When I thought about preparing this talk I kept thinking how I can’t explain the meaning of my paintings – so finally I decided to tell you about that.
The minute I feel myself defining and judging what I am doing, the image I am making seems to harden into a parody of itself and die. So when you ask me what these paintings mean, or why I painted them, I can’t tell you. I would be guessing, and I like other people’s guesswork about it much more than mine, it’s way more interesting and revealing. It’s a strange double-bind I find myself in, because of course I am limiting the image, crowding the entire surface of the canvas with detail, leaving nothing open to interpretation. It is the opposite of a blank canvas. But that is exactly it. There is literally no space for interpretation, it is all being shown to you, and the more I reveal, the less narrative there is behind it. So any meaning applied to it seems to slip off. Words do not work. It can be interpreted as much as life can be, which doesn’t seem to be very much at all, for me at least.
When I make an image, I do not feel I have any control over what goes into it. I wait and see what happens. If I impose my will on it, it no longer feels authentic or respectful. If I impose my will on the canvas I am imposing my will on you, I’m lecturing you, trying to force you to see things my way.
I don’t know what I am doing. Painting the way I do takes up a lot of time, and that’s probably part of it. It seems ridiculous to say that the very time-consuming labour of it is necessary to me. I guess it makes me feel as if I have a purpose, even though I also know I might just as well not do it. I think I feel I need to earn my place in the world – just how it worked out through all the ups and downs of life. I can’t take any credit for it, because it doesn’t feel like a choice, and all the work serves me as much as I am serving it. It is an attempt to recapture a lost connection to the world. Sometimes I am so aware of how limited I am. It is impossible to be more mature than you are, or better, or more clear-sighted, and each small step is peeling away another layer, and what I would love is absolute conviction, absolute clarity. Impossible to fake.
I have just carried on doing what I did as a child, it’s been one long continuous stream of making pictures to feel a sense of connectedness. Painting this way is a wordless exclamation. Each tiny decision is based on whether it feels and looks right or not, but I can’t really define what makes it feel right. It is what it is, and I am not making any great claims for it. Sometimes people get cross with it because they hate that it’s not about anything, and that I just carry on with all this realism. This fiddle-faddle, this knitting. It is as if realism must adhere to a whole lot of rules that no longer apply in other forms of art-making.
Realism is dangerous, because virtuosity is not an end in itself, and it so often can appear that way. It can seem as if the artist is claiming that their skill is a form of truth. It can seem terribly uneducated, or reactionary. The idea that representing how things look is the same as representing truth has been exploded long ago through revolution. And it is so hard to get beyond revolution as an end in itself. Look at South African politics. Virtuosity can be a trap for those who confuse realism with reality and with real art, whatever that may be. Virtuosity lays itself open to rage, scorn, confusion, it’s more radical than the most radical-seeming, bloodletting performance piece. Representational skill can be a hindrance to authenticity, and I watch in amazement as I trip myself up at every turn succumbing to tricks and the seduction of drama, succumbing to my own ego. Who cares if you can paint something that looks real? It is totally banal. There is no worth in that, except as a kind of sport, an exercise in hand-eye coordination. Now painting something that seems to contain reality – that is truly moving. It is something I aspire to, one day. And it can be achieved through any medium and in any way. This is my way to try, the way I learned as a child.
I have been reading a book called The Gift, by Lewis Hyde. He quotes Rilke, who called the act of creating a ‘wise blindness’ that requires the squandering of the self, not the careful hoarding of egotistical intentions, but a leap into darkness. He talks about creativity as a gift, and mentions gift economies in which a gift is passed along from one tribe to the next, or one individual to the next, not necessarily the same gift though.
I see that this is what defines a gift and also any act of creativity: that it keeps being passed along from one person to another. It has nothing to do with pride. The minute it is no longer moving, but rather hoarded up, it dies. It becomes a commodity, and an image dies on the canvas, freezes up.
Creating is an act of humble faith, and I don’t mean religious faith, though for some people, of course it is also that, and has been that. For example Stanley Spencer said “Painting is saying ‘ta’ to God”. I think I know what he means: he feels a profound gratitude at being allowed to take part in the fabric of life. I think some of my favourite paintings ever are his simple portraits of gardens in his small village. They seem to contain nothing except themselves.
If any work contains this sense of something real, it will communicate it to others, whether they know anything about art or not, because it has nothing to do with art. It has to do with life. To receive it, it’s necessary to remain open and intentionless, maintain a kind of emptiness of will and follow signs and small visions, all while being prepared to do a work that in itself is worthless, but serves to create the essence out of illusion, out of thin paint and canvas, or words, or notes that fade into silence.
The Japanese artist Hokusai, who lived in the late 18th to mid 19th centuries, describes the unimportance of the individual piece, the life-task of apprehending the world. “From the age of five I have had a mania for sketching the form of things. From about the age of fifty I produced a number of designs, yet of all I drew prior to the age of seventy there is nothing of great note. At the age of seventy-two I finally apprehended something of the true quality of birds, animals, insects, fish and of the vital nature of grasses and trees. Therefore, at eighty I shall have made some progress, at ninety I shall have penetrated even further the deeper meaning of things, at one hundred I shall have become truly marvellous, and at one hundred and ten, each dot, each line shall surely possess a life of its own”.
No single painting matters, and when people ask me if it’s hard to let them go out of my studio after all that work, I can honestly say that it isn’t, that the whole reason I am doing them is to let them go out of my studio, from which moment they have a life of their own. I have thrown them into the world, not for anyone in particular, but to be seen, and this is what artists do, we put it out there. It is the act of keeping it moving that matters, throwing it into a stream of communal currency, from which, out of a different place, the next image emerges. We only exist in relation to eath other and every thing. And there’s nothing new.
It’s the act of making and letting it go that feels good, it feels like being a conduit for life. The paintings have a life of their own and I can look at them like I would look at my own past, as something that has happened, unchangeable and outside of myself.
Right now I am working on a piece with eleven panels, which will hang all the way around a large room. I am making an arcadia, a place full of leaves, secret places, darknesses, and if you stand in the middle of the room, it will be as if you are in the middle of a folly, looking out. A folly is a human, ornamental construction with no practical purpose. But beyond it is the indescribable richness of the world, where every tiny leaf contains the order and beauty of the whole. It is like a Garden of Eden, from which we are forever separated, standing on the threshhold but unable to enter, although we long to return. But bounded by our fears, we find it impossible. We sublimate this longing into art-making, love, addiction.
Hyde mentions a lithuanian folk tale, in which the riches which the fairies give mortals all turn to paper as soon as they are measured or counted, and also a story where a barrel of inexhaustible ale runs dry when a maid removes the cork and looks inside, to see only cobwebs. So the artist is lost in self-consciousness, he says. If you try to understand too hard, meaning will slip away. It might be best not to pry. The less we understand, the more we see, and objects and people lose their scale of value, and everything in this world has a kind of wordless power. Everything in this world forms a unity. To remain open to the act of creating is to use insignificance to make completeness, where each tiny brushstroke or act, meaningless in itself, serves a vibratory whole.