Flow and Beat, Advance and Retreat, Rise and Take a Bow in Disappearing. That is how Langston Hughes described the pulsating rhythm of James Baldwin’s prose, and it became the goal for my most recent painting, a sprawling five-panel pas de deux.
Self-portraits seldom portray contentment or joy. We see an artist glancing in a mirror as it captures the doubt and intensity of the act of creation. It is as if the creator and their reflection are each an expression of the other’s anxieties—yet they are the same person.
In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black youth, was tortured and murdered by two white men in Mississippi. The crime galvanized the Civil Rights Movement at a critical moment: Rosa Parks had Till on her mind when she refused to move to the back of the bus. A photograph of the young man’s mutilated body in his casket became an icon for Black Americans.
Join me for a stroll through a minefield: What do Chuck Close, Michael Jackson, Robert E. Lee, T.S. Eliot, Joseph Stalin, Christopher Columbus and the Taliban have in common? Answer: They have each been on one end or the other (sometimes both) of calls for the destruction or erasure of art.
This painting was named by a text message. While working on the initial drawing, I received a NOAA alert that the Upper Nehalem River behind my studio was approaching flood stage. This is a fairly common winter event but still always worth grabbing a hat and venturing out to the edge of the bank to watch the rushing water.
That pretty much sums up my goal making art—and the reason so much ends up erased. Not just by me. Many artists destroy more work than they keep. When the English artist Francis Bacon died, his studio contained over 100 canvases he had slashed with a knife. Why? My guess is that they bored him.
The moose shines bright
The stars give a light,
And you may kiss a porcupine
At ten o’clock at night
This nonsense couplet by Daniel Pinkwater makes me laugh. When I look at my most recent painting, I see a woman throwing her head back to let out a raucous hoot, so I shared the rhyme with her. She agreed Moose Shines would be a fine name. Perhaps we are laughing at the same silliness. Although, I must admit, there have been times when I thought she was crying. Take a look, decide for yourself.
When I am asked, “What are your paintings trying to say?” I reply, half-teasing, “The moment one of my paintings starts to say anything, I’ll turn it into a still-life. That’ll shut it up.” The fact is that I am uncomfortable with the notion that art needs to make a “statement” and that artists need to intend a message. Mine doesn’t and I don’t. Clearly, my work reflects something about me at the time it is made, but I’ll be damned if I know or care what it is.
This painting is “Landscape with Four Houses.” For several months I have been wrestling with her, pulling her nature from a flat surface of shapes and pigments. She has bedeviled me, emerging in fits and starts—without either the guidance or the limitations of a plan.
Landscape with Four Houses – David Slader
What am I looking for? There must be some reason why so many creative decisions are erased and why it can take months of trial and error until I am satisfied enough to scratch my name in the paint. A painting that works asks you to ask, to stop, wonder and inquire: Have we met? Join me for a dram of Scotch? It becomes a character in a story—and once that painting is off my easel, it lives only through the person looking at it.
But, how does it all start?
reflections and gratitude
watched by ArtsWatch
Owen Carey and I owe special appreciation to Bob Hicks who brought his keen powers of observation and expression to an extensive review of InkBodySkinPaint+Fire in Oregon ArtsWatch. I was especially taken with this paragraph:
In their own ways, Carey and Slader’s work in InkBodySkinPaint+Fire is at once boldly declarative and mysteriously elusive: We see “what,” and get only glimpses of “why.” … I find this apt and comforting. The artist’s role is to explore the mysteries of life, not solve them. A little taste, a door opened, a new perception, a new possibility. That’s art. That’s life.
If we artists can open a door and begin to explore some of the mysteries of life, well then, we just might be worth keeping around.