A couple of weeks ago I decided it’s time to end my days as a beer league hockey player. That might sound like an odd way to begin an article about studio life, but it’s pertinent. One of the reasons I’m calling it a day on the ice is that I have found I have to pay an increasingly high price for playing a game I love. I already have to deal with pain management due to spinal cord damage, and my studio practice is affected by that reality as it means having an unpredictable schedule and limited time on my feet. These factors have a direct bearing on my time in the studio, and as such, I have to do what is necessary to mitigate the negative impact they have on my practice.
So there goes hockey.
I was once asked by my pain management specialist if I have ever thought about making paintings about the pain I live with on a daily basis. My answer was to the effect that I have no desire to make pain the focus of my work, and that it–pain–is in pretty much all of my work already. He was puzzled by that response, so I elaborated for him by telling him that every mark I make is informed by the constant presence of pain in my life–just as those marks are also informed by all of the other emotions and experiences I have lived with and through. My subject matter is increasingly decided by the limited orbit of my daily life, as is my technical approach to making paintings. I work in one of two ways; I work in short sessions when the pain cannot be controlled by medications, and in long sessions (lasting up to forty hours) when the assortment of painkillers keeps pain at bay. When I’m engaged in the latter process, it is because the painkillers don’t allow me to go to sleep, so I take advantage of the prolonged wakeful state to get as much work done as I can, and then come back to the paintings after sleeping for 12-15 hours.
As for subject matter, I have become a landscape and still life painter partly as a result of my limited mobility. I choose scenes that are my favourite views of the city and surrounding countryside in which I live, or else I make paintings using flowers from my gardens and objects from daily life. In either case, I am choosing to paint subjects that are close to home in the figurative and literal senses of that turn of phrase. And in either of these genres I find that the familiarity of the chosen motif allows me to focus on the technical processes of drawing and painting, so that rather than attempting to invent a new form for painting I am allowing my process to determine form. Simply put, I am putting practice before theory rather than the reversing of those elements that has come to dominate artistic and critical practice over the past half century.
This has been very liberating, and it also lets theory inform my work and method without dictating the results. It is a far more inclusive approach than its obverse, as it encourages experimentation while demanding that the experimental aspects cohere with the rest of the formal elements of each painting. It invokes a sense of play that relies on instinct, which means theory is still involved, but in a manner that is organic simply because instinct is based on experience, and experience combines previous practice and thinking. To put it hockey terms, for each game (or painting in a given genre) there is a game plan in place at the beginning, but that plan has to accommodate what is happening as play unfolds. And just as happens in hockey, if you don’t adapt the plan to suit the game, the results are rarely good.