Saturday, December 18, 2010

The road to recovery - Ménière's and back

Recovering, oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm
(click on image to enlarge)

The fourth in my Ménière's series, this one is concerned with recovery. Patchy recovery, but recovery - hence patches of orange and red among the grim blue-green.

Thanks to a pill called Serc my world is coming back into focus. The desire to paint is returning. The energy to paint is returning. The concentration to blog is returning.

Hello folks!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Material thinking, Heidegger, and the agency of oil paint

Ménière's III, oil on canvas, 61 x 46 cm
(click on image to enlarge)

Have just returned from four days R&R in Sydney and think it's high time i contributed something to this blog after my relative inactivity over the last few months. Sooooo ...

This is my third in a series seeking to express the experience of Ménière's. I wished to covey something of the sense of the mental isolation produced by a chronic swirling of the visual field, the sense of the ears being a locus of malady, the sense with Ménière's that one is falling into a state of mental dissolution.

Primarily, however, this work is a practical investigation into some current art theory relating to expressive mark-making in portrait painting (my Masters degree project). It is an exercise in agency of media, an aspect of what is called ‘material thinking’ in creative practice. Material thinking, as opposed to instrumental thinking, turns the painting process on its head to some degree.

Instead of starting out with a preconceived image in mind and then getting to work with brushes and paint, bending them to your purpose through a series of learnt painterly skills (‘tricks of the trade’), one starts out with a set of materials and tools, media and supports, that are at hand. Already at this point one is open as to what those materials might be.

In the case of Ménière’s III one of those materials was a very old tin of walnut stain varnish that had evaporated to the consistency of honey beneath a thick leathery skin. I cut through the skin and poured the treacle varnish onto a new canvas support and proceeded to spread it like icing on a cake with a large spatula, but allowing a thick pool to form toward the left-hand side of the frame. Into this pool i then poured oil paints much thinned with painting medium. I poured them roughly where i judged the proportions of my facial features might lie.

I hardly disturbed the combined paints and instead observed over the period of an hour that convection currents had set up within the paint-pool that of themselves created swirls and textures on the 'face'. I embedded some dried out oil paint scrapings from the palettes of previous work that i had kept (waste not, want not) and consequently happened to have at hand. Finally i drizzled on some more of the varnish, Pollok-style, to suggest features like eyes, mouth and  ears.

To Heidegger this ‘at hand’ aspect is of philosophical significance. “At hand’ is actually how we live our lives. We go to a school ‘at hand’. We eat foods ‘at hand’. We marry someone ‘at hand’. We get buried in plot ‘at hand’. So when we paint with media we find at hand we are engaging in the same exploratory open-ended processes that we use in daily living. And just as in life we are never really able to absolutely predict the outcomes of our choices and actions, so there is an indeterminacy when we use what happens to be at hand in our creative practice.

Barbara Bolt particularly draws on Heidegger’s notion of our co-responsibility with the media at hand in the creative process. She writes in her paper Heidegger, handlability and praxical knowledge , “Heidegger’s discussion of responsibility and indebtedness provide us with quite a different way to think about artistic practice. In the place of an instrumentalist understanding of our tools and material, this mode of thinking suggests that in the artistic process, objects have agency and it is through the establishing conjunctions with other contributing elements in the art that humans are co-responsible for letting art emerge.” ( p. 1)

In Material Thinking and the Agency of Matter she writes of a  "focus on the acting ensemble rather than the artist as the locus of art enables us to come closer to an understanding of the dynamism of material practice and to the radicality offered by the notion of material thinking. In this dynamism, the outcome cannot be known in advance. Thus although we may have some awareness of the potential of a tool or a piece of wood—for example, through previous dealings with wood and tools—every new situation brings about a different constellation of forces and speeds. The wood may be a bit harder, the tool sharper or blunter and our own energies more or less focussed. Thus our relation to technical things is inevitably characterized by a play between the understandings that we bring to the situation and the intelligence of our tools and materials. This relation is not a relation of mastery but one of co-emergence" (p. 3).

“Letting art emerge” – what a mind-expanding way of looking at the act of painting. We do not paint by numbers, colouring in tight drawings to produce exact likeness in a controlled way. Rather, we set up situations where watercolours or oils can behave the way they naturally do, with capillary action, with granulation and flocculation, with plastic flow under gravity, with oozing, with buttery resistance. Painting becomes haptic play that relies on the synchronous serendipity of media as one nudges and seduces it into place in a quest to realise one’s inner purposing and the paint’s potentiality or potency.

In Heidegger, handlability and praxical knowledge Barbara Bolt elucidates on these materials centred processes:  “The focus on artworks, rather than practice, has produced a gap in our understanding of the work of art as process. ... By focusing on enunciative practices, that is, the systems of fabrication rather than systems of signification, I argue that there is a possibility of opening up the field of an “art of practice” from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. According to such thinking, such logic of practice follows on from practice rather than prescribing it ... Here artistic practice involves a particular responsiveness to, or conjunction with, other contributing elements that make up the art ensemble. What is critical to creative practice is the type of insight that emerges through this handling. In artist tool matrix, engagement with tools and technology produces its own kind of sight”.

She concludes her train of thought with the startling proposition that “The work of art is not the artwork”.

Linda Roche, in her outstanding Masters exegesis Theatre of painting, writes eloquently of such process : “Paint in a tube is inert, silent, under control. To find its voice it needs to be activated. To do this, independent of the artist, it needs to be fluid. Fluid dynamics being what they are this can be problematic. One of the operating criteria within the project has been that the paint must remain on the surface, contained within the ‘virtual’ world of the image, where it can be considered and reflected upon. Paint, when fluid, has a tendency to want to escape, to overflow this field into the real world. The enquiry, as such, has the potential to dissolve into chaos, to become incoherent. Just as language needs structure to be understood, systems tease a sense of fluency and coherency out of paint. They corral the paint on a surface but at the same time enable it to operate freely in between predetermined structures. Systems control fluidity. Paint must be able to move freely across a surface in order to articulate itself.” (p. 17);


“ What is seen on the surface is simply how the paint has responded to a set of controls or to the exigencies of a system. Remaining true to this mandate means I often feel the system pushing up against my own subjectivity, my sense of the way things should be. At times my response to the material would be to refine the surface, firm up the edges, control the bleeds. The mandate is meant to form a collaborative engagement between system and material, an approach that suppresses the deliberate role of the artist in terms of both expressive intentionality, aesthetic and editorial concerns. Once a system is developed and set in motion there is no editing or rejection. The image gels into its final state with no subsequent authorial intervention. What emerges is what is presented.” (p. 20).

So where does all this leave portraiture as the depiction of the ‘likeness’ of a sitter?

Taking up brush and paint in order to produce a recognizable semblance of the physical appearance of another person (a likeness) is instrumentalist thinking. But once painting becomes process focused rather than product focused and paint is given agency, then inevitably the resulting image will evidence a reduction in the very cognitive control over brush and paint that is required for realism. One hopes that in place of physical likeness the work will realize a psychological likeness to the subject. Or if not the sitter, become a psychological reflection of the painter. “Every painter paints himself”, as the Renaissance had it. Though if there is no likeness of any kind to a particular sitter then i guess the artist has moved from ‘portraiture’ to ‘abstract figurative painting’.

Though i am now left questioning just how central 'likeness' is to portrait painting. To imitationalists it is the very purpose of painting and the measure of its success. To instrumentalists such as social realists it is often a necessary vehicle to their purposes. To formalists too it has generally been assumed to be the goal of managing visual elements, though exploration of formal elements lead to stylization and, ultimately, to abstraction. To expressionists (i count myself as a quasi-neo-expressionist) likeness often remains an intention but not at the expense of emotional impact. Likeness now takes second place. But what happens when likeness takes sixth place after emotional impact, catharsis, rhetoric, cross-cultural exploration, stylistic innovation, and agency of materials? Thankfully the institutionalists will work it out.

So here it is, an open-ended excursion into material thinking, into co-responsibility and partnership with media in creative praxis, into the agency of paint and the gifts that it brings, an interrogation of interpersonal perceptual processes and the question of ‘likeness’ in portraiture - Ménière's III.

Ménière's III (detail)