a letter to a friend about a painting, 2015

titusobrien19As promised, a few words about your painting.

Let’s call it “Desert Amita,” casein on panel, 24” x 24”, 2013-14.

That work was on the spearpoint of an impulse to compress, simplify, and quieten. Years previously I had worked on larger paintings that felt even larger still. Heavy, apocalyptic, and pressured. Restless. I used to call them “Avatamsaka” paintings; later I called them Dark Matter, after I actually began to read and practice Avatamsaka and couldn’t justify the pretension of calling my art that.

Even before moving to New Mexico I had shifted and was working on systematized drawings that came from boiling down the essential mechanics of any rectangular painting (and especially the Dark Matter paintings) to little more than an ‘x’ drawn from corner to corner on the diagonals. I then worked out a simpler and simpler system using chance operations to make all the design choices, including colors (which were 64 total, using the I Ching to choose.)

When I was ready to translate this to painting, in the same way that the Dark Matter paintings absolutely needed to be acrylic on raw linen, these needed to be tempera on wood panel. As I meditated on this intuited necessity, I realized that this was a medieval material for an almost medieval set of impulses, in what I consider the best sense of that term. Mystical, spiritual, humble, gentle, and contemplative.

I had made the transition from layman to priest in 2011. This necessitated transformation. Circumstances in my life accelerated this process, including relationship and work dilemmas mirroring inner crises. After the move to New Mexico, I was given time and space to dig deep and get quiet. I worked toward a way of painting that would be relatively fast, ideally a painting in a single long day of consistent labor, that combined chance operations with intuitive, felt conclusions and decisions.

There was a lot of daily zazen and yoga, and daily work with the Tarot often indicated general vibes for individual works, but also numerological aspects that felt increasingly important, if totally oblique. By this I mean the specific numbers of rows and columns, and the resonances of simple whole numbers, which are not merely random but rather semi-carefully considered.

The painting you have is one of only two that survive in multiple colors. As you can see, the palette is muted, but still relatively broad when contrasted with what came after. In other works painted at this the same time and after, I began giving a final coat or two of a single color, with a light sand that gave hints of what was underneath. They simply needed to be even less dynamic, even more quiet, even more subdued.

But with this one, it ‘worked’ in its own way and I couldn’t bring myself to paint over it, as much as I was often tempted to do so in order to bring it in line with how the work was moving. I like that painting, and appreciated how the thought of giving it to you felt like an honest sacrifice, knowing that I could have given you any number of paintings I like less well. Just so you know.

Finally, I would say the thing I was going for, or that seemed called for, are works that honor (in addition to countless other influences) my Modern masters: Cezanne, Ben Nicholson, Agnes Martin, Ad Reinhardt, Howard Hodgkin, Sean Scully, and Donald Judd (all of whom I had made a close study in previous years). I was listening to a lot of late Erykah Badu. Cocteau Twins. Sun Ra. And of course, thinking about Cage. I also prayed for them to function in practice as a practice, in keeping with zazen practice, and conscious employment of a non-dual, Mahayanist posture brought to a contemporary artistic idiom; I mean to say that they factor in everything encountered in my life still being lived, having looked at and made a good deal of so-called art. This intended full presence in the time-being paradoxically seemed to demand a somewhat medieval heart. Functionally, I was going for something that found a resting state that was just still enough, but not too still; just innovative enough to feel fresh to my own eye and heart, but not too interested in novelty; just classical enough, without being nostalgic or stultifying; just emotional enough, without falling prey to romantic ideals. Etc.

Whatever they were meant to be seemed clearly dictated. I had to paint, and I had to paint this way. I feel they have this quality of directness, and simple necessity.

I painted some paintings after this that I feel are the most realized things I have ever made. Nevertheless, I am taking a break from painting now, and immersing myself in polar opposite kinds of art work in some curatorial labors. I miss working like that, and I am missing the studio. And I will miss that little painting. But I hope you enjoy it! It was built to last, and built to be lived with easily. I hope it is a good friend. As I said, it is water sensitive. In that sense at least, it is perhaps a bit witchy.