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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Twenty Five

July 8, 2014

9 May 2014

the studio

It was shortly after noon when I sat down and Stephen Scott started to continue to paint his portrait of me at his Nashwaak Village home studio. We had been talking, over breakfast, about his summer plans. Every year he tries to get away from the Fredericton area that is “too fucking hot”, to quote him, and work elsewhere. Last summer he was in Sackville and that resulted in this project. “I have an offer to go to Minister’s Island which would be interesting,” he said.

“Where’s that,” I asked.

“Around St. Andrews. You can only get on and off the island at low tide.”

“You sure? What’s happens when you need a beer? Much less if you need to get to the hospital? There is a health thing, you know.”

“Islands are romantic.”

“So is a dead artist. You could come back to Sackville. It’s pretty nice in the summer as you know.”

“Actually the idea has crossed my mind more than once.”

He was working on the canvas with what looked like a two inch brush. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Covering up yesterday’s mistakes,” he replied.

“Jesus, you spend hours doing details then turn around and cover them. You’ll never finish at this rate.”

“I hate the fussy stuff. Sargent did the same things. He would spend thirty or more sittings on a portrait and then wipe it out and start all over again.”

“And then there’s Freud,” I added, bring up another favourite artist of Stephen’s.

“All my favourite artists are slow—wonder why?”

“Seems pretty obvious to me. You like artists who paint like you. It’s all about paint, isn’t?”

“You got me there. By the way, what do you think of Freud’s portrait of the Queen?”

“I don’t know if we talked about that before, but to me, he made her look like a British housewife from the 50s. He certainly didn’t idealize her.”

“It’s still a good painting.”

“I’m pretty sure that it’s not one of Queen’s favourites, but she had the balls to commission it.”

“I still admire Walter Sickert.”

“Of Jack the Ripper fame?”

“That’s bull shit, but he, like, Freud and Sargent were artists who can control their media,” Stephen said.

“But not without a fight,” I countered.

“Yes, the fight is the good thing and that’s what I’m doing with this painting of you.”

“Now it’s about who’s going to win: the painting or you.”

Stephen and I had talked a lot over the past year, during this project, about painting being a form of combat. Generally a combat that remains invisible to the viewer, but is all too obvious to the artist during the production of an art work. There are exceptions, like in the work of some abstract expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston or William de Kooning where the combat is very visible. The American critic Harold Rosenberg talked of abstract expressionism as action painting. But there is a lot of action in the paintings of Rembrandt, Hals, Sargent, Freud and, indeed, Stephen, only the action, the combat, is covered, brought to a cohesive whole, rather then being left visible on the surface as in a de Kooning or Guston.

“There’s a very delicate balance between skill and control,” Stephen said.

“By skill, I assume you mean technique?”

“Yes. There are certainly artists who have all sorts of skill or technique and still are not good artists.”

“I’m not sure about the reverse,” I replied, “I guess it’s possible to make good art without skill, but not very likely.”

“I would think that it would be more of an accident than anything else,” he said.

“Along the lines of a donkey painting a likeable abstract painting with his tail; the monkeys with typewriters thing.”

“Yeah, I’ve yet to see much high realism painted by donkeys, but anything is possible.”

“And I’m still waiting for the thousand monkeys to produce a really good book, but we’re left with the problem that art, whatever art is, is separate from technique, skill and, for that matter, control,” I said.

“If we can figure out what art, is our fortune will be made and I can stop painting right now. Speaking of stopping. Let’s have a cup of of coffee and you can tell me what you think.”

We went into the kitchen and while Stephen made the coffee, while I paid some attention to Echo, his dog.

“Stephen, I sure hope that we can pull this off and actually finish the painting in the gallery (The Beaverbrook) on schedule,” I said.

“I don’t think that we have much choice, do you?” he replied, “anyway, have a look before we start again.” He handed me a cup of coffee and we went back in the studio.

“Looks pretty good to me,” I said, “but we’re going to have to really figure out the hands. I think they’re sort of key to the painting. They define who I am, a writer.”

“Yeah, in an old fashioned way, since writers today write on computers and not longhand with a pen and paper.”

“True, I’m going to write this shit up on my Mac and publish on my blog, but all of notes are on this notebook. But the point of this whole exercise is a bit of an anachronism. A throw back to a 17th century oil portrait painting of a guy who is a writer. Hell, it’s a classical motif.”

“OK, sit down and we’ll throw ourselves back into the 17th. century.”

Stephen started his creative dance in front of the canvas. A dab here and a dab there. It’s kind of wonderful to watch him work on a large painting. There is a real energy in his movements which is a great thing, considering what he has been through with his illness, the cancer of the jaw, that in general as left him fatigued.

“You’re talking about motifs,” he said, “some change, others don’t. Look at guitar painting: Goya, Manet, Picasso. All made great pictures with the guitar as the central element.”

“Let’s not leave out the nude and women, in general, as an important motif.” I countered.

“You know who I still have a problem with is Balthus,” he relied.

“He is sort of a dirty Fred Ross or, perhaps, historically, Fred Ross is a cleaner version of Balthus.” I said.

“I like naked women as much as the next guy, but I just can’t get my head around the prepubescent little girls.” Stephen said.

“Yeah, the painting of him in the bathrobe is a bit much.”

“It’s hard to get around the nude, but difficult to do these days in our age of political correctness,” he added, “but we still have romantic landscape.”

“Romantic?”

“I’m too jaded to be a romantic,” he said.

“Bull shit, you’re full blown romantic. How about if I call you a post-romantic? No, make that neo-post-romantic as there was a post-romantic school in the 19th. century.

Not a bad name for a new school, Neo Post Romantism.”

“I like it. Let me write it down.”

“Well, Stephen, do you need cancer to go from a romantic to a neo-post-romantic?”

“Yes.”

“In that case, we are both neo-post-romantics. I want to make it clear that we are not rejecting romanticism, but we’re romantics is an age that rejects romanticism which is different from the postmodernists who want to reject all the tenets of modernism. You agree?”

“I think so, but I’ve got to think about it.”

“OK, go right ahead, but on second thought, maybe we should widen our base from only those who have survived cancer to artists who share our antiquated ideas. The good thing about the cancer bit is perhaps we could have our own colour like pink and breast cancer. Then we could all wear green hats or something.”

“Green? It’s not my favourite colour.”

“Most of the good colours have all been taken. Just a thought. I like the hat idea.”

“Where are we going with this conversation anyway?” he asked.

“Look surviving cancer is a big deal and it does give you a whole new focus on life. You always know that it might come back and kick you in the ass and that’s actually true in my case with prostate cancer. I decided after my bout with cancer and a heart attack that I might as well do and say what I want. The hell with convention. You only live once and in our case, perhaps, twice. You agree?”

“Of course, but it can be depressing.”

“Look, I’m further away from my cancer than you, but I was around your age when I was diagnosed and I’m still here and that was twelve years ago. I’m still pissed off, but it’s more about not doing what I should have done with my life. So paint like there’s no tomorrow.”

“I’ve been thinking about that realist tag. I think of myself more as an expressionist than a realist. Intention is the root of all things.”

“Intention is one thing,” I said, “and the result is another thing. To my mind, you’re a romantic and it’s my job to make up tags. Banging away with square pegs and round holes. In the end, it’s the painting that counts not the label.”

“Are you talking about labelling the artist or the art work?”

“Both. I guess an expressionist artist can paint a romantic painting and vice versa, but the art work stands alone despite an artist’s intention.”

“That’s a little hard to swallow. You saying that an artist doesn’t know what he’s doing?”

“Not really. It’s more about intention and labelling. If you call a painting expressionist and the rest of the world calls it romantic, it’s likely romantic, but the painting is the painting.”

“You’re losing me, I think it’s time to stop for the day and have a drink and, in your case, a stiff one,” he said.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Saturday, July 5, 2014.

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