Narrative Urges

The paint is drying on the rather loose 18 x 36 of giant blue penises, and I find myself wallowing in the introspection that comes when you’ve got a show on the horizon, and you aren’t working on it, so you wallow because if you’re THINKING about art, that’s sort of like doing something, right?

I think the problem is that I like my own art fine, but my art is not the kind of art I like. If that makes any sense.

See, my art–if you’ll indulge me a moment in naval-gazing–is basically narrative. I’m really less an artist than a storyteller. Art, writing, doesn’t matter. It’s all about the weird little story. The vast majority of my paintings are basically highly elaborate single panel comics. (If I needed any proof of that, I need look no farther than the constant refrain “Will it have the little stories with it?”) I’m a reasonable competent painter, sure, some days I’m even better than competent* but if there’s any brilliance to the art, it lies in the concepts and the stories, not neccessarily in the renderings.

The complexity of the story varies, of course. Some of them are wrapped up neatly in one line. Some of them take a paragraph. A few of them–Donkey & Goldfish I stands out in my mind–obviously have a helluva lot going on, a complicated snarl of narrative that, years later, I still don’t know where to get my teeth in and start unwinding it.

There’s a few that aren’t, of course. The Klimt’s Whatevers series was basically “this looks cool.” Most of the Art Nouveau stuff, for whatever reason, doesn’t have much narrative, and is just kind of “Look! Cool and swirly!” Sometimes I’ll tack on more about the character–all those portraits of Celadon Toadstool, say–but I think Art Nouveau can just be passively pretty by itself and it’s okay. Possibly that’s why my old drawing instructor hated it.

At the end of the day, though, I can count those exceptions on the fingers of one foot. My work is mostly narrative.

And this is not a bad thing. Actually, this is a very good thing. The advice given to young artists is often full of this–don’t just do a portrait, have something going ON. Draw the viewer in. Make them wonder what’s going on. I am perfectly happy with the fact that my art is chock full ‘o story, given that my art career’s doin’ fairly well, and y’all are here for some reason, so I’m guessing you mostly like it too.


I look around, and the art on my walls, with very few exceptions, has no narrative at all. Big abstracts. Bird kachinas. Barong masks, which are what they are. Photos of statuary of Ganesh. A couple of still lifes my mother did. Again, a few exceptions–one of Gil Bruvel’s posters, Meg Lyman’s angel/devil octopi, and we could make a case that all the frog sex in the Bathroom of Monochromatic Lust is a very old story indeed. Still. The vast majority is mute.

I could stare at an abstract for an hour, but I wouldn’t be wondering if the swirly red bit and the jagged blue line are friends.

So when I get that itch, the change-everything-you-do-artistically itch, which we all get sometimes, god knows–at the bottom, I don’t think it’s about medium or style. I think I get this urge to get away from the most fundamental bit of my art, the urge to narrative. Sometimes I feel like it would be easier in another medium–ceramics, say. There is no story inherent to clay, and when people say “You could paint on clay!” I get this immediate visceral “NO!” because I could paint on anything–clay wants to be something else in my hands. (Usually what it wants to be is a misshapen lump, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The thing is, it’s hard. Narrative is what I DO. I get this urge to paint penises, (possibly because they are sufficiently iconic that they don’t need a story to justify them) and I start doodling them and before I know it, there’s one in a Little Red Riding Hood outfit confronting another penis in a wolf outfit, and I’m wondering what possible artist’s statement could ever pull this off without sounding completely depraved. The narrative creeps in. Storytelling is worked all through my bones, like some benign but intractable disease.

It’s not that I don’t love it. I do. It’s the defining characteristic of my creative life. I could never give it up permanently.

Still, sometimes I get these urges to do something that has no meaning and no story, nothing beyond “Look! Isn’t this cool?” And I don’t really know how to begin. This is so far down at the bottom of what I do that I don’t know how to get my teeth into it.

Does that make any sense?

*Some days I’m significantly worse, but we won’t talk about those…

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