Friday, May 21, 2010
Practice And Performance
I let myself into the studio through the back door of the building. It's stained and grey, almost indistinguishable from the wall. I walk up several flights of dank, unlit stairs – the building's fire escape – and unlock another door. It's dark inside except for the soft green glow of an exit sign. Once my eyes adjust to the dimness, I make my way through the maze of makeshift studio partitions to the space I rent. I flip on the lights, unlock my door and after I enter, lock it again behind me. Stripping off my clothes, I change into dirty paint covered jeans and a t-shirt. The room smells of acrylic and the musty calico I've stretched over the internal windows, so no-one can see in. There's hardly ever anyone else here.Half the floor is covered in industrial cotton drop sheets and stencils laying flat to dry. I sit cross-legged on the other half, on bare timber boards, amongst jars of paint, a bowl of water, brushes and a scavenged foot stool that I sometimes use as a seat. Paintings on paper are taped straight on the wall to keeping them taut. Sounds from outside punctuate music from the radio: sirens, screeching tires, breaking glass, thumping techno-speed metal from an underground nightclub. I prefer being here at night. There's no-one else in the building – no telephones, doorbells or sounds of hip graphic designers talking about their pitches. It feels like my own private universe, small and warm, an oasis in the chaos of people running amok in the inner city. It's safe, solitary, but I don't feel adrift from the rest of the world. I haven't painted for a long time. Before I went to the clinic, I destroyed half a lifetime of work. During my ten week stay, I managed (with much angst, and a lot of tears) one very small, decorative watercolour. I couldn't deal with anything more complicated or precise. Painting – particularly my hard-edged enamel work – is a barometer for my psyche. It requires confidence. The block colours and incredibly exact linework leave no room for interpretation or error. A misplaced mark is not an intriguing flaw but an ugly deviation that has to be painstakingly corrected. Sometimes, I have to begin the work again. It used to be the less confident I felt, the shakier my hand. But not anymore.Yesterday, I painted for sixteen hours, from late afternoon until dawn, working on a number of acrylic studies. The first six hours were hard. I spent every one of them pushing through old anxieties, reminding myself to focus on doing, instead of analysing every thought and action. I forced myself to sit still, to focus and to paint quicker, in smooth confident strokes. To my surprise, it worked. I am much better (and faster) at what I do than I had ever realised. My training regime at the gym has made me stronger and fitter. It has also increased my physical and psychological endurance. I am recovering my precision. Something I didn't expect – but for which I am grateful – is that the discipline of my actions allows me to think more freely about art and ideas. My attitude towards my own skills has changed. I realise that an artist is similar to a classical musician: drawing and paintings skills are like an instrument and one has to practice every day. Honing my technique over the years has helped me to express more, in more ways, and improve not just the performance – the act of painting – but the fluidity of expression between mind and hand. Imagination without skill amounts to very little. Acquiring, developing – and keeping – that skill is a matter of discipline and routine. My enamel and acrylic paintings will never be quick to make – I'm incapable of slapping any old thing together – but the satisfaction I get from being able to do them better and with considerably more speed is a kind of epiphany, a dusting of unexpected but hard-earned grace.