I was visiting Jerusalem for the first time a couple months ago, and of course I was overwhelmed by the fervor, the history, the chaos and the magnificence, but I wondered, how can I possibly paint all that? It was when I was wandering through the Arab market stalls and I spotted a staircase going up above to some invisible place, that I knew my artistic curiosity was going to intervene. A vendor nearby noticed my halt and encouraged me with, “You should go up. It’s beautiful up there.” There I was on the rooftops of the Arab quarter of Jerusalem, satellite dishes and wires everywhere, children playing on the roof protrusions, laundry of every color strung out to dry in the fading afternoon. Then as if this weren’t enough, just behind, in the distance, the dome of the Mount glistening in all of its splendor. This was to me an extraordinary mingling of decadence, opulence and modernity. I even liked the cable dishes. I felt fortunate, as if everything was going to be okay because I saw it. Nothing and no one could have stopped me from painting it.
I started the above painting yesterday, and though it is not finished yet, I thought I would do a post about it to show a bit of my painting process, which often is more about thinking about the painting and the subject, rather than the actual application of paint. The idea for this painting came about the other day when a friend of mine was telling me about a musician friend of his, an Israeli jazz electric guitarist, who was feeling discouraged. This made me think yet again about the battle artists must fight alone. You must believe in your technical abilities and artistic mission and strive always to take the right path, but something will come along periodically that questions your very existence. When one decides to become an artist, they make this choice with the understanding that it actually serves no purpose other than to put on canvas what you observe, think, and feel. The world will go on without you and despite you, as W.H. Auden voiced so well with Musee des Beaux Arts:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
–W.H. Auden, 1940
Of course, we wish as painters that our labor and love would not go to naught, but this brings me to another point I wanted to share. I believe that there are a lot of artists out there who paint in a classical, realistic, or impressionist way in terms of style and then they try to throw themselves into each painting with impressive strokes and impastos or through photographic realism to show off their talents. I am starting to dislike this even more as I continually look at art, for I believe that the beauty of nature should take the limelight, and the artist should simply be trying to paint the subject in the best possible way. The artists that I most appreciate and respect are those that strive to be humble and sincere, and I aim to follow their example. Though artists try to throw a noose around beauty and “capture” it on the canvas, they must constantly keep their eyes open to everything, for some pretty striking things could appear in a dark corner. Some artists might think they have developed a trademark style or stroke that can become popular, but in my opinion, it should be the subject which dictates how it should be painted. Sometimes, I question gobs of impasto on something as smooth as skin or onions, or spending years on a painting to include every single reflection or wrinkle that they see in a photograph. Sure, it takes skill to pull it off, but there should be an underlying humble and sincere reason for painting the subject. Just as figurative painters might question the validity of drip paintings and installations, they must also question the validity of their own painting if they truly want to contribute as figurative artists. An unpleasant and difficult thought I know, but this is the battle of the artist.