Pete Edler

Painting the Big One

In the spring of 68 we moved from Sausalito on San Francisco Bay up into Sonoma County, to Schellville, a nothing place affectionately known to the handful of locals as El Bende Grande - because the road took a big bend right there at the gas station, swerving east, then north again toward the fabled town of Sonoma where the California Republic’s Bear Flag was first raised. We’d rented an old chicken farm right there in the crook of El Bende Grande, its shacks and stalls long abandoned, all the chicken droppings dried up and crumbled to dust.
On that half-acre property right by the side of the road stood a large billboard on stilts, paint flaking, its message faded into illegibility in the rain and the fog and the endless sunshine. The billboard service platform was raised some three meters from the ground, the billboard itself maybe 4x4 meters big. One fine day I put a fresh coat of paint on it, then wrote the word GOD on it in very large letters. I believe I embellished this legend with a few fanciful curlicues. That was my first big painting. It caused an immediate sensation for passing motorists. Soon a local schoolteacher pulled into our yard and invited me to lecture her students on meaning and intent of my message – which I did, being something of a religious zealot at the time.
I thought of myself as a writer, writing prodigiously through the decades, painting on the side. Fast-forward to 2000 when I finally decided I’d never be a real painter. When I moved to a new apartment that year I threw away everything I’d painted in thirteen years. Then in that new place I broke through into painting in earnest, doing three large 2x3m canvases in a year and a half. A month ago I moved again, to a large studio space where I now live and work - so much for my background.

Big canvases suit me, make me feel good. Mainly, though, they challenge my patience. Painting big is a long haul – three to six months on one painting. I mean painting twenty hours a week. This long, slow process brings my unconscious into play. My unconscious doesn’t respond well to quick-fix painting where everything happens fast – it needs long, slow time to express itself, and it manifests in the real world.
Recently I strolled home through a nearby park. A woman was walking her dog - a very large, black Great Dane, a female. The moment the dog saw me she started moving toward me. With a dog that big you want to be cautious but the animal’s body language was calm, friendly. She came right up to me and started nuzzling me, nosing my hand, leaning against me as if we were old friends. Well, I once did have a dog like this: loved it, lost it - in Sonoma. This Great Dane acted like a reincarnation of my dog forty years back.
Meeting that dog coincided with me getting stuck painting – all the elements on the canvas were in place, everything looked just like I had imagined it, yet something was missing. Precisely! My dog. Putting my dog in the painting would pull it all together – a perfect escape from the corner I’d painted myself into! You tell me how this sort of thing hangs together. Coincidence, synchronicity, karma, whatever – certainly it transcends reason – a magic that weaves the unseen, the unknown into tactile reality.
In the thirties, when Raoul Dufy was commissioned to illustrate the evolution of electricity he gave us La Fée Électricité – the largest painting in modern times, 10 by 60 meters, fully six hundred square meters of canvas. Took him a mere four months to do. By comparison my own 2x3m (6 square meter) efforts seem puny in size. Dufy taught me humility of proportion, to say nothing of a light touch – the hardest, most back-breaking work there is in painting. Pardonnez moi, Maitre Dufy!
As for quality of rendition, technique, the masters remain untouched, unreachable, so the question arises What have I got that they haven’t? Well, for one thing, I’m alive. I can paint, they can’t. You’ll admit that’s a huge difference.
My technique may be crude but I can actually apply it to the living canvas. And, barring force majeur, my canvases will survive me – framed, mounted, on exhibit or rolled up in some attic or basement. It’s easy to burn books – an everyday routine in the surplus-book mills of New Jersey – but who’s ever heard of a bonfire of paintings? Even the Nazis knew better than that. They dubbed great art entartete Kunst, just so they themselves could collect it – free of charge.
Recently, there’s been a market breakthrough in expressionist paintings. European expressionists - Klimt, Schiele, even Kokoschka, and others - fetch prices literally in the hundreds of millions of dollars (120 million for a rather modest Schiele). No artist living today rates anywhere near the prices commanded by dead artists. This craziness goes far beyond the cliché that great paintings gain value through time because their creators no longer produce new works. Van Gogh sold only a couple of paintings over the counter, though he traded for supplies, housing, favors. Were he alive today, using the proceeds from all his paintings at current prices, he’d be able to acquire a sizable portion of France! So, to make it really big in the art world, an artist has to die first – a Catch-22 situation, especially if you haven’t made it big while alive.

At the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris Dufy’s La Fée Électricité was displayed only a stone’s throw from Picasso’s Guernica. People showed little interest in Picasso’s daring masterpiece, opting instead for Dufy’s poetic, light-wristed realism on a monumental scale. A painter who competes with other painters is a fool. A painter who is jealous of other painters is a fool’s fool. I don’t believe Dufy competed with Picasso or Picasso with Dufy. And a painter who paints to make a name for him- or herself is the biggest fool of all. Which didn’t seem to bother Picasso, or Dufy, if they cared.
Painting is a bit like surfing: waves look pretty much alike but each is different. Size has a lot to do with that. I’d be tempted to say The bigger the better – if it weren’t for the little matter of viewing space, viewing distance.
To view Dufy’s enormous Fée comfortably, i.e., without having to crane and swivel your neck as if watching a tennis match, you need at least 20 to 30 meters distance. Then, as you get closer, you’re literally enveloped by the panoramic space – you become part of the painting. Even Guernica with its comparatively much more modest size (approx 26 square meters) requires at least 10 meters viewing distance to be easily appreciated in its entirety. So it’s not the painting only but the viewing space too that counts. So much for size.

Striving for fame and fortune through painting is a fool’s game, unquestionably – it’s also the only game in town.
A painter who says he doesn’t care about fame or fortune is not only a fool but a liar as well, even if he is deceiving himself. What would a painter be famous for? Look at Jeff Koons, an artist with a lively commercial imagination who commands top dollar. Like Andy Warhol, Koons is an art industry. Of course, many a painter would deem himself (or herself – just assume I’m including women artists when I write himself, so I don’t always have to write himself or herself, an emancipational bottleneck that ought to be widened with a fresh term, like hirself or hemself?) deem hemself lucky to be an art industry. That, after all, is where all efforts, including all artistic efforts, are heading, isn’t it – toward becoming an industry. The age of patronage is long dead. Even sponsoring no longer works. Indeed, in the public commercial domain of art nothing works any more – maybe because nobody knows any more what art is for, so long as it rhymes.
(When trying to write the word hemself on my computer, the automatic correct function automatically corrected hemself to himself, so I had to outsmart it by first typing heemself, with two e, then deleting the superfluous e, which then made the word acceptable to the computer. Maybe the machine thought heemself is phonetic vernacular for himself in quoting an accented foreigner – for instance a Mexican, an Italian, a Russian. Computers are getting smarter and smarter by the day but they do need better overall cultural programming, or should I say cultural training?)

For any artist with any talent, dying is the surest way to riches. All I have to do is keep painting to the end of my days and my family will inherit a fortune. So I sell a few paintings to stay in the game but give my best work to family members. That’s better than giving them cash or stocks. All I need to do is make sure my name is a household word in the art market before I die. As things are today the world at large hasn’t heard of Peter Edler, so my heirs would get stuck with a lot of worthless paintings. That’s why I painted the libby@ trilogy, which stands as an esthetic monument to the Iraq disaster. As the full extent of the genocidal attack on Iraq by the United States is understood by the world my libby paintings are bound to soar in value.
I’ll let you in on a little secret – just as Guernica could not have been painted in 1940, libby@fallujah could not be painted in 2007. This relates to the emotional aura that surrounds disastrous events like Guernica, 9/11, Fallujah and others. Such auras fade, and once they’ve faded they no longer inspire original vision. I’m saying that any painter can paint a fresh Fallujah today but it will bear the telltale signs of conceptual volition, that is to say, it’ll be too late.
Perhaps somewhere there is a great undiscovered painting on Auschwitz, painted during the second world war. If there is it would be the real thing – perhaps the only real thing.
If Lucian Freud were to paint Auschwitz today it might be interesting but it would bear the marks of deliberation – a futile exercise in trying to return to WWII and enter into the emotional aura of an extermination camp.
Guernica came and went. Auschwitz came and went. Dresden came and went. Hiroshima came and went. Rwanda came and went. 9/11 came and went. Fallujah came and went. A thousand massacres have come and gone, more are coming and will go. Painting is like surfing, painters are surfers. I hang out on a remote beach in a dangerous land wracked by strife and devastation - waiting for the Big One. When you see it coming. all you can do is paddle into it for all you’re worth, get up on it and ride it to shore. Or go under trying.
Eyewitnesses report seeing a woman surfer riding the second wave of the Great Tsunami in at Khao Lak, Thailand - through the debris, the devastation, the corpses. A great mythical ghost artist, surfing to keep art alive for the living and the dead. One should be so lucky!

©Peter Edler 2006