I recently went to an artist’s talk, given by a youngster who had had some recent success, both commercial and critical, for his work. Most of these works were fairly large scale, three were before us while he lectured. They were largely featureless, except for some surface granularity, with very little evidence of brush technique.
This granularity was due to his treating his canvas with materials from “sacred sites,” over which he would then paint over. He enthused on at some length about his respect for nature, and so on and so forth, while standing before his rather featureless canvases, thus developing a story to cloak the lack of “natural narrative” of his painted surface. He was quite serious. It would not have been possible to derive this understanding of his intent from the painting alone.
The entire episode gave me pause. Certainly there is intentionality in the event of creation, and planning. And viewers bring their own openness (or lack of it) to any work, what they possess naturally, and as it is influenced by what has affected them recently: their appetite or lack of it, sleepiness, an argument had recently, a kiss rewarded by a child, or a lover.
Just as important is narrative content. We so seek fable that the merest horizontal line is enough for us to ascribe “landscapeness” to an abstract, while modest diagonals connote depth. We search for figure, and pounce on it happily. We can then attach a meaning to an artifact that goes beyond it; the piece is representational, is analogue. This can result in many good paintings, and many happy moments for viewers.
Or not. Because then we can’t just appreciate the thing in itself, can’t come closer to an esteem for, and pleasure from an object. For that we need to be able to place ourselves into a certain mood of meditation and openness, and cleanse the mind, as much as we can, of this need to connect. This has something to do with Warhol’s denaturing – the reproduction of degraded images of Jackie, or Mao, to the point where one is attracted to the shape of an eyebrow not because it is an eyebrow, but because of its simple shape.
A great painting can foster this, even if its function is primarily didactic. One can, for instance, take bodily enjoyment from Tiepolo’s general sprezzatura, and his pastel hues, pink, yellow, blue, while actively avoiding engagement with the heroic narrative of the Residenz staircase. And then one can compare that to the experience of looking at an Yves Klein blue, or a Matisse blue, each abstract, each promoting of mood before words.
What about my young painter? I think that he held to his story out of fear, and it’s a sad thing to think that you need a story before a simple painted surface, but in the impatient world of today, such is the case. When, for example, did you sit still for a sunset? Much less when did you sit still for a painting? Right now I am engaged with paintings of explicit story, although not a story I know well how to tell – I am discovering it while painting it. But I am painting representationally – giant cats, men falling from the sky or levitating from an uncertain earth, rivers the color of phlegm, populated by dolphins and sharks. And so forth. There’s a greater depth of story in them, that is, more ways to be with them linguistically, and harness an imagination to any aspect. But paradoxically, perhaps there can be far less of pleasure in them, less of the natural engagement and enjoyment that painting can foster. And sometimes even as insubstantial a painting as I was shown that evening can open up deep possibilities of transformation. We must beware the overburden of story! Something otherworldly exists, so we promise ourselves. Narration too often frustrates that “unknown unknown” that we seek. But simple things can remind us that we can recover a way of looking that the buzzing world so quickly removes from us. And as a reminder of that, after his talk, I thanked my young colleague.