I make a painting called after the whale. It is very blue. Blue is a difficult colour to work with; like the sea or the sky, it tends to crowd out everything else. It is both overarching and subsuming at the same time. As for man-made things, blue contains a certain industriousness: things big or naval. But it also has a dreamscape quality, as in things imagined, out of reach, or middle-distance, there but not there. And obviously: rain, melancholy, absence. There is certainly no whale there, anymore.
What is there are the remains of two other paintings: one that serves as background, the other one torn into thin strips and then crowded and rearranged and worked through with blue.
Art is often expressed within the categories of argument or something decorative. Yet for me, an artwork is a memory, and either that memory has power or it doesn’t. These two paintings did what they could, for awhile, but ultimately failed to insinuate themselves, failed to convince. And here they get a new life. Becoming secret ingredients, for what that’s worth.
My favourite quotation about blue is about the ocean, and it comes from Werner Herzog: “What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark? It would be like sleep without dreams.” This quote speaks to the fact that Werner is (a) obviously German and (b) obviously a maniac.
I make an ornamental art box, decorated with collage from vintage advertisements for toy soldiers. Appropriately, the box is metal––like a mini foot locker, in burnished steel. The collaged sides have a gloss varnish, smooth to the touch. You can see a little video about it here.
I love those vintage comic-book ads. The illustrations are absolutely over the top––always the battlefield is a crammed pandemic of frantic violence, its soldiers with the animating mindset of enraged professional wrestlers, all bulging eyes and vein-popping war cries.
Of course there are no bodies, no wreckage. Everybody still has their head,** and everybody gets a medal.
From my office window I can see my coworkers come and go. People make up their hours, carry in their excuses. The trick, I think, is never saying anything, and always acting normal.
We have a meeting about our office space. Everyone crowds around a floor plan, pointing at things. We are getting many more managers, and they all want the offices with windows (they also want to be all in a row, so they can “talk to each other”), which means the rest of us will be moving into the basement.
I already have a basement office at home. C started it for me. It has a folding table and an exposed ceiling. Think: wires. One of my nieces wanders into it looking for the Wi-fi password. “Whoa, this office is sketchy,” she says. I try to clean it up, put up a string of fairy lights over the cork board.
I read a book about Internet shaming. I read an article about a con man (which reminds me of a podcast about a con man). I read an essay about low-wage work. All of these things are about disposable people.
What does it mean to be a citizen? What is the animating idea for a social democracy? Who called this meeting anyway, and what’s all this about the common good and a just society? Do you have any meaningful say in the forces that govern your life?
Mostly I just try to move forward, which is not the same as progress. Some days are not for seeing. Some days are like a scar across the back of your hand, and everything is about not thinking, not remembering, not providing context. The news is exhausting. This is what what it must be like to live in Russia, I guess. The light at the end of the hall is neon in dark pink and it reads, LEAVE THIS ALONE. People fantasize about time travel or invisibility but selective forgetting is really much the same thing.
Please have a good week. Every day there’s more light in the morning.
Draw things, paint things, write things, make things.
** Back in 2007 I wrote a little essay about headless soldiers. It ended up in a magazine called Filling Station. I’m pasting it below. Some of the tech references already seem dated!
These days, when a graphic designer is desperate or uninterested or simply has no budget, this is what ‘research’ comes down to: typing words into Google’s image-search engine. On this occasion––for a poster announcing some stupefying guest lecture on the fall of the Roman Republic––I tried the words “Roman Soldiers” (please Google, do not filter my results). The Google entity responded with its usual brutal dragnet (the information highwayman, hijacking whatever, whoever, making one for something shiny), and many Roman soliders duly appeared, but the only thumbnail which immediately jumped out as a prize came by way of Wikipedia (another mechanized golem, throwing around handfuls of received information like so much sand) and an ad for toy soldiers that I recognized immediately because it seemed to run on the back cover of every comic book I ever touched as a kid.
132 PC. ROMAN SOLDIERS SET
2 COMPLETE ROMAN ARMIES:
Fight again the battles of the old Roman Civil War — Roman against Roman! Or mount your own attack against a town or city. Every piece of molded plastic — each on its own base. Two complete armies, one in blue, one in yellow! Your satisfaction guaranteed or full refund.
Here is what you get:
4 Generals — Mounted
24 Cavalrymen — with Spears & Armour
4 Cavalrymen with banners
16 Spearmen with Shields
16 Archers with bows
4 Chariots with drivers
4 Working Catapults
16 pieces of ammuntion (harmless) for catapult
24 Foot soldiers with broadswords and shields
RUSH COUPON TODAY
The full-page ad was done in primaries plus black, with an electric emphasis on red type over blocks of yellow. Dominating everything is the illustration, showing the moment of impact between two Roman armies as they smash into each other.
For my little-kid brain, that ad was like crack. The illustration is frenetically alive with energy, the entire scene seething with brutality and viciousness: soldiers storm ladders with shields held high against the murderous rocks hurled down at them, siege towers strain forward, charioteers careen madly right into the thick of battle, archers strain at their bows even as arrows poison the sky, foot soldiers slash and stab away. The soldier closest to the foreground, in particular, sets the tone for the promised experience––his sword raised in defiance, his howling face nearly insane with rage. This was something more than two war machines merely wound up and pointed at each other; this was some demented, free-for-all bloodlust of the highest order.
But I never did send away for those soldiers. And I can’t tell you why. Then, as now, I really had no budget for that kind of extravagance (also, I probably understood that my mom, the person who’d have to do all the heavy lifting in any mail-order scheme, would have advised me, in her disappointed way, that the product was most likely ‘crap’). Back then, my thoughts and ambitions often got lost between the spaces of my own imagination. Besides, how realistic was this illustration anyway? My dad had a whole bookcase full of war books (he’d sign up for some historical series and then never pay the bill; as a result, all of our wars ended abruptly in mid-conflict). The pictures found in those volumes were real enough. The Roman soldiers from my ad were too perfect––the lines of their hard anatomy too implacably clean, the hues of their armour too fiercely burned in. Where were the dead? Where were the wounded? Even better, where were the hacked-off arms, or the headless torso’s stumbling around the battlefield, spouting fountains of blood?
I soon got my answer. It was Christmas. I was maybe six or seven years old. My older brother was two grades ahead. Improbably, we got each other’s names in the Sunday School draw. And what did he buy me? A bag of 100 toy soldiers, plastic Americans from World War Two. I was surprised. Part of that surprise was down to the fact that I didn’t have anything to give him. Again, I have no idea why. But I did feel bad about it.
I felt worse when my brother stole back my bag of soldiers and bit all their heads off. Every rifleman, grenade thrower, bazooka team… headless. He also removed a few arms and legs, just for good measure. Also, after being so abused in the process, most of my soldiers no longer stood up very well. You kind of had to lean them against things. And while my twisted, prostrate, headless soldiers were not so much fun to play with, they did look very real.