Untitled 13, the painting featured in this post, is now available as a new limited-edition, signed and numbered art print. These prints (and other SubwOb art prints) are available in runs of only 100 per piece. You can find them in the Rabbit Room store.]
An Explanation for the Uninitiated: Subjects With Objects is an ongoing, collaborative art project forever ordered according to the following rules: A shadowy public spaces painter sets up in pubs and bars and executes spontaneous portraits at the rate of one painting per pint. He then hands off those enigmatic little ocular disturbances to a semi-anonymous poet & novelist who lives with them long enough to solicit their otherworldly mumblings and ephemeral whispers, distilling each of their essences into a line or two of poetic prose. The painter is Jonathan Richter. The poet is UNKNOWN & UNKNOWABLE, so it is best NOT TO EVEN ASK! However, for the sake of convenience we may refer to him as DKM.
Subjects With Objects Unplugged
Untitled 3 (2013)
Be Careful What You Wish For…
I can’t claim a consistent creative process. When Richter presents me with a painting, sometimes I do my thinking on paper, capturing every thought that lights long enough to be considered as a possibility. Every half hour I’ll go back and read through the lines I’ve already scrawled, and when one jumps out at me as having a kernel of something essential, I’ll begin to riff a little more on that one.
But there are other times when I just sit and stare at one of Richter’s dreamlike paintings, trying to absorb it without too much filter, waiting for the meaning to suddenly emerge. If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, you’ll understand what I’m waiting for in such moments. I’m trusting that my brain is working behind the scenes to do what brains naturally do: cipher meaning, make connections, establish context. This can lead to one of those epiphany sort of moments when the answer suddenly comes clear, seeming to arrive fully formed.
It’s very much like what happens when my mind is muddled by some script or story problem, and I lay down at 3:30 in the afternoon for a short power nap. My mind begins to drift, I slip away into a half-sleep state, and then BANG! In an instant I’m suddenly wide awake twenty minutes later with the obvious answer to my creative problem. The older I get, the more I’ve learned to trust this process of some part of my brain working in the background on a level that isn’t always entirely conscious.
For last week’s SubWOb Unplugged column I chose a piece that was worked out in lengthy detail on the pages of a legal pad. This week I’ve chosen to highlight a piece that shows the other method.
Around a year ago, Richter and I were working in his Nashville studio on a couple of different projects. There was one evening when I found myself alone in the old factory, overlooking the ghostly cut of the train tracks. I might have been waiting for some effects-laden piece of video to render. I walked over to the stack of SubWOb paintings that still needed text (alas, I had fallen far behind, DEAR READERS) and began to sift through them.
I passed this one over and then stopped and went back to it. There was something haunting in it. There was the fact that the woman was seriously overdressed for a beach excursion, yes. But there was also her face. Her face half in shadow, half in light, looking back at something her whole body was turned away from. Her head and figure a little unnaturally long as if compressed between that same light and shadow. Her expression reflecting no joy in the sort of occasion her dress would suggest she’s a participant in. And then there’s the red buoy floating in the sea behind her, telling us what? That one thought, one realization has risen to the surface of her own consciousness and cannot ever be submerged again?
I carried the painting to a desk and sat in the near darkness, staring at it for some time. I don’t know how long. Trains blew past in the night.
And then, in the empty stillness, I saw it. The meaning arrived whole, in a sort of quiet devastation. I say devastation, because just as you can’t write compelling fictional characters if you don’t care about them and the choices they make (even the villains!), I don’t think I can really articulate what’s going on with the subjects of Richter’s paintings till I’ve been able to posit myself inside the emotional space they’re inhabiting. At the end of the day, I wished better for this woman. I did not want her, by her own past choices, to have trapped herself in such vacancy. Hers is a sad wisdom to apprehend by experience. Be careful what you wish for.
I trusted him more when I was the other woman.
Funny how much more I trusted him when I was the “other woman.”
When I was his mistress, I felt like I could trust him more.
I trusted him more as his mistress than I do now as his wife.
And why should I trust him?
It was easier to trust him as his mistress than as his wife.
I trust him less now, because there’s more to lose.
I trusted him more as his mistress.
The first phrase I wrote was also the obvious choice—no reason to complicate it further. No reason to hit the reader over the head with a more detailed explanation either. Better to let the meaning unfold in the reader/viewer’s mind based on this brief phrase. Everything we need to know is already contained in it. The meaning ripples outward. Of course, that didn’t stop me from trying to tinker with it, but in the end, it was the first phrase I wrote that easily won out.
Doug participated in the early work of Charlie Peacock’s Art House Foundation, an organization dedicated to a shared exploration of faith and the arts. In the decades since, he has worked as an author, song lyricist, scriptwriter, and video director. He has penned more than 350 lyrics recorded by a variety of artists including Switchfoot, Kenny Rogers, Sanctus Real, and Jason Gray. His newest book is Every Moment Holy (Rabbit Room Press). His other works include The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog (illustrated by Zach Franzen), The Wishes of the Fish King (illustrated by Jamin Still), Subjects with Objects (with Jonathan Richter), and Stories We Shared: A Family Book Journal (with Jamin Still).