Pollock wants me to paint again

Six years on from wrapping my brushes in an old rag, and deciding that as a medium, it just didn’t have anything to say on my behalf, I have been thinking about painting again.

I’m wondering if, despite its diminished standing, painting may be the thing that is missing from my daily life. I find myself battling to work out whether or not I need this most troublesome beast back in my life — and it’s all Jackson Pollock’s fault.

I reached 30 years of age as a man who works harder than he plays. I don’t apologise for this, as it’s how I am. However, I have been trying to work out what is missing in my everyday life. What is stopping me being the person I was five years ago? Why do I feel less dynamic, less engaged? It’s important to understand that I’m not looking at the typical cliches here — declining fitness, waving goodbye to sexual peak, inability to avoid hangovers, increased cynicism — no, they’re all in check. So, what’s missing?

Anyway, an answer, of sorts, came to me recently as I sat in my lounge, staring at one of my old canvasses (an unsold, never finished, abstract, experimental aerial landscape I’d been saving only to reuse the stretcher) placed stubbornly above the fireplace by a housemate and I found this mini-epiphany quite startling. The missing ingredient is a problematic, complex pursuit where only occasionally are one’s efforts to be considered remotely valid, and itself a discipline nobody is sure will be relevant again, is relevant now, or has been relevant since 1959. I’m talking, of course, about painting.

In 1998 I stopped painting, my last real effort an interpretation of a geothermal puddle in Iceland, promptly snapped up by the Hafnarborg Institute for Art and Culture (about which I am quite proud). A confusion of ochres and umbers punctuated by my love of orange and titanium white, it was 4 feet by 3 of commentary on how those alien landscapes look to someone from the East Midlands, and not something to make me consider ditching the oils (though the cost of tubes in Iceland did make me think twice). On that residency, I experimented with other mediums and methods I’d tried out at a couple of previous exhibitions — maquettes, light and movement, shadows, relief, installation. These would become my only real concerns right up until the end of 1999 when the cleanliness and speed of my first Apple Macintosh product gripped me and basically changed my entire working focus.

A project for a Welsh science exhibition became my last intentional work. I’ve stopped filling the sketchbooks, stopped the process of making artwork. I had not considered painting for years, until last month. The prospect of getting the brushes out, of conducting my entire life with Sap Green under my fingernails, of guests supping turps with their tea, and of every item of clothing like a colour swatch of my current ideas... well, I’m not sure how I feel about it. I remember what I was like when painting: an absorbed, obsessed, chain-smoking insomniac who preferred dialogue with canvas over friends, someone easily brainwashed by the painting process, an obsessive concerned only with the quality of paint application, composition, and mark-making. Painting made me feel alive, but it also made me reclusive.

So, after recommendations from friends, I borrowed the Ed Harris biopic Pollock. Tonight I watched it with a mate and ended up writing this introspective article immediately afterwards. I’m hoping this cathartic examination will help me decide whether or not to make art again, whether I will pick up where I left off with more unconventional materials, or whether I will start several stages back by reconnecting with paint.

So, why is Jackson Pollock relevant here? Why has the film switched my mind back onto this conundrum? I think there are several reasons, and I’ll try to explain. Firstly though, the film merits a brief description. Pollock is a bit of a selfish project for Director Harris. His Dad told the poor sod he looked like Pollock some years back, and the actor has been kind of obsessed ever since, taking fifteen years to prepare and finally direct this excellent but bleak depiction that hit your local independent cinema back in 2000. It’s a faithful retelling and sheds more light on the swell of cultural activity that gave us Abstract Expressionism in post-war America.

The artists shared a similarity of outlook rather than of style — a perspective characterised by a spirit of revolt and a belief in freedom of expression. The foremost exponents were Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko, but other artists included Guston, Kline, Newman and Still. The movement was hugely successful, partly due to the efforts of the critics Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg who also originated the terms Action Painting and American Type. Looking back, it seems like painting was actually exciting; the awe displayed by the film’s supporting characters when faced with a brand new Pollock. It’s refreshing to try and imagine how painting was the number one box office smash, the ultimate artwork, and equally sad to lament it’s now diminished role in comparison to dead sharks, blood heads and chatty shag-beds so admired today.

Also, Pollock is portrayed as a man who (when sober) could articulate his reasons for painting, and the aims of the movement as well as any critic. Equally, when pissed as a fish, his whole demeanour and clouded understanding of his world are grounded in his work. It makes you question if anyone cares that much now. Does any artist live within this maelstrom today? Are today’s artists truly burdened by their own integrity, genuinely motivated to shape their entire existence around their work? Maybe, but they will be few, and fewer still will also have the guts and genius to shape the way we look at our world. Don’t get me wrong, Pollock was a bastard to those around him, and a few days off (and off the ale) would’ve been a good thing in his case, but one cannot help but be inspired by the overall package: incredible work and incredible commitment, character and inspiration.

So then, how do I now feel about picking up a brush? “Do you ever feel like painting again?” I was asked as I set the video to rewind. I’m still not sure, so I’ve decided to list what I see as the pros and cons of the matter:

Pros

  • I enjoy painting.
  • I know how to apply paint. I know how to get the best from the paints. I know when to stop painting.
  • I feel I can interact with it as a medium. I enjoy the process.
  • The few reviews I received were very positive about my paintings
  • My paintings were often good enough to attract buyers.

Cons

  • The way I paint is costly.
  • I make big paintings, so I need a studio or committed space.
  • In terms of my development as an artist, painting might be a step back.
  • I’m fearful of the way painting has become ‘decorative’.
  • I don’t want to exhibit ‘my paintings’ to an audience.
  • I’m concerned that I’d have to exhibit under a pseudonym in Nottinghamshire.
  • I have precisely zero hours per week to paint.
  • The whole thing would be incredibly self-indulgent.
  • Painting was increasingly irrelevant to my subject matter.

So, more cons than pros. I’m not sure what to do. I have spoken with a couple of people about working together on an installation I have been thinking about, maybe to exhibit in Nottingham in 2005. Perhaps that’s what I’ll do. Or, maybe I’ll start painting again when I’m 60 years old, in some coffin-dodging active retirement stance. Either way, it’s been useful to work through these thoughts.

Please email me, or comment below if you have any advice, disagree with me, or have a shedload of old oil paint to sell. In the meantime, I’ll steer clear of artist biopics and try not to think too hard. Tomorrow’s another day.