Genesis (triptych), Acrylic paint and graphite on three 12"x 16" boards; 2021.
I survived. It was that simple. I was spit out of a spiraling vortex where there was no consciousness of this reality, where cause and effect had no meaning or nothing else had meaning. Nothing had meaning, nothing had value, nothing was named. All that existed…was nothing.
All I could do was stay alive. Breathe in and breathe out. Pump blood through my veins. Give nourishment to my vital organs. I learned to kill with my bare hands and I learned to like it. I could fashion weapons from anything around me. A rock. A stick. My tears.
I survived. I resorted to cannibalism and I ate myself. I focused all of my energy on devising ways to kill, and in doing so, I realized that the more life I snuffed out, the safer I became. No other life became more important than my own.
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.
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.
John Greiner-Ferris is an artist in the Boston area. Sometimes he makes images. Sometimes he writes. Sometimes he does both.