On Originality

Rather than throwing accusations around, and presumptuously acting like I’m exempt from all of this, I’ll start by stating that I’ve suffered, and continue to struggle with this every day.  I’ll give you guys an example…

Felix de la Concha is a terrific painter. His electrical posts (like the painting depicting the twelve apostles) are just full of personality. They‘re a fresh blend of Hockney, Antonio López, Rackstraw Downes…  anyways, when I saw his electrical posts, all I could think of was “damn, I’ve always wanted to paint one of those posts, and here comes a guy that paints them better than I could’ve ever imagined…” 

So after cursing him out, I naturally just HAD to paint a damn post. 

And so I started painting a post. I tried to convince myself that if I made it greyer it would, without a doubt, immediately make it my own. Needless to say, that was hardly achieved…  Literally halfway through the painting, I realized I was painting an electrical post that could only be described as a post that was painted after a painting of a post painted by a better painter…

So after feeling like an unoriginal piece of garbage, I decided I would alter the lower half of the painting. The painting was representing an inanimate object that was set outdoors, so I would now paint, in the lower half, part of a figure that was set indoors. The post was a vertical shape, the figure would have breaks in it. Then I thought, it needs something in the bottom… shoes! So I painted a pair of shoes… then I noticed it looked like a lazy pyramid composition and way too symmetrical (nothing wrong with symmetry, but wasn’t working for this particular image).  So I painted out a shoe and painted a purse instead. Then I thought, “one shoe… like Cinderella…” (yes, thank you, crazy imaginative)…Then I thought, “well… it’s an electrical post from Bogotá, let’s just title the painting “Bogotá Cinderella”.  Top that off with some clumsy stenciling to try and desperately connect top and bottom half, and the painting was done…

A sense of urgency was born from feeling unoriginal and the painting was modified until it sort of became my own.  Now, I’m not saying that from now on nobody can paint an electrical post because it’s been done so well by de la Concha. In fact, obligating one's self to paint objects that one can relate to a particular artist, could make for a great exercise.  Although I think, at least in this particular case, that I would be so worried about trying to make it different from de la Concha’s, that the exercise would just be one of strictly distancing one's self from the original image.

While this particular struggle ended up with a capriciously contrived painting, I was also indelibly tattooed by one of his paintings of pillows… so naturally I went ahead and painted a pair of pillows. This one was just blatant robbery. I thought his paintings were so damn cool, and again, I cursed him because for the longest time I had thought about painting my pillows. I thought that by depicting how the pillows ended in the morning after me and my wife had slept on them, would be a nice portrait of us. Once again I was grasping for straws… another futile attempt at making someone else experience my own.  Granted, I made them greyer and somewhat moodier, but they’re essentially the same painting. (These bottom ones are de la Concha's)

These are just a couple of examples of how much I struggle when I look at something I respect. And quite frankly, all this came up when I saw some images of paintings the other day.

I’ve always felt that painting like someone, however talented he or she may be, doesn’t quite make sense.  Painting, in my opinion,  is such a private process, that unless you are in your formative years, where you are shown, for example, a very specific way to approach painting, that it seems like a waste of energy to try and paint like somebody else.

Granted, sometimes we are enamored by the how. How in the hell did he achieve that surface? Or how did she solve those eyes? Or how did he mix that tone? If we as painters were not curious about these things, then we might as well paint walls. And yes, many times these questions drive us to try and solve paintings in manners which are not our own. I’ve often referred to these actions as an effort on our part to have that same experience that the artist who painted the original image had. Or at least our interpretation of that experience, because we never truly know how an image was executed just by looking at it. If you think differently, then please try and copy a Rembrandt. 

I’ve always seen work that you could trace to its teacher, be it my teacher, who I respect enormously, Steve Assael, or great painters that have done countless workshops and have aided students for years, like Silverman, Schmid, Leffel , or more recently, painters like Collins. The thing is, these type of influences should be strictly formal; they should illuminate students in manners of technically approaching paintings. But I seriously doubt that these teachers, even though they all share a huge respect for figurative art, would want little armies of bastard painters that will never be as good as them. Once again, Rembrandt comes to mind.

It worries me to see the influence that great painters like Alex Kanevsky and Sangram Majumdar are having nowadays. Now, I’m not going to put images of painters and compare them with these two talented painters, because I think it’s kind of pointless. The object of this is not to rat them out… partly because I’m sure that the painter that is content with painting like someone else, already knows that he or she is painting like someone else. And quite frankly, who am I to tell a painter what their true objective should be? Maybe a person’s goal in life is to try and see if she can paint skin like Assael’s, or if he can paint drippy buildings (sorry Alex) like Kanevsky’s, or if she can paint cakes like Uglow’s.

Maybe, just maybe, getting close to those images that they hold so dear is enough. But what if this is not just a whim or not just a couple of paintings, but you suddenly become the poor man’s __________. What if a gallery starts looking at you like a cheap Cecily Brown, or an affordable Freud. Your life has now become the scavenging of somebody else's efforts. And that… is just sad.

Again, if I was going to call someone out, it was going to be me. No shame in recognizing that. I feel fine with it, because I know that those paintings I have done are pages I have turned.  They are experiences that I have painted through, and I have moved one.  They were stepping stones in understanding who I am as a painter. I am not implying that other artists can´t have these same experiences and have them also become launching pads, but it worries me when galleries are quick to offer people a spot in their roster with work that feels awkwardly foreign.  

When you think about it, painting like somebody else, albeit not exactly like somebody else, is not that hard. What is impossible to replicate is the reasoning behind the paint strokes; the emotions that become decisions. Those will always be unique to each painter. That is why I’ve always felt that we as painters should just surrender to our lives and accept ourselves as exceptional beings with the potential of sharing fascinating ways of looking at the world.