on smallness and gray


It is May.  The sky is flat gray. Rain drops in sheets.  The tree outside my window waves and shakes periodically, each branch fuzzy with a scrunched-up cluster of green that will burst open tomorrow, maybe tomorrow.  Today it is crumpled like newborn skin.

From across the room the painting I just stopped working on looks muddy, pointless.  I started with a gray hexagon and surrounded it with gray-greens.  A hint of red at the bottom.  It should probably be a rusty orange.  I was inspired by Kenzo Okada's large painting, "Hexagon."  I hadn't gone to the museum this morning because of this painting, but rather to see three canvases by a favorite French artist in a nearby room.  In fact, I had never looked at "Hexagon" before.  I don't know why I was inspired by it today.  I just liked looking at it.  I liked the textures and the harmonious use of color—of grays especially.  Is that enough?  Does it have to have critical content, be part of a significant discovery, a lineage of artists?  Do I have to know this?  I look again at my painting.  Does it have be large and hanging in a museum to be Art?  Mine is a modest 10 x 8 inches.

The sun spreads out the gray clouds and makes the sky white, now yellow.  My small painting seems to open up in this new light—subtle textures and shifts in value under the gray hexagon are more pronounced.  The tree is now glowing with yellow contours and backlit by deep shadows.  None of this has any critical content.  My painting is a part of this.  That is all.

If I hadn't gone to graduate school, perhaps I wouldn't have been agonizing for so long about what I have been spending my time doing.  If I weren't an art professor, perhaps I wouldn't always be trying to put words to this…to color on canvas, to the way the light is divided as it is filtered through the rubber plant that stands taller than me in front of the sliding glass door.

I critique my instincts.  Why am I painting canvases the size of a piece of writing paper?  Because… I feel small and have only small things to say. I don't want to be surrounded by large statements.  I want tiny poem fragments that say more than they seem to.  A line like Rilke's epitaph—

Rose, oh pure contradiction, desire
To be no one's sleep under so many

Love's rose, love's desire, and life's inherent contradiction—just as we come to full bloom, we enter the realm of death—that in fact we begin towards death the moment we come into life—that in fact our dying is ever present.  At the very core of the rose, at the very center of existence, there is nothingness.  Nothing.  We are devastated by this knowledge.  Consumed by it.  Threatened by all the space that exists between the particles of matter.  This painting—particles of matter—and nothingness.

The sky has turned pale blue between puffy white clouds streaked with lavender-gray.  The air has become soft and still.  In the morning fog I had gone to the museum to see old friends—three paintings by Nicolas de Staël.  But then, standing in front of them, all I could think about was that he painted them three, two, one year before he jumped out his studio window and died.  

Tomorrow, perhaps, the leaves will unfold.  Tomorrow, perhaps, I will add a streak of rusty orange.

Pacia Sallomi
May, 2009