learned how to use a computer, I decorated my MySpace page with it (among many other paintings) and a few months later a guy from the other end of the world—Australia maybe? Don’t remember—sent me a snapshot of his forearm with a crude rendition of this doorway covering shoulder to elbow. You start walking up and down halls, no telling where you’ll end up.
Back in high school, I mostly stayed in my room when I was home, so all I could see out the door was the door to the hallway closet. Still, that need to look past, to what’s beyond, has always been there. As I said before, there’s nothing profound about it. It’s natural. It’s what I imagine we all do.
These pictures of portals are also a way to look back. To ask why thirtysomething years ago I was trying to depict the same damn thing as just the other day. It’ll take someone a lot smarter and with a lot more critical distance than I can muster. Looking at these ancient images doesn’t fill me with nostalgia. I don’t have the slightest impulse to wanna become who I used to be. I don’t have a big enough shovel to dig up what I was thinking and feeling sitting on my bed in my parents’ Babcock Street apartment drawing with charcoals on newsprint.
This is the oldest one I could find. A homework assignment from my art teacher, Sasha Okun. He drew in that lightbulb. He was (and still is, I think) a theater set designer, so he had a tendency for the illustrational and dramatic, which I never did. Still, the framework is already there: walls, floor, doorway, doors, and on, and on.
If I’m still writing this newsletter in ten or twenty years, you’ll probably read about how I just finished a picture of a doorway and how it ate at me. How it reminded me of something. Some close reader will dig up this letter and helpfully send it back to me, maybe hoping to help me break a pattern.
But what would be left if I didn’t have my patterns?