Anne Harris, “Portrait (Snake Eyes)”, 2002, oil on canvas, 14″ x 12″
Susan Sontag highlights a certain part of artist’s experience, “Usually critics who want to praise a work of art feel compelled to demonstrate that each part is justified, that it could not be other than it is. And every artist, when it comes to his own work, remembering the role of chance, fatigue, external distractions, knows what the critic says to be a lie, knows that it could well have been otherwise. The sense of inevitability that a great work of art projects is not made up of the inevitability or necessity of its parts, but of the whole.”
Anyone who’s ever been responsible for making anything more ambitious and personal than an out-of-the-box Ikea bookshelf probably agrees, and probably has doubts about how absolute that “whole” really is. When it comes to painting, the canon is full of folks who had a hard time calling works really, truly finished–from Michelangelo and Leonardo (“Tell me if anything was ever done.”), to Ingres and Degas (who famously asked a collector to return a particular painting, “Dancers at the Barre” 1877, so the dissatisfied artist could rework it; the collector refused). And artists today deal with the same uncertainties.
That scariness of calling something finished can be a driving force, or it can drive a person crazy. An artist has to learn to let his or work go out into the world–contingent as the idea that it is really and truly finished may be–or else devise elaborate strategies to avoid the whole question.
I decided it would be elucidating to ask some artists–painters mostly–about their personal experiences finishing artworks. I sent a few questions to the artists who responded via email. The first response came from Anne Harris who re-states the question with more clarity and makes a strong case for the idea that an artist just keeps working until it feels right, risky as that might be.
Harris currently lives and works in Chicago. Her most recent gallery show was Phantasmatical: Self Portraits in 2013 at Alexandre Gallery in New York. A collaborative/curatorial project, titled The Mind’s I, was presented in Chicago in 2012, will be re-staged at Memphis College of Art this fall, and is, I believe, looking for other venues. See her website for more of her work.
Are you a good closer?
No idea! You tell me. Using your sports metaphor: if you strike out that final batter, or make that winning basket (home run, goal, etc.), you’re a good closer. Everyone sees it and agrees. You see it too. But in painting there’s no winning shot. There isn’t even an agreed upon game. Each painting is a brand new playing field with its own rules, laws, its own mysterious conclusion. You’re inventing and discovering the game as you play it. How do you close? Who knows?
Is it easy or difficult for you to be finished with a piece? Do you make a clean break or let it go kicking and screaming?
Depends on the piece. A few seem to paint themselves. Others are a real struggle. I have paintings I spend years on, working them off and on, thinking they’re dead, then seeing hope again. Sometimes they come together. Some I’m never satisfied with. Some I throw away. I should probably do that more often.
When you call it done are you smiling?
Sometimes, if I think I’ve really pulled something off, I get excited. I have all kinds of fantasies about my greatness. Often, the next morning, I realize it’s awful. Every now and then, I make a painting that I’m certain is good, and it stays good, each time I see it.
Is your relationship to finishing troubling to you at all?
I have problems with the word “finish.” It implies that there’s a foregone conclusion—something polished off. I prefer the word “resolved” or just “done.” For me a painting’s done when it exists as a living fact, like the nose on my face. This is it—my nose. Whether or not I like it, my face is done. Change my nose and I am undone.
There’s the Nelson Algren quote: “…like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”
Basically, every part of the painting has to be essential, to contribute to the meaning and experience of the painting. Anything added or subtracted lessens the painting.
How do you see yourself compared to your peers, in terms of how easily you call an artwork finished?
I take a lot longer to finish paintings than most people I know. It’s really impractical.
How much does the idea of calling things finished affect the type of painting you make or how you define yourself as a painter?
I am romantic about painting. I believe painting can be felt, can hold emotion and contain presence, can function as a transformative experience. The length of time I spend is part of that. And the fact that the ending of a painting is unknown to me until I’m there—well, there’s no hiding it—I believe in that mystery. Painting is magic.
Any other thoughts on finishing?
My husband teases me, saying, if I were a better painter I’d finish faster. I actually think he’s right. My slowness compensates for a lack of true facility. That is, I can quickly arrive at something that looks slick and detailed, that is superficially facile, but it takes me a long time to get to a place that resonates. I get there awkwardly.
Thank you, Anne Harris!