The Allure of the Recognizable

I draw in public a lot, especially while riding the ferry or taking the subway. I don’t think much of it, since I draw all the time, but I realize it may seem unusual to watch someone attempt a detailed ink drawing while a subway car is jerking around. Then again, these are New Yorkers, who surely have seen everything.

I figured my drawing was largely unremarkable since people rarely remarked on it. Part of that might have been that I often have headphones on while I’m drawing, but I think it’s also the actual images, when people catch glimpses of them (I’m not the sort of person to hide my drawings with my coat sleeve, but I’m also not exactly putting them on display while I work on them). When I drew mostly abstract images, undulating folds and that kind of thing, few people commented, although once a teenage boy was delighted and asked to take a photo of this drawing.

Around Valentine’s Day, I did two drawings that were actually attached to real subjects, one a clumsy thing that turned into a rose, the other stemming from the idea that two people who were too much alike would end up attacking and consuming one another:

I happened to be sitting next to a guy who was telling his friend about his bitter divorce. Maybe he was more attuned to the subject matter on some subconscious level, and I think he figured I couldn’t hear him with my headphones on. He gestured toward me and said, “Jesus, that’s a hell of a drawing,” then asked his friend if he saw it. He may have gotten the same sense from an abstract field folding in on itself, but I believe it was the recognizable aspects of teeth, biting, and creatures with form that allowed him to have a visceral and immediate response to it.

Most of why I started carrying my sketchbook again and drawing more is because I want to get better at drawing. (Isn’t that ultimately why most people draw, in some way?) I’d like to more effectively marry what goes on in my head with what comes out of my hands, without relying on words and statements to do the heavy conceptual lifting. To that end, I realized that if I wanted to draw figuratively, I needed to actually draw figuratively, including specific, recognizable elements from the real world, or at the very least presenting the figures of my imagination in a language that others can understand.

I realize that feedback from strangers on the subway is hardly a gauge of whether art is successful or not, yet I do trust spontaneous comments to be a little more genuine than the studied, thinly veiled sarcasm masquerading as intellectualization and application of theory that I used to get during MFA critiques. After all, people don’t have to say anything, yet they do feel compelled to tap my arm and say something, even when I have my headphones on. Refreshingly, they don’t comment on the obviously “beautiful” drawings of plants and flowers or organic forms from nature. It’s almost always the drawings of hippogriffs, sea monsters, and bird creatures in bizarre surreal landscapes that elicit commentary. People struggle to find what they want to say exactly, because you don’t really want to call a monster beautiful, but they express an admiration of technical skill and a striking image, typically, “That’s really, really good.”

Anyone who’s been to art school in the last 10-15 years has probably been told, ad nauseam that figurative art is dead, that “no one paints that way anymore,” that to try to present something real in a fundamentally flat, Greenbergian plane is an amateurish fallacy, a dalliance with naivete, an utterly passè and dull pursuit. Yet human beings living in time and space are continuously drawn to things they recognize, to images that evoke memory and association, to triggers that don’t just “seem like” something they recognize, but actually are the thing in question. I think it’s a mistake to be as dismissive of popular opinion as artists and art world folk seem to be; when I really consider the art that’s praised and the art that’s dismissed, the overwhelming experience is one of the emperor’s new clothes, and someone’s got to be the one to say this is all nakedly absurd.

When I think of my all-time favorite paintings, very few are pure abstractions, even though I incessantly defend the liminal and sophisticated emotional power of abstraction. Usually I am drawn to abstracted versions of recognizable images, van Gogh’s wheat fields and skies, Cezanne’s adorable houses in the middle of wooded hills, Georgia O’Keeffe’s moon reflecting in a somber lake, or even Tiepolo and Veronese’s attempts at describing sunlight and euphoria with pink clouds and Prussian blue skies. Maybe my taste is hopelessly pedestrian, or I’m drawn to these images for purely sentimental reasons, but I just plain like them, and I don’t have to wrack my brain to sort out what in hell agonizingly clever game the artist is playing. Is accessibility in art an inherently bad thing? Is obscurity used as a shorthand for depth and insight?

I recently read a fascinating article by Jerry Saltz, discussing the tendency for current contemporary artists to retreat into a sort of post-postmodern insider game of deconstruction, secret coding, and layering with obscurity. His identification and attribution of the sources of these tendencies are spot-on, I think, and the more I’ve talked about his ideas with fellow artists, writers, and historians, the more and more insightful I’ve found them to be. People whose vocation used to be marked by a fearless openness and sensitivity to the world are now becoming the secretive, reluctant hipsters of caged messages and creations so overwrought with concept that one requires a Wikipedia entry to sort out what the hell is on display.

I can’t help thinking about how easily my generation has accepted the dismissiveness in Homer Simpson’s snide appraisal of Marge’s figurative painting (in the Jasper Johns episode), “Oh, honey, I’ve always liked your art. Your paintings look like the things they look like.”

People have been making images for millennia. Up until the past fifty or sixty years, the vast majority of that has been figurative, taking aspects of the real world and reimagining them in a new language or interpretation. As a species, we like the physical, material world, and as entrancing and delightful as abstraction is (and trust me, that’s most of what I do), I really believe there is still a serious, relevant place for figurative works, evidenced simply by the allure of the recognizable that I and my fellow subway riders experience every single day.