The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.

Month: January, 2012

Fear and Hiding

This summer I attended the Whale and Star Summer Program in Miami, Florida. The workshop took place in the studio of artist Enrique Martinez Celaya. Art historian Daniel A. Siedell and artist /critic Gean Moreno joined Martinez Celaya in an intensive, week-long critique of work and various supplementary activities. Students ranged across many levels of training and experience.

The generosity in welcoming the group of students into his workspace speaks to Martinez Celaya’s desire to involve his practice in activities outside the strict confines of the art world. From 1994 until 2003 he taught at Claremont College in Pamona, California, and by acting as a mentor for less established artists he extends the activity of teaching to the non-academic setting of his studio.

The real gift, however, was in the honesty and insight of the critiques. My experience of grad school had moments of this, but they were rare and generally took place outside the formal framework of graduate critiques. Partly this was due to the absolute absence of real discourse about painting amongst the faculty, aside from my advisor and a few others. Another aspect of my MFA program was a focus on the “institution of art” as a general framework through which to talk about all work, whether it engaged in these questions or not.

In contrast, while the critiques at Whale and Star were at times quite brutal in their honesty, they never felt like they were mean-spirited or aimed at defeating the artist. One of the things that came out of my own crit was the sense that my work seemed to be hiding something – an ambivalence about painting itself.

Reflecting on this experience has posed several questions for me: What are my criteria? What do I value in my own work and in the work of others? What can be excised? What am I hiding from?

My criteria involve an interest in what things look like, but also in what they suggest in terms of emotional resonance and honesty to the world. I want from my own and others’ work an emotional, intellectual and sensuous experience. This desire is often considered romantic, if not naive. It is also conservative in relation to “radical” practice because it demands an introspective or contemplative encounter with art works and an allowance for the possibility that these qualities might be present.

I have been trained to exhibit a certain type of “rigour”in my work. This includes eschewal of pleasure, sentiment, authorial marks, “the hand”, claims to direct experience, technical and material facility and onwards. This is essentially the legacy of conceptual art as it has played out in many Canadian art institutions. Although my work over the past ten years has resisted this training on certain levels, the ambivalence remains.

So, I am hiding from the fear of looking naive or unintelligent or sentimental or self-indulgent. My ambivalence stems, I think, from a fear of the work being mistaken for something unintended, something “not contemporary”. Enrique said to me in my crit “there is no way to not be contemporary. In the art world many strategies are punished for not being current or sprinkled with the exciting drumbeat of the moment. Love is suffocated in the desire to make ‘art'”.

In a different context he writes:

In the art circles, as in most intellectual life, need has given way to fear. We are afraid of falling to clichéd thoughts or to reveal vulnerability and needs. And yet life moves freely beyond these fences of intellect. It ripples and crosses unaware of the boundaries set by consciousness. (Enrique Martinez Celaya: Collected Writings and Interviews 1990 – 2010, p.36)

Fear of exclusion is powerful for artists. In my own case I think that certain kinds of choices have been made which are reactions to that fear, even if only on an unconscious level. How will I get grants, exhibitions, jobs etc. if the work looks too  old fashioned? If it doesn’t have an airtight theoretical justification? If it is just big dumb painting?

I have counters to these anxieties, but fears are insidious, often disguising themselves as emotional or mental toughness. However, these disguises are only the outward appearance of strength. In fact they may just be markers for points of weakness.

In W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, the title character relates this melancholy truth:

Yet, he said, it is often our mightiest projects that most obviously betray the degree of our insecurity. The construction of fortifications, for instance … clearly show how we feel obliged to keep surrounding ourselves with defenses, built in successive phases as a precaution against any incursion by enemy powers, until the idea of concentric rings making their way steadily outward comes up against its natural limits … The frequent result, said Austerlitz, of resorting to measures of fortification marked in general by a tendency towards paranoid elaboration was that you drew attention to your weakest point, practically begging your enemy to attack it … (p.14, 16).

Dismantling the ramparts around my fears is a slow process, the tools more often like nail files than wrecking balls. With persistence and the aid of erosion, maybe even these inadequate implements will be able to scratch some small breaches into the edifice.

Enrique Martinez Celaya, The Phantom Tree (Joseph Brodsky), tar, oil and wax on canvas , 2006

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Artist and Critic

Fairfield Porter, Forsythia and Pear in Bloom, 1968

I have recently been reading Art in its Own Terms: selected criticism 1936 – 1975, by Fairfield Porter. It is refreshing to read criticism which derives from a practitioner’s perspective. The bulk of the book takes the form of reviews and short essays written for various periodicals and is edited and introduced by painter, Rackstraw Downes.

What I have found most interesting is the way that ideas are elaborated over the course of several pieces, so that the sense of his pressing concerns comes through without being imposed on his subjects arbitrarily. Notable entries are a letter to the Partisan Review, on Clement Greenberg’s essay “‘American-type’ Painting” as well as a letter to the Kenyon Review lambasting Wyndham Lewis’ essay on Picasso. In both of these letters he takes issue with the way that art is treated through the language of the critic and also with the implicit assumption that the critic is somehow in a position to tell artists what they ought to be concerned with. An example:

Greenberg seems to think that the artist today must give up the figure: the figure has been done and nothing new remains. It was also done by the Greeks, but the success of the ancients was imitated, not shunned, during the Renaissance. American painters have not been supreme in figure painting; perhaps from shyness they have felt more at ease in landscape. There is now figure painting being done by Americans, but Greenberg doubts its validity, telling them in effect to stick to their old provincialism; and this misunderstanding of value is also provincial … as a war is not won by brilliant retreats, so creativeness is not advanced by imposed limitations.  (p. 235-6)

and on Wyndham Lewis:

Your article on Picasso by Wyndham Lewis was very bad. I think that like many literary people you have an indirect understanding of the visual arts, and that since Lewis is both a painter and a writer you thought he must be an art critic.

The criticism shows about Lewis, first, that he looks at paintings through the spectacles of words, and without these spectacles would be blind. He does not know the difference between the pictures and his talk about them, and his talk is about many things that are quite true and relate to the pictures, but are non-essential … Second, the article shows that Lewis paints from a written program, concocted in advance. He is a manifesto painter. In the end of his article he compares Picasso with his manifesto, and finds Picasso lacking. Picasso is not a manifesto painter, and the end of the article shows that what is at issue is the manifesto by Lewis, nothing else. It serves as an advertisement for the work Lewis is planning to do. (p. 239)

Although I don’t necessarily agree with Porter’s evaluations of the work he reviews,  what I admire most is his commitment to an independent point of view, as well as his terse impatience for the critical platitudes of his time. Part of his impatience comes from a desire to encounter art, as the title states, in its own terms, as artistic experience, not through an extrinsic theoretical platform:

Art can be known best in its own terms, artistically. The experience of art is inhibited if it is considered something to be “understood”, something, like juvenile delinquency, that resists social control, but whose prevalence requires a sympathetic and tolerant attitude in order that society or individuals may manipulate it for social benefit or private ends. (p. 146)

His opposition to Greenberg is distinct from postmodern critique. It doesn’t seek to replace the work that Greenberg champions with a more theoretically correct version. Instead it seeks to give the work at hand a closer and more sensitive hearing, trying to determine what it proposes about the world rather than how it might fit into a conceptual schema. There is no attempt to generalize into an idealized theory of history, just attentiveness to his own experience.

Downes sums up this position in his introduction:

In the critical disputes of his time his was one of the sharp minds, and this is where independence became an issue. It was not that Porter liked contention: he loved art, and felt it was deeply important that critics, who mediate between art and its public, should represent it truthfully. Mainly he was at odds with a criticism which, ignoring the evidence that actually surrounded it, purported to deduce art’s future from its immediate past; and so control it, as Porter put it, by imitating ‘the technique of a totalitarian party on the way to power.’ (p. 19-20)

A useful and timely model for artists and critics alike.

Starting

When the work is about to commence, there has to be some tenuous notion of what will happen, but it is usually wrapped and hidden even from the person who will be doing the creating. An artist has a delicate sense of the work to come, and how it might become the perfect thing in the imagination, but historian and critics are wrong when they assume that it can be clearly seen in advance. No painter knows what the picture will look like, and those painters who try too hard to use paint to realize an idea are typically disappointed. Like poetry or any other creative enterprise, painting is something that is worked out in the making, and the work and its maker exchange ideas and change one another. The ideal image of the work is blurred and hard to picture, as if it were seen out of the corner of the eye. If the artist tries to turn and look at it directly, it vanishes. The only way to capture it is to do the work, and remake the idea through the paint. (James Elkins, What Painting Is, p.78)

This has been on my mind lately. What is the relation of an “idea” which starts a painting and the painting itself? The question has come up for me in terms of my own work, the work of students, and the work of other artists. It has also come up for me in terms of how art is talked about in institutions such as galleries and art schools as well as journalism.

The question itself is not a painting question, for, as Elkins says, in painting the idea must be remade in terms of paint – paintings speak for themselves, or at least I think they should. Instead it is a question of discourse, of our talk about the objects and practices of painting.

There seems to be a certain amount of expectation or pressure to theorize, insert “concepts”, or otherwise make paintings into the objects of intellectual analysis. Grant applications, artist talks, statements, critiques all demand some form of verbal context for the work. In many cases, the talk about the work is far more interesting than the work itself. This pressure seems to be exerted by an assumption that linguistic explanation is required to validate works of art. The increasing number of explanatory texts in galleries and artists who seem to specialize in discourse may be symptoms of this assumption.

On the other hand, Philip Guston’s rejoinder that painters who don’t have anything to say about their work are a kind of “painting monkey” also resonates. My bookshelf full of artist’s writings has taught me that artists are very often the most insightful commentators on their own and others’ work.

Reading, thinking and analysis (that is, intellectual or conceptual activities) are all large parts of my own painting practice, and I also occasionally write about the work of other artists. This is to say that I am not anti-intellectual, nor do I think that art should abstain from intellectual questions. It is only to say that the experience I seek in making or looking at art is not exhausted by intellectual engagement. What I’m after is nourishment, and this is a notoriously difficult thing to articulate in language; the difference between reading a recipe and cooking and eating a fantastic dinner.

I think our talk about art work could benefit from critical scrutiny. Habits of talking over work instead of experiencing it are not more rigorous, just easier. This especially applies to my own work and discourse.

If a good work of art cannot be represented in terms other than itself, how does one talk about it? The answer is, in analogies. A description bears a family resemblance to its subject rather than reproducing it. an intelligent esthetic analysis uses the concepts of quality, relationship and transition. Being outside of logic, these concepts do not “make sense”, and since they are untranslatable they are not “useful”. Art discovers a reality that human intelligence is not coextensive with and that cannot be manipulated. One understands material reality by experience. One understands art by imaginative identification, which is the way the artist (or scientist, or logician) discovers his subject in the first place. Wallace Stevens said the aim of poetry was “without imposing, without reasoning at all, to find the eccentric at the base of design.” This is both the artist’s vision and his sense of order. (Fairfield Porter, Art in its Own Terms, p. 268)

Pantheon

Philip Guston, Pantheon, 1973

Some painters whose work and practices are the foundation for my understanding of painting. When all the other painters finally leave my studio, these will probably be the last to exit.

Why Paint?

Why Paint? If the authority of representation has been ceded to more technologically advanced methods which are also more easily distributed and “democratic”, then what is left to do with painting? Why not leave it in peace and move on? It’s hard enough to paint without these doubts about the relevance of the activity.

I think that, at a basic level, my motivation to paint is intimately related to my choice to be an artist, instead of an art historian or musician or logger or other career that may have been more viable. That choice involved a sudden, imposed understanding that life is both finite and mysterious, and that what we do with it matters. This moment of clarity was fleeting and my decision to pursue studio work in a serious way came from the sense, unformed and largely uninformed, that somehow, this mystery might be probed by making pictures.

For me, making pictures has always been a primary way of trying to understand the world. The activities of making and trying to understand, as they are embodied in the practice of painting, feel like the most natural and direct way of asking the kinds of questions that are important to me. These questions are fundamentally rooted in my own experience.

Painting has the capacity to function as a kind of hinge or threshold between the objective and the subjective. Paintings are objects in the world, that are produced through the labour of individual agents. They are often made in relation to external or objective stimuli or “subject matter”, but they are always mediated in some way through the body of the painter. This means that paintings are an amalgam of experience and internal responses to experience.

Additionally, paintings are made with materials (paint or otherwise) that resist manipulation and therefore have agency of their own. Successful paintings involve an open collaboration with the properties of the materials used. The work of forming a painting involves not only technique, composition and other formal considerations, but also the tacit knowledge of the body, muscle memory, habit. (This short video of Leon Golub painting provides a good example; see the whole documentary here).

Finally, there is the question of love: “There is a wonderful liquid complexity of thoughts that accompany painting, but they are all in, and of, paint. (That is not to say an artist might not think about anything, from Wall Street to Jung; but what is engrossing about painting is the act itself, and everything else is a distraction, or a way of not thinking too directly about the unnerving importance of the very next brushstroke.) The love of the studio is an unreflective, visceral love” (James Elkins, What Painting Is, p. 74).

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