In the fall I attempted to paint a pineapple. I had an idea that was taking shape for a painting of a pineapple that would have a very specific look and feeling. The pineapple was to be arranged on my crimson kitchen table under the hanging lamp and painted at night. It was to look both solemn and foreboding in that light. I wanted the painting to have the look of kitchens at night, where the tables wait for the next day’s meal. Moreover though, I wanted to take a symbol of welcome and richness and find its worrisome silhouette. The pineapple is a strange thing with a strange history and I wanted it to look strange.
My plan seemed straightforward. The idea felt spare and simple in my head, but when it came to setting up the still-life and getting down to business my designs began to unravel. I purchased a pineapple from the grocery that was a little immodest in the crown, but not too disproportioned. The autumn night was decidedly untropical and filled the darkened room with the perfect contrast to my fruit. I placed the pineapple in the center of the red table under the crisp white lamplight and stepped back to size it up.
Setting up a still-life for me, as for most painters, is finding an equilibrium between the presence of the three-dimensional forms and the two dimensional shapes that translate onto canvas. With a singular object this may seem like an obvious decision, but like a tight-rope walker that mistakenly looks down, I doubted my obvious task and began to see the gravity of my situation. The scene looked right until I tried to box it in with a rectangular border. There was an indescribable contradiction between impression and fact occurring. This is what paint is meant to referee but I couldn’t find the field on which to play.
I hesitated long enough to consider other objects that were on the outskirts of the table. There was a small blue ceramic salt cellar, an iron candlestick, a fork and an attractive box of cornstarch. I should have had the table cleared to begin with, but now these new players were forming their own relationships to the pineapple that I couldn’t stop.
I started making various arrangements of the objects and was suddenly overwhelmed by a myriad of valid options. I’m someone who panics at buffets. I made a deal with myself to create a series of paintings exploring these variations only after I first conquered the initial iconic image. Even still, the purity of the original idea had been corrupted. I couldn’t see the pineapple anymore without considering the largeness of the space in the room around it. With that on my conscience it then became impossible to set the boundaries of the painting. A curdling anxiety had taken over and the only way out was either to start painting pell-mell, or give up the expectation of painting and continue meditating on the scene.
Autumn brings on such a pensive mood, especially in a darkened room that I was easily won over by the notion to keep staring. My spirit relaxed and I found a deep pleasure in simply staring without a rush to the brush. I spent several hours in this fashion and then called it quits. But the next evening when I set down to paint the pineapple I found that the spell had not broken. I squeezed out my paints as some signal of intent, but still couldn’t budge past the deliberation of the arrangement. I sketched for a while but then found myself back in the trance, staring at the pineapple. Observational painting is a record of staring, but it is a skewed record. Without painting my staring was unproductive, but it was also uncompromised and there was something nice about that.
This standoff transpired on several more occasions until the pineapple began to decay and had to be replaced. Even with the new pineapple I couldn’t move past this strange condition. The very feeling I wished to capture in the pineapple had overtaken me and left me stricken. Then one night after some staring, I switched off the lamp and sat in the dark with the pineapple. A dim light in the other room sent the pineapple’s shadow across the fridge. A scene was revealed that had been hidden all along by the light. I suddenly could smell the sweet perfume of the pineapple in the dark.
Aided by headlamp, I began painting this darkened scene and broke the impasse. The next day I painted the pineapple again by rainy daylight. These two paintings bracketed the one I had set out to paint and still have not. That idea is still nested between them, invisible and irrational.
Alex Cohen is a Bucks County painter. To view more essays and paintings visitwww.themagpie.org