The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.

Tag: painting


Matthew Ritchie, Weights and Measures, 2001 - 2004

Matthew Ritchie, Weights and Measures, 2001 – 2004

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

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

Julie Mehretu, Middle Grey, 2007-2009

Julie Mehretu, Middle Grey, 2007-2009


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.

Doubt and Faith in Painting

Willem De Kooning, Woman and Bicycle, 1952-53

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

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

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

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

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

Shiff, in his book Doubt:

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

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

Jan Johannes Vermeer, Allegory of Painting, c. 1665

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

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

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

He continues:

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

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

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

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

Some final words from Joseph Pieper:

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

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

You say it’s gospel, but I know it’s only church

Luc Tuymans, The Valley, 2007

Whenever images threatened to gain undue influence within the church, theologians have sought to strip them of their power. As soon as images became more popular than the church’s institutions and began to act directly in God’s name, they became undesirable. It was never easy to control images with words because, like saints, they engaged deeper levels of experience and fulfilled desires other than the ones living church authorities were able to address. Therefore when theologians commented on some issue involving images, they invariably confirmed an already-existing practice. Rather than introducing images, theologians were all too ready to ban them. Only after the faithful had resisted all such efforts against their favorite images did theologians settle for issuing conditions and limitations governing access to them. Theologians were satisfied only when they could ‘explain’ the images. (Hans Belting, p.1,  Likeness and Presence, 1994)

I recently purchased a Luc Tuymans monograph called Is it Safe?. The book is published by Phaidon (2010) and includes essays by Pablo Sigg and Gerrit Vermeiren, an interview between Tuymans and his studio assistant, Tommy Simoens, as well as short introductory blurbs by Tuymans about each project.

Although I am generally pleased with the book, it highlighted an aspect of contemporary painting criticism that I find problematic. Specifically, Vermeiren’s essay, “Proper”, is an example of a mode of discourse that sees material practice as incidental to the production of artwork, and instead concentrates almost exclusively on semiotic and cultural decoding.

What is particularly irritating is that in limiting his analysis to the images in the paintings and rarely, if ever, referring to them in terms of painting as such, Vermeiren only examines half the evidence. He seems to regard the paintings as transparent to the images and proceeds with an unproblematic iconographic and semiotic analysis of the depictions, as if the subject matter is somehow equivalent to the meaning. The activity of Tuymans as a painter of these images is completely disregarded.

I understand that Tuymans has been identified with a kind of contemporary discourse in which the bluntness of his technique is seen as an expression of skepticism and not as an engagement with painterly facture. But surely, there must be a reason that they are paintings and not simply the re-photographed photographs that he uses as source material. After all, his considerable influence in contemporary art is primarily because of his approach to painting in dialogue with media images and history (see The Tuymans Effect, by Jordan Kantor). During Tuymans’s interview with Simoens, the discussion tends to emphasize the collection and interpretation of the source material, but there is at least some acknowledgment of the studio practice as one that involves tangible processes.

Painting barely figures in Vermeiren’s discourse at all. He writes as if Tuymans was engaged in an identical process of image critique as that represented by the essay. Even if this were the case, and I recognize this possibility, the paintings would present different kinds of critique than what is possible through written language for the very reason that they would be forced to do so from inside the limitations of painting. There is no 1:1 correspondence between paintings and our talk about them. Tuymans describes his inherent distrust of images, but Vermeiren seems to have the utmost faith, if not in images themselves, then at least in his capacity to unravel their meanings accurately and exhaustively.

My own inherent distrust extends to discourses more than images, and especially to discourses that assume the power to identify the “real” or “actual” meaning of images and practices while ignoring material specificity. This kind of distanced position is one that assumes an “objective” view, but which is heavily loaded with ideological baggage.

I like Tuymans’s paintings. I find his project quite interesting and some of the paintings that I have seen in person have been compelling. What I find less agreeable is the way his practice seems to lend itself very easily to the type of analysis exemplified by Vermeiren’s essay. Still less agreeable is that the methodology is not isolated to this essay about this artist, but is pervasive.

Framing painting strictly as cultural criticism is misguided because it turns good painting into half-baked sociology and lends bad painting the aura of cultural importance. It often ends up collapsing the distinctions between how a painting functions (ambiguously and in multiple directions, through material processes in addition to images) and the interpretive dispositions of the critic. Like the theologians described above by Belting, this type of critic is “only satisfied when they [can] ‘explain’ images”. I feel that the discourse is similarly motivated by a desire “for issuing conditions and limitations governing access” to the work. By comparison, paintings engage “deeper levels of experience” and “[fulfill] desires” beyond those of authorized discourse. The urge to contain painting within a framework that is theoretically fashionable is one of the vices of the gate-keeping caste.

In contrast to the Tuyman’s book, I have just finished Manet’s Silence and the Poetics of Bouquets, by James H. Rubin. At the end of this cogent study, he  offers some words pertinent to the question of the critic/curator/historian’s interpretive position:

Adopting the historical form of discourse [art history] operates through a grammar and a syntax that predetermine the nature of the meanings it discovers as conforming more or less to their internal logic … [J]ust as we cannot construct the artwork as an entity from which the artist is innocently external or which has a neutral effect on the viewer, neither is the art historian’s representation an impartial one. Posing as an objective science, art history, and its position of omniscience, has served ultimately to empower its own practitioners and their ideology (pp. 223-24).

Edouard Manet, Portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé, 1876

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”.

Further Impossibilities

Why might painting be deemed impossible? Thierry de Duve proposes that painting is out of step with the economic and technological imperatives of contemporary industrial societies,  being “artisanal”, “objectively useless”, “obsolete”. This is a rehearsal of standard “death of painting” narratives that have been around since at least the advent of photography in the nineteenth century.

On the face of it, there is very little to argue with here. Painting has been widely displaced as an image-making technology, first by photography and more recently by digital imaging. However, dis-placed is not the same as re-placed.

The passage cited in the post “Impossibilities” elegantly compresses three themes that underwrite “death of painting” narratives:

1) The invention of photography displaced painting as the preferred method of mimetic representation. Because photography is a mechanical and chemical (i.e. technological) process its pictures of the world were seen as more realistic, objective and true. The corollary of this belief is that photography set painting “free” to explore abstraction.

2) Painting is technologically obsolete. Related to the first point, the technology of photography replaces painting in a manner similar to automobiles replacing horse-drawn wagons. This in turn draws support from multiple discourses:

a) “new and improved” is the motto for every type of commodity in capitalist society. Our economic system depends on an endless cycle of production and consumption in order to continue. Products are designed to become obsolete and new products are designed to replace old ones. If painting is seen as just another commodity then it can and should be replaced by a newer, improved commodity.

b) This view is in turn supported by an even wider cultural tendency which defines modernity in terms of “progress”. This is the idea that the world tends to evolve towards higher levels of existence, for example that civilization evolves towards more freedom the more rationally that our scientific breakthroughs are applied to society. In this view painting has served its purpose as representation and has been replaced by more keenly adapted technology such as photography, cinema or digital imaging.

3) The importance in modernist art of an avant-garde, a small, elite group of artists which uses unorthodox or experimental methods in order to advance art, and in turn the cutting edge of culture. The avant-garde has been characterized by a radical rejection of dominant cultural values which are seen as conservative. Theories of avant-garde art have tended to deal with painting in one of two ways; first, through an attempt to paint the “last painting”, for example Aleksandr Rodchenko’s Pure Red Colour, Pure Yellow Colour, Pure Blue Colour, 1921.

Aleksandr Rodchenko, Pure Red Colour, Pure Yellow Colour, Pure Blue Colour, oil on canvas, 1921

This thread can be seen through an ongoing attempt in modern painting to reduce painting to its base components, in this case, three monochrome panels of  primary colours. A more thorough account of this tendency can be found in Yve-Alain Bois’s Painting as Model, MIT Press, 1991.

Second, the connection of painting to conservative, middle-class, or bourgeois values was seen as a taint on the avant-garde possibilities of the medium, especially in places like revolutionary Russia or Weimar Germany, where industrialization was having a strong impact on art-making and art theory. For forward looking, utopian avant-garde movements painting’s relationship to the “artisanal past” represented a retrograde dependence on the art of museums and official culture.

Ironically, painting obtained avant-garde status in the mid-twentieth century through the criticism of Clement Greenberg, particularly in essays such as “Avant-garde and Kitsch”, 1939 “‘American-Type’ Painting”, 1955 and “Modernist Painting”, 1960. According to Greenberg the role of the avant-garde was to keep culture moving forward in the face of mass culture, a telling inversion of earlier avant-garde values. Modernist painting (particularly abstract painting) was the medium best suited to this task because of its capacity for self-criticism, that is, it made reference only to its own formal properties, not to wider literary or cultural sources. This self-critical aspect conferred a quasi-scientific, and therefore “advanced”, quality to painting.

By the 1960’s, the preeminence of Greenberg’s theory of modernist painting led to its eventual irrelevance as an avant-garde position, i.e. it was no longer a critique of conservative culture, it had become absorbed into it. As artists and critics began to reject modernist values the “death of painting” once again became a major theme in art discourse. Because painting had held such a privileged position in Greenberg’s theory, rejection of the theory was often synonymous with the rejection of painting as a possibility.

These factors are among the many that condition the understanding of contemporary painting and which make the use of the medium a very specific kind of choice. The practice of painting is very often involved with a dialogue or wrestling with these questions of the value of painting.

A few small points may be offered by way of opening discussion. In regards to painting and photography as representational practices, I consider them to be loosely analogous to the idea of translation. If a text is translated into French and Spanish, we have two separate translations each made according to its own rules of grammar, syntax, and so on, not opposing translations which are inherently better or worse. Similarly, painting and photography offer separate and different translations of the world.

In terms of technological obsolescence, there is no question that applying coloured dirt to a surface using a hairy stick is an outdated image-making technology. If painting were merely a commodity, this would be a problem, since its value would be inextricably linked to its “up-to-datedness”. I would assert, however, that painting is not primarily about image-making, but instead about meaning-making, and this meaning-making activity is achieved through a set of practices that are materially specific, bodily, and cognitive in addition to being signifying. It therefore doesn’t require technologically advanced means, only adequate ones.

Finally, in terms of avant-garde credentials, I doubt that this is actually relevant outside of attempting to score points in theoretical debate, or according to specious art world politics. Every discourse that wants to establish itself as new needs to demonstrate how it is different from what is traditional or old. Radical practices require an “other” in order to establish their difference and hence their radicality (see also Thomas Crow, Modern Art in the Common Culture, Yale University Press, 1998). There is nothing in art that is older, more traditional or conservative than painting. Luckily, the value of painting doesn’t depend on its radicality, but rather on its capacity to affect the person looking at it.


A Plan to Get Even, oil, wax, enamel, acrylic and latex on canvas, 4 x 12', 2007 / 2010

I will be using this blog to post thoughts and questions that come out of my own painting practice ( as well as reflections on the work of other artists. I hope that a dialogue will evolve in a non-academic but rigorous manner and that this conversation might be a place to test ideas about painting, art, life and miscellaneous related topics.

The title of the blog derives from Thierry de Duve’s book Kant After Duchamp and was also the title of the written portion of my MFA thesis.

“The impossibility of painting is merely a feeling, the subjective signal accompanying the awareness of its objective uselessness in a society where the production of images has been mechanized and from which painting has withdrawn, like a relic from an obsolete artisanal past. Though merely a feeling, the impossibility of painting is a mandatory feeling, however, a quasi-moral one, a feeling that should be felt by any artist who is sensitive to his or her time, to the inventions that propel it towards economic progress, to the technologies that upset the cultural status quo” (de Duve 1996, 171).

One of the subjects of upcoming posts will be an exploration of painting’s impossibility, both in terms of de Duve’s technological /economic model and at a more basic level in terms of a daily studio practice.

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