I spent a large part of last week and the Labor Day weekend back in my Connecticut home town, relaxing a little before the start of the new school year. It was wonderful to catch up with my family, to turn off my work email, and to do almost nothing productive. But I did stop in at my undergraduate art school, Lyme Academy, to view the current alumni and student exhibits, and I was struck both by the quality of the art and how different it is from what I see in New York.
Lyme Academy teaches the skills needed to produce representational and figurative art. At the School of Visual Arts where I’m getting my M.F.A., skills are rarely discussed, and aside from a few of us diehards the students are not producing representational work. It’s all abstract, and conceptual, and performance, and video.
When I’m in Old Lyme, my heart sings to see blue shadows cross nude figures and then climb up the wall. When I’m in New York, I respond to pain and ugliness in art. In Connecticut I will spend two or three hours drawing the random still life on the coffee table – emphasizing light and dark, perfecting the ovals that represent circles in perspective, and working very hard to achieve a likeness of my subject matter. There is no such thing as too much time spent drawing the label on a Poland Springs bottle.
But in New York I draw with my left hand to achieve an unattractive immediacy. Everything is faster and uglier.
So after this weekend, I finally get it. Rural coastal Connecticut is full of the seascapes and portraits that are made by artists who know in their bones that life hasn’t changed much in fifty years, and is unlikely to change much in the next fifty. The tide will always take six hours to go out and another six to come in. It is possible to paint on the beach for hours and not see more than a dozen people, at least once school starts.
But in New York, a 20-year-old building is considered old and ripe for tear-down. Walking people regularly race cabs at intersections because they’re in such a hurry. There are beggars on half of the corners I pass. My realizations aren’t new or profound. You have just to look at Andrew Wyeth versus the Abstract Expressionists, or Edward Hopper lighthouses versus Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie. Where we live and work greatly affects what we make.
I guess my question now is whether it’s possible to go beyond back-and-forth and actually integrate what’s happening in the various art worlds. There is pain in small-town New England, just as there is great beauty in the city. But am I a good enough artist to show you?