Frank & Betsy / by James Merrigan

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{I’m standing watching Jonathan Mayhew’s video work in Wexford Arts Centre and a man walks out of the adjoining cafe and drags a screeching chair across the gallery floor to plonk right down beside me—footsy-close—crosses his legs before shouting into his phone something about his daughter’s dress being the wrong size and having it returned.}*

{I’m sitting in a dark filmset about to ask a painter ‘What is his first memory?’ He is the sixth painter I have put this same question to over the course of two days. I’m not sure what but I know we are doing something important, here. NOW is something you feel rather than KNOW.}

{I’m pissing into a public toilet filled with ice cubes. Social anxiety heats the pure gold.}

 
 
 

In the last week I have interviewed six Irish painters on film, attended an art-scene social, reviewed an exhibition and written this. What I’ve learnt from all this is: being social is hard work and we tailor ourselves for other people, even tailor our identities through the objects we make and promote as artists. No one is socially consistent, whether in life, social media or art.

How we act and portray ourselves around others and online has partly to do with how our big brothers treated us or the type of imaginary friends we had as kids. We are our deepest and oldest insecurities. As artists we laugh along with the social banalities with our heads in the crooks of our arms thinking of that Frankenstein’s monster in the studio and why it won’t come together.

 
 
 

{As the ice melts I remember a painter’s response to my question about the monogamous nature of painting, “Painting doesn’t tolerate mistresses!”}

 
 
 

Scary…..even Mary Shelley’s monster wanted a bride. As artists—now, I’m just putting this out there—we’re never really alive, always waiting for that stormy night and that green bolt of lightning to come crackling into the laboratory.

In a real sense the Internet has become the artist’s Dr. Frankenstein. Fabricating oneself, one’s art, through the lens of social media is the defining condition of what it means to be an artist today. And even though we have never had more access to the lives of artists, their studios, their homes, their interests, their loves, their social lives, their affiliations, their cats, dogs, these online editions of ourselves are bloodless and grey, sewn together with detached imagery and ironic sentiment that are never complete and cannot possibly replace flesh and blood. But we let them, these cold and fluid avatars. Assumption is the clown of humanity.

 
 
 

{I’m looking across at a flesh and blood painter who is under the gaze of 10 lenses, machine and human. She speaks like humans do. Nothing’s drafted; everything is second-guessed. It’s wonderful. Flesh and blood and sweat.]

 
 
 

Some Minotaur once said that ‘death mythologises’. I’ve come to learn that enigma is delivered in silence, and a mask if you casual a cape. But first-hand experience tells me that’s not really how I define and value enigma in someone else.

The people I am drawn to are enigmatic because they question things out loud. These rough diamonds tell me what they think of me in person and they are open to the vice versa. It’s their own version of the truth but at least they are committed to the lie. And I’m not waving the criticism flag here; it’s more a tuned-in-self-acknowledged-vulnerability that I’m talking about. There’s probably something socially wrong with them, this syndrome or that disorder, but at least they’re consistent and I know where I stand; that is, when I’m not being shell-shocked by their candour.

Myself: some days I want to be Frank, other days Betsy, but I’m never James Merrigan online—the guy pissing in the toilet right now willing the gold stream to never stop and the ice to never melt. I feel inconsistent most of the time online. I blame my big brother whose music taste defined inclusiveness but not in an ethical way. The 1980s was his excuse.

So seven days ago I found myself on a filmset, up close and personal with six Irish painters questioning them on the nature and nurture of painting. Aside from the practicalities of making a documentary I wanted to dig behind the paint we see and the painter we don’t. The nature and nurture of it all. Wishing for a green lighting bolt I wanted to discover if the painter was alive, flesh and blood:

“It’s Alive! It’s Alive!”

Something happens however when we are being photographed or filmed, when the lens is put onto us. We call it self-consciousness but it’s not that at all. We are anything but self-conscious under the lens. It’s more a body thing, an energy thing. We bounce. We curl. We tick. We speed. We gape. We imagine the image being recorded reveals something about us. We become all at once the child looking through the microscope for the first time and the amoeba being watched by the child. An inverse staring match takes place: ‘How do I look?’

 
 
 

{After pissing I realised I hadn’t looked in the mirror.}

 
 
 

The camera lies like everything else, though. It’s all surface stuff. We can’t capture ourselves so what hope is there for a lens. Five years down the line we might gain some insight into how some trauma or little earthquake affected us but other than those rare moments of sobriety that uncannily burst into the present from the past and shake us with dusty Mummy arms, we get through the present by merely getting by. We are always eating our own dust.

My hope in these filmed interviews with painters is to unwrap the Mummy, mine own and theirs. It was put to me on the filmset that this type of questioning, self-analysis, psychology, is not helpful. I asked “am I being destructive?”. It wasn’t elaborated further as to whom was being destroyed, them or me.

Henry Miller talks about these cadenzas when writing that, no matter how fast he could type he was chasing a thought that was faster than him. What a drug, to tap into this source, in the gut, or soul, or whatever and allow the Alien to burst through the armature and gnaw the mask off; or at the very least start bashing the typewriter with its maw. On film, in person, consensually toe-to-toe (unlike screeching-chair-man at Wexford Arts Centre), I feel I caught the tail of a cadenza or two and I assume (being a fool) the interviewees did too.

So here I am on a filmset, at a social, in the jacks, asking, listening, drinking, writing, questioning what is to be social all the while searching for what it is to really know someone, flesh and blood, and their art, flesh and blood.

 
 

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*My review of Jonathan Mayhew’s solo at Wexford Arts Centre can be read in the forthcoming March/April issue of The Visual Artists’ News Sheet.