This is an essay about communication and exchange between painters. It has to do with developing a shared language, and with exploring the nature and extent of our theoretical basis in painting.
The origin of what’s written here is a continuing conversation I’ve been having with the painter Peter Acheson over the course of the last few years. Acheson is currently exhibiting a collection of his paintings, recent and past, at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects.
Painting today is a backwater. Our reasons for appreciating it, if we do, are various and sometimes contradictory and contentious. When compared to the cinema, it has no firmly established place relative to society as a whole, which often leads to the sense among practitioners, particularly the young, that painting is really just about self-involvement, a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing. Few people outside the art world could name five prominent contemporary painters, much less comment on the value of their work.
The only apparent alternative is the market, in which sales and exhibitions are what signify importance. Then the question is not how to talk about painting, but how to market it. It then becomes easy to forgo criticism altogether. In their press releases, galleries print their own analysis of what they exhibit. In response, critics and artists often shy away from value judgments in favor of descriptive writing. In a pluralistic culture nothing is more gauche than being strictly opinionated. This is what’s commonly referred to as “the crisis in criticism.”
The problem is located nowhere in particular but everywhere generally. Those who are high on the hog don’t wanna talk about it because why rock the boat, and those who are on bottom don’t wanna talk about it either because why be reactionary?
My contention is that the problem is the paradigm; and I want painting to heal its own wounds by redefining and expanding its context and by broadening its field of activity. This can happen both through practice ¾ painters working as painters in their studios ¾ and (emphasis here) by communicating. By talking about what we do. Talking anywhere ¾ the classroom, the studio, the street, the Internet. This is why talking’s important, uncomfortable as it may be. It’s education. So this is one painter’s ode to the possibility of a greater union between paint and language and a testimony to what’s gained by exploring it.
What follows is a hybrid form. A question is followed by a response from Acheson in italics then my comment. It is meant as a tribute to a specific exchange, and to the idea of exchange between artists as a means of generating change in the language surrounding painting.
Acheson’s work demonstrates a relationship between theory and practice that is an alternative to the contemporary paradigm. In his paintings, he concentrates on image and its reverberations as a means of undoing ingrained dichotomies in our language. A single painting is never strictly abstract or representational. Language itself is paired with collaged objects and paint, each meant as an equivalency for the others.
By eliminating thought barriers to painting activity, Acheson’s work creates a new inroad into painting. My conversations with him have helped clarify my own objectives and helped me recognize that still other paths may be blazed: that in fact, our history is not over. Or if it is, so much the better because we can now operate without the constant imposition of history’s twisted sibling: ideology.
Our new subject could be consciousness itself as it evolves and changes from hour to hour, day to day, and century to century. This passive, speculative attitude is not entirely new (Corot said: “It is not necessary to search, only to wait”). But its romantic, Watteau-like origins are the antidote to contemporary Apollonian methods and apathy alike.
In Acheson’s paintings, the movement of one brushstroke into the next is never a matter of finishing a painting, or of competing with an ideal, or of abjection in the absence of possibility. It is simply about seeing what will occur next, in the next moment. His paintings and our evolving conversation have helped shape and reinforce my own sense of possibility. I believe in exchange of this nature as a catalyst for change even in the direst of circumstances. Acheson is fond of quoting James Hillman’s question: “If we are on the Titanic and the ship is going down and everybody know it, is it worth it to rearrange the deck furniture?” Our answer:
1. Is there an operating theory of painting today?
No, not a universal theory. But there are theories from other disciplines that bear on painting. The big one for me is the idea from archetypal psychology of the anima mundi. As James Hillman points out, “The question in contemporary psychology is not what is the subject, but where is it? Does it stop inside my skin, or in my human relationships, or does it extend out to the rocks and trees?” Paintings become real for me not when they express my feelings only, but when the voice in them comes from out there. If the voice out there can come through a painting, then it can be heard in all sorts of other ‘inanimate things’. This would imply a dismantling of our human-centric point of view and suggest that we are but one of many players on the stage of consciousness. And the amazing thing is that paintings can arrive at this place. Here, as the intention-driven mind is downplayed, the external mind can flow in, either as unconscious (to us) coincidence or as a beautiful moving together of parts¾ like seeing a fox in the woods when one is quiet.
I am here liberated from the sense that I must do something in order to make my paintings meaningful. It concretizes the idea that one’s paintings are intrinsically already something, which is all the more important for their uniqueness. If you can get your mind around this, then your paintings can start to teach you about what you are. They become animated in the sense of animism. Individuated teaching forms: the opposite of merchandise.
2. In terms of your experience as a painter, where do paintings come from?
Paintings come from the unknown. Can we know exactly what the painting will look like before it confronts us? The proof is revealed by the fact that ‘finished’ paintings often fall off and require more work after we think of them as done. “We” cannot know. Successful paintings continue to mystify precisely because we can’t control the outcome, no matter how deliberate the method.
The teaching forms tell us that we are not in control. If this generates discomfort, good. That means there is no navel gazing going on at all. And if there is no final control in the production of paintings (any more than there is the course of life), then paintings can’t very well be considered as reliable products for consumption. No one is ever going to know what they’ve got.
3. Has the field of painting been professionalized? A professional artist. Is that an oxymoron?
Painters can be professional in the same way that shamans and psychotherapists are professional. Painting is an art, not a science. Science isn’t even a science as we usually understand the word. Painters are the worker-priests in the cult of man (Brice Marden). We roam the graveyards. We examine the old technologies and myths to see what still applies (Gary Snyder). This process doesn’t aim at meaning but participation. Painting as a profession which can be taught in art schools implies Apollo, skillful problem solving, the clear light of understanding. Rather than understand, painters choose to stand under. Painting is a performance art, more Dionysian than Apollonian. True to our professional obligations, we aim at dismantling ‘professional,’ turning it towards ‘professing’ joy, contrariness, and replacing ‘squirrel-in-cage’ thinking with consciousness in the fingertips.
In terms of the ‘contemporary dialogue,’ or ‘being contemporary,’ this is a radical redefinition of professionalism. Comparing a painter to a shaman and equating the act of painting with performance simultaneously elevates the practice to a critical function vis-à-vis our fellow humans and frees us from the shackles of pure materiality. A shaman operates on the material world via a transcendent plain. So when we look at paintings or when we make paintings we are dealing with psychology and with health. And that leads to reconsidering why and how a painting gets made. Painting practice suddenly integrates itself into life on a par with everyday functions, and ‘participation’ in this becomes critical. And if it might serve a healing function then we are happy that it exists. Whether you made it or whether I did becomes unimportant.
4. In relationship to that, is studio practice separable from a painter’s life? Are the life and the painting different?
Different in that one reflects the other. Sometimes life leads, sometimes painting. But it is impossible and fruitless to separate the ochres and cadmiums from the entire mineral composition of the earth; pointless to distinguish the water in the watercolor from the streams, rivers, and rain — all part of the planetary water cycle. We say the painting is finished, but how can anything be finished in an unfinished universe? We have the fantasy that the art in museums is immune from the wear and tear of time, and this leads to the idea that painting is separate from life. But a look at the lives of Pollock, Rembrandt, and Guston, just to name three, refutes this fantasy. Complacency in life leads to complacency in painting. In times when money obligations curtail my studio time, I tell myself that it is PAINTING that walks into Dunkin Donuts for coffee, PAINTING that puts gas in the car, fills the farecard. It seems to be enough.
Peter Acheson: Paintings continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 26.