My painting 160801a Shit in a Shirt, with Blood (see below) took its starting point from this George Condo painting, Big Red. I painted a blue cloudy sky and, for once, I had the patience to let it dry before painting on top. I improvised the content, starting by borrowing the shiny red surface from Condo’s painting. While I was painting, it didn’t occur to me that the moist brown and red forms would look like shit or blood. The title came later. This appearance of unintentional or subconsciously motivated content might be related to the unintentional figuration and subconscious referencing that I’ve written about before, or it equally could be interpreted as painting-as-symptom … or maybe I’m getting carried away with interpretation itself.
My first reaction was that I didn’t like the finished painting. In particular, the compositional relationships between the forms seemed really annoying. My disappointment reminded me that I’ve thought in the past that cartoonish blue skies are really difficult to use effectively. They’re such an obvious backdrop that sometimes they almost struck me as slightly dumb and thoughtless, even in the hands of painters whose work I really enjoy, like Magritte or Guston.
I think Guston actually said that blue was difficult to work with, or that he felt he’d never really mastered it. Certainly he used blue less frequently than his favoured black, white and cadmium red. When he does, it opens his claustrophobic spaces up to a kind of air and space that I find very different to the rest of his work.
Also, the blunt colours and wonky drawing in 160801a Shit in a Shirt, with Blood looked wrong to me in a way that I felt would always be irredeemably ugly and stupid in the eyes of other people. It reminded me of unskilled underground comic drawing, which for some reason I imagined would be totally unwanted in a contemporary painter. I’m actually really glad my painting came out that way because it prompted me to research my own assumptions about “bad painting”. I finally got around to researching the famous 1978 exhibition titled Bad Painting, which was interesting, although none of it looked much like mine.
There were other paintings that I associated with the particular style of drawing that had emerged in 160801a Shit in a Shirt, with Blood. The first was Carroll Dunham’s work from the 1980s.
Then, somehow, I stumbled on the Wikipedia page on the “Chicago Imagists”, and in particular the Hairy Who artists from the 1960s. Some of their work seemed to fit my idea of “wrongness” even more than the Bad Painting artists. From the Hairy Who, paintings by Jim Nutt, Jim Falconer and Karl Winsum remind me of the forms in 160801a Shit in a Shirt, with Blood.
Karen Lennox’s description of the Hairy Who is good and clear I think:
“The Hairy Who sourced surrealism, Art Brut, and the comics. Pop art sourced the world of commercial advertising and popular illustration. One was very personal, the other anti-personal.”1
Part of what makes me see this aesthetic as “personal”, and in a way vulnerable and naive, is its resemblance to some outsider art, particularly the art of teenagers and people who are mentally ill. Perhaps the “wrongness” I associate with this family of styles is connected to a sense that artists whose work looks this way are more likely to be on the margins, or “outside”, the art world and society in general. Maybe I don’t want that for myself, and therefore it made me anxious to see something I’d painted going in that direction. I’m not sure. But whenever I get an instant negative reaction to something I’ve painted I like to try to analyse where that reaction is coming from. So far, I’m finding that process one of the most interesting things about painting. It leads me to research artists who I haven’t seen before, which also gives me new perspectives on artists that I’m already familiar with.