Crop Top Rites By Maura Callahan

Crop Top Rites: I Just Want to Paint My Cat

Right now, I'm not very interested in breaking new ground in my life or my art; I just want to feel a little s

Last year, more or less all around the same time, my parents separated, my partner since high school started transitioning, and I graduated college, moved into a new home with my partner and two housemates, and entered the workforce full time (thankfully). It's the most palpable change I've ever experienced, and though I think these were all ultimately good things, I'm pretty tired. Right now, I'm not very interested in breaking new ground in my life or my art; I just want to feel a little stillness. I would like things to even maybe be a little boring. I just want to paint my cat.

In the first installment of this column, I lightly chastised myself for taking a prolonged break from painting—the result of not having enough time, motivation, or a proper studio space (which I learned from working with toxic pigments and solvents in my bedroom during my first two years of college is very important). Last month, I finally moved my supplies out of my dank, windowless basement and into a studio at Platform Arts Center, a studio building and gallery space in the Bromo District run by my friend and housemate Lydia Pettit. I figured paying for a studio would solve the space issue, obviously, and the price of rent would act as concrete motivation to use it. As for making time, I'd just have to see how that played out.

So far, I've only made about one visit to the studio per week. On one hand it feels like slow progress; on the other hand I'm glad to have made any. I spent the first two visits preparing panels and nesting: tacking images from artist catalogs and my mom's donated 2014 Metropolitan Museum of Art day calendar, finding a place for my plants, establishing an arbitrary organizational system for my brushes, paints, and tools that has already ceased to matter. I listened to hours of music for the first time in months. As eager I was to start working, it felt equally important to settle in and make myself comfortable. Painting was really the comfort; the prelude was more like when a dog circles its spot for a few minutes before finally curling up. It's absolutely necessary, for no apparent reason.

I finally started painting, for real, last weekend, though I sorta forgot that when you go into a studio it helps to have some semblance of an idea. So I just started a small painting of my cat in a paper bag, because I enjoy painting the sharp, abstract fragmentation of light on crumpled paper, and I like my cat's half-black, half-orange face. I might add some of my succulents along the bottom, because I like how those look, too, though I might paint them in shades of red instead of greens.

I'm doing this keeping in mind that it's an exercise to reacquaint myself with the material and process, not to make "real work." But really, I've always taken more pleasure in these small sketches than when I was in school trying to create a hefty portfolio or the contents of the looming senior show with ambitious, artist-statement-attached paintings. Most of these were not as good, at least technically, as my "exercises" anyway. But my education always linked the artistic value of a work with, among other things, creative ambition—art for the sake of originality. So painting things like my cat and my plants for the simple reason of liking them doesn't really express any kind of ambition, no attempt to "break new ground" in any large or small way.

On a recent trip to MoMA in New York, I felt envious of the (mostly white and male) modernist painters on view like Matisse and Picasso and Cezanne who could paint a landscape or a still life or a pretty woman (or a cat) and have it be groundbreaking because of the way they painted it—rather than what they were painting. I felt that again when visiting the Baltimore Museum of Art's new exhibition of Matisse's drawings and prints recently acquired by the museum: lithographs of two or three fluid but precise lines suggesting the pose of a dancer, pool-like color studies for larger paintings, simple linear portraits in his typically whimsical hand, all exuding effortlessness. The work of these artists, even Matisse's sketches, were ambitious—they changed art history—but, in most cases, their innovation came through their approach, perspective, or style, and not so much the subject, narrative, or concept.

As a woman, I'm glad I'm an artist now and not during the height of modernism, and the contemporary push for concept-driven art in a pluralistic art world presents new and exciting dilemmas. But that opportunity to challenge preconceptions of what art can be seems like a luxury now, when there's little if any ground left to break in the interpretation of representation or how an image is constructed—especially in painting, the discipline I feel the most naturally drawn to. There's a pressure to express something new, or, perhaps even harder, to express something in a new way. Sometimes I think that pressure, in excess, actually begins to choke creativity. Pure originality is so highly valued—overrated, as David Bowie would say—and yet we've made it practically impossible to tap into.

In their book "Dialogues," Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet write, "What other reason is there for writing than to be traitor to one's own reign, traitor to one's own sex, to one's class, to one's majority? And to be traitor to writing. . . . For it is difficult to be a traitor; it is to create. One has to lose one's identity, one's face in it. One has to disappear, to become unknown."

I don't agree with this, especially now, in 2016, when the world is opening to greater exploration and discussion of identity and its relationship to gender, sexuality, race, and class. There's a kind of ambitiousness and excitement in the idea of erasing one's identity from one's work, and it can be a provocative exercise, but I think it's difficult to make that attempt without actually feeding the ego, simply because it's such a feat. I think that's what I'm drawn to in painting, that it's really impossible to take yourself out of it because, if nothing else, your hand is in it, and when stripped of everything else, that's really the meat of the painting. It's like a fingerprint—a simple gesture, really unprofound in the sense that anyone can produce one, but still personal and exquisite in its own right.

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