Recently, listening to a podcast interview on Modern Art Notes with painter Amy Sillman, I was struck by her admission that an important step in her development had come when she started allowing what she called “the cute” into her work. She explained that she had always been interested in “cute” imagery but had been suppressing that impulse, and when she began “allowing the cute,” she began to find herself as an artist.

This reminded me of Judy Chicago’s autobiography, Through the Flower: My Struggles As a Woman Artist. In art school in the 1960s, Chicago learned to deny and hide any instincts in herself artistically that could be read as “female.” The connections started to happen in her work when she began to allow and explore all of herself in her work, including – and especially – all that could be deemed “feminine.”

As I thought about the connections between these seemingly dissimilar artists, I realized that I have my own version of the cute, of the flower, and it’s happening right now, in 2013. I’m realizing that I regularly suppress and deny my urge to focus on detail in painting, because I’ve been taught that that urge is not to be trusted.

There is a history of the distrust of detail in painting. Art historian Svetlana Alpers points out that Italian Rennaissance artists disparaged Northern painting for its interest in detail. Detail was considered a feminine quality in painting. Here is Michelangelo on Flemish painting:

“It will appeal to women, especially to the very old and the very young, and also to monks and nuns and to certain noblemen who have no sense of true harmony. In Flanders they paint with a view to external exactness or such things… they paint stuffs and masonry, the green grass of the fields, the shadow of trees, and rivers and bridges, which they call landscapes, with many figures on this side and many figures on that. And all this, though it pleases some persons, is done without reason or art, without symmetry or proportion, without skilful choice of boldness and, finally, without substance or vigour.”

Aha! The Northerns were (to me) forbidden because of their association with feminine qualities. Detail was something they indulged in – indiscriminately! The pleasures of texture, of tactility, of rendering – they were absolutely obscene about it! No restraint. No objectivity. No seeing the larger picture. Proportions were off because they were so interested in capturing the light on every hair on someone’s brow. And yet, as time went on, I realized that I loved these painters. In fact, the more I got in touch with myself as an artist, I admitted I might even love them more than Michelangelo’s muscular cartoons.

A male professor told me once in art school, “painting is about desire – but it can’t be ONLY about what you love.” The hidden message suggested that to temper one’s instincts was the sign of a professional. Dutifully, I learned not to fall into the temptations of detail. I focused on the large masses, thought about composition, squinted, blocked things in – and prided myself on my objectivity. I took care not to “overwork” things. And hey, I get why it’s important to teach students how to see the larger picture. When I teach now, I admonish my beginning students to ignore the eyelashes in favor of skeletal structure and proportion. (My pet peeve? Students outlining the aureolas on their figure drawings during a five minute pose.)

Enter Ellen Altfest. About a year ago, I saw the artist give a talk about her work at the New York Studio School. It rocked my world. That night, Ellen Altfest unknowingly handed me a big fat permission slip. Permission to indulge, unapologetically, in the pursuit and exploration of detail in painting.

I’d always loved certain artists who went there: early Lucian Freud; Sylvia Sleigh; that madwoman, Catherine Murphy. These artists, like me, focus on observation and perception. But they are not afraid of detail. Of going deeper. Of working longer. Of letting it take as long as it takes.

Back to Amy Sillman. And Judy Chicago. As artists, especially as trained artists, it is of crucial importance that we learn to take what we like and leave the rest. It’s important that we become our own authorities. That we fearlessly follow the threads that will lead us to our pot of gold, our “true north”, to quote Julia Cameron. And that means, importantly, not suppressing, hiding, or denying who and how we are. What we love.

Let’s face it. We live in a culture where masculinity is prized. This is cheerfully reflected in the upper echelons of the art world. Even though quite a few years have passed since Judy Chicago’s time in art school, artists of ALL genders still have to navigate the dos and don’ts we have internalized from our culture. Those rules still have a lot to do with masculinity vs. femininity. And the stakes are higher for those of us who are perceived as feminine or female.

The important thing isn’t what you do. It’s that you allow yourself to do the thing you really want to do. It’s not easy to be a figurative artist, a realist artist, in this golden age of provisional abstraction. But for me, my truth is not about moving on to the next thing, it’s about staying right here. Taking some time. Going deeper. Letting my work take me on a journey. Only then will I find myself an artist – a human artist.

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