I haven’t messed with oil paint in about three years. There are many reasons. I’ve been moving away from the medium a long time. There’s a lot of gear involved. Nobody would appreciate a French easel and turpentine fumes on a CTA bus, for instance.
I’ve never liked working from sketches, memory, or imagination. I need direct experience to spark a reaction. That means the only oil paintings I’ve made in the last couple decades are of my living space, the view out the windows, and the occasional human or animal inhabitant. The options are limited.
My current place—where I’ve lived the past three years—is below street level. This means that the views I’ve had in my previous Chicago homes isn’t as readily within sight. I depend on everyday vistas, seen over and over, for subject-matter. The ankle level vantage point from my studio windows has rarely translated into paintings. Living here I’ve realized that I need a combination of close-up and far-away points of interest in a cityscape to make me want to render it.
During lockdown I started making collages from the archival detritus I’ve hauled around over the past thirty-plus years. It’s a project I expect to be ongoing indefinitely. It doesn’t mean though that I’ve rejected working from direct observation. My sketchbooks continue to be filled with drawings of musicians, bottles, cafe sitters, and the like. I don’t see the two modes as clashing. They’re more of a counter-point. A way to talk visually about and between past and present.
A few weeks back I tracked down Chuck Walker after not seeing much of him since before The Plague. Chuck has been a touchstone since my first days in art school. I remember clipping one of his painting out of an Art in America review and tacking it to the wall of my first Chicago apartment at Foster and Sheridan. I made friends with him and his girlfriend Angie when they lived on Damen near Augusta in the early ’00s. He lives the kind of painter life you read about in books about Paris at the turn of the 20th century.
His new spot is a storefront on Irving Park. We sat and talked there one evening, surrounded by stacks and stacks of canvases. That’s what gave me the itch to take out the oil paints. I set up in the alley behind the house, turned on a Bluetooth speaker for some tunes, and started. It felt alright. I did a couple more, turning the easel for a different view each time. Then I set up on the front sidewalk. It’s different than working from inside the house but it works. I’ll probably keep going.
It feels different but also very familiar. Like picking up a guitar that’s been sitting in storage gathering dust. I still know the chords, more or less.
—I recommend Kelly Reichardt’s great new movie for Cine-FILE. One of the best movies about how art people act that I’ve ever seen.
—Listen to a short post-mortem about my visit to EXPO Chicago 2023.