Tor, oil on canvas, 72″ x 108″, 1981
An image is a sign. It has no inherent size or scale. It can be reproduced and modified in a variety of ways and each of these has a weight it imposes on our attention. This weight is a factor of its imagery, of what the visual signs encode in a way that is abstracted from any lived reality. An image is an idea.
A painting is an object, a thing. It has a specific size and as we stand before it our relation to it creates a sense of scale. The interplay of illusions within the perceptual field of its surface can create tensions between actual size and visual scale. The facture we see in its object-ness before us is in relation to the illusions we find impressing themselves upon our visual field. They provide somatic cues to the gesture and sweep of movement that went into the mark-making that went into its creation. These work on our own physical sense of proprioception, bringing a sympathetic response we feel in our own bodies within varying degrees and levels of conscious and unconscious awareness.
In our confrontation with a painting we perceive images, but the images appear to float somewhere before or beyond the actual surface before us. The immateriality of a painting’s image/s is tangible. Each change in the light, a movement of our heads, standing at another distance from the work; each of these changes the image we see before us. Some of these changes call the image into question. At times the imagery may seem to dissolve, or distort. At other moments the interplay of our relationship to this object in front of us creates an uncanny impression that we are standing before a living thing.
This can be as true of a landscape/seascape as it might be of a portrait. The illusion comes alive. We see movement…. As our eyes pass over, and are directed by the visual cues within the work, light and dark, warm and cool, each color with its associations and relationships with all the other colors, the broadness, or narrowness, of the range of tonality or chroma, creating a specific dynamic; these interact with our sense-making in shifting and constantly changing intensities and points of focus. A painting can pull us into a perceptual field that continues to refresh our perceptions over time. While anything presenting a constant perceptive “output” will eventually degrade our eye’s ability to perceive it; what fails to change over time tends to dull out and even disappear from attention; a living painting holds us in a spell. As our eyes move around their acuity is continually refreshed. Resting too long on a particular color our eyes are drawn to its complement. As our imaginations focus on one aspect of the illusion/s before us and our associations flare up and fade we are drawn to some other aspect of the work and come into contact with some new facet of what is before us.
In this way, a painting is never consumed in the way a simple image always is. Looking at a photograph, even a photo of a painting, we find its power diminishes as we take it in. Nothing changes. There is no way to ground ourselves before the scale-less image/idea floating in a no-space and containing no time. The painting, in its interaction with our attention comes to life. It has a being-ness. It also brings us to trust that it is, in some meaningful way, boundless and infinite. We could say that this is precisely what brings it to life for us. This is what we recognize in the movement of life, the movement of being. We have this, this negation of uncanniness, appear before us as an aura-of-being that we come to recognize as an attribute of this thing.
In this sense, much, if not all of what passes for art appreciation and criticism is besides the point. Art History, while it began as a discipline practiced and taught before the works themselves long ago was transformed into a series of mental activities focusing on images of paintings and, over the last half-century, devolving into a series of ideological gymnastics focusing more and more and now almost entirely on the idea/images that have been extracted from Art to become a commodity of consumption, a way of trading within the realm of negotiating power relations through the creation and manipulation of ideological positions, sects, and conglomerations.
In this market, Art exists as a token. The real value is in the manipulation of social groupings around positions on a battlefield within a struggle for power.
Power deals in violence. Nuance and specificity are the enemies of those fighting ideological battles. They are after kiloton and megaton weight, not subtlety and the ephemeral. Attention must be held in aggregate and therefore at some lowest common denominator level to maximize the delivery of violent energies. It deals in manipulation and destruction and is totally opposed to anything smacking of vitality.
Art has, through the entire span of civilization, been hostage to power in one way or another. But, until now, it was always still available as objects one could confront. Objects into and under whose spell we could still be entranced by visceral vitality. This potential was often restricted. Only those with entry could partake, but as orders of power have risen and fallen these barriers were permeable. Inclusion/exclusion was never certain and enforceable, at least not over the long run.
What is happening now is an attempt to remove us from direct contact with the work even as we stand before paintings in a museum or a gallery. Whether it’s the x number of seconds we are allowed to peer between the outstretched smart phones waving in front of the Mona Lisa, or trying to get past the crowds huddled before the words-on-the-wall taking up more and more space at every exhibition, or reading about expert opinion on what the art around us means to its initiates, we are being crowded out and removed from primal contact/confrontation with the works themselves. We are being fed an attitude that the works exist as repositories – something upon which the stick-it notes of the truly valuable “ideas” can be stuck.
Everyone in the image-business is complicit in this movement to abstract us from any vital connection.
The “abstract art” of the beginning of the twentieth century was made and existed within a very different ecology. At a time of great and sweeping destructive change it held/holds within it seeds and kernels of insight that could feed us today if it were not for the slight-of-hand that has distracted us from art’s vital being.
At its core, early cubism and many of the other strains developing in the opening decades of the twentieth century, was a renaissance. It was a recognition of the wholeness of Art and an attempt to bring the vitality inherent in every living painting, from whatever time period of its creation, and show us what it held/holds within it. Cubism showed us that every painting is built of an accumulation of perceptions and iterative manipulations of the plasticity inherent in the visual field implicit in every privileged surface.
Every painting no matter how “realistic” is built of the same fundamental potential manipulations that can be made upon a privileged surface. Each mark, whether a positing or a negation, leaves a trace and this trace distorts the field. In this way the visual illusion of the painting comes to be. Out of this visual illusion certain associations occur to the maker and/or viewer. From these Thought generates images that are stored in memory and passed around as ideas.
The painting is the whole into which and out of which these aspects attach themselves. In some the image can seem to predominate. In some the sign is pushed to the front. But in every case, to a vital eye, these are inextricably the results of the whole of the painting existing as a living thing. It’s only when we remove the actual object from consideration and strictly limit ourselves to trafficking in images that we can begin to fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.
The “Natural World,” the world humans came to be within, was an immersive experience. For me, every time I set out onto water I am drawn into a window view of that kind of existence. This kind of experience has been disappearing from our lives and is now fading away at the rate of the Great Extinction we participate in. We have no place, no time, that is outside of the prison created out of the Edifice of Thought. Thought has taken us over and strives to remove everything that might allow us to break free of its hegemony. It is more than willing for us to break down wholeness wherever it may be found. It delights in the breaking and separation of the whole into a cornucopia of distinct and separate identities. The one thing it will not abide is that we see through its machinations.
At a time when there is no longer any possibility of human life outside the contamination of this Edifice of Thought. – A container that is not limited to its current Avatar of imperial, neoliberal, capitalist/colonialism, but includes the entire historical era. – we do not have physical refugia in which to carve our own space and find our own time.
Painting, here I’m talking about what I know and not staking any claim of exclusivity for this one artform, has always been important to humans. It achieved stunning results, available to us through the accidents of a hit-or-miss preservation, from 30,000 years ago. What lies deep within those dark caverns puts the lie to any claims of human Progress™ as a result of the mere passage of time. There is a completeness to the art of the caves we can now barely even imagine. Our experience of their work diluted and mediated by a reduction of the caves themselves to a tourist site and of their paintings to images flickering on our screens.
Imagine living in a vibrant natural world, a species among species enthralled not by some Edifice of Thought but by the demands of an actual existence. A time and place where attention was supreme and when it was essential to be aware and to take life seriously. A time when there was no inkling that any of these things could be otherwise. In such a time and place to take a fragile ember of fire-light and descend into the depths of a living earth, confronting every fear darkness and constriction and the weight of the actual world over ones head can bring forth with every step. To descend, in cold blood. To do so, not out of some physical necessity. They were not seeking food or shelter at that point.
They did so, again and again, over many thousands of years, untold generations. Each making the effort so as to enter an alien realm but one that every instinct within us – yes, us. They are within us even now. – called out to them that so much of life springs from the unknown. The unknowable. The darkness and the pit. A place as much inside of us as in the depths at the bottom of a cavern.
Descending to a place where at some point within a continuum that, for most, stretched beyond living memory as a place where visions could come to life. Entering a physical dreamworld. A place where they could exercise a visual plasticity and participate in the creation of a kind of thing/being that had never existed before. These artifacts connected the creatures they shared their lives with upon the surface with the kind of ephemeral psychic existence to be found otherwise only in dreams and visions.
If there is anything other than extreme cruelty and destructiveness that we can lay claim to as humans this is the best candidate I could nominate. Intelligence, awareness, aliveness, all preceded us and will continue after us. This specific kind of interaction among the qualities of vital existence appears to be unique to us.
As the lights go out all around us this does still remain a possibility for us.
So long as we can move a dirty, or even bloody, finger and make a mark on a privileged surface and have eyes to see what happens as a result we have access to this order of time and place. There is, beyond any attempt to divide and destroy, a wholeness and a continuity between what they did and what is available to us.
Painting not only resists photography. Painting is an entry into the world outside the prison of our Edifice of Thought.