On Permanence

When you reflect upon the manner in which a traditional painting is developed, you realize that every decision the painter makes is based upon one thing – permanence.  We chose linen because we have more than 500 years of history letting us know the way in which this particular material has behaved. We chose mediums that with time will not alter the original colors, we chose paints that will not fade with exposure to light, we chose boards that are acid free and will not yellow.  We work in a particular order so paint doesn’t peel or crack. We make conscious choices to inject our paintings with decisions that are based on stability, hoping that the paintings will be durable, but also and perhaps more importantly, faithful to the original state in which the were produced.

Ever stop and wonder why we do this? Is the answer because we want future generations to look at our paintings as if they were unaltered by the passage of time?

Let the next generation make their own pictures” Rockwell famously stated. 

Rockwell’s statement is selfish at its core. Could you imagine if Rembrandt or Velazquez had been as carefree as Rockwell? We wouldn’t have today their paintings as objects of reference. But when you think about it a bit more, would it matter? Would it matter if we wouldn’t even know what we were missing? Wouldn’t it be like thinking about the hanging gardens of Babylon? We never saw them, but we can imagine they were beautiful because history, stories or myths told us they were beautiful. Would attempting to paint without ever seeing a Rembrandt make us lesser painters? Would it impede us from making solid, moving works of art?

I am obviously not lessening the impact a work of art can have in future generations. Las Meninas has been the object of countless interpretations through different mediums including sculpture, video, installation and of course painting. Appropriation in art is a fascinating endeavor and if the context of an original image was lost, the act of re-contextualization would be simply impossible.

A much simpler answer would have to do with the market of art. If somebody pays X amount of money for a painting, it is understandable that they wouldn’t want their investment to depreciate.  But I don’t want to get into this aspect, because it shouldn’t be an issue in the creative process.

What if we just accept that paintings, like ourselves, die. We as makers may even have a say in how long it takes them – they can die quicker or slower than we do. What if we were absolutely conscious of the fact the every single material that makes up a painting degrades through time – sadly we do not paint with McDonald’s burgers on top of Styrofoam.  We use materials that transform, that are brittle, that are sensitive; in many ways we use materials that are alive. So if we paint with “living materials” why do we want fixed, unalterable images?

I refuse to accept the argument of longevity. It is horribly pretentious. It’s akin to wanting your last name to never disappear; to thinking that the impact that a work of art may have will be relevant long after we are dead. I refuse to believe that we may think so highly of ourselves, especially when traditional painting is one of the most humbling acts I know of.

So what if instead of defying time, we embrace the fact that paintings are fragile and fleeting. What if we, working from our traditional roots, accept the delicateness of instability? What if we let the next generations decide what is relevant, what is important, and take out of the equation the idea of presuming we foresee the future significance of what we do?

How would painting be taught if we had no references? Would you paint on linen stretched on bars just because someone told you to do so?  I am aware these are impossible questions to answer, but they make me think about the why. Why do we work in the manner in which we do? Are we listening to ourselves or are we overly aware of what has been done before?

If we knew nothing, perhaps our senses would be sharper, our relations with the nature of our materials would be more intimate, and our intentions would be simpler. Perhaps.