The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.

Tag: self-knowledge

“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)

IamhereA

Sackville, New Brunswick, 2015

 

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Being a “painter”

palette

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)

 

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

 

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

 

 

Independent Project

Jasper Johns, The Dutch Wives, 1975

Jasper Johns, The Dutch Wives, 1975

Walter Hopps: Jasper, from what point in your life would you date the beginning of your career, your sense that you were an artist, or going to be an artist?
Jasper Johns: Going to be an artist since childhood. Until about 1953 when it occurred me that there was a difference between going to be and being, and I decided I shouldn’t always be “going to be” an artist.

(Walter Hopps, “An Interview with Jasper Johns,” Artforum 3 no.6 (March 1965), reprinted in Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, MoMA, N.Y., p.106)

The two classes that I am teaching are currently undertaking “independent projects” where the expected learning outcome is beginning to treat their work as their work. And not only to treat it as if belongs to them physically, mentally, and emotionally, but also that it is their work, their lifelong ‘independent project’.

Of course, it is presumptuous, not to mention absurd, to talk about this as a ‘learning outcome’. At best, it may be the first glimmer of understanding that being an artist is not a skill set, a talent, or an aptitude, but instead a particular kind of orientation towards the world and life. When Jasper Johns says “it occurred me that there was a difference between going to be and being” it suggests that being an artist is literally a question of being, that it is a mode of existence as much as an occupation.

It can be a difficult pill to swallow. Students enter art training for a wide variety of reasons, often without even a vague idea of what is involved in being an artist, but with an interest in making things and a sense that they want to be creative. They are also burdened by the trite images and clichés that circulate in the culture regarding “self-expression” and artistic “freedom”. It can be hard to come to terms with the reality that freedom and expression are the results of responsibility, rigorous discipline, and seriousness of purpose.

rack

I find that the fundamental problem of being an artist involves constantly needing to make choices about the right path to proceed upon, without anything to guide those choices except an elusive “vision” and the evidence of one’s work. Additionally, there is no easy path, or correct path, merely the one that lies ahead, opened or occluded by the accumulation of past decisions.

The first decision is a commitment to inhabit this mode of being fully, in the face of the very high probability that fortune and fame will not be the rewards that follow from this choice. And even if these material bonuses do arrive, the real (if less immediately tangible) reward for being an artist is existing in the world with the senses, the intellect, the emotions and spirit open and fully engaged. A possibly dubious prize when there are so many reasons to numb oneself against the world and so many available methods of anaesthesia.

The ‘independent project’ of art-making unfolds in relation to the life of the maker. As a teacher, I have become increasingly aware of the difference between how I perceive my life and art and how students (generally half my age) perceive theirs. When I was younger, the urgency that I brought to my work had to do with wanting certain things (e.g. career success, jobs, shows) immediately. Now the urgency comes from the fact that I am over forty years old, that I may live another forty if I’m lucky, and that the first twenty-five to thirty were more or less pissed away. This leaves very little time to work on my project before the deadline.

No longer wander at random. You shall not live to read your own memoirs or the acts of the ancient Romans and Greeks, or the selections from books which you were reserving for your old age. Hasten then to the goal which you have before you. Throw away vain hopes and come to your own aid, while you yet may, if you care at all for yourself.
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Section III, p.32)

A View

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside/Beside

Many of my recent posts have been informed by religious scholars. This is puzzling and somewhat unsettling to me, because I am not a religious person. Further, it may seem strange as a framework for discourse about art, since contemporary art is more often associated with entertainment than prayer.

On a basic level, this interest might be a form of exoticism, or even a colonizing practice – picking and choosing the formal qualities of arguments for my own ends. Since I don’t have a religious faith, I recognize the problematic nature of using these kinds of sources. In fact, the usefulness of these sources, for me, is not unlike the modernist use of non-European cultures as a resource to get ‘outside’ of themselves.

Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic 34, 1954

“This thirst for foreignness in order to find a self not mired in the habit of native conventions is germane to modernism,” says Dore Ashton in reference to Robert Motherwell’s painting. Likewise, the use of texts that pertain only laterally to art practice is a form of estrangement, of distance from myself and my own preconceptions. This has less to do with importing ideas across disciplinary boundaries than as a challenge to my own, highly secular and academically standard beliefs.

Since this blog and the studio journal that it is based on are reflective, contemplative practices, [see also gnōthi seauton (know thyself)] something like a religious / moral / ethical self-awareness seems pertinent to my thinking. The poet, Kenneth Rexroth on the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius:

[T]he Meditations have a certain monotony – the monotony of the first phase of prayer, examination of conscience. ‘Have I kept my temper?’ ‘Have I given way to despair?’ ‘Have I accepted reality’s orders of the day?’ ‘Have I forgiven insult and injury?’ ‘Do I fear death and disaster?’ Epictetus [Marcus’ philosophical hero] preaches Stoic ataraxy, apathy, the unruffledness of the Buddhists, the acceptance without resentment of whatever may befall. Marcus struggles to obtain it in act. So Epictetus is arrogant. He knows. Marcus is humble. He tries and admits his failures.
Behind the cocksureness of the Stoic system, to which Marcus gives credal assent and whose argot he uses constantly, hides another, more profound life attitude, similar to what today we call existentialism, especially as we find it in its most anguished exponents – for instance Scheler. There is only ‘this’ – beginning and ending in oblivion. Its meaning is mystery. Only one thing is sometimes under my control: my response. I can accept or reject. If I accept whatever happens, I am at peace. Once I disagree with fact, I am doomed to agony and frustration. (Classics Revisited, pp. 114 – 115)

For me, a critical practice involves both an “examination of conscience” and some form of estrangement – going in-side and getting be-side one’s own point of view. Although I am an atheist, I don’t feel like this is any kind of rationalist triumph over superstition, but merely an acknowledgment that there is no metaphysical comfort on offer for the vicissitudes of life.

Robert Motherwell, Je taime with Gauloise Blue, 1976

In the absence of a unifying system of cultural belief, contemporary artists are left to their own devices to cobble together values from an increasingly fragmented, self-destroying and polarized society. In many ways this is liberating as it allows for a wide range of options that are collaged according to individual inclination. I am personally more comfortable to be left to my own devices in most aspects of my life, especially my practice. In other ways this absence represents a loss of vocation, in the religious sense of a ‘calling’ to use one’s gifts in the service of society, family, friends, God.

A man of property may feel himself entitled to be rude, or careless, or untidy, and even fancy that his independence is in some way demonstrated or flattered by these exercises of it; but his servant may not indulge himself in such ways. I sometimes think that modern painting (in the sense of painting since the Academies) suffers a little from its freedom, bears its freedom less gracefully than medieval painting bore its servitude. Just as a really good domestic servant finds satisfaction in devising ingenious comforts for his employers, so the medieval painter exerted himself constantly, for interest or devotion, to devise new and more perfect forms of service for his employers’ and his own soul’s good. He took pains for their sake because it was in the perfection of his service that he found his own, his artist’s freedom. ( Daniel V. Thompson, The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting, p. 53)

Master of the Trebon Altarpiece, Resurrection, 1385

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”.

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