THIRTEEN MUSINGS AROUND MY CREATIVE PROCESS
by Anthony Cuneo
I’m a big fan of uncertainty. I wish to God that the Nazis had been less certain that Jews were vermin. Not knowing you’re doing it right is a good thing. It makes you stop and think.
Finding, not executing; searching, not knowing.
I don’t know many artists who talk about their “art;” the preferred term is “work.” I’m guilty of this myself. “Work” demands respect, and suggests what you’re doing is serious. But the truth is, when I paint, I’m playing just as much as I’m working. I’m experimenting. I’m trying this, or that. I’m asking questions. And, a lot of the time, I’m not sure I’ve got the right answers.
So I have mixed feelings about describing what I do as “work.” It (sort of) fits, but it also has a slightly bitter, puritanical aftertaste. There’s an implication that, if it’s not work, it’s a waste of time. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, after all. We need to get over that. Making art is really hard, but it’s also deeply satisfying; I like slopping paint around. It’s the reason I wanted to be an artist as a kid, and I think it’s still a fine reason to paint. Art is one of the most natural things in the world, fundamentally useless, but hugely pleasurable and very important.
For myself only, because there are so many different, valid ways to go about making art, I have no interest in expressing a concept I think I already fully understand. If I know the answer, there’s no reason to make art about the question.
Like a chronic, low-level case of malaria, the constant ache of dissatisfaction with the results you get when you paint is part of what keeps you creating. You’re never finished because you’ve never really got it right, or complete. And if you ever did get it right you’d probably stop working. There’s that word again.
“I have to change to stay the same.” —Willem de Kooning
Images carry meaning. It’s probably impossible to convey that meaning in words. If it weren’t, painters would be poets, and use language instead of images. But there is a part of our brain that looks for patterns, sees structures, and judges relationships; that is attuned to the textures of the physical world; and that resonates to the language of the visual. When you draw something, a large part of the struggle is just in trying to comprehend exactly what it is you’re seeing. You have to get it into your head before you can get it onto paper. And I’d say that, if you can’t draw a thing then you don’t really understand it.
There’s a page from one of Leonardo’s sketchbooks that shows a fetus in a womb. It’s an image I think about a lot. The hunger for understanding is palpable, and the page is beautifully rendered. Even the letters sing. But there’s something awesome (in the old sense of the word) and a little awful about the page, as well: truth and beauty, in complex, charged tension. Does the very truthfulness of something, no matter how distasteful it seems, make it beautiful? Can something be truly beautiful if it’s false?
I don’t know if the universe is fundamentally ordered or random, but, standing in front of an Italian Renaissance crucifixion (which is, let’s remember, an image about torture and brutal execution), with its balanced and orderly composition, its clear and lucid colors, and its beautifully idealized human forms, I can test the proposition that there is structure to existence. I can try how that idea tastes. I can roll it around in my mind. I can test it against my own experience. Sometimes, when I paint, I feel like I’m trying out different propositions about the nature of reality, or, at least, my experience of it.
Used to be, I was sure that rationality was the path to truth. I still think it’s of fundamental importance (yeah, evolution is established science, and believing doesn’t make something true, no matter how much you want it). But life has surprised me, repeatedly, with the surprising insight that emotion can be just as critical in finding truth. In fact, I doubt now that we can know the most important truths about ourselves without it.
An art that only wants to be about what’s pretty (not even beautiful) is thin soup. What is the point of art if it can’t help us deal with loss and grief, with anger, or with mystery?
Have you ever noticed how maxims seem to contradict each other? If “a stitch in time saves nine” how can it also be that “haste makes waste”? Try playing this game: think of an old saw; then try to think of another one that, basically, says exactly the opposite. In nearly every case there’s a matched saying, a black for a white, a fast for a slow. Why is that? I think it might be that, even though there is probably an ultimate truth out there somewhere, we just don’t have the perspective to get it. We’re like the blind men encountering an elephant for the first time, and, feeling different parts of the animal, conclude that an elephant is like a snake, or a tree, or a sword. Understood another way, there’s wisdom in the idea that for every thing, there is a season: a time to sow, a time to reap. That complex, charged tension between apparent opposites—chaos and order, emotion and intellect, creation and decay, high and low—is the text of my current painting; also, how the impulse for beauty wrestles with the desire for truth.
Anthony Cuneo was born in Chicago, and grew up there, and in the New York area. He received an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania in 1981, and has an extensive exhibition record. He taught at both the collegiate and secondary levels, serving as Department Chair at Montclair Kimberley Academy for many years. He was a finalist for the Princeton University Excellence in Secondary Teaching award in 2002. He was represented by Amos Eno Gallery in Brooklyn, one of the oldest non-profit art spaces in New York City, where he also served on the Board of Trustees. Tony, as he was known to all, died on August 5, 2019. See more of his work at www.anthonycuneo.com.
1. Unwanted Literature, #14, oil and alkyd on archival panel, 12″ x 12″, 2010
2. Fresh Stuff, #2, oil and alkyd on archival panel, 12″ x 12″, 2011
3. Fresh Stuff, #3, oil and alkyd on archival panel, 12″ x 12″, 2011
4. Fresh Stuff, #4, oil and alkyd on archival panel, 12″ x 12″, 2011
5. Fresh Stuff, #5, oil and alkyd on archival panel, 12″ x 12″, 2012
6. A Drawing a Day, #42, marker, gouache, oil pastel, colored pencil, and graphite on paper, 4″ x 8″, 2014
All works © Anthony Cuneo
Other image credits: Leonardo da Vinci, Studies of a Foetus in the Womb, c. 1510-13 and Willem de Kooning, Woman V, 1952-53, on Wikipedia. Blackbird courtesy of Open Clipart Library.