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.


Kenichi Hoshine said...

Great post man. It's always fascinating to see that painters are coincidentally drawn to similar imagery no matter what their backgrounds are or where they hail from.

Alexander Reynolds said...

I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the whole subject matter. I absolutely adored your painting of the woman's legs complimented by the electric post. It reminds me of how my high school ceramics teacher used to talk about how she looked at the figure. She considered anything resembling a pole; vertical and static can be interpreted as a figure.

In response to your writing, I often use other painters I look up to improve myself. Asking myself; how do I layer the paint, where does this brush stroke go, or what colors should I use. It is a very difficult process when painting, but yet I don't want it to be an easy task. It allows me to have that sense of self gratification in the end. I want to soon be able to take what I've learned and apply my own philosophies, theories, and my own experiences into what I paint.

Anonymous said...

"Genius learns from nature, its own nature. Talent learns from art."

- Oscar Wilde

allan said...

I always greatly enjoy looking at images of your work shown and the writing .Are there any catalogues of your work and how would I obtain them ? .
with regards ,

N Xavier said...

i found this post to be quite amusing. I myself have just graduated from art school, and for my show i did a serious of portraits of close friends- i was trying to tell there store seen by me thorough movement, all all i got as reviews was "theres are great- they look just like Uribe"- kind of ironic dont you think?

Juan R Correa said...

I enjoyed your post.....and by that I mean not only your post “On originality” but the post in your “Cenicienta Bogotana”. However to be precise and honest about my visual preferences, if I had that picture in my possesion I would split it two and keep the two as real treasures. Those were my thoughts when I saw Cenicienta for the first time, a while ago. After reading your post and reviewing your picture they remain the same.

Anyway I do not want my comment to focus on posts nor my preferences but originality. I think you barely approached the subject on your writing. The problem between the post-like Cinderella and me is not lack of originality whatsoever, is a forced excess of visual and verbal information: a too-hard-try-to-appear-original artwork made out of two excellent pieces of fluent oil painting. Even the words work way better in separate pictures.

It seems to me that those thoughts and feelings that haunt you while you are in the midst of your creative process, despite the validity, importance or honesty they might represent, they have nothing to do with originality and even less with being a better painter. It is your fate to bear, analyze and decipher them.

Originality is a man made ghost created by the modern philosophy of art , another man-made beast, that terrorizes most of the artists from the XVIII century onwards. And it it still does not only due to the brute force within its evil and unavoidable conception but fueled by the convenient and malignant interests of art merchants and critics. Essentially, originality has to do with the mere fact that art pieces became merchandise items not cherished, revered creations with no commercial trade value. Originality is then a coin to be used to qualify/disqualify someone’s artwork in a world ruled by commercial trade, trends and fashion, oblivious of any idea that resembles canonic, classic beauty or simple, quiet and spontaneous natural purity.

So keep your painter tribulations as they are the core fire within the process of making art. Your unique wonderful art. Do not buy the story of lashing yourself with the whip of originality because you admire, follow, share or even copy works from predecesors or colleagues. Keep faithful to your own fairies and demons, those are “originaly” and unaviodably within. Forget about originality, you are already exceptional. Just keep following your nose: may the scent of life lead you.

Carolina Gómez Muñoz said...

!!!Increíble!!! Me sorprende porque es como otra persona la que escribe, otra distinta a la que conozco; y entonces reflexiono sobre lo compartimentalizada que puede ser la vida, casi esquizofrénica y pienso que uno se relaciona en ciertos círculos sociales a través de partes seleccionadas de la propia personalidad. Nunca había visto este lado tan profundo suyo y no crea que con eso le estoy diciendo que lo que conozco de usted me parece superficial.

Nunca he tenido duda de su genialidad, pero su trabajo se ve aún más genial con estas reflexiones que hace.

Ahora, lo más sorprende para mí y lo que más disfruté de su entrada, es su increíble manera de escribir: su don creativo se expande también a esta forma de expresión. Según parce, usted es artista para todo!! Pero, ¿Cómo escribe en español?, ¡me gustaría ver!

En propiedad intelectual, los abogados siempre tenemos debates jurídicos sobre "la originalidad", que es el concepto de base de los derechos de autor y de las patentes. También hay batallas jurídicas campales sobre lo que llamamos las "obras derivadas" ¿qué tanto es copiado y qué tanto nuevo? ¿es posible crear algo TOTALMENTE nuevo? ¿en qué punto la influencia artística se vuelve copia? Sobre esto hablan jueces y jurisconsultos y a veces se nos olvida la perspectiva del creador. Fue muy enriquecedor tenerla y saber que, como las leyes, ustedes los artistas tampoco tienen resuelta la cuestión.