The Fish Closet
When I was a model for painting classes, I often heard one professor tell his students a story about a Chinese artist who received a commission for a painting of a fish. Some months had passed when the patron inquired as to the status of his fish painting. The artist replied he was still working on it. More months passed, the patron inquired again. Still working on it, the artist replied again. A year goes by, the patron asks after his fish yet again, and the artist once again tells him he’s still working on it. Another year later, the patron finally just goes over to the artist’s studio and says, please, I really want my fish, I’ve been waiting for two years now, can I get my fish painting? The artist pulls out a brush, ink, and a piece of paper, then deftly paints a fish on it and hands it to the guy. “Wait, why did it take so long if you could just make one in five seconds like that?” the patron wants to know. The artist walks over to a closet, opens the door, and out fly hundreds of pieces of paper with fish painted on them.
I’m not sure if I have all the details right from the professor’s version, let alone whether it’s really an old Chinese fable—the professor himself might have just made it up, for all I know. It really doesn’t matter where it comes from, because the story as I have come to understand it (and retell repeatedly to my own classes) is wise and useful regardless of its fuzzy provenance. The point is that you have to make a whole lot of bad or mediocre art in order to get even close to making good art. You have to fill rooms and rooms with bad, or just not-quite-it, fish paintings. And you have to keep doing it. I’ve been painting and showing and selling paintings for over twenty years, yet I am still filling up the fish closet with crap. I’ve learned to embrace it.
When I made the series Floor Plan for the American Dream (AKA the Manet covers), I started one piece that never, ever worked out. The working drawing, pictured above, gives you an idea of how I tried to squish way too many people into an overly complicated composition. Yet I persisted in squishing and started the painting itself on two panels, one of them truly weirdly shaped. It only got worse from there.
You can tell by the wildly fluctuating color changes that I was grasping at straws. Eventually I figured that out myself and stopped painting, separated the panels, and whited out everything except the curtain and two ladies.
I put those panels away until I’d finished the rest of the show. I occasionally pull them out and do stuff to them. They might make their way out of the fish closet and be reborn as completely different works, but it’s OK if they don’t.
The last four years have been boom times for the fish closet. The slight distraction of buying a building happened to coincide with the distinct feeling that one period of my work was ending and it was time to find the next evolution. That particular alignment of stars meant that the experimentation, focus, and long, seemingly unproductive hours of making work destined for the fish closet was further complicated by a lot of unrelated interruptions. I messed around with a lot of processes and ideas that would probably never make it into finished form but had to happen anyway.
Experiments included ink sketches of patterns set in the traditional prototypes I found in a 1948 book for textile designers; tiny square magazine collages; paintings of patterns based on carbon atoms and organic molecules; and attempts to wed the painted patterns to existing fabric ones.
Meanwhile, I was also trying to learn to compose in a circle. I had kept my first tondo paintings simple—single objects centered on a patterned-fabric ground—but I always intended to get back to narratives and architectural space.
Let me tell you, it’s not easy to squish the entirety of the American Dream and its discontents into a circle. I had managed to get people to behave themselves a little bit, by keeping to an intimate scale and leaving out the complicated architecture. These paintings felt like they had the right amount going on in them for their fourteen-inch diameter.
But I craved big ideas, big spaces, big hunks of steel. I confidently and foolishly built two 42-inch panels then spent two years figuring out what to put in them. I had been wanting to explore the cult of the automobile, its shiny finned candy-colored midcentury rockets luring us to planetary demise. For a setting, Albert Frey’s gorgeous Aerial Tramway gas station of Palm Springs beckoned.
Doesn’t that yummy car just want to drive up to that yummy gas station? Not so fast, buster. What do you think this is, a RECTANGLE?
It didn’t work but, determined to marry the car theme to the architecture, I pressed on. I stumbled upon a picture of this lovely car dealership in Las Vegas.
Don’t even think about putting this in a circle. Not gonna happen. Additionally, in both scenarios I couldn’t figure out where the people would go. The buildings steal the entire show.
Then I found this stunning interior. Finally, something that looks like a car dealership but there’s a place to put the people! And it’s even in one-point perspective, which is something that works just fine in a circular composition.
I tried adding the car, but it was still weird.
I have a wall in my studio that is its own fish closet, just for humans. Lots of them are drawings of people I ended up using somewhere, but in a different size, so these wrong-sized versions accumulated on this wall. I’ve had it in the back of my mind to put them all in a painting together some day. This seemed like the moment to try it, as nothing else was working.
And neither was this. (Although it was fun to try.)
Oh, and I also had this guy. I loved that he was shining his car until he could see himself, looking like an overenthusiastic housewife with her Lemon Pledge. I gave him a car upgrade, but I had trouble deciding where to place him along the hood, and then he wouldn’t fit into any of the other spatial settings I’d drawn, let alone into a circle. He’s still on the wall and may be destined for the fish closet, despite the fact I still have a little crush on him.
Sometime in 2017, in the midst of these forays into the abyss, I did stumble upon one image that worked in a large circle. This fancy lady in her automobile is straightforward, focused, in one-point perspective, with a clear center, and she knows what she wants. The circle demands simplicity, which is nearly impossible to get right, but sometimes you stumble upon it.
However, doing something once is easy compared to following it up. I spent another year and a half struggling to come up with a second composition. In a book about Los Angeles architecture, I found some black and white photos of their famous freeways; one under construction, and another of an interchange known as “the stack.” Rather than try to squeeze one or the other of them into my mold (like tuna into a ring of lime jello), I made a new image out of parts of both, and then I found the perfect family to drive on them, in an ad for the wonders of asphalt.
Clearly, after all that endless, angst-filled, fish-painting, the only solution was to break every known rule. Put a big gray concrete post dead center. Crop people across their faces. Make the perspective ask more questions than it answers. I painted it relatively quickly (if not as fast as that Chinese artist with the patron breathing down his neck). Quickly, that is, if you don’t count the four years of filling the up closet with all those fish.