Passive transformation

A screenshot from the online tour of Manifest’s Painted exhibition.

While the Painted exhibition was still running at Manifest Gallery, in Cincinnati, late last year, I participated in a Zoom conference with around a dozen artists whose work was chosen for Painted and the gallery’s other concurrent exhibitions. It was fun and humbling, because some of the other artists were conversationally eloquent about their work and art in general, while I felt bashful and halting by comparison. After more than a decade of writing about visual art, you would think I’d have been an open spigot of confident opinions, but that isn’t how it felt. Adam Mysock, Education and Studio Program Manager at Manifest, moderated the conversation. Of course, some of it was inevitably about what the artists were trying to achieve in their work. What they intended for their work to do for a viewer. How the work was the outcome of purposeful intent and had designs on a viewer’s perceptions, ideas, emotions, and so on. Later in the online conference, Mysock asked a question that got crickets from the participants: “So is it possible to imagine an entirely passive way of painting?” I thought at the time it was a question worthy of the sort of strenuous meditation a Zen adept brings to a koan and was especially pertinent to anyone who works with photo-realistic methods as I usually do. I couldn’t think quickly enough on my feet, partly because it’s subtle and complicated and a little paradoxical. The question has continued to haunt me and only recently have I realized I should have at least said that whole issue is central to what I’ve always sought to do in representational work.

Most people, including painters, think of style—the signature of the painter’s heart in every detail of the finished work—as the essence of the work’s originality and value. So the way in which an artist distorts, shapes, censors, simplifies, or translates what he or she sees into a unified image establishes the value of that particular painter’s work. This would appear to be an entirely active process: the outcome of complex, continuous choices as the picture is being painted. At some point, Fairfield Porter said something that probably wouldn’t be repeated by most painters now, but it’s a simple way to imagine what even photographically accurate painting actually does: to depict the world, just as it is, while making it a little more beautiful. It sounds like a recipe for the equivalent of sentimentality: trying to make the world more beautiful than nature did. But that isn’t what he meant. I think he was talking about how the process of transforming natural vision into a painted image mysteriously reveals the beauty that’s there but unrecognized in what a person looks at but doesn’t really see every day. How that transformation occurs is the essential mystery of the whole pursuit. Porter simplified what he saw, reducing a wealth of detail to one or two strokes of paint in some cases, made countless choices to eliminate aspects of what he saw and alter a color here or there, or everywhere, for that matter, to harmonize it with others on the canvas. He made active choices that had some conscious or subconscious end in mind, his goal or purpose, even if that purpose was merely to complete the work in a way that enabled every little part to be indispensable to the work’s visual unity. It would seem to be an intensely active, not passive, process.

But he was hoping that his work would do nothing more than capture “the light in the room” just as it was, the moment in time and place, even if much of what the light revealed to his observant eye gets lost in its resolution into paint. His painting of tennis players has that quality of being exactly how the court looked just as one of the players served the ball, the bright mid-day light intensifying the whites and flesh tones, deepening the darks of the shadows behind them, even though most detail was erased in the way he applied his paint. There’s no purpose here other than to convey the entire experience of that moment, and he succeeds in such a way that you can smell the air and feel the warmth of the sun on the backs of the players. In that sense, what he’s doing is utterly passive, honoring a simple, trivial moment in all its vitality and beauty and order. His paintings are an homage to this sort of mindfulness and humble appreciation of the mostly unregarded glory of ordinary life, from hour to hour—as were the paintings of Vermeer and Chardin and most of the Impressionists and the perceptual painters now. And most landscape painting in general. In other words, he worked as part of a long tradition very much still alive now.

For the record, over the past year, I’ve become interested in art that does just the opposite. Russian Orthodox icons, paintings in the Byzantine style, with forms flattened and abstracted, altering form and color and volume of what’s depicted to suit the needs of the painting itself and the stylistic strictures observed by an Eastern Orthodox painter. Superficially, but in a powerful way, many of these paintings look very 20th century, which says a lot about how modernism reached back into other cultural traditions and older practices. One Serbian painting of St. Gabriel called “The White Angel” is as geometric as Piero’s work, but even less three-dimensional. When I came across it, it brought to mind multiple paintings from the last century: Chagall’s images of himself and his wife, Modigliani’s figures, Cezanne’s portraits of his wife, and especially Gorky’s painting of himself and his mother. In all of these cases, there’s a similar flattening of perspective, abstracting natural forms into what might be dismissed as “decorative” patterns, and a concern to create a sense of altered reality by ignoring how things naturally look. But in the deepest sense, at least in the Serbian painting, there’s a passivity, an obedience—but not to appearances. The painter has an active purpose, but it actually represents a surrender to the truth the artist is attempting to depict. I think this devotion to making visible what would otherwise be invisible—without a painting to reveal it—rests at the heart of most modernist painting. It had this in common with devotional painting from centuries before: but with modernism the revelation was of something awaiting discovery and indeterminate, until it found itself crystallized as a painting. Braque’s mysterious gueridons seem to be a unique embodiment of something impossible to describe, but gravely, assiduously accurate in every detail, every color, every line and texture. Those still life tables weren’t painted to convey theories or beliefs or a faith in anything but the revelatory process of painting itself: so they were intensely active in almost every sense except for this aura of mystery. It found its own way into the work. Braque couldn’t develop a repeatable, reliable way to evoke it. In his notebooks, he called it “transformation.” It had to happen while he was intent on the mundane, technical rigors of applying paint to canvas. So the world of the finished work and what it does for the viewer remains, in a way, essentially passive: all of Braque’s active, creative choices were voluntary and conscious and purposeful, in the sense that craftsmanship is purposeful, but the outcome, the finished work has this magic that manifests itself through Braque’s effort, even though he was in a sense a passive channel for it. This is the paradox. He couldn’t guarantee he would arrive at that beautiful mystery in the finished piece, but that’s what he was struggling to achieve. He could actively control all the methods he used, but he couldn’t control whether they would summon that imaginative or spiritual recognition in the viewer.

All painting has this quality: it’s the outcome of active choices and purposes, but when it’s perfectly realized and works as a painting, what makes it unique and personal and individual is mostly the indirect outcome of an artist’s intent. You can’t consciously create your own style. It realizes itself through all the thousands of choices an artist instinctively makes as he or she learns to finish one painting after another, through trial and error. If a painting is a repeatable result of determinable techniques, it would be utterly impersonal. Conceptual art, during the brief interest it generated, was an attempt to turn art into a codified process: a set of instructions which anyone could follow to create it. In retrospect, it’s lifeless.

To a non-practitioner, photo-realism must seem like something close to this mechanical, repeatable process. With this genre, there’s an additional, even more humble attempt to efface the artist, eliminate self-assertion and stylization, as Susan Sontag would put it, in favor of surrendering completely to what’s being depicted. Yet, when I’m engaged in it, it actually becomes demandingly creative, uncertain, in the sense that nothing is easy, nothing is precisely repeatable, even in what might seem an almost mechanical process, and nothing in the act of painting could be codified into an utterly passive method where the artist just does what any other artist could do. Though I work from a photograph, I create a map of flat, interlocking areas of color and then work detail into them, in the way of traditional oil painting, but I’m using the photograph as a source, rather than painting directly from life. A lot of conscious, voluntary choices go into the lighting for the photograph—mostly a window in my kitchen—and the wrapping of the candy, which I sometimes retry a dozen times before the twists in the waxed paper result in a simple enough flare of curved surfaces on each side of the taffy. Yet all those choices are merely formal and have no motive other than to give the image unity and impact, where lines flow into other lines in a certain way, colors harmonize, light doesn’t get entirely lost in the shadows and so on. I have no “deeper” intent to express anything with a couple chunks of candy other than capture the way they look. The painting means nothing, in the sense that it’s not rationally designed to signify anything other than itself. It’s an entirely passive sense of purpose, with a lot of conscious, active little decisions in the weeks I spend working on the painting. In the end I have an image unified around three hazy globes of soft color, rising up from the bottom of the canvas, stacked like a snowman’s anatomy or a totem pole or a cairn. The patterns in the colored sweet remind me of color field painting from more than half a century ago, but that memory color field’s exuberant serenity of color and pattern is wrapped with waxed paper, held at arm’s length, in a sort of ironic way.

This passivity, though, the desire to just show exactly how a couple pieces of taffy look in a certain light, ends up—especially in the enlarged versions I paint of the images—reminding me of many other things, states of mind, landscapes, figures, stories, situations, none of which were at all part of my purpose in making the painting. So the painting doesn’t mean these things. It participates in them somehow, shares some kind of perceptual structure with the other experiences it evokes for me. I don’t alter the image in any significant way—other than maybe to eliminate a confusing bubble-like void here and there between the waxed paper and the surface of the candy. I try to convey the craggy bulk of this solidified lump of sugar, probably the least meaningful object one can imagine ever painting, in all its valleys and hills, just as it is, because of the way I can use it to put color at the heart of an image unified by the simplicity of its being nothing but two objects and their reflection beneath them. This kind of surrender to what I see unlocks for me all this resonance—the scale and the amount of time invested in the process transforming what was there for anyone to see, with the right kind of attention, when the candy was sitting next to my sink on the granite countertop under the kitchen window. I, for one, wouldn’t have though that two actual chunks of taffy looked like a sunny day over a green field, as they do in the painting I did of them a couple months ago. So, in a sense, yes, one can imagine an almost entirely passive kind of painting, but its paradoxically this state of mindful attention and submissive craft transforms the act of seeing into something unexpectedly resonant.

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