In which an imaginary David Bailin interviews me for the purpose
of acquiring material (for which he will claim credit) for his
AETN blog. These are my responses to an outline of questions
he sent me, which I have rewritten to suit myself.
Update: As it turns out, David has written a brilliant essay out of his own head, for
which he alone is to blame, a fine piece of writing.
What is your basic approach to art and how has it changed?
Do I have an approach? I kind of wish I did, it would make things
easier. Even though art is supposed to bring order to chaos,
the creative process itself is very chaotic. Images come out
of nowhere - no, not out of nowhere, out of the visible or audible
world or out of some unknown or forgotten or forbidden part of
myself, or from some combination of all those - and they come,
or don't come, on their own timetable, not mine. But when they
come they demand to be made into some object. It's more of an
addiction than an approach. How does an addict approach his addiction?
An "approach" would have to be based
on ideas-like, "Let's see, what can I paint that somebody
might actually buy before I have to move under a bridge?"
But that would be a rational approach. I jokingly called a recent
exhibition of mine "Still Crazy," but there does seem
to be something seriously irrational about art. Why would a sane
person take it up? Jose Ortega says ideas are scarecrows to frighten
away reality. This is why art can be dangerous-because it can
penetrate our defenses against the truth and strip us bare. In
retrospect, I can see that my painting Flash Flood from
2002 is an illustration of this--hilarious and terrifying at
the same time! The hero myth exposed! But there's no 12-step
program that I know of.
But didn't you used to be a writer?
Yes, I was clean for about eight years while I was trying to
write the Great Apocalyptic Novel - well, not really, because
writing is just another kind of obsession, but at least I was
away from visual art. I was also on the road with my wife and
kids in a bus called Toad Hall, Mr. Toad on a mission to save
the planet, gaily bedight, a gallant knight, in search of El
Dorado (not the one in Arkansas). I wanted to set up a self-sustaining,
off-the-grid, solar-and pig-shit-powered homestead and write
about it, thus preventing the coming industrial-ecological collapse.
But he grew old --
This knight so bold --
And -- o'er his heart a shadow
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like El Dorado.
(From "El Dorado" byEdgar
Linocut from 1991
Near the end of this crusade I happened to see the watercolors
of Hubert Shuptrine in a book of James Dickey's poems. They intrigued
me because of their range of values--much deeper darks than I
was used to seeing in watercolors, and in all innocence I began
to steal time from the typewriter to fool around with watercolors.
I built an "easel" that fit onto the steering wheel
of the bus. That was my first "studio" since leaving
Florida in 1972. My paintings weren't serious, there were no
ideas behind them, I was just playing. I didn't recognize the
siren's song and there was nobody to tie me to the mast. Pretty
soon I began selling my watercolors and I was hooked again.
This was in Little Rock?
No, but this is where we ended up after five years on the road.
My publisher had gone out of business, the
bus broke down and we had to get jobs. I discovered the photo-realists
in a show at the Arkansas Arts Center and I sort of became one
of them - but in watercolor. After a few years of this - during
which I built up a pretty good group of collectors - I realized
I had become a prisoner of both the medium and the photograph.
I had painted in oils in Florida but didn't really know what
I was doing technically, and now all I knew how to do was watercolor.
And the photograph had become a dictator.
So I dumped the camera cold turkey and started carrying a sketchpad
with me everywhere. I had to learn to see for the first time
and learn to draw all over again. I discovered that the camera
didn't see things the way my eyes did. Also, my work turned dark,
both tonally and thematically, too dark for watercolor and Arkansas.
I got good at drawing in the dark, inside strip clubs and on
the shoulders of highways at night.
I lost all my collectors and my gallery strongly advised me to
lighten up, but it was no use. I can't seem to do art unless
I'm discovering something new. You asked me before why I work
in so many different media, and I said it's because I'm easily
bored, but what that means is that I have to keep making new
discoveries or I run out of steam. I can't "search"
for discoveries because I don't know what I'm looking for, but
by working in 2, 3, and 4 dimensions, maybe I'm expanding the
field of possibilities. It's like what Faust said to the Devil:
"When I've seen it all and done it all, to hell with it."
So one of the things I discovered at that time was the futility
of trying to be unique. Modernism was over, we had stripped art
of everything we could think of, even the art object itself,
trying to get down to the essence, leaving only the "concept"
behind like a ghost. There was nothing more to get rid of, Number
One was a monkey, and painting was dead. Somehow that seemed
liberating to me. I had always loved the paintings of Caravaggio
and Rembrandt and now I felt free to try that myself. I got all
the books I could find on Old Master painting techniques, learned
how to make paint from dry pigments, the panels and canvases
they used, the whole nine yards. The upshot was that only after
I started imitating Rembrandt did people start saying my paintings
A lot of your themes at that time came from mythology. What books
Well, "themes" sounds like something premeditated.
I was never that organized. But I was reading Joseph Campbell
and Robert Graves, and I realized that myth and religion were
not only attempts to deny death, as Ernest Becker says, but were
also timeless reflections of our psyches. All our hungers and
fears, joys and miseries, all our psychoses and obsessions were
dramatized in myths long before Freud and Jung discovered them
in our heads. So all my mythological images are set in my own
time, and I'm usually the protagonist. Okay, always the protagonist.
I used to think I used myself as a model because I couldn't afford
a real model , and it wasn't really me in the paintings, but
eventually I realized it was me after all. I was Acteon and the
Crab King and all the others. This is what can happen when you
go with the images first and deal with the ideas later. You reveal
yourself without knowing it. But if I ask the Muse, "What
do you mean by that?" nothing will get painted.
Another book that ended up generating a long series of paintings
that I didn't know was a series was Dostoyevsky's The Brothers
Karamazov, specifically the chapter called "The Grand
Inquisitor," Ivan's story about a second coming of Christ
during the Spanish Inquisition. It was about this time that I
was becoming fascinated by the concept of the double, the döppelganger,
and I had also been looking at El Greco's portrait of Cardinal
Niño de Guevara, and the image I got was a kind of twisted
conflation of all that. I painted myself as both the Cardinal
and the prisoner and called it "The Question," a title
I think I got from Sartre's Being and Nothingness, which
I was also reading at the time. Sartre said the question breaks
open the egg of the closed universe.
That was in 1991, and for years after that
everything I painted had these guys in it! For me they symbolized
the existential paradox - that we are animals with self-consciousness,
and the animal and the self can neither be reconciled nor separated.
For "animal" read "image," and for "self"
read "idea." You can't have one without the other,
and "The Question" can never be answered.
The Storm, 1992,
oil on linen,
48 x 36 inches
Study for "Hiway 61",
1993, conte & acrylic on
paper, 34 x 26 inches
1993, oil/wax on linen,
60 x 48 in.
The Kiss, 1992,
oil on linen, 48 x 36 inches
The Temptation, 1991,
charcoal & spray enamel
on paper, 28 x 38 in.
But I was so locked up in all this - as in
A Man Reading - that life was passing me by, and I finally
managed to break out of it. The last one was All the King's
Horses. They were gone, egg and all.
Since then you've gotten into sculpture,
printmaking and animation. What were the biggest changes to your
work over the years?
2010, 9 x 8 x 13 inches
| to New York
in 2005 where I saw an animated film by William Kentridge.
That started me on a whole other addiction! Now I could bring
my images to life - after the year or so It took me to learn
how to do it. It was a fateful investigation into time itself,
into the moments that we never see because they go by too fast.
I had to do 24 drawings to get 1 second of video, so I had to
slow down my creative metabolism to a crawl. It brings us back
to the insanity of art, but I was hooked. I had become Dr. Frankenstein.
But aside from the technical problems, working in the fourth
dimension had a profound influence on my other work. These "images"
I've been talking about were always that perfect moment that
you could immortalize on paper or canvas or in bronze or whatever.
But now that perfect moment had a past and a future, a beginning
and an end. I had brought my images to life, but I also brought
them to death. I was right back at that existential dilemma:
no life without death. Now when I did a painting it looked like
a multiple exposure photo.
I found I could do this even with sculpture-show movement and
transparency in a solid opaque material. Thinking about it now,
that seems like another metaphor for existence vs. essence, image
vs. idea, animal vs. self.
But maybe my work hasn't changed as much thematically as it has
technically. For instance, the double has haunted my work ever
since "The Question." My last animation is an example.
Aristeas is supposed to have left his body in the form of a raven
and hung out with Apollo for years in a state of ecstasy. This
is the double! One part of us wants freedom, the other part wants
security. One part loves chaos, the other needs order. The animal
is immortal, the self knows it will die. In the Inuit religion
Raven is both the creator of the universe and a trickster, a
dirty old man. The crow, you know, has been in my images for
a long time. The raven and the crow, for all their intelligence
and beauty, live on dead animals, so they are natural symbols
for man with his double nature.
Art seems to exist at the interface of this duality, drawing
its energy from both sides. If it expresses just one side or
the other-the beauty without the ugliness, the humor without
the pain - it seems empty or trivial. To me, anyway. Sometimes
the images that ambush me do indeed seem trivial: a roll of toilet
paper, a coffee cup, the night sky. But maybe something in my
unconscious - my muse! - recognizes that duality, the idea in
the image, even though I don't figure it out until later. But
I think the artist lives for those stunning moments, and then
seeing them reborn from his own hands, and always in fear that
they will abandon him. That's the addiction.
So what's going on in your head now?
You don't want to know.
No, seriously. What's happening in the studio? What are you
Janet took a picture of me with her phone last week while I was
reading in bed. Actually, I was asleep. I always denied that
I dropped off while reading, so this was her proof. It was a
joke shot, the old fart snoring over his book, but something
about the composition or the lighting grabbed me. It turned out
to be one of those unexpected moments, so I went with it. Hey,
the muse had not been singing, I had nothing else going, give
me a break. The next day I did a monotype from the photo, and
now I'm working on a painting and a linocut. It's called "Sleep
Reading," a variation of speed reading.
image 8 x 10 ½ inches
2012, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches,
image 5 x 7 inches, edition of 12
The book I was sleep reading is called From Eternity to Here
by Sean Carroll, and it's about time - actually, about how time
is a function of entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
I'm also reading a book called The Botany of Desire, which
basically asks the question, "Did we domesticate the apple,
or did the apple domesticate us?" And before that I read
E.O. Wilson's The Social Conquest of Earth, which shows
that, existentially speaking, there's not that much difference
between humans and ants, except that ants are altruistic robots
and humans are more destructive. I should also mention that a
few months ago I read the 30-year update of the book which started
me off on my crusade to save the world, Limits to Growth,
and found that nothing had changed in the data since then to
slow down the exponential growth of population, pollution and
fossil fuel use and that we were even deeper into overshoot mode
than back then. The ecological-industrial collapse was still
on schedule for around 2050. But the books I mentioned, as well
as my Aristeas animation, are giving me a somewhat different
view of this than I had in my activist phase back in '72.
Working on the waves in the background of Aristeas, drawing frame
after frame, plenty of time to think, I began to see everything
as a wave. Careers, individuals, civilizations, species, ecosystems,
all roll along in an orderly way, lowering their own entropy
(that is, their chaos) by raising that of their neighbors, until
they encounter some obstacle, like a beach or the food runs out,
or the oil, and then they may rise up in a magnificent moment
of fame and glory, go into overshoot mode, crash to the sand
and get sucked back into the sea they came from. It's just a
natural cycle. It's not us against nature. We are nature! All
of this - cars, computers, wars - it's all nature! We think we're
special because we have self-consciousness and can imagine infinity
and draw pictures and write poems, but the apple gets along just
fine, using us to spread its genes around, without imagination,
consciousness or even mobility. From the point of view of ET
a couple light years away, it wouldn't make any difference whether
we destroy the biosphere or a colliding asteroid does it, the
biosphere is toast either way. Both are just natural phenomena!
I grew up on the beach in south Florida, watching, hearing and
swimming in these waves, but I didn't really see them until now,
trying to draw their secret moments, using a surf video, seventy
years later, landlocked in Arkansas.
But the strange thing about art is that some of its most depressing
and frightening discoveries can reveal moments of awe-inspiring
beauty! There's the dichotomy of human nature again: its self-destructive
cruelty on the one hand and its search for beauty on the other.
You just finished Moby Dick - finally! - and now you know that
Captain Ahab lurks in the hearts of all artists to some degree.
We are all obsessed with some whale or other. But remember the
and the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand