Thursday, May 2, 2013

Home unaware that it's home

Home unaware that it's home, after Marina Tsvetaeva. 12"×24" (30.5×61cm). Oil on canvas. December 2012
Joseph Brodsky once said that writing poems is addictive because it involves a different thinking process, an increased speed of thinking; the language you are serving helps you along, and you arrive at thoughts you would never have come across in any other way. Or that's how I remember it anyway... 

The process of painting this painting wasn't swift by any stretch of imagination, but it did, ultimately, help me realize a very fundamental thing, which I might not have understood otherwise; about myself, and the world, and my place in this world. Or rather: about the non-existence of such a place in the conventional, material sense of the world. 

See, ever since I've started representing myself as a painter, I kept experiencing a momentary, fleeting discomfort whenever I had to name the place where I am located, or "based", as the usual phrase in artists' introductions happens to go. It is, indeed, conventional, to start such introductions with the name of a place. And I understood all along how it might be relevant: after all, paintings should be viewed "in real life", right? And that's easier if the painter's studio is close to where you are. And I wrote an honest, plain truth about where I am; so, wherefore the discomfort, this momentary pain of misalignment between what I am saying and what I am feeling? 

Although I've never given this feeling a second thought (or so I imagined), this question, or rather its somewhat deeper version is the one that got gradually answered in this particular process of painting, which had spanned more than three years.  

An old barn. 8"×16", Oil on canvas panel, July 2009

The long road to this painting had three visible, documented steps. The first one (sold long ago) was done en plein air, in the nearby Picchetti winery; here it is, on the left. What attracted me to the scene in the first place was a pure visual enjoyment in the natural rhythm of long, swift diagonals, which connected together the areas of light and shadow on the ground, the roof of the barn, and the upper edge of the trees. 

An old barn. 12"x24". Oil on canvas, August 2009 
But the initial plein air study was inevitably richer in real-life details and color variations: in the studio work on a somewhat larger canvas, I've made an attempt to simplify the scene and strengthen its major rhythms. This attempt, successful to some extent in its own terms, left the painting in the state of emptiness: the material richness of real-life impression was gone, as though in a memory, but a memory devoid of any emotional meaning, almost a pure exercise in geometry.

The idea for the latest rework came more than three years later, one early December morning, while we were driving through the town of Fremont where we now happen to live. The December light in this area can be quite magical, almost otherworldly – especially contrasted with its very pragmatic, and often downright ugly, architecture. The strangeness of it, the fleeting of awareness of somewhat surrealistic randomness of this moment in time and place, overwhelmed me: what is it that we are actually doing, on the eve of 2013, in Fremont of all places, as though that's where and when we are supposed to be; as though that's where we belong. It's not our time, it's not our place, and yet here we are, rather cozy, on a random domestic errand.

There is a poem to go with this particular feeling, the feeling of an uprooted human being, who, most of the time, finds this state of rootlessness quite fitting, in harmony of their inner state of mind; the feeling of momentary disruption of this harmony, the hint of a vanished, unrealized life. A poem by probably the most tragic Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva, who had spent much of her adult life in emigration (and then came back to Russia, to an even more tragic experience, and, ultimately, a suicide). The poem defies translation, I believe, but the title of this painting contains a slightly hidden reference to it. And this is what this painting is now about, with its contrast between the original pastoral scene and the way it's being seen.

That's how many of my paintings come to be: a visual impression pulls out of my mind a memory of a poem, or a poem triggers a memory of my own visual impression, innocently stored in the brain or even painted en plein air at some point; this creates a spark of energy which transforms into a painting. But this one has given me something more than this: I understood not only why I am feeling this discomfort while naming Fremont as my location, but also why I am here.  

You see, there is an expiration date on things in our life that we can  honestly attribute to randomness, or childhood influences, or any other external circumstances. There comes a time when one can safely assume that everything in their life is, in one way or another, chosen or even "made" by oneself: neither good luck nor bad fortune, just one's very own self. Although the reasons for our living in Fremont were disguised by a thin veil of "circumstances" which had lead us here (although there is a variety of places in this world that we would have preferred), it was we, ourselves, who had brought us here, however random and strange this place might seem.   

It's not the first time in this post that I use the word "random", and that's not an accident. Because the very randomness of this place, its arbitrariness, its lack of pull on my imagination, which might have tempted me to feel "rooted" here: these are the very reasons I am here. It might have been another, equally random, town; it doesn't really matter. If the place where I live did matter, it would be another place entirely. A grand metropolis with a thriving cultural life; a beautiful beach or a mountain range; a medieval town soaked in rich layers of history: all these might have tempted me to feel rooted again, to become attached to a place, to feel as though it were home, my place in the universe and, in the end, to distract me from my genuinely real life, which happens inside my head and within my studio. 

As it is, I am both here and nowhere; I am a passerby with a studio, still, as ever, a rootless cosmopolitan, in love with many places, but not really with either. My place in the universe is not geographical at all, it's defined in other dimensions.      

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