What can this possibly mean? Is it my commentary on the state of affairs in the United States? The world? The pandemic? Modernism? All of the above? And why all this pretentious French?
I want to raise questions. 'Cause you have to think and interact with the painting. (I just don't get modern art, you say? That's like saying you don't understand a chair. You sit in a chair and you look at a painting, and that's all you need to know.) Except...except...dear viewer, I think you need to do more than just look at a painting; you need to interact with the painting. You need to engage! Theater nor painting, despite what I just wrote above about just looking, are not spectator sports. You must interact with them. You don't just buy a ticket to a play, sit back in the seat, and say, Ok, entertain me. You respond, you give the actors your energy so they can do their jobs. Nor do you look at a painting and say, entertain me. Do you speak French? Non? Then pull out your phone and pull up Google Translate. There, you've begun engaging. You do speak French? C'est bon! And isn't my French terrible? What about that? I know people who speak French; why didn't I call on them. Maybe I wanted the French to be bad. And the red, white, and blue? U.S. colors. And French and Russian, too! If that's as far as you get in one of my pieces, well, fine, I guess. But if I've hooked you somehow, keep going. That's what I want.
When not on the page, it's not that a word's meaning diminishes, it's that it has to share its essence with other artistic elements, starting with the painting itself; with the thing that has been made. Words on a page have been put there by the writer, the typesetter, the publisher, in a way that makes the words stand out alone, emphasizing them and putting them on the page to show them with the intent to best communicate meaning that the order of the letters dictate. That changes when words are used to paint. In painting, even the reason for language has a different purpose.
To Be Human. Acrylic paint and colored pencil on board; 16" x 12". 2021
"There is a reason we have developed emotions such as empathy, kindness, compassion, and hope. We are a species capable of destroying ourselves. We developed these emotions out of survival. If we hadn’t, we probably would have destroyed ourselves long ago."
The quote comes from a much longer monologue from a play, Turtles, that I wrote. The monologue ends with that line, "...and that is what it means to be human."
Some might say, some might accuse, that artistically I like to obfuscate. That's not it at all. What it is, is that I don't like to give pat answers to questions, and I like to raise more questions than answers. I want the viewer or the reader to work. When they work, versus just sitting back a la Netflix and having information or opinions spoon-fed into their brains, as if the tops of the their heads were lifted up like so many lids off the slop bucket and the remnants of the dinner plates scraped in, people evaluate their own opinions and values. So, if the viewer works just a little bit, they'll get the gist of what I'm saying, and might come up with something on their own.
And by God I love color. It's really hard for me to pull back on color. Even when you think I'm painting black, I'm painting color. It's not black, but more than likely phthalo blue mixed with a little Mars black, not the other way around.
At night I feel safe. There's no one around. I see maybe one or two people in 45 minutes. Last night though, I was changing batteries under a streetlight near an intersection. There was no one else around except me, and then a car pulled up across the intersection. But the driver stayed, his car idling at the stop sign. Who was this person (me) acting suspiciously? Who points a camera up into a tree at night? The driver eventually drove away, I hurried home, and no police came to check on me.
Nothing never ends the way I imagine it: paintings, stories, plays. And that's the fun of it all--the discovery. What you see and learn along the way about the world and yourself and your place in the world. If that doesn't happen, I get bored and stop. (It's the reason I quit acting and starting writing plays and making theater instead; I stopped learning about the world and myself from acting.)
I had an idea for this painting and started it and the painting pretty much said, nope, I don't want to do that, I want to do this. It is exactly like listening to the characters as you write a story. And you can pretty much hear the clunking sound every time when a writer inflicts themselves into the story, where everything goes flat and you're removed from the world of the story.
By listening to your painting you become a better painter. With the painting there is a teacher/student relationship. Don't ever think you know more about painting than the painting.
And if I could explain it in all words I wouldn't have painted it.
Kill Your Television; Acrylic paint, graphite, charcoal, and colored pencil on board; 11" x 14"; 2021
I think more than usual, people are waking up today looking back on the year in absolute awe. How did we make it? I turned 65 this year, and it surprised me to no end. How did I get this far? How did I survive this long? You feel thankful, and a bit apprehensive, noting the ages of people who died this year and calculating how many more years that would have been for me, that's me dead in five years, that's in three years, God love them, if I were that person I'd live twenty-five more years. Let's not forget the knee surgery I had that has both humbled and humiliated me. For the first time in our lives my wife has to walk more slowly so I can keep up. Talk about feeling like an old dog.
But it makes you also feel even more grateful for being alive. Every bit of work I had lined up, every bit of ground that I laid in 2019 in order to make money or advance my art....gone, in a matter of a day. My first solo show, cancelled. All my commercial work, dried up. Theater? Gone, but even though one of my plays was a semi-finalist at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Festival this year, I really haven't made any theater since late summer 2017 anyway. And it makes me grateful, maybe, for the pandemic, odd as that sounds because I finally started doing studio art again, something I've been wanting to do for a very long time. I mean, I would be making theater, my own theater--living the dream!--and I'd be thinking of paint-splattered hands and palette knives. I love working with palette knives; like painting with ice skates. I found theater so constrictive, the artists are constrained in their disciplines. Yeah a playwright might also act, and maybe even direct, but it's rare. And you'd never see, for example, something as weird as a playwright/set designer or a light designer/actor. They just don't think in terms of mulitdisciplinary work. It's as if they've never heard of installation art, and I think that pretty much sums up how I approach theater, as one giant installation. (Imagine telling an installation artist they can't design and build the installation, light it, write and record the soundscape.) And when death and despair is all around you, everywhere in the news, and Trump and his loyalists are set on destroying civilization, what else to do but create? I keep saying, you can't keep a creative person down.
So, since about April, I think I've single-handedly kept Blick from going bankrupt. With the nice weather we had this spring, I worked on an old table on the front porch, and when the weather got bad, I commandeered the kitchen table. Sue has been wonderful and understanding. If I have a painting going, we'll now eat Japanese-style, on our knees, at the coffee table in the middle room. And while I wish I had studio space where I could work bigger and could use spray paint, well, you have to always look on the bright side and working in the kitchen means you're next to the refrigerator and the coffee pot.
What does all of this mean? What is that question even asking? Always looking for meaning. Right now I'm happy just to be playing. Artists should always go out of their comfort zone, and I'm certainly doing that. Artists should push themselves and I'm certainly doing that, too. Ten years ago I was in grad school and after that it was the fat years of forming theater companies, being supported by grants, getting residencies. I doubt painting will lead me to comparable heights (you do note the sarcasm, right?) and I'm glad for that. I've always been able to write (and photograph). Painting is something I'm doing with very little experience, without a very much hope of success, except maybe of course my own happiness. And I think my lack of training is an asset. I'm training myself not to get depressed when I look at the low number of followers I have on Instagram, or when I get only a handful of likes. Something that killed theater for me was how commercial it all got, worrying about ticket sales and clicks and insurance. If I don't get a lot of followers, a lot of likes, it lets me work quietly, by myself, without any noise. No noise. That's what happens when I paint. It blots out the noise.
This is how it starts. This is what the first hours into a painting look like. I have an idea, but I don't know how to get there. So I just...do anything. Today I laid down some lines, in charcoal and pencil, using carpenter tools. And then I started laying down a base, but didn't like it, so got out the old trusty palette knives and started scraping and shoving. And it started to get there but my lack of talent and experience makes the going slow. But today I learned a lot. A lot of what might be the beginning of a JGF painting (just like my friends like to refer to a JGF play or story, filled with oddball characters and weird twists and turns of the plot, and death, lots and lots of death.) I think that's all I want for now: I just want to be left alone so I can get better at painting and discover what a JGF painting is.
I wish I had a proper studio. One that I didn't need to clean up by suppertime, and the next day set it all up again. Where I could spread out, and have all of my supplies within reach, and I wouldn't need to be so concerned about making a mess. I could make pictures that were big, at least three or four feet on the long side. Where there was plenty of light, and a corner with a table where I could write and edit photographs. (And while I'm at it, a nice big screen that displayed my images beautifully, with a high-end Epson printer at the ready.) And I'd like a sink, please, that was as paint-spattered as a rag.
John Greiner-Ferris is an artist in the Boston area. Sometimes he makes images. Sometimes he writes. Sometimes he does both.