Sunday, May 28, 2017

Entry - 5.28.17

There is not a particle of life which does not bear poetry within it.
                                                                                      Gustave Flaubert

You have to be pretty romantic to do what I do... to succumb to it.  If you thought about it too much, you'd stop.
                                                                                       Peter Doig

Over 30 years ago, while working part-time as a private contractor at an organization (that shall remain nameless), I was offered regular, full-time employment.  I had just completed my MFA and expected to focus my energies on establishing for myself a precarious foothold in the NYC art scene.  So I turned down the offer, hoping that doing so wouldn’t jeopardize my current gig on whose income my continued solvency depended.  My immediate supervisor was leaving the company, and our unit head was desperate to fill his position rapidly since a fairly critical business need would be put at risk in his absence.  So I was approached a second time, questioned regarding my reluctance to take the position and asked to present my own terms.  I requested a generous but what I thought reasonable annual salary and, most importantly, proposed that I would work three days a week, a schedule that would provide me sufficient time to pursue my art career.  While my requirements were being considered by the various echelons of management in the organization, a fellow employee came to my cubicle and asked what terms I had requested.  When I told him, he laughed heartily and informed me that “they would never go for it.”   I shrugged my shoulders and responded, “That’s fine with me.”  I wasn’t so sure that I wanted a “real” job anyway.  Maybe I sensed that with regular, year-round employment, my commitment to my artwork would inevitably wane.  Within a few days, I got a counterproposal.  My salary demand was accepted conditionally, and I could work a four day week provided I made up the fifth day’s hours during my other days of employment.  It was not what I had hoped for, but I recognized it was a pretty sweet deal all the same.  My life as a permanent, salaried employee had begun.

Transitioning into my new position, one that required fairly robust computer skills and an understanding of government regulations, was actually a challenge.  My predecessor in the position held a Master’s Degree in Computer Science, and my educational background was in Studio Art and English.  Prior to my official start date, I was scheduled to be out on unpaid vacation, a week’s stay in a rustic cabin in the north of Maine.  The timing wasn’t great, but my girlfriend and I had put down a deposit and made a commitment with friends to make the trip months in advance.  So there was no backing out.  During our time in Maine, I spent hours on the cabin’s screened in porch studying two books on the Unix Operating System.  By the time I returned to work, I could write short routines and was able to troubleshoot code.  I was not a programmer and never would be one without some serious education, but, in truth, the position really didn’t require that level of ability.  I settled into my responsibilities and within six months or so felt I had a decent handle on the job.

After five years at it, I had found that the doors to the art world were firmly shut to me and my contingency job of convenience was looking more like long term employment.  I was living a life in limbo, and the time seemed right to make a commitment to something.  Surrendering our utopian dream of never permitting the government a say in our relationship, my girlfriend and I signed an array of legal documents in a city office and proceeded to start a family.  So, in what seemed like a blink of an eye, the two of us, happily ensconced in a cozy railroad flat in Brooklyn, turned into four, and the accommodations became a bit cramped.  Partitioning our former studio space, I was relegated to an area behind a Chinese screen within which to paint, while in the remainder of the room, my now wife and I slept in a loft bed beneath which was tucked a crib for the latest addition to the family.  Obviously, something had to give.

It was apparent that we needed to buy into a permanent space suitable to our family’s needs, the question being whether to stay within the confines of the city or head out into the burbs.  Just a minimal amount of research provided the answer.  Economically the suburbs were our only realistic possibility.  Initially, we thought we would purchase a home within an hour’s commute of my Manhattan workplace but soon found that realtors, when apprised of our limited price range, would sigh, bite their lips and take us to see their oddities, their neglected properties, their problem children.  We quickly realized that expanding just a bit the radius of the zone in which we considered buying improved the quality of the properties that were shown to us dramatically.  And that is how, after weeks of searching and incrementally edging further away from the city, we ended up considering buying a home a solid two hours commute from my job.  We had definitely drifted to the edge of what was a doable daily commutation, but at least I had my four day work week which would provide some relief.  Before even putting in a bid on the house, I met with the VP of our unit to ensure that my flex schedule was in no way in peril and I could count on it for the long term.  He gave me what assurances he could, and, after the usual maneuvering and dramatics, we purchased the house.

Of course, whenever you are banking on permanence and stability in our ever-changing world, you can expect to suffer the consequences.  Within a year or two of our move out of the city, there were major changes in the administrative structure at my office and a small cabal of misfits and ne’er-do-wells conspired to revoke my flex schedule, solely on the grounds that no one should enjoy special privileges – even though our top management staff was granting itself delightful perks on a regular basis.  (Naw, I’m not bitter!)  So in a flash I was put on a regular five day a week schedule which meant that my travel time went from 16 hours up to 20 to work 37½ hours each week.  My ability to seriously pursue my art was compromised greatly; the hours I could devote to painting were significantly curtailed.

When I first submitted to my ludicrous commute, I was extremely frustrated to be confined to a train for an eternity each day.  I’d rage at every delay on my journey and rush off the train the instant it pulled into the station.  Over many years, I have acclimated to my commute and actually learned to value my daily dose of enforced captivity.  Certainly a necessity to anyone tied to a schedule that practically mandated sleep deprivation, I acquired the ability to fall into a light slumber for a good portion of my journey.  More importantly, I soon realized that my train time was really my downtime, something that was missing from my hectic days at that time of raising children, holding down a fulltime job and persisting with my own artistic explorations.  I’ve read so many books on the train that I probably never would have gotten to otherwise: literature, biographies, history, art criticism and artist monographs.  I’ve also been using those hours for writing: short fiction, essays on my own work, letters to friends and even this blog.  My quarter century of daily commutation has become part of my education – a pathway to continued intellectual growth.

One implication of my extended work and travel day is that for about a third of the year I am leaving from and returning to my home in utter darkness.  My neighborhood has no street lights, and the houses are set far apart from each other; so there is virtually no general atmospheric haze to guide your activities.  If I drop my glove, I must run my hand blindly over the ground to find it.  Selecting a key or finding a keyhole is always challenging.  Conditions are at their most extreme when leaving for the railroad station on winter’s mornings.  Usually the temperature at that hour is well below freezing, and it is not out of the ordinary for us to have snow on the ground continuously from late December through early March.  Many times fresh snowfall has come overnight, and the roads are a mess, the plow’s last circuit through the area occurring hours ago.  There is a palpable sense of vulnerability at those predawn hours brought on by the impenetrable darkness, the physical discomfort resulting from even short periods of exposure to the cold and a perception of isolation.

But there is also a poetry to those moments.  Commonly, the neighborhood settles into an unsullied quiet as I leave the house, the crunch of my steps in the snow or the slamming of the car door resounding rudely in the calm.  Occasionally, the call of an owl will intrude upon the silence or a particularly clear morning will be brightened by a low hanging moon, but mostly these times are just dark and still.  And in the darkness in which I drive to the station the landscape disappears, the blackness only interrupted by small, glowing stages, their curious vignettes often observed through a mesh of brush and branches: a man tinkering with equipment in a well-lit driveway, an adult and child waiting in a running car at the roadside for the school bus, shadow puppets moving mysteriously in distant windows awash with an inviting, amber glow, a neighbor’s house stubbornly adorned with bright, multicolored Christmas lights well after the holiday, a glaring parking lot empty except for a solitary backhoe loader frantically moving snow from one place to another, a church’s dazzling sign offering today’s inspirational message.  For years as I pulled out of the driveway, my headlights would sweep across a figure at the roadside: a petite, blonde girl, the daughter of one of my neighbors, waiting far from the nearest house for the bus.  Why was she out there so early?  Why was she alone?  I always made certain to wave reassuringly to her as I drove by, and she would wave back.  This past winter a strange participant in my morning ritual surfaced, a stout, young man who would execute balletic Kung Fu moves in a snow-covered clearing I passed each day.  There was a drama to his silent movements, gestures poised between combat and dance.  In the golden circle of light cast from a lone streetlamp, he would balance on one foot, arms slowly clawing at the frigid air, then suddenly he would pivot around as if he were being attacked from behind and advance aggressively toward his imagined adversary.  His bizarre presence somehow cheered me.

 It occurred to me recently that my experiences on these winter mornings evoke in me memories of the paintings of Peter Doig, particularly the early work that references the artist’s childhood years spent in Canada.

Peter Doig - Architect's House in the Ravine - 1991

Peter Doig - Concrete Cabin (West Side) - 1993

Peter Doig - Cabin Essence - 1993-4

Peter Doig - Boiler House - 1994
Peter Doig - Briey (Concrete Cabin) - 1994-6

Certainly, Doig’s paintings of structures viewed through a screen of trees would be my most direct connection.  The buildings seem to emanate an internal light within the nighttime landscape which is both inviting and disturbing.  We intuit that these modern structures are set in the woods, isolated from the community.  The mesh of trunks and branches emphasizes this sense of isolation while also asserting a distance between the viewer and the building – thereby affirming the viewer’s own aloneness.

Peter Doig - Camp Forestia - 1996

Peter Doig - Pine House (Rooms for Rent) - 1994

Peter Doig - Bob's House - 1992

Peter Doig - Red House - 1995
In the 90’s, Doig held an interest in structures, mostly private homes, depicted at night.  Almost without exception, the houses are unlit, the windows black.  A feeling of abandonment lingers about them.  Their design and size speak of affluence and luxury.  In truth, the absence of any evidence of human activity may not be indicative of abandonment but solely a characteristic of the late hour when cars are tucked into garages, lights extinguished, televisions and stereos turned off, all inhabitants abed.  It is strange to be provided with such an outlook.  When I view these paintings, I’m convinced that I’m examining these houses through the eyes of a teen, that there is about them the aura of the outcast, the outsider, someone not fully invested in society.  These houses could be places of refuge but could just as well be places of entombment, of suffocating normalcy.  And this is what Doig does best – he invests scenes of benign ordinariness with a subtle emotional energy that encourages his audience to reassess their neutrality.

Peter Doig - Blotter - 1993

Peter Doig - Echo Lake - 1998

Peter Doig - Pond Life - 1991

Peter Doig - Pond Life - 1993

Peter Doig - Window Pane - 1993

Peter Doig - Reflection (What does your soul look like) - 1996
In these years, Doig primarily chose to explore night scenes and winter landscapes.  In a painting like Blotter 1993, for example, we witness an individual standing alone on an ice-covered pond.  From the patterns of pooling water on the surface of the ice, we know that a thaw has occurred and the soundness of the ice has been compromised.  Is the figure viewing his own reflection, or is he studying the webs of cracks and fissures forming beneath his own weight?  He doesn’t appear panicked – more absorbed or fascinated.  The colors in the painting are lush, heightened and unnatural, the patterning of brushwork varied and assured, lending the image a veneer of surreal beauty.  Emotionally the viewer is pulled in several directions.  This could be a banal image of a youth messing around on a frozen pond or documentation of the intense prelude to a personal disaster.  Again Doig is reveling in the perspective of the young and their willingness to explore places and times outside the realm of adult experience.  His handling of paint and use of heightened, unnatural color suggests we are being presented with an internal reality, one anchored in passion, menace and fantasy.

In similar works, Doig repeatedly addresses in a poetic idiom the duality between the everyday, small occurrence and its potentiality to initiate or be part of a much larger drama.  It’s the early images inspired by his Canadian youth that grab me most powerfully and sparked within me a string of visual associations this past winter, but Doig’s oeuvre is both rich and diverse, reflecting his own nomadic existence.  He was born in Scotland in 1959, spent his early childhood in Trinidad and formative years in Canada, studied in England and eventually settled for the most part back in Trinidad.  Doig’s images are founded on sources devoid of high art pretensions: suburban homes, athletic activities, highway scenes, storefronts and lowbrow movies, but it is his fertile imagination and unique technical approach to painting that imbues his imagery with poetry.

I’m not sure that finding poetry in the everyday is an absolutely essential component of a successful life – or even if it’s critical to the creation of gripping art.  But I can make this personal statement on this topic.  When I look back on my own past, I realize that many of the most important decisions, the ones that determine the way I live today, were not actually made by me but were imposed on me.  I accidentally fell into a career unrelated to my interests or educational background.  Economics definitely played a major role in defining where and how I live.  Often other people with strong personal agendas have impacted tremendously on my day-to-day existence.  I’m not complaining.  In spite of all my compromising and adapting, I still lead a pretty satisfying life.  But I guess I also recognize that the box that contains me is a pretty tight fit – one that makes holding it all together day after day an exercise in fortitude, determination and endurance on my part.  For me, at least, discerning the wisp of poetry in everyday experience and in my demanding routine is critical to maintaining my mental balance as well as a key element in my artwork.

As always I encourage readers to comment here, but if anyone prefers to communicate with me directly my email address is  I end this entry with a broader selection of Doig’s oeuvre which includes work from throughout his career.

Peter Doig - Briey (Interior) - 1999

Peter Doig - Daytime Astronomy - 1997-8

Peter Doig - Figure in Mountain Landscape - 1997-8

Peter Doig - Figures in Trees - 1997-8

Peter Doig - Girl on Skis - 1997

Peter Doig - Jetty - 1994

Peter Doig - Ski Jacket - 1993

Peter Doig - Ski Mountain - 1995

Peter Doig - Young Bean Farmer - 1991

Peter Doig - 100 Years Ago - 2000

Peter Doig - Gasthof zur Muldentalsperre - 2000-2

Peter Doig - House of Pictures - 2000-2

Peter Doig - Masquerades - 2006

Peter Doig - Black Curtain - 2004

Peter Doig - Figures in Red Boat - 2005-7

Peter Doig - Pekican - 2003

Peter Doig - Red Boat (Imaginary Boys) - 2004


Cara Wood-Ginder said...

I really enjoy reading your blog posts. I feel like I'm taking a college course; it's very interesting and I feel like I learn things. I really like Doig's paintings.
Keep up the good work.

Steve said...

Echos of finding beauty in the cold solitude of your commute was perfect next to Doig's paintings, enjoy your blog immensely! Thanks!

Gerard Wickham said...

Steve: Great to find a new reader. Thanks for commenting.