Paint As You Like And Die Happy

Henry Miller, Pax Vobiscum (undated), watercolor on paper, 28″ x 21″; courtesy Henry Miller Private Collection

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The above sentiment is the title of a book featuring the paintings of Henry Miller–that’s right, the author of once-deemed pornographic, banned-in-the-U.S.A. novels like Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn.

The last time I thought about the Miller book was some thirty years ago when I came across it in my local bookstore as an undergraduate painting major. (Publishers haven’t thought about it much either:  Paint As You Like And Die Happy is out-of-print. The lone used copy available at Amazon will set you back $249.99.) As an oh-so-serious art student, I scoffed at Miller’s naiveté. Free choice and happiness? Give me a break. Didn’t Miller know that we artistes were changing (urgh) the course (grunt) of history (bingo!). I was busy, dammit–busy saving civilization.

Nowadays? Screw it. Not that we should be cavalier about culture–if 9/11 taught Americans anything, it’s that civilization is forever a tenuous proposition–nor should artists rest on what few laurels they might possess. But as a middle-aged painter, I’m less interested in Significant Art than in getting to the studio and making pictures. The art scene, with its attendant hoopla, commodity fetishism and rare moments of grace, can take care of itself.

Peter Plagens Untitled 2007.  Mixed media on canvas, 48 x 44 inches.  Courtesy of Nancy Hoffman Gallery  Peter Plagens, Untitled (2007), mixed media on canvas, 48 x 44 inches; courtesy of Nancy Hoffman Gallery

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All of which was brought to mind by I Don’t Give A Damn/Every Moment Counts, an exhibition of abstract paintings and works-on-paper by Peter Plagens. “I’ve been around long enough”, the artist and critic writes,

“To understand that a lot of superficial, attention getting ‘stuff’, now seems pretty unimportant . . . life is short and getting shorter.  So there’s an urgency afoot with me about getting done what I feel needs to be done.”

A self-described “card-carrying existentialist”, Plagens may find Miller’s notion of “dying happy” too much of a dilettante’s la-di-dah to warrant serious consideration. But Plagens’ paintings–alternately brainy, clunky and bumptiously chock-a-block; their uniformity mitigated by precision and good humor–evince a sensibility invigorated by the self-sufficiency of vision.

Plagens cites the Austin-based country-rocker Jerry Jeff Walker as a jumping-off point, but Chuck Berry could do just as well. Whatever it takes to paint as you like and live happy.

© 2011 Mario Naves

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