2020 Suite

"2020 Suite No. 1" - Carraher 2020

2020 Suite No. 1
2020.  Acrylic and ink on canvas, 11 x 14 in.

I’ve been working at a relatively rapid clip these last few months, with several pieces usually in process at once.  I’ve been frankly voracious in my need to make things happen in the studio, almost like needing a drug high – not surprising, I suppose, considering the sense of futility that drains so much of our lives at this time.

Having multiple pieces in progress contrasts with how I worked for many years in pastel.  In that medium I most often worked with the piece flat on the table, applylng the pastel with a brush, and due to the fragility of the surface I needed to keep a lot of clear space around.  So there wasn’t much room to have more than one thing going on at once.  These pieces also tended to take more time in the planning and preparation than the execution.  Here is an example from 2016, from the Additional Dimensions series which derived from gesture drawings of deteriorating homesteads in my neighborhood:

"Three Walls" - Carraher2016

Three Walls
2016.  Pastel on sandpaper, 12 x 22 in.

Clearly my work now often skips that planning and preparation stage, as I increasingly prize spontaneity directly on the substrate.  With pastels the spontaneity usually went into the informal gestural sketch from which the painting was developed.  I did draw directly with the pastels at times however – as in this homestead from 2007:

:Blue-Green Cabin" - Carraher 2007

Blue-Green Cabin
2007.  Pastel on paper, 18 x 24 in.

…or this one from the same year:

"Desert Gothic" - Carraher 2007

Desert Gothic
2007.  Pastel and charcoal on paper, 22-1/4 x 13-1/2 in.

Those seem like idyllic times, now, but of course they weren’t.  But they were easier.  They were easier.

The Path Forward

"Jul11" - Carraher 2019

Jul11
2019.  Acrylic and paper on panel, 14 x 11 in.

A favorite collage from last year.  It’s on a heavy wood panel and feels very stable and solid to me.  I guess I wanted that today.   The black and colored papers are from my cherished stash of ancient construction paper that I’ve had for many years.  The white/ecru bits are cartridge and typing papers, and there’s a slice of silver tissue paper, as well.

The design of the painted background is borrowed directly from a pastel I did at least 20 years ago that got damaged, but I’ve always liked the combination of colors and shapes.  So it showed up again here, in acrylic.

I love this piece.  It feels so stable and strong, I almost think I could stand on it.  A stepping stone into a better future.

bell poems

"Bell Poem No. 7" - Carraher 2020

Bell Poem No. 7
2020.  Acrylic on canvas, 20 x 10 in.

So yes:  “bell poems”.  When I started creating these canvases a couple months ago I wasn’t sure where they were going, and I’m still not, but the thought of them as bell poems has persisted.  So now they have titles. 

What do they have in common?  They all start as big calligraphic gestures in black on white.  Some then gain another color, and maybe some more white or black.  All on 10 x 20-inch canvases – some horizontal, some vertical.  This was the first: 

"Bell Poem No. 1 (Headlong)" - Carraher 2020

Bell Poem No. 1 (Headlong)
2020.  Acrylic on canvas, 10 x 20 in. 

The Charioteer

"The Charioteer" - Carraher 2019The Charioteer
2019.  Acrylic on canvas, 11 x 14 in.

An improvisation from 2019.  Reminding us to hold fast to our empowerment and to our hope.  To not let chaos overwhelm us but to push forward with our shared strength and the strength of our ancestors.   Stay strong, stay steady, my friends. 

Wifredo Lam/200,000

"The Warrior (Personnage avec Lezzard)" - Wifredo Lam

The Warrior (Personnage avec Lezzard)
Wifredo Lam, 1948.  Oil on burlap. 

In a lecture given by abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell in 1949, he refers almost in passing to the American racism suffered by prominent Cuban surrealist Wifredo Lam:

The conditions under which an artist exists in America are nearly unbearable; but so they are everywhere in modern times.  Sunday last I had lunch, in a fisherman’s inn in Montauk overlooking Gardiner’s Bay, with Wifredo Lam, the Cuban and Parisian painter, who is half-Chinese, half-Negro; he has difficulty in remaining in this country because of the Oriental quota; I know he is humiliated on occasion in New York, for example, in certain restaurants.  He kept speaking to me of his admiration of America, asking me what American painters thought of this and that, and I answered as best I could; but a refrain that ran through his questions is less easy to answer, whether artists were always so “unwanted.”  I replied that I supposed that artists were more “wanted” in the past when they spoke for a whole community, that they became less “wanted” as their expressions because individual and separate; but since I had never had the sensation of belonging to a community, it was difficult for me to imagine being “wanted.”  This is not wholly true; we modern artists constitute a community of sorts; part of what keeps me going, part of my mystique is to work for this placeless community.  Lam and I parted advising each other to keep working ; it is the only advice one painter ever gives another.  — from a lecture given during symposium “French Art vs. U.S. Art Today”, Provincetown, Massachusetts, 1949

I take Motherwell’s point about not feeling part of a community and therefore “wanted”.  But I wonder if he might have more easily imagined being a part of a community if he had been part of one that was “unwanted” by birth, rather than being the White son of a banker who put him through Ivy League universities.   

We have now passed 200,000 dead from covid-19 in the United States.  This persisting catastrophe is welded to another constant in this country:  the systemic racism that continues to shape our national outcomes.  Those who doubt or deny the prevalence or lethality of the pandemic must surely be insulated from communities of color, where the losses are outrageously high. 

Is it possible that at least a portion of these deaths do not constitute a crime against humanity, in the face of careless and, now we find, perhaps purposeful neglect on the part of the Trump Administration?   Will they never be held accountable for those lives lost?  

It is a long, long path, this journey out of our national racism.  Maybe we’ll never get there.  But along the way are the gravestones of now 200,000 Americans dead of covid-19, among them far too many people of color. 

"Plague Faces No. 12" - Carraher 2020

Plague Faces No. 12
2020.  Acrylic on canvas. 12 x 16 in.

I paint this series to recognize those who have died or suffered grave loss in this crisis, and, further, to accuse those who have knowingly, willfully, or carelessly pursued polices, actions, and inactions that allowed these deaths and suffering to happen and who continue to do so at this moment.

To respect the inquiry

"Untitled (9 5 20)" - Carraher 2020

Untitled (9 5 20)
2020.  Acrylic on canvas, 11 x 14 in. 

It’s been difficult to keep perspective in the studio lately.  Now that I have more time to work I’m producing a lot, and it’s dismaying how much of it is really not very good.  The piles of failed or misfired work jumbled everywhere has at times left me with a sense of actual nausea, almost a vertigo.  Today I had to remind myself that the inquiry  – the process of undertaking things I don’t know if I can do, journeys whose destination is unclear – is necessary and must be respected on its own terms.  I have to remind myself that it is the hunt into the unknown that matters — the only way to find what might be there, that which one can’t dream of yet but can only feel.  And of course, even when one fails to capture anything worthwhile, that quest is nevertheless how one learns, develops skills, understands what one has or has not mastered. 

The work above I feel good about.  It’s one of those that gave me subtle leads from the beginning about what step to take next, leads I had the sense to follow, and in the end it gives me a deep satisfaction.  It has that “complex of qualities whose feeling is just right…”.   For me, at least.  I really couldn’t guess if anyone else might find it worthwhile; it is a handicap not being able to show original work to others for extended periods, such as we’re trapped in now.  One more reason for the difficulty keeping perspective. 

From the Infinite Background of Feeling

Madame Curie
2020.  Acrylic on canvas, 8 x 10 in.

Small canvas finished last week.  Brushed black over rolled white and yellow ochre.

The renowned abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell, whose work I much admire, was eloquent on the role of feeling in art:

The aesthetic is the sine qua non for art:  if a work is not aesthetic, it is not art by definition.  But in this stage of the creative process, the strictly aesthetic — which is the sensuous aspect of the world — ceases to be the chief end in view.  The function of the aesthetic instead becomes that of a medium, a means for getting at the infinite background of feeling in order to condense it into an object of perception.  We feel through the senses, and everyone knows that the content of art is feeling; it is the creation of an object for sensing that is the artist’s task; and it is the qualities of this object that constitute its felt content.  Feelings are just how things feel to us; in the old-fashioned sense of these words, feelings are neither “objective” nor “subjective,” but both, since all “objects” or “things” are the result of an interaction between the body-mind and the external world.  “Body-mind” and “external world” are themselves sharp concepts only for the purposes of critical discourse, and from the standpoint of a stone are perhaps valid but certainly unimportant distinctions.  It is natural to rearrange or invent in order to bring about states of feeling that we like, just as a new tenant refurnishes a house.

…[The artist’s] task is to find a complex of qualities whose feeling is just right — veering toward the unknown and chaos, yet ordered and related in order to be apprehended. — Beyond the Aesthetic (1946)

Endurance

Cleopatra’s Complicated Flotilla
2019  Acrylic on paper, 9 x 12 in. 

So it’s complicated, Life.  These days.  Hard.  So let’s not talk about that, for just a moment. 

Instead, here’s a favorite painting that’s not hard.  Two winters ago I was trying out some new brushes on some cheap watercolor paper, and the results amused me.  Things just kept happening and in the end I was quite fond of it, so much so that it actually hangs in my studio.  Partly to remind me of things I can do when I’m stuck, and partly just because it makes me feel good, which is always handy when you’re working on stuff. 

In these cursed days of dread and sorrow let’s remember that the rich and powerful Cleopatra had her hard times, too, rather famously.  As has Egypt, though it still endures, after a fashion.  And, of course, the Nile is the very definition of endurance, Aswan Dam notwithstanding.  The long view is very helpful these days, I find.  It may not tell you better times are ahead, but at least it reminds you that bad times have always been part of the deal.