The physicality of art

Visiting my parents over the holidays, I’ve become keenly aware of how physical and vulnerable my art is, and it’s made me think about what role physical presence plays in one’s creative energy.

The first condition is storage, and my parents’ attic is currently starting to swell with all the oil paintings I did in grad school. Many canvases are nowhere near finished, or to put it in more pragmatic terms, a sellable state, so I can’t honestly consider them “product” or “inventory,” so much as… these things taking up a lot of space. Knowing that they are there, lurking above my childhood bedroom and gaining several grams of dust a year, fills me with a sense of queasiness and dread. They make me reluctant to buy new canvases or start new work, and they serve as a heavy physical to-do list. Before I move forward in painting, I feel like I have to somehow deal with those.

The second condition is fragility, which is ironically one of the themes of my paintings. Among the fallout from Hurricane Irene was a moving box in the basement full of sketchbooks, all my negatives, and almost all the black and white photographs I’ve ever printed. The flood water ruined all but a handful of prints made on RC paper (and I can’t forget the professors who harped on about how much more archival and long-lasting the fiber-based photographic papers were). Leaving aside how this particularly delicate box got into the basement in the first place, I was kind of wrecked to think of all the hours – no, days – I spent shooting, processing film, pulling prints, burning and dodging, organizing… it’s all gone.

Losing all my black and white photography felt a bit like a metaphor for the shift from print to digital photography. I no longer have access to a darkroom, so it’s not like I was going to make more prints from those lovely negatives any time soon, but it stings to have them gone forever. I’ve heard similar stories of people losing hard drives full of digital images, or dropping a camera and erasing a memory card after a day’s shooting at a wedding, so I realize this loss of images is not confined to the more archaic photo processing techniques.

As I stood in the cold basement pulling apart moldy, disintegrated prints and tossing them in garbage bags, it kind of hit me that everything physical will eventually end up this way. No matter how carefully prepared, what quality of materials are used, how arduously and well-intentioned their preservation and conservation, everything we make and touch and use will fall to pieces and return to the earth. And somehow, that idea became much more beautiful and important than any of the student-quality photographs I was bitterly discarding.

Another thought crept into my mind, which has been something of a refrain since the time I learned to draw, “I can always make more art.”

What’s remarkable about artists, musicians, writers, and creators of all types is the ability to constantly produce more, new, better art. Our hands and minds pull from the elements, recycling the masterpieces of years gone by, and dredge up novel inventions, shiny and alluring new materials, new ways to answer the questions posed by a constantly new and old world.

The physicality of art contains both its eternal hope and its perpetual undoing. In the sometimes sisyphean task of being human, we watch things fall apart, then we pick them back up and try again. It doesn’t matter what’s come before, or what’s coming next: all we have is what’s in our hands right now.