Saturday, April 10, 2010

painting aging skin

Self-portrait with crepey skin, oil on paper, 38 x 38 cm

The search for intimations of weathered, thinning skin and hair – intimations of mortality – continues. Previously I had tried the paint-knife with paint direct from the tube, mixed with bentonite clay granules to attempt a 'crinkle-skin texture'. It looked like cat vomit. Fair enough since it the bentonite was sourced from Kitty Litter.

This time round, mark-making utilising very thin paint. Thin paint = thin skin?

Borrowing from water-colour technique, I created turps-diluted washes of Prussian blue, strategically spraying in additional turps to create flow of pigment where I wanted it, rotating the primed craft paper support to produce the resulting drain/grain direction.

I wanted a crepe skin, a creased and cracking skin, beyond Oil of Olay. The pics show how it turned out.

ho hum, interesting, sort of (*shrug*) ... but a long way short of the horror of this mortal coil as it uncoils.

I have a gut feeling maybe blood and guts are called for, skin parted, flesh ruptured, internal organs made external.

Could that be a credible metaphor for the internal state of the artist (me) mediated to the external world (you, gentle reader) through the proto-language of his mark-making?

Back to the lab, Igor.


  1. Hope its okay i convey some thoughts in reply to the question "Just what does a self-portrait really portray?" in connection to this post.

    "To portray" is to render a likeness, to depict or (paradoxically and with regard for the ends of metaphor) to represent as something other than itself. Starting to think that "self-portrait" is misleading or saying more than what is obvious or plain in meaning. It is cathartic in the sense of the self betrayed/portrayed (is being healed) in the act of shedding its skin/s. Not unlike the serpent is the painter, the poet (or any self-proclaimed artist/artisan) who entices another soul to make a judgment (unjust or not). This shedding of skin/s can be unwitting or self-conscious, dramatic/dramatised or it can be subtle. People (artists and so called non-artists alike) do it all the time or every waking moment; we are presenting selves for judgment with every image we create for/of our selves. We are shedding skin all the time or to mark time; leaving traces of time spent.... Remarkable to observe really.

    This shedding is not without good or just ends/cause or so it seems to me because it is the way to get to the bottom of things; beyond or despite what is merely apparent. This is the skin's inevitabledecay (perhaps), decontruction or maybe what Sabina Spielrein speaks of in terms of "Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being", which seems to have inspired Freud's notion of "death drive", as well as Carl Jung's work to a significant extent.

  2. “Hope its okay i convey some thoughts” ... its more than OK, its a delight for me to have them, and so generous of you to take enough interest and time to write some thoughts down.

    And of course, as usual, you go straight to nub the issue – “cathartic in the sense of the self betrayed/portrayed (is being healed)”. Yes, this true. If not healed, at least heard. Munch and Bacon weren’t made whole by their art, but at least felt somehow vindicated. (Or am I just projecting?). It’s a Promethean thing perhaps. If the gods keep ripping our livers out, at least we can yell it out like it is. As Pascal says, “I may be a reed, but I’m a thinking reed”.

    But I’m also conscious that my own art-making must be more than a personal cry of pain or horror. Art needs to be more than a private indulgence of neurosis. For I believe art is first and foremost a communication. And for the communication to be more than a pre-linguistic atavistic scream, it needs some universal coinage.

    And that is where the discipline of art practice comes in, I believe. It needs a cultural context if it is to be culturally relevant. So for someone painting self-portraits, I know I need to be outward-looking as well as inward-looking. Hence my blog page (still being built) on my current artistic influences (and yes, Francis Bacon is among them).

    And of course you’re right about the shedding. The self-analysis. How psycho-analysis was born. And then there is self-disclosure. Making public what is usually private. How to avoid gratuitous exhibitionism, or narcissism on display, and work instead from courage and seek authenticity. Otherwise the work may be a grotesque curiosity piquing a brief look, but ultimately hollow and unsatisfying, soon to be discarded. So yes, that too is part of the struggle with self-portraiture. The struggle to be honest, to find courage, to work towards having something meaningful to say, in the eyes of others. Insofar as a painted image can be honest. Back to our paradoxes.

    So thank you Regina, for taking an interest. For understanding so much. Else I would indeed simply be a voice crying in the wilderness.

  3. Beginning to prefer the wilderness... Like darkness, the silence of it allows me to hear/see better. Nice though to have stumbled upon your blog, Harry, which is just emerging and with a concern to document (to study/interrogate) the self's creative process and progress. Of course, it is of great interest and i'm sure only a matter of time before many others will be putting in their two cents/scents (if not always sense)as well.

    "...I’m also conscious that my own art-making must be more than a personal cry of pain or horror. Art needs to be more than a private indulgence of neurosis."

    The notion of making it (the work of art) "be more" is something I am preoccupied (maybe even obsessed) with. Rilke introduces the concept or process he calls "blood-remembering" which gives rise to poetry that is more than just a venting of the personal experience; whereby the particular is hidden and made universal or (as you say)achieves "universal coinage."

    Rilke suggests the poet that draws on experience must bury it or somehow forget it (which seems at odds with the usual understanding of catharsis), if it is to find justification or (the word you use) vindication. Perhaps this is why an artist must focus on the materials and the practical means of bringing the work into being - method and discipline. The personal must be hidden to become more. By "hiding" or "to hide" I mean all that the word can mean: to conceal, obscure, make a secret of it, to punish and to flay (and so back to "shedding skin"). The "Promethean thing" yes and the plight of Marsyas too.

    Like most people, I've long been familiar with and quite affected by Edvard Munch's The Scream (shameful maybe but seeing "Francis Bacon" I thought of the Tudor jurist). I am inclined to think expressionist works do not hide enough and betray a little too much of the pain (or the angst) experienced. And yet this situation can stll be attributed to or justified with reference to a method, process or mode of engaging the other and although apparently without discipline still amounts to discipline and to hiding.

  4. Thank you for your generous and encouraging comments, Regina. I’m most glad you stumbled by too. But I’m doubtful about those “many others”. I feel more like Rilke’s lone “unknowing plant” than his herds (flocks?) of sure-footed Ibex. (Never thought of myself as a wild alpine strawberry but will savour the idea during any rocky days ahead).

    I certainly connect to your point that an artist must relate to materials and methods in order to transcend the immediate morass of self. The painting must be the focus, not one’s state of being. One’s state of being might provide the impetus for taking up a brush in the first place, and may condition the nature of the brush strokes, but it is dangerous to make one’s feelings, in themselves, the preoccupation while working. Instead, one can generalise one’s private predicament into the ‘human condition’. That is more likely to provide distance and perspective while keeping in touch with one’s emotion. Thank you for that Rilke reference – so apt (methinks he had such a nuanced touch, like tender tapping snail horns brailling out corners of being for which there are no words).

    But even more of an anathema, though, is focusing on yourself ‘being an artist’. This produces the most forced, stilted, kind of artifice that simply screams ‘poseur’. It’s probably the same in all the arts. An actor busy ‘acting’ instead of focusing on the character produces a wooden performance. The diver that focuses on the spectators watching instead of visualising the dive will do a belly-flop. Focus is all. The millipede that starts to think about how it walks is bound to trip. Or, if I can paraphrase, who ever would savour his soul will lose it, but whoever will lose his soul for truth’s sake will find it. Well, that’s my hope anyway. And the pursuit of an authentic mark , my mission.

    You give food for thought too when you observe “expressionist works do not hide enough and betray a little too much“. Maybe it’s partially the nature of the beast. Maybe the roots of expressionism lie in a kind of frustrated rage that is the legacy of the emergence of mass society, the ascendancy of bureaucracy, the advent of industrialised warfare (and the two world wars that followed), not to mention today’s weeping Gaia. And so by its very nature expressionism’s techniques and concerns can be much more ‘in ya face’, perhaps sometimes repugnantly so. One wants to avert one’s eyes or walk away, rather like from a person having a tantrum in a shopping centre.

    But maybe too there is a broader question. Is visual art (perhaps art in general) about ideas or about emotions? No doubt any work will make one think something and feel something, even if only confused and bemused. But I’m really referring to artistic intentions. Arguably conceptual art primarily aims to make people think. Much of contemporary art of ‘social relevance’ has little aesthetic appeal or emotional impact but rather invites us to question social issues or interrogate cultural assumptions and traditions. Expressionist art, on the other hand, primarily wants people to feel. From my own perspective, I want my art practice to be an emotional communication. If I get it wrong, turn the viewer off, well hey, I’m only student still learning. (Though in these tawdry hype-driven days, extremes are marketable).

  5. "But even more of an anathema, though, is focusing on yourself ‘being an artist’. This produces the most forced, stilted, kind of artifice that simply screams ‘poseur’. It’s probably the same in all the arts...."

    I sort of think the problem is the general unawareness of "being an artist" - I mean creativity (what it means to be created in God's image) is what it means to be human and given the power to name or "the animal that therefore speaks..." (Derrida). Those(the majority) claiming to be "non-artists" are perhaps more or merely self-conscious (themselves posing to be other than what they are) than those who are well aware of what they were made for and so it is with regret (albeit at times with feigned pride) that they seem to make the apology or confession or qualification. But I know what you are getting at because true enough that this general denial or forgetfulness about artist or indeed poet status has meant "the artist" or "the poet" has become some privileged position or perspective. Maybe this privileged position can be considered with reference to knowledge of a language. To be an artist or to be artistic I suppose is like saying you can comprehend and speak in a certain language; a language inclined to exclude non-speakers of that language. I wonder if saying "I am an artist" or saying "I am not a poet" is like saying "I can speak English" or "I do not speak Greek"? Then again... surely there is more to being an artist as well. The self-aware artist is the being that strives not merely to be proficient in the structure, the syntax and the vocabulary of a given language but to convey or represent something beyond the obvious or what is readily understood or seen (even by himself). And what if the true artist reaches for authentic being and sometimes may do so at the risk of appearing inauthentic?

  6. "Expressionist art, on the other hand, primarily wants people to feel."

    Why is it then I have a sense of it as anti-emotion or something like anaesthetic? Perhaps given a degree of abstraction characterising examples of it? Not sure if my response to it is out of the ordinary or perhaps I am not thoroughly familiar or exposed.

    Munch's The Scream, for example... It makes me think about anxiety per se (Munch's anxiety as an instance of the artist's anxiety) and although I can feel empathy or sympathy I consider it as something remote and certainly other than my own experience of it. It seems to evoke something along the lines of pseudo-feeling....

    To say this or to make this observation is not to make a judgment about the value of any particular work or expressionist art generally speaking. I suppose what I am trying to get at is that perhaps there is something other than the aim of making or wanting people to feel at work or "set to work" in an expressionist work of art.

  7. Thanks for your two comments, Regina, as thought provoking as ever. Our discussion seems to be shifting from expressive paint handling to expressionist art and image-making. Or perhaps it always was about expressive image-making. So before I throw in my two bob’s worth on your thoughts on expressionist painting in general and your response to The Scream in particular, might I quickly recap on where I’m coming from. I don’t consider myself an expressionist painter. I view myself as an art student making public his studio-based research in the hope of engaging in thought-provoking discourse around his work, like this one with Obiterspeak. My project concerns expressive mark-making, not expressionist images per se. So I don’t feel in anyway bound to advocate any particular artist’s oeuvre. Some of the images I have produced so far could be by described as expressionist, but expressive marking as such can found in a great deal of work that is not automatically expressionist. Lucien Freud does not consider himself an expressionist, yet his mark-making is most expressive. Francis Bacon did not consider himself as an expressionist though many would describe his images as powerfully expressionist. Yet I find his mark-making is relatively homogenous and restrained (the use of corduroy fabric notwithstanding).

    So OK, on to the expressionist images as such. You commented Munch’s anxiety “although I can feel empathy or sympathy I consider it as something remote and certainly other than my own experience of it.” My thought is, I guess how one read’s The Scream is largely ‘reader response’. The more unstructured or ambiguous the image, the more projective the perceptions of viewers. Therefore, the more personal the response. Evocative, as opposed to declamatory, work is bound to evoke a considerable range of readings, each valid for the given viewer doing the viewing. When subjects read a given Rorschach ink blot, some are bored, some are intrigued, and few a deeply troubled. Some feel vaguely disturbed but bring up mental defences to block a rush feeling. Munch’s work is not ink blot, however. Although ‘slippery’ and ambiguous because of its lack of graspable detail, the motif of the human face and mouth-shape, the hand positioning, are readable – sort of. There is ample research to suggest that even sharp photographs of emotive human faces will be interpreted differently depending upon the narrative setting ascribed to them. We read the meaning of each other’s facial expressions, and even utterances, not simply in themselves, but largely from their context.

    Yes, it’s called The Scream, but is Munch’s figure screaming? Loudly? Or is the figure just feeling mute and suicidally depressed on a high bridge? Or is the figure fleeing two stalkers in silent panic? Or has the figure just suddenly realised she has left her car keys back at the cafe? The vey ambiguousness creates tension in the mind. We look to the Prussian blue and vermillion for clues to mood. Collisions of hue. Sky on fire, looks troubled. We look to the juxtaposition of roiling curves and hard straight edges for a clue. Looks conflicting. We wonder at the willowy bend in the foreground torso. Looks un-natural. We take in the brush-work (my area of interest). Looks hurried, energetic, all prima. Urgent. What does it all mean? The urgency yet very lack of clarity is troubling. (Well, that’s my Rorschach reading for the day, lol).

  8. I have laboured this point because of the way I have learnt to approach art works that have with-stood the test of time. When I was young, I used to ask a painting “What have you got to offer me”. Nowadays I ask it, “What do I need to learn to be able to read you” – a shift from ‘How can you augment my lifestyle’ to ‘How can I grow through encountering you’. Does Munch’s painting make me feel the artist’s anxiety? Was that his intention, that I feel his existential Angst? I am lacking in empathy if I don’t? Has he failed as an artist if I don’t? Yet I don’t even know he was feeling anxious while he painted it, so I suspect these questions themselves are suspect. Rather than just his own immediate feeling, perhaps he was objectifying them, making a more global observation about generic anxiety, exploring the human condition. That gives me food for thought. Do I have my own existential Angst? Yes. Does this painting conjure some of that? Yes. Reader response. I bring to any painting my own set of sensibilities, my own palette of emotions, my life experiences, my mental scars, my own cluster of talents. Can Munch’s image be an enduring one in my memory? Yes. Do I share the uneasy memory of this image with millions of others? Yes. That is how Munch and we millions make culture.

    Your comment started out by quoting me, "Expressionist art, on the other hand, primarily wants people to feel”. When I said that, I wasn’t referring to the artist’s feelings alone. I mean that it is an art that wants people to feel their own feelings. To sum up this rather long reply (sorry), I feel expressionist painting, by conveying an agitated state of the painter, or creating a confronting motif, invites the viewer to react emotionally in return, not with empathy for the artist’s state of feeling, but by unstopping the viewer’s own passions and unconscious content.

  9. Thank you for your replies, Harry. Please forgive that what and how i comment tends to be unruly and inclined to confound things that should be considered distinct. I wear glasses too because i'm near-sighted but they don't have glasses for the mind inclined to see things blurred. Truth be told, i wouldn't wear them if they did exist:-)

    Pardon also if my replies to statements from your comments appear without sufficient regard for the context; i.e. your work or project. To be honest, at times i reply just because I find lines or statements from you intriguing or provocative. I hope you will allow and tolerate my posts because I do find what you are considering here of great interest.

  10. Please, Regina, don't apologise. There is nothing to apologise for, believe me. I am very appreciative of the interest you have shown and time you have given to writing, very appreciative. I always look forward to all you have say.

    And there is no need to worry about context. Our discussion goes where it will. It has a life and validity of its own. Sure, pick up on a line here or there, as I do with your comments. There is so much in what you say, who could comment on it all. So I read, and then focus on a few phrases. And you do the same with my posts. I think that's a perfectly legitimate way to explore ideas.

    So I hope I haven't given the impression I'm in some uncomfortable with anything you've written. On the contrary. And I very much look forward to your observations and thoughts in future posts. (*big smile*)

  11. Thank you, Harry. I find I can relate or reply to you rather comfortably... like old friends chatting over coffee in a relatively quiet section of a noisy cafe :-)

    "When I was young, I used to ask a painting “What have you got to offer me”. Nowadays I ask it, “What do I need to learn to be able to read you” – a shift from ‘How can you augment my lifestyle’ to ‘How can I grow through encountering you’..."

    This made me think about how I relate with painting or works of art, which is perhaps nowhere near as purposive. Not that I haven't tried to ask the same questions but when I do, the answer I get is ponderous and ultimately something of my own contrivance or else not anything new. At some point (in 2006 or earlier maybe) I gave it up and wnet back to my childish ways, which is to walk through a museum driven only by what seems like an unintelligent desire to see or take in; i.e. not unlike a self-indulgent child who walks into a candy store, I just look or go where my appetite takes me. Sometimes though it seems as if ghosts pull me in different directions and I get frantic or over-excited. Usually there is quiet order in the way I walk through the galleries. But more often than not, I find myself immersed in silence despite the apparent noise. By silence, what I mean is that as I look or gaze at works, I am not thinking about them: how they were made, what the artist wants to say or what they mean (not even how they make me feel - so much as (or so it seems) passively drink them in. Later (much later - anywhere from a few weeks to years later) when I recall the works (with or without the help of digital images taken), I can relate with them poetically and even this encounter or mode of relating is also lacking concreteness of purpose; i.e. in terms of what is to be gained from the works.

    I suppose it is very different for you because you paint or create paintings. I suppose as someone more learned (i.e. aware of so much that goes into it) about painting you are almost forced or perhaps you cannot help but think about the method, the materials as well as the meaning or intentions constituting the work. Is it possible for you to relate to paintings differently I wonder or without purpose or would you consider this not relating at all?

    When you ask a work: ‘How can I grow through encountering you’..."what kind of growth do you mean? Do you mean growth in terms of method or in terms of the growth of the soul that it takes to paint something remarkable... but then perhaps the forms of growth can never be separated... or if they can be considered separate issues, they are nonetheless intimately bound up.

  12. Thanks, Regina, what a lovely analogy, a chat over coffee ... though I suspect ours has become the noisy corner! Did I hear a nearby table mutter, “Keep it down, over there”?

    Your description of traversing a gallery rings so true. It’s my experience too and I’m sure that millions of others. It has made me pause to think more about my own typical progress through a gallery and wonder just how that has changed - what I have gained in the change, and what I might have lost. And if there is a ‘right’ way to ‘do’ a gallery. And even more fundamentally, what a gallery is anyway that it makes me feel the way I do in there, and act in the peculiar way that I do. (I mean, I don’t carry on like that at home. Not even in a supermarket, where there are also things on display to study, consider and relate to). So give me a day or so thinking-time and I’ll comment further on the interesting issues you raised.

  13. Well you've done it this time, Regina. My reply comment grew so long that I had to put it up as a new post - how to 'do' a gallery! And even then i had already cropped out two paras of reflections on the origins of art galleries! Old motor-mouth here. But thanks for making me think.