Today I was working on two paintings, both diptychs with each panel being 8x4ft, so each painting is 8x8ft. They are not finished, which is why it is a good time to write the blog. When a painting is finished ideas have, hopefully, coalesced. Certainly the aesthetic has, because you have sealed something off and locked it in, stopped the clock. But in the midst of painting everything is possible, the painting can go anywhere. This is not the same as a blank canvas. A blank canvas has an empty kind of infinity of possibilities, it is an infinity that means nothing. But a half finished canvas is something which already has a history, a range of thinking and marks which come loaded with options and throw up all kinds of possibilities. It is when things are open, why the mind is working itself up into a fever of options whilst also trying to find a clarity of thought to bring thing to a closure. When I have left the studio on a day like today my head hurts, because I am trying to both remember what a painting is like, juggle the associations in my head, explore the possible range of places it can go and things it might be about and also, in the case of a painting like this, have a sense of how the surface and marks might shift and change in the corse of an evening. This is an attempt to provide a biography of a painting, but a biography that also tries to explore what the future might hold, when the death of its existence as a shifting form arrives and its life as a static object begins.
The boards each have a life of their own, each one has had different surfaces and textures in mind. One board is a black and white surface with nods to NASA images of moonscapes and early photographic techniques. More specifically I have had two visual references in mind. First, the images emerging from Philae; the robotic lander that accompanied the Rossetta Spacecraft and then proceeded to land on the comet 67p/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Secondly, William Fox Tablot’s photograph of a latticed window in Lacock Abbey. The images, from 1835, is the oldest photographic negative made in a camera.
It is worth thinking of the root of the word camera as a room, with an eye or a window looking out. Talbot’s image, therefore, seems to speak directly about the very nature of its making, a camera being a window opening and closing and looking a moment in a room to be held on another window of the negative. Photography is the magic of capturing light and time. The black and white surfaces are of shifting forms, as if replicating the early chemical photographic processes when light and liquids work there way across a paper, finding and light and burning dark, before settling into image and form.
Another of the boards nods towards flesh, or the depiction of flesh. De Kooning famously said ‘flesh is the reason oil paint was invented’, as its sticky oily form so closely resembles the very nature of flesh itself. Flesh is central to painting and central to medicine, so surgical images and processes come to mind. Flesh as meat, flesh as a mask and flesh as the skin of our bodies architecture are all important. Wider biomedical imaging techniques come to mind in another of the MDF boards, flesh and the body as it is seen by the eye of medicine. Professor Martin Kemp’s book ‘Seen/Unseen’ charts a brilliant history of the relationship between such imaging techniques and art, citing the history as a history of human vision. The most obvious examples are x-rays, MRI and CAT scans, all of which have not only shifted how our body can be repaired but how we see and perceive ourselves. Of particular interest to me are the processes images of our body are put through in order to help medical professional read and understand the images. MRI, scanners, for instance use magnetic fields and radio waves to form images of the body. The images might then be colored in relation to certain data sets in order to make images easier to read/comprehend for diagnosis. The color schemes will often play on a spectrum of extreme tonal contrasts, using highly saturated colors with a spectrum of complimentary colors to make distinctions as clear as possible. As such the images are often have an unreal or hyperreal quality, because that is exactly what they are. Artists such as Daniel Richter seem to reflect these new forms of color and light in their paintings, as if depicting zombified, radioactive Carvaggio figures, like a clown put through an Instagram disco filter. It was this play on high contrasts, both in terms of tone and colour which I wanted to explore in some of the panels, in direct contrast to the greyscale panels. It means trying to split the layering of the image into two halves in terms of process and in how I think of it visually. This might mean, for instance, having some areas which push contrast to extremes, and as a result stripe out colour, whilst other areas that push opposing colours, such as purples and yellows. There is the possibility of combining both by shifting the purples towards a deep end and the yellows towards light. But the splitting allows you to have a greater sense of contrast, as the lack of tonal contrast in parts and colour contrast in other parts just gives even more emphasis to the polarities. This is what we see when we open the body up, not by a knife, but by the non invasion technologies of modern biomedical imaging techniques. It is the magical realism of medicine.
One of the other boards is just simply driven by an old marble I found from my childhood collection when I cleared out my dads house. Marbles are remarkable things and memories complicated ones. Each marble reads like a small world, a portal to a personal psychological network.
All of this is what the boards are informed by. Non of this is what the boards are about. It is about subject rather than content, and a type of subject which is not necessarily on the surface, but a subject which is the driver of a visual approach rather than any desire to have it revealed explicitly. Plato spoke about the dangers of art as a mimetic tool, of it being two steps removed from the purity of the idea of a thing, an image being a poor removal from that truth. The removals interest me, finding a point where the truth has taken so many steps that it no longer even seems to want to replicate the thing. It is at the root of most forms of abstraction, in which looking and image (or the subject) are the start point and the driver of a journey rather than the destination itself.
So I come to these boards above with a few things in my mind. Firstly the contextual package outlined above. Secondly the surfaces that now are present in front of me and all the visual suggestions and possibilities they present. I have to shift from author to reader of the surface, no longer thinking of it as driven by the subject mentioned above but viewing it afresh and thinking of the things it does visually, the spaces opened up, the forms shaping, the relationships between color and tone. Which means the surfaces, at this stage are full.
“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from”
I start with memories of the visit to the Late Turner (painting set free) exhibition currently on at Tate Britain. The exhibition is, predictably, amazing. It would be hard to hang a series of late Turner masterpieces and for it to not work, but it is particularly well curated. I knew some of the paintings quite well already, but to see so many in one space was instrumental. Every image is so clearly a very particular moment in time and space, with the light and the place so clear unique and so wonderful observed and captured in terms of observation but even more important expressiveness. The paintings teach, revealing the magic, whilst still making it feel tantalising beyond reach, like a kind of alchemy. He is able to hold and capture light and turn it into substance. It is mysticism made real, Transubstantiation with nature as the body of Christ and Turner’s paintings as the sacrament of the Eucharist.
So I look to take something specific as my start point, but rather than nature itself I take one of Turner’s paintings, this guides the next layer of the painting in terms of light, composition, energy, marks, tone and colour. The colour plate in the catalogue acts like a trigger for the memory of being stood in front of the real thing.
All of this information provides a subject and a visual model for the marks and surface I will lay down on top of four of the MDF boards. They are laid on the floor in the studio. Large swathes of the surface are covered in white paint, which is poured on. It has been mixed into a variety of consistencies, so passages or opaque and viscous and others transparent and flowing. A variety of blues are mixed into pots then pour, splatter and flicked onto areas of the surfaces. A spectrum of oranges follow. In parts the orange mixes with the blue to form passages of grey. In other the white remains untouched, colourless passage of high tone. In some parts the orange is expansive and so dense and saturated that it glows. Some blue remains untouched and parts of that flow that veins through passages of the underlying surface. The process continues, with broadly white, oranges and blues being layered up. Mini rivers of paint shift across the surface, thick chunks of paint flow along and leave traces marks behind. The topography of the painting is shaping. The opposing colours are relating and interrelating, finding the balance of what is present where and how thing relate and mix with each other is key, how things are form and break down.
The paintings feels like a landscape viewed from above. Everything feels leden as observing it the image is so clearly responding to the logic of gravity. When the painting dries and the surfaces are lifted from the horizontal to the vertical there will be an indexical shift. Pollocks best paintings are the master of playing on this change of register, of finding a weightlessness.
Painting is about loss. Everything mentioned above that may or may not have been present in the surface which has been covered beneath a new layer of paint. Painting is about transience, it is a still surface which speaks about a form that was previously a moving one. A painting is a history that keeps being erased and driving forward, echoes may be left and time passing hinted at in builds up of texture and surface, but what is lost is far great than what is left. On a more simple visual level this is about opacity and transparency, what is revealed and what is concealed. In this case passages of what I am laying down may be transparent, but by the end no hint of the surface that was present at the start of the day is left at all. Any transparency merely reveals the early stages in this new transformation.
The surfaces reminds me of skies and rivers, with the light in the painting particularly reminiscent of light at dusk. I think of runs along the canal in stratford, along the thames, down the coast path at Tor Cross in Devon, the river in Cambridge and the river in Oxford. Running in each place at dusk is to view how light shifts as you move through time and space, to see the breaking of light across the sky and water and through trees and architectural spaces. It is to see the last hold of blue in the day and the breaking of the sun into strands of oranges. I want all of these visual experience in the painting, rather than anyone one particular one.
Such imagery always makes me think of Michael Andrews Thames Estuary paintings. They are elegies to the dissolution of time, painted at the very end of Michael Andrews life, a quiet mourning for the inevitability of lifes passing and fragility. I think of a particular time I was stood in front of the painting at Pallant House Gallery. I was lucky enough to have a small solo show at Pallent House a few years ago. The PV was a combination of a few exhibition openings. I was in a very strange space personally, close to some kind of breakdown and the lowest ebb I have every experienced. I attended the PV alone, not mentioning it to anyone. It was a celebratory evening but one I did not enjoy. I was stood in the hive of activity that marks such openings just looking around at the mechanics of such an event. Chatter, drink, almost no concern for any art and the type of vapidness which makes me so dislike huge swaths of the philosophical geography of the art world. It was the first time I have cried stood in front of a painting. There were lots of external stimuli but the emotional intensity seemed, for that moment, utterly located in the image, but in a strangely euphoric and transcendental way. A painting was doing exactly what I had always believed painting could do from when I first saw Rothko, first read Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale and first started painting. Until that moment it had always been hypothetical and idealistic, a Romantic pretension, an emo narcissism.
The Michael Andrews anecdote makes me think of another moment, visiting the Turner Contemporary in Margate with Kiran when the Tracey Emin exhibition was on. The building has a row of tall windows looking out across the sea. At the time Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’ was on display there. We stood for about ten minutes looking out, on a day when the sea, the sky and the light seems to be constantly morphing. At no point was the seascape particularly dramatic, but the culmination of the moments had an intensity. The moment also had context, in this instance one in direct opposition to the Pallant House experience. It was a trip away for an anniversary and this was the highlight, a moment of calm and reflection at a moment of, both macro and micro, of utter happiness and peace internally and external. I want all the moments, visual and emotional, from that set of seascapes in the MDF board I am currently working on. Which takes me back to Turner. I don’t want the singular space and moment Turner depicted but to capture a culmination of moments and spaces. It is a coincidence that I should think of this moment, looking over a seascape that Turner spent so long observing.
I want the painting to be a window like the window at Margate, looking out onto a shifting tumult of moments which keep shifting. Which takes me to Barcelona and the Picasso Museum a few weeks ago, again stood with Kiran looking through a window. This time it is a small painting by Picasso made before he had turned twenty. It is ignored by almost everyone. People are far more blown away by his large, more extravagant academic painting. All of these are impressive, but they more hint at a prodigal student. This tiny painting we are stood in front of is something else. It is a tiny painting of a window seen from a bedroom. It is a quiet and humble thing, but it is full of the most intense looking and thinking imaginable. For me, in this one small image, Picasso has squeezed in the entire history of painting that precedes it and opens up a view to his entire career. It is a mirror which looks in two directions.
The history of painting is the history of two fold space, of depicting depth and of displaying a surface. But this history is not a simple return journey of artists trying to form an illusion of depth and then abstract artists returning to the surface. Rather there is a continuos history, in which all painters have been interested in two fold space, of painting always being about the reality of flatness and the illusion of depth. Picasso’s little window sits at a key crux, at the end of the 19th century and the start of the twentieth. This small window seems to capture that moment. It talks of light, of transparent vs opaque surfaces, it speaks of the gap between internal and external space.
Later in the museum is Picasso’s cycle of paintings, towards the end of career, after Velasquez’s ‘Las Menias’. The original Velasquez is an attempt to raise the stakes in painting, to present the viewer with a painting which shows the richness of paintings ability to depict and represent space and life. Picasso does not so much pay homage to the painting but instead seems to want to reference the presumption of how historical influence works. Picasso wanted his paintings to be a stain, to be stuck on a viewers retina when they look at the Velasquez, so that when they see Velasquez they see Picasso. In another reading the paintings are a further continuation of his exploration of space, it was the continuous preoccupation of Picasso. Guernica was the high point, seeing him utalise the lessons of Cubism (analytic and synthetic) to form a language which explored space so completely that the boundary between external and internal dissolved and space collapsed onto and across the surface. Guernica is so powerful because it achieves this formal sophistication but puts it to pictorial and human ends.
All of this seems to be visible when we glimpse through that little window Picasso painted so early in his career, a muddy brown little image easy to ignore. So easy it seems impossible to even find a reproduction of is. It already has a mythical quality in my memory.
So might it be possible for painting to hold all these associations, as Picasso, at points seems able to do. Might we look to Keats’ Negative Capability, of being a vessel through which experience and associations flow and then coalesce on the surface of a painting or get captured in the room of a poem.
When Orpheus played that first note and spoke that first word all of poetry and all of music was held within it. When the light of existence was switched on at the big bang all matter was held and spread out across space, everything was present. Might the whole universe collapse back and the entirety of existence be held in our palm?
I repeat, we repeat. Logic and meaning breaks down. Structure goes. repetition, repetition. This is a song by the fall. The fall, the first fall, the permanent fall. The universe is just the internet and everything is an echo of another space opening and collapsing back in on itself. I am lost. You are lost. Anything to do with the painting is lost.
This is a labyrinth, a maze like underworld. We see things that are not there, searching for Eurydice and finding the Minotaur.
This makes me think of Hegel and the trendy misappropriated term, the Zeitgeist. The belief that everything is formed by everything else, that all of reality is in a dialectical relationship with itself, each piece of the universe at any moment in time a mirror facing in multiple directions feeding of everything else. This is the angst of existence, that the singularity of everything, which feels so isolated compared to the immensity of everything outside of itself, is actually in a constant vibration and conversation with everything else, begin formed by it and forming back. The spirit of the age is constantly forcing itself into concrete existence and inhabited all concrete forms but in doing so simultaneously and paradoxically causing infinite interplay which shift it again. The Zeitgeist is a sugar filled dog chasing its own tale and eating itself.
When will there be a calm, when will the image lock down and no longer have this everything quality, which has a kind of nothingness.
The associations are so multiple that they conflate, so shifting and non visual as to inform but not be present. Which is to same these associations are present in the process but not in the finished painting. The finished painting inverts the reading. It is the calm after the storm where the connection are so broad and intangible and nebulous that they not only conflate each other but collapse in on themselves. A painting is a box of mirrors. When being made it faces outwards refracting all of reality back, depending where the painter wants to look. When finished they face inwards, reflecting and refracting self. In place of Hegel comes Kant and the thing in itself. In place of the outward looking all seeing eye of a god like author is the inward looking eye of the existential individual painting, which is closing doors, which knows only of itself with any certainty.
A painting is a box of mirrors designed as a rubix cube, opening up like an accordion before closing back down.