As a painter living in New York City for almost 20 years, I often stop and ask myself, “What the hell am I doing?” It’s not the high cost of living, the small spaces, or the relentless sensory bombardment that give me pause. These aspects of daily life in New York are the price to pay for the unique cultural bonanza that is the city’s pay off. But literally, if I am spending nearly every day alone in a room making paintings, what the hell am I doing? What are these things I care so much about? Where do they come from?
Pressed, I would say I paint rooms. Even when the paintings are merely planes of color arranged in space, they are rooms. They are rooms real and imagined, rooms I have inhabited, and rooms that never existed. By layering geometric forms of vivid color, structures assemble into familiar arrangements to suggest dwellings. Planes crop up to create floors, wall-like surfaces, eaves and overhangs. However, these architectural notions are never allowed to remain whole. They fracture, split apart, and fall away to reveal other chambers or glimpses of the outside world. But why rooms? Where do these rooms come from?
It’s not surprising that the crowded and complex spaces of Manhattan have informed my paintings. But I’m not a native New Yorker. Born in Iowa and raised in Texas, the light and air in my work come from a different place. The crazy thought occurred to me that perhaps, I can trace my style to a single image. Of course the totality of my influences doesn’t come from one single image, but maybe, one painting, more than any other, made such a strong impression on me, that it has influenced the very look of my art. If so, it must be a very powerful painting, most likely one of the classic interiors on the order of Velasquez’s Las Meninas, or Matisse’s The Red Studio. Maybe it has the psychological impact of Gorky’s drawing, Summation or Bacon’s Pope in a box, Number VII of Eight Studies for a Portrait. Nothing of the sort.
The crazy thought occurred to me that perhaps, I can trace my style to a single image.
I have come to the conclusion that I am indebted to a curious but not very ambitious painting I absorbed while watching unending hours of TV in my youth. Can it be that of all the heroes in art, and the extraordinary talents of my contemporaries, I look back to the jumbled patches of paint in an unknown French painting from the 1950s that I saw while watching The Electric Company and Gilligan’s Island? Understand, I watched a lot of television, and thus had that painting, if not fixed in my attention, just about centered in my gaze for countless hours.
The painting is by the French artist Michel Mousseau. It depicts an interior, perhaps a living room or even the painter’s studio. A procession of red and ochre shapes lumber across the middle section of the light-filled interior. The top section is broken up by three vertical white areas separated by patches of grey reading as windows looking out at an urban cityscape devoid of skyscrapers. No landmarks are present but the impression of a European city with ornate stone buildings of similar height is clear. The sky is grey and cold. The nature of the objects piled around this room are anyone’s guess, but it’s no stretch to discern a table top, couch, lamps, garments or perhaps paintings stacked against one another. A slight opening in the foreground allows the viewer a chance to clamber through the crowded space. Patches of color in deliberate vertical brush strokes congregate on top of quick bold sketch lines that skitter about underneath these forms. There is virtually no editing in the piece and it appears to have been painted in one go. The light grey undercoat shows through, giving the painting light and breath. The general feeling is of a casual messiness. The forms are comfortable with themselves, almost cozy in the manner they lay about each other. The edges of the picture are grey and white, filling the painting’s room with a cool winter light.
The painting hung in the “music room” of my childhood home. It was called the “music room” because it contained a piano, which no one played, and a stereo, which I loved. But in reality, the TV was the room’s main draw. The room was not too large but open and full of light. One wall was entirely made of plate glass. The TV, a Sony Trinitron behemoth, sat on top of the right unit of wooden Klipsch Heresy speakers. The speakers flanked a large mid-century Danish Hi-Fi console, whose sliding doors opened to reveal albums and hidden top doors gave way to a sunken Dual turntable and Pioneer amplifier. To the right of this grouping was a picture window looking out on a quiet Dallas neighborhood; to the left hung the painting of the messy Parisian interior.
Every day for years I spent serious time in that room watching TV. I watched so much TV that one time, after a Sunday trip with my mom and my brother, we returned to discover the TV on the music room floor, smashed with its tube busted out. Glass and cracked plastic lay spewed about the room as evidence of my father’s frustration with the gap between himself and his family, and his indirect approach to personal communication. Nothing like this had ever happened before, nor did it happen again. My father was a tall but slight man of significant intellect, not given to impulse or being physical. If only for a brief time, the seclusion and tranquility of the room was shattered along with the TV. We cleaned it up and never spoke a word about it. Not long after that, a much better TV appeared in the spot to the right of the painting. The viewing of TV and the painting went on like nothing ever happened.
I can’t say if my paintings will ever garner the amount of attention I have paid M. Mousseau’s, but I am sure, if hung in a room somewhere it would receive at least a small amount of someone’s gaze every day. The Mousseau painting now hangs in the living area of my family’s apartment. It hangs as a reflection of our white-walled loft, its brown couch littered with blankets and winter coats, a drying rack slung with clothes, books and kids homework piled on the dining table, a sleeping dog and her toys splayed across the floor, and its tall windows separated by white columns looking out on a cold and grey sky over the Garment District.
Glass and cracked plastic lay spewed about the room as evidence of my father’s frustration with the gap between himself and his family, and his indirect approach to personal communication.