The Work of Painting…

I am working under the presumption that a panel on “Painting in the Digital Age,” somehow asks what Painting’s place is in the (technological) times we live in.  I am going to try to approach this question through the assumption that Painting does more than fulfill an economic niche as commodity–as recently claimed by Holland Cotter in his complaint about the general economy of the art world–

 Roughly since the end of the multicultural, postmodern 1990s, we’ve watched new art being re-Modernized and domesticated, with painting the medium of choice, abstraction the mode of preference. Together they offer significant advantages. Paintings can be assembly-line produced but still carry the aura of being hand-touched. They can be tailored to small spaces, such as fair booths. Abstraction, especially if color is involved, can establish instant eye contact from afar. If, in addition, the work’s graphic impact translates well online, where stock can be moved eBay style, so much the better. (Holland Cotter, NY times Jan 17th)

- or the other trend in recent writing, that Painting can simply respond to the history of Painting- reflecting its own impotence or its impossibility (as claimed by many of the circulating texts-like “The New Casualism,” that give purpose to Painting based on its ability to express anxiety, frustration, impossibility, etc.)  I do think that Painting has been a good place for expressing failure; doubt; and it’s (Painting’s) not being an “advanced form of representation”–but I think that this becomes over-stressed and redundant. 

 And I continue to go to look at paintings because I feel like they can speak to conditions that other forms of representation and object making cannot–conversely, if I were interested in a linear narrative, I would go somewhere else.  So under the presumption that painting does something-which it doesfor mewhat is the job (or what should painting do?) of painting in the face of the most pervasive reproductive technology that the world has known to date?  How does it act within a world of images and imaging that is more mobile, immediate, social, and numerous than ever before?  

 In After Art, David Joselit responds to the condition–“this is why the restitution debates I have discussed belong to our historical moment: they represent a fundamentalists effort to restore aura at a juncture when the potential of image circulation and the population explosion of images is irreversible.  They claim the rights to image wealth, often on the part of nations in the global south.”

Hailing the need for a new kind of valuation, he declares  “Instead of a radiating nimbus of authenticity and authority underwritten by site specificity, we have the value of saturation, of being everywhere at once.  In place of aura, there is buzz”–

 But I am not sure that this type of “information” is really anything that painting does very well– the spread of the story, the narrative of art is better fed by the negation of experience; by the urinal (it is not necessary to see it, it is just a character in a philosophical question of “what art is”); a cerebral and linguistic form, and not a sensual form of thought, and Western, rationalist discourse supports that which can be explained through words and equations.  And if a painting, or other works of art, are just to become a placeholder, no different as picture or object, for starting another conversation; I am not really that interested.  There are other types of discourse, and these can be put into words, but they do not result in equations.  I think that there is a potential language for the critical reception of paintings, asking whether they are fulfilling some of what their purpose might be in the “Information Age”–it might require some serious parsing and debate, but it might also allow for a deeper conversation about what painting can give us at a time when it does not seem necessary for the “adding” of new pictures to a image-world that probably does not need them.  That “possible” discourse must return, in some way, to aesthetics- but it would require a complicated consideration of the ideas and language of aesthetics that has been fairly well dismissed by post-modern theory–which, perhaps, in its anti-meta-narrative, non-universal stance, may throw out the “baby-with-the-bath-water,” lacking the subtlety to recognize that the history of aesthetics does not necessarily call for some universally agreed answer to what solves the “problem” of aesthetic experience, and why it might or might not matter, but gives a fairly open blue-print for the continuous development of a complex critical language that builds as culture shifts and changes.

I believe that part of Painting’s power unique form of communicating lies in its inability to be assimilated into the digital.  While they may be part of the culture of picture production, the paintings I care about, are specifically unable to be appreciated through a flat screen or printed reproduction.  It is the very object-ness of paintings, and the way that they reveal themselves in person, that make them an entirely different type of information system to me.   So while painting might deal with new sources of images and new forms for the distribution of pictures, it must also speak to what differentiates the way we experience images. We have to find a way to discuss them as more than sign systems.    Most of the painting that I am interested in deals, in some way, with the mimetic.  Both within abstraction and representation it takes in new images, new ways of imaging, and adjusts them through the mind, body, and materiality.  Luke Smythe describes the condition in his recent, thoughtful essay in Art Journal “Pigment vs. Pixel”

 “While still inclined to work mimetically, (contemporary painters) can no longer do so on the basis of an overlooked or disavowed affinity between the pigments they employ and the new forms of light-based image making. Instead, they must proceed on the basis of an insurmountable form of categorical difference between their own work and the light-based images they address.  But these accommodations and adjustments not withstanding, they continue to advance the pigment-centered strategies of the post-war period, deploying them in opposition to the spectacular production values and purely commercial interests that underwrite the great majority of light-based images that we encounter on a daily basis.”

It is these “accommodations and adjustments,” that Smythe speaks of that actually interest me as a painter–the translating of contemporary experience through a material and the limits of the body. These adjustments are what give a language to contemporary Painting.  And this, for me, is the unbroken history of painting that links it as a “coming to grips” with the limits of what we can know, and the desire to know more.

One thing that painting has done , particularly representational painting, is to respond to the image world of a particular time, and to reflect on how the artist thought about that image world.  Painting has left a record of the things around it (it seems important to me that this record is still and lasting?).  Whether we are looking at a Manet in response to antiquated realism and history painting, or Seurat or the other impressionist and their response to new discoveries in science and developments in photography, the Cubist in response to relativity, and on, we are given a view into how the painter saw and thought about their world at the time.  Painting has continued because the world has continued, and as new image worlds develop and are invented there are new conditions to respond to and new ways are developed to respond to those new environments

(Mondrian to Sarah Morris, Vija Celmins, Richter, Daniel Richter, Luc Tuyman, Peter Doig, photo/x-ray/pixel(Light)/etc.).-these paintings, seem to me, like they could not be made by artists who had not seen photos, films, x-rays, infra-red pictures, etc.

 Painting is one way that these conditions are recorded, without the neutrality of the lens or the machine- so that, in ways similar to the novel, we see a uniquely singular and personal response to the world.  In this way painting might be seen as akin to rock and roll (maybe strange bedfellows) but I am thinking about that the argument–claims that jazz died from its purity while rock and roll necessarily embraced and enfolded all the new forms of music–, could also be made for painting and its ability to respond to the new developments around it.  It is hard to imagine painting as a bastard child given its preeminent position during so much of art’s history, but without re-stating the tired story, it has been on the run since the advent of photography- forced to redefine itself and wonder what its purpose might be for nearly 200 years.  Other disciplines, especially those not dealing with representation, have not had to contend with the assault of reproductive technologies that have, until fairly recently, dealt primarily with the two-dimensional realm.  Part of what makes Painting interesting to me are the spaces it has sought to find a way to keep happening.  Of course I write this as painting may be facing the most difficult assault on the very thing it has to offer, which is the aura of time and place, and for the first time it may very distinctly have to work against and opposed to those conditions.  But, this may have been the case since at least the advent of photography.  As Joselit reminds us “the potential of image circulation and the population explosion of images is irreversible.” 

 So the question, for me, is not whether Painting will continue (it will continue; though I am unsure, as Raph Rubenstein claims “painting must be done, must go on.”) but whether it is able to have a conversation with contemporary experience.  And, to add difficulty, I don’t think that painting can get anywhere by simply “working against,” or describing what is NOT digital/screen/or light, but must, in some way, use this language to speak to something more than deconstruction.  So, my questions concern what conditions painting might speak to, how its particular conditions might allow it, as a discipline, to reflect on certain aspects of being in the world- and might even be something that creates empathy and guides us back to a different relationship with the physical world.  

 Because the content of painting, to me, is not in the image, but in the construction of the image.  Paint, as liquid plasticity, is particularly good at capturing that.  The digital negates form, and particularly the ability of form to become content.  Benjamin described the condition nearly a century earlier “Everyday the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction…to pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose sense of “the universal equality of things” has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction.”  This flattening of objects into “content” is something that I think good painting resists.  The poetics of the construction of an image become a thought process captured in a not-linear object–like archeology; we dig through the development of a surface to understand the decisions that an artist made.  This holds true for me whether I am looking at a Renaissance fresco or a Richter abstraction made with a squeegee.  I look at Painting as a sort of theater of the material world (the theatrical being the insertion of the history of human thought/belief), it can head us back to the meaning embedded in the physical world (material culture).  But the potential of the physical objects, and the type of discourse that has been developed around the material world, is certainly in jeopardy of being lost, if not entirely dismissed, as our sources for information/meaning become increasingly virtual. As Smyth goes on to describe–

 “This shift in emphasis reveals the once-burning conflict between painting and various forms of photomechanical image production has lately been eclipsed by a new and more pressing antagonism, between the materiality and tactility of pigment on the one hand, and the immateriality and intangibility of light on the other.”

 (painting as form)

Technology is nothing particularly new to painting, since at least the use of the silkscreen with Warhol or /Rauschenberg painters have incorporated new methods for translating images into their work.  And it has always been about the development of a greater vocabulary, not ease.  While someone like Guyton might have stripped away the content from the vocabulary of reproduction, the subtext of error that Warhol and Rauschenberg sought to exploit using the silk-screen post-expressionism, is still the driving visual of Guyton’s canvas fed through the digital printer.  While I find Guyton’s particular minimalism a bit dull, its description (this may be why abstraction is so tempting to authors (because they can fill it up), again by Smythe, certainly hints at a poetic condition that painting takes on in myriad ways– “Upon crossing the threshold of actuality, the Platonic perfections of Guyton’s figures begin to crumble, yielding images that are stigmatized and battered by their sudden encounter with the real.”

Coming very close to Richter’s description of the process of painting in an interview with Robert Storr “painting is the form of the picture you might say.  The picture is the depiction, and painting is the technique for shattering it…” So with regards to the photographic–the photograph is image that, when translated to painting, becomes a story (narrative).  And story might be told in a history of “adjustments.”

 But this delicacy of experience is difficult to articulate, and if we do not tend to it, or cultivate its potential; it seems destined to disappear. 

So maybe one thing painting should work to do is to have to be seen.  To have physical presence that one journeys to be around.  I understand that the keystone of the digital world is democratic access, but this denies a different and important side of the aura (beyond disputed notions of the “author”) which is the power of having to mobilize to be with something, and the way we prepare ourselves to experience something on a different level when we have committed to the journey to be with it.  I am interested in a type of painting that requires that you go to be with it, and then rewards you for your presence.  This does not always have to result in some kind of sublime experience, but can be as simple as havinge process unveiled on the side of the canvas, understanding the scale/speed of mark as it relates to the body of the maker, understanding glare as one moves around an object, etc.  And this is where Joselit’s rhetoric of “buzz,” breaks down for me.  Continuing to find a justification for art or “after”-art in a sort of neo-liberal political sphere of democracy he claims “after art comes the logic of networks where links can cross space, time, genre, and scale in surprising and multiple ways;” sounding almost like if art can help us to understand the inter-textual or rhizomatic then we will be better off for it–as though information can save us.  This rhetoric is fairly well devoid of emotional, visceral, experience; instead returning to the language of information, and socio-political mobilization.  I think that there might be other registers of the human condition worth exploring and I do not see the required physical presence as a failure of painting, but as a distinct and powerful feature of it against the homogenizing and in-experiential aspect of the digital public library of images that populate the cloud.  I am not denying that these images also have social power, only that they mobilize us in different ways, and I happen to believe that it is important to be activated and developed through the experience of being with art generally and painting specifically; that the things the still, constructed object does are part of its powerful language that enriches our relationship to the world.  As Richard Nash describes of the technology of the book “The lack of video, the lack of audio, the lack of ways to change the forking outcomes of plot (what is rather crudely referred to as “interactivity”) is a feature of literature, not a bug.  And, as it turns out, books are interactive.  They’re recipes for the imagination.”[i] How can we think about the physical realities of painting, and consider what many have described as its failures as its most important features?.  

I think that painting has the unique ability to convey the construction of the image as a meaningful language.  The poetics of the construction of the image/picture (these can vary wildly, encompassing my own constellation-say from Manet, through Duchamp to Johns and Richter, and on to Celmins, etc… to the more expressionistic painters, from Pollock to Guston, or Cecily Brown’s (more or less obvious) erotics of paint/painting) are the set of physical decisions that the artist has made to reach the final object/image.  This archeology of thoughtese are like an archeology of thought and, without having to be read into as expressive, can be experienced as a belief system that responds to the image. When these two, the construction of the image and the nature of the image itself, start speaking to each other they create a language that might uniquely speak to aspects of the human condition (consider how Johns speaks about his decision to erase or “not treat” parts of the painting as an act of painting- that one could have bad and good (painting) days, and that the work could reflect doubt, skepticism, and a whole host of other questions as part of lived experience).

To go a step further, if one is able to speak to the distance/coldness (see ideas of “impression”) of perception and the incredible intimacy of touch (of putting paint on canvas) then they use the medium to speak to our history of being (epistemology/ontology) that may be how we exist in and “know” the world, or be able to speak to “how we know the world,.” or “what we can’t know about the world.”

 Described beautifully by Barry Schwabsky in an essay on Manet–

 “If Guégan is on thin ice when he overemphasizes Couture, he goes off the rails when he uses Manet’s few works on Christian themes, painted in 1864–65, as evidence of what he calls Manet’s genuine “attachment to the God of Scripture.” There is no biographical evidence in Manet’s writings for this claim, and even if there were, these paintings would contradict it. The best of them is The Dead Christ With Angels (1864). Its Christ is no God, and the death it depicts is irrevocable. One believes in the former life of this man to the same extent that one sees that there can be no hope in his resurrection. As for the angels, they appear rather as lovely young actresses in angel costumes; they represent the artifice that sets off the veracity of the scene, which stirs our pity, just as the light that caresses the face of the girl on the right, the one supporting Christ, sets off the shadow that bathes his unseeing eyes and separates him from us definitively. The miracle of this painting—to borrow the terminology—is that it is at once a sophisticated pastiche of art history and a plea for empathy. Artifice and realism reinforce each other in a direct challenge to the Salon’s conception of history painting, not in expression of piety.”

 Maybe brought into the contemporary sphere in the way Smythe describes Tuyman’s painting of a Disney Land Flotilla–“Yet stripped of its warmth and radiance by means of Tuyman’s washed-out and superficial painting style, this degraded specter is assembled from a lusterless amalgam of pale dabs and stipplings, whose variable thicknesses and differing degrees of opacity stress its inherence in the palpably embodied realm of pigment, a space wholly foreign to the rarifies and intangible domain from which its source image emanated.  By refusing to endow his painted simulacrum with the same auratic sense of purity and insubstantiality as his source, Tuyman’s reminds us of the susceptibility of certain core features of light-based imagery to a fetishistic investment on the part of the spectator, a process that he moves to inhibit by means of his anemic painting style.”

Or a painter like Celmins- who, I think, at least in her own mind, is not making a painting OF a galaxy, but is literally creating a galaxy, where light from a star it literally peering through layers of darkness

Essentially painting is epistemological and speaks most clearly to how we know things (since, unlike the sculptural object, it is never completely the thing itself). It seems that it must somehow deal with vision, though it can deal with very different aspects of vision- that moving more towards the haptic, towards visions relation to texture and touch; or towards perception, or translating how we see the world (who claimed Guston as hyper-realist?  Trying to literally paint the way he saw……does this connecting to the phenomenological take on Cezanne described by Merleau-Ponty?) Can painting speak to our inability to really empathize with suffering through pictures? Bataill’s complaint that Manet paints suffering as though it were “a bunch of radishes.” Can it speak to the impotence of memory as a collection of images?  Can it speak to desire? Or in the case of Dumas , our somewhat pathetic and mediated forms for generating it?

 Or as Richter responds to his interlocutor asking “The question is, how far can this schizophrenia be stretched, how far can it really be kept alive, or when does it become an empty pose: to assert this contradiction over and over again, and to act within the contradiction again and again, but without trying to get over the contradiction?

I don’t know what contradiction you are talking about.

It’s the contradiction of knowing full well the means you are using wont achieve what you aim for, and at the same time not being prepared to change those means.

That’s not a contradiction; it is a perfectly normal state of affairs.  The normal mess, if you like.  And that couldn’t be changed by choosing different means and methods.

Because all means are of equal value?

No, but all are similarly inadequate…””

This act of translation and re-construction takes advantage of painting’s ability to describe retinal impressions- to speak to the surface of things (what we can know through observation) and the way we impose our mind/knowledge/history/culture into that surface.    It is no wonder that artists like Monet and Whistler have used the surface of water or the darkness of night as the background when they wanted to “open-up” paint, just as so many painters today take advantage of technological developments to find new forms that open up the massive catalogue of images and motifs that painting has dealt with today.

 We are in a unique position, with new forms of digital/technological imaging, where we are able to do and see things that we have never experienced before, whether it be the phone camera, or infrared or thermal imaging that allows us to “see” outside the optical register, and yet these accentuate what we have always known about representation, and heighten the affect of the distancing, making us aware that we are not there… thermal is just looking at something like heat, the choice of color is completely unnatural and determined.

 From personal experience, the new forms of imaging have re-opened the world of images for my practice.  Something that felt impossible–as “what would one choose to paint” now feels, if still incredibly difficult, much more open.  By viewing the world as the dissipation of heat, the dramatic, domestic, inanimate, and highly animate, all feel like they might have more to say.  In looking at the world on a different “visual” register, a child’s bath can become a melancholy moment of reflection and attacks in the desert thousands of miles away become beautiful and horrific.  And because I am not painting things, but heat, I don’t feel beholden to the laws of appropriateness (not that this was a terrible concern before) but there is a dissolution of even the naming of genres.  When my mother-in-law visited the studio and came across this painting, she said “they are wrestling–right?” and I said that, first, they are not people, just heat, and–of course, they are wrestling.

 And that is what I think painting does for me, to express the wrestling.  Not a macho wrestling akin to the “painting-as-battlefield,” of abstract expressionism, but of trying to wrestle a thing into being; wrestling between form and formlessness; between abstraction and representation; between material and image; and the constant wrestling with the constraints of any form of communication.

*end-note–Finally, if, in this Information Age, we are unable to look at individual paintings and assess their individual power, and, instead, must look at the artist’s “project” (Schwabsky) then are we essentially disregarding the potential power of the actual created objects in lieu of the cult of personality which has dominated since Duchamp.  This has the deep potential to descend into an intellectual (academic) game.  If painting becomes fully academic, and yet has no language of criticality, then it will/has become totally impotent.  Or as Hickey, by way of Sontag, would claim, “the “erotics” of art have been wholly supplanted by the language of bureaucratic explanation”–or paintings will be replaced by pictures of paintings?[ii]{C}


[i] Richard Nash. “What is the Business of Literature?” The Virginia Quarterly Review.

Spring 2014

{C}[ii] Dave Hickey. “A World Like Santa Barbara.” Art Issues no63 20-3 Summer 2000