I’m not really a fan of narrative in painting. I grew up in a family of commercial artists, and narrative painting feels too much like illustration to me. Now, there’s nothing wrong with illustration or illustrators, I’ll put that right up front before the hate mail piles in. Some of my favourite relatives are illustrators.
I feel painting can do more. It has the ability to connect straight to your limbic system, your lizard brain, your soul. I imagine you’ve been to galleries and had that moment when a painting seems almost to hit you physically, takes your breath away, makes you look for a seat. For me, it’s the blacks and maroons of the Rothko Room at the Tate in London, or Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 108 in MoMA in New York. There are many others and almost all of them are abstract. I’m moved by an arrangement of shapes and colours, in the same way we can be moved by an arrangement of notes and pauses in music.
At university art schools I’ve seen students sit idle waiting for the idea. The great, never-before-thought-of concept that they can then illustrate, and write about at the end of the semester. Of course it’s not their fault. For most of their lives some relative or friend will have looked at their drawing or painting and, maybe for want of anything else to say, will ask “what’s it about?” So the poor souls are gently and gradually locked into the idea that their art should be about something. And of course when you’re young, it has to be about something big, or original. In my experience, university art education runs with this, emphasising conceptualisation over execution, intellect over passion. Of course, there’s more than one way to peel a grape (vegan friends take note: I Googled an alternative idiom. You’re welcome.), and this approach suits some students. While teaching, I sometimes thought of a couple of painters I was at art school with: brilliant artists, each with an established career now, who would have been left in the dust by current art teaching mechanisms.
Narrative also makes it easier for journalists to bang out some column inches without needing any specialist knowledge of painting or formal art criticism. Backstories for the artist: “She grew up in a ghetto”; “he lost a toe in a gardening accident” make it easy, so does narrative in the artwork: “the figure seems to be moving purposefully past the barrier, taking the road less travelled” and so on.
But this isn’t a rant about university art education or media art coverage; it’s an exposition of why the heck there’s a figure in this new painting. Frankly, I haven’t a clue. You know how sometimes there’s an image in your head and you just need to get it out? Well, it’s like that. I couldn’t move past it until it was painted.
I know this explanation sounds facile but here’s what I’ve been leading up to: I don’t want to know why. I’m content to follow the lead my paintings set, and if they demand figures, they’ll get figures. Is that my partner in the painting? What’s she doing? Sure, you’re welcome to make a narrative if you want, but really, I’d just relax. It’s only paint marks.