LivingArts: Painting


I took my kids last month to see ‘Now’s The Time: John Michel Basquiat’ at the AGO.  I did this because my kids’ habit for art-making has been threatened by a myriad of shiny diversions on our computers, and I wanted to re-ignite their interest.  I did this because my older boy has recently balanced the act of drawing with an equal measure of erasing and cursing, choking a facility for art that has always come easy to him.  I did this because my youngest draws constantly, but refuses to categorize what he does as art.

I was also curious to see if I could connect with Basquiat again.  His work has always been an emblem of the 80’s and 90’s, and I wondered if coming face to face with it again might be akin to listening to an Ani Difranco cassette—inspiring, but forever stuck in the era in which it was born.

I have also been thinking a lot about painting recently.  The Blair Bruce exhibition that marked the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s centenary last year did unexpected things to my understanding.  It made me realize that I when I think about paintings as images, they don’t excite me as much as when I think about paintings as physical objects. Weird how that works.

The Basquiat exhibition was nicely compact, and I thought it balanced out enough familiar big moments with more intimate and unexpected statements.   But it was an odd experience to take that kind of a blockbuster.   It was weird to hear youth educators unpack the work in order to make every single brush line a deeply considered intentional act.  As if to suggest that Basquiat working intuitively is somehow a slur against his genius.  There was also a positioning of Basquiat as a prophet; that he somehow knew what new shape America’s race crisis was going to take.  And maybe he was a genius prophet; what I wanted my kids to see was a guy who painted honestly about his circumstances, who used his art not to represent ideas but to work through ideas, and who showed that being loose and thoughtful are things that can happen at the same time.

Within five minutes my youngest son was lying flat out on a padded bench like the wounded Christ, his suffering was apparently that great.   My oldest tried to stay interested but was clearly unnerved by the throngs of people, and subsequently tottered about in a daze.   As much as I could slow them down, we made the gift shop in about 30 minutes.   I purchased the catalogue as my consolation for not being able to linger.

My sense of defeat had peaked by the time we were back in the car, driving home. What a waste of time and money. How the hell am I going to reach these kids, I thought. Can paintings really compete with the kind of immersive distractions that kids consume these days take?

Two thirds of the way home and I overhear the following argument:

Oldest Son: “I liked that he put crowns in all his work.  Like it was his own symbol.  I like that he paints like a kid.”

Youngest Son:  “No. Basquiat can draw really well, but he chooses to paint like a kid.   He doesn’t have to paint like a kid, he actually wants to.”

Oldest Son: Yeah. That’s cool.

For the next two days the two of them retell the story of the exhibition to friends and relatives, they look furtively and quickly through the exhibition catalog, they make quick attempts at painting.    Each time the importance and impact of their experience seems to swell.   And each time they demonstrate a broader scope of understanding: Basquiat’s approach to making mistakes, his technique of cutting out details with paint, his use of found materials, of using text and symbols as ingredients.

I guess that’s what you call a victory.  A slow, smoldering impact.  And maybe that’s how painting endures: it plays the long game.