The Art of Slowness
By Alex Cohen
Printed in the Bucks County Herald 4/20/09
It is a strange task to produce a work that will endure beyond its maker— enduring physically and in infamy. On some level, this is the absurdity in which a painter engages each time he or she approaches the canvas. One dilemma in the face of this metaphysical crisis is pacing the construction of a painting. Since the lifespan of a painting after completion will inevitably outweigh the time of its creation, how long should one spend getting it ready for a life in the big bad world? As an artist, my paintings are little Pinnochios whom I secretly expect to come alive and pay homage to their creator. In truth the paintings are indifferent to me and I am only a small portion of their inanimate lives.
Painting is slow in nature. Fast painting is only relative. There is a critical delay between a thought or sight and its translation into paint. It is in that delay, while the artist’s intention is channeled through the archaic technology of brush, pigment and oil, that interesting inaccuracies occur. There are the deviations from reality that express a personal subjective view. Then there are the deviations from intention that belong solely to the mysteries of paint, creating an aura of otherworldlyness that is so attractive. It is the inefficiency of painting that makes it special and alluring. The inefficiency of the process is thereby sympathetic to slowness and often rewards it. Yet again, where along the spectrum of inefficiency should a painter exist? How slow is too slow?
This summer I saw a retrospective of an extraordinary realist painter, Antonio Lopez Garcia at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Garcia, still actively painting in his 70’s, is renowned for working on his paintings for many years at a time. One painting, “Lucio’s Balcony” took 28 years to complete and during that time the apartment where the balcony was located changed ownership several times. The duration of a painting may be lengthy but in the moment, Garcia is not slow at all. A documentary film by Victor Erice called “Dream of Light”, shows Garcia working tirelessly and swiftly to capture the appearance of a Quince Tree. Sustaining that heroic pace over long periods is what makes his paintings more a meditation on the appearance of time than anything else.
A friend of mine, Alvaro Altamar has been working on a master copy of a painting in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection since we attended a class there together in 2005. The original painting from which Alvaro is copying is John Vanderlyn’s Ariadne— a mythical nude sprawled out in the woods on a crimson drape. He has studied every aspect of the painting, accounting for Vanderlyn’s palette and working methods, visiting other versions of the painting and meticulously scanning the surface of the paint for its secrets. He has analyzed it like a scientist, making obsessive calculations of the inner geometry and painting studies devoted to particular color dynamics. He knows the Ariadne so well that at times it’s hard to separate the painting from an actual embodiment of the sensual maiden when he refers to it— the painting of the goddess has slowly become her.
I am reminded of Borges the more I think of Alvaro and his Ariadne. Jorge Luis Borges wrote many short stories that teased the idea of the infinite. In one story a group of scholars create an Encyclopedic entry for a fictional state with such precision that the place begins to exist in reality. The reader’s comprehension is pushed to exhaustion in a story where a writer attempts an exact recreation of Don Quixote, not by copying the text but by arriving at the same decisions that Cervantes did. Another story describes a book intended by its author to be infinite by including every possible outcome of a narrative as simultaneous interweaving realities. Borges’ metaphysical experiments underscore the wonder and beauty of mankind’s most futile endeavors. He celebrates inefficiency as a sort of liberation from time.
My opinion of Alvaro’s Ariadne repeatedly sways back and forth. At one end I am in awe of his dedication and continued fascination. At the other end I am impatient with his exercise and urge him to move on to new territory, to move on to original works. Alvaro does make other paintings, but the Ariadne has been a consistent draw on his time and energy. A year ago someone wanted to purchase the painting and Alvaro gave him a timeframe for its completion that continued to elongate until our economic recession intervened and the buyer backed away. Now Alvaro has no incentive to wrap up the Ariadne and can continue unhurried. It is a painting that hasn’t lost its initial purpose to copy a masterwork, but other ambitions have certainly been adopted as the piece becomes something far more than a simple copy. We joke at the sincere question of one the Academy’s museum guards who asked, “are you ever going to be done her?” Alvaro pontificates with a revolutionary zeal that his painting reflects his wish for people to slow down and really look at one thing with full attention.
In time all paintings will decay. They will crack and discolor and further deviate from their original intentions. This is not necessarily a bad thing—in fact, there is some satisfaction in seeing the age of a painting. The enduring slowness is revealed underneath the signs of age. The slowness of painting seems to open up an exception to time while still being tied to it. Paintings reflect the desire for a soul that will endure past our physical bodies. A painter’s separation anxiety is understandable because it is as if the soul departs the body when a painting is finished. I look forward to one day seeing Alvaro’s Ariadne long after the hard work is done—cracked and aged, resembling Vanderlyn’s. But then again, it might never be finished.