Painting at the end of the world…
Salford, March 6th 2017
Notes from the Undead Flash Salon III, February 18th 2017
On the specificity of originality…
What is essentially particular to the medium of oil paint as we know, and the issue that has been hotly debated for the last 70 years or so since Greenberg, is of course paintings power to create visual illusion. At the heart of any discussion on the medium and its essential capacity or even its essential specificity, should of course be its ability when manipulated to replicate the image, index or sign of a range of subjects and things.
Capacity, specificity or qualities may well diverge or separately parallel each other as dichotomies depending by whom or how the medium is used. Art historical discourse as well as contemporary re-interpretations of older texts on specific ‘isms’ and genres have littered the field with a wide range of ongoing propositions. But at the start we have to begin I feel, by getting back to the absolute point of any kind of painting and that point is of course representation. Even when we appraise an abstract painting we begin with the mark or sign of the mark, we track its movement to open indexical reading about process etc. and so on.
Once we allow ourselves to say representation out loud, for absolutely any kind of painting or any genre of painting we can then move on to discuss other peripheral complexities like choice of subject or lack there of. When looking at painting, we are definitely in the mode of relating the marks we see, to events and actions we understand in the world as common experience.
Now, although we have of course many stylistic branches of the pursuit of representation via the medium, essentially we always come back to the illusions and later on allusions that the painted marks evoke in tandem with subject, no matter what. But that said, I grudgingly suppose we might quickly have to list the ‘what, how and why’ of the discourse of the medium since impressionism, or do we?
In the preface of Painting Beyond Itself: The Medium in Post-medium Condition, Isabelle Graw outlines how, in thinking about painting and the medium before Greenberg went back to discuss Manet, we have to go all the way back to the Renaissance, in order to get to grips with the medium before it met Modernism.1 That might work in terms of thinking about how the mediums use has changed physically, but of course it hardly has at all, so why would we do that?
Mineral pigment mixed with an oil carrier is still the production technique and therefore still the same material syntax then or now give or take hand made versus machine made. What we might be encouraged to assess in the context of usage for image making, are the ways in which looking and recording have often been replaced by external or extrinsic influences, but we come to that here next.
So it might be more helpful to tackle the issue that incredibly, nobody wants to touch and right now for me, that issue is representation and of course its potential nemesis that I’m calling ‘application cliché’.
Traditionally we accuse photography as the root cause of paintings first great liberation in terms of stylistic departures from as accurately as possible modelling observed form. For me, that liberation was only ever from the cliché of formal representation, the slavish copy that required a certain manner and handling of the medium in order to achieve a sign, common to most peoples experience of the thing depicted.
The rational for this exploratory essay, particularly covering that shallow, but ever present dichotomy between representation and abstraction rests in a recent discussion about the medium in its contemporary context, via the painting forum The Undead2. A little bit of context for the Undead forum, is that several changing line-ups of painters are invited together by organisers James Petrucci and Alastair Gordon. The groups discuss contemporary issues pertaining to the medium of paint via a salon style hang of one piece of each of their works with a discussion about the work in context of a suggested topic.
I have been attending these sessions, which occur every 6 months or so for several years. In the most recent session held at Saturation Point in Deptford in which I took part, the opening proposition provided by one of the two organisers Alastair Gordon was: what can we say about the divergence between representation and that old trickster abstraction that is relevant to us today?
Now firstly, one might assume that the gulf between the many modes of the use of the medium, as mentioned and as we will discuss later, would require their own kind of sympathetic discourse. It was however very clear as our particular discussion began to roll, that these genre gulfs or diverging styles are of course intrinsically linked. They are I will propose, again and again as this essay goes along, essentially linked initially and primarily by the idea of, and discourse on, avoiding certain types of application cliché.
Of the group showing work in this particular session, the scope of research goes all the way between paintings that are copies of other paintings and objects from the world, to paintings that are only interested in the primary painted mark or gesture, ie, the one that initially attempts to omit its illusory potential in favour of self reference, to paintings that include all of the above to lesser or greater degrees.
Now as you may guess, the scope of apparent ‘difference’ between intention and style of the painting presented in this forum is massive and it would have been a difficult task to apprehend all the subjective trajectories involved, it was for me, relatively straightforward to ascribe the common denominator of ‘avoidance of cliché’ as a way of thinking through the range of issues involved in choice and production (choice of technique and subject) and where the notion of abstraction or representation as either dichotomies or divergent rested.
As a starting point, let us think about a few examples of painting to unpack the notion of the cliché and open up the terms. We can also discuss how perhaps, its acceptance and rejection, is (the) driving force for the painter. I say this because at the beginning of the Undead discussion, the conversation was focused on the kind of intuitive way in which the painter made decisions about what was working in a #wip and what definitely was not. It seems as though the painters who exclusively employ the primary mark or the gesture or the swoosh in their works, most often have the dialogue both internally and in discussion, about the notion of right and wrong occurring in painting. That said, the issue is also occurring on a smaller scale with those involved in specific kinds of representation.
So, to make that a little bit clearer; many painters in the Undead group began the conversation about their painting, in response to Alastair Gordon’s question, by stating that they personally were often involved with the repetitive application of a daub, a swoosh, or a gesture etc. Some painters were making a mark only to remove it and try applying it again and again etc. There is a moment of choice that allows the painter to move on to the next bit. That choice comes from an internal satisfaction with said daub, swoosh etc. The genre we are discussing here in particular is normally described in what is for me the rather out-dated term of abstraction. I say this because of course we now most commonly engage with the kind of abstraction discussed by Greenberg, as a thing of the past, common to a particular moment in history, and therefore a kind of style or genre.
To the casual observer, this desire to remove the ‘wrong’ kind of mark may be superfluous, in that to the casual observer, the fields of marks associated with abstract expressionism or action painting pretty much all look the same give or take difference in scale and colour. However, as we well know of painters from the past and present this cognitive ‘struggle’ or ‘fight’ is as intertwined in painting as the wet stuff itself. And indeed, the casual observer may well laugh at the painter when they discuss the usability of the medium in terms of the ‘magic’ that happens in the studio or on the canvas when a work goes well. But how are we, or they, to quantify this feeling of something going well?
In a recent interview for Artspace3, curator at MoMA New York Laura Hoptman, (who also happens to be the curator of the recent painting blockbuster The Forever Now) discusses what the state of painting is currently, but more significantly for this essay, what makes a good or bad painting. Good, bad, working not working can sound the same, but painters get irritated easily so lets give it a bigger, slower unpacking.
The recent trend for Slack-straction, crap-straction and Zombie Formalism seems to have made a lot of painters and critics both very happy and very anxious in equal measure. Firstly, the trend for zombies is so hot right now, because the human race faces a likely demise quite soon. More importantly than that, and more hum-drum is that this kind of slacker nihilistic and very cynical historically appropriative response by painting to cultural shifts, is purely market focused, and is making a lot of people a lot of money. I might also suggest that any inert meaning, is a washed out meaning taken from work of previous decades, but not that recycling is without contemporary connectivity.
In the interview Hoptman outlines how she feels that ‘belief’ is the ‘thing’ that separates good painting from bad. For Hoptmann, belief is the quality a painter exhibits through the act of painting. Belief is the thing that for her also seems to sit in the index of the painting after creation, in that for her, something in the painting points towards an ongoing and embedded discussion about specific struggle of application in a painters body of work.
Belief is a strange choice of word, and aside from its quasi religious connotations, also falls into my laughing lap because it just so happens to fit nicely with my theory that the romantic Modernist struggle painting was riddled with back in the 30’s and 40’s, is alive and well, but now we call it right and wrong, working not working and belief.
Get me? Lets clarify.
Painters often talk about something working during #wip as mentioned above. There is an intuitive kind of nag that many painters feel or hear. We have to respond to it, in order to be happy with the painting and know when the thing is finished or what to do next. This nag, I feel is very likely the painter’s knowledge of art history, assessing the level of cliché or repeat of existing syntax present in the marks and shapes they have created on the canvas.
Lets unpack a bit more. When painting a portrait of a grandparent for example, one might think that a simple likeness or closeness to the common experience in how the grandparent should be represented visually is enough. It may well be. But quite often painters will attempt to use a series of particular marks to make up that representation, that also have an index of their own, that become external to the common experience of the way somebody looks. They do this mixing of indexical signs, to breathe some other dimension into the portrait. They imbue the subject with something external or extrinsic via index created by brushwork, that can simultaneously be read as intrinsic to the character of the sitter. For those not so familiar with the term index or indexical sign, I am using the Peircian4 model that assigns the implicit presence of a hidden other that is extrinsic and unseen. An example of that in this context would be the brushstroke on a canvas, where the brush that made it, as well as the painter, is absent from view. The indexical sign embedded in the brush-mark therefore points towards a chain of other objects and actions not in our immediate sight, yet all responsible for bringing the thing in question into existence. The smoke trail in the sky, from the unseen aeroplane, is another example. Therefore the vigorous brushwork used in a portrait has the index of this application present, even though physically we don’t experience the actual application.
In the text Thinking Through Painting Isabelle Graw outlines the notion of the finished painting as a quasi-person5. Bound up in the Marxist idea of Labour, Graw implies that the artist leaves time labour value behind in the painting that acts as a kind of value trace and index of the artist herself. We can also add to this indexical sign of labour the notion that the painting as it forms, is also perhaps independently ‘telling’ the artist to do certain things. Index is further acquired according to application technique of the paint. Finally, combined with subject or the common experience being represented, we end up with a very complex set of circumstances. This complex personality an artwork assumes then, is an amalgam of indexical signifiers largely extrinsic to the subject, or in this case, the grandparent who was our sitter. Add them all together and we perhaps achieve this quasi-person, made from a range of indexical signs.
Now of course we began talking about cliché and suddenly we are talking about semiotic analysis, but this is perhaps the key. As the painter makes her mark on the canvas, that gesture reads like chain of visual language, anchored via the indexical reach of each daub in concert with others. We could list some of that index such as; big brush, small brush, fast application, deliberate application, lots of turpentine, a month old, 60 years old, interrupted, repetitive, soft pressure, hard pressure etc. etc. My proposal is, that it is the index of each mark that the painter responds to initially, internally or cognitively in that, if all marks share one in the same back story, rhetoric or index there is a nag that forms in the mind, in order to re-set intention, away from the mono-syllabic or mono-index, away from a one-liner, away from cliché.
The modernist idea of some magic and listening, a little bit of the intuitively arcane plus oil plus pigment pervades both historic and contemporary painting like a bad smell. Bullshit smells. It seems like a shame that such intense thinking and deliberation during construction be reduced to a cliché. So what do painters really mean when they talk about these issues? Hoptman might call it belief, I might call it bullshit, so lets try and think objectively at least once.
In a tutorial several years ago, I told a painting student who was particularly flummoxed by the painting they were working on, that if they listened carefully, it (the painting) would eventually tell them what it wanted and what to do next. Of course really all I meant was to take a break and some distance and think formally about composition, rhythm and index etc. Perhaps this is what we do have hanging over us from the cliché of Modernist painting, what we inherited mostly. It is the idea that the artist has some kind of inert intuitive genius. Today (just so happens to be international women’s day) we don’t like to flirt with that idea of the macho genius white man, alone in the studio, struggling with his brushes etc. Instead we might like to prefer to think about the artist who is socially and politically savvy, not too, pushy, or sulky, not too poor and not too male or white? Never the less, because anybody who is over or around 40 years old, was taught painting in the post-Bauhaus model via art education, we all know too well that famous male painters since Picasso through Richter, all shook it about in agonised fashion in the studio, in order to make a painting work. (I’m laughing).
So, not to be too hard or judgemental on anyone anywhere with this proposal, the recent Undead forum quickly proved that of course something much more complex was occurring than the cliché of Modernist painting. We can assign some of that bravado above as part of a cliché of the painter persona that pervades our contemporary culture. We have all seen the biopic of Van Gogh and Basquiat. The complexity of the elimination of all that surface stuff above is what the Undead group started to try to level out or level off in the opening gambits of conversation. It becomes clear that also this eradication of the ‘fluff of the mode’ continues, likely via the auto-ethnographic drive6 into the marks they make and images they choose.
Whether representational or not painters try their best to avoid the kinds of mark that can be attributed via external index to either; certain other painters or certain well mapped moves or measures of skill in paint handling. That each mark is individually loaded with its own external rhetoric is not really my issue here. Rather, it is the intrinsic or self-referential rhetoric of the material in and of itself that peaked my interest in the Undead discussion; more specifically, how painters try to deal only or solely with the inert dialogue of the medium?
In the flight from cliché then, or, stuff that has already been done, what might be the issue for some, is that there are of course ways in which paint can be applied, in order that it no longer looks like paint, or should I say, that the volume of the brushwork and therefore the artists persona and potential index has been turned down towards elimination.
At the point of elimination of external rhetoric and indexical signs due to the absence of brushwork or handwriting we enter a well trodden but exciting never the less territory. When we think about painters like Rothko or Riley, Still or Martin we first and foremost have to consider a totality of the medium and its phenomenological capacity. These painters use the illusory qualities of very austere shape or colour to excite something beyond those commonly recognised and represented experiences and forms. The specific phenomena associated with either field painting or optical art are so because they firstly disallow a common interpretation due to lack of subject, but also because the brush-marks and therefore index of application is all but eliminated. They avoid the pitfalls of cliché, in that each stroke can be less measured or count less, therefore not essentially at all a contributor to the whole that in a way liberates the whole. What I mean is that if you take away the need for individual flourishes necessary to represent a thing or be the thing itself, you eliminate two forms of cliché from the get go.
This brings me quite neatly to the next part, where I want to add a little more about the notion of struggle with painting in an historic way ala Pollock versus where we are now and back to Alastair Gordons opening question.
What is important in the representational vs abstraction dichotomy for us today?
The recent trend for zombie formalism, as a way to re-tread the stylistic footsteps of late Modernism and generate a new wave of painting sales is all well and good. But what it also does by default, is re-set popular taste, trending it away for a second or third time from representation, a genre that is of course riddled with 500 years of cliché, in favour again of the primary mark and a cleaner more knowing washed out version of Modernism. Representation is cliché in that there are really only so many ways in which one can depict common experience before it becomes repetitive, boring, or even down right bad painting. Interestingly, what has also very recently trended out of zombie formalism, is what Charley Peters, a painter present at the Undead forum labelled Mac-straction. You heard that term here first.
Now lets just re-cap before we discuss the term Mac-straction any further. The thrust of this short story so far is that perhaps the dialogue with, and avoidance of cliché in mark making and representation is the hidden force that pushes the painter forward. The avoidance and rejection of certain collections of marks to control rhetorical tropes, the repetition of marks to build certain indexical signifiers, are some of the issues lightly touched upon so far. Admittedly this is a bit like making mountains out of molehills but if we want to understand some of the driving forces at play today in the specificity of the medium where better to start, considering we haven’t really mentioned a lot specifically regarding actual content so far.
So the title of this word count was on the specificity of originality. I guess that the next turn has to be to fluidly move all these thoughts towards a conclusive statement. Application cliché and its avoidance in the way I outlined it, is very possibly the main drive in the specific inner dialogue that a painter has during #wip. It isn’t magic, or anything to do with fighting. It is perhaps the very specific and sharp understanding that good painters have with the indexical capacity of their medium. Broadly, in the old discourses on medium specificity, paint has the same capacity as film or music or photography to embed extrinsic rhetoric via indexical signage. The worst thing about the medium of paint is that it is emphatic and therefore partially mono-syllabic. It cant switch between bass and drums, but it can switch between swoosh and stipple. It cant imply that it questions truth in the way photography does because it is already saturated with mediation and external index, but it can lucidly fantasize, focus and distort. So with that in mind it continues to move forward.
Now, if you take a look at your computer screen, take a look at the representation of the common experience of pages and space and how we understand things overlapping we can finish up by talking about mac-straction. In the Groysian sense, the new7 ways in which cliché is being overcome thanks to technology and zombie formalism is right there. Maybe you are looking at this text in facebook, or a word doc or on some online journal (who knows). Likely, if you are like me, you have at least five windows open at the same time. You probably already know about the little drop shadows they have on their edges, those soft signs of shadow and therefore overlap. The indexical sign remember, of the shadow would be that some external light behind you casts it. You might also realise that it is absurd, that a flat screen made from plasma that emits light towards you, would pretend that somehow it is lit from without, behind you, bouncing light backwards into the screen in order to cause those shadows. If it (the screen) were telling the truth, those shadows would of course all be on the back of all your window pages, that’s how it is set up right, light coming out not in? But that would be silly wouldn’t it, because you wouldn’t see them, nor appreciate all that clever programming because the pages aren’t three-dimensional or real?
Much contemporary painting, and I mean 2015 to today, is using that bent logic, much the same as it always has. Paintings don’t emit light do they? They get light or photons refracted on their surface so any shadow should be…where…? I’m laughing again. Think about it, the logic of the painting has always been looking on or looking at the conditions of light illusion from without at a scene also lit broadly in the same direction of outside in. What painters who reference the backward logic of the plasma screen are doing is nothing new for painting, only the reference and therefore the cliché is different. Now as mentioned Boris Groys wrote a great text about the New vs the Different in Art Power, but what he didn’t mention was the notion of trending and that word fresh. The fresh allusion to the Mac screen and all its crisp lines, bright light and fake shadow borrows all the indexical signs that ever there were from the traditional use of the medium of paint, and now painting is quickly taking it all back and throwing it back out as something different, something stylistically new that involves a re-set of a range of technique ‘newly’ juxtaposed.
The large flatly painted surfaces of Laura Owens for example, use a windows-like representation, in that the common experience of the representation comes from computer screens. The vast flatly painted sections, even though of analogue newspaper broadsheets, act as though they are the same flat voids of an Agnes Martin therefore phenomenological via scale and our unwillingness to engage with the text that we assume is a mere tonal device. Cliché daubs are still present, but washed and laundered via Photoshop to within an inch of their own validity. These facets of multi-banal content combine visually or aesthetically into a Mac-straction of contemporary visual culture and current milieu.
So it goes on. The Undead discussion then, lasted about 2 hours before lunch, in which some of this, with a little hindsight, was pushed around. I don’t want to close this discussion down or even the original one with thoughts on simple originality, but that said it is the outcome. The painter mostly listens to her own internal voice, that I assume comes from prior knowledge of trends in painting since the 1850’s and the individual auto-ethnographic drive. The push and pull between representation and abstraction continues as long as painters examine indexical signs created in endless cycles via the medium. What we can take from the current condition is that there are still ways to out-manoeuvre cliché in both representation and abstraction and therefore stagnation and cliché.
And all this before we mention the subject, subjectivity and subjecthood.
4 Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1931-58. Collected Papers vol2 Elements of Logic. Harvard University Press. Cambridge MA
5 Graw, I. Birnbaum, D. et al. 2012. Thinking Through Painting: Reflexivity and Agency Beyond the Canvas. Sternberg. Berlin
6 Autoethnography is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze personal experience in order to understand cultural experience. This approach challenges canonical ways of doing research and representing others and treats research as a political, socially-just and socially-conscious act. A researcher uses tenets of autobiography and ethnography to do and write autoethnography. Thus, as a method, autoethnography is both process and product. http://www.qualitativeresearch.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095
7 Groys, Boris. 2008. Art Power. MIT Press. Cambridge, MA
1 Graw, I. Lajer-Burcharth, E. 2016. Painting Beyond Itself: The Medium in the Post-medium Condition. Sternberg, Berlin