Kris wanted to know why I choose ugly things to paint. Partly because choosing conventionally pretty subjects is so boring, has been done only several hundred thousand times, and is less of a challenge, to me.
“Paint your life, the things around you,” art books tell us. I used to think it meant looking around your house for beautiful objects to depict. It doesn’t. Van Gogh painted old boots. Someone else painted eggplants (I forget, just now, which Impressionist it was). It’s not at all about creating the impression that we have many beautiful things, or that we only ever lay our eyes on beautiful scenes, or only ever spend time with beautiful people.
It’s about looking and seeing. Really seeing things. If it’s around you, then it is part of your life. If it is part of your life, then it is every bit as worthy of your attention as the prettier or pleasanter parts of your life.
I keep saying that whenever you paint something, there are really two paintings coming into existence. This is an awkward thing to say, but as close as I can formulate it, based on my own experience. There is the process: looking closely, seeing something, knowing it, becoming so involved in drawing/painting it, that the world around me falls away, time stops, and only I and the subject exist. It’s very difficult to draw something and stay aloof from it, or continue to dislike it. Compassion, a kind of quiet love for your subject, grows simply out of the time spent getting to know it enough to depict it.
And then there is the finished painting, and after you’ve gone through the nearly-mystical process of creating it, the finished painting is almost an afterthought. As an artist, you might look at it for a bit, but then you want it out of the way, out of your mind, because you want to get back to the more satisfying activity of looking, and of making something else.
When you paint what is, by conventional standards, considered ‘ugly’, you quickly realise that it isn’t ugly at all. Maybe it’s because you learned to love it in order to draw/paint it.
Or maybe it’s that translating what I see into lines and paint is transformative, and makes an ugly thing suddenly beautiful. I don’t know. Ideas of beauty and ugliness are so subjective, anyway…
And one must never confuse a painting of an ugly building with an actual ugly building. Remember Magritte’s The Treachery of Images…not even the most realistic painting of something should be confused with the actual thing. It is visual media on some kind of substrate…in this case, some colored water on paper. It can be whatever it wants to be. Whatever I want it to be. It doesn’t have to depict anything recognisable, at all. The fact that it does is purely a whim of mine, and the choice of subject is as arbitrary and tenuous as the lottery of life can be.