The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.

Category: Writing

“My Intention” by Czeslaw Milosz

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

Snowmass, Colorado, 2015

Snowmass, Colorado, 2015

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

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

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

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


Sackville, New Brunswick, 2015


From “The Faraway Nearby” by Rebecca Solnit

“Writing is saying to no one and everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure, that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a deeper place than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?”
(The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit, Viking, 2013, p. 64)


The Mire

Noam Chomsky in his office, digital drawing, 2014

Noam Chomsky in his office, digital drawing, 2014

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

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

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

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

Cornel West arrested, digital drawing, 2014

Cornel West arrested, digital drawing, 2014




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

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)

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