I would like to begin by referring to the grammatical apposition or appositeness (this-to-that relevance) of paint to its support or surface. Painting is an activity productive of painted artifacts. The noun “painting” serves as a semantic reference to some surface or material that has been transformed into a painted object. Often people call their painted objects canvasses, but let’s be honest, a canvas is just one possible unprepared/prepared paintable surface.
This is important because I would like to redirect painting into a new mode of relevance by addressing what it covers and how it covers ; how it encloses and discloses.
So painting is the transition from the condition “unpainted” to the condition “painted.” This imparts a conventional motive to the act of painting (verb).You start clean, you start fresh ; you deflower the virgin surface. If I were to paint my underwear, no doubt the first conclusion someone would jump to is that I am giving myself visual pleasure by decorating my briefs and I am creating an unseen world around myself for my private delectation. Or even yet, I am creating boudoir art for myself and my intimates. So, what I choose to paint on, and how I paint it, is an important tenet of art.
Without becoming obsessed with surfaces and materials (art has already been through that with “Supports/Surfaces,” a trend in French and Italian painting of the sixties and seventies) I would like to call attention to paint as paint, and away from the tableau, the painted plane, and the painted square. Of course, many art objects just happen to be square because they are easier to handle that way, and perhaps our visual field is somewhat rectangular to begin with, keeping in mind that glasses are, in general, probably more rectangular than ellipsoidal. (At any rate, I have no beef against round or elliptic paintings.)
Perhaps the most natural surface for painting is a wall. Cavemen have left us their sketches on the walls and roofs of caves. There also seems to be quite a background to suggest that in the early phases of the historical period, men and women painted the interiors and exteriors of their houses and temples, and made portraits on the covers of the coffins of their dead. Most of the painting or paint of the Egyptians and Greeks has frittered away, leaving us with the “naked” ("paintless”) architecture of today.
To paint on or not to paint on
“To paint on or not to paint on” seems to have been a very old concern indeed and has by now been built into the kind of unspoken code of history that Foucault refers to in his books on systems of human thought. A person might even be suspected of being “abnormal”, crazy, demented if he painted on something that shouldn’t be painted. Drawers, for example. In short (no pun intended), to paint existing decorated surfaces might seem like false pride or a sublimated urge to urinate or defecate in the wrong places.
The institutions of art indicate the “right” places that art should go (ho-hum). Museums, art galleries, the hallowed halls of corporations and universities, and in private dwellings, that spot above the sofa that brings out the red in the carpet and those fine roll-up windows you paid a gazillion for. Elsewhere art infiltrates the modalities of being. The tattoos that are certainly more genuine art than the pathetic commercial logo that, let’s face it, some talentless intern foisted upon the pea-brained CEO of an up and coming company. Can anyone, beside the pallid ghost of Warhol (no condemnation intended), see anything of meaning or quality to Microsoft’s flying windows or Apple’s bitten apple ? Logomachy is the deplorable vengeance of ersatz art on the paintless – not to say, pointless — world. Junk loves a vacuum.
Be that as it may, this perfidy of blood-suckers known as design artists gives us pause. Why hasn’t real art infiltrated the realms of ersatz art ? Perhaps because the strictures of “high/low” impede it. We risk to “dilute the market” as some malicious pundit has said, and never ceased to echo. And we, would-be art appreciators, abide by our Pavlovian responses toward ersatz art. We harken to the tinkle of the savant’s bell which tells us din-din is on the way.
Maybe yes, maybe no. With Warhol, we learned to love Big Brother while ravaging his wallet. That was part of the art of Warhol, to do ballet steps on the razor’s edge of irony. To make the beautiful sufficiently ugly to be appreciated, and to make it a by-product of the “junkifying” impulses of the technological heartland, our ersatz culture. Philosopher Theodor Adorno’s essay on the evils of industrial culture fails to understand the kneejerk quality of some of human creativity – the possibility that Hollywood may have produced some art despite the formulas, the talent farms, and general brainlessness of it all. Man is an animal that produces art where it can grow and where it shouldn’t grow, and despite himself. Sometimes this is hard to understand even by people as perceptive as Adorno.
Art where it shouldn’t be
Look at fashion and publicity. These activities have been plundering the thoughts of so-called real artists for over a century. I can’t seem to thumb through a magazine without encountering a “plagiarism” (but is it really ?) of an idea of Man Ray and Duchamp or a puckish homage to this or that dead artist (without giving any credit). No matter, art knows itself, even if junk-art doesn’t. And think what possibilities of parody these thefts incite. Counter theft. Making junk into art might be one of the creative projects available to future generations. Creative parasitism, making food of that which poisons us. Kicking the dog that has been trained to chew our leg.
It’s into this vector of action, or reaction, that I proffer “repainting” – an art process of my own invention. Repainting asks : Why paint, when you can repaint ? And why not paint junk to “dejunkify” it ? Hasn’t junk become the final aim of man ? His way to dusky death ? Surely when we have “junkified” the whole planet, we will have obeyed the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply.
To wit : repaint ads, posters, and existing paintings. Repaint traffic signs, commercial symbols and logos, redraw comic strips and other pulp ; rewrite communication(s). Eternalize the instant and de-eternalize the eternal. Play bongo drums on Nietzsche’s idols from his Twilight of the Idols. Notice that I am personally more attracted to contemporary visual publications than to a broken Maytag or an obsolete computer. I don’t do furniture, stuffed animals, counterpanes, or vehicle tires like Robert Rauschenberg. I don’t do boxes like Joseph Cornell. I don’t amalgamate clippings like Hannah Hoch and Raoul Hausmann (collagists). I don’t fuss with cutouts like Kurt Schwitters. However, all these people have tended to undermine paint as “wet paint” or scarcely dry paint. In a sense, the method of collage (from “colle” in French, which means glue) is a way to produce new paint without paint.
And one could reasonably argue that painting is drawing with a brush, or drawing is painting with a pencil. It’s hard to say what makes paint “paint” and why it should matter anyway. In the western world, painting is a custom embraced by the medieval church (in the middle ages, of course) to educate the illiterate, and it took on like wildfire in ensuing centuries and perhaps led ineluctably to new forms of visual fetishism — photography and moving-photography or cinema, for example.
Art is not pastry
Modern art contributed to the conception of art as “objet de luxe” in its more Frenchified status (Paris was the capital of the art world from the nineteenth century to 1945). Three or four star fare. The canvasses of Corot, Manet, Renoir, Picasso, Matisse, Klee, etc. can easily be imagined as something to eat : a gourmet dinner or an elaborate pastry. There’s a tendency in French art to resemble pastry – think of those creamy-white works of sculpture in every beaux-arts museum, or the powdered faces and wigs of the seventeenth century portraits, just as there is a profound “illustrated” look to much of American art – from Stuart’s paintings of Washington to Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving eaters. But to end my digression, it’s hard to know whether the candied art of the School of Paris isn’t a throwback to the candied art of the Renaissance.
European art, both old and new, seeks to build a vision with one or more focal points, a centered architectonic with a sweet, sensual overall appeal (which I call the boite à bonbons, box of candy). Perhaps, this type of westernized fine art is a reflection of the ordering exception in physics (heretofore unexplained) that seeks to counter “entropy,” change by dissolution, as in the thermal dispersion of matter/energy. But why seek order when disorder seems to be the rule ?
In the candied vision of art, color is used not as an element of vocabulary (which is less true of the moderns, especially the Expressionists) but as a psychological prop, a sensuousness not far from that of spice in gastronomy or the whip in deviant sexuality. On the other hand, the French synchronic tendencies exploit a delicious human proportionality, a gift of mapping the seen and unseen equally. This is also the beauty of Roman murals and mosaics, of medieval illuminated books, as well as of the rather stilted Renaissance (Italy, France, and Germany) or more naturalistic Baroque.
At any rate, the post-modern or whatever art I propose breaks away from this centered (or centering) architectonic and use of sensual color ; instead it seeks to fragment — break up —the visual field, to proceed in the direction of entropy, and highlight the periphery with empty color or with a paint-over (covering) technique. This is the case of most of my Neo-Pop painted “tear-aways” (“arrachages”) which isolate the subject or element of content at the center of the visual field and use the means at hand to analytically disassemble the layout. Occasionally, I create “juxtapositions” – painted-over arrachages with a juxtaposed content and a more synthetic treatment.
Repainting as deconstruction
The word deconstruction has yet to be applied to painting in a knowledgeable way. For Jacques Derrida, deconstruction is a form of philosophical and literary critique that identifies the “center of gravity” of a written work and experimentally displaces it. This is not really very different from the treatment I impose on my arrachages. The substantial transformations of the pictorial content involve thin references to kinds of visual puns, Freudian slips of the tongue or of the brain, or Spoonerisms of a non-linguistic nature. Like the Marquis de Sade, I do violence to the women I love (I don’t really). Which, in passing, have been done violence to through their selection as silent idiots in print. Women selected for their youth, their big bones and narrow bodies, for their vacant blue eyes, for their perfect skin, for their straight teeth, for their erotic silence and their responsiveness to the camera. And why not too for their latent violability – like Justine, Juliette, and other de Sade imaginary waifs ?
The moralists of the world want to erect man into a perennial victimizer (it is no surprise that the devil is conceived as male) to preserve human mental innocence and erect or redirect woman into a perennially violated and exploited subject without assuming that sex is a two-way street with “violent” desires embodied in women’s sheepskin of innocence as well as in the male. And, yes, I don’t belong to the international conspiracy to hush up sex. How else to keep the minions in order except by endless repetition of the myth of one man/one woman, the discovery of transcendent carnality in love, “true” love, “family” love — this and that hypocrisy by any other name ? Anyway, I feel woman’s appearance for man is a testing ground for the depth of his feeling of attraction for her, and for her kind. In the rulebook, man “wants,” while woman “acquiesces” (begrudgingly acquits her debt to sexuality, or so morality implies).
But moving ahead, as content — in the dualism “form and content,’ of the arrachages — the fashion models are symbols of biological women and artificial women, temptresses and selectees, and traitors to the myth of family sanctity, since they are “shared” by all eyes (one begins to understand the rational oriental need to hide women so that they occupy cloistered spaces and wear cloaking garb to preserve peace among men and perhaps among other women).
The models I use come from fashion magazines almost uniformly run by women. But many of the photographers are male, I would think. It takes a thief to catch a thief, or a devil to catch a temptress. To obtain the tear-aways, the printed images are torn from their paper base (magazine pages), reversed (mirror-imaged) in the transfer to a new sheet of paper, usually damaged unintentionally in transit, daubed in ink, and corrected and altered with acrylic paint and medium. They are generally divested of commercial meaning when separated from their supporting texts. (I do not sell clothes, health, or beauty products.) Where the photographer has imposed a strong architectonic (relation of ideas or elements to each other), the opportunity for repositioning and attunement is perhaps the best. But no attempt is made to exploit the original configuration for itself ; it simply precedes transformation, and sometimes may survive it.
According to a proverb – printed, I think, on the New York Daily News masthead — a picture is worth a thousand words (or “the picture newspaper”). This, of course, depends upon whether the exchange rate doesn’t change. Narration, I think, has been profoundly changed by the proliferation of stereotyped images generated by television and the press over the past century (poster ads, TV “spots,” cartoon figures, or movie sequences – the latter often based on elaborate storyboard pre-visualizations). Narrative interest consists, I feel, in the interest generated by the passage of one image to another. The more logical the transition, the more storytelling or narrative-like.
The classical painters chose a single image to tell a whole story like in grade school books : Saint Paul unhorsed on the road to Damascus, the Adoration of the Magi (preceding, I suppose, the opening of the Christmas presents), and the Massacre of the Innocents, i.e., Herod’s neonates. Even into the eighteenth century, artists sought the quiet before the storm, the moment of pause before delivery of a terrible contrivance : the oath of the Horatii before the death of two out of three of them (Louis David) or the worship of the golden calf (Nicholas Poussin) prior to Moses’s return with the tablets. This ecstatic “prior moment” is in part due to the precepts of Johann Winkelmann (the so-called father of art history) whose edicts fashioned his time, giving meaning to what he felt was, in art, the sum of all possible meanings.
This duality of a Parmenidean vision of repose and a Heraclitean vision of movement has haunted art ever since. There is even some reason to believe that modern art was invented to achieve motion through the dynamic processing of forms, planes, colors, graphic elements, and texture (the feel of color and paint ; the “manual” understanding of the visual). These are advances, progressions, an immanent conformity to life in all its “wiggliness,” its peripatetic impulses and frivolity, that have persisted in the transition from modern art to “Contemporary” art (let’s be truthful and call it “bric-a-brac” or “goofy” art) represented by the likes of Bruce Nauman (installations that look like whitewashed basements) or Richard Serra (huge rusted iron architectures, like ships) that yet convey texture and a kind of dynamism.
So narrative prevails : for Sol LeWitt (with his chalk or linear murals that climb the walls), Jean Dubuffet (author of the first direct visual pun in art ; a landscape as a clump of natural mud), Gerhard Richter (with his painted Polaroids ; paintings made to look like huge Polaroids of his family) and other worthies (real worthies, in my opinion) that I don’t have the space to discuss in detail here. The translation of movement into narrative or narrative into movement is an aspect of art that remains open to discovery and exploration.
Space, the boundless frontier
Are photographic and painted spaces alike ? Are they “objective” ? Richter might have asked himself this question, with his painted canvasses looking like photographs that are often blurred. Does blurring imply anything ? Impressionism ? Cataracts ? Myopia ? Faulty auto-focus ? I give up. But have artists finished with space, distorted or undistorted ? – except as mere gigantism ?
Space is a pain to explain either in physics or in art. It used to be explained as perspective, the natural intersections of vectors and planes. Today, with perspective a “has been” (and space as mere space also a “has been”) space needs a new basis of explanation. With our eyes that move inexorably like spaceships in intergalactic space, or in “microgalactic” space, one cannot fear confusing photographic space and visual (or artistic) space. One is Parmenidean (static) and the other Heraclitean (dynamic).
Our eyes never see the same river twice, and they are fed by an “imagination” (a cerebral function) that minimizes any other earthly source of flux. Our eyes are fed by memory, learning, experience, trauma… the grab bag of psychological proto-phenomena. They are the meeting point of the a priori and a posteriori. (Kant should have known that art could never be reduced to the perception of mere nature.) Our eyes don’t generate what is, but they do generate what we see and would see. Seeing is not a static relationship – it is also about deriving sense from what is seen, as any magician will tell you. It is about what we bring to the table when we use our eyes to appreciate, understand, explore, question, investigate, and reach out to the unknown. It is about drama as beauty, tragedy as beauty, and new beauty (not to say ugliness) as beauty.
The space of art is evidently space in movement, slowed down to a three-beat canter by human thought. To look at art is an opportunity to meditate upon the visible, and to slow the gyroscope of time-space and matter. Art is a way to slow reality down to the speed of our understanding. It is a chance to gain a foothold in the grist of the visible. Otherwise, understanding has too many variables, and it is too often the reflection of paltry politics, morals, and aims. Art is one of the few alternatives to corruption (theft, abuse, lying, etc.) ; the other is education – but who is educated anymore and who would want to be ? Man has bypassed education in his drive toward pleasure, comfort, fanaticism, ignorance, self-denial in custom and superstition, and self-annihilation through the destruction of the biosphere. What else could remain to us besides a nostalgia for civilization ?
The reality of art
In an age that calls into question the survival of intellectual culture, amid the prophets of hedonism, philistinism, positivism (journalism for scientists), populism (instant erudition), and relativism of values (not to be confused with the semiotics of values proposed by Nietzsche), a producer of art can begin to doubt the reality of art, its staying power, its meaningfulness. When the barbarians come over the hill, will they be content with breaking the noses and other equally protuberant appendages (on statues) ? Or will art be paved and tarred over ? Will it go the way of the giant Buddhas that the Talibans exploded in the late nineties ?
I think that even as it aspires to globalism, Occidental art needs to make clear what positions it holds and what it is doing. Art is far too important to be left to the generals, and we are advancing toward a world of two classes : generals and foot soldiers. The world of art needs to diversify, infiltrate the various nooks and crannies of the social order, and belong to the same reality as the art makers, which don’t “make” the reality of art, but merely express it. Art needs to rise above the couturiers, the fashion pontiffs, and the little-girl tastefulness that impedes woman’s entry into man’s world of art. And someone needs to take the hammer or hatchet to design.
It’s about time too that we settle the argument relating to the difference between craft and art. The artisan builds a cubit, a room ; the artist builds a world. The artist or art producer or painter (whatever you want to call him or her) develops a universal vision, a “world,” an articulated reality that encompasses his passage through this ether called life. His lifework is a separate reality deserving to be understood and appreciated for its complexity and sophistication. The artist doesn’t match any pre-existing tastes or appetites — he is not a maker of commodities. Which, giving him or her due respect and gratitude, the craftsman or artisan is.
For those who would define art as leisure, let the “funsters” have their fun, and sure, leisure is nice for the young and untraveled (and even for old farts) — but enough is enough, the reality of art is not a vacation of and in the mind (notwithstanding Abu Dhabi and the new museum extensions, which of course are worthy of interest). The danger of negatively (anarchically) virtualizing the reality of art threatens us insofar as we can’t let the ersatz experts (or the ignorant) robotize the notions of artistic appreciation, and create soporific Disneylands for art. Good art production cuts reality like a knife ; it has all the adventure of pain, doubt, courage, raw sex, and sometime even the rewards that sacrifices are apt to breed. The reality of art is like the reality of thought ; not for the imitators of life, the hypocrites or masked barbarians.
If I sound like Savonarola, I don’t mean to. There are positive sides to virtualizing art’s reality too, at least from the planning/execution point of view. The production of art can begin to resemble an algorithm or dynamic decision tree. It can involve, like a movie, a recourse to study and documentation. It can be divided into the phases of pre-production, production, and post-production. And of course, every step on an artist’s path is a foothold in (his or her) reality. It is important that the artist and his followers fashion his particular “myth” by adhering to the rules of the reality of his work. A fixation of belief (in a non-religious sense) is needed, after the fact, when the works of an artist have crystalized or obtained closure, otherwise he is just a conniver like almost all the rest of humanity’s time travelers.
The price of paintings
A painting is not a postcard or a bag of popcorn, and should not go for popcorn prices. It is an investment in culture. Would you pay fifty dollars for a car ? (You might get what you paid for, a motionless hulk.) A decent price for a work of art guarantees that the artist will be able to pay for a studio, insurance, transportation, warehousing, materials, commissions, promotion, and on and on, as well as eat and pay rent. The naivety, the dunderheadedness of simple folk who believe that art is only a pastime for children or objects of mere craft renders it of ambiguous value to the newcomer to the art world. Buying a picture is entering the cultural market in a professional way, voting with a disbursement, participating in the emission and dissemination of art ideas. This is also a reason for artists to deal directly with museums and major collectors when possible, to initiate the process of communication that can do the most good for future sales. Just like there is justice in the donations of artists to museums and government – artists should seek to avoid posthumous pillage, the pack of lapdogs (family) that feeds on an artist’s bones.
Let’s face it, a painting belongs in a public space. It makes no sense when it is hidden away in a vault. Like music, it needs to be played. So let it travel and migrate ; let it roam the wide earth. There is a possibility that too many copies (photographs, Internet graphics, postcards and calendars) may hinder it, so let the original be seen and known. But photographs of works do retain a value for loss prevention, for preserving an historical record of lost art. And I have no qualms about replicas used to document and educate. Let the rain of annihilation fall where it may, a trace of past (lost) art is always nice.
I belong to the minority of art-makers who feel that art should be understood mentally as well as seen (tasted, groped, or whatever). And understanding is not necessarily verbal or non-verbal, but may be a little bit of both. A painting is a sign, or a system of signs, that needs to be decoded, but not necessarily transcribed from one code to another. One enters into the code of a painting like one enters a foreign culture, attentive to the novelty and irreducible integrity it represents. Those who carry their culture around like handbags are usually insensitive to new art.
And to be sure there is an ongoing problem with the non-competus mentis seeking to erect themselves into geniuses ; the art-illiterates who are convinced that art is achieved by copying others. This compares to a person with a grade school education convinced he or she can build a nuclear power plant based on snapshots, mud, and finger paint. Art is not the clumsy, thousand-times-redone, unimaginative, decorative, imitative gunk you see at the local discount art gallery or the neighborhood old-lady’s coffee klatch exhibition. To imitate another’s art is to kill your own. To paint without any mental discrimination (there is irony in Warhol’s belief in anti-intellectualism) is to paint hotdogs with mustard, feet with mercurochrome, or your butt so that it resembles that of a baboon. I suggest we hide away these vanities that give art a bad name by not encouraging amateurs to think they are professionals. And individual taste counts for as much as finger prints at the end of your fingers. It is often just a mere token of difference, not of depth and merit. But I’m always amazed by the lengths a human will go to protect his ignorance ; even to live a make-believe life rather than a real one.
The aim of art is to remain new and interesting, even as it “gets old” or older. There is still novelty in Giotto, Bosch, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt. There is still a lot to be learned from achieving a visual (or manual/textural) understanding of another painter, but one must be wary of the type of mimesis (imitativeness) that kidnaps the reflection of an another’s work, and adds nothing to it. Art, where is your stinger ? In invention, not in imitation. The difference between “inspiration” and “copying” is a mile wide.
Finally, there are too many people in this world who aspire to an entomologist’s vision of creativity. The impulses that stir the waddling, blind, enslaved masses ; that make the beehive and anthill hum. The sociobiological interpretation of art as genetic “investment” is like the “Contemporary” salve on bruised egos that neglects their minds or pities their neglected minds. Art in no panacea (cure all) for lack of education or lack of the development of defendable views. Art is a human product that encourages other human products of equal or better worth, not a pharmaceutical solution to the world’s problems. It may even stand in some sort of inarticulate antithesis to the problems and progress of the world, to the good in the world and the bad as well. It is the mind of man, recoverable over time and indicative or the nature or character of that time, and perhaps one of its non-criminal aspirations.
Mike Alix (Michel René Alix)