The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.

Category: General Ideas


Joseph Cowan, watercolour on paper, 2013

Joe Cowan aged 9, from Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, 2013

This summer I have been working on a project that has got me thinking a lot about narrative, and more specifically the ways in which words and pictures fit together, or don’t.

My work has flirted with narrative over the years, but recently I have been trying to keep it out of my paintings. I think the reason I have been trying avoid it is that I have been seeking to pare the paintings back to their basic elements: image, paint, scale. Narrative is a complicating factor. It is very easy to imply narrative with images, almost impossible to avoid it, in fact. But I have wanted to keep my paintings operating in a zone that doesn’t depend on story telling for their effect.

Rack, from Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, watercolour on paper, 2013

Rack, from Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, 2013

This new project, Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, is a collaboration with my wife, Paula Jean Cowan. We are putting it together as a website which will eventually have several chapters. The work is based on the biography of Paula’s paternal grandfather, who was sent to Canada from England as a British “home” child. Because his life overlapped many of the major historical events in the twentieth century it is an opportunity to explore that history on a cultural and personal level, in both words and pictures.

Albert County Shiretown, from Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, 2013

Albert County Shiretown, from Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, 2013

Home is a kind of illustrated story that slowly winds around one of the central events of Joe’s life, being sent across the Atlantic Ocean as a nine year old indentured servant. Because of the circumstances of his arrival in Canada and his own natural reticence, Joe’s biography has been largely unknown, even to his own family. In this context explicit narrative in the form of text, historical fact and archival images, is indispensable to the work. In some ways the work is also a way for my wife and I to narrate our own life together while exploring some of the “back story” of family history.

w/ Paula Jean Cowan, Untitled (hair & spider), 2011

w/ Paula Jean Cowan, Untitled (hair & spider), 2011

An earlier body of work that we created together,  May it Always Be, also had a narrative dimension, but it was more cryptic and less historically specific. It was a kind of call and response, an improvising play, but was definitely rooted in telling each other stories about our own life together.

w/ Paula Jean Cowan, Untitled (whale & cloud), 2011

w/ Paula Jean Cowan, Untitled (whale & cloud), 2011

The new project demanded its own visual form, which in the end resembles a slide show. One of the challenges of the project is to combine words and pictures in a way that allows each to have its say without making the other redundant. Since the narrative is non-fiction, it made a certain amount of sense to present it in a kind of lecture format. The difficulty, but also the pay-off of this approach, is to allow quite mundane facts and events to begin to produce a metaphorical resonance.

Whereas the paintings I have been making in the last couple of years have been very deliberately introspective, working on a common project with someone I love brings a perspective that is oriented towards others. This communal orientation is reinforced by a narrative approach. Home is about trying to find a place in the world in the face of continuing uprootedness, both physical and emotional. The stories we tell ourselves and each other are a way of plotting the outlines of that place.

Bennett House, from Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, 2011

Bennett House, from Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, 2013


Evidence and Absence

Jeff Wall, Untangling, 1994

Jeff Wall, Untangling, 1994

I have been thinking a lot about photography lately: the field of photography, the way different artists use photographs and the ways it has worked in my own practice. I have also been revisiting some of my favourites, such as Ed Ruscha, Jeff Wall, Roy Arden, and Stephen Shore.

Stephen Shore, Stampeder Motel, Ontario, Oregon, 1973

Stephen Shore, Stampeder Motel, Ontario, Oregon, 1973

The photography I am interested in tends to have a certain kind of relationship to the documentary tradition. The term “documentary” implies a photograph that is based on fact or offers itself as proof. This in turn is premised on the camera as a mechanical recording device, which provides information and suggests an objective image of reality. Each of these artists takes the documentary idea and puts pressure on it from various directions, but the photos always point to the photographer standing in front of this subject, in these conditions at this specific moment.

Roy Arden, Landfill, Richmond, BC, 1991

Roy Arden, Landfill, Richmond, BC, 1991

The other thing that is shared by these artists is a relationship to vernacular or “popular” uses of photography, such as family snapshots, postcards, and scenic views of landscapes.  For me, it is the ordinary, homemade quality of the vernacular that is important, it’s flatfooted presentation of the everyday.

Ed Ruscha, Beeline Gas, Holbrook, Arizona (from the book Twenty Six Gasoline Stations), 1963

Ed Ruscha, Beeline Gas, Holbrook, Arizona (from the book Twenty Six Gasoline Stations), 1963

Although I make paintings, they are always based on a photographic source. The reason for this has to do with the photograph’s status as evidence of a subject’s existence. Whatever is in the image has at one point been aligned with the camera’s lens, its skin of reflected light inscribed on photosensitive film or encoded on a memory card. Additionally, the camera records what is in front of it more or less evenly, without regard to hierarchies of social or cultural importance.

Benjamin Down, Mt. Robson, Jasper National Park

Benjamin Down, Spences Bridge BC

However, an image written with light also, inevitably refers to an absence. Since a photograph fragments time into infra-thin slices, whatever is pictured in the photograph is no more, its moment passed by as soon as the shutter is released. The nostalgia of family albums, for instance, derives from the gap between the proof that the world was like this once, and the aching silence of its irretrievability. The memorializing function of photographs has to do with the tension between its status as a document and the temporal displacement of its subject.

Theorist and historian Geoffrey Batchen asserts:

Photography is privileged within modern culture because, unlike other systems of representation, the camera does more than just see the world; it is also touched by it. Photographs are designated as indexical signs, images produced as a consequence of being directly affected by the objects to which they refer. It is as if those objects have reached out and impressed themselves on the surface of the photograph, leaving their own visual imprint, as faithful to the contour of the original object as a death mask is to the newly departed. On this basis, photographs are able to parade themselves as the world’s own chemical fingerprints, nature’s poignant rendition of herself as memento mori. And it is surely this combination of the haptic and the visual, this entanglement of both touch and sight, that makes photography so compelling as a medium. (Each Wild Idea, p.61, MIT Press, 2001)

Benjamin Down, At Dominic's Cabin, Stone Creek BC

Benjamin Down, At Dominic’s Cabin, Stone Creek BC

Photography’s capacity to function as evidence, its status as indexical trace, its ability to conjure an absent subject, and its amenable relationship to the commonplace, are what draws me to its images. The paintings in what I consider to be my first mature work are based on photographs taken by my father, Benjamin Down. These tokens of ordinary life fill a binder of slide sleeves in my studio and several small boxes in my mother’s home. In these images he is the absent term, they are the trace of his looking as much as they are the trace of what is being looked at.

Benjamin Down, Trapping Lake, BC

Benjamin Down, Trapping Lake, BC

The resonance I feel with these images is likely based in my personal experience and a longing for the absent figure of the photographer. Nevertheless, they continue to act as a guiding presence in my practice and a reminder to me of why I began making art in the first place.

Benjamin Down, Self-portrait

Benjamin Down, Self-portrait

From W.G. Sebald’s ‘Austerlitz’

Saint Firmin Holding his Head ca. 1225-75, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Saint Firmin Holding his Head ca. 1225-75, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

But now I found writing such hard going that it often took me a whole day to compose a single sentence, and no sooner had I thought such a sentence out, with the greatest of effort, and written it down, than I saw the awkward falsity of my constructions and the inadequacy of all the words I had employed. If at times some kind of self-deception nonetheless made me feel that I had done a good day’s work, then as soon as I glanced at the page next morning I was sure to find the most appalling mistakes, inconsistencies, and lapses staring at me from the paper. However much or little I had written, on a subsequent reading it always seemed fundamentally flawed that I had to destroy it immediately and begin again. Soon I could not even venture on the first step. Like a tightrope walker who has forgotten how to put one foot in front of the other, all I felt was the swaying of the precarious structure on which I stood, stricken with terror at the realization that the ends of the balancing pole gleaming far out on the edges of my field of vision were no longer my guiding lights, as before, but malignant enticements to me to cast myself into the depths. Now and then a train of thought did succeed in emerging with wonderful clarity inside my head, but I knew even as it formed that I was in no position to record it, for as soon as I so much as picked up my pencil the endless possibilities of language, to which I could once safely abandon myself, became a conglomeration of the most inane phrases. There was not an expression in the sentence but it proved to be a miserable crutch, not a word but it sounded false and hollow. And in this dreadful state of mind I sat for hours, for days on end with my face to the wall, tormenting myself and gradually discovering the horror that even the smallest task or duty, for instance arranging assorted objects in a drawer, can be beyond one’s power. It was as if an illness that had been latent in me for a long time were now threatening to erupt, as if some soul-destroying  and inexorable force had fastened upon me and would gradually paralyze my entire system. I already felt in my head the dreadful torpor that heralds disintegration of the personality, I sensed that in truth I had neither memory nor the power of thought, nor even any existence, that all my life had been a constant process of obliteration, a turning away from the world. If someone had come then to lead me to a place of execution I would have gone meekly, without a word, without so much as opening my eyes, just as people who suffer from violent seasickness, if they are crossing the Caspian Sea on a steamer, for instance, will not offer the slightest resistance should someone tell them that they are about to be thrown overboard. Whatever was going on within me, said Austerlitz, the panic I felt on facing the start of any sentence that must be written, not knowing how I could begin it or indeed any other sentence, soon extended to what is in itself the simpler business of reading, until if I attempted to read a whole page I inevitably fell into a state of the greatest confusion. If language may be regarded as an old city full of streets and squares, nooks and crannies, with some quarters dating from far back in time while others have been torn down, cleaned up, and rebuilt, and with suburbs reaching further and further into the surrounding country, then I was like a man who has been abroad a long time and cannot find his way through this urban sprawl anymore, no longer knows what a bus stop is for, or what a backyard is, or a street junction, an avenue or a bridge. The entire structure of language, the syntactical arrangements of parts of speech, punctuations, conjunctions, and finally even the nouns denoting ordinary objects were all enveloped in impenetrable fog. I could not understand what I myself had written in the past – perhaps I could understand that least of all. All I could think was such a sentence appears to mean something, but in truth is at best a makeshift expedient, a kind of unhealthy growth issuing from our ignorance, something which we use, in the same way as many sea plants and animals use their tentacles, to grope blindly through the darkness enveloping us. The very thing which may usually convey a sense of purposeful intelligence – the exposition of an idea by means of a certain stylistic facility – now seemed to me nothing but an entirely arbitrary or deluded enterprise.
(W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz, pp. 122-24)


Many of my recent posts have been informed by religious scholars. This is puzzling and somewhat unsettling to me, because I am not a religious person. Further, it may seem strange as a framework for discourse about art, since contemporary art is more often associated with entertainment than prayer.

On a basic level, this interest might be a form of exoticism, or even a colonizing practice – picking and choosing the formal qualities of arguments for my own ends. Since I don’t have a religious faith, I recognize the problematic nature of using these kinds of sources. In fact, the usefulness of these sources, for me, is not unlike the modernist use of non-European cultures as a resource to get ‘outside’ of themselves.

Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic 34, 1954

“This thirst for foreignness in order to find a self not mired in the habit of native conventions is germane to modernism,” says Dore Ashton in reference to Robert Motherwell’s painting. Likewise, the use of texts that pertain only laterally to art practice is a form of estrangement, of distance from myself and my own preconceptions. This has less to do with importing ideas across disciplinary boundaries than as a challenge to my own, highly secular and academically standard beliefs.

Since this blog and the studio journal that it is based on are reflective, contemplative practices, [see also gnōthi seauton (know thyself)] something like a religious / moral / ethical self-awareness seems pertinent to my thinking. The poet, Kenneth Rexroth on the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius:

[T]he Meditations have a certain monotony – the monotony of the first phase of prayer, examination of conscience. ‘Have I kept my temper?’ ‘Have I given way to despair?’ ‘Have I accepted reality’s orders of the day?’ ‘Have I forgiven insult and injury?’ ‘Do I fear death and disaster?’ Epictetus [Marcus’ philosophical hero] preaches Stoic ataraxy, apathy, the unruffledness of the Buddhists, the acceptance without resentment of whatever may befall. Marcus struggles to obtain it in act. So Epictetus is arrogant. He knows. Marcus is humble. He tries and admits his failures.
Behind the cocksureness of the Stoic system, to which Marcus gives credal assent and whose argot he uses constantly, hides another, more profound life attitude, similar to what today we call existentialism, especially as we find it in its most anguished exponents – for instance Scheler. There is only ‘this’ – beginning and ending in oblivion. Its meaning is mystery. Only one thing is sometimes under my control: my response. I can accept or reject. If I accept whatever happens, I am at peace. Once I disagree with fact, I am doomed to agony and frustration. (Classics Revisited, pp. 114 – 115)

For me, a critical practice involves both an “examination of conscience” and some form of estrangement – going in-side and getting be-side one’s own point of view. Although I am an atheist, I don’t feel like this is any kind of rationalist triumph over superstition, but merely an acknowledgment that there is no metaphysical comfort on offer for the vicissitudes of life.

Robert Motherwell, Je taime with Gauloise Blue, 1976

In the absence of a unifying system of cultural belief, contemporary artists are left to their own devices to cobble together values from an increasingly fragmented, self-destroying and polarized society. In many ways this is liberating as it allows for a wide range of options that are collaged according to individual inclination. I am personally more comfortable to be left to my own devices in most aspects of my life, especially my practice. In other ways this absence represents a loss of vocation, in the religious sense of a ‘calling’ to use one’s gifts in the service of society, family, friends, God.

A man of property may feel himself entitled to be rude, or careless, or untidy, and even fancy that his independence is in some way demonstrated or flattered by these exercises of it; but his servant may not indulge himself in such ways. I sometimes think that modern painting (in the sense of painting since the Academies) suffers a little from its freedom, bears its freedom less gracefully than medieval painting bore its servitude. Just as a really good domestic servant finds satisfaction in devising ingenious comforts for his employers, so the medieval painter exerted himself constantly, for interest or devotion, to devise new and more perfect forms of service for his employers’ and his own soul’s good. He took pains for their sake because it was in the perfection of his service that he found his own, his artist’s freedom. ( Daniel V. Thompson, The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting, p. 53)

Master of the Trebon Altarpiece, Resurrection, 1385


A Plan to Get Even, oil, wax, enamel, acrylic and latex on canvas, 4 x 12', 2007 / 2010

I will be using this blog to post thoughts and questions that come out of my own painting practice ( as well as reflections on the work of other artists. I hope that a dialogue will evolve in a non-academic but rigorous manner and that this conversation might be a place to test ideas about painting, art, life and miscellaneous related topics.

The title of the blog derives from Thierry de Duve’s book Kant After Duchamp and was also the title of the written portion of my MFA thesis.

“The impossibility of painting is merely a feeling, the subjective signal accompanying the awareness of its objective uselessness in a society where the production of images has been mechanized and from which painting has withdrawn, like a relic from an obsolete artisanal past. Though merely a feeling, the impossibility of painting is a mandatory feeling, however, a quasi-moral one, a feeling that should be felt by any artist who is sensitive to his or her time, to the inventions that propel it towards economic progress, to the technologies that upset the cultural status quo” (de Duve 1996, 171).

One of the subjects of upcoming posts will be an exploration of painting’s impossibility, both in terms of de Duve’s technological /economic model and at a more basic level in terms of a daily studio practice.

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