Onwards

It followed me home (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I sense a breakthrough on the horizon. I reflect that there must be few people who really attempt the transition from the new world to the old—few native English speakers make more than a half-hearted effort to learn another language; most find Europe quaint but of inferior living standards. In short, it seems more forward to have moved on from the old continent and its old-fashioned ways. The chasm between analytical and Continental philosophy is no mere physical border that one simply crosses by plane, but a dramatic shift in mindset, as I begin to experience first-hand at the Universität Wien.

In Vienna, there is an immense investment in and reverence of the history of philosophy, which is no real surprise given much foundational philosophy was written in German, and I immediately find myself thousands of years behind with my light smattering of Descartes and Plato, my utilitarianism and political theory, my if A then B. I expect history to be full of dry consecutive names; instead a rich forest of ideas towers before me, its immovable trunks mellow with age, its foliage swaying slowly and heavily, conscious of its own import. I tread slowly, leaf by leaf, dictionary in hand, eyes and mind open. In the face of my rigorous training, Deleuze and Guattari (1996: 22) assure me that philosophy ‘does not link propositions together,’ and caution against the false equivocation of philosophy and science that logic encourages. Paul de Man (1986: 19) politely suggests that I am under the tyranny of logic.

It is mildly amusing that the Anglo world holds so fast to the rigid linguistic frameworks they have built up around their ideas, precisely because of their clumsiness with language. Perhaps it is the very linguistic agility of Europeans—the ability to swing from language to language in a heartbeat, deftly expressing themselves in two, three, four or more languages without shyness or reserve—that makes them less precious about language. Language, indeed, is far from a monolith the way the monolingual tend to worship it. It bends and flexes under the demands of each moment; it changes flavour with each speaker, each a product of a unique mix of hereditary, educational and experiential backgrounds. Language is not God; it is an ever-mutating and stretching membrane that exists between individuals trying to make meaningful contact with one another.

My bewildered self, however, a strange (liquid) solution of (non-equal parts) English and German, confronts these wordplays with no small amount of confusion. De Man (1986: 16) wants me to ponder potentially but not definitively recasting the title of Keats’ The Fall of Hyperion in the genitive case, though my natural impulse is to think of titles as identifying handles that are a matter of convention, an afterthought to the real work, which is where we most probably ought to focus our attention. Deleuze wants me to remember a string of metaphors—meat, scaffold and cosmos—and to remember that ‘house’ and ‘scaffold’ are interchangeable, in a seemingly arbitrary game of free-association, but is fiercely insistent that other related words play absolutely no part here. That though the Greeks philosophised via dialogue, philosophers in fact run from discussion, and communication is decidedly irrelevant (Deleuze & Guattari, 1996: 28, 29). What am I to do with these sudden and pervasive contradictions, these unexpected associations and dissociations? Does this English word really capture that French word, and does German have a more precise distinction between reason and understanding, or a finer delineation of existence? Should many words and all their shades of meaning be available, since we all speak different tongues; or should we defer to the language that best picks out the thought we want to express?

Learning another language, of course, makes you take more notice of your own. For I remember being uninterested in the etymological background of the word ‘express,’ which I believe Dewey (1934) spends some time elaborating, to draw attention to the way we squeeze meaning out, or press the essence of our thoughts of feelings from our bodies. German, with particular crispness, makes me confront that I am engaged in a struggle of Ausdruck, of pressing out, which makes this whole enterprise of wringing out the language much more plausible. Perhaps we would do well to mince our words rather than pride ourselves on clarity—arrogantly hiding the duplicity of words behind a fragile screen of necessity.

My tentative steps into the cavernous history of philosophy lead me to concepts wholly unfamiliar to my Anglo ears: such as the apparently familiar trivium, the historical partitioning of language into its three sciences (de Man, 1986: 13). I start to suspect some sort of British intellectual imperialism that kept such pedagogical categories on the quiet on Anglo turf, all the while parading around to the beat of irrefutable, incontestable, unconquerable logic. The trivium, I belatedly learn, breaks language down into grammar, rhetoric and logic (all of which look more pleasing with k’s: Grammatik, Rhetorik und Logik), which exist in an uneasy tension. De Man (1986: 14) points out the ‘natural enough affinity’ between logic and grammar, and the discomfort that rhetoric tends to introduce to this delicate balance. Why resist (Continental) literary theory? Precisely because it resists your concept of language, but from within language itself. It reclaims the rhetorical aspect of language and brings it to centre stage, instead of flicking it aside as unnecessary ‘ornament.’ Were language scientifically precise, we could find in it a solid epistemological foundation. And, as monolinguals, that is the understanding of language that we develop and nurture and protect. When the polylinguals arrive with their freewheeling interchangeability, with their ‘literariness,’ drenched in their clouds of loosely connected pretty words, our chests grow tight and our eyes narrow with suspicion.

Yet our common Greek heritage esteems this more seductive layer of language. ‘How did he entertain you?’ Socrates asks his friend Phaedrus. ‘Can I be wrong in supposing that Lysias gave you a feast of discourse?’ Plato (2010) reports the two stirring each other to higher and higher planes of ecstasy, enraptured in turn by the written speech prepared and recorded by the brilliant rhetorician Lysias, and by Socrates’ spontaneous responses on the theme of love. Having worked each other into a ‘phrenzy,’ they try to knuckle down just what this art of rhetoric is, and how it is to be mastered. Phraedus voices the concern that echoes across the millennia in the doubts of the logicians: ‘I have heard that he who would be an orator has nothing to do with true justice, but only with what is likely to be approved by the many who sit in judgement … and that from opinion comes persuasion, and not from the truth.’ Socrates imagines Rhetoric herself reproaching such Spartans: ‘Mere knowledge of the truth will not give you the art of persuasion.’ Certainly, those who cling fast to grammar and logic suspect this ‘art of enchanting the mind by arguments’ of being ‘a mere routine and trick, not an art.’

Plato’s meta-story concludes with the observation that souls come in all kinds, and must be persuaded on their own terms; a good rhetorician, then, does not pound him with a stick of logic but learns to systematise and recognise types and have her method of argument polished and at the ready. ‘He who knows all this, and who knows also when he should speak and when he should refrain, and when he should use pithy sayings, pathetic appeals, sensational effects, and all the other modes of speech which he has learned’ is a skilful practitioner of the art.

While we risk dullness and lifelessness in delivery if we place all our confidence in the irrefutability of technical correctness (de Man, 1986: 19), clear and logical expression certainly need not be so dry. The elegant and amiable writing of David Hume attests to this, and I recall the deep impression he had on my friend and philosopher colleague Mark Hooper, and in turn on me. In Hooper’s reading of Hume it suddenly struck him that all writing could be beautiful, that one must simply apply a little thought and make a concentrated effort to construct a tight, meaningful and pleasing sentence. ‘Why are there bad sentences?’ Hooper demanded to know, though probably putting it more elegantly. The sentiment has remained with me, and propelled my own writing, which I have always seen as more than a vehicle for ideas. I relish the deftness and precision with which one can summon words, with a little care, the poetry that one can extract from them—ever trembling at the brink of pretentiousness but never (intentionally) sacrificing clarity. Hume’s Scottish pride drove him to France rather than to England, and the example of this self-professed cosmopolitan glows warmly in my mind.

When I began to seriously study drawing, I took a brief but intense string of classes with the formidable David Paulson. He was renowned for breaking pencils and students. He broke my pencil, and my brain, but his intensity stirred my spirit rather than broke it. Yet I left his class feeling utterly adrift. My lines became cruder, more abrasive. I tread hesitantly, my lines faltered. But with time I regained my composure and drew with greater vigour, more poetically, finding expression in bold, calligraphic lines that cut deep into the page. Paulson barks at me still, from the back of my mind. He left an indelible impression on me as a draughtsperson, he left a trace of his marks in mine.

And so it must be with philosophy. When we confront that ancient, disconcerting, but compelling, thickly-grown forest, when we meet with something that seems to tap some deep source just beyond our reach, the important thing is to keep on pushing. To latch on to the people who can guide us through this unfamiliar territory, and to relish the feeling of being cracked open and pieced back together in a new way. That’s what life does with us anyway, and there’s nothing for it but to go on.

 

De Man, Paul. 1986. The Resistance to Theory. Vol. 33. Theory and History of Literature. Manchester: Manchester University.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1996. What Is Philosophy? Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University.

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.

Plato, and Benjamin Jowett. 2010. Plato’s Phaedrus. 2.0.0 edition. Actonian Press.

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Putting your life on the line

life drawing 7

At some stage in their career, a Brisbane artist must come into contact with the infamous and inimitable David Paulson. Ryan and I signed up to his weekly life drawing class at the Brisbane Institute of Art (BIA, or as the man himself affectionately calls it, the Blind Institute of Art) in February. It’s been a challenging semester, and worth every effort.

Paulson openly divides his class in two: those who can draw and those who can’t. Those who can’t draw, he is uninterested in expending wasted energy on them: rather than teaching them to draw, he teaches them how to manipulate design, how to simplify, how to make interesting pictures. Those who can draw, he isn’t interested in improving their technical abilities: he wants to give them more tools, to give them obstacles to overcome, and to stretch them to be more confident and creative drawers. Paulson doesn’t send his students home with lovely resolved pictures—that is not the role of the classroom. He gives us eyes—he shows us what to look for, and where to find it, and how to coax it out.

life drawing 1

In fact, Paulson’s main task with Ryan and I is that he’s concerned that we are being too academic. Our accuracy is costing us a liveliness, a life in our drawings; it’s interfering with the beautiful design inherent in the soft C-curve of an arm. We’re not taking liberties with the near-verticals in the figure before us, near-verticals begging to be recorded as strong actual verticals. We’re not telling enough lies–we’re letting the boring truth get in the way of a good story. Hiding behind extra details only distracts us from the powerful simplicity available to us, from which we can hang additional information later, if we must.

life drawing 2

Week one, Paulson took great pleasure in teasing me to loosen up. Stop drawing outlines! You’ve never seen a trapezius! Look at that lumpen, hairy yeti! Edge-copiers beware, you’ll be sent to the Main Roads Department where your map-drawing skills might actually be useful. Hairdressers are likewise in the wrong class. The insults flow thick and fast; Paulson is not a man to praise a bad effort, and not shy of doling out colourful criticism. The end of day one, I came away thoroughly confused, unable to draw in Scott’s class later that evening. Scott trained extensively under Paulson, and consoled me thus: There’s nothing for it—it’s just hard, you’ve just got to keep at it, keep trying to synthesise  all the knowledge and keep looking for your voice. You’ve got to remember what it is you see and what makes you want  to draw, and to get so wrapped up in the looking that you forget about your drawing as a drawing.

life drawing 3

Week two, my lines are facetious, and I’m drawing scones and jellyfish. Paulson implores us to look, teasing us about the beautiful model wasting her time standing in front of a bunch of people who won’t even look at her. I thought I was trying to make a more simplified drawing, but I came to realise that if my drawing was simplified, it was only to keep in line with what I was able to see. In fact, I am only capable of seeing so much, and I have to go easy on myself. Adding details makes for a more demanding visual investigation of our model; I can start more broadly and investigate the overall design elements first.

life drawing 4

Paulson demonstrates this idea thus: ‘This is the most important lesson you’ll learn in your life,’ he says to a couple of us conspiratorially. He draws what appears to be an outline, a knobbly one, and proceeds to explain that lines have beginnings and ends and that you have to look for them. ‘Where does that go? What’s this? Wow!’ He traces muscular lumps through limbs and starts to really flesh out a person. I’m not seeing tone, though tone is a soft guide, and I’m not seeing volumes as such, though I’m hinting at them. I’m seeing the underlying structures. I’m seeing the building blocks of flesh. I’m starting to see, and I’m linearly describing things for which I have no words.

life drawing 6

I’ve thus received an antidote to my lazy drawing: I’ve realised that I’m not lost in my subject and not concerned with what my lines mean. Adequate representations of models or buildings are uninteresting objects, but drawings ought to satisfy curiosity. Beyond being a simple visual note-taking, drawing is an exploration, a private searching, not driven by the preoccupation with making a nice end product. That comes of itself, when there is honesty in the act of drawing. I’m reminded of Nelson* (p. 78):

The reason for painting or drawing from life is to gain skill. For what purpose? For itself? To make the means into the end is uncritical and suspect. The skill acquired by painting or drawing from life is at risk of circularity or even fetishisation.

Where line has always held a special trance over me, and is perhaps more expressively interesting to me than the tonal and form-rendering powers of shading, Paulson also pushed us to work with an idea that spoke powerfully to me: the idea of using line, drawing, as a notation for painting. Some days he would push the idea of ‘shape recognition’—over and over, flattening the world before us into a series of interlocking shapes, triangles between bent arms and torsos, odd shapes between backs of legs and verticals of walls. When you paint, you lay down swathes of colour in such shapes, and you can notate this by line too.

life drawing 5

Week by week, Paulson builds our confidence. His catchcry is, ‘Put your life on the line!’ He quietly implores me to trust myself and to have confidence in my marks. My drawings still lack the organised design of Paulson’s, but I am seeing the right things even if I can’t quite translate them onto the page. I see horizontals, but I still shakily bend them, and I see sweeps but I pock them unnecessarily with pointy bits. The lines on my paper begin to feel connected to me—where at first they didn’t seem to have any correlation to my brain or my hand, a frenzy of thoughtless marks appearing confusingly before me. I resolve to own those marks, and to mean them. I continue to wrestle with them.

My tuition with Paulson has come too quickly to a close. He is increasingly warm and giving as a teacher, the more you struggle and the harder you listen. My drawings are still rubbish and hopelessly uncertain, but I see better.

life drawing 8

* Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

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The creek

Nest © Samantha Groenestyn

I was fortunate enough to attend an artist floor talk in Noosa the other week, given by one David Paulson at his retrospective exhibition. The guys at the atelier spoke of him—their former teacher—with starry eyes, and I had to tag along to see their idol in the flesh. His fleshy self is every bit as sparkling, witty and intimidating as his self-portrait, and the man had a lot of irreverent and insightful things to say.

David talked about hiring a model every day for an hour. Thirty dollars a day, five days a week, amounts to a significant sum for a financially precarious artist, but David filled sketchbook after sketchbook this way, refining his understanding of the human form. ‘Some people put a deposit on a house,’ he explained, ‘I invested in my skill.’

Now, I have no grand aspirations to own any sort of property or dwelling, and not only because my financial situation is also on the precarious end of the continuum, but mostly because such things don’t interest me. You are going to work all of your life, and you are possibly going to achieve something. I’ve known people who have proudly announced to me that since the age of twenty-six they’ve been locked into a thirty-year mortgage which they, a sole parent, must spend the majority of their part-time income on, but that it’s the best thing ever and in their fifties they’re finally going to own their somewhat average house in some backwater of Australia. While that’s no mean feat, it’s not exactly a very clever sacrifice in my estimation. No, what I’m interested in is my own skills and abilities, and working at them to achieve the most productive life possible. I’ll always find somewhere to live, and while I cherish the idea of ‘home,’ I won’t make it the driving motivation of my life.

David’s work over his lifetime is varied, but always strong and bold. His angrier stuff from his youth is confronting and bitter, and his student work—realistic portraits and such—is tight and confident. David took awkward questions from the floor and responded with an intensity and honesty that was as unsettling as much of his work. This is a man who says it like it is, and doesn’t accept people applying concepts like ‘metaphysical’ to his painting method. ‘I like the creek, so I paint the creek. There’s so much to discover in the creek. I wish I’d found the creek when I was thirty.’

Said creek is at the back of David’s property in Maleny (it’s also reassuring to know that one can preference skills over house deposits and still wind up with property, creek and all), and his explorations of it are crisp, brash and full of depth. Light shimmers knowledgeably over rocks, sticks and leaves, but those debris hold their own. These are no impressionist paintings playing with ethereal light: these paintings drag you to the bottom of the creek with their heaviness. And you want to be there: this creek is a veritable Barrier Reef of thoroughly delightful underwater plumage.

David spoke of limiting his palette in more recent times to eight colours. Each painting draws on this palette in different ratios: while the creek bed paintings burst with vivid reds, yellows and blues, saving the darks for striking tonal effects, a series of smaller paintings of girls on the creek bank are predominantly dark, saving tiny flecks of pure colour for eerie glances of light off skin and water. J has often spoken of style being a matter of limiting yourself in a particular way—of making a choice about what to leave out—and in David’s case, his palette has forced him to explore other things about the works, though I suspect it has also given him a virtuoso grasp on the limits that his colours can be pushed to.

We spent some time admiring David’s life drawings, and he took great delight in telling us that a drawing must capture the person. Being correct and accurate is not the same as understanding a person through their physical presence and describing that in lines on paper. I’m reminded of Bammes* (p. 10), who says of this ‘sensitivity’ toward the model: ‘we are building up the body’s physiognomy—expressing character through a physical description.’

Meeting David Paulson was a real honour, and hearing his straight-up thoughts on art and life has given me plenty of hope for the unconventional career that is being an artist.

* Bammes, Gottfried. 2010. Complete guide to life drawing [Menschen zeichnen Grundlagen zum Aktzeichnen]. Trans. Cicero Translations. Search: Kent.
Nest is a picture of my house, nestled in her leafy jungle of a garden. It’s pretty much the best house ever. We’ve made it a cosy little haven, productive workspace, and buzzing party hive. We call her The Duchess because she’s so regally dilapidated with her sprawling verandas and high ornate ceilings, and this blog is named after her, a tribute to the importance of place in my life.

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