“Conception” cannot precede “execution.” Before expression, there is nothing but a vague fever, and only the work itself, completed and understood, will prove that there was something rather than nothing to be found there.”
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Cezanne’s Doubt”
Beverly Acha shares writing by ten painters from her forthcoming book, to be published in 2019, “Artists in the Studio: On Doubt.” The project brings together a diverse group of contemporary artist’s musings on the role of doubt in their artistic practices. With little published writing on doubt in art and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s seminal essay “Cezanne’s Doubt” having been written over half a century ago, Acha approached contemporary artists to gather their experiences of doubt in their studios. It feels apt that in this moment we are facing, among many other cultural, social and political challenges, the effects of valuing confidence, certainty, and productivity over doubt, questioning, and exploration. Here, ten painters offer their thoughts on, experiences with, and ways of approaching doubt.
Is there desire without doubting what you get? Doubt is material and practical. It speaks to the irreconcilability of what is and what it means, what will happen. Whether what is is what it is, even. These twisted conundrums which can feel like a dance, and like dancing require a beat and some juice.
Doubt is present relentlessly. It is at the heart of what I think art can be, which is untethered from my own prerogatives or ideas about it as a maker. When I doubt something, I feel I am really looking at it. It usually happens after the fact, when I am settling back into evaluating, planning, pondering, rather than executing. Doubt is the origin and end of faith.
I welcome doubt like a lover.
Doubt is like a false shadow. Doubt is not a mirror. It’s a figment of our imaginations, something we have made up as a hanging question mark in the air, a far off whisper of a 3rd grade bully, a temporary slip on a patch of ice. Doubt follows me around in the studio all the time, but I try to let it go, let it go, let it go...as much as I can. As an artist, I’m always wondering if I am doing the right thing, making the right move, taking the right path, choosing the right adventure. Doubt can be both as subtle and as harsh as a blue is to a blue. I’d like to replace doubt with belief. If I believed as much as I doubted, where would I be then? An older artist once told me that to be an artist, you have to be fairly delusional to keep it going, to believe in what you are doing, even when the world does not. But belief is not delusion. Make your own luck, confront the doubt, and put the next mark down with conviction and BELIEF. Doubt be damned!
I experience doubt cyclically in my artistic practice. I’ve noticed that doubt seems to wash over me like a slow tide and then recede. Sometimes it feels like I’ll drown in it and sometimes it is hard to remember it was even there to begin with. The cycle seems to be about six months of doubt, six months without. Maybe this could be called “seasonal doubt”?
I’ve often said that as an artist I spend seventy percent of my time not talking myself out of doing something. The thing about painting, as that is my primary medium, is that whenever I make a mark, I seem to also be choosing not to make every other mark. This simultaneous assertion of what I desire and what I regret is what painting tends to feel like for me. By choosing to do one thing in a painting, I am also choosing not to do a lot of other things. Doubt is coming to terms with this.
There’s something about the sensuality of making art that has the power to evaporate all of my hesitation, analysis, responsibilities and rationale. At the same time, sensuality without any of these would not feel meaningful. So, I guess I would say that doubt is essential but annoying.
Doubt: A Motivational Complaint in Writing.
Anxiety runs an unprofitable multi-tiered Agency of which Doubt and myself are long time employees. My position here is controversial. The role of Creative Director was established so that there would always be someone in the upper management who could work against the goals of the Agency. Despite being her superior, I have had some personal issues with Doubt.
First, the onslaught of questions. I’m reheating my coffee in the morning and Doubt is already hanging around the kitchenette, nagging at me. “Why are you here instead of doing the laundry? When are you going to put all that old work in storage? Do you have to keep making the same painting over and over again? Shouldn’t you be putting more effort into networking?” I try to shrug it off, but it’s just a really unpleasant way to start the day.
Second, there’s the exhaustive task of constantly having to tune her out. For the most part there’s enough other chatter in my studio to stay focused: internal monologue, grooves and habits, a good sound track. But the construction of our space requires that Doubt and I share a very thin wall. In pauses and breaks I can hear the slow steady stream of her private conversations. Her main roles here involve Self Criticism, Undermining Productivity, and Expense Analysis. Maybe it’s a sick joke then that we have to share a wall, but you know what they say, we’re two sides of the same coin, or opposites attract, or whatever annoying metaphor you want to use. I swear though, sometimes it’s like she can see right through the wall. I make one move, one mark, and through the heat vent I can already hear, “Oooh, was that really what you wanted to do? Guess you’re stuck with it now.” Last winter I hung one of those motivational posters on the wall, for extra insulation. It had a picture of a woman on top of a mountain, silhouetted by the sunset, hands in the air. In big orange serif font it said: TRUST YOURSELF. It helped, a little.
Finally, there are the all out blowouts, which are rare but ugly. These usually occur after the Agency is rejected from a grant, residency, job, anything really. Rejection’s a bitch. I’m pretty used to it but Doubt, for all her posturing, has no backbone. She goes into a tailspin. As her superior it usually falls to me to level her out, but most of the time I just have to let her get it out of her system. By the time she’s done I’m left with an inconclusive Report on the Hows and Whys. I try to be supportive, so I let her do the work, but they are a waste of time to read. I’ll usually leave the Report on my desk for a few days so it looks like I’m reading it before tossing it into the recycling.
Anyways, where was I going with this? I mean it’s not like anything is going to change, we’re stuck together. We’re like family. Sometimes she’s even right. I just have to keep on keepin’ on, do my best to coexist, and TRUST MYSELF.
Notes on Fear and Doubt:
“Enter with nothing and leave with nothing.”
- Andrew Lincoln in an interview with Yvette Nicole Brown
“People are to various to be treated lightly. I’m too various to be trusted.”
- James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
Comedians and athletes are similar in that they are constantly confronting the potential of failure in a much more immediate way than us (painters). Their work, in order to be complete, requires an opposing agent, like an audience that needs to laugh or an opponent that needs to lose, in real time and as soon as their gestures manifest and become active. But in the real time of the making of a painting, we just have ourselves, and considering our familiarity with all of our ideas and ambitions around them, we don’t proceed with the kind of paced viewing that a stranger might experience with our work so we become that audience that doesn’t laugh or that team that doesn’t let us win. Even though the work is not experienced in real time, as it’s made, it becomes evaluated immediately, by us, making us the truest audience for the work.
Being exposed as a fraud:
- The fear of forgetting: I am uncomfortable with having too much distance from the tangible evidence of an experience because I feel it will somehow separate me from the narratives. I’ve created or have been a part of. I believe that part of an artists work is in creating this kind of index with the objects they make.
- Each time I’ve cycled through a body of work, and begin fresh from nothing, I have the fear that I can’t do it again, and that “this will be the time when folks will realize I’m a fraud”. I kind of feel like I can’t do it and if I were ever fully convinced and completely confidant in my ability to paint, I’m not sure that I would pursue it’s practice.
- Allowing for the spectrum of identities to be constantly present. Honoring the extremes: Dear Mama/I Get Around. Acknowledging the variousness and letting the complication exist.
- One of my main concerns as a painter is the pursuit of beauty. Considering that the my content is dark aggressive, confrontational, self deprecating, and extremely vulnerable, I suspect that I may be manipulating my viewer.
- It really is a trick every time. I spend a considerable amount of time being afraid that I can’t finish the painting, or more accurately, that I can’t find what it needs to be. I’m essentially waiting for the painting to reciprocate some kind of attention, perhaps the attention that I’m giving it.
- I understand a painting to be complete when I’ve created something I can actually continue working on infinitely, where there is nothing I can do to ruin the painting.
- What if I can’t find the painting?
- What happens when I do?
- What does it mean for me to paint or be a painter?
- Am I a painter?
- Am I a Dominican painter?
- Am I an American painter?
- Am I American?
- What does it mean for me to wield abstraction?
- Am I being divisive when it comes to abstraction?
- Am I using it too formally, does it carry enough meaning?
- Does abstraction compromise or enhance my relationship to representation?
- As I ask these questions, I’m already defining abstraction as the supporting gesture in my paintings, but is it? Is the gesture of representation in the work actually the structure for abstraction to exist?
- Why do I think of it in reverse?
- Am I actually more familiar with abstraction than I am with representation?
- Has familiarity tricked me into thinking I understand a representational image more than something less definable in our visible world?
- Is it unfair to represent things that aren’t visibly available?
- How do you paint frequencies?
- How do you paint energy?
- How do you paint love?
- Is it unfair to bring invisible things to light?
- Is it fair to know what cell structures look like?
- Does science curb curiosity in non-scientists?
- Is science to be trusted?
- Is art to be trusted?
- What does it mean for me to engage with a surface?
- What does it mean for me to deal with touch? Or to deal with being touched?
- What does it mean for me to deal with love?
- What weight does love hold in painting?
- What does it mean to desire to be seen and for being seen to be the highest gesture of appreciation?
- What does love mean for me and how does
it inform my practice?
- Is painting love?
- Is love generous?
- Is painting generous?
I tend to experience doubt many times throughout the making process. Primarily when I’ve been working on one piece to the extent that I no longer seem to know what is or isn’t important anymore. But it is also there in moments when everything seems disposable or when I take a break and return to my studio and find I am unable to gain momentum.
My experience of doubt comes in the form of feeling out of balance. As if looking, thinking, and creating simultaneously operate in this perfect rhythm, like a fine tuned instrument. And then suddenly I’m thinking too much or painting in a way that is out of sync with what it should be and I am no longer able to decipher or see any of my choices clearly for what they are, every move feeling unintentionally self-conscious.
Doubt can slow me down occasionally, but only if I let it. Sometimes taking a short break and gathering my thoughts can be a good thing.
If I experience doubt I typically do one of three things:
1. I keep working. I don’t leave the studio until I arrive, in some way, at a place I believe possesses potential.
2. I leave my studio. Eat a meal, ride my bike, go for a walk, see a movie. Do some such activity that makes me feel good and occupied and come back to it with fresh eyes.
3. Go to a museum.
Doubt often appears when I’m in my most vulnerable states, often in the form of questioning the direction I’m taking with a particular piece. It causes me to question what best suits what is true to what I’m trying to communicate. However, doubt is often a blessing in disguise, bringing about unpredictable discoveries.
Doubt is my “artist’s block,” slowing my process down and making me question my next move. It results in a self-checking mechanism, helping me realize that a deeper investigation of sorts is called for. Doubt will often help me learn something new about myself, which feeds my creativity. It also teaches me how to navigate through uncharted territories to find where my (or a work’s) focus should inevitably be. It causes me to stir things up in a work, which sometimes means that I need to destroy and rebuild. Although this often takes me to a place where I’m freer to make decisions.
I’m my own worst critic once I begin to doubt myself, but it always reminds me of the need to show confidence in the moves I make, whether it be in the studio or in a public forum. Doubt challenges me to grow both as an artist and a person, and becomes a way to push myself out of my comfort zone, which I find I often need a nudge out of. Sometimes I struggle with doubt, and try to hold on to something for too long, before I realize that it’s the very thing hurting a work, or that needs to be changed. Nevertheless, I inevitably lean into it, accept what the doubt brings, and use it as the impetus to take a risk or move in a new direction.
Doubt is constantly present in my practice. It can come at the beginning of a new piece or suddenly descend in the middle of a decision. It is a very powerful force that used to completely overwhelm me. It has taken me a long time to anchor this energy and to see its value, and it is something I am beginning to be very grateful for.
Doubt instigates the “real work,” pushing safe choices aside, allowing for new doors to open. I often think about what Agnes Martin wrote in her essay, On the Perfection Underlying Life, “Undefeated, you will have nothing to say but more of the same. Defeated you will stand at the door of your house to welcome the unknown, putting behind what is known...Defeated, exhausted and helpless you will perhaps go a little further.”
Doubt brings me back to the work and to my studio.
There are two ways I push back against doubt. 1) After I have spent enough time fighting with my own mind, I relinquish control knowing that the only way to proceed is to welcome failure. I try to slow down my actions, paying attention to details and trusting the intelligence of my intuition. Time slows down and clarity can arise, which allows me to stay extremely present and make good headway with the work. 2) However, if my mind is too preoccupied to enter this space, I leave the work alone. Nothing can be done except sleep or turn my attention to something else. I must allow enough distance and time to be able to approach the work again, holding failure closely in my back pocket.
Doubt is a creepy, nasty invasion of the creative mind. No artist can escape its sudden stealth attacks; it is sneaky. One never knows where it comes from. Is it totally internal, or do outside forces direct its influence on individual sensibilities? In my own case, is it a result of racial politics? Like anxiety, it seduces away the fun side of painting, and interferes with the flow. Most artists would agree: a little bit of anxiety and doubt is necessary. We are not perfect beings, nor can we expect every painting to be a masterpiece.
When the cushy armchair becomes too comfortable, bourgeois tendencies interrupt the flow of spirit. The spirit doesn’t like doubt. It prefers the free-flowing energy of water. It prefers the unobstructed movement of wind. The spirit hates barriers of any sort!
Resist, resist, resist. Different artists have different ways of dealing with doubt: I fight. I destroy any painting that upsets my psychic equilibrium. Tear it up! Set fire to it! Beat it with a hammer! Give it to the New York City Sanitation Department! Doubt is a fungus that requires radical countermeasures in order to destroy its evil intentions. Every artist worth anything, has experienced the feeling of doubt. Doubt is not a new phenomenon, it is part of being human and has existed since the early days of human consciousness. I think that most artists would agree, if we do not aggressively deal with doubt, then it will prevent the will to create.
I think of doubt as a cosmic test. If we can overcome the successive layers of doubt embedded in our urge to create, then it makes us stronger and improves the value of what we do.
I’ve moved my studio half a dozen times in the past few years and I’ve noticed doubt most prominently during these uprootings/transitions. I always connect most strongly with my most recent body of work and feel sweetest towards my current studio. My studio space is an essential collaborator. It’s both an extension of myself and a buffer between me and the outside world. The privacy in my studio encourages inward focus. It allows me to sustain uncertainty and withhold judgment in an effort to make something wholly unique and surprising, something that might take time to get to know. Doubt arises during the first few weeks of moving into a new studio when I haven’t yet made anything. I don’t doubt that I will, but I might doubt my choice of the space and whether its characteristics are best suited for how I imagine my work evolving.
I prefer not to know what I’m heading towards in my work. Even when I’m finished with a painting I often don’t know, and don’t need to know, the subject matter or the specifics of the imagery. Though I actively engage this ambiguity, doubt still surfaces. I remind myself that it’s normal to question meaning and value when you feel a connection to an image but can’t definitively know and/or verbalize what you are seeing. I am constantly pushing against this doubt and the need to define my imagery. In my daily life I find myself striving to resolve feelings and be sure. Doubt and uncertainty in my daily life is a source of unease and frustration. Because of this, I’ve made my studio a place that engages doubt and confusion. My painting process is a model for the kind of patience I want to have with my emotional self.