A painting is a presence. Not that it has presence, though it does. We’re talking about good paintings, real paintings; whatever any of that might mean, in them presence is an essential quality. Maybe quality isn’t the right word…. Is a being reducible to its qualities? Is presence something beyond quality as well as number?
As a painter, a realized painting; or however you want to characterize a painting that does not need anything added or changed; is present. What I mean by this is that it meets you. It does not confront. It meets you where you are and will go with you until you give up and will be ready to go on with you when you return. Your gaze does not exhaust it.
A painting that needs work…, looking at it there is a lack. A lack of coherence. A resistance. Something not quite right about it and the painter’s eye keeps looking…. Now this gets difficult to describe. We use sight as the portal of perception when dealing with a painting. They may smell good, feel rough or smooth to the touch, but we take in all a painting’s qualities standing, sitting, lying before it, through our eyes.
But all this seeing, looking – at the unresolved work in progress – does not somehow generate an image, an imagined view of what it should look like. This sort of thing is what a non-painter thinks must happen. It’s what stories about painting often fall into as a trope for creativity. A painter knows this is bullshit. Hubris. A sure road to ruin. Let’s leave it…, drop it. It’s not worth the time….
What we look for…. It’s like sitting with a sick friend. An act of…, compassion? We give our time to the painting. We act out a sacrifice, of time and attention. We don’t say we’ll give our time. We do it!
At the bottom, to paint is to surrender countless hours to an activity that appears to give back very little. The fantasy that someone paints to get rich, or famous…. Painting, this life spent standing, sitting, lying before scraps of canvas or slabs of board, sticky, colored mud on our fingers, will beat these fantasies out of you.
Or, you just might die trying to prove they’re real….
In the end, what this phrase actually means is, when you return, painting insists that you be there, asking the work, What do you need?
It tells you. Though, not in so many words. Two ways predominate. One is with an urge to pick up a brush. There’s some twitch that drives you to pick up this brush and touch paint with it in a certain way – a certain color – and then contact the surface with the implications of some gesture, some type of movement that may begin as either a negation, Let’s get rid of that! Or, a positing, This belongs here! The movement goes on as long as the impulse lasts and then; after long hard-learned lessons to be sure to know when it has passed; it stops.
Sometimes a conversation comes to take place. This first stab brings about a further realization and a response forms in the muscles. Painting is as physical as dance or playing the violin. The activity is physical: muscles, the span and arc and radius of a finger, a wrist, an arm, the shoulder, a gesture arising out of the legs, feet planted…. These movements are not directed by Will in the way we might assume. They arise and they have a duration and they end. Either in affirmation or in regret. Or, some continuation of these sensations of registering a … a digestion? Of the action results. Results as we see them. As we come to recognize them. With a sharp understanding of a level of doubt that we must carry, insisting that any decision concerning these actions and their results will most likely be hasty and based on projections and not on the facts of the physicality of what has happened on that surface.
It is so easy to smother what has actually occurred, killing what might have matured there by rushing on to add more, take away more, change it.
Painting provides us with the miracle of suspending moments of time, suspending the results of our actions in all of their freshness upon the surface of the painting. Three hundred years later that freshness is still there. If we haven’t destroyed it….
And painters do. Becoming an artist is a process measured in destruction. Pushing on, greedy for more, we spoil more paintings than we realize.
What is what we refer to as the mind doing while we paint?
Mostly, while we’re touching the canvas with a brush, it is trying to stay out of the way. Put another way, it is watching what is happening, looking for what has occurred and what might be about to happen next. In between, as we step back, stand back, sit back, lie back, as we step forward; it is…, stretching. There is tremendous mental effort at times while painting. But, none of it – well, not none. There are times when we do think, analyze things, like choosing a color or a brush size or where to attack next. Although even at these times, the analysis stops short of directing the action taken. What we actually do is still open to and mostly the result of unspoken, unspeakable impulse. Actions submerged into this other kind of mental activity, this stretching.
Whenever we do something to a painting, and often when we return to a work we have left to dry, we can, if we are open to it, see that it has become more or less than it appeared to be before. This more is expressed as a turning on the lights. What had been dead mud staining a surface has become light on form. Space exists where only extension can. A painting is a two-dimensional surface. Flat. Yet now there is space, air, form turning, articulated.
Something else happens. Further work starts to shatter what had been coming to light, to form. Or, often just the painting having sat for a while a combination of changes in opacity and translucency and all the other subtle changes wet paint goes through as it heals into a skin on a surface means that what had appeared to be vibrant and alive is now not quite so. Part of this, often most of this effect, is the result of a decay. Our mental projection upon the surface has loosened its grip on us. A forgetting…. While working we become intoxicated by what we imagine is taking form. We are bewitched by a projection of what we wish was there and it takes time to sober us up. What we see the next time we stand before the work in the light of day most often does not live up to our expectation.
Now, it is true that the opposite may happen. What was unhealed and hidden by an insistence to project some extraneous idea upon the work is now seen to have developed a richness and fullness of actuality that could never have been achieved through direct intention. But more on that later….
This mental stretching has to do with perceiving as clearly as we possibly can. Both the miracles of what pigment on a surface can embody and the illusions resulting from delusions our Wills place before our eyes. We stretch our minds to see more clearly.
A painting results from the accumulation of all the effort that goes into it and all the clarity we can bring to it and then it also brings something else. Every action leaves a trace. Every imposition, every bad-faith act of trying to impose on the painting is there. Every honest truthful questioning and every passage that has passed through the painter’s hand from palette to canvas in a miracle of transubstantiation is there. If we’re lucky and, if we persevere – not a striving and hacking away at it, but sacrificing our time and attention, attending to it – One day the painting looks back at us and it is clear it does not need anything more. In fact it is now much much more than the sum of what was done to it. It is present.
The urge to paint at this point shifts to another surface where we work to bring all we can towards its realization. This painting is…, it has come to life. It is not exhausted by our gaze. It lives from it. Our gaze feeds it and is fed by it.
Our role has been active but at the same time it has been an effort to remain with the intractable physicality of its materials. It is not alive because we have managed to hide its nature. The more clear it is to the eye that it is material, mud on a surface, of a particular, singular size and arrangement with an unrepeatable history of events leading to what is there; the more alive it is.
The miracles it contains and that shine forth from its surface are embodied in this intractable physical presence. It is irreducible to any list of ingredients or recipe of facture.
A painting is autograph. That is it is holographic in that every part is holds the whole and the whole is there in every part.
The alchemy of painting is that at some point a critical mass has been achieved and a semblance of an infinitude has appeared. Limitation has been conjured into an appearance of limitlessness. This semblance of infinite fullness, depth, and resonance reflects our experience before perceived reality. We read this as life in a painting. This is why it can not be exhausted by the critical gaze. There is always something more. An aspect that hadn’t been noticed. It has…. Its stickiness perhaps, has attracted and held what we can only call meaning. We can tell it is there. See it somehow. Some part of it…, and it now stretches our minds to hold as much of this meaning as we can imbibe.
Now these effects are not reducible to mimesis and some superficial signification. A painting does not have to have a recognizable subject to appear whole and to hold an infinitude. A painting does not need to be an allegory to signify meaning. In fact the slippery-er its meaning appears, the more ineffable our sense of getting it may be, the greater its power.
In the end this is what holds us to this silent, endless attending to the work. If we sacrifice our time and effort painting this is what it can give us in return. A useless scrap of spoiled material: Clean canvas soiled. Fresh paint spoiled. Is alive with meaning, holding fresh the moments given to it in the creation of a whole that reflects and embodies all of our contact with existence. It holds so much more than what we thought we put into it.
A moment has not been recorded. Time has been used to transcend time.
Hints and inklings that time is just an artifact tickle us at the edges of perception. Paintings, these artifacts of our making, can hold a present/presence fresh for centuries….