A STRANGE TIME TO HOLD A BRUSH

 

By Timothy Hawkesworth
September 2001

 

It is a strange time to hold a brush, to follow the flow of paint, to sit quietly. The mind staggers at the run of events: the scale of the personal and communal losses, the mountain of grief. It weighs on both our minds and our bodies. We replay events and try to grasp the mindset that led the perpetrators through flight school, to the brutal use of the knives, to the final turning of the aircraft, right on target. Great painting throughout history has often come from a sense of awe, usually religious awe. Now we are filled with a different sense of awe. It is the sweep of our humanity that staggers our minds: our unbelievable aptitude for goodness and love all the way across the spectrum to such acts of destruction and hatred. Philip Guston counseled painters "to live without consolation,"to keep their eyes wide open and not to look away. The studio is a place to sit with things. There is work to be done; there is a lot to sit with.

There is an opportunity at the core of how painting works. This is in the energy and persistence with which painting embraces the corporal nature of experience. We experience painting, like life, through our bodies. Looking at painting is firstly an act of secretion. We follow the artists touch, the movement of the hand. The act of painting insists that thought and memory be turned physical. Like an athlete, the artist's mind must become fluid, to allow the hand to move. The paint records with unwavering accuracy the attitude of application. If the artist tries to foreclose - if he or she tries to impose their intention too strongly - then this embrace of corporal experience is lost and the power of the painting dissipates.

This insistence at the heart of painting, that we stay in what the Buddhists call "embodied mind," makes the studio an important place at a time like this. It is one of the few places where our nature and our learning get to hang out together. In this, painting draws from the two great traditions of humanism, the romantic tradition that relied on "the truth of the imagination and the integrity of the senses, "and from the classical tradition of a sensitive empiricism exploring the world from all angles, looking for understanding and clarity. Seamus Heaney says he "credits poetry with having a restorative effect between the mind's center and its circumference." Painting, like other art forms rooted in the physical as well as the intellectual, can also be credited with restoring the health and fullness of our humanity.

It is a strange time to hold a brush. It is a time of action and reaction. It is a time when there are things that need our immediate attention. However, once we have done what we can, being in the studio and rebuilding the routine is a good place to be. Painting has always drawn from the primitive forces within us that affirm life despite the obvious. When we follow Rembrandt's finger through the paint we are feasting on his humanity despite the shadow of his death. Painting has always addressed our frailty. Part of its power and poignancy is that it speaks from low to the ground. It speaks of body fluid and pulse rate, of physical heat as well as the traveling of the mind. The making of a painting is always a brash, standup affirmation of life. It is shaky, doubtful and a little comic in a world characterized by military strategy. It is however, a road into the complexity and contradictions of our inner selves. A rich field of introspection, valuable work to be doing at a time when we are deploying a military force capable of unimaginable violence and destruction. An indispensable tool as we sit, once again, with our eyes open, looking with astonishment and horror at what it means to be human.