Wednesday, January 23, 2013


Addison Parks; Dragon Fly(2012), 20" x 30", oil on board

I've been talking lately about this idea that every artist thinks that they can solve their problems through their work, maybe even the problems of the world; that if they can just make something successful all of their problems, yes, all problems, will go away. Another way of putting it is that when an artist sees problems, they turn to their work to solve them.

Is this crazy? Is this some kind of affliction? Does it take an affliction to make an artist? People have suggested as much. I've had other artists agree that artists are people with a hole in their lives, a hole that they try to fill with art.

One of the key elements inherent in making art is problem solving. Even the most free-flowing artist encounters problems in their work that need to be solved. Problems with drawing. Problems with composition. Problems with materials, color, surface, etc. Problems with light, perspective, space, etc. Problem-solving is just a natural part of the process; the one caveat being that treating your art like a problem makes it a problem. Keep the cart behind the horse. Problem solving is not the prime mover. The prime mover is the driving inspiration that pushes and pulls us through our work.

Solutions can be elusive, and executing them can be sweeping, radical, and even brutally drastic at times. Some work comes easily. Some does not. Some work is a terrific struggle. Artists can't help but form a bond with that work as much as they would love for everything to happen as if by magic. Sacrifices are commonplace. Artists often eradicate aspects, passages, elements which they cherish, but must be given up for the greater good of the work in question. Some artists even go back to the beginning, destroying their first effort and starting over. Other artists make change a part of the experience of the work, part of the process; corrections, failures, about faces, and adjustments absorbed into the whole.

In this respect the artist is king, or God. This ongoing nature of the creative process leads the artist to focus on what they can control: their work. Their work speaks for them. Their work reflects them. A successful work makes them successful, at least for the moment. Every time an artist makes something they are reborn. Remade. Elevated beyond the mundane of the everyday world. Is it any wonder that artists feel as they do, that their work is the solution to all of their problems? Is it any wonder, that like the captain of their creative ship, that they live and die by that ship, and that if and when necessary, they will go down with it? It is a complicated fact that if an artist doesn't feel that way, doesn't turn to art to solve their problems, they probably aren't an artist. For the artist, art solves everything! 

Addison Parks
Spring Hill, 2013

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Addison Parks(2011-13),, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches

Nobody talks painting. Nobody. Some people argue, some people poke around the edges, some people contextualize, and some people describe, but nobody talks painting. They just talk ABOUT it, which is what my friend Richard Tuttle liked to say, his wry smile close at hand. 

And there is a reason for all of this. Nobody talks painting because nobody listens to painting. You can't talk painting unless you can listen, and listening is hard. Painting doesn't speak to everybody. People may be interested in painting, want to own it, criticize it, curate it, hang it in their homes, go to galleries and museums to see it, even love it, but if it doesn't speak to them and they can't listen, well, then they can't talk it. Which is fine. They can do all of those other things. They don't have to talk painting. Talking painting isn't even important. You don't have to be able to talk painting to enjoy it. But make no mistake, being able to talk painting is a gift. And after years of talking painting I had a funny thing happen the other day.

Addison Parks(2013), Little Star, oil on canvas, 18 x 18 inches

I was sitting with my daughter in the living room of our home and she just started talking painting--my painting. It was kind of startling to me. I hadn't had someone talk about my paintings in I can't remember when. And she's 13! I felt uncomfortable. It felt wrong. Like she was taking care of me instead of the other way around, which is the way it is supposed to be. But she was doing it and she was right there and she was saying everything that meant everything to me, like she was messing with me or speaking in tongues or channeling Greenberg or something. EVERYTHING! I wanted it to stop. I had gotten used to people never really having anything to say. I felt unnerved, undeserving.

Addison Parks(2010), Liberty's Fire, oil on canvas, 36 x 42 inches

When I first started writing about art I got the same reaction from people. I could talk about their work and they were shocked. I could listen and keep listening, just going down into the work. I could tell that they had this strange mixture of feelings -- elated and at the same time violated. They asked me how I could see what I saw in their work. There was disbelief. Was I putting them on. Exactly what I felt when my daughter talked about my paintings. 

I had always assumed that everyone could talk painting, that they could see what I saw, so that if they didn't say anything, that it was because they chose not to. But then I discovered that they couldn't. They couldn't see anything, but I could. When I stumbled into a writing job as an art critic for a small weekly it took right away. People wanted to know what I saw. People wanted me to see for them. Either because they were the artists who needed it, or just people interested in art who couldn't see it. As a result when I moved to New York after art school, I became a sought after art writer. And it wasn't because I could write. I couldn't. But I could listen, and like I said, keep listening, which is the important part about listening. You don't stop. Then I found some way to put what I heard into words. It took a while for me to understand all the fuss, but I actually made artists cry with my words. They had ached to hear the words I said; they had ached to hear someone say what they had poured into their paintings. 

When I finished up teaching at RISD in 1996 and retired to raise a family and paint, I had one last critique with my students at the RISD Farm. It was a fitting end for my career teaching on and off at the school that I had also graduated from in 1976. My favorite place at the school had been the Farm. It was where I went to paint during and even after I got my BFA. Sitting out on the grass I was determined that I would leave these freshman with this one gift, or at least the knowledge of it. 

I made them listen to each other's work if it was the last thing I was going to do. It was as though I had asked them to eat shit. It was slow going for the entire class. Still I kept at it. I was determined. And then a miracle occurred. One of the students did it. He listened to someone else's work and kept listening, just going deeper, and then said what he had experienced.  He read it like he was reading the innermost thoughts of the girl who had done the work. And she was embarrassed. Naked. "You can see that?" That was her reaction. But she was also pleased. It was awesome, and everyone new it. It was a wonderful ending to the year, and I have never taught since.  Years later I received a letter from one of the kids in the class telling me what it had meant to him. That it was the best class that he had ever had. 

Addison Parks(2011), Constellation Flower,  oil on canvas, 42 x60 inches

When my daughter read my work I felt like an open book. "You can see that?" That was my reaction. That was how I felt and I didn't even know it right away. I was in shock. My daughter thought that it was no big deal but she was pleased with my reaction. She liked finding out that she had this gift. Just to make sure I hadn't imagined it, I asked her to look at my newest paintings. She nailed them. Not a little to the left or a little to the right. Dead center. She saw everything. Plain as day. She saw what I was thinking. What I was up to. She saw the layers. The thing behind it. Like she was reading my mail. 

And all of those artists I had talked to over the years flashed before my eyes. Over forty years of people who I had talked to about their work and watched them look at me as though I was messing with them. "Who told you"... "no one ever"... "how did you know" and more swirling around in their brains. Because that was how I felt right then. And I felt grateful the way that they felt grateful. A little like crying. Like they weren't crazy. Like what they were doing in their work was really happening.

My daughter was funny about my reaction.  She just laughed and said it was because everyone I know just wanted to talk about their own work. She apologized if that sounded mean. Just the night before she had seen an artist in our home pass all of the many other artists on our walls and gush unabashed in front of her own work. She thought it was funny. 

But what she said wasn't untrue. I explained to her that not every artist is an art lover, that there are makers out there. People who make art because they have to, because they can't do anything else, because they are trying to fill a hole in their life, because they are good at it. They aren't necessarily interested in art at all, not in anyone else's, just their own work. Which is fine. Not a supposed to be. Not a judgment. Just the way things are. I told her that for some other people it is a chicken or egg thing, that it was for me, that I couldn't remember whether I loved art or making art first, that it seemed to happen all at once, but together. Still, after a long time of talking about other people's work it was nice to have someone to talk about mine. I just didn't think that it would come from where it came from, that it would come from my teenage daughter. Just goes to show!

Addison Parks, Spring Hill, 2013

Addison Parks(2012), Banana Boat, oil on canvas, 6 x 8 inches

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

CUT CANVAS: Children of Different Gods

Porfirio DiDonna(1985), oil on canvas

Some artists destroy their work. When it let's them down. When they think it's bad. When they don't want it to ever see the light of day. That is their choice, of course, but I've always wondered about it. For some reason it struck me as some kind of machismo. Part of the whole artist angst thing, the myth of the struggling artist. Some kind of God the creator, God the destroyer, God the Almighty complex. A little self-conscious to my mind. Especially when it is carried out like some  sort of Viking funeral or execution or something. Actually what it really struck me as was a rush to judgment. I've always had to sit with my work for a long time to understand it, to learn from it. I guess I'm just slow.

When I was a kid my mother told me God was everywhere. And I believed her. It made sense to me. Why would it be any different? How could it be any different? God is in all things. God is just another word for life. In all things, in all of us. I guess I'm what people who name things call a pantheist, at best, or an atheist, at worst. But I believe in that idea of God being everywhere. With every breath. A thousand times with every breath.

Because of that I believe in everything. Life is in everything. Everything has a purpose. One way or another. I have a hard time throwing things away as a result. And sometimes that is the down side. But I also like to fix things as a result of that conviction, and that is usually an upside. That is the kind of world/God/life I believe in. You don't give up on stuff. You don't throw things away. You keep believing. You make them better. For example, when I was teaching at Putney, I couldn't believe that they kicked kids out for breaking the rules. All of this talk about a family and learning, and then they kicked kids out. You can't give up! You can't kick kids out! When my contract was up, I left. I didn't want to teach at a school where kids could be given up on. Say all you like about the rules, but I don't buy it. There is a much bigger rule. You don't give up! You keep the faith!

Which get's me back to artists who destroy their work if it has somehow "failed," or failed them, or did not come up to scratch! I've run into this a bunch of times lately, which is why I'm writing about it. 

The first was with my friend John Wronoski who founded the recently closed but very successful Pierre Menard Gallery in Harvard Square. He opined one day over lunch about artists who should have thrown most of their work away, who let bad work get out there. He cited Picasso as a classic example. In that 'if I were king of the world' way that we are all guilty of, he proclaimed that he could or would do something about it, that he would be just the man, up to the task, of ridding the world of all the bad art out there. Like gun control, he would be the Czar of Art Control. I wish him the best. When a few years later he generously offered me a retrospective I accepted. When he promised to rid me of all my bad art, well then, I thought better of it, and gratefully declined. Call me sentimental. Call me over protective.

But it is not sentimentality. It is what I believe. I believe that everything has a purpose. And that applies to my work. I'm looking, and seeing, and learning. I never give up on my work. Even if I paint over something, I know it is still there, underneath, helping out. If it is leaning against a wall somewhere, unfinished, it is just waiting, a promise. If I don't ever get to it, it still retains that value to me. I don't paint to be successful, I paint for the experience. It would be crazy to assume that I could only learn from my "successful" work. We have all learned infinitely more from our "failures." In that way our failures just might be our best friends of all; that like pain, they teach us about our greatest challenges!

Nina Nielsen(2008), oil and sand on canvas

Another recent experience came a month or so ago when I showed my friend, the legendary dealer and artist Nina Nielsen, a picture of a painting my friend Larry Deyab saved from the studio of Porfirio DiDonna after he died. No dealer ever represented an artist more fervently or faithfully than Nina Nielsen did Porfirio DiDonna. She was furious about the very fact that a painting of DiDonna's might be out there that he wouldn't have wanted out there! Furious because DiDonna would have destroyed that painting, and he wasn't alive to defend himself and protect himself from just such a travesty. She was so furious that her husband and partner John Baker had to practically keep her from tearing me apart. And you have to love her loyalty and passion. I do. Wouldn't it be nice that we should all have such a devoted dealer?

She was upset because DiDonna destroyed his work, believed in destroying his work when it wasn't right, and didn't get a chance to destroy this painting. She loved and respected him completely, so that she loved and respected his wishes, with a vengeance. End of story. In truth he was practically obsessive-compulsive in the methodical way he went about destroying his work. Apparently he would take it somewhere else and cut it up and destroy it. To another part of the city! 

And of course I didn't get it. As I explained, I'm just not like that. Nina and I argued because I didn't get it. My thinking was, how great! You love his work, I love his work, and here's another one. What could be nicer than that. Amazing!  I also figured that if he really wanted it destroyed it would have been destroyed. Since it wasn't then he must have wanted to keep it. Divine Providence! 

It was even easy to get Nina to admit that artists can be lousy judges of their own work. That artists are naturally and for very good reason very myopic about what they are doing vs. what they have done. That they are happiest about what is happening at that moment, and that they tend to distance themselves from older work even when, or maybe especially when, other people tend to be more comfortable with the older work for obvious reasons. That sometimes this is one of the things dealers do that helps artists; they give them perspective. But this was different, because this was about what DiDonna truly believed, not what either of us believed. Nina and I probably believe more alike. 

But DiDonna was a believer too, a true believer by the looks of it. And that confused me. He took his paintings somewhere else and cut them up, like a mob hit man, and that was just plain crazy to me. Why did he do it? Again. Maybe it is time for me to understand something, get something. Figure it out. I don't know. Still confused. I remember a story a long time ago about Bill Jensen, or was it his father, who thew all of his work from a bridge somewhere in someplace like Minnesota before he left for New York. Maybe I got it wrong. Maybe it is just legend or myth. Jensen was friends with DiDonna.

Porfirio DiDonna(1981), work on paper

But then it dawned on me. Of course! DiDonna and I believed in different gods! He was religious. Catholic, but so am I. John Baker thinks he might actually have been a religious painter, making religious paintings, and I would have to agree. DiDonna believed in what I consider the cruel and unforgiving god of a religion that kicked people out. That gave up on people. He believed in the church. He was just acting out his religion in his work. If every artist is a creator, the creator, then he is God, and he plays God in his work. Porfirio DiDonna was just acting out his God. His church. Work that failed him was destroyed.

It makes me think of sin eating. A necessary evil to make a perfect world. John Wronoski was willing to be a sin eater. An art world sin eater to rid the world of bad art. 

James Balla(2009) Cadoro; oil on linen

So when very recently I was speaking with my friend James Balla about his work and he told me that he also destroyed it, I expressed disbelief. I pressed him on it. Say it ain't so. I just couldn't believe it. He just didn't strike me as that kind of person. He struck me as very forgiving. As someone who never gave up on anything. Fortunately after a few moments he recanted. We were speaking on the phone at the time and he said he was standing in front of a painting with an old painting poking through. A painting he liked a lot. Apparently the old painting was causing the new paint to crawl a little and that of course was a problem. Unacceptable by most people's standard, especially the whole art handling world. Except that it wasn't, it turned out, a problem. Jim admitted that he actually liked seeing the old painting waving from behind the new painting. "Hi! Still here!"

Heide Hatry

There isn't an artist alive that doesn't think that they can solve all of their problems by making art, maybe even solve the problems of the world. There isn't a painter out there, not now, not ever, that didn't think that if only he or she could just make a great painting, all of their problems would be solved. DiDonna was no different. We may not believe in the same God, but we believe that. I have another friend, Heide Hatry, who makes her work out of meat. She's working something out, and she is solving all of her problems through that work. She can make meat beautiful, and she believes that, and lately she almost has me convinced(what can I say, I'm a vegetarian, but then, so is she). Her conviction is that powerful. Her latest works are flowers made of meat, and they are extraordinary. 

Heide Hatry

Never mind keeping the faith. Never mind never giving up. We're talking about resurrection. Resurrecting a past. Healing a past. Heide's dad was a pig farmer. A pig farmer who died falling into a pig pen when she was still young. Tragic all around. Tough all around. Brutal.  So survive that! A parent has but one real mission in this life: to make their child special. That special is God. That everything is special. That they are a special part of a special life. A parent who dies young, even accidentally, blows that reality out of the water. A parent who dies young is lost, gone, and in doing so sadly breaks a vow and fails a child. Heide Hatry has been mending this hole her whole life. She is fierce about it because she has to be. If she doesn't mend it then who will? If she doesn't save herself then who will? If it takes meat to make life beautiful again, special again, deliberately, methodically, intensely, then what could make more perfect sense than that? If it takes making art by making flowers out of meat to fix her life, then who could fail to cheer her on?

A long time ago my old friend Richard Tuttle tried to impress upon me the violence inherent in the creative. To put it simply, breaking eggs to make an omelette. He sensed my naive devotion to the creative, that I believed in creativity and not destruction. What he didn't understand was background, my refusal to give up on things, that that was what was at the bottom, that I was the determined byproduct of a broken family, that I was a cast off. That when my parents got divorced, my father even moved to another continent. That I fixed things. That I made things better.

Richard Tuttle(1998); New Mexico, New York #14, acrylic on plywood

When I worked for Brooke Alexander in New York I was allowed to take the trash, old frames and stuff, back to my studio so I could resurrect it for myself. I had asked permission. Artists are trained to recycle what others cast off to survive. Once I took home a crate Richard Tuttle had used to ship some prints to the gallery. When I took it apart I discovered that he had made it with some old work, that on the other side of the plywood that was on the outside, were two works of his, two drawings on the painted plywood on the inside. Old works that were intended to be leaned against the wall. He meant, like Porfirio DiDonna, that these works were destroyed. And they weren't. And I never told him. I never told him that I saved them. That they have since leaned against my walls. In my homes. All of these years. That even though he gave up on them I never did. I never told him that this is what I do, that this is who I am, that this is what I believe. But I know he would understand. I know somewhere he believes it too. 

Addison Parks

Spring Hill, 2013

That's the Tuttle drawing below the Basquiat head and to the left of
the DiDonna work on paper. All behind the doors opening outside.