An image is an illustrated idea. It is a sign for something we wish to hold onto. In this way an image is like a verbal concept. A simple analogy or metaphor, like any form of explanation, it exists as a sign pointing at an idea. Not all verbal expression is a stand-in for an idea. Extended metaphor, a story, a poem can be something else.
Our weorld is circumscribed by images enslaved to the idea of dominance, power, control. Many paintings, pigment affixed to a solid matrix intended to be viewed on a wall, have been intended as images. Paintings gain their commercial value by becoming popular images. We trade in paintings as images. Not all this trade is done for nefarious purposes. It’s hard not to see paintings this way when artists are obliged to make-a-living through money. Another arena in which we are embroiled in complicity.
What then is a painting if not an image?
To answer this question we need to confront an actual painting. All that can be done here is to point at somethings to look for.
A painting is physical. It has a certain size, an extent. It has a surface with a texture. Some are quite smooth. Others deeply textured. Beyond their texture they present us with a visual feel. The painted surface has a texture that can feel like many other kinds of surface. This even before we enter into the illusion created by the configuration of pigments on its surface. Sometimes there are illusions of texture that belie the actual texture: Smooth paint that looks like rough wood, for example. There can be a rhyming between actual and illusory textures: Oil paint that forms a skin that depicts warm flesh.
As we confront an actual painting its physical qualities are always there calling for our attention. There’s a tension between the facts of its physicality and the facts of its illusion. All painting has some illusory qualities. There is some configuration of color and value – light and dark. This creates an illusion of light. Any discernible shapes or marks create an illusion of three-dimensionality akin to the appearance of objects in a space. The illusion of light in and of itself creates an illusory space. We experience light in space. Sometimes the illusion is of a space in front of the surface. Sometimes on the surface, and sometimes in depth behind the surface. All these illusions can be present at the same time.
These factors bring an incredible perceptual complexity to our confrontation even before we begin to consider what else a painting might address. These factors create an entry into the work. If a work lacks the plasticity inherent in its materials it is hard to engage with it fully. We are left in a similar quandary as when we confront an unformed performance. When an actor or comedian generates a vague unease in us. We doubt their ability to carry it off. A performance, or a painting, can create this unease as an integral aspect of its realization. Think of Andy Kaufman. He created an illusion of inept naiveté. We never know for sure whether we are being fooled by a master or if he is just a fool. But even here it is possible to tell the difference between a clueless performance and an arch one. We know it when we see it. Does the work hold our attention?
This opens the door to questions concerning intentionality. We cannot confront a painting, either as painter or viewer, without addressing intent. This, as with every other aspect of a painting’s ability to hold our attention, occurs in a tension, or some sort of relationship with the undercurrent of its physicality. The heartbeat of any painting is this slipping back and forth – in a rhythm unique to each work – between what is there in front of us and how it plays with our perception. When we consider intent we always consider it in relation to the facts before our eyes.
We’re accustomed to expect intent to drive our actions within our expectations of cause and effect. Something appears a certain way. We would like it to change in a certain way. We intend this change. We intend to achieve a certain result. We expect our intention to be met, or thwarted; but we expect there to be some direct connection between our intention and the result.
Painting confounds this expectation. We tend to obscure this fact by resorting to the idea of genius. Viewing an impeccable masterpiece we project our expectation that some supremely gifted Will has achieved what we could never do. As if, watching a magician levitate, we believe they are actually flying, and not a master of illusion. This attitude towards genius and the notion of the masterpiece can only block our engagement with any work. We project our wishes upon the work. Some form of the idea that even if we have never been able to achieve the impossible through an act of Will before there must be some people, geniuses, who can.
If we set this self-deception aside, a mirror to the equally corrosive, “Anybody could do that!” attitude adopted in reaction to an imbalance of power. “They got away with it was because they’re famous, or rich, or have the right friends and backers!” These allegations might be true; but adopting this naive skepticism does not help us discover whatever is actually to be found in a work. Setting these prejudicial rationalizations aside, we can develop a relation with a painting.
Relation is the key. Everything that happens in a painting is part of a complex of relationships, among colors, shapes, marks, illusions of light, of space, of movement. These all take place in relation to whatever expectations, associations, rhymes and mirrorings – reflections of all sorts – we find – or project – upon the work. These myriad relationships and extended metaphors form a painting.
An image can be compelling. It may be powerful on first viewing; but our reactions to it wear out. The reductive nature of an image is both a root of its power and the cause of its limitations. Perception and reaction both fade in this kind of one-note environment. This fatigue drives the escalation we find in imagery and the rapid turnover of images meant to propagandize us and elicit specific reactions from us.
A painting exists in another realm. The complexity of its relationships rhymes with the complexity of our weorld. While a painting’s complexity is not infinite in the way the weorld appears it is complex enough to capture its qualities.