Whales, Horses and the Hand

In praise of the hand (found on a trip to India several years ago)

Laurie Fendrich (painter/writer partnered with painter/writer Peter Plagens,) has written thoughtfully about the concept of a “mature” or “signature” style. “All serious painters, no matter the quality of their work, inevitably end up with a mature style,” she wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

She continues:

More than one student has asked me why I don’t ever change my painting style—to which I respond, “It’s not so easy.” My artistic habits—the way I put on paint, construct compositions, and come up with colors—are deeply entrenched at this point, and are as big a part of my style as my temperament. To alter them is not impossible, but there’d have to be a reason beyond anything I can imagine.

What does signatory actually mean in an artistic sense? What is the power of the hand, our hand? Willem De Kooning famously suffered from Alzheimers but still produced over 300 paintings during that last period of his life. Those late works are, in spite of his compromised mental capacity, essentially De Kooningian. The way he put on paint, constructed his compositions, came up with colors—all those entrenched proclivities that Fendrich identifies as the fundamentals of a personal style—were operative regardless of his cognitive degeneration.

All painters, no matter their style, start off as whales going through plankton—soaking up as much as they can from their teachers and from the history of art and all the art going on around them, and playing around trying out this or that way of painting a picture. Gradually, however, they evolve into horses with blinders—painters trotting along at a rapid clip, mostly focused on their own art, but occasionally looking to the right or left and seeing something that affects their gait. In their mature years, painters turn pigheaded. It’s the time of their lives when they can’t help themselves from stubbornly pursuing their one painting idea, whatever it is.

I’d rather stay a whale than be a blinkered horse. But is it really a choice? It is a fine line we walk, that is for certain. To find our way between gestures that are elementally ours and embracing the new and foreign; between repeated deep dives into that secret self—a cenote of complexity we continue to plumb for hidden treasure—and those breathtaking opportunities to throw everything overboard and start fresh.

How quickly I find myself right back in the paradox, the territory of the both/and, a place that is multi-dimensional and uncharted. This is navigation without a map (which is code for “I don’t have a clue.”)

But mapless and pathless travel is not without its own rewards. From the poet Kazim Ali:

You can search alongside others, but I don’t think others can help you understand your own nature…I’ve always been on my own, a single person in the field of physical matter, on his back looking up into oblivion…I’d rather be wandering in a trance through the streets of a busy city, peeling an orange and whispering to the universe than sitting in a pew listening to a sermon or kneeling on a rug reciting chapters.

4 Replies to “Whales, Horses and the Hand”

  1. Well, it is said art chooses us; I wander through experiences and what informs my art will grow and change. It is a slow transformation, hardly noticeable but grounded by my hand. I don’t think think about style, it just appears through the process. BG

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      I so agree and feel the same way. But I was caught by Fendrich’s quote because I am aware of a hardening of the categories–I am so compelled by what I see and what I am capturing, I can at times become blinkered indeed. Thank you for your comment.

      1. Well, yes, blinkered in the sense of narrow-minded is not a good thing but a horse wears blinders (is blinkered) to help it avoid distractions and stay focused while working. Not such a bad thing, I think.

        A person’s voice, especially a singer’s voice, changes over time but is still recognizably hers or his. Many writers explore similar themes, or the same theme, throughout their careers. Why must visual artists be tasked with relentless innovation? I’ve seen a lot of clumsy art with the sole virtue of being somehow “new.”

        As has been said in another context —
        I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it.


  2. that’s an extraordinary picture

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: