Sometimes it's good to step back, take a good look around, and reassess to gain some perspective.
While preparing images for my new website, I went looking through old images of my paintings, and was struck by how beautiful some of my old work is, and how much I love them. I have brought up the discussion with my husband that there is one seminal piece in particular that I would like to try and buy back, as it has proven difficult to get the owner to lend it for exhibitions, and it was sold before it was even finished, so it left my hands upon completion. If possible, I would like to live with it some more, because I would like to look at it as I go forward with my new work.
Seeing these images got me thinking. As a child, my head was saturated with books and movies about ideals ( see Fate of A Technicolor Romantic)... to the point where upholding these ideals (and making art about them) became the most important guiding force in my life. My brother Bob and I used to call it "living fictionally": if you swear to someone that you will meet them on this bridge in ten years, you are there, even though the other party has "grown up" and doesn't even remember making such a promise. You always tell the truth, and stand by your promises, even when it is inconvenient, and a reasonable person would back out if circumstances made it too difficult (this led to things like stupid, death-defying, sleep-deprived road trips because you had to be somewhere "no matter what"). Sometimes ideals can lead you to some pretty absurd places: there were times when I was dating that my feminist ideals would cause me to insist on paying my share or taking my turn on a date even if my date was making six figures, and paying for the meal was going to break me. After lots of therapy, I have worked hard to extricate familial pathologies from "ideals", in order to ascertain when I am being too hard on myself, being absurd in my desire to prove something, or setting myself up for disappointment.
I find that this self-examination holds true for artmaking as well. I have always been guided by my intuition, making "what needs to be made". I generally have lots of ideas for new work, and devote my time to the one that screams the loudest. This is not the best system for building a career: producing two hair embroideries and two paintings a year, with an occasional Psychological Clothing piece thrown in, does not fit the art world model (providing a whole series of hot new paintings that look similar enough that one might replace the other if a collector's favorite has been sold). For example, I sold most of my "Beauty Wrest" series (women sleeping in cars). I could have had gallery representation early in my career, and was told I could have sold more of these paintings, if only I made more, but I felt the need to move on and make something new. (If YOU have had therapy, you might be mumbling to yourself, "career self-sabotage...", but I believe these impulses come from a nobler place.)
I have always thought that one of the great things about not "making it" is that there is more freedom, and less pressure to become a brand or an assembly line. I still don't feel that I have "made it", but after the unexpected attention surrounding "Blessed Art Thou", I did have to wait for the intrusive voice of the outside world to go away to make what needed to be made next.
I do and I don't know where Blessed Art Thou came from. I do know that I pushed myself way out of my comfort zone when making it, and I know that in the new paintings that am working on now, I am STILL working very far out of my comfort zone. 16 months ago, I had a formula that worked for me when making paintings, and I chucked it, to make a different kind of painting: different kind of space, different subject matter, figures of various scales that I never painted before, different techniques, different type of composition. It is rewarding and terrifying on a daily basis. During the making of BAT, and during this painting, it has held true that one day in the studio, I think I am a genius, and the next day, I think the painting is worthless and I have wasted the last 6 months.
My rationale: if I am not growing and challenging myself in my work, I am simply producing luxury goods, like making designer handbags or building yachts. And if I am making art to give meaning to a life deeply lived and explored, spending my whole life making one thing in one "style" (I hate that word, but it is superficially appropriate) doesn't work for me. I also have a Picasso quote ingrained in me, one that helped to form my ideals (there it is again) about artmaking: "To repeat one's self is pathetic."
But my point is, I wonder sometimes if I am pushing myself just for the sake of pushing.... like when I took Calculus in high school because I loved all my other classes so much, I thought I should take something that challenged me and that wasn't fun, just to do it. Like I trained myself to read books from opposing points of view, for discipline, even though I rarely learn anything from the experience that changes my position. Like the fact that, over the years, virtually every time I do a new painting, I have to set up a new light problem for myself. Looking back over my life, most times I thought that something wasn't working, I stepped back to realize that it was a result of forcing my will, of trying too hard.
These days, as I am coming into the home stretch of finishing a monumental painting that I am very excited about, I am thinking about what part beauty used to play in my work, and what part it plays now. And the role of joy in process. I wonder, if your goal is striving to always make "important" work, what limitations that might place on the work. I am considering the possibility that sometimes you can go off in a different direction, learn something from it, and circle back to pick up what you loved about earlier work, combining all that you have learned into a loopy culmination, rather than the relentless, exhausting, driving forward for its own sake.