|Facing Facts, acrylic gap filler and paint, 76 x 102 cm|
‘The great virtue in life is real courage that knows how to face facts and live beyond them.’
D.H. LawrenceI have been searching for a medium that allows impasto work (registering palette knife and brush marks) but that is much cheaper than oil paints yet suited to larger, more complex works. I chose a water based acrylic gap filler used in the building industry. The locally available product that i used is called Selley's No More Gaps. This sealant is water-based and therefore mixes readily with acrylic paints on the canvas.
It's native white color does not alter acrylics colors dropped into it though they are left with a matt finish. However, once cured, after 24 hours, it can be sealed with polymer gloss which restores color vibrance and prepares the surface prior to glazing with oils. It gives off no toxic fumes during use and so can therefore be spread in large quantities in an enclosed space. Spraying with water softens it into a white buttery slurry.
|a charcoal doodle for Facing Facts|
John Keats, in 1817 when writing to his brothers about poetry, in a tantalizing brief reference said in his letter:
"I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." There is no surviving record of his ever mentioning it again but it has spawned a considerable commentary over the years ever since.
Robert French, Peter Simpson and Charles Harvey of the Bristol Business School, of all places, summed up the literature on negative capability.
"Negative Capability suggests a peculiarly human capacity for ‘containment’: that is, the capacity to live with and to tolerate ambiguity and paradox, and to ‘remain content with half knowledge’ (Ward, 1963, p. 161), ‘to tolerate anxiety and fear, to stay in the place of uncertainty in order to allow for the emergence of new thoughts or perceptions’ (Eisold, 2000: 65). It implies the capacity to engage in a non-defensive way with change, without being overwhelmed by the ever-present pressure merely to react. It also indicates empathy and even a certain flexibility of character, the ability ‘to tolerate a loss of self and a loss of rationality by trusting in the capacity to recreate oneself in another character or another environment’ (Hutter, 1982: 305)."
Particularly pertinent to my questing for images from the unconscious is Diana Voller's application of Keat's notion to psychoanalysis:
"Negative capability’ is the advanced ability of a person to tolerate uncertainty. This does not mean the passive uncertainty associated with ignorance or general insecurity but the active uncertainty that is to do with being without a template and yet being able to tolerate, or even relish, a sense of feeling lost. ‘Negative capability’ involves purposely submitting to being unsettled by a person, or situation, and embracing the feelings and possibilities that emerge ... In my search for clarification, a psycho-analyst I talked to described ‘negative capability’ as ‘the experience of the conscious mind in the presence of the unconscious’."
Her description of what it feels like to be in a state of negative capability is drawn from the accounts of experienced psychotherapists and is most illuminating:
"They described it as being immersed in something, feeling alert and aroused, having a sense of wondering where this is going to go, the excruciating sense of unknown-ness, shame and fraudulence at ‘not knowing’, a familiarity with the recognition that ‘this is the anxiety of not knowing’. At the same time it was also associated with playing, intuitiveness, and experienced as good fun!
No wonder we don’t communicate about it a lot outside the therapy world – shame, fraudulence, playing and fun – how can that be professional?"
This feeling of being a fraud, of floundering in the world of art ... how familiar!
In working on Facing Facts i ran the gamut of emotions. Sometimes i felt i was tapping something true in my character; other times it felt i was contriving an image. Sometimes the work felt spontaneous; other times it felt over-planned. Sometimes i really enjoyed myself and was fully absorbed; other times it was hard labour and a struggle. Sometimes i thought i knew what i wanted to say with this painting; other times i was groping blind and waiting upon the painting to tell me where it was going. Sometimes i felt like an artist; sometimes i felt a sham. I had to be content to be a state of fluxus. I had to be at ease with negative capability.
But to work with negative capability in portrait painting carries implications for me in how i conceptualize my creative practice. It colors my take on portrait painting, which is beginning to take shape as follows:
1 i feel a need for a freeing up and broadening of the definition of a the term portrait
2 i need liberation from realism and the quest for a 'likeness' for its own sake
3 i see 'painting' as process not as an object; the act of creative practice, not the product of that practice; i conceptualize painting as a verb, not a noun; i see a painting as the frozen track-marks resulting from the act of painting
4 the process of portrait painting is one of searching for personal emotional truth
5 in that sense, the work is expressive at its very root
6 freedom to search aspects of identity of the sitter apart from physical appearance
7 a greater openness to instinctive, non-rational creative processes (Surrealists)
8 a sensitization to inner emotional states during the process of painting
9 letting those inner states guide the the choice of, and especially the handling of, media
10 allowing the media to have significant agency in creative practice
11 if the emotion is true, then it is recognized by others (viewers)
12 conceptualizing painting as being an emotional communication stops the work sinking into solipsism, becoming mere self-indulgence
13 being a communication means painting to an audience, not for an audience
14 painting for an audience - for the sake of exhibition, adulation, commissions, or sales - puts static in the way of negative capability
15 for me, painting for an audience interferes with emotional integrity in the work, for the work likely becomes ever more consciously manipulative and formulaic
16 formulaic technique without emotional truth is painting without soul, it tends towards decorative illustration rather than serious art practice
17 a portrait must contain not only a truth but also a kind of beauty - it may be a seductive beauty or a terrible and dark beauty but there needs to an aesthetically satisfying load in the image or in the traces of its mark-making.
Whether i achieve these aspirations in any given work is a matter of doubt but these notions are gradually firming up into a personal 'manefesto'. (Manifestos in painting went out the window many decades ago which makes having one all the more anachronistically and archaically attractive to me).
In the meantime i always have .... negative capability!