For an artist living in our democratic society, the answer to this is not so simple.
What to Paint?
For thousands of years artists worked for patrons, patrons who used to help further the political and religious agendas of their societies.
Today we are "free" to create what we please. But today we not only have to produce the paintings, but also the concepts, the social commentary, the marketing, and the audience... We end up making art about our lives and art about art, because most of us never get truly tested by a public audience. This is because most of us are not beholden to a patron, or sponsor or client who demands a specific message, and who expects our work to communicate that message. (Or they won't commission us.)
I have decided to dedicate my artwork to the problem of investigating things which are emotionally significant to me personally. I have at times felt disenfranchised from our larger society, and am continually searching for ways to express my emotional world. The landscape suggests a passage of time, and an anticipation of future action, the possibility for resolution and redemption. The landscapes that I paint are often based on real places. Some are from childhood memories, some are from dreams, most are from places in Minnesota where I grew up and went to boarding school.
When something in life gets me emotionally excited, I am intrigued by the possibility of using it as a subject for a painting. For instance, the fantasy of catching a world record fish really brings up a lot of issues about survival, desire, power, and self-reliance. This subject became the inspiration for the "The Ultimate", where two fishermen are reeling in gigantic pike with no way to really land them. The fulfillment of their fantasy becomes hellish, frightening, out of control. The landscape here represents the subconscious desires, and the fish symbolize fear and repressed emotions.
In "The Lesson", I used the figure of a man to represent my ego, and the figure of a girl to represent my intuition. They are guiding each other through a forest. A forest is a place that can transform so easily from a tranquil, serene paradise, to a terrifying, suffocating, claustrophobic hell. The difference in perception is created by whether or not you have your bearings.
Last year, when my wife Laura was diagnosed with cancer, I was so stunned, so numbed, and I felt so helpless. I resolved to make some paintings that would revive some of the perfect moments of our relationship. "Campers" resulted, as did others. These pieces reminded me of our moments of love and bliss. After several months I suddenly began some new pieces, "The Wrong Way", and "Substation IV". Both are about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I realized later that these pieces were about my anger about Laura's cancer, the health insurance system, and social injustices. For me, painting is a path to self-awareness, and is a way to develop an awareness of how society shapes us as individuals. And I hope in some way my work can communicate to others something relevant about the times we are living in.