The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.

Tag: contemporary painting

Being a “painter”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piet Mondrian, The Gray Tree, 1911

Piet Mondrian, The Gray Tree, 1911 (Wikiart.org)

 

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Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

work in progress, 2015

work in progress, 2015

 

Live / Work / Space

Weldon Street studio under construction, 2015

Weldon Street studio under construction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weldon Street studio, 2015

Weldon Street studio, 2015

 

 

 

Skillz

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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.

“In an uncherished field…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video of Rackstraw Downes talking about his work.

 

 

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

Narrative

Joseph Cowan, watercolour on paper, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evidence and Absence

Jeff Wall, Untangling, 1994

Jeff Wall, Untangling, 1994

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

Stephen Shore, Stampeder Motel, Ontario, Oregon, 1973

Stephen Shore, Stampeder Motel, Ontario, Oregon, 1973

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

Roy Arden, Landfill, Richmond, BC, 1991

Roy Arden, Landfill, Richmond, BC, 1991

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

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

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

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

Benjamin Down, Mt. Robson, Jasper National Park

Benjamin Down, Spences Bridge BC

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

Theorist and historian Geoffrey Batchen asserts:

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

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

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

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

Benjamin Down, Trapping Lake, BC

Benjamin Down, Trapping Lake, BC

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

Benjamin Down, Self-portrait

Benjamin Down, Self-portrait

Window, Brick, Wall, Field

Johannes Vermeer, View on Delft, 1661

Johannes Vermeer, View on Delft, 1661

There are various ways of creating space in a painting such as linear perspective, diminishing size, and occlusion. In the Renaissance tradition, these systems were used to turn the surface of the painting into a ‘window’ or transparent plane through which viewers could perceive the illusion of depth; a space that receded from this plane to a distant horizon which implied a boundless pictorial realm.

Painters that we today consider modernist, took this space apart and turned it inside out, slowly compressing the illusion of a space ‘behind’ the window of the picture plane until it was co-extensive with the literal surface of the painting. The most extreme examples of this tendency are monochromes – paintings that have either done away with most of the markers of illusionistic space or reduced them to such subtle nuances and variation that they are barely visible.

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1917

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1917

Monochrome paintings tend to be “non-objective” (i.e. not deriving from a preexisting source in the objective world) and so they occupy actual space, like sculpture, rather than presenting a pictorial illusion of space. However, there are differences in the way different monochrome paintings engage actual space. The sixties and seventies produced many painters for whom this was an issue, and I have found it useful to compare four that have had a particular impact on my thinking about painting.

Robert Ryman, Archive, 1979

Robert Ryman, Archive, 1979

In my previous post I wrote about Robert Ryman’s white paintings, which he refers to as ‘realist’, in the sense that they are real objects and not illusionistic pictures of a ‘real’ subject or using naturalistic techniques. Instead, he uses a combination of material elements: paint simply as a material, the support and its specific relationship to the wall, the context of actual light falling on the surface. The experience of these elements together is the content of his work. They sit on the wall with the subtle obstinance of a brick.

Frank Stella, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, 1959

Frank Stella, The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, 1959

Frank Stella’s early paintings used monochrome palettes (e.g. the “black” or “aluminum” paintings) and industrial paint to reinforce the literal qualities of the painting surface. This reductive strategy was summed up with his pithy statement, “what you see is what you see”, a deflation of the expressionist rhetoric of the earlier generation of New York School painting. The stripes in these early pieces were a reiteration of the framing edge of the painting, emphasizing their lack of pictorial depth. As the edges of the paintings became more convoluted (the so-called shaped canvases) and the stretcher frames deeper (sometimes 4 – 6 inches) they became more like objects or impassive adjuncts to the wall.

Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting No. 5, 1962

Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting No. 5, 1962

Ad Reinhardt was a contemporary of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and was at first seen to be allied with the colour field wing of post-war American abstraction. However, his view of art was deeply ascetic, and he claimed that his black monochromes were “simply the last paintings that could be painted”. His vision was that of a monk seeking perfection through endless repetition of form. It was also aligned in many ways with the “end of painting” strain of modernism that I referred to in an earlier post.

Brice Marden, The Seasons, 1974 - 75

Brice Marden, The Seasons, 1974 – 75

Brice Marden’s monochromes seem to align more closely to the objective world. The colours, the proportions, the waxy skins of the paintings all have correlates in concrete reality. So, even though they also have the object quality of other monochromes, they also reveal more traditional, symbolic layers of meaning.

All four of these painters have been very important to my work and my thinking over the years, even though they are in many ways conceptually incompatible with each other. They highlight for me the fundamental differences that accrue in the meaning of a work through different conceptions of how it functions spatially, even when they have superficially similar visual qualities. The reduction in these works represent both a minimum threshold of what might be construed as a painting, and an opening onto an expansive field of possibilities.

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