The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.

Month: April, 2012

Doubt and Faith in Painting

Willem De Kooning, Woman and Bicycle, 1952-53

[I]f you pick up some paint with your brush and make somebody’s nose with it, this is rather ridiculous when you think of it, theoretically or philosophically. It’s really absurd to make an image, like a human image, with paint, today, when you think about it, since we have this problem of doing or not doing it. But then all of a sudden it was even more absurd not to do it. So I fear I have to follow my desires.     (Willem De Kooning, p. 197, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art)

Over my painting wall, I have inscribed a dedication: Align means with true desires. Clarifying my true desires is a complicated task, as my thoughts and feelings are most often hopelessly tangled and opaque. In my studio journal, which forms the basis for the entries in this blog, I have been attempting to question as many of my preconceptions as I can identify and to investigate the possibilities of opposing or ignored viewpoints.

This process has caused as much confusion and vacillation as anything else. However, one outcome has been a determination to trust my intuition and a willingness to hope that these doubts might be productive, and not simply the result of a lack of conviction. In this tug-of-war, doubt and faith can play mutually correcting roles.

Art historian Richard Shiff describes doubt and belief as two extremes on a continuum – doubt is a degree of belief while belief is also a form of doubt. Following Charles Sanders Pierce, Shiff states “If belief and doubt belong to the same experiential category, then a doubt is a weak belief; we feel doubt when belief is weak. Reciprocally – but oddly – a belief is a strong doubt: When the doubted fact gains degrees of acknowledgment, it becomes a belief” (Doubt, p. 25).  Ideally, my practice exists near the middle of the continuum, holding doubt and belief in magnetic tension.

I have been trying to both follow and interrogate my instincts; on one hand to allow feeling and energy to be available to the work, on the other to consciously move towards the kinds of choices I would normally avoid. Doubt must be applied to assumptions, pronouncements, assertions, ideas, authorities, habits, discourses, histories; faith to materials, experience, desires, feelings, intuitions. Doubt can function to challenge established categories, belief to foster a trust in tacit, non-verbal knowledge, often in spite of what rational logic dictates.

Shiff, in his book Doubt:

 There are nevertheless times to doubt what the categories and the procedures designed to serve them indicate we should believe, and there are times to believe – to trust to intuition and feeling – what the same patterns of rationality may indicate we should doubt. To believe and to doubt with neither more nor less than a beneficial quotient of self-doubt becomes a useful psychological skill, an intuitive self-discipline. (pp. 18-19)

This intuitive self-discipline is of great use in the studio, but like any discipline requires vigilance to maintain. Balancing doubt must be a certain degree of faith in the absurd activity of painting itself.

Jan Johannes Vermeer, Allegory of Painting, c. 1665

In Daniel Arasse’s book Vermeer: Faith in Painting, he says of the artist’s work:

The ‘real world’ of Vermeer’s pictures is the world the pictures themselves inhabit, a world of painting; and painting was, for him, an exact and specific activity. In refusing to be ruled by social or commercial aspirations, Vermeer was able to use his paintings as a workplace, his laboratory for constant pictorial research. The meticulousness of this work is above all the expression of a need that is personal, individual and intimate. (p.16)

Arasse later relates Vermeer’s understanding of his painting practice to his decision to convert to Catholicism. “Undoubtedly the Catholic approach to the painted image endows it with spiritual prestige and the certainty of a ‘real presence’ that Calvinists rejected.”

He continues:

This conception of the virtual power of the painted image to become truly present could well be the spiritual frame that aroused and empowered the choices and artistic ambitions of Vermeer.

If it were for love, amoris causa, that Vermer converted, it was a particularly complex love, which combined love of the charitable indulgence of the Catholic God, love of the desirable Catherina Boles, and, just as profoundly, love for painting, which for the Catholic church was not surrounded by suspicion, which was on the contrary, invested with an exceptional and mysterious aura. Perhaps it was his own religion of painting that had also intimately led Vermeer to conversion.” (p.83)

Doubt and faith in painting are inextricably entwined. Vermeer’s faith in painting was pitched against Calvinist iconoclasm and suspicion of the “idolatrous cult of painted images” (Arasse, p.83). This iconoclasm is not doubt, but rather an extreme certainty in one religious belief that is in conflict with competing beliefs. Vermeer’s defense of his painting was an immersion in the practice, his “workplace, his laboratory of constant pictorial research”, an entrenchment of faith against suspicion.

Vermeer’s faith is not necessarily available to us today, with our own postmodern version of iconoclasm and suspicion of the cult of painting running rampant. Unlike seventeenth century Holland, there are few counter discourses to offer shelter. Likewise, doubt in painting is not unfounded, but possibly inevitable, once certain supporting structures and discourses have given way. As my advisor in grad school used to say, “you can’t be a virgin again”.

Some final words from Joseph Pieper:

[A person] who has attained a certain stage of critical consciousness cannot exempt [themselves] from thinking through opposing arguments raised by both “philosophers” and “heretics”. [They] must confront them … Ultimately, the only possible opposition the believer can offer to [their] own rational arguments is defensive; [they] cannot attack, [they] can only hold firm. (Faith, Hope, Love, pp. 72 -73)

Jan Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, c. 1657


Seeing It

Brice Marden, Cold Mountain (Open), 1989 - 1991

I paint because it’s my work. And I paint because I believe it’s the best way that I can spend my time as a human being. I paint for myself. I paint for my wife. And I paint for anybody that wants to look at it. Really at heart, for anybody who wants to see it. And when I say see it, I mean see it. I don’t mean just look at it. Well, I do everything I can in terms of what I put out for people to look at. I mean I supply them with all of the information I possibly can. And they just have to take care of it from there on in. As in anything, you know, like the more responsive, the more open, the more imaginative you are when you deal with something, the better the experience it will be. (Brice Marden, quoted by Gary Garrels in Plane Image: A Brice Marden Retrospective, p.17)

I know / You might roll your eyes at this / But I’m so glad that you exist (The Weakerthans, “The Reasons”, from the album Reconstruction Site)

Last week my teaching semester came to an end, and now I’m marking and giving students last bits of feedback. This process can be both rewarding and daunting, because it puts into stark relief the results of one’s teaching methods.

What is worth engaging as an artist? a teacher? a student? I worry about what I teach students and what I fail to teach them. I worry that students’ misunderstanding or a lack of clarity on my part can be needlessly deforming. I worry that my own enthusiasm waxes and wanes and that this might be reflected in students’ loss of interest or love of what they do in the studio. I worry that the system of education that I am part of and the system of legitimation (the art world) that students will enter on graduating are deeply flawed and reward the wrong things.

If I believe that teaching is a worthwhile pursuit, and I do, what tools should I be trying to pass on to students? Where my own work has failed has been in lapses of nerve, in succumbing to cynicism, in taking for granted my own assumptions, in the suppression of joy in favour of cool distance. But this observation leaves me with the uneasy feeling that the tools students need most are beyond the reach of my teaching.

Making art demands some sort of empathy towards the world. It isn’t only the critical gaze of analysis that fosters understanding, but also the acknowledgment of the things one loves. I think this is something like what Brice Marden has in mind when he says that his painting is “for anybody who wants to see it. And when I say see it, I mean see it. I don’t mean just look at it.”

“Seeing it” is an affirmation of existence, and the evidence upon which one can find another “good” or “wonderful”. “Without such preceding experience, no impulse of the will can exist in any meaningful way. That is, without such experience we cannot love at all, not anything or anyone. First of all, what is lovable must have revealed itself to our eyes, to our sensuous as well as mental faculty of perception: ‘visio est quaedam causa amoris’, seeing is a kind of cause of love” (Joseph Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, p. 197).

Marden’s simple evocation is the kind of thing that art sophisticates often roll their eyes at. It sounds naive or cliché or sentimental, seems to lack intellectual rigor, even to evade responsibility. It is the kind of thing that would be surprising to see in an artist statement, because it lacks reference to any kind of theoretical or critical language. Marden’s position would be difficult to defend in academic contexts which tend to privilege oppositional posturing. And yet, it also feels intuitively right, adequate, whole.

For the moment, I am content to follow this intuition, but it raises questions for my teaching practice. Is it possible to teach bravery? curiosity? openness? love? More to the point, how to protect and cultivate these qualities in the face of crushing antagonism?

Perhaps it is necessary to constantly assert the difference between art training and art making. Although in many ways students are learning how to “be” artists, it seems inappropriate to claim that I am teaching them to occupy an existential position; at best, art training may foster an understanding of the need to do so.

A comparison might be made to the difference between religious studies and religious practice. It seems reasonable to think that an academic, scholarly understanding of religious systems across cultures might enhance personal religious practice. It is entirely unreasonable to think that it could function as a substitute. Likewise, “art studies” (art education/history/theory) are supplemental, not primary, to artistic practice. Instead, it is the “impulse of the will” to say “I’m so glad that you exist” which provides fundamental motivation.

Brice Marden, The Muses, 1993

You say it’s gospel, but I know it’s only church

Luc Tuymans, The Valley, 2007

Whenever images threatened to gain undue influence within the church, theologians have sought to strip them of their power. As soon as images became more popular than the church’s institutions and began to act directly in God’s name, they became undesirable. It was never easy to control images with words because, like saints, they engaged deeper levels of experience and fulfilled desires other than the ones living church authorities were able to address. Therefore when theologians commented on some issue involving images, they invariably confirmed an already-existing practice. Rather than introducing images, theologians were all too ready to ban them. Only after the faithful had resisted all such efforts against their favorite images did theologians settle for issuing conditions and limitations governing access to them. Theologians were satisfied only when they could ‘explain’ the images. (Hans Belting, p.1,  Likeness and Presence, 1994)

I recently purchased a Luc Tuymans monograph called Is it Safe?. The book is published by Phaidon (2010) and includes essays by Pablo Sigg and Gerrit Vermeiren, an interview between Tuymans and his studio assistant, Tommy Simoens, as well as short introductory blurbs by Tuymans about each project.

Although I am generally pleased with the book, it highlighted an aspect of contemporary painting criticism that I find problematic. Specifically, Vermeiren’s essay, “Proper”, is an example of a mode of discourse that sees material practice as incidental to the production of artwork, and instead concentrates almost exclusively on semiotic and cultural decoding.

What is particularly irritating is that in limiting his analysis to the images in the paintings and rarely, if ever, referring to them in terms of painting as such, Vermeiren only examines half the evidence. He seems to regard the paintings as transparent to the images and proceeds with an unproblematic iconographic and semiotic analysis of the depictions, as if the subject matter is somehow equivalent to the meaning. The activity of Tuymans as a painter of these images is completely disregarded.

I understand that Tuymans has been identified with a kind of contemporary discourse in which the bluntness of his technique is seen as an expression of skepticism and not as an engagement with painterly facture. But surely, there must be a reason that they are paintings and not simply the re-photographed photographs that he uses as source material. After all, his considerable influence in contemporary art is primarily because of his approach to painting in dialogue with media images and history (see The Tuymans Effect, by Jordan Kantor). During Tuymans’s interview with Simoens, the discussion tends to emphasize the collection and interpretation of the source material, but there is at least some acknowledgment of the studio practice as one that involves tangible processes.

Painting barely figures in Vermeiren’s discourse at all. He writes as if Tuymans was engaged in an identical process of image critique as that represented by the essay. Even if this were the case, and I recognize this possibility, the paintings would present different kinds of critique than what is possible through written language for the very reason that they would be forced to do so from inside the limitations of painting. There is no 1:1 correspondence between paintings and our talk about them. Tuymans describes his inherent distrust of images, but Vermeiren seems to have the utmost faith, if not in images themselves, then at least in his capacity to unravel their meanings accurately and exhaustively.

My own inherent distrust extends to discourses more than images, and especially to discourses that assume the power to identify the “real” or “actual” meaning of images and practices while ignoring material specificity. This kind of distanced position is one that assumes an “objective” view, but which is heavily loaded with ideological baggage.

I like Tuymans’s paintings. I find his project quite interesting and some of the paintings that I have seen in person have been compelling. What I find less agreeable is the way his practice seems to lend itself very easily to the type of analysis exemplified by Vermeiren’s essay. Still less agreeable is that the methodology is not isolated to this essay about this artist, but is pervasive.

Framing painting strictly as cultural criticism is misguided because it turns good painting into half-baked sociology and lends bad painting the aura of cultural importance. It often ends up collapsing the distinctions between how a painting functions (ambiguously and in multiple directions, through material processes in addition to images) and the interpretive dispositions of the critic. Like the theologians described above by Belting, this type of critic is “only satisfied when they [can] ‘explain’ images”. I feel that the discourse is similarly motivated by a desire “for issuing conditions and limitations governing access” to the work. By comparison, paintings engage “deeper levels of experience” and “[fulfill] desires” beyond those of authorized discourse. The urge to contain painting within a framework that is theoretically fashionable is one of the vices of the gate-keeping caste.

In contrast to the Tuyman’s book, I have just finished Manet’s Silence and the Poetics of Bouquets, by James H. Rubin. At the end of this cogent study, he  offers some words pertinent to the question of the critic/curator/historian’s interpretive position:

Adopting the historical form of discourse [art history] operates through a grammar and a syntax that predetermine the nature of the meanings it discovers as conforming more or less to their internal logic … [J]ust as we cannot construct the artwork as an entity from which the artist is innocently external or which has a neutral effect on the viewer, neither is the art historian’s representation an impartial one. Posing as an objective science, art history, and its position of omniscience, has served ultimately to empower its own practitioners and their ideology (pp. 223-24).

Edouard Manet, Portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé, 1876

The Boxer’s Hug


A couple of weeks ago I was preparing for an artist talk. This process entails going through a lot of material, some of it relatively old, and it gives the opportunity to think about one’s work in perspective over time. When I went through it with my wife (also an artist) she mentioned that the earlier work seems to be fighting with painting; that is, coming at painting through other media like print and drawing. But now it seems more like when boxer’s grapple with each other – the fight shifts, comes to a standstill and it looks like they are hugging. This felt like a very apt description of where the work is for me right now.

My perspective on my work has changed, especially in the last seven or eight months. Some of the things I’ve learned or re-learned about making my work or through making my work:

  • That the world is full of unexamined expectations, many of them my own.
  • That there is a difference between “professional” art (accredited, legitimated, promoted) and art that is authentic. They are not mutually exclusive, but they are distinct.
  • That it does no good to hold back what you love in favour of what you hope will be accepted.
  • That “culture” is an empty word.
  • Feeling it is different than knowing it.
  • Doing it is different than thinking about it.
  • Seeing it is different than looking at it.

I’m still sparring with painting. But the goal now has more to do with moving up a weight class than scoring points.

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