Photo: Alex Cohen’s studio wall of works very much in process.
Trying to get from point A to point B is only simple when nothing comes between the two. In the roguish sport of Parkour, a daring individual tries to sprint from one location to another in the most efficient course possible regardless of what intervenes. An urban environment is reframed as an obstacle course that the participant traces across rooftops and scaling walls. While dangerous in practice it is a beautiful idea rephrasing the landscape as merely an event that has come between us and our destination. Often we let all manners of obstacles internal and external dictate the path we take, but reclaiming our path in the manner of parkour can cut through and give us a thrill in the process.
The slowness of painting is at loggerheads with the quickness of thought. For most painters this means that as one painting matures on the easel, a hundred or more ideas for other paintings have paraded through his or her head. The inventory of work to finish and ideas to address becomes an obstacle. The great task ahead of the painter is not to see all these ideas into fruition but to act as a shrewd sieve that only allows the most deserving of ideas to pass through into the physical world.
But what would it be like if every idea for a painting was able to see the light of day? What if a painting instantaneously sprang to life immediately for each and every idea that wandered through the painters’ mind? That is certainly a question born of this age when we hunger, wittingly or not, for quick cheap vivid pleasures. It is a question that reinforces a cultural restlessness that is fed by endless streams of facebook updates, tweets, and newsflashes. As such, it is a question not worth asking of painting, which remains an antidote. Pause… Or is it worth asking? Maybe opening the faucet of impulsive ideas as much as possible would lead to painting that is in tune with our modern day—vaulting over the rubble in our way rather than going round it, à la parkour.
For several months I have been filling every inch of my studio with new paintings. This batch, one hundred and thirty and growing, are in turn constantly changing their directions; a dancing couple one minute becomes a soaring airplane the next. There is no conscious reason for the subject matter—I’ve left no time for that sort of planning. I tried to get all the pertinent ideas that were clogging my mind out and keep the sluice open for subsequent ideas to come rolling out. No longer am I allowing myself to feel the constipation of ideas that must stand in queue. Each day I sweep new notions across their surfaces while bringing fresh canvases into the fray, like a juggler adding more balls. A tiled matrix of paintings has coated the floor and crawled up the walls. I arrange and rearrange them, watching alliances and feuds form, assigning curt directives to those that are jiving, recycling failures, pruning the strugglers.
At times this painting frenzy can seem aimless and wasteful, but I feel very much engaged and am encouraged by how fertile unsettled imagery can be. The surfaces are responsive and build up a beautiful legacy in texture of the trials and error played out upon them. So long as I keep them in motion, dodging any impulse to make do, only stopping when they’ve achieved a certain unexpected beauty and wisdom, the paintings cannot lose. After all they had no objective to begin with, just adapting and responding to stimulus, like the unseen hand of evolution.
This unnatural selection is a bit ruthless, and needs to be in order to break all my habits and predispositions. I feel as though I’m teasing something massive out of hiding, a pattern or grand idea. We all accumulate a story about ourselves as we bumble along. Influences, experiences, choices and so on begin to glom onto a person until they cannot distinguish between themselves and that story. Periodically we all need a bit of spring cleaning; getting all the accumulated bits of that story out into the lawn and deciding what to keep and what to chuck, finding all sorts of lost doodads in the process.
I am deeply suspicious of the impulse to multitask and lilypad from project to project but wonder if it isn’t some defense against the proliferation of information in our lives. If this mode of painting is a response to diminished concentration, I have found in it a new concentration that is free of the obligation to a set of shaky convictions. I like the feeling of traveling light, relying solely on intuition to find my footing as I accept my accumulated ideas as obstacles over which to bound.