It’s likely that recently deceased author, J.D. Salinger will be remembered as much if not more for his noted reclusion than for his written works. Shying away from the attention his writing earned, Salinger adopted a secluded life in rural New Hampshire that lasted over fifty years. It’s ironic that reclusion from attention should bring about attention to reclusion, but such a retreat creates a nagging mystery that only grows more intriguing with silence.
The acts of writing and painting share a similar solitude. They are private acts that pass on to a public audience. Such solitude can be hard to find when it’s needed and sometimes hard to endure when it’s found. The amount of silence and space needed to concentrate on the often puny whisper of inspiration can seem fickle, but one can get addicted to such demands. The louder the voices are outside and the more distractions and obligations there are, the more the artist may desire that quiet retreat. Desiring periodic reclusion and becoming a recluse are fairly different matters.
The painter Albert York who also died this year was a splendidly secretive recluse. Purportedly his wife, Virginia Mann Caldwell, only learned of his painting life some time into their marriage. Despite working daily on his paintings, York was in no hurry to see them finished and rarely saw the exhibitions they hung in. He was someone who appeared to relish beauty and simplicity found in an uncompromised artist seclusion.
I just finished hanging a show of my paintings at Rodger LaPelle Galleries in Philadelphia that will be on view for the month of February. I titled the show Fight or Flight, a term coined by Physiologist Walter Cannon referring to the instinctual posturing against outside stimuli. When we encounter a new entity we size it up in relation to our own abilities and quickly calculate whether it is in our interest to move towards this thing and engage it (Fight) or avoid confrontation and distance ourselves (Flight).
The issue of artistic reclusion at first seems to be a matter of passive Flight away from stressors into a controlled environment. But the act of art making, in and of itself, is hardly a retreat; the artist struggles to confront his or her medium and bring something new into existence. For a painter, putting brush to canvas is an assertive act, even if just passive aggressive. It’s a bit like Perseus fighting Medusa. Because the mythic gorgon can turn our hero to stone if he looks her in the eye, Perseus must observe her reflection in the polished surface of his shield to conduct his attack. So too with artmaking, we must look indirectly at our sources of interest; appearing to flee in order to fight.
The paintings I am exhibiting more specifically reference the notion of Fight or Flight in their imagery. I think of the illusion in a painting as the stimulus that triggers our stress response. A painting creates the illusion of space that is either permissible to enter or is entering our space. In other words the painted rectangle is a portal that traffics a sense of movement in or out of the picture. Looking at a painting that catches our interest we might feel that instinctual urge to fight and enter the painting, or flee as the painting comes out at us. If we sympathize with the painting sometimes we are even fleeing into the painted space or fighting out from it.
In these paintings I am excited by the movement that occurs with this invitation into the painting and the depth that can be explored in that direction, as well as the intrusion of the painting forward into the room. For instance there is a painting in the show of Johnnie Walker’s Striding Man about to step out of the painting, and a polychrome forest that seems to suck you in. I am aiming for a pleasant tug or push to and from the rectangle that might stir up ideas over the subject matter.
Painting and writing are mostly antisocial behaviors, but they are still conversations. The characters or things with whom the artist converses might only be in the artist’s mind but the interchange occurs none-the-less. Albert York called upon figures in his landscapes that came straight from his imagination and Salinger apparently continued to write about his fictional Glass family from his reclusion, though the public may ever get to read these works other than he. In secluded wards artists are traveling through inner worlds and solving problems of the mind. A flight from one reality may be the battle cry of an artist fighting in an invented reality.