Some old ideas are hard to scrub from my head. I’ve called myself a painter over thirty years but when I’m not using oil paint there’s an inner voice that questions whether I can call myself that. Where does this come from?
Whatever medium you work in there’s a hierarchy, for better or worse. A novel is more important than a short story; a feature film is more prestigious than a three-minute cartoon; an hour-long jazz suite or orchestral symphony is considered more serious than a two-and-a-half-minute pop tune. But who decides? Why is long better than short? Slow better than fast? Big better than small? Wouldn’t you rather smell a solitary flower than a mountain of shit?
Setting aside the second-class citizenship of painters in the pyramid of early-90s art-school prestige, a watercolorist or, even worse, a printmaker, was pretty low status. This idea was a remnant from the 18th and 19th centuries when academies where the arbiters of taste. For whatever reason, oil on canvas was determined to be tiers above other media. That any such thinking survived late into the 20th century, long after painting was eclipsed by photography and the movies as the main visual expression in our culture, is bizarre.
And yet, if you had the misfortune of getting into drawing and painting when I did, some version of this archaic armature will be lodged deep within. Over the last twenty years I’ve drifted away from oil painting for various reasons. I’ve done many, many more gouache and ink paintings over that time. Not to mention drawing. I used the materials that best worked for what I was trying to do. Oil painting is cumbersome. There’s a lot of gear and it’s no longer socially acceptable to set up an easel indoors in public places. In 21st century America the fumes generated alone would get me kicked out of a bar or coffeeshop I wanted to paint in. Turpentine and linseed oil would constitute a hostile incursion to the average laptopian.
So I adapted. My favorite support became paper rather than canvas. Less setup and cleanup time, easier all around. But that small voice never entirely let up. It told me gouache and ink were copouts, that I was basically admitting that I couldn’t hack it. I still completed a few canvases a year, but they constituted a tiny fraction of my output.
I hadn’t taken out the oils since moving to my new place in May. I kept telling myself I would, then putting it off. Then I started making collages and that pretty much took over everything. Where do collages rank along the mountain of art? Who knows? Who cares? Strangely though, it was the collages which lead me back to oil painting.
I brought back some shitty art-school-era oils from my folks’ house in November with the aim of putting them to use. I tried to apply my new collage thing to one. Then, late one night I got the urge to start a new painting. I had no clean canvases so I quickly covered a figure painting with white primer and went to sleep. A couple days later it was dry enough to work on.
I made a new bookshelf painting. It’s a thing I’ve gone back to for over twenty years but is also the motif which has hinted at ways forward more than any other. The collages wouldn’t be possible without the book paintings. I was rusty, not having touched oils in over half a year, but it came back eventually. I ended up with a thing I could live with.
I took the collages off the studio walls. All there is now is the new book painting and another I started (painted over an awful art-school self-portrait). But I know better now than to think that this is the real art whereas the collages, drawing, etc were minor. They’re all just tools. You use whatever you can to say what you want to say. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.
The medium isn’t the message, it’s just a medium.