The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.

Tag: creative enterprise

“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



Being a “painter”


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 (


A Walk in the Park (in memory of Sally Bean)

Sally on the boardwalk

Sally on the boardwalk


I walk my dog every morning. Between 25 and 60 minutes a day are spent moving through the small, rural town that I live in, silent, except for occasional commands to “leave it”, or a brief exchange of pleasantries with the few others who are awake and outside before the business of the day is begun. Sometimes I have a point and shoot digital camera with me, that I point and shoot at things that catch my attention. Sometimes I simply make a mental note and move on.

The activity of walking and thinking and looking, both alone and in quiet companionship, has become the raw material for the work I do in my studio. By attempting to remark on the unremarkable, I am trying to make fleeting thoughts and elusive feelings more concrete. By producing first snapshots, then drawings and paintings, I am trying to render my lived experience more tangible and available for reflection. The impulse of the work is aimed at probing the relationship between my subjectivity and the material reality that is its precondition. Autobiography is not the concern, but rather, an attempt to understand the ways that my life is ensnared in wider orbits of meaning.

The work that I have made in the past few years has been overwhelmingly involved with picturing the remnants of processes and actions: digging, cutting, piling, dropping, scraping, falling, building, growing, dying. Debris is saturated with the stubborn thickness of things. The implacable presence of objects and chunks of stuff puts a check on my big ideas. It reorients my attention and makes manifest my utter rootedness in the physical world.

Despite this emphasis on the empirical and the mundane, I don’t consider the works themselves to be transparent representations of reality. Rather than windows or mirrors, I regard them as traces; signs that exist in their own right, but also point outside of themselves and their depicted subject matter. They relate at oblique angles to both my experience of the world and my responses to it.

When I follow my dog along a path, guided by her extraordinary hearing and smell, I am introduced to a world that is largely unavailable to my senses. The perceptions that guide her snuffling search through dead leaves, or that compel her to dig and lick at an apparently banal patch of grass or tree trunk, has led me to understand that what I take for granted as the ‘visible world’ is an astonishingly thin layer of reality. When I follow my work along a path, I am hunting for similarly invisible and compelling tokens of ordinary life.




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


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



“If you are going to spend your life …”

From Felix in Exile, 1994

From Felix in Exile, 1994

“If you are going to spend your life making objects, or drawings, that have come from within you but that are left outside and that continue to exist, there has to be some part of yourself that fundamentally needs this externalization of the self, needs it psychically. Otherwise there’s no reason to be doing this strange activity. So there’s a question about where that comes from, about what the motivating sense of inadequacy is that it has to buttress itself with so many … either walls of paper in one sense or proofs of existence in another. You have to look back and see, not just empty time but also the pieces of paper on which you can trace back and find a root. It’s like Hansel and Gretel. You feel you’ve got to leave those breadcrumbs if you’re ever to find the way back home – home being who you are or knowing who you are. If you’re an artist, more than anyone else, a biography entails a biography of exhibitions, of works, with a date for every work. A retrospective exhibition is like a root march, if it’s done chronologically. At its heart lies some fundamental insufficiency which ensures that it is not enough for someone to look at you as an artist and say, ‘you are who you are and that’s enough’. You say in response, ‘No, you need to look at the work’. That’s why for a lot of artists, certainly for me, although I am getting better at it, criticism of the work is so annihilating. It’s not just a matter of ‘Oh, they don’t like the picture, that’s a pity’. If the work is not acknowledged, then you don’t exist. It’s felt – I’m sure that anybody who is involved with work that is from them but has to have external form, feels this. So when you ask, ‘Who is the target and who is shouting?’ one will always have to go back to ask those deep questions about that primal lack which makes you feel you exist only after you have made work.”
(William Kentridge, That Which is Not Drawn, 75-76)

Watch William Kentridge’s Video Automatic Writing


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


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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