Monday, December 11, 2006

beyond the surface

It's odd where conviction comes from sometimes. I'm reading essays on visual art by John Updike. It's strictly his erudite opinions on specific pieces of art or artists themselves through their body of work. The writing that struck me was commentary on John Singer Sargent, an American ex-pat living in Europe most of his formative and creative years. He was a consummate portrait painter of upper crust English and American bluebloods. No one touched him in skill of medium or subject handling. Yet, many have said, his portraits left something wanting, either by their utter perfection of execution, or lack of psychological revelation and/or both.

I do not even dare to compare myself to Mr. Sargent. He is in a class by himself as a portrait artist. But I look at my portraiture now, particularly charcoals, wherein I copied from Sargent himself to perfect my own skills. I wonder now to myself, is there something wanting? Am I so cocksure of myself that I let disdain and lack of a challenge keep me where I am? My last client was so overwhelmed by the perfection of a double portrait I did for her mother she ordered me not to touch a thing and told me she's starting on next year's Christmas gifts right away. On the one hand I was glad and really flattered-I knew the piece was very good. I'm able to transcend the school photos and pedestrian snapshots fairly easily. On the other, was I so bored and willing to be ok with this that I don't even think about the responsibility my gifting entails? Maybe I don't want to. I'm tired of "serious art".

Still, within my soul are stirrings that long to get past the Christmas commissions and into representing a world that perhaps can't be made beautiful, only honest. I'm thinking of putting together a series of portraits depicting people I'm meeting who have been through the wringer of life and have come through clean. My life is consumed now with people who are transforming and transcending their own life's old snapshots. They may not possess any outward beauty at all, but are their lives not worth putting on a canvas? Would the very act of trying create something more than what we all are sure of? It's a risk. Portrait shows are a hard, hard sell, and controversial or mundane subject matter even harder. I don't know. But isn't that what art is about, revelation-of the artist herself even as much as the subject she portrays? It's time to find out.


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