Saying something but not really saying anything at all. Have I lost you already? Bear with me.
A guy I went to high school with many years ago traveled through Europe and wrote a travel memoir of sorts. Even though I was still here in Australia I somehow graced its pages, albeit briefly.
John’s one of the most introspective and thoughtful people I know. He can be incredibly insightful. The flip side of this is that he’s always second-guessing himself. He also writes a lot of poetry that I rarely understand the significance of. I think his poems should include explanations, because all the imagery and motifs are usually things that a third party could never be expected to understand. And isn’t that part of why we write – to be understood?
The first time I read this I must concede I felt a little insulted. I thought my poems were so obvious. They felt dangerous to write and dangerous to share. But I have to admit that they were cryptic. Purposefully so. There was a lot boiling just beneath the surface and I needed to let it out, one way or another. So I wrote. (Well, actually, originally I scribbled. But ultimately I wrote.)
It was in effect telling something (to unburden my worried mind) without telling everything. The truth was I didn’t have a lot of friends, and I wasn’t sure who I could trust. And sometimes I was just channeling whatever music I was listening to – Tori Amos, Alanis Morissette, Sophie B. Hawkins. Sometimes certain imagery just seemed apt. Sometimes it was entirely about wordplay and alliteration and just the natural rhythms of syllables rubbing up against each other.
Someone asked me recently what my interest in their artwork was. And in unpacking my relationship to their visual artwork and photography I realised some things about my own visual arts output. And I was surprised at how little I wanted to explain things with words, even though I am first and foremost a writer. And I started to look at my paintings and drawings and saw them only as flat, meaningless snapshots. They don’t seem to have any obvious meaning or narrative. They are people generally, but who are these people? What is their relationship to me? What is my interest in them? It’s scarcely obvious from the images themselves… and I clearly don’t choose to explain it in words.
And perhaps this is only made more complicated by the way I choose to work – from photographs sourced on the Internet. Some of these people are dear friends, some are barely known to me. Sometimes the act of drawing a person is a way of initiating a conversation with them. If the likeness is at all compelling it’s almost a party trick, and it’s a better way of talking to someone on the other side of the world than say asking the time or making small talk about the weather. Sometimes my interest in them is sexual, sometimes it is romantic, sometimes it’s just aesthetic or primarily aesthetic – something about a facial feature or a particular look or stance or a curve or a line. Sometimes it’s about paying tribute to someone who has supported me, encouraged me, inspired me.
And I think increasingly it’s not so much about the artwork itself (my skills are frankly limited) but the effort, the care. The fact that I devote time and energy and attention to an individual for a period of time. And sometimes the output itself seems sorely inadequate, that when I draw a pencil likeness of my dear friend Davey it sort of fails to embody all the emotion I feel welling up inside me as I drag pencil across the page. That this act doesn’t originate from a specific desire to create art for its own sake, or for pencil practice, but from a deep desire to pay tribute to an extraordinary and unlikely friendship, to document a kind of everyday miracle.
But if you know that it is only because I have just told you as much. There’s nothing intrinsically about the drawing that embodies that information, at least nothing I can see.
So perhaps my paintings say nothing. Perhaps, like my high school poetry, they are too obscure.
And perhaps they could say more. Perhaps I could say more. Perhaps I could use all the tools in my arsenal to express the things I secretly wish to express.