A Story That Must Be Told
As mentioned here, the McLean Center for the Arts sponsors a very good painting competition every couple of years called "Strictly Painting." It is now in its fifth iteration.
A few years ago, around 1999 or 2000, the juror for that year's version of "Strictly Painting" was Terrie Sultan, who back then was the Curator for Contemporary Art at the Corcoran. I thought that this choice was a little odd, as Ms. Sultan, in my opinion, was not "painting-friendly." In fact, with all due respect, I blame her for diminishing the Corcoran Biennials, which used to be known as the Corcoran Biennial of Painting.
As such, they were essentially the only well-known Biennial left in the nation that was strictly designed to get a look at the state of contemporary painting, which was somehow surviving its so called "death."
It was Ms. Sultan who decided to "expand" the Biennial and make it just like all other Biennials: Jack of all trades (genres) Biennials. In the process, depending on what side of this argument you're on, she (a) did a great service to the Corcoran by moving it into the center of the "genre of the moment" scene - like all other Biennials, or (b) gave away the uniqueness of the nation's top painting Biennial title.
I'm aligned with the minority who supports camp (b) but understand those who defend her decision to become just another player in camp (a). Most people think that her decision and drive were the right thing to do in order to bring the Corcoran to a world stage, and perhaps it was.
But I digress.
When she was announced as the juror, I decided to see if I could predict her painting selectivity, sensitivity, process and agenda. It was my thesis that I could predict what Ms. Sultan would pick.
So I made a bet, and decided to enter the exhibition with work created specifically to fit what I deduced would be agreeable to Ms. Sultan's tastes. I felt that I could guarantee that I would get into the show because of the transparency of the juror's personal artistic agenda. It is her right to have one; I have them, in fact, we all have them.
I was trained as a painter at the University of Washington School of Art, but around 1992 or so, I stopped painting and decided to devote myself strictly to my love for drawing. So I had not picked up a brush in several years when I decided to enter this competition, designed to survey the state of painting in our region.
It was my theory that Ms. Sultan would not be in the representational side of painting. It was also clear that she (like many curators) was seduced by technology in the form of videos, digital stuff and such trendy things.
And so I decided to see if I could marry digital stuff with painting.
And what I did was the following:
I took some of my old Navy ribbons, and scanned them in to get a digital file. I then blew them up so that the final image was quite pixilated. I then printed about five of them and took slides of the printed sheets of paper.
I then submitted these slides to the competition, but identified them as oil on canvas paintings. My plan was that if accepted, how hard could it be to whip up a couple of paintings after the fact? I titled them with such titles as Digitalism: National Defense and Digitalism: Expeditionary Medal and so on.
From what I was later told, several hundred painters submitted work. And Ms. Sultan selected about only about seven or eight painters in total. And not only was I one of them, but she picked two of my entries.
I was elated! I had hit the nail right on the head! I felt so superior in having such an insight into this intelligent woman's intellect that I (a painter no more) could create competition-specific work to get accepted into this highly regarded show.
And then I began the task of creating the two paintings, using the pixilated images as the guide.
And it turned out to be a lot harder than I thought.
For one thing, I had submitted the "paintings" in quite a large size; each painting was supposed to be six feet long.
And it didn't take me long to discover that there are a lot of color nuances and hues in an average pixilated image.
And I went through dozens and dozens of rolls of tape as I pulled off the old Washington Color School trick of taping stripes (in my case small one inch square boxes of individual colors - hundreds upon hundreds of them) in a precise sequence to prevent smudging and color peeling, etc.
I painted for at least six hours every day, switching off between paintings to allow the previous day's work to dry off enough to allow a new layer of tape to be applied. I did all the varnishing outside, which usually attracted all the small neighborhood ruffians.
It was incredibly hard work, and I was ever so sorry that I had even gotten this crazy idea. All my nights were consumed.
But eventually they were finished and delivered to MPA and Ms. Sultan even wrote some very nice things about them in the exhibition's catalog.
Me? I was in a mix of both vindication and guilt; exhausted but fired up with the often wrong sense of righteousness of the self-righteous.
After the show, I had no idea what to do with them, and they didn't fit my "body of works," but I ended up selling both of them through Sotheby's.
And today, some art collector in South Carolina and another one in Canada, each have one very large, exhausting and handsome oil painting of pixilated naval ribbons hanging in their home, in happy ignorance of the interesting story behind them.
I mentioned the adjective handsome in describing them, because a few years ago I was telling this story to Prof. John Winslow, who asked to see the images of the real paintings. When I showed him, he said that they were actually "quite handsome paintings."
I had never had my work described as "handsome" (although the Washington Post once described it as "irritating"), so it stuck in my head.
So there you have it: The story of a former painter with a point to prove about a local curator, the subsequent hard-labor punishment of the process, and a hidden story behind two handsome paintings.
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
A Story That Must Be Told