Whenever I have an opportunity to look at paintings, be they in brick-and-mortar or marble-columned establishments, in books, on the internet or in mind (seen once and not yet
forgotten), I am always fascinated by what the artist chooses to commit to canvas. And as a witness to this ‘event’ happening in front of me that is a work of art, I wonder why it engaged me, what the effect of being drawn into it is, and how the artist was able to execute this feat of painterly magic, especially if it opened the heart at the same time.
Usually (and without thinking) we encounter paintings as relic – proof of a creative event that happened in the past. Even artists forget that there is one key decision that always remains vibrant and inescapable in each work of art we produce: What to paint? Or maybe more to the point, Why paint this at all?
Which raises the question of how I got into painting people and events as if we were still in the revolutionary era.
Washington slept here
But, so what if he slept here? Before and after the great man took off his boots and lay his burden down in this rickety old canopy bed, others slept here, too. Truth is, I’m not particularly interested in what happened long ago. As a backdrop for a movie, okay, for the rare historical novel or the once-in-a-lifetime visit to (fill in the blank), great, but an historian I am not.
Yet last April I saw a sign in my neighborhood announcing the upcoming reenactment of The Battle of Bound Brook. I’ve long been aware of this annual event, and on a lark decided to check it out. As for the Battle itself, suffice it to say that the Americans were routed on 12th April and regained their ground on the 13th April, 1777. This year they were routed yet again in clouds of acrid gunsmoke. My hearing didn’t come back for days.
What interests me most is what is happening right now. And what appeals to me at these events are the everyday costumes, dragoons mounted on skittish horses, the encampments swathed in smoke from cooking fires, row upon row of unbleached cotton tents, clumsy troop gatherings, and the clash of colorful armies. But more compelling than the spectacle captured in hindsight is the substance of the contemporary player-participant, the secret bit that one could say truly connects us all, vertically through time and horizontally in the present moment. Their devotion to the spirit of the current (and orginal) enterprise and insistence on authenticity shines wherever you look, even if one hears a great deal of talk among reenactors themselves on how much authenticity is enough, and whether bearded actors should even be allowed to participate (Washington insisted on clean-shaven troops).
I’ve attended several historical events since Bound Brook, and as of this writing have completed a dozen works, several of which are shown here. I’ll be painting more of them, anyway I’m pretty sure I will. Ultimately we don’t know why we do what we do, we just make up stories to try to explain ourselves before and after the fact. Perhaps it’s best to be as an actor playing a part in a play or, even better, someone in the audience: a witness to whatever happens, unattached and uneffected by however things turn out. Sometimes the players win, sometimes they lose.
See more paintings at: http://www.sundwallart.com