The Painting Whisperer vs. The Anxiety of Abstraction

Take for a moment the spectrum of Realism and the raucous jazz of Abstraction in painting and slide somewhere in the middle. Over to the left is realism flexing its technical prowess, and it is impressive– posing in the sun like a young Arnold Schwarzennegger. But once the painter leaves it, when reality is tweaked or cracked open and abstraction seeps in, the mind wanders inside the crevasses and when done right, it sets the viewer free, free to interpret or imagine something greater than even what the painter had in store. The longer I paint, the more I leave realism and revere painters who ride that certain edge in between. Arnold looks so silly in that bathing suit anyway.

I have long cultivated the thought of artist as Painting Whisperer; that the better artist possesses some secret frequency to channel the right moves. When one can tune in better, the paintings will just fly out like songs or messages from a distant galaxy. Or like a novelist whose characters develop minds of their owns and “write the rest of the story” themselves. This is also a common fantasy among the critics and viewers not in the trenches. Perhaps Irving Stone helped start it in The Agony and the Ecstasy when he depicted the young Michelangelo coaxing the figures out of the marble slabs, setting them free. But it’s not so simple. How many film students studying Godard revel in some bizarre effect, only to find later that something spilled on the camera lens? It was an accident, dammit! But a great one, like discovering penicillin from the mold on cheese.

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Annie Lapin, “Cast Halving”, 2008, Oil on panel, 96 x 69 inches, Courtsey of Angles Gallery.

Annie Lapin is one such artist whose work lies somewhere in that amazing middle. Her recent paintings deftly disorient and bend the pitch of reality just enough to make you fall inside them. When I look at Annie’s work, I had projected that she must talk to her canvas, how else must these scenes come into being? I’m fascinated by what gets planned and tossed and when. But in talking with her, I learn, she is no painting whisperer– she is not the passive recipient of some canvas telling her what to do. No! She is Charlie Sheen starring in her own version of The Apocalypse, where every possibility is fraught with consequences, and each stroke, like Chaos’ butterfly wing, causes rainstorms elsewhere on the canvas. So the real conversation, then– the whispering– occurs less between artist and canvas and more between the viewer and the final work, which is exactly what great art should do. Her show, “Gruppology” opens tonight at the Angles Gallery in Santa Monica, CA.

KB: How do you start a painting, Annie? I see remnants of photographic imagery and reality but am not convinced that you’re looking at anything when you make it.

AL: On all of my larger works, I work from my head. It is a process of reacting to the image… layering, and allowing it to develop is if it were a photo in emulsion. I also do a lot of watercolor exercises, which tend to be diptychs on little pieces of paper. For these I often paint from photos of current events or other things that seem prevalent in the media. By doing this I get to recharge both my mind and my hand with the tropes of realism, quotations of photographic lighting and reformulations of the images that we all think we know so well. Then those things come out naturally when I compose my larger works on canvas, and I am more able to subvert them because I am not looking directly at a photograph.

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Annie Lapin, “Couple of Narcissists”, 2008, Oil on synthetic canvas, 51 x 30 inches, Courtesy of Angles Gallery.

When you’re working on the bigger canvases, do ever get the feeling that the paintings talk to you while you’re making them and tell you want they want done to them? Like a novelists who invents characters that start having minds of their own? When does that happen? All during or never?

AL: I wish my paintings would talk to me, but sadly, radio silence. It’s a process of trial and error as I search for that unique solution which will allow it to resonate in the way I am after.

KB: No kidding. I have full-blown arguments, wrestling matches and make-out sessions. I’ve been aspiring to be a “Painting Whisperer” trying to listen to the next move as much as I want my mind to control it.

AL: I wish it were that way, but it is definitely not a “painting whisperer” process. I have way way way too much anxiety to be a “painting whisperer.” I always feel the painting could go a million ways, I choose one, and typically, after the initial high, I feel miserable about it. And even after it’s “done” I could see a million ways to destroy it or subvert it, which I often feel compelled to do if the image is too resolved. Once the painting is “done” I am always sure there was another way I could have taken a painting… but I comfort myself by looking at it and just superimposing those ways on the canvas in my mind.

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