On the one hand, as Adrienne pointed out to me during our dual musing session, “painter’s painter” could mean one who paints for Painting (with a capital “P”): the “genius” in love with the tradition. This is the person who wears the badge of Painting like a medal of honor, one who is the hero in the long line of successive heroes, leading his/her audience to the truth. And that “truth” is Painting…whatever “Painting” practically means in this case, I don’t believe I have a clear explanation for as of yet.
“But this ‘painting hero’ really sounds like the Modernist, romantic notion of what a painter is,” you might say. This is true; I do believe that nostalgia plays a large role here. Yet one cannot deny that people still behave as and regard this stereotype, of the lone painter who changes the aesthetic face of art as we know it, as totally present. But what are these painters making? In the past, civilization needed painted pictures for record of historical events, for the guarantee that important or wealthy visages would be everlasting, for storytelling purposes aiding the illiterate, and for the record of our Modern lives and experiences. Then, in America, paintings became dedicated to the gesture and inner motivations of the maker more than ever before, without needing a purpose to paint other than for self-expression. But all of these types of paintings buy into the notion of the progression of painting as it is linked to the aesthetic novelty of style, the notion that painting moves forward in terms of “new” ways in which to represent things, like representation giving way to abstraction, or of classical techniques yielding to the “deskilled.”
So now, since art is reactionary, painters both cannot make the functional paintings of antiquity, nor the complete dismissal of anything and everything but the maker him/herself. As contemporary painters, we want it all; we want the magnitude and prestige that comes with the painting of olden times, while also wanting to maintain the fabulous freedom that comes with thinking of nothing but ourselves. It is here where this type of “painter’s painter” wants to completely self-indulge (without admitting to it), hiding the diaristic under the guise of “universal truths” or quests for the sublime, or whatever.
Or on the other hand, he/she is unapologetically invested in the stylistic, aesthetic progression, diving right into the game of agonizing over whether it is still possible to make a mark that no one else has already made, or use the paint in a way that hasn’t already been done. And above all, this is about the material: the paint on canvas. With this, our aesthetical “painter’s painter’ wields the pasty pigments, creating miraculous illusions and sumptuous surfaces. But whether the aura comes from the paint, or the aura adds importance to the paint, it’s hard to tell. We can think of this love for the material as manifesting itself in gloppy, tactile paintings like Jeni Spota’s, or José Lerma’s meaty” surfaces, or with the super-flat, though lovingly applied transparent layers of a Jim Lutes painting. And whether you buy into the notion of this “hero painter,” or whether you place value in the Modernist endgame of aesthetics, how we judge these sorts of painters is still based upon their expertness of paint-handling; their value is contingent upon their mastery of the paint as material.