K. B. Dixon’s novel A Painter’s Life is a portrait of the fictional artist Christopher Freeze created by blending purported journal excerpts, interview snippets and reviews. This collage technique seems a fitting medium to get at an understanding of an artist’s mind – their particular mix of public persona (necessitated by the public nature of their work) and private individual.
The novel has a definite patchwork quality, and yet much of the book’s thematic preoccupation centers on Freeze’s yearning to find some level of satisfaction with his painting, with the ongoing tension between artists and critics, with an artist’s conflict between their public and private persona and about the artistic temperament in general.
I found the most compelling aspects of the book came from the journal entries and especially those moments when Freeze mused on what art meant to him, how art functions and how his work, in particular, was a challenge.
I am working on a guest commentary for Moment, the local art mag. It looks like it’s going to be an argument in favor of beauty. It’s blasphemous. What I’m trying to say is that art doesn’t have to be diverting, but it can be if it wants to – and at no cost to its truthfulness – that we in the arts community should think about being a little more ecumenical I our biases.
He also discusses the problem of knowing too much about the artist and how it might skew a viewer’s interpretation of a particular piece. I find this true with both art and literature, there is a lot to be learned through biography, but sometimes it is also important to separate the artist and their work.
Spent an hour looking at a new Kinsley picture – The Sleeping Dancers. It’s big and beautiful and one of the best things I’ve seen in I don’t know how long. I found myself wishing I didn’t know as much as I did about Kinsley though (for instance, that he is a religious fanatic – a cultist) because it kept getting in the way of my experiencing the thing. I found myself becoming suspicious of its simplicity – wondering if what I took to be a charming allusion to innocence might not be a cynical pandering to the theological base.
I enjoyed A Painter’s Life but it also frustrated me at moments. Mainly, I think, because it wasn’t enough of one thing or another. It heads in the direction of experimental literature, asking the reader to accept a lack of linear progression (the journal entries are not dated, and there are not many clues about their order) or unified narrative (in the sense that the reader is not given any clear picture of Freeze heading toward or away from one thing – he remains a static character for the entire book with the same wants and desires), but at the same time the novel follows a quite conventional structure. Each chapter options with a journalistic style blurb about Freeze and his life, and these move forward linearly, this is then followed by the undated journal excerpts and then each chapter concludes with samples from interviews or critical analysis of Freeze’s work.
I found the aesthetic of the undated journal entries a convincing and interesting method of creating this portrait, and I was willing to accept and even welcome their meandering until the opening and closing of each chapter made me wonder if I shouldn’t be looking for more connection between the three. Much of what was mentioned in the journalistic blurbs, for example, was never addressed by the journal entries. These blurbs tell the reader that Freeze struggled with excessive drinking, with psychological breakdown…but neither of those topics was ever explored within the journal entries except for some off-hand references Freeze makes about his therapist. I found that inconsistency weakened the novel’s overall project.
Dixon has several other novels. I’m particularly interested in his Andrew A – Z which looks like it pushes the experimental envelope as far as I wish A Painter’s Life had. This novel is again a character portrait but assembled from alphabetic entries on various words that Andrew himself comments on. I’ve ordered this one and look forward to reading it.