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The Sign: How I Painted Inanna and the Me of Life

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It is since July of last year that I've been worrying about how to paint the 7-foot-by-9-foot Inanna #1: Inanna and the Me of Life properly. Maybe you remember -- I talked about it a lot. I finished the figures in the underdrawing, and it hung there on the wall, alternately baleful and forlorn. I could not summon the will to paint on it; I did not trust myself to do what I needed to do. Dust settled on it.

What I needed to do was make the gesture I had hypothesized and agonized about: the purified, absolutely physical gesture, emptied out of intention, reason, and observation, distilled to itself and nothing more. This I could not do. I did not feel ready to do it properly. But without the gesture, the painting was nothing. It could not become itself.

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This is the painting on July 28, 2012. Let's review what it's about -- on the left is the Sumerian goddess Inanna. On the right is the me of life, represented here by a pregnant woman (a me is a kind of Sumerian mythological power-object, or divine decree). Inanna observes the me of life in this first painting. In the next painting, she will observe the me of death. Being a young and ambitious goddess, Inanna will then travel into the underworld to gain control of these two powerful mes. This is the subject of the series of which this painting is the first.

The string is a trick I learned from Gaudí -- to make a curve, hang a string. The curve was for the curved horizon the painting was eventually to have. I traced the curve with a pencil:

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And that was the last thing I did. From July 28 until March 13, the painting underwent no change.

I'd like to say that in early March I had a very elegant realization that I was ready to go ahead. But I didn't, I just needed the wall space for a different enormous painting I want to work on. So it was time to commit. My plan was that the overall painting should be blue in the end, and the figures yellow. But to get this to work, I needed to do a first layer of yellow for the figures and green for the ground. You can see the frightening quality of it, at least for a high-rendering figurative painter. It's just some paint put on with a palette knife...

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...and then spread with a cloth and turpentine.

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I did this in yellow for the figures, and then in green for the ground:

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I first recognized this kind of mark as possibly leading to a viable artistic idiom in 2010:

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Daniel Maidman, La Mémoire, 2010, oil on canvas, 18"x14"

It has taken me this long to do it again, on purpose, and make it work.

There are a few ways to know that something is working. There's an ordinary way, which is that you look at it, and evaluate things like formal elements, and the image relative to the intention, and so on, and you make a rational decision about whether the painting is working or not.

Another ordinary way is the gut hunch, which is a powerful tool in the hands of an experienced artist. The gut hunch is a kind of shorthand summary of a huge act of aesthetic integration in the preconscious mind. The artist scans the picture, and his gut tell him if it works. This is how Richter evaluates his squeegee paintings.

A third way is to wait for a sign -- to demand revelation. That was what I needed, to understand my work on this painting. I was not making it from my intentionality and my reason, and my intentionality and reason were not the relevant tools for comprehending my progress. Neither was my gut particularly well-trained in the aesthetic region I was tackling. I needed a sign.

I got one, too. Here's what happened. I'm working on another series of paintings right now, which we aren't going to talk about yet. But doubling is fundamental to this other series: the doubleness of gender, of sex organs, of eyes, of halves of the sphere, of electromagnetic fields. There is a shape that helps to define this series. It is the shape of the electromagnetic field which surrounds a solenoid:

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This field resembles a donut in three-dimensional space. Its cross-section has two lobes and looks like a bivalve:

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I knew that I wanted the marks I made on Inanna and the Me of Life to be visible, but I did not know how they should be distributed. The issue was going to come to a head with the blue layer -- the blue layer is dark and specific and covers most of the canvas. I was satisfied with my gestures on the yellow-and-green layer, but I was going to have to go further and nudge those gestures into an overall composition in the blue layer. What the composition was, I had no idea. I was trusting the painting to tell me.

So here's me taking the leap of faith -- the first dabs of blue, straight from the tube, onto the dry yellow-and-green layer:

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And here's me with my handy cloth and turpentine, spreading the paint. As you can see, the marks are completely visible.

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At first, I was simply making visible marks, pleased enough with that. But I soon realized that the painting did in fact have a composition to tell me about. It wanted to take on that bilobate solenoid shape. Current should flow down the center, between the two figures, and curve outward on the left side of the canvas and rightward on the right. I worked on this procedure across the immense surface of the canvas:

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When I got to the right hand side, I palette-knifed a bunch of blue paint onto the canvas at about my chest level, and got going. But it felt wrong -- I felt that I shouldn't be starting this part of the curve separated from the existing part I had done across the middle and top. I should build outward -- the current should not break. So I went back up and started working down from the top, not up from the middle:

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This was the point where I had just started working down from the top, abandoning for a minute the paint I had placed on the canvas. Now an interesting problem came up: I wanted the paint to trace the outline of the figure fairly closely. And I was applying the paint with a bunched-up cloth. I am left-handed; if you paint, you will understand that you can best control edges when you approach them from the same side as the hand you paint with. So when I was pushing paint rightward against an edge, as in Inanna's back, I had good control, or as good as you can get when you are painting with a squished rag. But I was going to have a problem pushing paint up near the edge of the me of life's back.

So I switched hands.

This was my sign. I'm not ambidextrous at all. I can't do anything (no, not even that) with my right hand. But I became ambidextrous -- doubled -- while I needed to be, on this painting. I confidently traced a fluid line down the back of the me of life, holding the cloth in my right hand.

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That was how I, personally, knew that whatever I did, it worked. In the world of real magic, signs are not the same as miracles. They are mostly rightnesses accomplished where they could not be accomplished before: something in you is transformed, and you are across the chasm without having crossed it.

That's how I finished Inanna and the Me of Life.

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Daniel Maidman, Inanna #1: Inanna and the Me of Life, 2012-13, oil on linen, 84"x108"

When I planned the series, I found that I could not simultaneously believe in rendering and narrative. So I traded one for the other. By great good fortune, I was permitted to make the trade, and in doing it, to make a painting different from what I had been making: my own combination of color fields and tight representational line. I am so excited about this. There is still room in the world to grow and change.

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solenoid and bivalve images via wikimedia.org