perfection in imperfection
As I hung off of a scaffold, dangling, with one arm clutching onto the rusted bars of the scaffold, the other arm straining to spackle a nail on a twenty five foot ceiling, something happened to me. There, in the middle of a cavernous, gaudy mansion in East Hampton, New York, I suddenly realized that I hated straight lines. And, I hated smooth surfaces. I hated minimalism. I hated sameness. I hated anything that was perfect. The epiphany was as clear as day, the revelation as blinding as the light which struck Saul on his way to Damascus. After applying spackle over screw number 2,715, 322, I realized that I would never be able to undo my new found aversion to perfection.
Fast forward five years. My wife and I had just rented our new apartment in Florence, and to celebrate we decided to have some wine. Sitting at our kitchen table, I popped open the cork and placed it down on its side on the table. It rolled, as corks will do. It kept rolling. Hmm, strange. It kept on rolling, and fell off the table. On and on it went, happily skipping across the room. The melody of the song “I Lost My Poor Meatball…” was running through my mind. The cork rolled clear across the room, through a doorway, into our bedroom, and was stopped by a wall thirty feet away from the table. I was absolutely elated. I giddily looked around, and suddenly I understood my subconscious motives in renting such a glorious apartment that we really couldn’t afford: it was not perfect.
The doors were askew, the timbers (functional wood timbers which ran across the ceiling) were gnarled and slightly serpentine, the floors were all unintentionally sloped, and the walls… oh, the glorious walls, they were beautiful. The plaster walls were cracked, and kind of yellow, and crooked, and didn’t meet at 90 degree angles. The archways would make Palladium vomit, they were so wonderfully asymmetrical. The walls were paintable (in an oil on linen type way, not latex on plaster.).
One day, when speaking with a talented, old Italian cabinet maker in the back alleys of Florence, I heard a phrase uttered in his conversation. The phrase was “Perfection in imperfection.” He uttered it with such deep pride, I realized it was his mantra. When he, with mallet in chisel in hand, would carve the gnarled claw at the bottom of a leg of furniture, he would leave his chisel marks. He never sculpted two legs entirely the same, he always let his excellent human hands bring out an organic finish. “In China, they don’t use chisels, they have boring, perfect lines” he muttered as he worked. He was exactly right- his furniture was entirely imbued with the human spirit, from the delicate scrollwork at the top, to the claw and ball foot at the bottom.
When I work with my students, I try and convey this idea of perfection in imperfection. Mark Twain knew it when he wrote Huck Finn, Vladimir Horowitz knew it when he glided up and down the piano and sometimes left out notes, and Bob Dylan knew it when he sang… umm, just about every song.
As I whiled away my days painting, I came to a different understanding of the objectives of art. I was not anymore preoccupied with perfection, I was, rather, concerned with what was beautiful. I painted the alleyways, delighting in the drunken walls leaning towards eachother, watching them stagger and extend an arch to the other wall when they lost their balance. I painted the figure models, and tried to embrace the humanity of the person, rather than the idealized something beyond the person. What was beautiful in Italy was never homogenous, was never burdened by sameness.