Self-expression is inevitable, possibly unwanted
“That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter. That mankind has in this sense been cowardly has done life endless harm; the experiences that are called “visions,” the whole so-called “spirit world,” death, all those things that are so closely akin to us, have by daily parrying been so crowded out of life that the senses with which we could have grasped them are atrophied. To say nothing of God.” Ranier Maria Rilke
There are quiet moments in my studio, often after a day’s efforts, which I am given to wondering: Why do I paint? I can’t claim it is by volition; if I were to choose a studio practice, it would be sculpture. Secondly, to be a painter is, incontrovertibly, one of the loneliest enterprises one can undertake and I would not recommend it to the faint of heart. Everyone at one time or another will “paint”. It is messy, and fun. But to attempt to produce an experience that transcends the seductive physicality of paint and surface, an experience that is transformative and possibly redemptive, is immensely perplexing. Each day, you isolate yourself in your studio, submerged in an activity for which there is no common purpose. Paintings are inedible, they do not bear fruit, build cities, or end wars; they certainly were never meant to convenience. Furthermore, ‘to paint’ carries its own measure of human absurdity: you absent yourself, barricaded and adamant, in your studio, in an attempt to communicate, to connect with the very society you are neglecting! And those connections you strive to make are timeless; the dead, the living, the unborn, are all watching patiently.
I have had the opportunity to be confronted with such a transformative experience. Twice. The first (Bathers By A River—Matisse 1909-1917) was enough of an assault on the senses that I knew in a flash my pursuit of architecture was suddenly inadequate and stultifying.
Of course there is joy to be had at moments in the studio; the sublimity of grinding pigment and mixing colors which give back light, the careful, precise construction of the support. These are all moments savored. However, the evolution of a perplexing visual experience from a blank surface is nonlinear, and counterintuitive, and becomes a method of exploiting the unexpected without being crushed by the weight of those inevitable failures along the way.
And yet, painting has substantial value precisely in its uselessness. It is this absence of purpose at the core of painting that reveals truths about the artist and the audience, place and time. I still have no answer to the question: Why do I paint? And I’m beginning to suspect that the question having no answer is the answer to the question.
Excerpt from “Picture this” Ken Schiano 2021