About a year ago, I was exhibiting at a wine festival in a small Wyoming town. An hour or so into the event, a man in a cowboy hat and blazer approached, pointed at one of my paintings, and said, “I don’t mean to offend you, but… what IS that?” Now, I used to say that people tend to have a strong reaction one way or another to my work, either liking or disliking it more or less on sight. In the last few years, though, I have come to understand that some people are just genuinely befuddled by my imagery and my methods. And befuddlement is an honest reaction, which, I think, contains within it the desire to understand. A dear friend has told me again and again that it’s not reasonable to expect everyone to be on the same page… that people need a “way in” to art that is significantly different from the familiar. So I replied that I was not at all offended, but glad he’d asked, and proceeded to explain that the painting was about avoidance of our own mortality, and how as we age it requires ever greater contortions to “avoid the Void.” He grunted to himself, studied it a bit, and then pointed to a wildlife painting at a nearby display, and said, “Now, THAT’S what I consider Art.”
A half-hour or so later, two women approached me, and one of them, pointing to the same painting, said,”I want you to tell my friend here exactly what you told my husband, because I think it’s fascinating.”
In the last few years, I have come to understand that Kurt Vonnegut was right, when he said, “A painting is one half of a conversation between two people.” We create these images more or less in isolation, and the meanings we assign to them seem so clear and positive to us that we are taken aback when others react with negativity or indifference. It’s useful for me to recall that I, too, am befuddled by much that I see, and it requires a conscious effort of will to grapple with the unfamiliar.
It turns out that “What IS that ?” was an honest question, and the guy who asked it, while not entirely persuaded, was genuinely interested in my response… enough so that he was able to repeat it pretty accurately to his wife.
While grand epiphanies have their place, I think that it’s the small epiphanies that nudge us gently toward different points of view, and in their aggregate, change us. I think that art resides not in the painting itself, but rather in just that sort of interaction between artist and painting and viewer. Answering a question as direct as “What IS that?” forces me to clarify my own meaning, and alters my own understanding of my work, and of its place in the broader scheme of what Art is. My response to the question seems to have, however gently, nudged the guy in the blazer toward a broader awareness, too.
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