Tuesday, 28 June 2011

the gap

McNiff  talks about the gap between 'the idea' (which presumably also includes 'the thing', if you're working from life) and what actually comes out - whether onto the page, onto the stage, or into the air. Something clicked in me when I read this. I began to wonder whether this was central to my blocked years - had I (do I) always interpret(ed) the gap as my own inadequacy, an indicator of my unique and apparently insuperable inability to focus?

You see the thing that makes your heart sing (the shape of a plant stem curling to the light, the splendour of the sky, the mass of yellow against a background of green). You take up your crayon and you 'draw it'. Then you look down and you see this ridiculous little apology for the splendour of nature, this scrawl, this mere line made with a crayon. I've always vaguely intuited this as a kind of problem. I never liked heavy oil paint, or acrylic, because, well, because they were clearly paint. How inadequate was that?? So, in the end, I stopped trying to do that thing with the crayon that I wanted to do every time I looked out of my window.

McNiff talks about the gap always being there (heavy on italics today!). It's not 'your little problem'. It's not the general impossibility of painting, of the art world, of technique. It's just the gap - the reality of a human being looking out at the world and trying to respond. Of course the thing on the paper doesn't look like what made you pick up the crayon. And not only does that not matter, it's actually the point. You can take a photo if you want to 'capture' something. As someone pointed out to me recently, very realistic work can be quite bland and strangely pointless, apart perhaps from being an impressive display of technique.

Perhaps the whole business of painting (or dance, or poetry, or music...) is about the gap. It has to be there, because the mark you make has come through the prism that is you - and you can only make marks that have undergone that process. As soon as the first mark is there, then the work begins. It's a surprise, always a surprise. You have to deal with the surprise, not run from it. You have to react to it by putting a second mark, or another smear.

This is creation. Not gaining some kind of technical control over materials and/or the world you're looking at. Surprise after surprise, and working with the material reality of what's appeared. That's it. This is why everyone can do it. We just have to learn stop sabotaging and judging that first little mark...

Saturday, 18 June 2011

blocked spiggots

All my little spiggots have been blocked up for the last week or so. I've been trying to see how this works. I began to realise that it was probably something to do with the mind intefering in whatever it is that's going on. You can't see it when it's happening; how ideas about what 'it' is, what it's about, where it's going, start to take shape, like little parasites silently adhering to your insides.

I looked at the sketchbook I used to use for private playing, and I suddenly saw that the playing had stopped, replaced by worthy little colour exercises. It was partly about material constraints, as I'd discovered oil pastels, and while they were working on a large scale on black paper, in the sketchbook they were just gumming up the small white pages. But the free play had stopped. And because the free play had stopped, and some largish 'paintings' had started to appear, everything eventually ground to a halt. As if the accidental discovery of the possibility of a larger painting had shocked the flow of free exploration, which was feeding the whole process.

We were listening to an interview with Betty Edwards in the creativity group yesterday. She talked about the capacity to draw being a shift in perception which can happen in an instant, as opposed to the normal view of drawing being something that a) you have to have a gift for, and b) something that takes years to learn. She pointed out that drawing isn't like maths or other academic subjects that require a systematic building of knowledge over time - the tools you need to do it are right there in your hand and your perception, right now. The results of her courses that teach people to draw in a few days show that this isn't just a theoretical idea.

This makes me think of something I've discussed before about change, learning, and maps; that the minute you see that you've been running your life according to a map you picked up somewhere along the way, everything changes in that moment. You can't ever go back to running your life unconsciously by that map again, because you've seen it ('I can't draw' seems to be that kind of map). An example of a map I suddenly saw in my own life recently is 'normal people are out and about all the time'. I suddenly realised that because I used to be 'out and about' all the time, and because everyone around me is 'out and about' all the time, I was unconsciously assuming that I should be too. At that moment I realised that I've always hated running around, and that I've always needed large amounts of solitude and quiet. The minute I saw the map everything became easy, as I took the unconscious pressure off myself and saw what was simple and comfortable. With the painting, as soon as I saw that I had stopped playing, I picked up a beautiful, responsive watercolour brush and started to play. And everything started to move again, with the greatest of ease.

Kenny Werner talks about this a lot in Effortless Mastery. He talks about how self-consciouness and the desire to sound good (he's talking about playing music) result in an impossible constriction that prevents the flow of connection between self and sound that is necessary to play spontaneously and well. The situation is driven by the ego, with the person's self of self-worth being hopelessly tied up with their capacity to impress others, and this in turn leads to an endless cycle of worry, fear, and an inability to play to their true capacity. Worrying about sounding good, wanting to play well, or, in my case, perhaps, starting to think about 'making paintings', he suggests, works to block a person's capacity to operate from the place where things are simple and easy.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

lost in the dark

You can understand it, though, can't you? Trying to enact culturally-derived ideas you hold in your mind about what it means to 'be an artist' has got to be an easier process than trying to find your own way. What the hell are your own 'urges, preferences and questions' anyway? I guess people who can answer that question better than me actually manage to produce some work.....

Monday, 13 June 2011

is 'art' the problem?

I've been having a few conversations with people recently about the idea of 'authenticity' in relation to 'good'. Someone suggested that when we respond to a piece of work, perhaps even going so far as to say that it's good, what we're responding to may be authenticity. By authenticity I mean the ideas I talked about in 'being good or being you' - that what you pick up in the painting that you like could be a sense of the person's attempt to find their own way; their urges, preferences and questions. Whereas work that we might feel is 'bad' is perhaps work that isn't sure of itself. Someone else suggested that this second kind of work may be largely derivative, in the sense that it's based on ideas that have been picked up from culture and experience about 'what a painting is' or 'what art is'. I'm not talking about the nebulous impossibility of 'being original' here. 'Originality' seems to be as much of a problem as 'art'.

Perhaps the 'bad' work is also more self-conscious. The person producing it surely must have the same urge for colour, response to form, fascination with texture etc as anyone else in the world who is producing things. But maybe they are unconsciously limiting the range of their possible responses with these half-conscious notions about what it means to 'make art' or 'be an artist'. And probably watching themselves from the other side of the room.

It strikes me that this is why I like the idea of 'creativity' much more. With creativity, you can do what the hell you like. You can throw pink watercolour onto a piece of wallpaper just to see what it looks like. You can take a red wax crayon and drag it through the pink just to see what happens. It doesn't matter what someone else will think. It doesn't matter if it's art. The point is not, 'am I making good paintings' but 'how brave can I be with this pink colour in my hand?'....

Monday, 6 June 2011

flame, wave

I was thinking about going to a local art studio recently, where they do classes that allegedly help you with whatever it is you want to work on. That seems quite a novel concept. But still I hesitated. At one point I wrote that I was looking for someone who could 'help me feed my own flame' rather than try to forcefeed me the kind of food they were partial to themselves.

I've been into this idea of feeding for some time. Julia Cameron talks about it. It makes sense. How can you produce, give birth, bring stuff out, if you haven't 'fed in' suitable nutrients, colours, shapes, observations. If something is going to emerge, there need to be different elements interacting with each other through time. A crucial part of this is the openness of the system, and the constant interactions between elements nominally 'within' and 'without' that system, which includes challenges to that system, and encounters with the unexpected.

It struck me recently, however, that perhaps the idea of finding and feeding a flame isn't quite it. It might be it, I suppose, in the very early stages, when you need an image of something different to what you've been doing, or how you've been orienting yourself. But once you're paying attention a bit more, I'm not sure that stoking a boiler is the thing.

I watched a documentary recently about waves. Waves of all kinds, including waves in the sea. I'd never stopped to think about what a wave actually is. At the edges of my half-conscious, a wave was a shape, or a movement on the shore; a sound, a crashing. When I said wave, I saw a shape-thing, Hokusai's famous painting. But this programme pointed out that a wave is actually simply energy, moving through the sea. As it hits the shore, the energy dissipates. There aren't really any waves at all. There's simply energy, moving through the water.

Perhaps creativity isn't about little inner flames that need to be nurtured and fed. Perhaps it's simply the natural energy of the biological system that is the human organism. Upbringing, conditioning, experience, culture, self-talk, emotional response, all gradually build the particular shape of the container for this energy. More often than not, the continually-adapting container may evolve in such a way that it acts as a brake on the power of the system's natural energy. Is this what it means to talk about 'blocks to creativity'; the way the container-shape twists and bends, the way it stops its own free flow of energy? This is not mystical , metaphorical 'energy', but  literal, physics and cells, biology and life, kind of energy.

I'm reading a book about a painter called Kurt Jackson. It's an adulatory collection of essays written by notables, all of whom seem to be slightly mesmerised by their experience of watching him work. Some of them go out with him for the day, onto the moors, to the Cornish coast, and they talk in wonder at the way he draws and paints constantly, while talking, all day long. They describe his actions, his energy, his movement, his continuing, in almost mystical terms. The great artist at work; the intangible, yawning distance between themselves and this supra-being.

But perhaps Kurt Jackson has just evolved as a container that is less kinked. He was introduced to the natural world by parents who were painters, who took him travelling. His father taught him to paint at the top of a Cornish cliff. He asserted his 'individuality' first in the direction of a degree in zoology, but almost immediately seems to have fallen back into painting, even while doing his degree. Does it matter whether his creating self was born or made? Perhaps what matters more is that, born or made, his energy has made a form through time which allows itself to breathe.

Music Master

You that love lovers,
this is your home. Welcome!

In the midst of making form, love
made this form that melts form,
with love for the door,
soul the vestibule.

Watch the dust grains moving
in the light near the window.

Their dance is our dance.

We rarely hear the inward music,
but we're all dancing to it nevertheless,

directed by the one who teaches us,
the pure joy of the sun,
our music master.

Jelaluddin Rumi

Sunday, 5 June 2011

telling your story backwards

I was reading something in a book the other day about re-framing your life story from the present back into the past. I have all sorts of stories about my creativity, told chronologically. If my parents hadn't got divorced, I would, I'm fairly sure, have become a professional violinist. If I hadn't left home so early and gone to art school at the age of 16, I might have done A levels, and might have discovered my academic capacities in an area that I was really passionate about. If I'd gone to art school later, I might have been able to withstand the bullshit and have managed to continue on and become an artist.

Told backwards, it looks like this. My parents getting divorced saved me from a young life filled completely with a gruelling 12 hours a day practice routine at the expense of all other aspects of life. Not having a strict classical training enabled me to develop a style and attitude that wasn't hydebound by traditional technique and interpretation. Not doing A levels and not going to university at the usual age meant that I didn't end up studying the topic I was good at at school, or the one that my parents thought would be sensible for me. This meant that when I did my degree much later on I was doing something I was fascinated by, and that I had had a lot of personal experience of. Not going to art school saved me from getting sucked in at an impressionable age to the pretentions and restrictions of the commercial art world, which would have determined my direction in narrow and unimaginative way. Mmmm, this backwards storytelling thing seems quite productive....


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