Saturday, January 03, 2009

Can’t Get No Satisfaction

A couple of months ago an old friend from high school commented, “I have a good life but it’s not a satisfying life.” This comment became for me the gift that keeps on giving; it gave me something to obsess about. Like a large boulder in an open field I kept meandering around it. Looking at it from all angles trying to figure out why I recognized it. Why I am drawn to and intrigued by it. Among many other thoughts it reminded me of some stories about different artists. These may be urban myths but still are good stories.

The first is a story about the American artist, Billy Al Bengston. As the tale goes, it was said he was doing abstract paintings that had surfaces that were heavy and thick with paint. One day he came into his studio and stood in front of his most current painting. He reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a revolver and shot all of the bullets into the painting. He then turned and walked out of the studio. Shortly thereafter he began a series of paintings that became known as the “Chevron Series” a set of amorphous paintings that were smoothly airbrushed. It was said that with the heavy abstracts Bengston, “liked what he was doing (the process) but hated the results” while with the Chevron series he “hated what he was doing (process) but loved the results.”

Then there is the artist, Robert Irwin. In the 70’s he was doing semi-conceptual sculptures that were part of the architecture that played on the theme of light, time, space, and perception. He left NYC and moved out to southern California where he rented a street level warehouse space. It is said that he painted the interior of the space black except for the back wall, which was white. He covered all the windows and then drilled a hole in the door turning the space into a large pinhole camera. It was said that he spent a year sitting inside that space watching the inverted street scenes for a year. He seemed to need to change his way of looking at things.

In the 1970’s it was fairly common for art collector’s to pay for an artwork that had not yet been made, to place an order for a future work. The painter, Larry Poons had such a following for his tightly rendered “ellipse” paintings. One day he told his business manager to give all the money back because he was no longer happy doing the ellipse paintings and was going off in a new direction. He started to do large abstracts where, while the canvas was on the floor, he would spatter and pour the paint creating thick and fissured surfaces. These “poured’ paintings became highly successful and numerous other artist followed Poons’ lead in changing styles and directions.

So why the sudden and drastic changes, especially when everything seems to be going so well, when everything seems so good? Maybe we begin to discover that what we really want are things that lie on a deeper level. We begin to develop our psychological and spiritual natures so as to bring an order and meaning to the chaos that we perceive surrounds us. Reinhold Niebuhr (theologian, ethicist, and political analyst) teaches that “profound religion is an effort to answer the challenge of pessimism. It seeks a center of meaning in life which is able to include the totality of existence, and which is able to interpret the chaos of something which only provisionally threatens its cosmos and can ultimately be brought under its dominion.”

I told my friend I also have a good life. I have a good and wonderful spouse, children that I love, and a delightful grandson. Even with all of this I am not quite satisfied. I have a nagging sensation that there must be more. Happiness still eludes me no matter what I try. I no longer look for nor expect happiness and satisfaction rather I just keep trying to move forward, one day at a time, hoping that I’ll eventually find meaning, or at least stumble upon it (probably while looking in the wrong direction). Don’t beat yourself up over not being satisfied (I tried and it doesn’t work) it seems to be part of the human condition.

This dissatisfaction seems to me to be existential angst. This angst is what drives the arts and creativity. It is why so many artists eventually go completely off their meds, something I have often considered, or drink a lot or do drugs. This angst is why people become alcoholics or drug addicts; why people become workaholics; why people become conservative, fundamentalist religious zealots of any faith. This angst is what drove me, as a teenager, to the edge of the abyss to consider suicide. It is what compelled me to live a self-destructive life through my late 20’s. It is why I lived in a monastery for a year seeking spiritual direction and religious bliss (unsuccessfully). I didn’t really know what I was looking for but I knew when what I was doing didn’t fit. I’m 59 years old and I’m still trying things on to see if they fit; I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. As Justice Holmes used to say, “The aim of life is to get as far as possible from imperfection.” I know that I’ll never achieve it because I don’t believe there is perfection in this life. I don’t think that perfection, happiness, or being satisfied is static and serene. I see them as dynamic, growing, changing, and ever moving.

The pieces here are a variety of what I have been working on. The first is from one of my favorite hiking places. It is titled, "Birch Trees in Fall" and measures 24" X 36". It is oil on hardwood panel. The next is one of my figurative pieces. I have been playing with colored pencils and enjoying it. It measures about 34" X 20.5". The next is based on a theme of a dark wooded place. It measures 20.5" X 32" and is oil on prepared paper. The final piece is from a series of torsos that I have been doing. It measures 19.75" X 13.75" and is a combination of colored pencil and artist crayons.