Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Negative capability in portrait painting

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. Lawrence

I 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
The cheapness of the material and its haptic qualities are highly conducive to experimentation, exuberance in application, and exploration in image making. The medium itself contributes significantly to the finished work, becoming an active agent in artistic practice. All this leaves one open to a form of artistic practice that is more open-ended, vague in its intended outcomes, responsive to fluxus and receptive the gifts that serendipity can bring. All of which brings to mind John Keats' notion of negative capability.

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!


Friday, December 9, 2011

Excursion into Fauvism

My Trickster, charcoal and oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm


My exploratory efforts with this self portrait can be seen in my previous blog post where i have discussed the thematic, autobiographical elements of this self portrait.

In this post i wish to consider artistic elements.

In my quest for expressive mark-making, i have turned to Fauvism.

Nicolas Pioch describes this brief early art movement as follows:
"French Fauvisme, style of painting that flourished in France from 1898 to 1908; it used pure, brilliant colour, applied straight from the paint tubes in an aggressive, direct manner to create a sense of an explosion on the canvas. The Fauves painted directly from nature as the Impressionists had before them, but their works were invested with a strong expressive reaction to the subjects they painted".

John MacTaggart explains that,
"Fauvism was not a formal movement with a manifesto of rules and regulations. It was more an instinctive coming together of artists who wished to express themselves by using bold colours, simplified drawing and expressive brushwork. 'Les Fauves' simply believed that colour had a spiritual quality which linked directly to your emotions and they loved to use it at the highest possible pitch".

Nicolas Pioch attributes the advent of Modernism to Fauvism:
"The advent of Modernism if often dated by the appearance of the Fauves in Paris at the Salon d'Automne in 1905. Their style of painting, using non-naturalistic colors, was one of the first avant-garde developments in European art. They greatly admired van Gogh, who said of his own work: ``Instead of trying to render what I see before me, I use color in a completely arbitrary way to express myself powerfully''. The Fauvists carried this idea further, translating their feelings into color with a rough, almost clumsy style.

The Fauvists believed absolutely in color as an emotional force ... color lost its descriptive qualities and became luminous, creating light rather than imitating it".

Fauvism was around for only a few years and was the subject of much derision at the time. It was essentially subsumed into assorted German Expressionist movements which in turn are a main influence on my artistic practice. To me, Fauvism is an inspiring early form of Expressionism.

But why have i troubled myself, and you gentle reader, with all this detail about Fauvism? Not just for the sake it but to help me stake a claim. So many people i meet, and even fellow artists here in the blogsphere, hold the tacit assumption that portraiture is about the skill of painting accurate descriptive  likenesses of sitters. The tacit assumption is that a painted portrait must bear a photographic resemblance to some particular person in form and color. One hundred and ten years ago Fauvism established how limited such expectations are. Fauvism helped Kandinsky to boldly claim, "There is no must in art, for art is free" and this is a basic premise of my art practice.

John MacTaggart  describes the technique of Matisse, the lead Fauvist of the time:
"At first glance, the apparent freedom of his style seems to deny any skill or technique, but when you begin to analyse his effective use of visual elements you start to realise that there is an instinctive sensibility at work. The key to his success in using such exaggerated colours was the realisation that he had to simplify his drawing. He understood that if he intensified the quality of colour for expressive effect, he must reduce the amount of detail used in drawing the shapes and forms of the image".

The image that i have painted has turned out to be more controlled (contrived?) than i intended.  (Hardly the automatic painting of the Surrealists as a way of tapping the Unconscious - but then, Sigmund Freud was underwhelmed by their efforts at the time). That is because as the colour intensity increased i intuitively decreased the amount of detail in the drawing. It has consequently become more iconic and symbolist than purely expressive. I have taken a particularly perverse delight in contradicting the three dimensionality of the charcoal drawing in my application of colour. So it reads a bit like an impossible figure - apt for The Trickster.

But the image lacks a looseness and freedom that i value and i am beginning to understand that my penchant for monochromes derives from the liberty they give me with form and surface.

So my next portrait (currently in progress) will aim for plastic spontaneity in materials handling. With a restricted, non-realist palette (thanks, Fauves) i hope to find expressive force in what Keats called negative capability. More on Keats and negative capability then.

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