I suppose my interests lately reside in content since I tend to think that content is just as crucial as form in the contribution of what makes a good painting. Perhaps that is why I am drawn to talking about painting and its influences, rather than being satisfied with recourse to a vacuous actuality of formal based work?
I have never been a convert to the notion of dead or passive matter. I have sought in painting to make matter into images in a way that releases the potency of material to work on its own accord, and I as the agent of the eye and the hand have taken on the role of receptor of that confluence of forces.
I’m not interested in vapid materialism. How may it be that materiality becomes a condition in which content may emerge at all? How is it that material can aggregate itself into meaning?
Something ought to be said about the actual processes of the medium – of handling and glimpsing of the medium, etc. It is a pity that one may equate saying something about the process and the means of handling materials with adhering inevitability to a base materialism, as if emphasizing the former necessarily implies the latter – as if emphasis on the “formalist” pursuit insinuates dead matter. I am against “formalist” analysis that conceives of matter as dead, passive, inert, or indifferent, and the Apollian aesthetic of strict “positivism” that accompanies it. On the contrary to this dead matter, the direct experience of a painter painting is often met with a feeling that matter solicits and that it has an agency, and that it is alive. Painters don’t know the how, they just do.
Aversion to vacuous actuality of dead matter, and admiration for vibrancy in matter, is still in keeping with art’s self-reflexivity. Self-relexivity need not be a base materialist interpretation – a kind of ascetic reductionism evacuating content as if the content is a parasite feeding on “pure” painting. This is an unoriginal modernist interpretation.
What one may see is not only a reflex to self-definition, since there also exists a content, and it may be that what is exclusive to a medium is what gives it the force to convey a content – perhaps it could even be specific to its register. There is certain content that is perhaps best expressed through certain mediums.
Painting is a great medium for the exacerbated consciousness to be placed in a crucible of composition. This remains the contemporary orientation of painting in keeping with the painting as scaffold for the artist’s identity. The question for me is not form or content, since if I am merely after form then I am pretty much only making decoration, and if I am merely after content, then why is painting relevant at all? The matter at hand is a concentrated form as equally the interiority of the content is just as crucial as the formal orientation.
Consider something about the handling of the medium. Every painter will handle material differently, of course, but handling is always the work of approbation of other painters living and dead. This will weigh upon handling but there are also their factors, and those are our own painterly habits. “Anxiety of influence” aside, those of us who handle this medium of painting are constantly up against not only the stunted prejudices of the academic (which is now postmodernist), but also up against all of our own encumbered means, our usual habits, and our
entrenched hermeneutics of material. Handling of material is a foremost difficultly if we’re to not merely talk process but actually give ourselves up to painting and follow where it leads. Our own rigid schemes, especially our process literalism, is even more of a transgression against our own best interests (if we take our task seriously, that is).
You could ask, why take it seriously? I cannot answer that question. You either do or your don’t. What I can say, however, is that mere cleverness, flatulent spectacle, and having a laugh have become the System itself – the official salon of the globalized Warholian/Koonsian art world with its postmodernist academies and its careerist networks – and that System seeks to banalize everything and render any serious matter of the human condition not only not worth the bother, but completely meaningless. The message is don’t think too much and for heavens sake, don’t be “pretentious” by claiming some profoundity. Of course, this attitude becomes the pretentious sentiment of the supposed anti-pretentious clique. The last thing this System would ever want would be for you to take art seriously, since at that point all of the post-Duchamp trash that passes for contemporary art becomes just as worthless in quality as all intuitive suspicion had hinted, and the house of cards collapses. Oh well, content is constantly ground up in this machine, and it rarely survives. That is why it ought to be guarded.
It is better that a painter does not sell. Rothko once said that painting is a fragile thing and that sending it off into the world is a dangerous thing – it is dangerous for the painting, its content, and the painter who painted it – this is obvious in the contemporary machine of the Art System that eat up and spits out work like vomit of an already dead culture. It is more of a blessing for a painter to be relatively unknown, even providential. The latter term took on a negative value in theory – relevance is only found at the center, in the belly of the City, and the providential, the peripheral, even the self-imposed exile of art, is of no consequence to this Art System. Despite how postmodernism feigns appropriation of the periphery, it only survives by making its own tyranny over the territory of aesthetics. Success and failure in painting is not measured by careerism, financial rewards, exhibitions and the numbers of the herd attending. Succes is only in good painting. Painters paint for other painters living and dead, and for a handful of people who see, and not merely look, at painting. Success or failure of painting resides in this sphere of influence and in no other.
And what of the glimpse of painting? This occurs at the other end of painting – at the level of reception, perception, and immediacy. The glimpse is a flash of seeing and specifically of seeing the entire thing at once. That is the charm of painting, which unlike other mediums has the ability to be a forceful instant. The glimpse displaces time, or the duration of literary understanding, but this displacement is not the same as expunging content in favor of a shallow formalism. The content of painting persists within this transformative instant. It is compressed down and poured into that small opening of the flash, where all at once the entire image lights up.
So, handling and the glimpse, and perhaps a third term which at first sight may be hidden from view: withdrawal. It is hidden from view precisely because it stays concealed. Withdrawal is present in that mixture of handling of material and the reception of the glimpse, calling attention to both, and specifically to each and the other’s inadequacy of conveying fully. It is that which aggravates a smooth handling of material, as if handling could be perfected and merely executed without hindrance or hardship. In this context, withdrawal is that concealed force pulling on a painting and on the struggle of its manifestation. Further, it is that which agitates the glimpse, exceeding the ability of pinning down totally what is seen, as if the beholder could wholly take account of everything. Withdrawal is that which slips away. It is manifest between the material reading and the idealized scheme as in a hidden position. It is that which is present but is always concealed, giving a good painting the ability to solicit repeatedly, as that which keeps us ‘coming back for more’, so to speak. We return to a good painting over and over again because we sense the concealed nature. It is that which is present within the work that persists as
a remainder, or as a surplus to seeing and interpretation. Withdrawal is the mystery of painting.
In the end, withdrawal is the very reason painters continue to go on painting, as if they are chasing something they can never quite catch up to, or as if they are always a few steps behind. Withdrawal pours into the painter’s consciousness as inadequacy: that each painting is felt inadequate, as if inevitably evading a total reading that could be the sum of the entire game. It is the mystery that the creative type locates within their body of work that is precisely not locatable, and that pushes them forward to explore the territory and to continue to create.
I am of the opinion that these three things – handling, glimpse, withdrawal – are the crucial constitution of a good painting. The painter must handle the material in a way that evokes a quality of matter. The painter must glimpse the painting in a flash in order to create, and the beholder must glimpse the painting in a flash in order to truly see the painting, and not merely look at it. The painter must acknowledge withdrawal, as that which evades their mapping of territory – as that mystery that makes them paint.