It’s hard talking/writing about painting. Everything about painting is hard, except for the gifts of grace to be found there.
I’ve been struggling with how to find a way to talk about pervasive failures in painting that strike me as symptomatic of our time illuminating broader misunderstandings of what it is to be.
It presents itself most commonly in work that never gets beyond the first tentative steps of what painting can offer. Most often these are paintings that never even get there. They are stuck in a negotiation between the artist and the canvas in which the focus, although often unrecognized, is on creating an impression. Not “Impressionism.” Not anything as meaty as providing a glimpse into the dance of perception and attention interacting with recognition and association. That would be addressing the potential of art. This is simply a striving after an impression of cleverness. An impression that the artist, “Knows what he’s doing.” An impression of “talent.”
The predominant theme of the work ends up being pathetic. It is self-referential, and in the most solipsistic, least interesting way. It’s no wonder people claim that painting is dead. Such painting is dead and negates any possibility of life by insisting on the primacy of an Ego-game over anything else.
I’m not going to illustrate this kind of work. No need to single anyone out. It is so pervasive – and not just in “regional” art venues. It’s true of a fair amount of what gets international coverage and is featured in museum shows of contemporary art.
This is, and isn’t a recent phenomena. There has always been bad art, painting that just isn’t very good. A lot of that bad art was made in the sprit I’m describing here. It’s just that in the past – and when dealing with art from the past – we have been less inclined to remain impressed by this sort of machination. The negotiations those artists entered into were couched in the fads of their day. As those fads became dated, so did the work. But there does seem to be a change today. Maybe not. It could just be a function of any moment as it is being lived. Time having done its job eroding the sheer quantity of previous contemporary art down to a more manageable quantity.
There’s a paradox in play with such painting. Focusing on showing talent and intent on persuading us that the work is somehow good the entire potential implicit in any painting is left to languish. Even if the work manages to impress, it has won an empty victory.
If we look at any painting with a long history of regard – a latinate term for looking – we find that the level of “talent” is beside the point. Much of the art that has fallen by the wayside, conversely, exhibits showy, “impressive” manipulations that must have once been seen as talented. Whatever gifts a particular painter might have, it’s not what they start out with that’s important. It’s what they find.
Of course this is what’s missing in this other sort of art There is no journey. There is no discovery. Intent on showing their control these painters don’t allow anything to happen. And this would be precisely where painting gets interesting. These works end up as actions of abstention. They signify a refusal to engage with what painting can be. The “excuse” that the work must be “convincing” – whatever that means – trumps any possibility that the work will be compelling, truthful, illuminating. And this is as true for the artist who made it as it is for any viewer of the work.
However it may have happened in the past, today the rationale for approaching painting in this way appears to stem from the ubiquitous habits of thought that couch every aspect of life as an element in a linear progression – either for good, Progress! Or, for evil, Apocalypse! If everything is but a step in a progression then we might as well “get down to business” and be “efficient” about it!
But painting – and life – are not additive processes. Everything is there in the smallest fragment and every bit is there in the whole. A work, or a life, does not build to its “completion.” Painting is not an additive process.
It’s not “the opposite” of that either. It’s not a “subtractive process.” It’s simply not a process at all in the way we are accustomed to think of that term.
Painting begins when an artist confronts a surface/field. Choices are made, either intentionally or otherwise. Size, shape, proportion, texture…, these and many other characteristics of the substrate that becomes the focus of a privileged seeing that signifies that this is a painting, a work of art, are decided on or accepted. Interventions are made. Color, texture, mark-making, all sorts of potential manipulations to this surface are acted upon.
Here’s where the intent to impress gets in the way right from the start. Fundamentally what happens when this becomes one’s motive is that the existence of the painting as an entity in its own right is ignored and violated with impunity. It’s this act of violence that kills the painting and makes it into a means to the artist’s end. This is where willful blindness to the existence of anything outside of the Ego’s own sense of itself acts to destroy anything that might have a life of its own.
You see, right from the start the surface/field an artist confronts has its own existence. If we are open to it and what is implied there we allow our interaction to take place in a way that is open-ended, that is free of preconception, that is ready to drop any pretense of control over the outcome in the hope that our continued interaction with the canvas – shorthand for whatever material happens to be the surface/field – will lead us all to discover what it takes for this canvas to stand on its own.
It is conceivable that this point can be reached with the most minimal and subtle intervention by the painter. It can also – and is often – a long and winding path.
The key to allowing this path to unfold is maintaining, and repeatedly re-establishing, the capacity to see what is there. To let go of expectations and enthusiasms over our intentions for the work and being able to see what has actually come to be visible on the canvas.
Painters kill paintings. We do this when we refuse to allow this interaction to unfold and force a conclusion.
Painting is resilient. It’s actually antifragile, to use Taleb Nassim’s term. Painting thrives on shocks, on the unpredictable. It gains strength from whatever input it is given. So long as in the end its existence as what-it-is is respected. Painting is transparent. Not only because the medium is translucent. – Even the most opaque pigment allows something of what was there beneath it to show through or at least modify what comes after. It is transparent in the way it reflects the exchanges that have occurred throughout its making.