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Christopher Noxon: But what does it MEAN?


A confession: I’m at a loss when it comes to art talk. Which is weird - I spent a career working as a journalist and author and only started painting seriously three years ago. So explaining my work, or comprehending writing about art, in reviews or catalogs shouldn’t be a problem, right? Nope. I get clammy and tongue-tied trying to describe why I paint what I paint or where it “comes from.” Most writing about art leaves me baffled and confused and vaguely annoyed.  During a recent trip to a contemporary art museum, for example, my daughter and I entered an entirely empty room with only a faint scent of…  what? Was it air freshener? A wall label had a long paragraph that ended with this sentence:

“With its invisibility, this sculpture of odors lacks materiality and captures the nature of the painting to convey an olfactory memory.”Leaving aside my feelings about this particular piece – which, with its “invisibility” and “lack of materiality,” hit me like the height of fancy-pants hokum  – I was stuck by this peak example of off-putting, gobbledegook art talk. I just can’t figure it out. Maybe, as more seasoned and academically trained artists tell me, it’s a coded language used by gallerists and dealers to justify the value of a particular piece. Or maybe it’s a vocabulary I just don’t understand yet, being new to the game. Or maybe it’s just like my daughter put it: “Word salad.” Of course there’s a lot of great writing about art - I’ve loved discovering Jerry Saltz, the former long haul truck driver now chief critic at New York Magazine. And a few months ago I was fortunate enough to be reviewed by the art critic for the LA Weekly, who wrote that my “riotously chromatic, time- and space-bending canvases seek the energy of the landscape’s wild places, infused with the pluripotentiality of the mind’s eye… Noxon’s investigations in form and color mirror the adventures unfolding in his consciousness - and the persistent sense that everything is alive and fundamentally connected, even beyond what our eyes can see.” Wow, right? I had to look up “pluripotentiality” (defined as the “ability to develop in any one of several different ways, or to affect more than one organ or tissue”) and the piece had all the hallmarks of fancy-pants art talk. But maybe because she was being so complimentary, I couldn't help appreciate the way she identified something in my pictures that I hadn’t known consciously but is unmistakably there.  Meanwhile in my studio when people come to visit – and I’ll be open March 11 all day as part of the Ojai Studio Artists Second Saturday program, come by! – I’m still mostly tongue-tied when asked about the work. I can handle the most common questions: where is that? What kind of paint are you using? But I’m totally unhelpful when it comes to the question: what does it mean? The truth is that sometimes I’ll start out with an idea - about the interconnectedness of nature, say, or the way landscapes are so often used as promotion in the exploitation or settling of wild lands.  But then the tools take over, the paint starts moving and honestly I’m not thinking at all. Painting for me is a feeling, an experience, a devotional practice that exists way beyond words. So I guess my only answer to the question of what does it mean is another question: How does it make you feel? So I’ll keep feeling and studying and hoping that over time, the work leads me to more new places and even some better words to describe it.
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