The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.

Category: Art

“My Intention” by Czeslaw Milosz

“I am here. Those three words contain all that can be said – you begin with those words and you return to them. Here means on this Earth, on this continent and no other, in this city and no other, in this epoch I call mine, this century, this year. I was given no other place, no other time, and I touch my desk to defend against the feeling that my own body is transient. This is all very fundamental, but, after all, the science of life depends on the gradual discovery of fundamental truths.

Snowmass, Colorado, 2015

Snowmass, Colorado, 2015

I have written on various subjects, and not, for the most part, as I would have wished. Nor will I realize my long-standing intention this time. But I am always aware that what I want is impossible to achieve. I would need the ability to communicate my full amazement at ‘being here’ in one unattainable sentence which would simultaneously transmit the smell and texture of my skin, everything stored in my memory, and all I now assent to, dissent from. However, in pursuing the impossible, I did learn something. Each of us is so ashamed of his own helplessness and ignorance that he considers it appropriate to communicate only what he thinks others will understand. There are, however, times when somehow we slowly divest ourselves of that shame and begin to speak openly about all the things we do not understand. If I am not wise, then why must I pretend to be? If I am lost, why must I pretend to have ready counsel for my contemporaries? But perhaps the value of communication depends on the acknowledgment of one’s own limits, which, mysteriously, are also the limits common to many others; and aren’t these the same limits of a hundred or a thousand years ago? And when the air is filled with the clamor of analysis and conclusion, would it be entirely useless to admit you do not understand?

I have read many books, but to place all those volumes on top of one another and stand on them would not add a cubit to my stature. Their learned terms of of little use when I attempt to seize naked experience, which eludes all accepted ideas. To borrow their language can be helpful in many ways, but it also leads imperceptibly into a self-contained labyrinth, leaving us in alien corridors which allow no exit. And so I must offer resistance, check every moment to be sure I am not departing from what I have actually experienced on my own, what I myself have touched. I cannot invent a new language and I use the one I was first taught, but I can distinguish, I hope, between what is mine and what is merely fashionable. I cannot expel from memory the books I have read, their contending theories and philosophies, but I am free to be suspicious and to ask naïve questions instead of joining the chorus which affirms and denies.

Intimidation. I am brave and undaunted in the certainty of having something important to say to the world, something no one else will be called to say. Then the feeling of individuality and a unique role begins to weaken and the thought of all the people who ever were, are, and ever will be – aspiring, doubting, believing – people superior to me in strength of feeling and depth of mind, robs me of confidence in what I call my ‘I’. The words of a prayer millennia old, the celestial music created by a composer in a wig and a jabot make me ask why I, too, am here, why me? Shouldn’t one evaluate his chances beforehand – either equal the best or say nothing? Right at this moment, as I put these marks to paper, countless others are doing the same, and our books in their brightly colored jackets will be added to that mass of things in which names and titles sink and vanish. No doubt, someone is standing in a bookstore and, faced with the sight of those splendid and vain ambitions, is making his decision – silence is better. That single phrase which, were it truly weighed, would suffice as a life’s work. However, here, now, I have the courage to speak, a sort of secondary courage, not blind. Perhaps it is my stubbornness in pursuit of that single sentence. Or perhaps it is my old fearlessness, temperament, fate, a search for a new dodge. In any case, my consolation lies not so much in the role I have been called upon to play as in the great mosaic-like whole which is composed of the fragments of various people’s efforts, whether successful or not. I am here – and everyone is in some ‘here’ – and the only thing we can do is try to communicate with one another.”

(from To Begin Where I Am: Selected Essays, pp 1-3, 2001)


Sackville, New Brunswick, 2015


Being a “painter”


I wonder why being described as a “painter” can so often be aggravating? I recognize it as an accurate description of my concerns as an artist, the methods and materials used to externalize these concerns, as well as the histories and discourses that frame them. I spend a disproportionate amount of my time painting, or thinking about painting, or teaching painting.

And yet, in certain contexts, the term feels condescending. For many people in the art world, “painter” is a label that attaches as a kind anachronism, a throwback to a pre-“post-studio” era. It is also, therefore, a mark of being not quite bright enough to understand that what you are doing is no longer relevant.

In general, I describe myself as an artist. But the truth is, without painting and drawing I wouldn’t be an artist. I don’t make my work in order to be an artist, rather, I am an artist because of my work. This may seem like a nebulous distinction, but it has implications for the ways I think about what I do in the studio.

Even when what I’m making isn’t painting as such, I’m thinking about it in relationship to painting. My sensibility is pictorial, and image-making is the basis for my responses to the world. The labour of applying paint to a support, the patient building of mark upon mark, layer upon layer, decision after decision, is also a mode of thinking.

My work isn’t “conceptual” in the way that this word is often used in relation to artworks – that is, as a diagram of thinking that is conveniently available to the initiated viewer – but, it is informed by all sorts of ideas and experiences that are external to art. These ideas are filtered through the process of making, often in ways that are obscure to me, and they govern or shift the choices I make in the work.

Crucially, the reverse is also true: making my work illuminates and informs my life. For me, drawing and painting are the ways that light is cast on the world, they allow a kind of search that I don’t find possible in other forms. The focused combination of physical, emotional, and rational energies that are brought to bear when I am painting clarifies how I relate to the world, and ideally, how I am living my life.

Finally, there are the objects themselves, their specific amalgam of spirit and dirt. When I’m standing in front of a great painting or drawing, the sense of vitality, experience, and hope that has been conjured out of inanimate mud seems as close to a miracle as I am likely to encounter. When I ask myself why I am a “painter”, these qualities are my answers. And, when asked why I “still” make paintings, I try to keep these things in mind, and then answer “because I don’t know any better”.

Piet Mondrian, The Gray Tree, 1911

Piet Mondrian, The Gray Tree, 1911 (


A Walk in the Park (in memory of Sally Bean)

Sally on the boardwalk

Sally on the boardwalk


I walk my dog every morning. Between 25 and 60 minutes a day are spent moving through the small, rural town that I live in, silent, except for occasional commands to “leave it”, or a brief exchange of pleasantries with the few others who are awake and outside before the business of the day is begun. Sometimes I have a point and shoot digital camera with me, that I point and shoot at things that catch my attention. Sometimes I simply make a mental note and move on.

The activity of walking and thinking and looking, both alone and in quiet companionship, has become the raw material for the work I do in my studio. By attempting to remark on the unremarkable, I am trying to make fleeting thoughts and elusive feelings more concrete. By producing first snapshots, then drawings and paintings, I am trying to render my lived experience more tangible and available for reflection. The impulse of the work is aimed at probing the relationship between my subjectivity and the material reality that is its precondition. Autobiography is not the concern, but rather, an attempt to understand the ways that my life is ensnared in wider orbits of meaning.

The work that I have made in the past few years has been overwhelmingly involved with picturing the remnants of processes and actions: digging, cutting, piling, dropping, scraping, falling, building, growing, dying. Debris is saturated with the stubborn thickness of things. The implacable presence of objects and chunks of stuff puts a check on my big ideas. It reorients my attention and makes manifest my utter rootedness in the physical world.

Despite this emphasis on the empirical and the mundane, I don’t consider the works themselves to be transparent representations of reality. Rather than windows or mirrors, I regard them as traces; signs that exist in their own right, but also point outside of themselves and their depicted subject matter. They relate at oblique angles to both my experience of the world and my responses to it.

When I follow my dog along a path, guided by her extraordinary hearing and smell, I am introduced to a world that is largely unavailable to my senses. The perceptions that guide her snuffling search through dead leaves, or that compel her to dig and lick at an apparently banal patch of grass or tree trunk, has led me to understand that what I take for granted as the ‘visible world’ is an astonishingly thin layer of reality. When I follow my work along a path, I am hunting for similarly invisible and compelling tokens of ordinary life.




Painting studio critique room, Anderson Ranch, Snowmass, Colorado, 2015

Painting studio critique room, Anderson Ranch, Snowmass, Colorado, 2015

Some of us are lucky enough to have a few fellow artists or a mentor that give us consistent and rigourous criticism of our work. But too often, the brutally honest comment is withheld in favour of the polite and understandable need to avoid alienating your community. After all, many of us have worked hard to assemble a group of like minded peers to soften the sense of isolation that accompanies work in the studio.

In a critique situation, many things are at play: the insight and judgment of the critic; your own understanding and investment in your work; your confidence, or lack thereof; the critic’s interest, or lack thereof; everybody’s ego; the general level of openness and comfort with the discussion at hand. For me, the central element in a successful critique is trust. Without it, the process is at best futile and at worst damaging.

This is true both when the critic is another person, or when it is the artist themselves, in the assessment of their own work. The critique dialogue is about subjecting assumptions to hard scrutiny, through relentless  questioning, and unpacking of ideas and confusions. The conversation ought to be aimed at the illumination of the work, and most importantly, identifying ways to make the work, and the artist, better. Without trust, that dialogue can easily sour to defensiveness, evasiveness, cynicism, crushed egos, hurt feelings, loss of confidence and will.

Trust and respect are deeply entwined with each other in this process. To me, trust is the ability to be in a vulnerable position with another being, or yourself. The potential to be hurt by someone else, or by the person inside you, is a present danger when the ideas and aspirations that you hold most dear are being taken apart and ruthlessly probed. Respect, on the other hand, is the ability to take trust and shelter it gently, with an understanding of its fragility. It is also admiration for a person’s actions, integrity, and how they meet the world.

These are mutually dependent and reciprocal qualities, and the ability to extend them to others rests on the ability to extend them to oneself. The loss of these qualities is easily achieved, and spreads like a stain to one’s work and life. Re-building self-trust and respect is an arduous process, with no guarantee of success, but I have found that going back to the studio and starting the work again can be a good place to start.

work in progress, 2015

work in progress, 2015


Live / Work / Space

Weldon Street studio under construction, 2015

Weldon Street studio under construction

What is the function of the studio?
1. It is a place where the work originates.
2. It is generally a private place, an ivory tower perhaps.
3. It is a stationary place where portable objects are produced.
The importance of the studio should by now be apparent; it is the first frame, the first limit, upon which all subsequent frames/limits will depend.
Daniel Buren, The Function of the Studio

Studio: from the Latin studium meaning eagerness or zeal. (

I have recently moved into a new studio space in the attic of my house. Although this move was dictated by practical concerns, it has also led me to consider the benefits of a live/work space, as well as to reflect on the purpose of the studio for my work and my life.

Is the studio just a means-ends set up, as Daniel Buren seems to suggest in the epigram quoted above? An ivory tower for the production of luxury goods? Is it, instead, as Daniel Arasse puts it in reference to Vermeer, a pictorial laboratory?

I prefer to think of it as the latter, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking. The fact is, that so far my work is made in a space that is called a studio; it hasn’t yet become a cottage industry for luxury goods, but maybe that is just a matter of time. A certain amount of experiment, critical thinking, and labour takes place in the studio, but maybe laboratory is overstating it. I think it is a space of inquiry, of work on questions that don’t have any fixed answers, a place where I try to build meanings out of the fragments of life.

For me, the studio is a prism that gathers the different wavelengths of life and both breaks them into constituent parts, and weaves them back together in a slightly different form, one that allows new understandings and questions to arise. By folding domestic and work space together, I hope that these two spheres will become even more closely entwined.

Weldon Street studio, 2015

Weldon Street studio, 2015




Skillz Part II: that’s not art

Ecole des beaux-arts, students working from the live model

Ecole des beaux-arts, students painting from life, 1800’s  (Wikipedia)

In his article, Is De-skilling Killing Your Art Education?, F. Scott Hess presents several anecdotal accounts of the way that “skilled” work was discriminated against in his own education, as well that of several of his peers. In his opening example he explains that he wanted to learn how to draw the human figure, and that an “untenured professor” (i.e. less firmly attached to the institution) showed him the ropes, while the chair of the department (i.e. strongly identified with the institution), an alcoholic abstract painter, tells him that drawing the figure “is not art”, and then goes on to drunkenly smash the plaster cast that he was drawing from.

While this episode is meant to illustrate an archetypal art-school clash between painting idioms and generational investments, it also highlights a tension between competing ideas about the ways art making relates to time and history. On one hand a kind of “underground” commitment to skills and procedures that were dominant in the recent past, and on the other, an officially sanctioned sense that history “progresses” and leaves certain practices irretrievably behind. The first position assumes the ability to sustain the unrevised ideals of an earlier period, in which the warrant for making art comes from vanished monarchical and religious authority. The second position assumes the historical inevitability of current ideals, where the authority of kings and churches is replaced by capitalist markets and narratives of linear progress.

But why does this conflict seem so acute in the context of current art education? I will venture a few thoughts.

First, there is often a misalignment between the expectations of students entering programs and the sometimes unstated assumptions of institutions and faculty. For example, students may think of art making in general terms that include any and every form of creativity, from carefully stumped graphite portraits of their dog, to mixed media collages that “raise issues”, to driftwood decorated with beads, to photographs of sunsets, to digital renderings of their favorite anime character, often mixed with vague ideas about “high art”. Faculty, in contrast, will likely think about art making in more specialized terms, particularly as they relate to distinctions between “art” and “craft”, between mass culture and a more rarefied culture of avant-garde innovation, and with a much broader relationship to art history.

Mercedes Matter with students, New York Studio School

Mercedes Matter with students, New York Studio School (

Meanwhile, institutions have their own mandates and goals when it comes to education, including literacy, critical thought, skill training, disciplinary knowledge and granting academic credentials. They also tend to have biases that privilege intellectual over manual labour. Universities are premised on enlightenment ideals of human progress through rational inquiry, and this model provides an uncomfortable fit for studio practices. In the Renaissance, artists, rooted in workshops and guilds, and sponsored by wealthy, educated patrons, aspired for their work to achieve the status of “liberal art”, on par with mathematics and philosophy. They did this by emphasizing humanist ideals, the originality of individual artists, and the use of the most “advanced” aesthetic strategies, including linear perspective. The values that provide a place for art in higher education also underwrite the attitudes that seek an enforced distinction between “art” and “craft” (or theory and skill in Hess’s terms). The place of studio art in this structure is precarious, and manifests as pressure for departments and individual instructors to continually prove the intellectual, rather than the aesthetic, value of what they do in the classroom and their own studios.

We live in a pluralist time when an unprecedented range of material and conceptual approaches to art are considered to be legitimate. Although traditional criteria – such as those used by the 19th century French academy, Kantian aesthetics, or the modernist avant-garde – have faded, judgments, distinctions, and evaluations persist. This is particularly true in educational contexts, where grading is a key part of advancement through the curriculum. The same pluralism that makes this an exciting time to be an artist complicates the issue of judgment, since no universally valid criteria exist.

When subjective criteria become hardened theoretical, aesthetic, social or political positions, as they too often do, the validity of a work becomes more directly linked to its ability to fit neatly into static categories (e.g. abstraction, figuration, painting, Art, craft, advanced, reactionary, etc.), than to provide a particular experience. The problem is amplified when teachers (or critics, curators, historians, theorists) assert the exclusive authority to decide what counts and what doesn’t, what has meaning and what is consigned to invisibility. Students rightfully resent the pressure to conform to a narrow conception of what is or isn’t art. Likewise, it can be difficult for instructors to balance the need to challenge students, letting them find their own way, against their own ideological baggage.

A Lesson with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, 1946 photo Genevieve Naylor

A Lesson with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, 1946 photo Genevieve Naylor (

Although I think that Hess’s argument is simplistic, I recognize his anxiety about institutional power and its sway over art training. Anyone who has worked in the studio for any length of time will recognize the limited usefulness of rationality. To the extent that art making deals with the manipulation of material, logic only takes one so far, then physical, intuitive, and tacit knowledge has to bridge the gap. However, pure technique or “skill” similarly runs up against the problem of empty display absent an intellectual framework that allows it to articulate its specific connections to the meanings that circulate in the culture.


The Mire

Noam Chomsky in his office, digital drawing, 2014

Noam Chomsky in his office, digital drawing, 2014

It has been several months since I posted to this blog, despite best intentions. The specific reasons are both numerous and unimportant, but in general, the hiatus has been brought on through a loss of focus in my work. This in turn has come through a failure to protect my time in the studio as rigorously as necessary, so that reflection is superseded by the imperative to “produce”. When time in the studio becomes a precious commodity, it seems wasteful to sit and think, scribbling in a notebook, rather than “work”.

Writing is a long and difficult process for me, so I tend to only write when I have something to get off my chest – an idea that won’t resolve itself any other way, dissatisfaction with an answer that I gave to a student, or some incident that I can complain about in my journal. These kinds of things become the problems that I can use as springboards for writing, the daily coal to feed the furnace. Sometimes though, the fuel piles up faster than it can be burned, or, when burned, it unleashes dirty and obscuring smoke.

I experience writer’s block not as a lack of ideas or anecdotes, but as a glut of ideas, irritants, or circumstances that are too fragmented or painful to get a hold of. The mire of life is an ooze that both sticks to everything and renders it too slippery to gain purchase. It alternately trickles through the fingers in wasted hours or seeps into the airway with choking anxiety. Attempts to contain the ooze are as useless as a tar sands tailing pond, so I depend on the studio and my journal to filter it, to provide a framework for making some sense of it. This is an improvised structure to begin with, and lack of maintenance weakens it precariously.

I hope that re-focusing in the studio will prompt a parallel re-ignition of this blog. I realize now that my activity in the studio has come to rely on the guidance that the thinking and reflection in the writing embodies, and that their mutual support is necessary. Life continues to unfold, whether we extract meaning from it or not, whether our attempts are adequate or not. Therefore, the work  also goes on.

Cornel West arrested, digital drawing, 2014

Cornel West arrested, digital drawing, 2014





In his recent article, Is De-skilling Killing Your Arts Education?, F. Scott Hess rails passionately against an alleged prejudice toward “skilled” representational painting in contemporary art education. I have heard some students and fellow artists voice similar worries, implying that because drawing from life and traditional technique are no longer the focus of most art school curricula, that artistic skill is banished, replaced instead by faddish academic trends. There is an added edge to these complaints when tuition costs are soaring and students seek practical skill sets in return for their investment. It is frustrating and discouraging for students when they perceive that their work is unappreciated, even when it is highly accomplished on a technical level. However, the tone of Hess’ narrative suggests that the crux of the issue is not a simple intolerance of skill, but is instead the result of contentious disputes over how art is understood to function in contemporary society.

It is important to be specific about what is meant by skill in this context. Hess equates skill with drawing the human figure, and more generally, the knowledge and procedures embedded in classical representational painting, such as anatomy, perspective, and mastery of technique. It is this approach in particular that is seen to be the victim of censure:

I wish I could say this academic prejudice against skill was a thing of the past. Unfortunately, it is stronger now than it has ever been. Conceptualism replaced abstraction as the dogma of the day, and has been in turn replaced by Postmodern hybridity, identity politics, or pure theory on the majority of college campuses. As in all educational endeavors, young minds are molded to fit the norm their professors set forth. De-skilling is the term I’ve commonly heard used to describe this odd institutional practice in the arts.

The idea that you might train a surgeon to be clumsy, or an engineer to build poorly, or a lawyer to ignore law, would be patently absurd. In the arts, however, you will find an occasional musician who purposely plays badly, or a writer who ignores grammar, but only in the visual arts is training in the traditional skills of the profession systematically and often institutionally denigrated.

It is reasonable to wonder about the priorities of educational institutions that would allow such seemingly large gaps in the training of artists. However, I think there are two distinct issues at stake in Hess’ account. The first is the question of what constitutes skill and whether or not it is transmitted in art education. The second is the status of the academy in relation to its capacity to institute and regulate its dogmas and norms.

According to the terms that Hess sets out, there is definitely a systematic thrust by artists from the late 19th, and into the early 21st centuries to de-skill art production, and this is reflected and reinforced in the educational institutions that train artists in the modern period. This process begins with the rejection of academic standards of decorum, finish, and hierarchies of subject matter by artists like Courbet and Manet, and moves through the succession of “isms” into the 20th century. Although many of the early modern artists that are revered today had some kind of academic training, their refusal to perpetuate the standards of the academy did not come out of boredom or perversity, but from the recognition that these conventions were somehow inadequate to represent the rapidly changing world they lived in.  In this case, according to John Roberts, the question becomes:

how do I paint convincing images that express the truth of what it is like to live under these new conditions? As a result, painterly technique becomes a highly contentious matter in the bid for non-academic status and value; technique, it is asserted, is not a neutral skill, something transmittable down the ages, but, rather, historically contingent, and therefore inseparable from the demands of artistic subjectivity and the artist’s mode of vision. Questioning inherited technique then became a means of questioning the link between academic technique and form in official or salon-painting. (80)

Edouard Manet, Luncheon in the Studio, 1868

Edouard Manet, Luncheon in the Studio, 1868

Hess’ comparison between training clumsy surgeons and the “denigration”, in visual arts, of “training in the traditional skills of the profession” is misplaced because it assumes that achievement in each field can be measured against a similarly stable set of criteria. A surgeon without the requisite hand-eye coordination would not make it very far in their education, but it is also true that a surgeon that insisted on the value of the “traditional” techniques of bloodletting would have a hard time convincing the medical community of its value. Technology, technique, and research have rendered bloodletting obsolete as an effective means to obtain the goals of surgery. Within the visual arts, however, it is still possible to use the most ancient technical approaches (such as painting) and remain relevant, if they are deployed in such a way that they produce meanings that continue to have resonance within the culture.

Roberts refers to this modern questioning of inherited technique as “deflationary strategies”, and he connects these impulses with artistic methods such as collage, assemblage and the ready-made, which initially introduce “non-art” materials onto the surface of paintings, and then become independent approaches in themselves (82). Once modern artists established these strategies in opposition to the standards of academic painting, artistic technique could no longer be held as stable and therefore “artistic form is not able to be assessed from any normative standpoint”(81). Roberts continues:

As Duchamp’s notion of the ‘rendezvous’ suggests, the superimposition and reorganisation of extant forms and materials opens up the category of art to non-artistic technical skills from other cultural, cognitive, practical and theoretical domains: film, photography, architecture, literature, philosophy and science. Indeed, if art is a site of many different disciplines, materials, and theoretical frameworks, art can be made quite literally from anything. (83)

Robert Rauschenberg, Monogram, 1955-59

Robert Rauschenberg, Monogram, 1955-59

One of the results of this shift is that manual skill at representation no longer occupies a prominent place among the criteria for judging artworks. This in itself does not prevent the teaching or acquisition of these skills, but their priority in educational practice is diminished in favour of different skills, many of which might be described as involving conceptualizing or arrangement, rather than hand-eye coordination.

This short detour into the history of artistic de-skilling illustrates that the supposed prejudice against skill is not arbitrary, but is part of a critical response by artists to the conditions of modernity itself. It is something of a red herring to construct this as a tyrannical edict from the corrupt ivory tower. Further, complaints against abstraction, conceptualism, hybridity, identity politics, and so-called “pure theory” seem to ignore the fact that western society as a whole has moved toward diversity of voices and plurality of practices, and art-making is not exempt from these tendencies, nor should it be.

Fluency in the language of materials and their modes of application are the bare minimum for any kind of achievement in drawing and painting, but they are not sufficient in the absence of other cognitive aspects of art-making, and I submit that this is not any different today than it was in the 15th century when the “traditional skills of the profession” were codified.

De-skilling in art ought to be seen in the historical context from which it derives. Skill, as such, is not absent from modern artistic training, but the focus of this training is no longer directed toward the manual dexterity and disciplined technique prevalent in the pre-modern era. For better and worse, these are the conditions that contemporary art inherits from the last 150 years of practice.

But Hess’ complaint, I think, is actually less about whether students develop skills in art school, than the sometimes toxic discursive and critical environment that they have to navigate while sorting through which skills to take up and which to set aside. I will address this question in a future post.


Hess, F. Scott. “Is De-Skilling Killing Your Arts Education?”, Huffington Post: Aug 30, 2014.

Roberts, John. “Art After Deskilling”, Historical Materialism 18 (2010): 77-96.

From “Approaching Reality” by Francisco Calvo Serraller


Antonio López García, Sink and Mirror, 1967

Antonio López García, Sink and Mirror, 1967

“[W]e must remember again that the term realism as applied to art was completely uncommon before our time. And we must keep this in mind because the majority of people usually mistake it for traditional figurative painting, as it was interpreted during the extensive historical period in which classicism prevailed, particularly from the beginning of the renaissance, between the 15th and 16th centuries. It is true that the Greeks defined art as the imitation of reality or nature, but they did so in an entirely different sense from the way in which we understand ‘realism’ – a term provocatively used by the French painter Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877) in 1855. The Greeks and all those who later emulated their artistic vision flatly rejected an indiscriminate imitation of what is real, as much from the formal perspective as from the symbolic perspective. They proposed a selective imitation, that is, an idealized concept of reality – not simply that which anyone might observe, but rather, the hidden order that sustained it.

Antonio López García, Skinned Rabbit, 1972

Antonio López García, Skinned Rabbit, 1972

The artist was supposed to observe reality and represent it from the perspective of beauty – something that determined which things were suitable to be depicted and, naturally, how to go about doing so. In this way, they implemented a canon, without which art did not produce beauty and likewise, art ceased to be art. For this reason, the art historian Lionello Venturi stated quite accurately that not only was it inappropriate to define traditional art as realist, but that if it were to have been defined as such, then it would be necessary to add the type of imitation of reality intended in each historical period. Significantly, during the 17th century, when the first sketches of an artistic style known at the time as naturalism, and not realism, appeared – a school initiated by Michelangelo da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) and his followers – most contemporary critics did not denounce them for not demonstrating ability or talent, but for not actually being art and for heralding art’s ruin. Those who reacted that way before the devastating naturalist wave generated by the Caravaggisti were not mistaken, because, as was shown later during our time, it was necessary to first put an end to art, or, at least, create a new concept of art in which there are no barriers to directly confronting reality – a different type of art, another art. Or maybe even something other than art, with an identity and meaning we still wonder about today.

Even though we cannot engage in that debate now, for me, something is quite clear: The type of realism without boundaries, which began in the 17th century – and culminated in the 19th century – a culmination that does not signify a true end; but, on the contrary, most of all a beginning – has been the cornerstone of modern art until the present.”
(Francisco Calvo Serraller, “Approaching Reality” in Antonio López García: Paintings and Sculptures, p. 30, 2011)

Antonio López García, Soaked Underwear, 1968

Antonio López García, Soaked Underwear, 1968

For more information on Antonio López García see John Yau’s article in the Brooklyn Rail.

“In an uncherished field…”

Rackstraw Downes, At the Confluence of Two Ditches Bordering a Field with Four Radio Towers, 1995

Rackstraw Downes, At the Confluence of Two Ditches Bordering a Field with Four Radio Towers, 1995

“In an uncherished field beyond a subdivision in the refinery town of Texas City, Texas, I got interested in four radio towers that collectively formed what is called a ‘directional signal’. I chose a vantage point at the corner of the field on the shoulder of an embanked road; it overlooked the confluence of two rainwater ditches running at right angles to each other along two borders of the field. To look down into the ditches and up at the immense spindly height of the towers, with their barely discernible guy wires, comprised a vertical span of a little more than 90 degrees. The canvas then, once the preliminary drawing was worked out ended up being nearly square, 46 by 48 inches. My notion of the right relationship between interior forms and spaces of a painting and its containing periphery is perfectly expressed by an early (circa 1562) Dutch image of a church painted on an L-shaped panel; the nave occupies the thick base of the L and the tower its slim shaft.  I refer to this as the ‘L-shaped church paradigm’.

Anonymous, The Sint Maartenskerk in Zaltbommel before the fire of 1538, N.D.

Anonymous, The Sint Maartenskerk in Zaltbommel before the fire of 1538, N.D.

Around this time I read that Ruskin had told his followers, ‘When I say go out and paint Nature, I do not mean a ditch.’ I thought, Thank you, John, because these ditches not only form a remarkable rectilinear grid of narrow incisions in the terrain that shoot dramatically off into space, but in this dead-flat, hurricane-prone, barely above sea level coastal country they are a crucial part of the functional system of levees, raised roads, and ‘Archimedes screw’-type pumping stations that, as with the reclaimed polders of Holland, is essential in making this land usable and inhabitable at all. Children play in these ditches, fishermen get bait out of them, and weeds flourish there unmolested. Alongside the embanked roadway in this painting run power and phone lines which (as we know) sag as they stretch from pole to pole; but if you stand close to them, as I did while working, and follow them with your eyes as they pass from left to right of you, they soar up in the air and arch over your head; their appearance contradicts what we know. Uncompromising empiricism may lead to paradoxes.

These extended spaces, then, that I was working with, and the way forms bulk in them, plus the effect of specific vantage point and bodily stance on one’s perception of them, began to present endlessly fascinating problems of depiction …

The question arises as to whether, if space appears to be curved, it is concave or convex. It may be both. The horizon wraps around you as a room contains you: it is concave. But suppose you are sitting in a room opposite the midpoint of a long wall; as your gaze follows the wall from either corner to the midpoint, the wall appears to swell toward you: it is convex. Frankly, though, these diagrams of space never interested me very much. The ‘truth’ of any one of them is contestable (and endlessly contested): they are, precisely diagrammatic, as well as systematic, theoretical, designed for general application. But I don’t find that I see systematically. I – we – have erratic, not to say subjective, reactions to size and scale; we do all kinds of things when looking: we shift our attention, turn and tilt, quickly or slowly, get interested in some things and uninterested in others. The process of looking – especially the process of looking while making a drawing or a painting – is far too alive and spasmodic to be rationalized.

Rackstraw Downes, Concrete Ditch with Sewer Main in Spring, 1997

Rackstraw Downes, Concrete Ditch with Sewer Main in Spring, 1997

To any diagram I prefer – and trust – the experience-based statement of Cézanne: ‘for progress toward realization there is only nature, and the eye is educated by contact with her. It becomes concentric by force of looking and working.’ Does Cézanne mean concentric to the viewer? Are we inside the sphere that Fouquet’s miniature implies and that Leonardo conceived in his notes? Certainly this is a manifesto in favor of committed empiricism. Eschewing theory and system, protocol and precedent, Cézanne wants to know only what he learns from the practice – his practice – of painting.”
(Rackstraw Downes, “Turning the Head in Empirical Space”, in Rackstraw Downes, Sanford Schwartz, et al. pp.129 – 143)

Video of Rackstraw Downes talking about his work.



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