“have u seen this?” said the text, “WTF!” It was Olivia Flores Alvarez’s list of the “Top Ten Painters in Houston” in this week’s Houston Press, just out.
The first thing I did, before reading her list, was make my own list. It wasn’t hard—I’m always looking at Houston art, and am, by nature, a scorekeeper. What I really did was update my running list of the best artists in Houston, remove the non-painters, and skim off the remaining top ten.
Then I read Alvarez’s piece. I expected to argue; the whole point of making lists is to haggle over who goes where, who’s moving up, and who has fallen off. Like Casey Kasem’s American Top Forty, it’s fun, if you don’t take it too seriously.
Of course our lists wouldn’t match exactly. But, as I scrolled through her four pages of online pictures, counting down to #1, there was no overlap. Not a single name on her list matched a single name on mine, anywhere.
We’re on different planets. Let me tell you about mine.
On my planet, the best painters are trying, through painting, to show themselves a truth about the world that they have not been able to see before, and then they’re showing me. New truths are hard to come by. It’s difficult, demanding work. So difficult, in fact, that few of them, even with the best educations, and the most earnest efforts, succeed even occasionally. It’s heartbreaking, really. But sometimes it works, and then there’s a new truth in the world.
On Alvarez’s planet —let’s call it Planet A— the best painters make paintings. It’s indoor work, diverting and varied. If you’re persistent and personable, it can be a living. It’s useful work. People need paintings; there are far more blank walls than there are new truths to fill them and not everyone really wants a new truth staring them in the face before breakfast, anyway.
It’s honest work, too, if you’re not claiming more than you can deliver, but, sadly, most painters on Planet A, and most of their fans, including Alvarez, live under a widespread delusion that they’re actually on my planet, planet B, and they are doing what painters on my planet do when they go into the studio. It’s no wonder why: planet B gets all the news coverage. Books are written and stories sung about the heroic goings-on here.
The stories are so fantastic that many people on Planet A suspect Planet B is a fiction, a myth made up by people who claim to live here, or to have visited, to aggrandize themselves. I don’t blame them: stories are a big problem here. On Planet B, artists, and especially their dealers, are so desperate to possess those elusive new truths that bullshit claims of actually having one in hand thicken the air on Planet B like factory smoke in Beijing. You can hardly breathe. In this, I guess our planets aren’t so different after all, except that, on my planet, once in a while some of those amazing stories are true.