Jormungand Releases His Tail, 2010

Jormungand Releases His Tail, 2010, James Hough

Last fall, while I was working on God’s Covenant at the Event Horizon, I was also at work on a painting similar in size and technique. I was looking a lot at the mid-to-late-20th century American painters Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston while I painted, seeking to be inspired and educated by these makers of beautiful messes. The particular Mitchell I studied over and over was a tiny reproduction of La Grande Vallée (1983) from an AbEx series of commemorative stamps (as seen below, bottom row, second from the left, between Motherwell and Gottlieb). The blues and yellows in that painting were all the more arresting and mysterious because of the small scale of the stamp; it was like looking at a glorious painting across a football field.

110903 ab ex stamps

The Guston I had in mind while I worked on the painting that ended up being Jormungand is called The Light (1964) from the collection of the Modern in Fort Worth. Like the Mitchell above, this painting is so much about vigorous, broad, wriggling brushwork, this time in grey and pink.

What happens when you look at a lot of art over a lot of years is you start to see how some people just know how to make things look good; this description, “one who makes things look good,” is for me the best definition of what an artist does. Of course, determining what looks good is a subjective process, and this is kind of the point. If we all liked the same stuff, or if we could apply objective criteria to a visual object to determine its “good-looking” grade, then making and looking at and talking about art wouldn’t be much fun. Because the experience of beauty is elusive and specific to the individual, the pursuit of beauty can make life an adventure. And, when two people stand before a giant, scribbled canvas by Guston or Mitchell, for example, they can draw on their memories and intuition, exercise their senses of taste and judgment, and come to know better their own and each other’s notions of truth and beauty, which I think is as worthy an experience as any.

And, the art doesn’t mind our scrutiny and judgment, because it’s inanimate, perched on the wall, exposed fully, intended for as much gazing as we have to give it. The arts in general provide the perfect outlet for our innately human compulsion to judge others in order to understand ourselves better. And it is an excellent antidote for the more pervasive and, I think, malignant forms of judgment we indulge in when we watch reality tv or skim the pages of glossy magazines, calling on our ideas of beauty and righteousness as we repudiate or extoll, depending on how much they confirm or subvert our individual visions for the way things and people ought to be, the images of real human beings before us. In this way, art, which is both amoral and inhuman, can make us more moral humans.

Mitchell and Guston just make things look good. Their individual senses of scale and color, the way they each handle paint, and everything else they bring to their canvases, despite their abstract messiness, makes them distinct and lovely. These two painters continue to give me a lot of material to work with in my own studio. Looking at Jormungand now, you would hardly think that it started as an homage to The Light, but a painting has to start somewhere. As I built up layers of acrylic and sanded them down, transforming the surface slowly into what it ended up looking like, with the tans and blacks swirling up a wicked froth, it felt more and more Norse in character. And, having been watching the live simulcasts of the Met’s Ring cycle, I went in the direction of the epic (rather than the cosmic, as with Covenant) when I was titling the painting. In Norse myth, Jormungand is the world serpent who encircles the Earth and holds the conflicting universal forces in check by holding his tail in his mouth, making of himself a protective ring for our planet. It is said that when he one day lets go of his tail, the Norse version of Armageddon will begin. Which sounds wicked and fits the vibe I get from this painting.

Jormungand is acrylic on canvas, 45.25″ x 41.25.″ Like Covenant, it also lives in our bedroom, and I’m happy to report that I have yet to get tired of looking at it, which for me is a good sign that I’m on the right track in the studio. I’ve destroyed a lot of old artwork over the years as they age before my eyes and start to look stupid; I don’t foresee that happening with these paintings.

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