Alright, first things first:
I am not and never have been much of a chess player. This is what people are usually curious about when looking at my paintings. I rarely even play the game, and I feel a little guilty about this because I think of chess as one of those civilized activities like reading or looking at art for which we should make time.
What I find most attractive about the game, however, is the logic of the rules and the way they work so perfectly together. Games that have such a precise internal structure (baseball, incidentally, also comes to mind) are challenging because the rules neatly define what the players can and cannot do in pursuit of some objective. If you don’t like the rules, you can change the game you’re playing, but you shouldn’t change the rules. If you do, you’re not playing the same game anymore, anyway.
Case in point: When I was a child, I agreed–reluctantly–to participate in a junior high school chess tournament, mostly because I expected to play one match, lose, and be done with the whole thing. My strategy seemed all the more likely to work when I learned my first opponent was a boy from England who was the best player in our school. No one dared think they would be more than a minor annoyance when playing him in chess.
In spite of his reputation and my desire to get things over with quickly, however, I didn’t intend to bow out without a fight. In fact, somehow early in the match I managed to put the boy’s king in check. The only choice he had to escape a capture was to make a castling maneuver, which of course he did without hesitation.
Now I didn’t know that a player is not allowed to castle out of check. So in actuality, I had checkmated his king and–against all expectations–had won the game. Unfortunately for me, I was not that well-versed in the rules, so we just played on, and I ultimately lost the match. The boy got away with castling illegally, but I was the one who got rooked.
I never found out whether or not the boy knew that castling out of check is a violation. A classmate later informed me of this fact when he heard me boasting about almost beating the wünderkind and taught me the rules. But whether through ignorance or deceit, the boy and I had done something very interesting–we had created our own game, a variant of chess, and we agreed completely on how it would be played. According to those rules he deserved to win, and I think even as a child I sensed this, so I never raised a fuss. We might as well have said that pawns could move like queens–the game would have been a bloodbath, but it would have been fair (though it certainly would not have been chess).
Which brings me back to painting. Painters, to take the lot of them, do not like to think of their art as being governed by a set of rules. But painters do work within certain practical constraints, whether it is the size of one’s studio or the colors one can afford to buy. Constraints such as these are not much different than a rule that limits how a piece in chess can move.
Moreover, most painters also work according to a more nebulous set of rules they have determined for themselves: what kind of imagery they will accept, what kinds of colors are allowable, what kinds of marks they may make. To the serious artist, these are not just matters of taste. They are matters of correctness, and they are interwoven in defining whether a painting “works.” In painting, whether a “move” is good or not depends on how it plays within the system, and the system can be confining or it can be liberating. Who knows, maybe pawns can move like queens and kings can fly–it depends on the game you’re playing. In the end, it’s not about moving individual pieces, anyway. It’s seeing the whole board that really matters.