Jackie Gendel, Between the Acts, 2013

Jackie Gendel, “Between the Acts” (2013) (courtesy of Horton Gallery)

Liminal \ˈli-mə-nəl\: of or relating to a sensory threshold.

I was born in 1983.  Just shy of my 31st birthday, it occurred to me that somewhere after 1984 — virtually my entire lifetime — painting disappears almost entirely from most books on contemporary art history.

You’ve heard the arguments:  That painting’s objecthood is too complicit with a hyper-capitalist system. Or that painting is an outmoded medium devoid of relevance in contemporary society. What can I say … haters gonna hate. Yet, taking these arguments seriously, one could counter, as demonstrated by Marina Abramović’s and Chris Burden’s recent retrospectives in New York, any form of art can be sold to the highest bidder.

Painting’s disappearance is more than a Puritanical aversion to the sensuality of Matisse, or a response to Descartes’ mind/body problems. Rather, it finds its roots in the privileging of the analytic mind over human emotion. I’m not arguing that the cornerstones of analysis — deduction and rationale — are to be avoided. The problem is that analytic thinking can also build ivory towers. History has taught us that such totems are eventually abandoned and left to crumble.

In contrast is emotional intelligence — perception, intuition and associative reasoning.  Here is where we grasp reality. And what is reality if not a series of fleeting chance events.  Underscoring those events is a complex emotional web that takes in desire, dreams, memory and the ineffable sensations of the present moment. Beyond the particularities of our respective identities, we know ourselves in the world by being with others in the world. Experience is acquired by touching and being touched, holding and being held, crying and laughing, aging and dying.  Life is tactile.

Merlin James, Night, 2011

Merlin James, “Night” (2011) (courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins Co.)

Visual intimacy is among the most honest, primal relationships we have with our perceptual world. Edmund Husserl referred to the concept as bracketing: taking a fragment of our perceived world to examine its underlying essence. In doing so, we form a relationship between self and image that is naked, without assumption, without pretense.

When we approach visual art with this kind of intent, we open ourselves up to its vast range of subtlety. In our technological age, we are in retreat from direct experience, choosing instead the anodyne interactions of virtual realities. The danger here is one of emotional import. We understand our world by engagement with others and through the firsthand experience of events. Virtual interactions, by their nature, are not physical at all.  Such interactions allow no room for the sacred — mystery, emotion, spirituality and sexuality. Intuition predates the analytic mind. And it is at threat in a culture that values logic over emotion. It is at threat in an art world that values conceptualization over visual intimacy.

The key to significant painting in a problematic time lies in its ability to be liminal. Liminality doesn’t build the highest tower; it creates connections. If we look at history as a circle, instead of as a line, we open up possibilities. In basic geometry, we can draw a line between any two points of a circle and the distance remains the same. What the Postmodernists fail to recognize is that painting, along with any other art, is without a telos, that is to say, an endpoint outside of itself. There is no endpoint on the line. And further still, there is no line, only points on a circle.

Peter Gallo, I Feel Your Heart Beat in My Throat, dental floss on found paper

Peter Gallo, “I Feel Your Heart Beat in My Throat” (date unknown)(courtesy of Horton Gallery)

A group of artists as different as Katherine Bradford, Katherine Bernhardt, Peter Gallo, Jackie Gendel and Merlin James has taken the helm of a certain kind of painting that seeks to mend our fragmented relationship with images. For years they operated on the periphery of the art world. Loosely grouped as figurative painters, their work engages the liminality of painting practices. They have found new models for figuration that neither evoke the ironic pastiche of 1980s Neo-Expressionism nor replay the heroic, expressive heyday of early 20th-century Expressionism.

They’ve done this by scouring the perimeter of the narrative for what had been marginalized, and finding in it new ways to advance. Their range of influence includes fashion magazines, urban culture, Moroccan rugs and Aboriginal art. Their imagery is by turns personal, poetic, humorous, bold, but most of all, without pretense. Collectively, their work demonstrates a shift away from analytic thinking in contemporary art.  And it should come as no surprise that the majority of painters advancing this dialog are women.

Liminal painting seeks to capture sensations and thoughts in order to distill them into basic formal languages that anyone can access. It emerges not as a stylistic movement per se as much as it is a tendency to create tangential relationships through imagery. In doing so, it collapses long held distinctions. Twentieth-century figurative painting maintained a unified sense of style. Liminality is concerned with varied tactile sensations, capturing atmospheres and bridging the abstract and representational. In the process, these artists are creating works that are neither retroactively utopian nor fashionably disaffected.

In the West, the rise of conceptualization, however ill-fated, grew out a utopian impulse, which eventually slipped into the ether of technology, where it was co-opted by a capitalist system and reintroduced as identity/commodity fetishism. Platonically speaking, we imaginatively project utopia every day — the ideal partner, house, job — and attempt to realize that which exists only in the mind (utopia),  forever falling short.

The Internet, however, allows us to vicariously live out our individual utopias. Our dreams can be realized, albeit without a corporeal body, engendering a state of suspended bliss without satisfaction from direct experience, and ultimately without fulfillment.

Utopian idealism, with its series of failed revolutions, was the modernist cross. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, there were systems of hierarchy (primarily political and religious) reinforced through pictorial narratives. With the waning influence of the Church, painters replaced religion with a secular metaphysics, which was replaced by the sublime, replaced by romanticism, replaced by mysticism, replaced by existentialism, replaced by formalism, then nothingness. We wanted to empty painting out. It was the search for the absolute, if the absolute can ever be found.

And  then along come the 1980s, where we attempted to bring everything in. Art sought banality, the everyday, graffiti, pornography, humor, media, technology, the grotesque, the horrific. The seeds of Pop Art came to fruition in ‘80s pluralism and flowered through the ‘90s into the cultural anthropology we see in so many galleries today. Artists who advanced a particular painterly dialog, like Elizabeth Murray, Mary Heilmann, Howard Hodgkin, and Jonathan Lasker, or geometric tendencies like Linda Francis, Dan Walsh, Al Held and Helmut Federle, until recently, were patently ignored.

For the present, our sophisticated mediums of fragmentation lead to detachment; detachment from oneself and others. In a sense, contemporary society is pulling apart the evolutionary threshold formed by interdependence, and not by an absurd dream of self-sufficiency. Long ago, someone first began creating “art” secure in the knowledge that someone was paying attention. And that their hearts beat to the same sensitivity, however briefly, to feel close.

Jason Stopa is a painter and writer who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from Pratt Institute in 2010. His work has been reviewed in BlackBook and Interview Magazine. Stopa is a contributing...

27 replies on “The Line Is a Circle: Painting at the Threshold”

  1. Watch Your Head: Low Hanging Dichotomies. Or: Tonight Only! Fight to the Death! Only One Winner! Conceptual vs. Sensual!

    I tend to think the author has mistaken his or her own personal preferences as those of everyone else’s. In any case: no, painting is not dead. Yes, anything can be art. Great. Big deal. So find the material [there’s a whole wide world of it] that speaks to you and get on with it. As for what the market is doing…[shrugs]…it’s opportunistic, it eats anything and yet has specific tastes which can change over time.

    By the way,

    “In basic geometry, we can draw a line between any two points of [on?] a circle and the distance remains the same.”

    This is true only if the line passes through the center each time.
    So much for logic.

    And, no, I will not look up “telos” again.

      1. “Haters gonna hate.” You said this once already in your essay, Mr. Stopa.

        You know, for a period of time even after 1983, writers did not have internet memes at their disposal to be used as readymade, virtual responses to challenge. Even then, they still had to communicate with much rawer materials. Words like ‘hater’ had reliable definitions then, too. No one risked having their usage interpreted wrongly.

        I’m curious, Mr. Stopa, if you are aware of The Stuckists? Reactions to their enterprise can vary, so I just want to say that I bring them up in all sincerity. I am simply reminded of their project by some of the ideas in your essay.

        I have absolutely no issue with your call for an art that is more heart-filled. What’s to disapprove of about that? I just don’t believe that painting as a form is somehow uniquely privileged in the ability to provide it (actually, this is a good question). And yet your essay — which raises the specter of a medium’s neglect then links this to a critique of an entire culture, including the art world *and* the internet! — seems to set painting alone up against everything else that is and yet somehow shouldn’t be.

  2. As T.S. Eliot said,In my end…is my beginning,or in Mr. Stopa’s case,in my beginning…is my end.This is a rather obfuscating essay that,for me anyway,doesn’t clarify much of anything about painting…pre-contemporary or contemporary.Not sure which “books” on contemporary art history Mr. Stopa is referring to…but there are plenty out there(including contemp art show catalogues) that focus not only tangentially,but primarily, on…painting.His assumption which he tries to demonstrate without any specificity whatsoever,that painting declined,fell,and ultimately disappeared after his momentous birthday in 1983 is rather ludicrous.Further,his assertion that now by some miraculous endeavors by “marginal” figurative painters,mostly women,what he terms “liminal” painting is re-emerging to make us all “warm and fuzzy” and,even better,connected… begs the question.All painting…pre-contemporary and contemporary…is,in some way, “liminal”,i.e sensory, and about “visual intimacy”,i.e. the viewer’s personal,private internalized,if you will “intimate”, sensory relationship with the painting’s image or images.Even conceptual,textual painting is sensorial “imagistic”…as Mark Rothko said, “There is no such thing as a painting about nothing”…just so, there is no such thing as a painting that isn’t “liminal”,i.e.sensory.So Mr. Stopa seems to be making a “point” that isn’t really a point…although, perhaps, rather circular.

    1. I think you might want to revisit your art history books then. A close look at your major ones, such as the widely used “Art Since 1900” books, edit painting after 1984. These books are also the work of the major critics our time. I suggest you take a look. There are plenty of catalogs floating out there, but they do not compete with widely disseminated texts used around the country. I’m also not arguing that painting prior to the 80s was not liminal. I think that’s a misreading of the terminology used here. Rather, it’s more a moniker with which to group these artists.

      1. Jason…there are several respected “art history” books used as “texts” in college-level courses that don’t,as you say, “edit painting after 1984”, but include such key painting figures of the 80s,90s and beyond as Basquiat(died 1988),Andy Warhol (died 1987),de Kooning, maybe the “greatest” figurative painter of the 20th/21st century:Lucian Freud, Helen Frankenthaler,Robert Motherwell, and two very much alive contemporary great painters: David Hockney and Gerhard Richter.Other than your assertion that painting disappeared from contemporary art history books after 1984,exactly what then,in simple, direct,non-obfuscating language,are you arguing?

        1. Well, Kathleen, without some examples of what those books are that are as widely used in those classes, I can only speculate which “texts” you are referring to. The series of books I mention, happen to be some of the most widely used/referenced today. No doubt there are others that read differently. But, it’s fair to say the argument holds water. I’m generalizing big time – but one of the issues I’m raising in this essay is that contemporary art history seems to be privileging the ideological, and in the process, overlooking artists whose work champions human emotion. Yet, it’s always a pleasure to hear feedback from someone who comes at things from a different critical standpoint.

          1. Jason…it certainly is a “truism” of contemporary art history that post-modern painting is minimalistic,conceptual and virtually void of emotion.But the intellect(which I assume is what you are referencing as “ideological” art) vs.emotion meme doesn’t really seem to be that clear-cut in contemporary painting.Contemporary artists as different as Marlene Dumas and Mary Heilmann(who you mention) both seem to express deep emotion in their paintings,although Heilmann, unlike Dumas,is very non-figurative and very abstract.Although I concur with you that a great deal of contemporary art seems cold,lifeless, devoid of emotion and feeling, and more intellectually-based than heartfelt, there is certainly plenty of deeply felt,emotional art going on in America and elsewhere.The Representational Art Conference just took place in California(TRAC2014), and Odd Nerdrum and others were keynote speakers …artists who convey plenty of emotion in their paintings.Thanks for your dialogue…I look forward to your next essay!

      2. Art Since 1900, cited in your comment as a source for your argument, spends an entire chapter for the year 1988 on painter Gerhard Richter’s indispensable Baader-Meinhof Group paintings. This author needs a true thesis grounded in a complex network of insights derived from facts rather than an oversimplified intellectualizing and pontificating blather.

        1. Stopa “says painting virtually disappears.” Not all of it. I read those books too. Save for a couple pages past 84, painting is all but gone. Nice try.

    2. Actually, TS Elliot wrote in Four Quartets, “In my beginning is my end.”

      Thus to all things.

      Painting is in no danger of dying, unless our imagination fails us. I am at once tortured and consoled by Ezra Pound’s (another poet!) proclamation: “Nothing is new under the sun. Make it new.” Advancements in science and technology, changes in religion, or the social have altered the essence of our existence little or none.

      So long as painting can do what other mediums cannot (and that principle applies to all other mediums), so long as imagination flows, we’ve nothing to fear—except as individuals. In which case, it may be time to enter a new medium or profession.

      Art is far larger than its history books.

      1. Actually…Eliot closes his magnificent East Coker with “In my end is my beginning”…but you have to, of course, read to the end of the poem.

  3. I wasn’t born in 1983, but my Gardner’s Art Through The Ages from 1985 did end with Jonathan Borofsky and Judy Pfaff. I also remember many artists at that time walking around with uncracked copies of The Anti-Aesthetic facing outwards. I think Stopa has a point, and why not discuss that larger point–that painting has been considered something of a rearguard activity since the 1960’s, instead of childishly mincing Stopa’s words?

    1. But I’m not sure that *is* the larger point of the essay. It certainly begins there.

      The larger point of the essay seems to me to be the theme that somehow a too-conceptually-minded culture and/or art world (here, I’m not sure which Stopa means since the context seems to slip within the essay) is making us into isolated practitioners of cold logic in our forms, progressively unable to deal in life experiences; in other words, our works are less human. Something like this is what I read way more substantially in the essay. But what this proposition has to do with the way more plausible point about the invisibility of painting *as art form* in art historical surveys here and there since the 60s, is not clear to me.

      Is Stopa missing primarily from art historical surveys painting as form or emotive artworks generally? He seems to be missing both yet makes his mistake in my view in suggesting that only the one has the power to restore the other.

  4. ” The problem is that analytic thinking can also build ivory towers. History has taught us that such totems are eventually abandoned and left to crumble.”

    In other words: to think deeply and critically will isolate you? I am all for emotional “intelligence” (what about emotional sensibility or capability?), but why do these modes – analytic thinking and emotional “intelligence” – have to be separate and set in contrast to each other?


    “Twentieth-century figurative painting maintained a unified sense of style.” This statement is simply untrue.

    1. Whilst it remains possible to suggest a change of emphasis in the art world, disagreeing is just so fashionable. Mr. Stopa makes a valid point in an art world addicted to a political chill. But let us not mistake this cerebral chill for any kind of courage. On the contrary, we are willing to argue anything to avoid actual visceral and emotional interaction with art.

  5. I had four biscuits. I ate one. Now I have three biscuits. Cheeezzzzzz.

    E. Murray “patently ignored” ? Where have you been living? Only one of four women to sleepover at MoMA in it’s long history. A huge print retro touring the country currently. While you were in your diapers, she was having great success on every level with Paula Cooper, then Pace… as ULAE and Gemini promoted her graphics globally for decades. Throw in a MacArthur fellowship and endless accolades. We yearn to be be ignored like this.

    As soon as a young artist starts making declarative statements, the opposite is usually true. I bet you are a really good artist, cause you sure ain’t no art historian?

  6. Today I watched a music video, looked at some art, read this essay, and FB msged with a friend–all virtual–and each had some measure of mystery, emotion, spirituality and sexuality. I do get it, the real world is out there, so let’s go look at it. Your message is a good one. It’s just….

    1. Joseph – thanks for your message. I should clarify that I do believe the internet allows us to exchange info about these things. But, it doesn’t allow us embodied experience. Arguably, this is how humans derive embodied knowledge. (i.e. i touch a stove, i burn myself. i don’t inherently know this beforehand.)

      Taking your examples, last time I checked, sex involved bodies. So perhaps you exchanged information about it, but there was no consummation. Spirituality is performative, (praying, meditating, some other ritual). Unless you were worshiping your computer, it probably didn’t go very far. And so on….

  7. Jason,
    May I say that you are a fine thinker. You have a modest but also incisive air in your writing. Plus, I find myself in agreement with your main thrust. I have been exploring and unfolding Liminalism in my art for the last 15 months. I believe that this, along with other factors, is the profound answer to the ‘Postmodern Manifesto’, and the only…shall we say…grown-up way forward for art, that I have found.

    Edward Povey

      1. I have taken my new Liminalist paintings offline at the moment, Jason. But soon to reappear. I believe that the Postmodern insistence on ‘honesty and authenticity’ followed a period of historical brutality (wars, porn, crime scene images, war footage, the holocaust…) which combined with the gradual loss of technical knowledge (due to the demise of the Atelier system in favor of the new and more academic college training) – to produce an ‘honest’ but very cerebral art, lacking in any technical ability – and calling that lack ‘honesty’.

        I believe that this has led to an unconscious awareness of the icy cerebral abrasiveness of current art, and also its lack of technical expertise – parading as brutal authenticity. Hence, the impatient annoyance of your readers. They call your emotional and sensual awareness ‘warm fuzzies’, sadly pushing away your obvious truth.

        You are clearly right on the mark, Jason. As for the disappearance of painting, naturally there are exceptions, but in a world lacking so much technical proficiency and even abstract awareness – painting HAD to take a hit.

  8. “History has taught us that such totems are eventually abandoned and left to crumble.” God I hope so with all the stuff I see in galleries these days masquerading as art with obscenely long texts that have to tell you that you are wrong about what you are thinking of the work itself.

  9. Congrats on an intelligent article. Rob Storr wrote that in the 1960’s the art world moved from the Cedar Tavern to the seminar room. Since art is taught in universities which are intellectually driven, and since art goes far beyond the use of the intellect, there’s also the question of skill and technique. That take time and dedication, so painting was discarded because who had the time to, when you can just weld shopping carts together, and line up for your kudos?

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