WORDS, IMAGES, PRESENCE & PIZZA
I think the "Art Lunch" was going
on before my bus broke down in Arkansas and before David moved
here as the Museum School director at the Arkansas Arts Center
in Little Rock. Sammy, Pat McFarlin, Dan Morris and Kathy Holder
were some of the original lunchers. Dan, the art critic for the
old Arkansas Gazette, used to throw parties for local artists,
and it was at one of these in 1986 that I met the others. Since
David and I were invited to the weekly (now fortnightly) lunches,
we've met at a lot of different places, but since the late '90s
we seem to have gotten stuck at Damgoode Pies on Kavanaugh in
Little Rock. The food is cheap and good, and the upstairs dining
room is small and quiet, perfect for running our mouths. I wanted
to call this show "Three Damgoode Artists," but I was
Many other artists have come and gone over the years, but somehow
the three of us have stuck it out. It's a chance to celebrate
our creative discoveries or bitch about our frustrations, mostly
the latter, to others who have experienced the same thing and
are in a position to either agree or set us straight. For instance,
when I'm creatively dead in the water, muse not singing, no image
in sight, and I say, "I think I've painted my last painting,"
it's encouraging to hear Sammy reply, "Warren, how many
times have you told me that?"
Also, like most artists, we tend to hole up in our studios and
stew in our own juices, and our lunches force us out into the
company of other artists. I'm the most introverted and antisocial
of our group, but there's a little of that in the other two as
well. At one of our meetings I was talking about how a work of
art, like a quantum particle, doesn't really exist unless it's
seen by someone (you can hear my recording of this conversation
in the barroom scene of my movie, "Moments"), and David
said, "That's the only reason I meet with you guys, because,
you know, I'm being observed, therefore I exist." It was
a joke, but there is some value in being able to confess your
sins to fellow victims of a fatal attraction.
This is possible because we all three take each others' work
seriously and probably have a deeper understanding of it than
anybody else in the world. We're like junkies who understand
perfectly the others' addiction. We sympathize but know we're
not going to be able kick it. I think it's important to have
this kind of relationship. We can manage it because our work
is so dissimilar-so disparate-that we're not in competition with
each other, which is probably why we've been able to stay friends
for so long. So let me try to look at some of those differences-and
then some similarities that I discovered recently.
David's images come from narratives. He has been inspired by
the Torah, Kafka, the Holocaust, Buster Keaton's movies, the
novels of José Saramago and old newspaper clippings. Lately,
he has related these narratives to memories of his old job as
a bookkeeper, which he presents like scenes in a play. In the
1970s it was well known in academia that painting was dead, so
David switched to theater, working with the avant-garde playwright
and director, Richard Foreman in New York. The result was The
Abreaction Theater, which David and the composer Geoffrey King
established in 1979. Though he later backslid into visual art
(as I did, from a similar experience, having spent five years
on the road as a writer), his work has remained theatrical. I
have written elsewhere that a drawing by David, having survived
many trials and scrubbings-which are often visible as pentimenti,
traces of erased marks-is really the last scene of the play.
But that's not quite right. Yes, it's like one frame from the
storyboard of a play, but not the last one. Back in the early
'90s David had a bad habit of breaking into exhibitions after
his work was installed and continuing to work on them. As I wrote
at the time, "One minute David is busily rubbing out and
redrawing, the next he's being strong-armed out of the place."
Because his drawings are never really finished, the play is never
really over. It's just arrested.
It's just this instant of being caught in the act of becoming
that gives his drawings their uncomfortably familiar feeling.
A reviewer of one of his plays, "Disparate Acts,"-which
we decided was the logical title for this exhibition-wrote that
its "structure of abrupt, isolated scenes has been chosen
in part to dramatize those unexpected, fleeting moments of sudden
realization which occur in daily life." Those words describe
his drawings as well.
So, though David's drawings have no resolution,
they are nevertheless images inspired by narratives, while mine
are just the opposite: narratives inspired by images. I've used
the word "ambushed" for a long time to describe how
this happens. I can be driving down the highway, walking in the
city or in the woods, watching a movie, stepping into my kitchen
or bathroom, when suddenly what I'm looking at jumps out at me
and takes over my brain. It's usually something I've seen thousands
of times before but not as a painting until that moment. Maybe
it was the light, or the darkness, external or internal, some
experience that day, something that has made me see this thing
in a new way. This can also happen in my head, while reading
a book or listening to music, but it's still an image, not an
idea in the intellectual sense.
But from this image a narrative inevitably emerges, even when
I don't want it to. I may understand it immediately or not at
all, but I think what I saw is somehow linked to some story lurking
in my unconscious. I take this image to be a revealed truth and
feel compelled to make it visible, no matter how weird or twisted
or self-incriminating it may look. This revealed image, however,
what I call the "virtual image," only exists at that
first moment of ambush, and the final painting, print or sculpture
may undergo as many transformations as David's drawings or Sammy's
paintings. But when I try to do it the other way around, create
an image from an idea, like David does, my attempt usually fails.
Another difference between David's work and
that of the other two of us is the art materials we use. Years
ago I wrote this about David's dislike of art materials: "He
has a horror of my practice of making my own paint. David is
as appalled by my grinding slab as some people are by spiders."
Although he painted when he first got to Little Rock, he soon
abandoned it and got rid of everything but a huge roll of surplus
milk carton paper and a stick of charcoal. Inspired evidently
by black and white movies, he stripped the sets of his plays
at the Abreaction Theater of all color, and then he did the same
to his drawings, denouncing color as a contaminant, and only
occasionally dipping a brush into his cup of coffee for a warm
wash or two, the same cup that sat on his desk in New York while
he cooked the books. Lately, I see, he's been experimenting with
the occasional, tentative stroke of color. "Ride, boldly
ride ... if you seek for Eldorado!"
In contrast, I was inspired by the Old Masters, researched their
techniques and materials, and became an alchemist of paint, refining
my own linseed oil, making my own ink from tree bark, galls and
iron sulfate, grinding my own pigments in a medium of oil and
beeswax as Titian is thought to have done, and discovering all
kinds of amazing secrets about the relativity of color from Rembrandt
and Josef Albers. Like Sammy but unlike David, I enjoyed the
physicality, the manual labor, of stretching canvases and pushing
paint around on them. There's so much pleasure in glazing and
scumbling that they should be added to the Seven Deadly Sins.
But while Sammy and I both get off on the
joys of paint, his creative approach to his work is different
from both David's and mine. He doesn't start with either a narrative
or an image. These may appear later, after what looks like several
geological epochs of volcanic upheavals and continental drift,
but in the beginning he just needs to be present in his studio.
There's a table covered with paint cans, tubes, brushes and deadly
solvents, the sound of traffic on Asher, maybe some blues on
the radio, and a blank canvas on the wall. Sammy is standing
there, not so much like God before creating the heavens and the
earth as the football player he used to be, crouched behind the
scrimmage line, waiting for the snap.
But I get carried away. Actually, I have no idea how Sammy starts
a painting or what's going on in his head. I only know it's not
a story of anything or an image of something, as is the case
with David and me. I should insert here that both David and I
have benefitted over the years from Sammy's technical knowledge.
He owned Atlas Signs, which he inherited from his dad, and knows
all kinds of stuff about paints and inks, canvas and paper, and
every now and then David or I have to call him with an "art
emergency!" As for those deadly solvents I mentioned, things
like xylene, I think he gets away with it because his studio
is a large warehouse (which was once Atlas Signs) with a high
ceiling, so the fumes must rise up there and kill only the spiders
around the skylights, sparing the human below. If David or I
used it in our smaller studios we'd be dead in a month.
Anyway, the first thing I feel when I look at Sammy's paintings
is their existential presence. In a review of his show at the
Arkansas Arts Center in 1994 I wrote that each painting "is
a corporeal existent, a physical, thought-numbing presence, before
it's anything else." I described how countless layers, which
I like to think of as geological strata, of thick, waxy, translucent
or opaque paint have been brushed or troweled on, gouged or drawn
through, dripped on, glazed over and scraped off, and how rectangular
forms and bits of cloth play a kind of mischievous melody over
a ground bass of colors without names. "Such presence,"
I wrote, "is an emotional perception, an experience more
of the senses than of the mind."
But, I went on, "It's a function of the intellect to protect
us from that kind of thing-to create a space between the self
and a phenomenon which threatens to absorb it. If you are able
to take that creative step backward from the existential-almost
breathing-presence of these works, it's just that emerging and
submerging of form that begins give them a conceptual dimension,
a 'content.' "
So here is where the similarities in our work
begin to bite into the differences. Because even though a painting
by Sammy is obviously not a narrative picture, I think it tells
a story anyway. Stories are our primary means of imposing order
on a chaotic world. Art, religion and science all grew out of
stories, and stories take place in time. Time came into my work
after a trip to New York with Sammy in 2005, during which I saw
an animation by William Kentridge at the Metropolitan Museum.
Before that I had thought of animation as Mickey Mouse and Quickdraw
McGraw, but now I imagined my own drawings coming to life. It
took years of Frankensteinian experiments, most of which failed,
to make this happen, and I won't go into the ugly details. My
point here is that about a year ago I realized that I wasn't
the only artist in our group who had-maybe unconsciously-pushed
into the fourth dimension.
Some of David's drawings, especially the ones with pentimenti,
the remains of earlier scenes in his dramas, whether from the
Torah or the office, are almost animations in themselves. You
see them happening in time as well as space. One of my favorite
drawings of his is one you will never see because he destroyed
it. I call it "Ghosts," because all the figures had
been rubbed out, only the ghosts remained. Even the room was
starting to fade. Similarly, my favorite paintings of Sammy's
are those in which almost everything has been lost in time-but
not quite lost. Objects have been stuck on, then painted over
with bright colors, themselves now only faintly visible though
layers of mud. Ancient strata are exposed by excavation. Sometimes,
in the same painting, you're looking at different rates of change:
very fast movement-the splatters and drips-and the static strata
of impasto paint. So there's all this painting and pasting and
scraping, and in the end you have a very complex integration
of time and space. And sometimes, as in David's "Ghosts,"
everything that went before almost disappears, leaving only incomprehensible
traces. Traces of what? An extinct civilization, a former life,
youth? When I discovered that bringing my images to life also
brought them to death-because now they had an end as well as
a beginning-I thought this was unique to animation, but maybe
the same can be said for a painting or drawing that incorporates
time in its attempt to outlive its time-bound creator.
Maybe all our drawings, paintings and movies are just acts in
the defunct Abreaction Theater. "Abreaction," you know,
is the psychoanalytic term for the vivid return of painful memories.
But it also means catharsis, and all artists know that feeling
when their work magically unfolds before them. That's why we're
hooked on art instead of following the sensible advice of our
But while munching our pizzas at Damgoode
Pies, we don't talk about such esoteric things. We just listen
to each others' troubles or pleasures, failures or successes,
and are consoled by this convivial proof or our existence. We
talk, therefore we are.
(From the exhibition catalog)