kev, maybe you should just paint
I was invited to a workshop and lecture by the world famous painter, Odd Nerdrum. I have been following his work for years. He is probably the most famous realist artist that our age has to offer. His exhibits draw tens of thousands of people. His books sit on the shelves of every major bookshop across the world. His facebook page comments elicit hundreds of responses in just hours. His spittle is bottled and sold as magic old master syrum, guaranteed to make your paintings glow like the masters. His nose hair is bound into brushes. His… I guess you get the idea.
With years of expectation built up, it was with a bit of nervous anticipation that I entered the room. As the door creaked open, I saw a figure hunched over on a stool, its face buried beneath a mess of straggly grey hair, body swathed in what appeared to be a linen nightgown. He opened his mouth “And so, we find that Kant was the greatest artist ever, because he was not an artist. He was an artist of artists, who saw what was before what was to be was and is. But, Apelles, most brilliant of all men, was the greatest painter of all men, yet we have no painting by Apelles, but rather the testimony of Apelles’ wheel, spinning in motion in the continuum of time, motion in stillness.” A mere ten seconds had passed, and I was crestfallen. Here is a great figure of the realist movement, arguably the most famous face of naturalistic and representational painting- and he seems to be performing an act. Maybe I am sensitive to such artifices because I spent a good period of my childhood being dragged off to evangelical tent revivals, where a prophet would mysteriously walk onto the stage, stare at the sky, furrow his brow, and assume the role of conduit between heaven and earth. “I, I am speaking to you of these things, to enlighten you. Philosophy is the element of painting, philosophy is painting, without philosophy, you have no painting. The men who think, the most brilliant men on earth, they are the greatest painters. And the greatest painters are the most brilliant men on earth.” A woman in front of me was nervously playing with her iPhone, and when Odd lowered his head for a moment, she raised her iPhone to take a photo- he suddenly lifted his head, stared at the woman, and boomed loudly “NO, NO PHOTO. NO PHOTO!!!! I do not like photos. I do not like photos.” Then he fell to quiet mumblings.
When he announced a break, the room fell to nervous chattering. He walked off to the corner of the room, and quietly conversed with a few individuals who had traveled with him from Scandinavia. Eventually, somebody asked him if he was going to paint. He spoke “I paint in mystery. When I was young, I discovered that if you have an element of mystery in your canvas, it keeps people standing in front of it longer. So I paint mysteriously.” He walked over to the easel, and began to set up. He did not fuss with palettes or stretcher bars or mediums or anything. He just took some box tape, borrowed a panel from an attending artist, mixed up some basic colors, and began to paint with his fingers. Within seconds, a hauntingly beautiful image began to take shape. It was astonishing. It was beautiful. It was weird, but, it was beautiful. He spent the next couple of hours in silence, periodically broken with engimatic utterances as a response to questions. A timid old woman finally mustered the nerve to ask “Mr. Odd, ummm, what do you look at when you paint?” “Ah, I am looking at Rembrandt, and you are looking at me.”
At the end of the class, he gathered everybody around. “I have something to say. Modern art, Andy Warhol: They tried to take away my fantasy. They tried to take away my mythology. They said I could not paint these things. Modern art tried to take my voice away from me. I would not let them. I stayed close to Rembrandt.” It was a refreshingly honest word, the first direct thing he had said all day. At the first sign of sincerity, I was touched- we all were. Suddenly, I wondered: maybe it’s not all an act. Maybe he is, geniunely, this weird. Maybe he just really likes wearing linen nightgowns, in the middle of Manhattan. It’s possible. One thing was certain, he is a talented painter, and I learned from watching him paint.
A lecture followed, in which a large auditorium was filled with scores of Odd Nerdrum devotees. People had flown from Texas, driven from Maryland, from Canada, all to hear him speak. He assumed the lectern with a solemn, awful silence, like a druid in a forest at midnight. He stood silently, until the room quieted down. He spoke. “Immanuel Kant was the greatest artist, most brilliant man who ever…” and he proceeded along the same route. But this time, his thoughts were coming across more clearly. “Philosophy, philosophy, that is the basis of all painting. Rembrandt, Velazquez, Apelles… these men were philosophers, not painters. They were very smart, you see. And if you read philosophy, you will find that you are suddenly transported to another level. I know a young man, who came to study painting with me. He was not smart. I directed him in the way of books and philosophy, and he became smart over the years. Now he is a very great painter. Because he is smart. If you too study philosophy, you will have a hard time communicating with those in your family- your mother, your grandmother, your aunt… Beauty is only seen in that which has suffered. And so, one must despise the gracious line of a woman’s neck, the flower in a field, yes, even the laugh of a child. Is this right? All great art is timeless. It does not refer to any modern accoutrements. Modern society has not produced anything beautiful- its buildings are ugly, its material is without beauty. Men wear jeans, to conform, instead of true clothes. All artists are refugees from society, because the true artist criticizes society, and society cannot call them its own. The prophet, he is the great one, the one who is the refugee, the one to whom all society will turn, when it realizes that his criticisms are true. American art is not great, because it does not suffer. You have a lot of money. It is not money, but philosophy, intellect, and suffering.”
Instantly, it all made sense. I remembered a painting by Odd, a self portrait which he entitled “The Saviour of Painting, the Prophet of Painting.” That’s what this all was. This whole workshop was his press conference in New York City, in which he cements his role as the leader of all painting. What is the deal with all of these megalomaniacs, trying to take over the world? Why do artists have to be so weird?
I was infuriated. I raised my hand. “Umm, excuse me, Odd, I disagree with you so strongly, I don’t know where to begin.” Every head in the room turned and looked at me. “Mark Twain said “The gods value morals alone; they have paid no compliments to intellect, nor offered it a single reward. If intellect is welcome anywhere in the world, it is in hell, not in heaven.” You know, philosophy is not the source of art. People are. The human spirit is. In fact, a very stupid person, with an inferior intellect, could be the source of the greatest work of art. What’s more, philosophy is not found in books. It is everywhere. The taxi driver who drove you here, to this lecture hall- that taxi driver had his own philosophy. A few years ago, I came back from Europe, and couldn’t see anything beautiful around me. I was elitest. I hated all of the strip malls around me. And then, I was in a parking lot, sitting in my car, and I saw a woman standing in a bus stop. And, she started crying. Her little daughter held on, and the mother wept and leaned against the pole. That woman had a philosophy, and its up to us artists to discover the world within her. That’s what Rembrandt did, tried to capture the beauty of the human spirit- not trying to be the greatest philosopher ever. You know what would be a good painting? That taxi driver from the middle east, sitting in his taxi, with his meter and modern accoutrements beside him, staring out the window.”
The room exploded. People started to yell out “Yeah, he’s right. You don’t need to paint people suspended in space, in togas, in order to have great art.” “Yeah, you’re right, art can be as simple as life itself.” Another person sided with Odd, and disagreed with us. “If time is within the continuum of space and eternity, then the Mona Lisa best portrays that which is eternal and yet anchored in…” and on he babbled. The senior editor of the biggest art magazine in the country was clearly invigorated by this upset, and looked over and said “Anarchy!” As the room continued on in this fashion, I sat quietly. The magazine editor had a nice way about him, and was clearly interested in where the conversation had gone. Then looked at me, and said “Excuse me, excuse me. Young man.” The room was silenced. “Young man, let me ask you: What is philosophy?”
I said “The love of wisdom.”
He said “No, it isn’t. It’s a spiritual searching, it’s a consuming quest, it’s…”
“Philosphy literally comes from the Greek words “Philo” and “Sophia.” The love of wisdom. And anybody can have wisdom. Rich or poor, stupid or smart.”
The room continued to buzz, and Odd eventually regained control. He finished his lecture, and I nervously made my way out the door.
Later that evening, I attended a demonstration by Nelson Shanks. He is the kind of person that, if you ask him for directions to the restroom, he will somehow manage to fit into his response that they he painted Lady Diana and President Clinton. I had been prepped by a legion of artists beforehand concerning this. And he did not fail to disappoint. In a very fashionable, downtown art club, he stood with one hand on his hip, and twirled the brush above his head, in the air, then attacked the canvas with pinky extended. I tried to get a photograph of this foppery, but his painting hand was always moving in such rapid, delectable dalliances that I could not capture it on film. Nelson draped a prominent social figure in the most horrific, gold, curtain fabric that ever was vomited out of Sodom and Gomorrah. And, in front of a delighted audience of 200 or so, with a Hi-Def camera crew recording every detail, he painted. He spoke of his immensely successful exhibition in Moscow. And as he painted, it was evident to all that Nelson Shanks was, indeed, a very talented realist painter. He captured her likeness in just brushstrokes. I left half way through.
As I made my way to the train, my head was spinning. Here they are, international celebrities of the art world… and I have never believed less in painting as an art form. It all seemed like a show. Does art always have to assume such caricature when it assumes the stage?- the mysterious shamanism of Odd Nerdrum, the contrived aristocracy of Nelson Shanks? Disillusioned, I dwelled on these things. Then, I asked myself if I was just jealous. Maybe I was just an obscure little artist, thumbing my nose at anybody who made it big. No, I couldn’t say that was the case- I have endless praise for some of the biggest contemporary names, from David Leffel, to Andrew Wyeth. Painters who paint beauty, with sincerity.
I spoke to Margaret, my wife, for a long time about all of these things. After a couple hours of conversation, she just paused and said “Kev, maybe you should just paint.”
I went to the Riverhead jail two days ago. I asked the inmates if they would like to be in a painting. I set up my easel. I painted them for three and a half hours, working and talking with them all the while. They skipped their lunch to sit for me. One of these men never knew his father- when he was fifteen, somebody told him that his father had just been found dead, and it made no difference “because your father was a worthless drunk anyway.” The convict continued on “And that’s when I decided I was going to be just like my dad- do drugs, and drink myself to death.” Another prisoner told me about the guilt of his crime, how he was an idiot, was dealing heroine and deserved his sentence. Another man told me how his father left when he was an infant, and how much he had loved his grandmother, and how much she had loved him. He was going to get out of jail soon, and said he was going to live his life for his grandmother, now deceased, the only person who had ever loved him. I finished painting them, and they thanked me so much for coming, asked me to send pictures of the painting to their girlfriends and brothers, asked me to come back soon. “This is the only worthwhile thing that’s happened to me, in this jail.”
The Prisoners, 4 feet by 4 feet, three hours progress
“When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.