Many of my paintings involve narrative. Even my more abstract work is, I believe, narrative in character. If there is any one tendency that runs through all experiences in life, whether waking or dreaming, it is the will to narrate. To tell the story is part of the mind’s process. Sometimes the stories we create have a linear quality, at other times they emerge almost as a riddle. But, always, there is story. As has been said of Scheherazade’s mindset in one of my favorite texts, One Thousand and One Nights: “Narrate or die.” That may seem a bit extreme, but I think the situation is often just that.
I once came across a series of case studies of automobile accidents, strange accounts in which the victims attempted to describe the moment before impact. They really stuck with me. In every instance, the individuals portrayed that instant before the crash as one in which time slowed and, oddly enough, they found themselves telling the stories of their accidents before those accidents actually happened. The story function, it seems, allowed them all a measure of control, of sense-making in the face of something overwhelming that was unfolding very, very quickly. It struck me as an extreme instance of the human narrativizing impulse, which is, on some level, a means of organizing the chaos of the world, of making sense of non-sense (and by that I do not mean “nonsense” in the conventional meaning of the word).
Given all of this, I suppose it should be no surprise that I think painting is never outside of narrative. No matter how far I venture beyond the figurative tradition and into what people might think of as abstraction or, to borrow a historical term, a surrealism of some kind, narrative is still at work. And a big part of what interests me is just how narrative asserts itself as one escapes into worlds that seem beyond the reach of conventional meaning. The world of the fairy tale, one that has gripped me from the time I was very young, seems a particularly good parallel to what I often explore in my painting. In that realm the world of sense erupts into something very different—but it is, importantly, a world of heightened story, where every thing, person, and word has extra weight to it. Much like the territory of dreams that so fascinated Freud and Jung, the fairy tale gives us a forest of symbols to walk through. These stories force us to see things differently as they pull us through their webs of tangled meaning. This same effect can make the visual arts a place of great and, I would say, useful strangeness.
In an introduction to a book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, A.S. Byatt wrote: “The best single description I know of the world of fairy tale is that of Max Luthi who describes it as an abstract world, full of discrete, interchangeable people, objects, and incidents, all of which are isolated and are nevertheless interconnected, in a kind of web or network of two dimensional meaning. Everything in the tales appears to happen entirely by chance – and this has the strange effect of making it appear that nothing happens by chance, that everything is fated.”
Reading that passage, I thought, “This is the place I often feel myself in when I’m painting.” In fact, that short description of the fairy tale, with its play between things seeming to happen “entirely by chance” and the ultimate feeling that “nothing happens by chance, that everything is fated,” is of particular interest to me. The images, figures, and spaces in my paintings tend to be somewhere between those poles as I work. But, ultimately, the end result should crystallize, not as a perfectly resolved work of art but, somewhat differently, as a thing that seems “fated” to be just it is. As we read fairy tales we need to deal with the non-sense of what they give us (talking animals, straw transformed into gold, houses made of sweets, and so forth) and bring it all into some kind of order, some kind of sense. If that same reading process is at the heart of everything we do, often indiscernibly, whether in a car crash or as we walk down the street to buy milk, I am interested in bringing it to the fore, making that process both the subject of my paintings and a way to perceive them.
The paintings that I make today don’t have much to do with to do—at least directly– with fairy tales, the world of dreams, or automobile accidents. But they do share many of the qualities associated with the fact of storytelling as a primary function of the human mind. Through color, collage, the interplay of deep and flattened space, pictorial devices associated with a figurative tradition, and more, I attempt to go into those moments between sense and non-sense, when storytelling is at its most urgent. And while the aim is create work that has that “fated” effect, I always strive to expose the process of narrative, of meaning-making that leads up to it. There is chance, there are mistakes and experimentation, but, in the end, I would love for the result to be that it appears as if “everything is fated,” even as the mystery of what precedes that fated effect remains with the viewer.