Are Artist's Freaks?

Philip Koch, Entryway, Edward Hopper's Truro Studio Kitchen,
oil on panel, 12 x 16", 2012

My oil above will be part of a small group of paintings I'll be showing at the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, New York March 31 - May  13, 2012.

I was joking around with one of my students at MICA this week and told them something like "Artists are freaks. No wonder nobody understands us..." We both laughed and moved on. Later that day I recalled the incident, wondering if it were really true. The more I thought about it, I came to regret saying it. Edward Hopper, whose studio was the source for this painting, got me thinking about this from another angle.

Artists are a creative lot, and there are some who've extended their creativity to their appearance to help them stand out from the crowd. It is after all hard to get attention for one's artwork. And historically there have always been too few opportunities for artists to survive and have long, productive careers. Some artists resort to extreme measures. I remember when I was coming up as a young artist confronting some of the artists who carefully cultivated an outrageous appearance. One had Salvadore Dali-

who actually I think was a pretty good painter. His surrealist paintings tried to stretch the boundaries of art to employ dream imagery. He at least tried to get people thinking about the human unconscious. But he had the most awful mustache imaginable. You also were running into images of Louise Nevelson the sculptor. Again I thought her work was more than respectable. She was photographed often, always dressed in black and sporting hideously over sized false eyelashes. She also made it a point to be photographed smoking cigars.

And there's always Andy Warhol, who put on a preposterously fake looking wig to go out to art openings. 

If one were going to go for a really theatrical look to boost their art world notoriety, it would be easy to best Dali and friends.  I've entertained a fantasy of renting a really good gorilla suit and wearing it when I go out painting at the side of the road. Imagine the looks on drivers' faces as they speed past. Alternately, and this one would be harder to come by, I could see making a real impact painting in a dinosaur suit. I'd insist on one with big heavy dorsal fins, and they might get uncomfortable as they shifted around. And you'd probably knock over some one's drink with your long spiked tail at crowded openings. But people would talk.

Kidding aside, we artists aren't freaks. We do something that needs doing- we're trying to show society that there's more than one way to look at experience. A good piece of art gently taps you on the shoulder saying "hey, you've overlooked something important, come on back and take a second look."

There's a conflict between gimmickry and actual art. Art shows us something we haven't seen before, like an amazing pattern of sunlight and shadows in a good Edward Hopper painting. When it's done right, a great painting it is something you can come back to time and again and see something new in it each time. It puts us back in touch with the richness and depth that comes with being alive but that is all too easy to loose sight of. It's the reminder that being alive is extraordinary.

My painting Entryway, Edward Hopper's Truro Studio Kitchen is about one of those moments when in the middle of the afternoon I felt that sense of extra significance. We were staying up in Hopper's studio on Cape Cod and had just unpacked some groceries we'd bought up in Provincetown. I was walking back into the kitchen from Hopper's painting room and spied the yellow bananas that had minutes before been placed on Hopper's tiny kitchen table. What had been accidental and random became the opposite. I saw the curves of the bananas perfectly echo the arching back of Hopper's old wooden chair. The fruit, the chair, and the tall grasses on the sand dunes all seemed "dressed alike" in a beautiful yellow and ochre hue. In my mind's eye the entire tableau came together like a symphony, with every note fitting in just right.

When you see something like that your heart skips a beat and you're reduced to muttering something like "wow." But it's even better if you can share the experience. And that's why artists spend years training their eye and hand. We've worked to have the inner tools to make something solid and enduing out of these shimmering but all too ephemeral moments of insight. When you're really making art, there's not a gimmick anywhere in sight.

I don't think Andy Warhol wearing his "fright wig" out in public did lasting harm to art. Gimmicks like that do reinforce the stereotype that artists are nutty or are clowns. The "freakishness" of artists is a ploy some have tried so their work wouldn't be ignored. And it was a marketing strategy more than anything else. To their credit the overwhelming majority of artists don't put on a fake identity for the camera. They play it straight. They know they've got something genuine to offer.

In the quiet of a well hung exhibition in a museum gallery, I think silly things like Dali's mustache are quickly forgotten. Instead people fall into what they came for- seeing some of those necessary reminders of the depth and vividness of living.


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