Friday, March 2, 2012
Painting at night
An excerpt from The Names of Things:
She hung the canvas on the big wall of her studio. I’d seen her do this dozens of times, but this is the one I most remember. The canvas was square, a little taller and wider than her reach. The surface was primed bluish white, thick enough to mask the texture. Despite its bulk the frame was empty, a window unto snow.
She was just as I remember her. It was, of course, before the illness, before Africa, when she was – how shall I say it? – still herself: small, athletic, moving through the room with a dancer’s grace and purpose. She wore faded corduroys and one of my own castoff white shirts – loose fitting, rolled above the elbow. Her dark hair, streaked with gray, strayed from the band at her neck. Her glasses were permanently spattered with paint, so she was always alternating between looking through them and over their tops.
She’d invited me to the studio. I think she liked having a witness. Of course, that’s me, supplying an explanation. She never said. Pleased to be invited, I never asked.
I followed with an armful of reading. I sat at one end of an old sofa opposite the painting wall, under a reading lamp, though the general lighting from the ceiling was ample. We didn’t talk. She worked. I read. Now and then I looked up to check on her progress.
She began by standing in front of the canvas. She hardly moved. I don’t think she mapped out the whole painting. She mapped how she would begin, what mark would be first. But that’s me again. It stands to reason. From this mark would come the next and the next and all the other marks. She took a long time getting started. Once going, she worked quickly.
Then I heard a scratch. She traced a long curve with a soft pencil from the upper left side across and down, strongest in the middle, faded at the ends. Silence. Then another, a harsh angle dropping along the left, top to bottom, followed quickly by a horizontal scrape from the vertical line clear across. Next she sketched a sort of busy, flower-like set of radiations in the midst of these lines. Not in the middle exactly. A little lower and to the right. An explosion of something. A whorl of quick coordinated marks.
Now she was arranging and opening jars, pulling a table closer, drawing brushes from cans and drawers, assembling her kit. The room smelled of oil and thinner and soap.
I resumed reading.
I looked up when I finished the first of the articles I’d brought to the studio. There was now a concentration of color at the whorl, yellows and reds. She’d painted the long penciled curve and lines black, with a fat brush, a sort of calligraphy. A brush makes a different sound from a pencil. The pencil sounds like a fingernail drawn across the surface of a wall. The brush is like wind.
A while later she was doing something else. She’d lifted a plastic bag of white clay from a floor cabinet. She rolled a clump of it on the table. She rolled it thinner than you’d think clay could go. Pie dough came to mind. I’d never seen her do this. She pulled a long bit of white quilter’s thread from a drawer, thick and useful looking, and draped it across the rolled clay, pressing it in so it would stay. She’d already laid the canvas on the floor. She smeared one side of the clay with an adhesive. Then, using her hands like spatulas, she flipped the whole of it over like a pancake atop the colorful whorl on the canvas and patted it down. The color was gone: just white and the black calligraphy. She smoothed out the clay, pressing it into the canvas, then returned it to the wall.
For the next couple of hours, she painted the whole, including the clay, with great washes of variegated darkness. She painted with house brushes, some as wide as five inches, others as narrow as half an inch. She painted from a number of various-sized cans that lay on the floor at her feet. She painted fast. She held the brushes like knives in a deadly fight, loose in her palm, wrist up, thrusting and slashing at the stiff canvas as if it were enemy or prey. The painting became a wilderness of night, the hint of ridges and plains, skyline, shadows in shadow, suggestion of moonlight.
Throughout this I continued to read, smelling the new smells of different paint, the kind from buckets rather than tubes. I could hear her breath, her foot start and stop on the floor, gulp of brush in bucket, whoosh of paint on canvas.
Late that afternoon she was still once more.
She stood as before in front of the canvas, now a nocturnal landscape, shiny with wet paint. I thought of darkest night. I thought of waking from sleep alone in bed and all that nothingness. The painting that seemed so energetic in the making now seemed breathlessly sad, and I wondered how she felt, what panic the shadows evoked for her.
Then she unclasped her arms from her chest and stepped to the canvas. She got very close and reached out her hands and traced the surface without touching it until she found the end of the quilting thread, which she pulled suddenly and with the flourish of someone uncovering a sheeted secret, and as she pulled the soft clay ripped open with a gash that revealed the bright bloody yellow whorl beneath.
It looked like something terrible and angry was rushing out from a tunnel. I was alarmed to see such color and movement in all that darkness. That, or there was light at the other end. I couldn’t tell.
Excerpt from The Names of Things. The painting above is Willem De Koonning's "Bolton Landing."