It’s hard to put a novel like K.B. Dixon’s A Painter’s Life in a neat, tidy box. In fact, I think that would be impossible. It’s a short, almost genre-less glimpse of the life of one man — the titular painter — and his struggles with creativity, success and marriage, and the vignettes that serve as the novel’s story are crisp and thought-provoking.
Christopher Freeze has achieved notoriety in art circles for his unconventional, often surprising works of art, and the novel functions as a glimpse of both the man and the artist. Through a series of vignettes, each chapter opens with a portion of Freeze’s biography, a work-in-progress by a professor who speaks with Freeze regularly. The artist has a hard time understanding why anyone would want to know who he is personally, so his stories and snippets of conversation with Alan Barnes come across as caustic. But we know Freeze isn’t really that way.
Interspersed with the biographical information are excerpts from Freeze’s “unpublished journals” — spaces in which he can tell his own story. These passages range in content from stories about dinner with friends to musings on the art world and criticism to recountings of troubles with his art dealer, Charles Safadi, and are often unintentionally humorous. As a reader, I got the sense that Christopher wouldn’t want me to think he was funny — not at all, in fact — but he seems like just the serious-faced character who would utter a random, hilarious line and make me laugh my head off.
But the book certainly didn’t send me into spasms of laughter. Freeze’s quotes — and the story of his life — were very interesting, but often tinged with sadness. I found myself pausing over most of his journal snippets to think about art, life and love. Christopher seems lonely and isolated, though he’s always meeting with friends or talking with Sarah, his wife. At several points in the story, our narrator admits that life with him must be difficult — and I wondered more about Sarah and her personal struggles. We’re only given a look at her experiences through Christopher’s own journal entries.
Like many people who create art, whether through portraits, novels or installations, Freeze spends a good deal of time thinking about what art actually is. One of my favorites quotes:
It is impossible as a painter or photographer not to be seduced by nature — not to be rendered a drooling perpetrator of cliches.
How right you are! And lovers of art will find plenty to enjoy in Dixon’s A Painter’s Life. I did occasionally feel disoriented while reading, as if I were handed a stack of random Polaroids — all taken from a different moment in one man’s life — and asked to assemble them chronologically. But I have a feeling this was intentional — and part of the magic of the story. While the novel doesn’t exactly take a “twist” in its final chapters, Dixon does divulge some information about Freeze’s past that made me completely rethink who he was as an artist and a person — and I thought that was pretty masterful.
Overall, a novel I’ll be thinking about more as time goes on — and probably return to when I want to ponder art for art’s sake. Or just want to grab some great quotable quotes.
4 out of 5!