MVS Thesis Paper: Broken Painting
April 13, 2009
After a few weeks at University of Toronto I wrote this sign and stuck it to the studio wall as a reminder of priorities.
In the introduction to Painting as Model, Yve-Alain Bois immediately presents the difficulty of situating one’s discourse: “One cannot be, at the same time, embedded in a field and surveying it from above; one cannot claim any secure ground from which one’s own words could be read and judged as if written by someone else.” (Bois XI)
The painting had to come first.
I came to this writing in the same way that I came to the painting.
Gathering fragments of text produced since Fall 2007; proposals, reports, essays, presentations, journal entries, press releases, letters, poetry, prose, fiction…shards of fractured shapes formed by words gathered together, ordered, connections sought, found, melted away, stitched together, with gaps, ellipses, moments of beauty, fleeting images and sensations, a big lumbering emphatic chaotic thing: this creature.
Here is the familiar difficulty of finding words to describe that which requires the visual to be expressed…
“Painting has nothing to do with thinking, because in painting thinking is painting. Thinking is language – record-keeping – and has to take place before and after.”
So this writing, this explanation, comes after the painting and requires the painting for it’s being.
The “Idea” is Painting.
This sometimes uncontrollable liquid colour, unhinged, scraped from its place in the world and re-presented on a stage, through a frame. I find myself in a continuous cycle of exerting and releasing control over the material, seeking, not balance, but a kind of physical, visual, tension.
At an early stage in my development as a painter I chose to reject the pictorial. I found the “tyranny” of the narrative that was suggested by images distracting and besides the point. It is, for me, the physical presence of the embodied paint and substrate that is most compelling. I have discovered, however, that the pictorial can never be completely eliminated from painting because, despite my best attempts, the viewer cannot help but to seek some reference point when confronted by a non-representational work. I accept this.
The process that I have developed is a way to understand what it means to make a painting by making it and taking it apart and re-assembling it…it never goes back together the same way. This reconstruction, while retaining the essential aspects as much as possible, requires a willingness to let go of the past. That is easier said than done.
I use microcrystalline wax as a vehicle to deliver colour, texture and incident to the surface. It is oily, translucent, flexible, and incredibly malleable, easily melted, cut, scraped, and adhered. We physically experience wax on a daily basis through cleansers, cosmetics, polishes, even in some of the foods we eat, so the recognition factor for the viewer, though sublimated, is quite visceral.
What is the tathata, the true nature, of the wax?
It stabilizes and emulsifies.
It smoothes and polishes the surface.
The canvas is primed with several coats of clear wax; this makes it receptive, raises the colour away from the absorbent weft and woof of the woven fibres, eases its removal later.
attack & decay, 2009, in process
Coloured wax is applied in numerous layers. This is the joyous painting moment; a guiding hand takes part in the construction. Standing before the multi-coloured stripes Josh Thorpe says: “I feel like I’m on holiday”. Indeed, at this stage there is a strong reference to the carnival, gaily coloured flags and tarps. Within the hour several coats of black have buried the chroma.
Back to work.
Measurements are taken using the shape of a scraping tool as a guide. Columns are scored, cut into the surface with a razor, and scraping begins, top to bottom. Plates and strips of wax are removed, gathered, ordered.
The paint, which laid itself out willingly, does not come away easily. There is struggle and resistance. As I scrape, the canvas rips and tears in places, but the wax, the preservative, holds it together. The same wax that preserves the mummy’s bindings and binds the pigment to the panel of the Fayoum funerary portraits1. The same wax that re-adhere’s the paint back onto the surface from which it has been ripped. The same wax that receives the impression of my fingerprints as I lay my hands on the warm shards, willing them back into shape, never the same, a new, fractured body.
I am crushed by a wave of emotion as I lay my hands on these plates of warm wax, willing them into place…it doesn’t matter what I do, it’s a dead thing, but I can’t help trying.
It’s not hard to explain this compulsion to reconstruct. But is my personal history necessarily a part of this? Why include biography? Everyone has a relationship with death. Maybe I have experienced more loss than most. One loss is enough initiation.
I’ve been trying to fix the mortal body through painting.
Even removal of the referential image cannot remove the meta-narrative of your life.
Wax is also balm, the anodyne, “fixing” the body in time: preservation.
I now accept decay and degradation as inevitable – the goal is to welcome it.
I am sitting here at my desk. It is the first truly cold day of the season. Mid November and -4 C, a cold bike ride, invigorating, and now direct sun pouring over me. My hands are cold from the ride and the skin dry, so I dip into the hand balm and begin to work it in. Sitting, thinking and massaging scented wax into my skin, softening it, warming it up.
Centuries ago, embalmers rubbed wax and oils into the bodies of the dead, vain attempt at retaining the soft flexibility of living flesh. Cloth strips were impregnated with mineral, plant and animal derivatives and careful wrapped in complex patterns, preparing the body for it’s journey to the afterlife. By the time we see them, these people are utterly devoid of moisture, cracked, held together tenuously by bone, sinew, skin and wrappings. Moisture has evaporated with the passage of time, the darkness, the stillness of the tomb. But fragments of material remain, at least for now. Eventually they too will crumble and disperse, to join the sea of physical material that surround us in water, air and land. The question remains: where does energy go? It is constantly changing form, but there is no evidence to prove that it can ever completely disappear.
“It would be futile to try to assign to life an end, in the human sense of the word…Life, on the contrary, progresses and endures in time.”
The light hits my hand in such a way that I can see my pulse flickering just below the surface of my waxed and oiled skin and I know, unequivocally, just for a moment, that I am alive. And I know too, by association, that one day I won’t be. But this material, the remains of this body, will be out there somewhere, looking for a place to land.
There is a disjuncture between what we “know” about the body and how we experience it. In the scope of all of Universal Time, the body is fragile and fleeting. Yet our experience of it is anything but, at least in the moments when we are actually conscious of our physical condition: pain, pleasure, sorrow, joy, stillness; in these heightened moments we become keenly aware of our embodiment. Time seems to slow down and sometimes, to stand still. A painting has the capacity to reflect this back at me if I take the time to stop and engage. The material has been suspended. You can see that it was once fluid, but it has frozen in this particular form. Why did the artist stop here specifically?
“…what is properly vital in growing old is the insensible, infinitely graduated, continuance of the change in form. Now this change is undoubtedly accompanied by phenomena of organic destruction (italics mine)…inner causes lie hidden. The evolution of the living being, like that of the embryo, implies a continual recording of duration, a persistence of the past in the present, and so an appearance at least, of organic memory.” (Bergson 181)
From Night Journal Dec 18, 2008 5am:
Eternal recurrence could be the most stultifying dead thing: banal nightmare. But what I think it really is, is an enriching journey where the subject rolls and banks through experience, environment picking up barnacles along the way. There is also the paradoxical and simultaneous process of shedding that occurs. A cleansing (by fire? by sanding? friction?) which ensures that the subjects essential nature is clarified. One/it is tempered by the repetition, which in itself is a misnomer; this universe is so rich dense and multi-faceted and full of possibility that boredom is the least concern. But this requires patience and fortitude and an appetite for life which you will notice not everyone has. This amazes and saddens me. It might be possible to awaken it in people. That is what I hope teaching is. Recurrence: every unique individual is imprinted on every articulation and originality is guaranteed.
The wax is also, perhaps most importantly, the vehicle, the medium, the binder for colour. Pigment, the source of all colour in paint, stripped from the world, distilled, concentrated and bound, lashed into place, struggling to break free.
There are infinite possible colours but I have selected 12. They have come to me over the years, assembled, reacted to each other, jostled for position.
It’s my job to keep them in line, maintain order and prevent any undue preference.
Because chroma complicates.
Number six of Twelve Rules for a New Academy, by the ultimate rule-maker, Ad Reinhardt:
“…No colors. ‘Color blinds.’ ‘Colors are an aspect of appearance and so only the surface.’ Colors are barbaric, unstable, suggest life, ‘cannot be completely controlled’ and ‘should be concealed.’ Colors are a distracting embellishment.’ …” (Reinhardt 206)
And black is the mother of all things.
Combine all of the infinite possible colours, layer them one upon the other to reach the inevitable black.
Black is also distillation.
Black is charcoal, cinders, product of the cleansing fire.
Burn it all and this is what remains. Dense, rich, velvet, welcoming, all-encompassing.
When combined with wax and light it becomes rich with incident. There is reflection, refraction, shadow. A roughened skin, a field of darkness, an open place, receptor for all.
“And am I born to die?
to lay this body down?
and must my trembling spirit fly
into a world unknown?”
Idumea (Sacred Harp 47)
Actions/Procedures after Richard Serra2
How does all of this activity play out?
The wax is warmed and melted and applied in several coats to the stretched canvas as a primer, a preparation to receive and survive the actions that will follow. More wax is melted and pigment is stirred into it. This paint is then applied while molten. Sturdy round bristle brushes, those used by commercial housepainters, are employed; only they can stand up to the heat. Cans are kept warm with electrical implements and paint must be applied quickly before it cools and hardens. Each successive layer of paint builds on and amplifies the texture of the previous layer. The least imperfection in the canvas leads to a visceral, raised, keloid. The subsequent gaps that result in the surface grow deeper and darker. The whole thing must sit for a spell, settle into itself, meld, cure.
the painting as corpse:
At a certain point the accumulation stops and the autopsy begins.
This is a highly rational act. Scoring is cutting and cutting is recording; everything that was applied is removed. In the removal there is resistance, struggle, violence, fracture, compacting, loss. I run a knife from top to bottom. Inch by inch the surface is warmed (there is loss here too…) and then scraped away from top to bottom, flayed, using the power of gravity and muscle.
How much intentional deconstruction can a painting withstand and still be “painting”?
site (mutability) creature
The site of removal is left to stand.
The shards are removed to a holding area, laid out in the order they are removed, column by column. The logic of the archaeological dig is enacted. Everything that is salvageable is saved, but some parts crumble, dissolve, are stepped on and pushed into the floor. The parts are examined, flipped, considered, many compositional possibilities are tested and considered.
“With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.” (Shelley 38)
Making tangible the unsayable…unspeakable?
Sometimes a black wax “graft” is used it to infill areas where the fractures have opened gaps. Like scar tissue, it is slightly smoother but unlike the usually raised area, has a lower profile than the surrounding skin. The compulsion to “complete”, to fill in all the fractures goes beyond healing and enters the territory of asphyxiation. The paintings are better when they are left with some breathing room.
Here is the result of creation, destruction, reclamation, reconstruction. It is not only what remains: the remains have been reconstituted. The work is constitutional (operating under a constitution) or rather constitutive (inherent, essential).
This is heavy work, both physically and metaphorically.
It is emphatically present.
By contrast, when I join the others to sing shape-note music3, a concurrent and vital component to the studio work, something interesting occurs. I am using all of my breath and all of my will to belt it out, but I can barely hear myself, as all the other voices are surging towards me by way of the hollow square. It is a big loud emotional sound. Here and then…gone.
Music is the considered organization of sound and silences to be performed and experienced in time, sometimes recorded. The music sounds in performance, then rises beyond the embodied and evaporates into the atmosphere. A speedier demise.
Singing shape-note is an intense physical vocal experience, but I am removed from it because I can’t hear it…it’s incredibly freeing. If I can’t hear it, I can’t criticize it.
“A land of deepest shade
unpierced by human thought
the dreary regions of the dead
where all things are forgot”
Idumea (Sacred Harp 47)
Painting is the considered organization, application and removal of prepared colour to a receptive surface; the paintings themselves, physical evidence of enactment and being. They are a residue of the act of painting, gravity bound, and in the long run, like us, dust.
“A painting is changed and transformed when it leaves the studio. It takes a labeling and a beating when it is out in the world, where it is bought and sold and handled like a commodity.”
I looked closely at Reinhardt’s work. At the MoMA in New York I saw 2 of the late monochromes, one under ideal lighting conditions in the gallery and another in the vaults under fluorescents, the better to see the bruises and scratches accrued from years of exposure to the public.
Today Ad Reinhardt came to the Museum to repair the marks which his painting had acquired while on exhibition at the National Gallery. He had phoned a day before to ask if he could bring his paints in for the purpose. I met him at 10 o’clock, let him into the galleries, helped him take the painting off the wall; he proceeded to match the colors and then completely repainted the three squares in which the damages had occurred.
I asked him what the paint was and he said ‘Mars black’, an oil paint made by Boccur (sic). When he had finished we rehung the painting together just before 11 o’clock.” (unpublished memo, MoMA archives)
“…The painting leaves the studio as a purist, abstract, non-objective object of art, returns as a record of everyday (surrealist, expressionist) experience (“chance” spots, defacements, hand markings, accident- “happenings,” scratches)and is repainted, restored into a new painting painted in the same old way (negating the negation of art), again and again, over and over again, until it is just “right” again.” (Reinhardt 83)
It’s very difficult for “purity” to survive in this contaminated world.
Better to arm the work with the ability to absorb blows.
The paintings I have made hold traces of their growth and destruction. They are memory and experience exposed. And in these contradictions they defy attempts to visually situate.
Jeanne Randolph visited the studio:
“The interpretive apparatus of the mind cannot rest”
no rest, 2008-9
If there is a suggestion of an image it is completely incidental and says more about our desire for the comfort of recognition. Illusion is continuously denied as the surface is affirmed.
solid: a substance that resists moderate stress and deformation, unlike a liquid or a gas
ephemeral: lasting only a brief time, fleeting
It’s all relative.
Painting is dead; long live Painting
Perhaps this is its’ role: to viscerally remind us of our physical mortality.
The living and dying body.
A painting may be a corpse, but it is also evidence of the performance of painting and that is living.
This is not a tragedy.
The trick is not to overwork the overdead.
It’s simple: assembled, dismantled, re-assembled, captured, transformed.
My goal as an artist right now, in this moment, is to synthesize the mystery of the intuitive with the distilled clarity of the rational.
Is painting broken?
Yes… and… no, at least not irreparably.
It is resilient, it survives despite the challenges, it wears its’ scars like badges of honour.
It is contained by these materials, but lifts off in brief moments of ephemeral beauty.
This is what I want my work to do.
As always, I am just getting started.
- The Funerary portraits of the Fayoum district were painted from the late 1st C BC to possibly the 3rd C AD with a combination of wax, resin and pigments on wooden panels by Greek artists during late Roman-era Egypt. They are life-size, highly-realistic depictions of individual people and were intended to be strapped to the mummy sarcophagi as means of allowing the dead to see their way into the after-life. The Royal Ontario Museum holds 2 examples in their Byzantine collection and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has extensive holdings including the one shown here:
- American sculptor and conceptual artist Richard Serra compiled a thorough list of actions he might take as a sculptor in 1967-68.
- Shape-note singing is a four-note system developed in the late 18th century in the American South as a means of teaching sight-reading to untrained parishioners. Singers sit in a hollow-square formation with 4 rows, one for each part (tenor, alto, treble and bass) chairs facing inward. The most commonly used song-book is The Sacred Harp, (1991 Denson edition) which refers to the human voice, the first musical instrument. Many non-denominational singing groups keep the tradition alive including a Toronto chapter which meets the 3rd Wednesday of each month at Bloor Street United Church. More info.
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