“Since You Left the World”
24″ x 36″
Oil on Canvas
(By Cat Jones)
This piece is not finished yet. Like Sid’s life was not yet finished when he left it. There’s so much I could say about this painting, the emotional load behind it, the paint mixed with tears and beer and even a little blood… grief’s relentless isolation, even in a crowd… the hard, hard reality of scratching out a life on this rocky shore after the reason for that life has left it…. But I said all that in the painting and words don’t express it any better. So, instead, I want to talk about the concept of being “finished,” versus “unfinished.”
I often hear artists talk about never knowing when a piece is finished. Any discussion regarding creative process eventually gets to that question, with a knowing and commiserating confidentiality: “Yeh, but how do you know when it’s finished.” It seems to be a classic struggle. I’m always baffled by this. I always know when a painting is finished. Or more to the point, I know when it isn’t. And my paintings are very, very rarely ever finished. The trick is in knowing that there’s nothing wrong with that. Not being “done” does not necessarily mean being incomplete. It means continuing to be alive.
Every now and then, a painting is actually finished in that there is nowhere else to take it. But that’s a very rare thing. When that happens to me, whether it takes years to get there, or whether it surprises me by coming together within that first day of work, I know immediately. Aha! There it is. There is nothing more that can possibly be said with the piece that would express it any better. There is nothing to add. More work would only diminish it in some way. It is finished. There is no question about it. (The way to know whether a painting is truly finished or not is to consider whether there is any question about it. If there is, then it isn’t “finished.”) In all my years of painting, that’s only happened maybe a dozen times. But usually, there are questions; there is more to ask; there is a sense of unexplored potential or a slight uneasiness regarding whether or not the piece is actually representing the fullness of the vision one has for it.
(Of the 47 paintings hanging on the walls of my small studio right now, only 4 are finished. And the moment that they are, I know it. But “finishing” a painting is never the goal. Painting it is. Moving with it as it moves forth, finding out where it wants to go, dancing with it, being true to the vision and the piece even as it evolves from one state into another. Painting, like life, is a journey and not a destination.)
Even some of the paintings I have hanging in galleries right now are not finished. (Well, except that I have a joke with other artist friends, that when they sell they’re finished. So if they sell, then I guess that they are finished after all. And that’s not as crude a joke as it seems. No disrespect toward collectors who buy my work at all. Let me explain why….)
A fine work of art is a living thing that continues to grow and change just like every living thing does. (Even paintings from the renaissance are still developing a patina and a history and new interpretations, centuries after the painter stopped working on them. But I mainly mean this in the sense of there still being paths of potential that the artist intuitively knows are waiting to be explored in a work, even when those paths are not yet clear, and even when that work is ready for display in the meantime.) Not done does not mean deficient. To say that a painting is not finished is not to say that it isn’t complete unto this moment, beautiful in its own right, or that it necessarily ever even has to go anywhere further. It just means that the artist knows that there is room for more growth with the work, even if it isn’t yet clear what form that growth will take. Sometimes, a lot of the beauty in a work of art lies in the tension of that untapped potential in perfect counter-balance against the present form of the piece. In that case, the “unfinishedness” of the piece becomes an element of its expression. (One of my favorite portraits is Lucian Freud’s unfinished portrait of Francis Bacon…. It’s hard for me to imagine that painting being any more beautiful with any more work.)
There are stopping off points along the way in the creative process, and yes, some of those stops are places where I don’t really want anyone to see the work. Many of my paintings spend a little while at first in a clumsy place before they start to find their way – a place I do not want anyone to see them in, and that kind of unfinished really is unfinished. That is to be unfinished in the more traditional use of the word. I would never hang a painting in that kind of state in a gallery. But there comes a point beyond which any one of those stopping-off places could be considered “finished” if what one means by that is gallery-ready, since the piece has reached a point of balance and beauty and expression that speaks in a way that is valid and real, a way that is already “enough,” that is already saying what it needs to say even though the artist knows that, within this flower, there are other petals that may yet be unfurled. “Unfinished” doesn’t always mean needing more. A painting is not truly finished until it expresses exactly what it needs to express, in exactly the way the artist wants it to, in a way that cannot be improved upon further. And a painting can almost always be improved upon further, if we want to. There’s nothing wrong with that. So can a person. Like a child is not “finished” because she has the potential to become an adult, yet is, hey, a CHILD!, so it is that a painting can be something beautiful and complete in its own right, and yet have the acknowledged potential to grow into something even more.
In a collaborative dance between the artist and the medium, the painter and the painting find their way to a sublime place where the art becomes. It’s a birthing process, an actualization. And there is an epiphany at that inexplicable point where one can suddenly see what the work is meant to be, can suddenly feel it quicken into life. Everything that it is meant to be is suddenly there, in the void that encompasses the artist and her work, all coalescing from the ether, written in the filaments and tenuous connections between artist and art, synapse and canvas, being and becoming. There it all is, glimpsed and sensed, crowning gloriously from the womb. That does not mean there won’t be more work, more growth to bring it to full fruit. But anywhere beyond the point of that first moment of quickening is fine art. I have had paintings struggle along through many iterations without finding themselves – as this one did for nearly a year – before suddenly blossoming into the coalescing form they are meant to take – as this one did last night. And so here it is, right now, right here, a work that is speaking from my heart even if there are more places that it can potentially go.
That doesn’t mean one has to work on it further, only that one feels that one could. There is a wonderful place I come to in almost every painting, where the whole thing suddenly comes together in a way that I am astonished by. That quickening I mentioned above. I know I’m not the only painter who finds beauty in my own work, so I won’t apologize if that seems arrogant. I just come to a place where I suddenly look at the work and go, Holy Shit, That’s beautiful. And that’s generally a place of joy and awe and fear for me. Joy and awe, because art inspires such feelings when it gets to the heart of the matter. And fear, because at this point, I am in love with the painting, and I fear fucking it up if I do anything else to it. There is such freedom, up until that moment, in not being attached to anything about a painting. One is free to go anywhere with it, do anything with it, throw paint at it in an orgy of unbridled expression. But one is always inexorably drawn toward attachment, toward fulfilling some inner vision, toward, well, Love. We fall in love with our work when it gets close enough to the heart. And Love, itself, inspires joy and awe and yet is terrifying. We are so much freer without Love, in art and in life, and yet we are drawn to it like moths to a flame.
It is when we fall in love with a work of art that it is ready for display. But we might keep on working on it between shows for years.
So, in art as in life, we walk a fine and precarious razor’s edge between freedom and attachment; between love and fear; between clinging to the present form and desire to move forth. And as more of the vision begins to reveal itself in my own work, I begin to feel a sense of greater satisfaction and greater terror with it. There comes a point where I become so attached to the work, or even just to parts of the work, that I must then be more careful. I don’t want to fuck up what I love. It’s exhausting to work on a piece out of that kind of fear.
Sometimes, the fear is rooted in having a realization that something about a piece needs to be different, without having a clear sense of where it should go. You don’t want to take it in the wrong direction. Other times, the fear comes from a realization that it needs some very delicate work or a specific technique, and I’m not sure my skills are up to it yet. (I have an elephant painting like that… Tyke’s last stand, which I think is on my gallery page if you want to look. I love where it is right now, where it’s been for years, but I have always known that I want the standing elephant to look more realistic and less stylized, so I have it on the back burner to study carefully what elephants really look like and to practice painting the texture of elephant skin.) Whatever the source of fear at this point, what I do is I generally hang them on my walls when I reach here, and I just digest them for awhile. They might hang there for a long time, or possibly only a day or so until courage and curiosity and inspiration overcome the fear. I know when it is time to work on them again when the fear of moving forward is finally overwhelmed by the tension of knowing it isn’t where it needs to be yet. Either way, it just takes a little courage to go on, even when I’m not really sure how to get there yet. Just like Love.
This painting, Since You Left the World, is “not finished yet” only in that sense. There is more to say, there are things to change, there are paths to explore. But the quickening has begun. I felt the first kick yesterday, and here it is, newborn. Right now, in this moment, it is saying exactly what it needs to say, exactly what I set out to say with it, and I am in love with it. This painting and I have pulled something from the depths and it is alive now, on this canvas. There are details I want to add, colors I might want to change a little, depth I may or may not want to create and explore. The point is, it is, and it is becoming. And the tension between those two states of being is intoxicating to me as a painter.
Paintings live and grow with artists, blossoming in our hearts and minds long before they leaf out on the canvas. As with every artist, my creative process involves standing back and looking at my work, thinking about it, mulling it over, as much as touching a brush to canvas. At least as much. Art lives within the heart, a communion with the universe, manifested through the artist, and we only glimpse it through the medium. It’s like the fruiting body of a mushroom. Most of its essence lies beneath the surface, but the part we see is the part we think of when we think of Art.
So who knows. I might work on this some more tomorrow and post where it is then. Or it might hang on my wall for a long time before I go further with it. That’s cool. It’s already art, though. It already expresses something that my heart was pregnant with and needing to give birth to.
Sometimes, as with Sid, a life isn’t finished at the end of it, either. But there it is anyway, sandwiched between the bookends of beginning and end, as complete as… perhaps as complete as it will ever be. Sid certainly had more to say, more to do, more to give, untapped potential, paths not taken. But that does not mean he was not everything he needed to be, everything any of us ever is. Very few people ever leave this world having done everything they set out to do. Most people die with some laundry that still needs doing, a dish or two in the sink. Maybe an apology they meant to offer, or some forgiveness they meant to bestow. That’s all right. It’s perfectly natural. So it is with a painting, which, if done right after all, is also a living work. A few of them reach the farthest reaches of their ability to express what they set out to express. But most of them, like most people, are a continuous work in progress, never really finished for as long as they are alive, but always poignant and meaningful along the way.