Painting in the realm of freedom

There is a narrative of “artist’s life” centred around the ideal of artistic freedom. In this ideal life, the inner experience of studio practice is completely free of any and all pressures of the world outside the studio, both subjective (other people’s thoughts, ideas, beliefs, opinions, judgements) and objective (the market value of artworks, the need for material sustenance of artist-as-human-animal, and the need for raw materials of the craft, etcetera).

When I started my “year in the realm of freedom” experiment in January 2017, my own life was already remarkably close to this ideal.

But it did not even remotely resemble a beginning artist’s dream of freedom, not at all — no sales, no shows, no fame. My work was seen and recognised by a few peers and faithful friends of art from all over the world (you know who you are — and I am grateful beyond words), but there was barely any recognition from the “art world”.

This was a conscious choice: I was following the path of an artist outlined in Boris Pasternak’s poem, one of the life-shaping poems of my life. He writes about sinking into obscurity, hiding one’s steps in it, like a field in thick fog, with nothing to be seen. The Russian word I translated as obscurity is неизвестность; it evokes both being unknown and not-knowing. As so often happens in poetry, this ambiguity is not supposed to be resolved, but to remain in the reader’s mind as an open question, an open space, a gap in the “normal” thinking process — un-knowing.

Elena Maslova-Levin. Unknownness (after Boris Pasternak). Oil on linen panel, 16″×20″. 2016.

He knew, and I accepted, that this state of unknownness is an essential ingredient of freedom. One cannot be bound to the world by the chains of fame and “market value”, and be free of it at the same time. But this is also the dark side of freedom, experienced as the state of not being needed — of your art practice being of no consequence in the world. By the end of 2016, I had recognised that this is the same dark dilemma that we are now facing collectively, as the growing productivity and automation is in the process liberating us from the necessity of labour. The “threat of automation” is often conceptualised in terms of money (“How are we to feed all these unneeded people?”), but that would be a purely technical problem if not for the deeper dread of being unneeded and useless, that is, our fear of freedom.

Even if it was my choice, this doesn’t mean that I didn’t have this fear. I got my wish, I was in the realm of freedom, but I hadn’t fully accepted its dark, shadowy side. I had been hiding from it behind a heap of self-designed and self-imposed deadlines, routines, structures, scaffoldings, and strictures. By design, they were supposed to keep my studio practice, and my life, together, but there was another, not-quite-conscious purpose to them: to sustain the illusion that it somehow matters whether my studio practice exists or not, that it makes any difference in the world whether I paint, or write, or read, or walk, or just while away my days and hours on Facebook (or whatever).

I am not really saying that it does not matter – I don’t know. All I am saying is that you cannot know if the sky is blue or not until you completely wash away the blue paint that covers your windows to convince you that it is, indeed, blue.

Elena Maslova-Levin. Sonnet 102: As Philomel in summer’s front doth sing… 20″x20″. Oil on linen. June-August 2017

As I was reading back my journal for 2016, I saw very clearly, time and again and again, how I kept getting in my own way, turning myself into my own stumbling block with these structures and strictures and habits. All these contraptions looked rather like a dam: designed to generate electricity, but, in the process, wasting the intrinsic, natural energy of the river.

And those were all so called “good habits” (there is a fair number of online programs and courses which would teach you how to introduce this kind of habits into your life, some of them very pricey). To be fair, if I hadn’t have the habit of journaling, I might have never noticed what was going on… But once I did notice it, there was only one possible path forward: I had to accept that I was, indeed, in the realm of freedom, and it made no sense to channel even a single joule of my energy into maintaining the illusion of necessity.

It took me a while to dismantle my scaffoldings, built so carefully and deliberately over the years, and, to be honest, I don’t think the process over yet. Old habits don’t die easily. And there is, indeed, something frightening for a human being in the cold, rarefied air of freedom, its formless, boundless essence, the absence of any landmarks and signposts. Eight months into this experiment, and I am still occasionally tempted to fall back to familiar routines or to design new, better ones. In fact, this blog post started as a journal entry where I contemplated a new, more “effective” design for studio practice scaffoldings. It was in the process of writing it that I witnessed this need to be needed, the fear of freedom, arising within me again, and dropped this idea.

Because in these eight months of freedom, my studio practice has transformed into a purely inner experience, detached not only from the outer world, but also from its own material manifestations (that is, from paintings themselves).

The process of painting is often called “art-making“, “creating“, “self-expression”. I could never quite fit my own experience into these result-oriented constructs, but it is only in the realm of freedom that I saw clearly that, for me, this process is rather about knowing than about making. Not in the sense of factual, rational knowledge, and not even in the sense of meaning-making, but rather in the sense of paying attention, seeing, experiencing the unity of life directly. It is not about self-expression, but rather about reception, about the self opening itself to reality, dissolving the boundaries of its identity.

And what about paintings? Is there any difference in them?

Well, I don’t really know yet. And for now, it really, truly doesn’t matter to me — but I have included a couple of in-progress photos here as reference points…


Elena Maslova-Levin. Still life with sunflowers, a lemon and a pebble. Oil on linen canvas. 20″×16″. July 2017.