Painting or Why can’t a cat look like a cactus?
It occurs to me that artists and makers seem to be of a mind to assert a need for change; we are living in a time of renamed ‘ecologies’ and drives for ‘sustainability’, even the ‘ecological self’ as Suzi Gablik wrote. But for this to come into being we need to change our thinking about art in a foundational way, but not necessarily our means of making, art does not have to become ephemeral, or be made from detritus, or to have a self-consciously unschooled look.
Many artists, Gallerists, curators, image makers and advertisers seem to want to induce us to accept only graphic representational images; Photographic, Photo-shopped, tag-like, clip-art, built up in fashionable method and colour seem to be de rigueur. We are drowning in thousands upon thousands of images of things, in a sort of picture-overkill for the soul. We lose our sense of beauty, our sense for diversity, invention and for the integrity of individual vision, are we only to accept artworks confirming what we already know? What of the lessons of the twentieth century, a century of ground breaking innovation and invention in the arts? Are we turning away from this hard won landscape, are we sliding into banality blown on the breath of previous passion.
The Czech photographer Miroslav Tichý said to be famous one only has to do ones thing badly, the more badly taken and abused the photograph, the more famous the photographer will become. We need only see one blurry grey painting, out of the hundreds, of Gerhardt Richter to see the truth in this statement. If we can produce an oil painting like a poorly made black and white photograph, well we’ll have it made. Richter is a very good painter, but even he, not wanting to be known as a one trick pony, began his colossal colour explorations; I think to be nurtured by colour and more significantly, for Richter, the accidental. But I find his approach too critical, too cynical with his claims to a democratic art, he finishes a piece, according to his sensibilities, and all can see there is nothing more to be done. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of totalitarianism. When has one artist’s sensibility become that of all onlookers, surely the beauty arises in diversity not in monoculture?
One hundred years ago artists basked in the notion that Europe stood on the verge of a cultural revolution, poised on the cusp of a new era. They were entering a time when ‘colour’ would come into its own as a means of expression, and this new direction meant artists would engage with and articulate their inner lives. As Picasso said; – “I saw that everything had been done. One had to break to make one’s revolution and start from zero. I made myself go towards the new movement.” The ‘New art’ as defined by Sonia Delaunay “… will really begin when we understand that colour has an existence of its own, that its infinite combinations have a poetry and a poetic idiom far more expressive than anything else that has ever existed”. Delaunay and the Orphists championed the use of colour to express inner experiences, not only tied to outer phenomena, colours not only tied to things, colours and forms expressing personal feelings and intentions. For Kandinsky the blue triangle represented an objective truth; the united aspirations of a whole culture, the very tip being the impulse of the artist leading the way forward to the new world.
The contemporary artist Ian McKeever makes a convincing case for the need to look beyond mere representation, he describes a world where we are drowning in images quoting an idea from a William S. Burroughs short story where photography is stealing and diminishing the light from the world. McKeever feels acutely responsible for the images he creates, not wishing to burden us with more deadening art, he strives to create paintings which have what he calls ‘countenance’. McKeever creates art which has a threshold character, where things float free of the canvas, in a forward projecting space, he calls this ‘Frontality’. This, also demonstrated superbly in the works of Mark Rothko, allows the viewer to be ‘met’ by the artwork. McKeever speaks further of this ‘countenance’, as a mysterious, new presence in the world, at once arresting, uplifting and sublime. Not as in pictorial art which is at once imitative and revisits conventional territories.
For the abstract artist Sean Scully his painting is about everything, he’s painting the human condition, no less, where feeling is imbricated between the brushstrokes. For Ian McKeever a painting is a thing of mystery, just as the human face is a thing of mystery. I’m minded again of the words of the father of abstraction Wassily Kandinsky; –“…every serious work is tranquil…Every serious work resembles in poise the quiet phrase, “I am here.” Like or dislike for the work evaporates; but the sound of that phrase is eternal…” art becomes a timeless presence in the world.
What is contemporary painting? Does it exist as a banal stimulator of habitual conceptions and known apprehensions, enshrining art forms where instantly recognisable images, created in slick or offhand ways, bereft of mystery and meaning? Or, is it an art made merely as a cynical game of redactions, derivations, deviations and snubbed dialogues, a mad ‘one-upmanship’ of fragmented references to dis-imbued, devalued icons – religious, artistic, cultural and sub-cultural? The French intellectuals post modern drubbing of any meta-dialogue which is not their own banal, cynical gruel, has led to the ransacking of cultural values and banished beauty to the darkened corners of artistic practice, the spotlight falling on the truly banal. Whereas my delight is in finding artistic statements which glow with beauty and mystery, and this is what my painting practice is about – a passionate, personal journey of the re-discovery of beauty?
My real concerns are that some artists work out of necessity and a will to represent the world and their experience of living in a way which is not reliant on pictorial realism. Due to this their ‘skills’ cannot be judged as readily as a representational artist, (in this school a cat looks like a cat) where one may ask ‘why does that cat look like a cactus? Why are artists who share the need to make art in response to and from, intuitions and inner responses and not pictorial clichés and graphic illusions, sidelined?
The activity of painting is hard is articulate, as any statement cannot be definitive, as it describes a creative process, and unless one is bound to conventions and too formed technique, this is an evolving, creative procedure. As the Rumanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi so sagely stated ‘The world of art expresses precisely those things which do not die. It must do so, however, in the form that bears witness to the artist’s own era.’ His great abstracted works only arrived once he had left the shadow of Rodin and his overtly figurative art. So, we must be in our time but not of it, perhaps dots and the skull motif must have their day but fashion is short lived.
There is more, much more to the work of the non-representational artist. When I work at my best I am not bound by the girth of my own limited and finite reason. To borrow an analogy from William Blake, who depicted Isaac Newton with compass dividers in hand, imprisoned by matter, locked into materialistic thought. Blake saw much more than a clockwork universe, believing that the imagination is key to human experience; Blake understood art is that thing which leaps beyond the bounded, for him only the freed imagination gave rise to the artistic. As that other great Romantic poet Novalis said ‘Fire is that thing which leaps perpetually beyond itself’.
So, what is it I do? I explore my experience of living and the limits of materials whilst engaged in the act of creation. This act is a reflexive one, as I build relationships, of colour, texture, tone, transparency and opacity, light and darkness, gravity and levity, and most importantly Chance. Reminiscent, sometimes in despair of making an original thing, of Virginia Woolfe’s thought; “I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.” When I am in the ‘flow’ of work I reach new things, new answers to the questions of painting, deeply involved in the process, passionately focussed in the present moment and in the ‘life’ of the work, where one colour demands another, for balance, or to vivify, and one movement and intervention suggests another to deepen the piece, or simplify and resolve an unsatisfactory passage.
The painting shows me what it needs by which area is calling my attention back from the whole work. There needs to be a balance between these centres and the whole, this balance can be a tension held in the piece, like a taught wire which will resonate and sing at different pitches depending on the tightening or slackening of the whole. Kandinsky called the world a ‘Sounding Cosmos’; – “The World sounds. It is a cosmos of spiritually active beings. Even dead matter is living spirit”, this shows such a lively, musical, appreciation of life and the creative energies all around us.
There are many answers to the question of painting, it is a constantly evolving conversation, both an inductive and intuitively evolving process; and one that is not dependent upon anything that exists in the outer world but is intimately connected to that outer world. As McKeever put it – Is the painting the meeting point of the world out there and in here, and if so, what is the edge that separates me from the world out there? “What is the kernel of oneself? What is that edge? What is me… further to this “What if truth be found in painting”?
For me it is in the actual making of the piece where art becomes more than the mere sum of its known parts. If one is fired with the implications of this thought you can create a piece of art which will resonate with things beyond the self. Such a piece will grow in depth as we live and grow with it, gathering more and deeper implications. A true piece of art will meet each new generation and maintain its own uniquely resonant life, calling ever new and relevant questions to young and enquiring minds and also bring a greater appreciation of beauty and therefore humanity with it.