The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.

Category: History / Criticism

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 (Artcritical.com)

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 (yourownguide.com)

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.

 

Skillz

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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.

Cited

Hess, F. Scott. “Is De-Skilling Killing Your Arts Education?”, Huffington Post: Aug 30, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/f-scott-hess/is-deskilling-killing-you_b_5631214.html

Roberts, John. “Art After Deskilling”, Historical Materialism 18 (2010): 77-96. http://platypus1917.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/robertsjohn_artafterdeskilling2010.pdf

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.

Robert Storr on Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter, January, 1989

Gerhard Richter, January, 1989

The interpretive maze that has grown up around Richter’s oeuvre has at times distracted viewers from the fact that the pictorial maze he has built within that critical outer structure is made not merely of pictures – images subject to the kind of semiotic analysis that would treat them all as essentially the same regardless of their material presence – but of paintings whose meanings can be grasped, if fleetingly and with difficulty, by the fully alert senses in tandem with an agile, rather than dogma-bound, mind. Furthermore, one would have hoped, a dozen years after the 1980’s, that even the most hard-line opponents of painting’s resurgence would concede that there is little left to gain and perhaps something of significance to be lost by continuing to use painting as a rhetorical whipping boy. Painting is no longer the dominant medium it once was. There is no urgent need to topple it from its pedestal when other practices have begun to crowd painting on an equal, or nearly equal footing. Moreover, the new art forms championed at its expense have begun to show their age and accumulate the burdens that come with tradition in any medium. And, insofar as special political and social status was accorded those art forms because they were ignored by the market or otherwise escaped the corrupting effects of commodity capitalism, which had supposedly compromised painting beyond redemption, recent expansion and diversification of the market have deprived them of that virtue.
Robert Storr, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, p.18, 2002

Gerhard Richter, Cloud, 1970

Gerhard Richter, Cloud, 1970

For more on Gerhard Richter: Gerhard Richter; Artsy.net

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

Interesting

Matthew Ritchie, Weights and Measures, 2001 - 2004

Matthew Ritchie, Weights and Measures, 2001 – 2004

One often hears it said, not only of a poem, a novel, or a picture, but even of a musical work, that it is interesting. What does this mean? To speak of an interesting work of art means either that we receive from a work of art information new to us, or that the work is not fully intelligible and that little by little, and with effort, we arrive at its meaning and experience certain pleasure in the process of guessing it. In neither case has the interest anything in common with artistic impression. Art aims at infecting people with feeling experienced by the artist. But the mental effort necessary to enable the spectator, listener, or reader, to assimilate the new information contained in the work, or to guess the puzzles propounded, hinders this infection by distracting him. And therefore the interest of a work not only has nothing to do with its excellence as a work of art, but rather hinders than assists artistic impression … Many conditions must be fulfilled to enable a man to produce a real work of art. It is necessary that he should stand on the level of the highest life-conception of his time, that he should experience feeling, and have desire and capacity to transmit it, and that he should moreover have a talent for some one of the forms of art. It is very seldom that all these conditions necessary for the production of true art are combined. But in order to produce unceasingly – aided by the customary methods of borrowing, imitating, introducing effects and interesting – counterfeits of art which pass for art in our society and are well paid for, it is only necessary to have a talent for some branch of art, and this is very often met with. By talent I mean ability: in literary art the ability to express one’s thoughts and impressions easily and to notice and remember characteristic details; in graphic arts to distinguish and remember lines, forms and colours; in music to distinguish the intervals and to remember and transmit the sequence of sounds.
(Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?, pp. 189 – 190)

A work need only be interesting. (Donald Judd, Specific Objects)

Julie Mehretu, Middle Grey, 2007-2009

Julie Mehretu, Middle Grey, 2007-2009

Abstraction

Sean Scully in his studio

Sean Scully in his studio

Abstraction has been a point of departure in my work since the early part of my undergraduate training. Before becoming a student I was committed to what I thought of as realism; namely fantasy illustrations and comic books. At the time I equated “realism” with “detail”, for example, how realistically did the chain mail reflect light, how much detail was presented in the veins and muscular striations of superhero x. I was completely unaware of the abstraction involved in the way the human body (among other things) was represented on the covers of fantasy novels and in comic books – instead, I thought of these distortions as primarily related to the artist’s “style”. At the same time, I was hostile to, or rather ignorant of, modern art and thought that famous abstract artists like Picasso and Jackson Pollock simply didn’t know how to draw.

Pablo Picasso, Three Musicians, 1921

Pablo Picasso, Three Musicians, 1921

When I started my training and began to learn about art history in concert with taking up painting for the first time, it took about a year to get over this prejudice. Eventually, I began to understand that modern abstraction was a choice, that it derived from certain historical conditions, that it was, in part, a reaction to 19th century academic norms, and that it involved a notion of honesty: to the materials of painting, to a fragmented and disorienting experience of modernity, and to the viewer of the painting. I came to see the illusionistic window of realism as a kind of deceit, and the emphasis on surface and material in abstraction as a forthright statement of fact.

Sean Scully, Gabriel, 1993

Sean Scully, Gabriel, 1993

My understanding of abstraction has continued to evolve, and I no longer see representation and abstraction as oppositional terms. In fact, in the last couple of years, I have developed work in both veins simultaneously. For me, this is not a question of hybridity or eclecticism, but of specificity. Each point on the continuum of representation and abstraction offers certain possibilities and forecloses others, and each choice for each painting is made in relation to those options.

Terry Winters, Luminance, 2002

Terry Winters, Luminance, 2002

The tradition that my work is based in, and the work of artists whom I find indispensable, definitely relies on abstraction. However, one of the drawbacks of abstraction is the tendency for its discourses to invoke notions of purity. It is not my purpose here to re-hash or counter these arguments, but simply to point out that purity of any sort in painting is a losing proposition. Further, I am dubious of the moral stance that is often taken up in relation to the refusals entailed by so-called non-objective art.

Although I admire the non-objective work of artists like Piet Mondrian and Ad Reinhardt, to name only two examples, the artists that have really fed my thinking about painting (both abstract and representational) have proposed a more problematic relationship to the question of making paintings in general. The problem with purity is that it doesn’t allow for the messy, ambiguous contradictions of concrete existence.

Ross Bleckner, History of the Heart, 1996

Ross Bleckner, History of the Heart, 1996

For me, paintings have nothing to do with utopias, ideals, essences or other tropes of purity. They have to do with lived experience.  The processes and materials of painting are means to an end, specifically that of inquiring after some aspect of real life. It is therefore irrelevant whether a painting is more or less abstract, except to the extent that its relative position on the continuum allows that inquiry to unfold.

Ross Bleckner, Inheritance, 2003

Ross Bleckner, Inheritance, 2003

Realism

Untitled (study for The Pit), 2006

Realism has been on my mind in the last year or so. I have been fighting with myself in my journal about whether or not some notion of realism is at stake in my practice. I have produced long justifications for why it doesn’t matter to me, but if that were really the case I suspect it wouldn’t come up as an issue. Because I use photographic sources, people often mistake my work as “realist”. In fact, I use photographic sources more like “found”, all-over compositions than as a reference for how things “really” look. The conflation of photography and realism poses an obstacle to understanding both terms, as evidenced by the common usage of “photo-realism” as proof of technical skill in painting (and drawing), regardless of whether the image derives from a photo.

The notion of realism is complicated by photography. Although it is true that photos normally “look like” the things in the real world that the grains of silver salt or pixels of a photograph conspire to represent, it is a mistake to assume that the function of the photograph is mimetic (or imitative). For me, this would imply a specific type of intentionality which is absent from the mechanisms of photography. Photography is literally “light writing”, an “emanation” of light, as Roland Barthes says, reflected from an object and captured on a receptive ground. The authority of photographic representation is premised on it being a mechanical recording of the object/person/place pictured, without the need for the intervention of an author. Photographs don’t imitate so much as re-present, or reproduce. This is why we have passport photos instead of passport paintings. In other words, the realism of photography is not in any way dependent on the skill of the photographer, the way that it is for hand-made images.

Of course, photographs are made by photographers, whose subjectivity provides the impetus for the photo to begin with, and who do intervene on all sorts of levels in the construction of the image. The point is that photographs don’t imitate the appearances of reality; these appearances are byproducts of a mechanical and chemical (or digital) process. Conceivably, photos could be made to imitate the style of other photos (for example, the followers of Ansel Adams, or the appropriations by Sherrie Levine of Walker Evans’ prints) but not to imitate reality. Their fidelity to “actual” appearance is a condition of the medium that must be consciously manipulated to be overcome (see for example, the work of Aaron Siskind, Man Ray, or Jeff Wall).

Jeff Wall, Flooded Grave, 1998–2000

In painting, by contrast, realism (or illusionism, naturalism or verisimilitude) is utterly arbitrary and dependent on convention. This is obvious from the way that the level of realistic representation can shift easily from artist to artist, from work to work, century to century. Even the meaning of the term realism is contingent on the context in which it is used: is Courbet more real than Velazquez? Lucian Freud more real than Caravaggio?

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598

The academic tradition of realism depended on the ability of the artist: to mobilize the various conventions of mimetic technique such as shading, perspective and correct anatomy; to produce a formal arrangement that gave the illusion of three dimensional reality; and which “corrected” nature toward an abstracted ideal. Realistic rendering as a guarantee of skill and quality, and as a request from the artist to viewer for admiration of that skill, comes, in large part, from this tradition.

William Bouguereau, Admiration, 1897

The realism of Caravaggio or Courbet by contrast, was based on a refusal to idealize in order to produce works that were more closely related to an empirical experience of the world. These ideas are a prelude to modern concepts of documentary photography.

Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, 1849-50

The empirical tradition is one that I have always felt a strong affinity with. The realism that I value has more to do with an un-idealized truth-telling than skillful rendering of appearances. My internal conflict on the question of realism in my own work has to do with my nagging doubts about how often it actually measures up to the truth, or how easily it falls for ingratiating tricks.

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

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

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