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Old 04-20-2016, 10:38 AM   #7
Steven Sweeney Steven Sweeney is offline
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Joined: Nov 2001
Location: Stillwater, MN
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A path of some resistance

Though at one time caught up in the “painting vs. photography” kerfuffle, as if the distinction were grounded in a true dichotomy or meaningful difference, I’ve spent the last many years paring a good deal of trouble out of my life practices, and showing up for this rumble has been largely relegated to a back page on the to-do list. I say “largely”—apparently I still like to watch—because my thinking has evolved from a philosophy (and a borrowed one, if not to add, youthfully and sometimes recklessly polemical) to simply a personal preference: paintings that look like photographs just don’t do it for me any more. I've stopped trying to paint them, and I've stopped purchasing them.

This is a portrait artists’ site, and so I acknowledge and then gently set to the side the portraitist’s commission to verisimilitude. It doesn’t matter if I put the “wrong” number of windows in a barn that I include in a landscape, but Suzie in the white dress had better have the correct number of eyes, in precise orientation, and even her smile probably shouldn’t be “not quite right.” I no longer seek out portrait work, though I will do one if asked. I accepted that I simply don’t have the personality, confidence or stamina for portraiture as a focus or a business.

In an ever-receding previous life, I went through atelier training in the classical realism style, and I spent years getting smiles right. It was the grail we were all seeking. Whether depicting a portrait subject, a cast drawing or painting, or a still-life from afternoon work, I once craved the accolade, “It looks just like a photograph!” Now that assessment—and it is one I make in reviewing my own work from years ago—results in at least a small sense of another kind of “not quite right.” It is certainly not wistfulness, and yet certainly not failure. All the technique is there, but I can no longer see the art in it. Speaking only for myself and of my own work, some of it hits like the milligram of dopamine from having completed gold-level Sudoku. The thrill is soon gone, the juices extracted.

As time-available shortened, I decided that the world didn’t need—at least not from me—any more highly-finished (“photographic”) paintings of dollar bills and grocery lists thumbtacked to richly-grained paneling. I do not say so at all derisively. I remember most well a single phrase from the brochure for the studio I eventually joined: “This work is not creative and is not intended to be.” We were wet-behind-the-ears wannabe painters and draftsmen who did not yet know how to “see.” “I’m being creative” would then have been the tyro’s uninformed excuse for not being able to see form and value design and hue and color temperature, and then translate and transfer it with fidelity to a two-dimensional surface.

I was privileged a couple of weeks ago to visit yet again a favorite gallery in Tucson (“Medicine Man Gallery,” which I cannot recommend too highly, in addition to the nearby “Settlers West” gallery), where I spotted across the room a desert landscape that I couldn’t look away from. It was so “real,” but I had no sense that I was looking at a photo. The light almost made me squint, and I could feel the heat and taste the dust from the arroyo. So I of course did what we all do—approach the painting to within inches to see how it was done, to steal a few licks if possible. And of course it was a seeming hodgepodge of direct, brush-marked strokes of clean pigment, each stroke and its placement presumably a choice manifested, yet signifying nothing in particular (or, as eastern thinkers might more aptly phrase it, no thing in particular). Yet walk away and turn, and there was the light and the heat and the dust again. And this: there was the particular artist, evident in that work, as no other person could be.

And that’s the way I want to paint, now. I also can take pretty good photographs (which are, not incidentally, informed greatly by what I learned in the drawing-and-painting studio.) These things aren’t the same, and they aren’t in either-or or best-of competition, to my eye and, as I said earlier, evolving preference.
Steven Sweeney

"You must be present to win."
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