If you live with an artist, discussions of paintings must be approached with care. “What is it?” is never a good start, unless you enjoy ten minute rants littered with phrases such as “fallibility of representation,” “focus on process and materiality,” and “dialogic exploration of the image.”
So when Fred finished a new painting on Monday (at right), I started with a phrase no doubt familiar to parents of artistically-minded toddlers.
“Tell me about it.”
“I’m getting back to the figure again,” he said. “I’m always going back to that. Just like in the paintings from a couple of weeks ago, I was thinking about [Hans] Hoffman . . .”
I began to drift.
“ . . . balance of colors . . .”
(The flank steak from supper last night would be good on a salad.)
“ . . . still grappling with the influence of Abstract Expressionism . . .”
(Whatever possessed me to give up wine for Lent?)
Crap. What had he been saying? “Why the dots?” I blurted.
“The dots around the figure. What were you thinking?”
“Oh!” He was gleeful. I steeled myself for another onslaught of theory.
“I used dots a lot when I was in high school. I haven’t used them much since. At the time, I was thinking about the phrase, ‘connect the dots.’ I’ve always hated that phrase, because when you’re in the middle of something difficult, you never can SEE the dots to connect them. It’s only when it’s all over that people say you should have connected the dots.”
I was now interested, and secretly pleased. Last week I forced him into cleaning out his studio, a process that may well occupy the remainder of his life on earth. He’d been looking at old sketchbooks, with those dots from the 1980s, as a result. “I’m contributing to the artistic process,” I purred to myself.
He was on a roll. “Telling someone to connect the dots is like this old line about clarity: ‘The only way to achieve clarity is through an autopsy, but by then, you’re dead.’ You never can connect the dots while you’re living, because at no time while we’re in them do we actually see the dots.”
“Why don’t you call it ‘Connect the Dots’ then?”
He thought for a moment. “No . . . . It’s really about meditation. About thinking through your life. The figure is surrounded by these dots, and that’s like all of us. There are dots all around, but all you can hope for is to keep making forward progress.”
I wondered. Is it inevitable that the dots in front of us are connected in a certain way? Or can you draw a different picture with whatever dots you see? Or does it matter, so long as you keep drawing?
Maybe it makes sense that Fred doesn’t respond well to “What is it?” Maybe he’s asking us to meditate on that. To connect our own dots. To write our own stories. To forget about clarity, because we aren’t yet ready for the autopsy.
Jami Moss Wise