Monday, May 4, 2020

Are We There Yet?

My walls have been empty for a few days. And in spite of what I said just a week or so ago, I had no compulsion to fill the space, to fill the vacuum. I guess my thoughts were elsewhere, or so far inside my head I was no longer looking at the walls of the room; I was staring at the ceiling of my brain. I get like that, over-thinking, shut in, my senses sort of ossifying while I get lists of things done.

And for the past week or so I was fine with the empty walls. I felt no desire to draw or paint or I was too busy with other things to draw or paint, or as I said, I have been too much in my head. Then yesterday I just made a move. I thought, anything will do. I will just put something there on the wall to look at and then have a thought about it. That was the robotic tone and unimpassioned way I went about pulling from my closet, a roll of large paintings on paper. 

If my motivation for putting work on the walls has been to see where I have been so I could see where I was going, it did not seem to be working. I am nowhere and doesn't that fit the moment? We go nowhere as mandated by the pandemic. But in the name of follow-through, I made a decision. This large landscape is unlike any other painting I have made in recent years. It is just a sketch really, made in black acrylic paint and not on very good paper. The source photo came from a book of Russian miniature lacquer paintings on wood boxes from a town called Fedoskino. 

In both the source image and my painting, I liked the winding road, the brutal building, and the shape of the tree on the right. It is not at all a great painting, I would hardly call it a painting but I tacked it to the wall and now I am looking at it. 

My lack of connection to this image had given me a kind of freedom when I was painting it. I had no history on this road in Russia. Still, something about the image made me nostalgic. The photograph in the book was black and white and vertically formatted. Just now I went to Google maps to try to find this road, this view. To the map search bar I typed in Fedoskino, a village outside of Moscow. I saw the factory on the map, I saw the blue line of the river near it which must be the one in the photograph. I went to Google Street View. I clicked back and forth over the bridge but could not find the perspective in the photograph. Strange.

The landscape surrounding the factory reminded me of where I am from in Upstate New York, and also reminded me of Poland, where I have visited twice, and just looked like a landscape I wanted to linger in, have lingered in, a kind of déjà-vu. I was no longer lost in my head but I was beginning to feel lost on the other side of the over-thinking, a kind of through the looking glass. Do you remember the first time you had déjà-vu and tried to explain it to a grown-up?

I moved the viewpoint back and forth closer and farther from the factory but I could not replicate the view. From the bridge, the factory was way too far in the distance. Did they move the bridge? Is that the same large tree? But it looks smaller... How was this photograph shot so high off the ground? A bucket truck? This state of not understanding, of puzzling, is the baseline state of a child who does not understand physics, optics, logistics of much beyond tactile experience. This feeling, this state, was already activated in me when I turned the pages of the book to look at these strange little paintings. 

I cannot remember where I got this book or why. These paintings are truly bizarre and not remotely what I ever would describe as my taste. Look at this one of a bear driving a sled under a black sky! The sky in many of these paintings is black. These paintings are disorienting and spark the low register terror a child feels. The fact that they are painted on boxes also also tunes my mind to a static-y frequency of childhood, the encountering of curious objects, the smell of old containers at a grandparent's house, the spell of strange images. 

Since the pandemic drove us all indoors, the world has lost some of its form, some of its solidity. Much of it appears in image, through windows or on screens. Looking at these weird paintings with black skies and figures that seem to be in a trance, looking at them first thing in the morning when the sky outside my window is still dark, has made me feel less certain that I know the world I have woken into. I feel outside my own taste in art, outside my own urge to draw and write things, outside my timeline, my life's continuity. 

These little paintings are disorienting and this particular feeling of disorientation resembles that of a child. Children are new here, lacking the background knowledge to dismiss this or that.  Yhe world comes in funhouse mirror proportions, shifting and unreliable. A child's mind is different than that of a forty-something year old art-educated person who had just been trying to stick to the program, look at something on the wall and then make her next painting. 

There are lots of people whose job it is to keep things in order. Artists and writers should invite disorientation. When young children wake up  they are lost. After every nap, every sleep, they have this look that says something like where am I, what is this place? We lose this. We grow up and wake up thinking we know lots of things for certain and that is how we proceed with the day. But what really do we know for sure? What do I know today? The sky outside was black when I started writing but it is lightening now. It's time to make coffee, do grown-up things, pick things up and put them down in proper places, which no longer look quite right.

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