Monday, February 14, 2011

Cosy or Queasy? "Foreign Hotel"

Once a painting is finished and displayed to the public, the artist relinquishes control over how it will be viewed and interpreted. I have discovered that what people see can diverge to a startling extent from what I thought I was depicting. This raises some questions: What did I intend at the outset? Did I stick to my intention and achieve my goal? Do I see why some people interpret my work quite differently? And finally, does it really matter?

"Foreign Hotel" has turned out to be an ambiguous painting which has taught me that if I feel it's important to convey a particular mood or message, perhaps I need to exaggerate aspects of the work. On the other hand, subtlety and understatement might be considered assets: leaving room for personal responses and associations could make for an enriched experience for my viewers.

Sometimes the title of the work indicates what the artist had in mind. "Foreign Hotel" refers literally to the subject, a hotel room in a foreign city, in this case Brasov in Romania. But I also chose the title because it suggested a sense of malaise, the dislocation of a new arrival in alien surroundings.

When I choose to paint a scene that I've been part of, I obviously have much greater knowledge of it than a viewer of the finished product is likely to have. In this case my own associations include my memory of arriving in Eastern Europe for the first time; of being confronted in Bucharest with attitudes from "hospitality" workers that ranged from offhand and unhelpful to downright hostile; and of checking into a Brasov hotel that promised to be even more frosty. But my dismay at this unwelcoming reception was nothing compared to the shock of entering the hotel room. It was quite small, with an immensely high ceiling, and crammed with furniture. And looming out of the bay window was a gigantic rubber plant that swayed menacingly over one of the beds (I hastily staked a claim on the other, citing my need to be near the bathroom!)

I took a picture of the room , mainly to document the monster plant, and it was the photo that inspired the painting and determined the composition. I tried to express the unease and strangeness of the space, and in particular the malevolent power of the plant, but although I reworked the leaves several times, thickening the paint each time, I never quite captured the plant's shock value to my satisfaction. If I had, this would be a different painting, much less ambiguous.

Certainly some viewers, perhaps the majority, have shared the emotions I thought I'd put into the work, but others have admired the tranquillity of the setting, the richness of the drapery, the warmth of the colours . . . and one woman even said she loved it because it was "so cosy," a comment that floored me, since in my mind it was the exact opposite.

So is this a success or a failure? As a direct communication it fell short, and yet, four years after I painted it I'm not dissatisfied with it. I can appreciate the warmth, richness and tranquillity, and feel pleased that an odd composition, with a void of negative space right at the centre, seems to work. "Cosy" is going too far, but if some people look at it and are fondly reminded of their grandma's living-room, why should I object?

Next time (around Feb. 21):
Me and Vermeer! "The Open Door"

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