I leaned my new paintings against the fresh white walls and began arranging them for maximum effect. The front doors of the gallery opened wide to the street. It was a flawless blue sky morning. Perfect for hanging an art show. Perfect for national elections.
The mood among the staff and other artists at the gallery was upbeat. Each of us had already voted. We offered one another assurance of our good chances - as progressives - of having the elections go our way.
Over the summer I had created a series of paintings that were all loose explorations on coming of-age themes, depicting young people at odds with their surroundings. These children were partially cloaked or hidden by a variety of coping strategies ranging from too-much makeup, to masks and helmets. Each painting had its subject situated in non-literal spaces that were crowded with conflicting messages, diagrams devoid of context, and disintegrating letter-forms intended as a sort of Rorschach prompt that could be interpreted a variety of ways. My primary interest, though, was depicting the bravery, wariness, defiance and resoluteness that young people often manifest in situations of uncertainty. To my thinking, a nuanced and unsentimental coming of-age story was a fresh area of creative endeavor. But as I looked out at the completed work I was all at once struck with the idea that I had painted the wrong paintings. For all their bravery, my characters were stuck in a existentially dystrophic middle ground, and seemed to not relate directly to the world as it now promised to unfold.
In the next room an artist friend was laying out her new work. I quickly noticed how joyful her paintings seemed to be, and felt a little pain, because joy is not something I’ve spent a lot of time pursuing in my work. It seemed like a subject I hadn’t found my way into honestly. Not directly. Not yet. I told myself joy didn’t need to be depicted, or otherwise captured in the work, but that it could be the result of someone’s experience of the work. I’m not sure what I meant by that, but it gave me license to explore darker themes in hopes of my practice leading to some sort of catharsis or insight.
It’s often true that you need to spend time away from a creative project - putting it completely out of mind - in order to really apprehend it’s true form. Other times that clarity catches you off guard while you are knee deep in the work, with no apparent perspective. By simply setting up my paintings in a new space I had instantly reframed my view of the work, in a much more critical way. Had I listened to too much NPR while working? Was it the dystopian Decline of the West podcasts? Too much time with fear-fueled Facebook rants? Were these portraits relevant? If I don’t engage difficult subjects during difficult times, when will I? The faces I made stared back with the exact expressions I had given them, and offered no new insight. I did notice that one painting needed the skin tones warmed up a bit, so I took it home and obsessed over it a little more, knowing in the back of my mind, I was simply trying to exorcise my own ambivalence about the show.
By the end of the day a darker, more unseemly narrative emerged about the next cycle of executive leadership in our country. I hunkered down in my studio and attended to the tweaking of that one last painting while Trump’s aspirations were made manifest. In the morning my Facebook feed was filled with stories of children under great duress. One daughter of a friend woke up screaming because she was worried about being deported. Other friends who are educators described the stony silence and obvious depression among their students. The kids needed answers, and the adults weren’t yet up to the task.
I went back to the gallery to hang my final painting. At last the show made great sense to me. The work seemed strong. Not because Trump’s immanent reign validated my fears, but because every day is a passage into uncertainty. Coming-of-age is an ongoing state. We are all composites of all the developmental stages we have lived, and each stage has required its own surrender and loss. The accumulated versions of each self overlay one another like a palimpsest of scribbles performed over and over on the same sheet of paper. Whatever innocence or open-heartedness we posses must be nurtured and fiercely protected. That’s what I think my new paintings are about, anyway. If some of that comes across on its own, then I’ll be happy.
Juxtaposed opens at Walker Fine Art in Denver, Friday November 11, 2016. The show runs through January 7, 2017.