Two nights ago I dreamt that my former therapist asked me to teach her how to paint.
Liza. My first and only therapist, who talked with me about my recklessness and helped me think about caution as positive.
Speed was always a point of pride for me—I talk fast and walk fast. When I was in the third grade I was the fastest kid in school—boys AND girls. Then I got my period in the fourth grade and became the slowest. I remember the first time I got to GO fast was a motorcycle ride in the backwoods roads with an adult man and I was only sixteen. My stepdad always said no to motorcycles and talked about scraping people off the road, but there was something always itching at my plump body, something itching and wanting to go so fast we might escape.
I painted fast too of course—drips and pours and splatters and streaks—traces of speed indexing a stereotype of careless woman or a lack of self-reflexivity that isn’t even redeemed by authenticity but that reeks of “Freedom,” which I can only write as “freedoom,” and damn spellcheck.
I didn’t tell Liza because I couldn’t see it yet: there was something in my speed I needed. Something roadrunner bizarro rage-fueled that needed to stay blinkered and cursing and caustic because that is the only way to resist the insidious smugness of both coasts. (My family, all grown up and solidly middle class now—everyone shook off their poor childhoods, and the east coast all networked and friendly and full of old bargains and back scratches.) I hid out in the middle of the country for ten whole years—weird years, neo-liberalizing years from 2004 to 2014 when everything went from hell to high water and we all started drowning in each other.
Slowing down the mark is basic painting. When people start to paint they love the mark of the brush or they hate it. So you offer a palette knife or the back of the brush or put on a glove and use your fingers. Or they hate the shine and you give them cold wax to make the paint look like whipped butter, fatty and thick, or galkyd to make it look like nail polish.
Judith Butler writes (emphasis mine), “Does the postulation of a subject who is not self-grounding, that is, whose conditions of emergence can never fully be accounted for, undermine the possibility of responsibility and, in particular, of giving an account of oneself?”
Fast is only relative. In the car as a kid I squeezed my fingertips together as we passed each telephone pole. Keeping time. I whipped my sneaker purse in big sweeping circles on its long strap, sometimes thwacking adults in the head.
Weeks ago I found out that my dad has lymphoma, and already he is in the hospital. When we talk his voice sounds thin and he says he’s lost thirty pounds. Too fast. I only really got close to my dad five years ago when I had this affair and started seeing my therapist Liza and my mom told him: “She needs you.”
I’m living out here in Connecticut and that’s just not what I pictured, and I can’t read the news because it makes no sense and I can’t not because we have to. This is familiar ground but it’s the ground I’m interested in. Isa Genzken’s Basic Research paintings, made in the 1980s by painting the floor of her studio and squeegeeing the back of a canvas laid on top. They are like the surface of the moon as it fills the windshield of a spaceship approaching.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a film Robert Altman film made in the 1970s, explores the set, and the building of the set, as much as it does the characters and the narrative: a mining village, partially built, in the Pacific Northwest in the 19th century. The construction: raw timber, skeletal buildings, rough terrain, and the passage of time, from the wetness and low warm sunlight of fall, into a driving snowstorm that surrounds the village in piles of white stuff.
My girlfriend, Fox, made a painting with old house paint, maybe 3 by 4 feet, rusty reds and dirty greens laced in smears of white paint. A number of chunks of scrap wood complicate the space of the painting, hastily attached, ramshackle and screwy; they somehow align in gentle verticals and horizontals to approximate the fixtures in a large room: tables, chairs, structures, tools perhaps. This plane positions the viewer, who looks at the painting from a vertical position, as though they were looking down. As topography it’s like a model, but on the wall. As a concession, perhaps, she painted a table, and some sketchy walls to make it like a perspectival room. When she finished the painting a week ago, she told me it was our studio, which is a hundred-foot-long low-ceilinged loft, far longer than it is wide, with a string of large vertical windows that looks out over a demolition site.
MOLLY ZUCKERMAN-HARTUNG is a painter and teaches at Yale School of Art in the Painting and Printmaking Dept.