The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.

Category: Studio Reflections

Reluctance Part II

FINA 3311_w/12 (in progress)

I have recently completed a large painting, FINA 3311_w/12. This painting is based on a snapshot that I took of my 3rd year painting class last semester and I undertook the work as a pedagogical experiment. I had assigned a portrait project where each class member had to paint a portrait of one of their colleagues. This had various functions, but primarily I was interested in students rooting their paintings within an immediate context that didn’t involve  internet plundering or a reliance on pop culture. [I don’t have anything against these strategies as such, I was simply distressed at what I saw as a somewhat lazy, default practice among the students]. As part of this assignment I proposed that I would paint a portrait of the whole class.

Edouard Manet, Young Lady in 1866, 1866

Portraiture has played almost no role in my own practice, although there are many portraits that I admire (Manet’s Young Lady in 1866, being a prime example). Figures generally appear in my work as a by-product of their appearance in source photos. The problem, for me, comes down to questions of likeness: to what extent does portraiture depend on a recognizable likeness? and to what extent is it a strictly imitative or mimetic practice?

FINA 331_w/12 (detail)

In making this painting there was a an interesting tension between the tedious process of producing a likeness and the pleasure in making it come off in a surprising way. Engaging in an “exercise” gave a certain kind of permission to relinquish expectations and see what happens. As always when I finish a painting, I am ambivalent about this work: parts of it are painfully illustrative, others bear the look of too much effort to get it “right”; but, there are little moments that I think are not too bad and others that seem to suggest future possibilities.

I think that this work fails as a painting. As a whole it doesn’t move beyond a fairly mundane description of appearances, even though there are certain passages that do. As a pedagogical exercise it fares somewhat better, in that it has created a kind of dialogue with students as a fellow producer tackling the same problem, with relatively similar kinds of uneven results. Likewise there are some things that I have learned about how I paint that I am not necessarily thrilled about. For instance, I am all too susceptible to the “reality effect” of the photo source, where I find myself aping the source material instead of making a painting. This is particularly troublesome as I am deeply reluctant to admit that “realism” has any bearing on my work.

FINA 3311_w/12, 2012

On the other hand, the process of making this painting has brought to light new possibilities and challenges for my practice. Painting my students left me with the sense that certain kinds of feelings are omitted from my work because I rarely use the literal aspects of my life as direct subject matter. Can the daily life that a person lives be pictured without images of the people and settings that make up that life? If not, is one obliged to either include these or avoid claims for the work relating to that life?

The failure of this work serves as both a warning and a tantalizing promise.

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Reluctance Part I

The Life We Used to Love, oil and wax on canvas, 48 x 48″, 2007

Over the past few months I have been trying to resolve some questions about a turn in my practice. This turn revolves around two points which have become more or less impossible for me to ignore: 1) that I have become a landscape painter 2) that realism has been an increasingly important part of the dialogue in my work. Each of these points presents itself in the face of deep reluctance on my part to acknowledge either one.

These are fairly banal realizations in themselves, but what I find interesting is that the work has taken this direction, if not exactly against my will, then without my conscious intention. It seems to be the result of trying to set aside certain assumptions about what “advanced” painting looks like, that, in turn, is a result of a need to distance myself from the look of the “contemporary”.

I am reluctant to self-identify as a landscape painter for a number of reasons. First, there is a sense that this genre has been emptied by amateurs and Sunday painters, by endless calendar reproductions of Monet’s Waterlilies and Haystacks, by Thomas Kinkade and his simpering cynicism; in short that it has become the domain of sentimental hackery (not that I think Monet is a hack, simply that the omnipresence of calendar reproductions has led to a misappropriation of his work).

Second, I am very conscious of the legacy of landscape painting as a trope of Canadian Identity as well as the underlying colonial project that it has become associated with.  At one point, this attachment to Canadian-ness seemed quaint to me, but with the actual landscape in such jeopardy from our endless greed for natural resources, Canadian identification with wilderness and the “North” seems hypocritical and vaguely sinister. So for me, making pictures of landscapes that inevitably become positioned in relation to this legacy is highly problematic and fraught with anxiety.

The Pit (Chevy Mudbog), acrylic on canvas, 42 x 60″, 2006

The landscape has entered my work surreptitiously, through the use of photo sources. It has shifted slowly from background to foreground, inexorably occupying more and more space both conceptually and pictorially. This shift is correlated with moving from an urban centre in southwestern Ontario to a small town in rural New Brunswick. It is difficult for me to express exactly what this change of setting has meant to my thinking and my practice, except that the landscape has seemed much more tangible, vital, and pressing once I was removed from an urban environment.

On the sea floor, low tide, Long Island, Five Islands, Nova Scotia, 2009

This has little to do with the physical beauty of the landscape, although it is beautiful. Instead, I think it has to do with the sense that I am somehow more definitely placed, that I live in a somehow more direct relationship with everything around me. I have no doubt that this experience is completely possible in different contexts, and I make no claim for “getting back to nature”. However, it is hard to deny that the experience of standing on the ocean floor near the Joggins Fossil Cliffs, when the tide on the Bay of Fundy is out, produces a palpable feeling both of one’s cosmic insignificance and of one’s utter rootedness in the physical world.

studio view, Love Does No Good I (in progress), 2011

Although I am a reluctant landscape painter, I have to accept that the conditions of my everyday life are what form the ground of my practice. As an implacable manifestation of material reality, the landscape provides a check on my big ideas. As a source of visual profusion and experiential data, the generosity of the natural world is unmatched. The process of finding adequate analogues for these conditions is a different, and perhaps more tangled proposition.

studio view, Love Does No Good I (in progress), 2011

A View

For an artist, a worldview is a tool or a means, like a hammer in the hands of a mason, and the only reality is the work of art itself. (Osip Mandelstam, Quoted by Ilya Kaminsky, Stolen Air: selected poems of Osip Mandelstam, xxx – xxxi)

What is at stake in a worldview? Meaning. This blog was begun in order to try to honestly assess my practice and my thoughts, a kind of meditation or confession without absolution or exhibitionist thrill.

But, in order to approach this, the motivation of the practice must be brought to light – not what I want to accomplish with my practice, but what drives it. What do I get out of my work that is independent of how it functions outside of the studio?

A worldview implies taking a position from which to view the world. For me, this involves trying to understand both the world at large and my own interior world. These are not separate spheres, but mutually permeable zones of experience.

Although my work has taken many different stylistic forms, at root, I think its most consistent aspect has been the feeling or impulse that feeds it: a kind of grasping towards existence, or a construction of a version of my understanding of existence, that has been approached through various pictorial and material strategies. Is this what Mandelstam is referring to when he speaks of a ‘worldview’?

Whatever “this” is, that is what ought to come out in the work. Why is making my work the best way to occupy myself as a person in this world?

Inside/Beside

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

Doubt and Faith in Painting

Willem De Kooning, Woman and Bicycle, 1952-53

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

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

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

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

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

Shiff, in his book Doubt:

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

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

Jan Johannes Vermeer, Allegory of Painting, c. 1665

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

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

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

He continues:

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

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

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

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

Some final words from Joseph Pieper:

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

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

Seeing It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brice Marden, The Muses, 1993

The Boxer’s Hug

 

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

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

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

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

gnōthi seauton (know thyself)

working drawing, gouache and oil pastel on paper, 2011

Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did. In fact, if artmaking did not tell you (the maker) so enormously much about yourself, then making art that matters to you would be impossible. (Bayles and Orland, Art and Fear, p. 5)

I think that being an artist demands a certain kind of relation to the “self”. By this I mean a kind of tapping into the resources and experiences that form a person on many levels, not a kind of “self-expression” in the sense that is often used in pop-psychology. I make this distinction because I think that art-making is actually the exact opposite of the narcissistic individuality and quest for instant gratification that is such a driving force in our culture.

For me, the value of art has to do with how the self is revealed or thrown into question by the experience of it. I believe that self-knowledge is a tool for understanding the world and for acting on it. Understanding our own strengths, weaknesses, desires, aspirations, limits etc. is the first step in building the world we want to live in. It is also the first step towards compassion for others.

This is a knowledge that is distinct from the “content” or “subject” of a work of art. It has to do with the way that you become a different person through the experience in ways that can’t be predicted or accounted for.

A  humbling example is the first time that I really paid attention to the paintings in the Matisse gallery at the New York MoMA, about two years ago. Before that experience I had always felt Matisse was a bit lightweight, following the art historical truisms I had imbibed as a student. But when I allowed myself to really look, the experience turned my understanding of Matisse’s work, my own work, and the work of other painters on its head. It fundamentally re-oriented my conception of painting, of what I sought to achieve in my own painting, and through that my own values and world-view. The embarrassment comes from realizing the arrogance of writing off an artist like Matisse in the first place, based on nothing but hearsay and a misunderstanding of his intentions – a presumptuous belief in my own un-tested, un-examined knowledge.

Henri Matisse, The Piano Lesson, 1916

I wouldn’t say that I am now converted to Matisse’s position, only that I now have to consider his position whereas before, it didn’t register. I would contrast this to Marcel Duchamp, whom I have to consider because of the influence his strategies have had on contemporary art in general, not any particular experience I’ve personally had with his work.

Slightly different kinds of transformations occur in the production of an artwork. Artists are changed by the process of making their work: the failures, the leaps, the small observations about the way material responds to certain conditions, the boredom, the discoveries, all accumulate in the experience of artists. This in turn  leads to different kinds of choices, different results, new concerns or altered ways of thinking about old concerns. In short, new ways of thinking about the world.

The results of art making depend on, and are added to, the resources of the self. That is, artists draw on their reserves of skill, memory, interests, emotions, attitudes in order to make their work, and the manifestations of that effort become part of those reserves for future work.

The activity of mining these resources can be fraught, however, because they demand a kind of scrutiny and honesty that can reveal one’s own shortcomings, not just as an artist but as a person. This sort of introspection also tends to bring to light a wide variety of painful memories, regrets and bitterness. The cultivation of self-knowledge, however, can be a powerful antidote to a fabricated “individuality” that exists primarily as a marketing tool. It also might lead to “making art that matters to you”.

Fear and Hiding

This summer I attended the Whale and Star Summer Program in Miami, Florida. The workshop took place in the studio of artist Enrique Martinez Celaya. Art historian Daniel A. Siedell and artist /critic Gean Moreno joined Martinez Celaya in an intensive, week-long critique of work and various supplementary activities. Students ranged across many levels of training and experience.

The generosity in welcoming the group of students into his workspace speaks to Martinez Celaya’s desire to involve his practice in activities outside the strict confines of the art world. From 1994 until 2003 he taught at Claremont College in Pamona, California, and by acting as a mentor for less established artists he extends the activity of teaching to the non-academic setting of his studio.

The real gift, however, was in the honesty and insight of the critiques. My experience of grad school had moments of this, but they were rare and generally took place outside the formal framework of graduate critiques. Partly this was due to the absolute absence of real discourse about painting amongst the faculty, aside from my advisor and a few others. Another aspect of my MFA program was a focus on the “institution of art” as a general framework through which to talk about all work, whether it engaged in these questions or not.

In contrast, while the critiques at Whale and Star were at times quite brutal in their honesty, they never felt like they were mean-spirited or aimed at defeating the artist. One of the things that came out of my own crit was the sense that my work seemed to be hiding something – an ambivalence about painting itself.

Reflecting on this experience has posed several questions for me: What are my criteria? What do I value in my own work and in the work of others? What can be excised? What am I hiding from?

My criteria involve an interest in what things look like, but also in what they suggest in terms of emotional resonance and honesty to the world. I want from my own and others’ work an emotional, intellectual and sensuous experience. This desire is often considered romantic, if not naive. It is also conservative in relation to “radical” practice because it demands an introspective or contemplative encounter with art works and an allowance for the possibility that these qualities might be present.

I have been trained to exhibit a certain type of “rigour”in my work. This includes eschewal of pleasure, sentiment, authorial marks, “the hand”, claims to direct experience, technical and material facility and onwards. This is essentially the legacy of conceptual art as it has played out in many Canadian art institutions. Although my work over the past ten years has resisted this training on certain levels, the ambivalence remains.

So, I am hiding from the fear of looking naive or unintelligent or sentimental or self-indulgent. My ambivalence stems, I think, from a fear of the work being mistaken for something unintended, something “not contemporary”. Enrique said to me in my crit “there is no way to not be contemporary. In the art world many strategies are punished for not being current or sprinkled with the exciting drumbeat of the moment. Love is suffocated in the desire to make ‘art'”.

In a different context he writes:

In the art circles, as in most intellectual life, need has given way to fear. We are afraid of falling to clichéd thoughts or to reveal vulnerability and needs. And yet life moves freely beyond these fences of intellect. It ripples and crosses unaware of the boundaries set by consciousness. (Enrique Martinez Celaya: Collected Writings and Interviews 1990 – 2010, p.36)

Fear of exclusion is powerful for artists. In my own case I think that certain kinds of choices have been made which are reactions to that fear, even if only on an unconscious level. How will I get grants, exhibitions, jobs etc. if the work looks too  old fashioned? If it doesn’t have an airtight theoretical justification? If it is just big dumb painting?

I have counters to these anxieties, but fears are insidious, often disguising themselves as emotional or mental toughness. However, these disguises are only the outward appearance of strength. In fact they may just be markers for points of weakness.

In W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, the title character relates this melancholy truth:

Yet, he said, it is often our mightiest projects that most obviously betray the degree of our insecurity. The construction of fortifications, for instance … clearly show how we feel obliged to keep surrounding ourselves with defenses, built in successive phases as a precaution against any incursion by enemy powers, until the idea of concentric rings making their way steadily outward comes up against its natural limits … The frequent result, said Austerlitz, of resorting to measures of fortification marked in general by a tendency towards paranoid elaboration was that you drew attention to your weakest point, practically begging your enemy to attack it … (p.14, 16).

Dismantling the ramparts around my fears is a slow process, the tools more often like nail files than wrecking balls. With persistence and the aid of erosion, maybe even these inadequate implements will be able to scratch some small breaches into the edifice.

Enrique Martinez Celaya, The Phantom Tree (Joseph Brodsky), tar, oil and wax on canvas , 2006

Starting

When the work is about to commence, there has to be some tenuous notion of what will happen, but it is usually wrapped and hidden even from the person who will be doing the creating. An artist has a delicate sense of the work to come, and how it might become the perfect thing in the imagination, but historian and critics are wrong when they assume that it can be clearly seen in advance. No painter knows what the picture will look like, and those painters who try too hard to use paint to realize an idea are typically disappointed. Like poetry or any other creative enterprise, painting is something that is worked out in the making, and the work and its maker exchange ideas and change one another. The ideal image of the work is blurred and hard to picture, as if it were seen out of the corner of the eye. If the artist tries to turn and look at it directly, it vanishes. The only way to capture it is to do the work, and remake the idea through the paint. (James Elkins, What Painting Is, p.78)

This has been on my mind lately. What is the relation of an “idea” which starts a painting and the painting itself? The question has come up for me in terms of my own work, the work of students, and the work of other artists. It has also come up for me in terms of how art is talked about in institutions such as galleries and art schools as well as journalism.

The question itself is not a painting question, for, as Elkins says, in painting the idea must be remade in terms of paint – paintings speak for themselves, or at least I think they should. Instead it is a question of discourse, of our talk about the objects and practices of painting.

There seems to be a certain amount of expectation or pressure to theorize, insert “concepts”, or otherwise make paintings into the objects of intellectual analysis. Grant applications, artist talks, statements, critiques all demand some form of verbal context for the work. In many cases, the talk about the work is far more interesting than the work itself. This pressure seems to be exerted by an assumption that linguistic explanation is required to validate works of art. The increasing number of explanatory texts in galleries and artists who seem to specialize in discourse may be symptoms of this assumption.

On the other hand, Philip Guston’s rejoinder that painters who don’t have anything to say about their work are a kind of “painting monkey” also resonates. My bookshelf full of artist’s writings has taught me that artists are very often the most insightful commentators on their own and others’ work.

Reading, thinking and analysis (that is, intellectual or conceptual activities) are all large parts of my own painting practice, and I also occasionally write about the work of other artists. This is to say that I am not anti-intellectual, nor do I think that art should abstain from intellectual questions. It is only to say that the experience I seek in making or looking at art is not exhausted by intellectual engagement. What I’m after is nourishment, and this is a notoriously difficult thing to articulate in language; the difference between reading a recipe and cooking and eating a fantastic dinner.

I think our talk about art work could benefit from critical scrutiny. Habits of talking over work instead of experiencing it are not more rigorous, just easier. This especially applies to my own work and discourse.

If a good work of art cannot be represented in terms other than itself, how does one talk about it? The answer is, in analogies. A description bears a family resemblance to its subject rather than reproducing it. an intelligent esthetic analysis uses the concepts of quality, relationship and transition. Being outside of logic, these concepts do not “make sense”, and since they are untranslatable they are not “useful”. Art discovers a reality that human intelligence is not coextensive with and that cannot be manipulated. One understands material reality by experience. One understands art by imaginative identification, which is the way the artist (or scientist, or logician) discovers his subject in the first place. Wallace Stevens said the aim of poetry was “without imposing, without reasoning at all, to find the eccentric at the base of design.” This is both the artist’s vision and his sense of order. (Fairfield Porter, Art in its Own Terms, p. 268)

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