Do It Wrong Do It Wondrously Wrong

I was teaching a life drawing class recently, and I came up against one of the main issues that gives me qualms about teaching at all. My student was doing something which he thought was wrong, and he asked me about it. From a certain perspective, having to do with the mechanical representation of the optical facts, he was correct. What he was drawing was wrong. But the art teacher telling the student that some quirk is wrong rankles with me. So I told him what I really think.

I said something like — “I see what you mean, and I can show you how to do that ‘right.’ But I also want you to know that in art, there is no ‘wrong.’ Everything comes down to a choice. You are free to embrace what you are doing here, and to continue to do it. It is a difficult way to solve this problem, and tends to produce ugly and ineffective results. But an aesthetic can be built around anything. You can build an entire mode of drawing which provides a context within which this ‘wrong’ choice makes sense. You just have to make a conscious choice and then follow through.”

Naturally, my student said, “Can you give me an example of that?” Of the universe of choices, one artist immediately popped into my head — painter Jazz-Minh Moore. I adore Moore’s art, and have written about it here and here. And Moore paints hair wrong.

‘La Goulue Self Portrait, (31 years old)’, 12” x 16”, acrylic and resin on birch panel, 2010

Let me explain. Figurative painting isn’t like other branches of contemporary art. Most of the types of contemporary art sprang into being in the past century or so. But convincing figurative painting has been in development for millennia and a vast body of doctrine has sprung up on right and wrong — effective and ineffective –means of depicting every little thing. There is so much method, in fact, that one can complete a career in figurative painting without encountering the icewater shock of “waking” which is, for many, the entire goal of art as a process.

Hair is tricky to depict. It is visually the most detailed structure in the body, and its precise configuration answers to a variety of dynamics, none of them the piston-like deployment of force which characterizes the major anatomical structures. It is a unique and separate entity. Naturally, within the corpus of figurative painting method, there is a very thorough treatment of hair. This is one instance, from the great John Howard Sanden.

It may look formulaic, but that’s the point. It’s a very powerful apparatus that is designed to be adapted to the individual style of the student. If you know what you’re looking for, you can dissect most figurative painters’ treatment of hair down to a generic analysis like this. But not Moore.

Moore’s hair represents a divergence at the very base of the tree. These days, she depicts hair with a high degree of skill, depending on a body of analysis and practiced techniques. But the original conceptualization of the problem is entirely her own. She does not depict hair in reference to one of the institutional theories of hair. She depicts hair in relation to some original personal encounter with her own perception of hair.

‘Theda Bara’, 12” x 38.5”, acrylic and resin on birch panel, 2010

The way Moore does hair is part of what painter and art theorist Vincent Desiderio calls “technical narrative,” one of his three pillars of art making:

“the story of the evolution of the technique… is the technical narrative. It’s really the movement of the painter’s mind through the course of the picture, arriving at its terminus, and in the terminus the implication of everything that went into it is there, even though it’s not necessarily decipherable by everybody.”

- Theseus: Vincent Desiderio on Art

We don’t care about most figurative painters’ depictions of hair, except maybe from a professional standpoint of technical appreciation; because most figurative painters are content to leave hair in the vast realm of sleep, of indifferent and automatic representation by means of the inherited stereotype.

But we care about Moore’s hair because she confronts hair awake, and in so doing, she finds meaning in it — she makes it into art.

Now I happen to have a bit of a cheat sheet for hair in Moore’s art, because I remember something interesting Moore wrote about hair a few years ago on Facebook. She noted that she never or rarely cuts her hair, and does not approve of hair cutting, because she considers hair a part of the nervous system. This is an astonishing and very strange perspective, and it may not consciously inform Moore’s depictions of hair. But consider what it brings to our contemplation of her work.

‘Nadia: Crepuscular’, 12” x 20.5”, acrylic and resin on birch panel, 2010

From an ordinary perspective, we find Nadia’s face half-obscured by her wild hair. It answers to a seductive convention of the one eye obscured by hair, the face largely hidden by hair. But from Moore’s perspective, the organs of sensation are not hidden and the face is not hidden. Nadia is not passive and half-blind because the hair is her face. Her face sweeps toward us, sensing all, seeing all, grasping all.

You could argue that this second perspective is special pleading, that you have to know Moore’s doctrine to understand Moore’s picture. But you don’t, not really. The writhing, active lines of the hair, its sharp and tense suspension in space, the wild variation of its blacks, reds, and whites, tell us that story, in the intuitive and half-buried language of the technical narrative. Because Moore has backed up and started at the beginning, she has found an avenue to make hair speak, in a way that is unique to her, because the depiction is hers alone.

‘Spill,’ 23” x 48” [detail], acrylic on birch panel, 2013

We see her solution to the problem of hair informing the meaning of Spill. The tangled threads of hair merge with the tangled branches and roots of the tree. That which senses merges with that which is sensed, so that the human observer and the natural observed become one continuous entity, and the figure-ground dichotomy, in an important sense, never arises. Moore’s art centers on the re-merging of human life into burgeoning and active nature, and she expresses this with everything at her disposal, including her theory of hair. You don’t need to know her theory of hair to get her drift.

Because she has found her own way with hair, she has found her own language of emotional expression as well.

‘Hypertrichosifs Self Portrait (31 years old)’, 12” x 16”, acrylic and resin on birch panel, 2010

Who else would think to convey so much with the complex shape of the hair? There is an anxiety and mystery to this, to the twisted, floating black mass that sprouts out-of-control tendrils, spreading everywhere, consuming everything. Because hair speaks to Moore in a completely individual way, she can make shape speak to us with the same irreplaceable individuality.

So this is what I wanted to express to my student. There is no wrong. Every wrong turn represents an opportunity to reinvent the language with which you make art. There is not time or genius enough to follow each of these wrong turns to the El Dorado at its end. But each sensation you get of “wrongness” represents a fracture between expectation and result, a tiny awakening from the pabulum of automatic artmaking. It is worth examining and evaluating each one. Most will not speak to you. But one or two will. To accommodate these wondrous wrongnesses, you will have to create the aesthetic within which they become right. And this is what will make you into an artist. Through these wrongnesses, you will discover a new world, entirely your own.

Jazz-Minh Moore online: