Sometimes pictures come singly, sometimes in series, sometimes from a germ, sometimes from scratch, but always one thing leads to the next in a way that feels inevitable.
Most people assume that an artist begins with a coherent thought or idea and then, if it's a figurative work, basically just illustrates that idea, and if she's really, really deep, then the illustration might not actually be a picture of what it's a picture of but instead symbolize some specific other thing and, if the viewer has the secret decoder ring or museum wall text, they will be able to figure out the "correct" interpretation.
A stranger wandered in off the street a couple of days ago, spent some time looking at a large drawing that I was working on of a bunch of old naked guys fighting each other with pink sticks, and asked, "What do they represent?" How do I answer that? Do I say, oh, they represent the fighting in Iraq or Thermopylae or the cock-up last night down at Joe's? What's the point? They're not real, so my thoughts, even my really, really deep thoughts, about them carry no more weight than anyone else's.
In addition, the elements which people usually interpret as narrative are more often the product of the composition than vice versa. If there is a spot of red in a certain place it is more likely there because I wanted red than because I wanted blood. Composition comes first. The second most interesting part happens as the abstract skeleton gradually takes on its figurative flesh.
In 2002 I bought the ruins of a set of beautiful smoke-damaged nineteenth-century leather-bound books: Reports of Explorations and Surveys, which had been salvaged from the last library fire of the legendary Texas antiquarian book dealer, John Jenkins, shortly before his violent murder/suicide (still debated) in 1989. Inside the books were hundreds of odd and beautiful, off-kilter and moldy lithographs of birds and fish, snakes and plants, rats, moles, and, best of all . . . black bird heads. No bodies, just heads, which leapt off the pages and attached themselves, instantly and quite sharply in my mind's eye, to curvilinear black bodies stuffed with geometric shapes on a white background. The images were so overwhelming that I became deaf for a minute or two. The man who was selling the books spoke as, one after another, he handed over the sooty volumes. His lips moved, but I literally couldn't hear.
The geometric shapes led me to study Russian constructivism and, from there, to make the paintings which collectively became The Murder of Kasimir Malevich. The title came from the black birds, a "murder of crows" being the same as a "pride of lions" or a "wake of buzzards."
Starting with a pile of cut boards, a parallel ruler, and a handful of ancient plastic triangles found in the back of a drawer, I drew shapes endlessly until I dreamed geometry at night. During the day the background noise was continuous news of the anthrax attacks which had followed hard on the heels of 9/11. Fear and speculation were rampant as to all the possible ways in which various nightmarish biological agents could be weaponized and distributed. In Texas death seemed most likely to be delivered by crop duster.
Strangely these fears dovetailed with my reading at the time about Malevich's theory of the "additional element" (or "supplemental element"), which he came up with while he was director of the State Institute of Artistic Culture in Leningrad and teaching in what he called the "Department of Bacteriology of Art." According to his theory, there are specific shapes in art (which he and his students isolated and diagrammed) which he believed could, like a tuberculosis bacillus, literally "infect" an artist who uses them. At different times both he and his second wife contracted the "white death." She died of it.
The ways in which events collide with composition to make a painting is a funny thing. During most of the time I was working on The Murder of Kasimir Malevich #8 (later nicknamed "Cropduster"), the two yellow triangles and the black bird head were its reasons for being. All the big shapes had been worked out and the painting was almost finished when it became apparent that it needed narrow black shapes and small open white shapes to complete the balance. Because I'd been looking at charts of Malevich's "additional elements," I stole one of the sickle shapes from his diagrams of infectious art to supply the narrow black shape and then repeated it, making wings. For the open shapes letters seemed right, so, since I had just finished reading a long terrifying article about the stunningly adaptive properties of the smallpox virus, the letters V A R I O L A suggested themselves to me. The very last thing was to almost accidentally paint a chute on the bird, and only then came the realization that it was a lethal crop duster. It sounds ridiculous even to me that it should be such an ass-backwards process, but it almost always is.
In the large 2007 graphite and gouache drawings of the pink-bottomed guys hitting each other (Fight Club, Fight Club II, and The Revisionist), the angles of the arm and leg bones of all the fighting men, and thus their positions in relation to each other and to the rectangle of the paper, are all governed by the tangle of triangles underneath. The flesh came later.
In all the pink cake paintings so far (One Pink Cake, Flounder, Three Pink Cakes, Happy Fucking Birthday, and Watch for Falling Rocks), the cakes are there primarily because they are about the same size as human heads. Those paintings began with abstract geometric drawings of groupings of triangles formed by an overall design composed of circles and ovals (cakes and heads) intersected by straight lines.
On the flip representational side, the trees and sticks of Revelations, Bivouac, and Crusades are pink because one morning at dawn last winter, I opened my eyes to find that the sun's rays coming up over the church roof next door had turned the bark of the leafless pecan trees in the backyard bright pink. That pink then strayed from the trees, to the sticks, to the cakes, to the butt-cheeks of the fighting guys.
While all the "art" concerns—new media/old media/, conceptual/aesthetic, abstract/representational, etc.—are great fun to talk about, they seem sort of beside the point when you actually get down to work.
In the last few years I've begun to notice a little "click" that I can "hear" as each shape (or color, volume, line, etc.) falls into place. Because of its precise nature (it's either right or not right—there's no "close") my guess is that there's a mathematical basis to it. I think someone, though not me, could write an equation defining it.
There are also shapes inside of shapes, patterns inside of patterns, and when the main composition of a painting is more or less settled, I happily pull up a chair, put on magnifying spectacles, pick up smaller brushes, and re-enter the painting, this time treating each square inch or so as if it were a tiny abstract canvas.
Just as the daily practice of drawing gradually builds up the communication between hand and eye, in the same physical way, pitting a small piece of paper text against a hunk of wood or iron in collage is something you can practice and get better at. Arranging different-sized spheres on various-sized open planes, then various-sized closed planes and so on, over and over, is almost endlessly absorbing. The mathematical relationship between the spheres, whatever it is, is like something I already know but can't quite remember, or something not actually lost so much as serially misplaced. Whatever it is, it's also there in everyday things like cooking, gardening, or idly arranging sticks and rocks in the grass. No matter what you're constructing—a painting, a song, a story, a stone wall, minestrone, whatever—there is a pure satisfaction to be felt in "hearing" those little click echoes when you get it right.
It took several weeks and thousands of combinations to arrange the balls of snakes in Axis, Falling Snakes, and Trick Snakes. I would twine them one way and they would be wrong, then the next and the next and the next . . . wrong, wrong, wrong. Then, suddenly "click," they would be right, and I had to get them glued down quickly before they slipped out of whack again. By "learning" the snakes I was also, for the future, learning the tangle of human limbs in the various fighting men, the curves of the tree limbs in Revelations, the eddies of the water in Adrift, and so on.
The abstract aspects of my work I think of like the bassline or rhythm section, and laid on top of that is the daily input of current events, books I've read, whatever thoughts are occupying me at the time. That's the melody, or figuration. If the two weave in and out of each other in just the right way then the work is good. If either aspect is out of balance then the work is unsuccessful.
Take, for instance, the painting Frogpond, which began with two irregular charcoal blobs on a large canvas. The blobs might have been inspired by an illustration of cells dividing, or maybe the shapes of rocks in a river or a pattern of steam drippings on the bathroom wall. I don't remember. When I drew a horizon line at the top of the canvas the blobs turned into figures standing chest-deep in an ocean, so I added battleships on the horizon (my father was building a model of the battleship Potemkin at the time). But the straight line bothered me so I curved it, erased the battleships, and the curved line changed the ocean first into a planet and then into a pond. By then, I'd been working for a couple of years on learning a new (for me) way of depicting water, having been inspired by a book called The Adventures of Hamza, a series of beautifully intricate adventure paintings commissioned by the teenage Mughal emperor Abkar when he came to power in the middle of the sixteenth century.
Because it was a pond and the men were by that time pink, I added frogs with their pink and white bellies to make smaller spots of the same intensity and color and then water lilies for the same reason, all in triangles. Maybe the frogs were just there because I wanted pink and white blobs in a certain arrangement, but also I was thinking of frogs, because I had just been reading about the alarming worldwide drop in the frog population caused by our spilled chemical waste seeping into their vulnerable permeable skin. For whatever reason, the crucified frog at the top of the painting was one of the last elements when, too late, I realized that the top center pink and white spot needed to be higher, but by then the painting was a month and a half old so there was no going back. The only visual solution I could think of was to raise him up. He looked stupid just jumping so I put him on a cross, which of course added a whole new basket of questions on top of the first layer. Are the men polluting the pond? What is their relationship to each other? Are they farting? Is that why the frogs are all dead? Are they dead or have they just fainted from the fumes? Or are they faking? Has the crucified frog died for the sins of the chubby pink men (they look uncomfortable and perhaps a little guilty), or has he died for the sins of the other frogs? Can frogs sin? Of course none of my ruminations on pollution or frog sin have any more validity than whatever the viewer brings to the painting. That's why it's art, and not homework.