December 9, 2009

Book excerpt: A PAINTER'S LIFE by K.B. Dixon

UPDATE (May 11, 2010): Dixon's book has been selected as a finalist for the 2010 Eric Hoffer Book Award for independent publishing. According to their mission statement, the Hoffer Award was founded at the start of the 21st century (with permission from the Eric Hoffer Estate) to honor freethinking writers and independent books of exceptional merit. "The commercial environment for today’s writers has all but crushed the circulation of ideas. It seems strange that in the Information Age, many books are blocked from wider circulation, and powerful writing is barred from publication or buried alive on the Internet. Furthermore, many of the top literary prizes will not even consider independent books or previously unpublished prose, choosing instead to become the marketing arms of large presses." Congratulations, Ken.

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While on the flight to Art Basel Miami last week, I finally got a chance to read K.B. Dixon's new novel, A Painter's Life. Often books about painters don't ring true, but this one, a compilation of journal entries, narrative, and art reviews about fictional painter Christopher Freeze does. I asked Dixon if, in fact, he himself is a painter. "I dabbled on several occasions but had to admit I couldn’t paint my way out of a paper bag," he responded. "I'm a regular roamer of museums, and a monthly visitor to most of our local galleries. (I have some painter friends, but I try to keep that quiet.)"

Dixon agreed to let me post the first two chapters.

Chapter 1

Christopher Freeze was born rather undramatically in Phoenix, Arizona—at the time a city in transition: a sprawling, major-league-sports-franchiseless nowhere in the middle of the Sonora desert that was fifty years and who knows how many millions of gallons of illegally diverted river water away from becoming the wealthy golf and retirement Mecca it is today.

A relatively healthy baby, Christopher endured the usual cavalcade of childhood maladies: chicken pox, mumps, whooping cough—usual with one significant exception: hospitalizations at the ages of nine and eleven for stomach ulcers, the product, it was professionally surmised, of pathological worry.

(Excerpts from the unpublished journals of Christopher Freeze)

Back in the studio this morning. I wanted to pick up where I had left off on Untitled, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t make myself care about it—not in the right way. All I could do was sit there and stare stupidly at those first 100 strokes and wonder what it was that had gotten me started, what it was that made me think I knew where this was going. It’s probably another terrible idea and I just don’t know it yet. I’ll try to get a little distance, to rejoin it, to fix it, but I won’t be able to. I’ll slap at it and slap at it and slap at it again—who knows how many times—before I give up and scrape it down, before I say to myself at the end what I am saying to myself now: that it’s another mistake, another waste of precious time.

*

It is a difficult thing in these early hours not to feel trivial—or, feeling trivial, to carry on.

*

David Andres was saying if he could just get the right people to object to something of his, to insist that it be removed from wherever it had been placed, it would be the making of him. It would mean a reputation, which is money in the bank. It would mean a better bottle of wine with dinner, a car with more horsepower, a house with more square feet, a girlfriend with fewer cats.

*

Ran into Aaron Powers at Downtown Drugs. I haven’t seen him in a couple of months—not since we showed paintings together at a charity auction for the Library. He is growing a beard. It’s probably a good idea because he has been cursed with a completely uninteresting face. I told him it looked good. He said thanks, but from the way he said it I could tell he wasn’t really comfortable with the thing, that he felt like a bit of a fraud—like a bald man wearing a hat. Anyway, I was looking for toothpaste, and Aaron was after some sort of new herbal concoction he had read about somewhere because he was afraid he was coming down with something. I hate it when you run into someone and they tell you they think they are coming down with something because when they tell you that you have to stand there, make concerned faces, and talk to them as if nothing was wrong when what you really want to do is jump back a couple of feet and say sorry about that, but whatever it is, don’t give it to me. I especially want to do that because I am one of those people who lives in terror of getting something—no matter how small—because no matter what it is, if I get it, I get a bigger, more unpleasant version of it than other people. I don’t get sick easily, but when I do get sick, I get very very sick—and it is not just my physical reaction that is extreme, but my emotional one, too. It’s a sort of double whammy—extra sick and extra depressed.

*

Safadi’s is not a gallery—it’s a menagerie. I fit right in.

*

I received a letter today from someone named Alan Barnes. I have never heard of him before, but from his handwriting—which is a little overly scrupulous for my taste—I imagine him to be another shifty, middle-aged art history professor with tenure issues and a weakness for underaged blondes. He is about to begin work on some sort of profile or monograph, and he was wondering if he could pay me a visit. I can tell from the pro-forma nature of the request that he isn’t really wondering at all—he already knows the answer. He just wants to get my rejection on the record. He probably thinks it will help him make a point.

*

Sarah and her tan—it’s a complex relationship that a paleface like me couldn’t possibly understand.

(Excerpts from various reviews)

“A sort of on-again/off-again complex-style surrealist, Freeze works in that sparsely populated corner of the genre reserved for slumming skeptics.
Temperamentally his pictures are reminiscent of Soutine’s. But the simply drawn figures, elaborately stuccoed surfaces, convoluted, idiosyncratic resolutions—these are uniquely Freeze’s.”



Chapter 2

When Christopher was seven his family moved into "the big house" on Flower Street where he became a builder of forts, radios, and smoke bombs. He took violin lessons (briefly), spent hours with his microscopes, constructed model rockets, and over time put together a small menagerie that included rabbits, pigeons, lizards, and gerbils. Once he got a bicycle he was almost impossible to keep track of. There were several mishaps involving fire—one that led to the inadvertent burning down of a billboard advertising Volkswagens. There was a preternaturally athletic girlfriend named Lauren, a best friend named Connor, and at the age of fourteen, there were two long nights spent in a juvenile detention facility.

(Excerpts from the unpublished journals of Christopher Freeze)

I like my pictures to look crowded—sort of stuffed into the frame. The canvas should be full like your plate when you sit down to dinner—suggestive of emotional and/or metaphysical abundance.

*

I don't want to be part of the perpetual revolution, the chasing after novelty. The freedom to go where you want is one thing, but the obligation to move on, move on—that is the demand made by a policeman. You are never saying anything; you are trying to say it. You never get to finish or to amplify a thought.

*

Another night arguing with my lumpy friend Brian Stark. I almost never agree with anything he says, but I like listening to him try to say it because he has a downright mesmerizing way of talking out of both sides of his face. A certain amount of this is to be expected when you’re trying to put things into words that can’t really be put into words, but Brian is positively chronic. If I caught his drift—it’s always difficult to know for sure given his backpedaling and perpetual circumlocution—he is worried right now that he is getting set in his ways, that the stuff he likes is not cutting edge enough. It is a sign that he is ossifying, that he is becoming simple-minded or right-winged (implied difference is his). He is against any painting that is in any way easy to like. He sees this as pandering—except, of course, when he doesn’t. This or that is always good and bad—except some of the bad has goodness in it and some of the good has badness in it. He likes it, finds in it a surprising and formal richness, except for certain dreamlike qualities that have no real significance and appeal to those who have no actual interest in being enlightened. It’s always like this with Brian—the sound and fury of contradictions signifying nothing. He wants things as many ways as he can have them. He lives in abject terror of being pinned down, of being proved wrong—or worse, bourgeoisie. He will never let a characterization of his position on a picture go unchallenged. He will always insist your understanding of his understanding is fundamentally flawed. He is very touchy for someone who tries so hard to seem casual and easy-going.

*

Sarah wants to talk tonight when she gets home. She wants to sort some things out—things about the way I have been acting lately, things she understands the ramifications of much better than me.

*

Bought a new ergonomic studio chair that is supposed to help with my back. It has all sorts of adjustments—levers, buttons, knobs. The instruction manual is as fat as a phone book.

*

Got into one of those not particularly engaging conversations about religious issues with James Ransom the other day. Our subject was the book of Genesis. I told him it was all very interesting, but for me the world began with the Kennedy assassination—or maybe it was when the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.

*

I hate watching people look at my pictures. I never like anything about the way they do it.

*

I fell in love with the magic of shadowing early on, and I have never felt the need to be subtle about it—in fact, just the opposite. I like to call attention to it. The magic is itself always part of the subject for me.

*

Coffee with Lewis Moore. Haven’t known him all that long. A still life painter, he got tired of the hard time he was having in New York so he moved out here, found a small place in the Pearl, and started letting himself go. Says he has put on fourteen pounds and developed a television habit—that he lives on Perry Mason reruns and pizza. He still hears from his old friends—one in particular named Zachary is trying to talk him into moving back. He says it would be better for Lewis as an artist and a person to live in New York, but Lewis isn’t interested. He says he likes living here. Says the Mayor was just arrested for drunk driving—or should have been. The fact that he wasn’t has gotten a lot of people upset. He wants to stay around to see how things work out.

*

I can’t imagine what led Barnes to settle on me. I know the big guys have been done and done again and that for quite some time now these profilers, monographers, biographers have been forced to pin their hopes on obscurer and obscurer middle-sized guys, but have they used them up too?

He is going to find me tremendously disappointing. I have never been interested in being interesting—not in a way he would like, not in a way that would make life easier for him. There are no betrayed mistresses to unveil, no famous friends, no hidden homosexual adventures, no bad behaviors caught on the front page of anything.

(Excerpts from various reviews)

“Color is obviously an issue for Freeze. He seems unapologetically attracted to the guileless dazzle of the jewel tones. While not committed unreservedly to being pretty for pretty’s sake, he is not afraid to indulge an inclination when it presents itself.”

Related post:
Regina Hackett on A Painter's Life


1 comments:

for a 'non-painter', he writes very convincingly about the struggle of painting. looks like a good read....