Why Paint?

by cjdown

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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