“Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”
from the Colors of Jazz collection
© 2020, Molly Larson Cook
Acrylic, 24″ x 30″
Knowing who you are and where you belong in the art world can be a bit dicey. With social media, big auctions, “everybody’s a critic,” and the rest of the 21st century hoo hah, it’s even dicier than before.
This is especially true since there are no clear and solid lines between one thing and another. It’s similar in the music world and the literary worlds, but not quite the same.
Years ago, I started painting as a faithful follower first of Fauve painter Raoul Dufy and then of Mark Rothko and his Color Field work. I was no Mark Rothko, but I admired the work, felt the emotion in it, as well as in the paintings of others placed in this category. I worked at Color Field for about a year, but as I progressed and changed my process, I identified, when people asked, with the Abstract Expressionists and left Color Field behind. Or so I thought.
Here’s where things get muddy.
I knew I was not an abstract artist. I wanted to get completely away from anything recognizable in my work. “You can’t draw?” “Yes, I can draw, that’s where I started long ago, but it’s not what I’m after.”
So far, so good. I wanted color and lots of it. So far, still good.
I also knew that these descriptions of schools of work or styles of painting come more often than not from the critics. And it’s rather like most naming processes. Does a baby get to choose its name. A pet? An artist? Who are you anyway?
I’ve stayed with Abstract Expressionist for quite a while now, but this week I ran onto an article about artist Emily Mason who passed away at age 87 in December. Oh, how I wish I could have met her. She might have straightened me right out.
After reading about Mason and watching a little documentary featuring her and her work (Rava Films, 2017, “Emily Mason: A Painting Experience”), I’ll have a different answer. Mason was well into her 80s at the time, and she knew darned well who she was and what she did and why. With models like her, we don’t need the critics.
In the April 2011 arts publication, The Brooklyn Rail, publisher Phong Bui described Mason’s work as between abstract expressionism and color field painting noting: “She was interested in neither the former’s existential angst nor the latter’s use of absorbed color pigments on raw canvas (she paints on primed canvases).” Bui goes on to describe Mason’s work as “painterly gestures” that “coexist with thin, poured layers in a wide range of colors in all manner of hues and saturations.”
I don’t mean to get technical here, but when Bui added later that Mason’s amplified colors bring together both memory and free association, I was home. And so, I believe, were many who have commented on my paintings and found their own stories in them based on their own memories and free association. Nobody has said a word about “existential angst” which I’m pretty sure came from a critic, not an artist, far from the little town where I live.
Mason didn’t let herself be put in a box, existential or not. Boxes, after all, are only meant to give us the means to identify and describe things, not to live there. Boxes like this are artificial and can constrict an artist worse than a tight girdle on a hot day if any of us wore girdles.
Art is not a safe line of work, friends. Art is about taking risks. Going beyond. Pushing a little harder. Busting a move. Busting another one. Improvisation. Yes, an artist can paint the same things over and over and many do. But others, like Emily Mason, Robert Rauschenberg, Picasso – the list is endless – keep pushing, one risk after another.
And sometimes an artists needs time to understand those risks. Sometimes, the artist works hard at her painting, knows exactly where it’s going, knows exactly when it’s finished, goes to bed, wakes up in the middle of the night, and thinks, “That wasn’t what I wanted to do,” gets out of bed and finishes the piece by pulling it apart, deconstructing, and changing it, goes back to bed, gets up in the morning, looks at the painting, sees that it’s exactly what she wanted, and asks – seriously – “Where did that come from? Who painted that?”
This is not a game or a humble demurring. It’s an honest question. It takes courage to recognize the something inside that guides you beyond. Further. Rollo May wrote about this in The Courage to Create. And so did Bayles & Orland in Art and Fear. For many of us, our best work comes when we believe in our work, when we let go and trust that breaking out of the box will open us up to something new. Something for which it’s worth taking the risk. The sensation might scare the hell out of us, but it’s definitely worth taking the risk.
Emily Mason might have agreed. In the documentary, she says – in her 80s – “I’d like a painting to take me to a place I haven’t been. If it does, then that’s my reward.”
Or as Joseph Campbell once put it, “If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take.”
If we’re brave – and lucky – those steps may lead us into unexpected places where we haven’t been.
Courage to us all.
2 thoughts on “Take Me To A Place I Haven’t Been”
Thank you, David! Your good eye and sensibility always means a lot here. Hope to see you someplace in the Oregon ‘hood one of these days…Moll
I love how deep the colors are in this one, welcome back to Oregon!