On naturalism

Pantzergasse, Winter (c) 2016 Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Pantzergasse, Winter (c) 2016 Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

When I paint, I am ever torn between two conflicting intentions. I am driven towards what we might call naturalism, the honest representation of things as they appear to me in the natural world, but I am constantly diverted by the lusciousness of paint and by my own systems of manipulating that substance that I have cobbled together from things learned and things discovered. As I stand before my canvas, I anticipate how convincingly naturalistic my finished painting will be, but my brain immediately sets to work in undermining that intention by ordering what I see into a complex system of relationships. In short, I cannot paint what I see, because paint promises the possibility of depicting things in more suggestive ways, and because it also imposes certain physical limits, within which I try to condense my understanding of what I see.

This leads me to survey my work with dismay: my paintings positively glow with an unearthly artificiality. The objects and people that populate them are glaringly constructed, and set under a contrived light, though observed from life. I see a more naturalistic painting and I despair at my own artifice.

Selbstbildnis

But I do not despair for long, because I quickly turn to questioning naturalism itself. And on this point I am persuaded by two claims from Ernst Gombrich. In Art and Illusion, he argues that ‘all representations are grounded on schemata which the artist learns to use’ (Gombrich, 1959: 264). And very quickly thereafter, he points out that the very ‘stimulus … is of infinite ambiguity’ (Gombrich, 1959: 264-5). ‘Naturalism’ is something of a misleading idea because it disguises how variable nature and our own visual experience of it is. At the very least, we might demand that the term be broad enough to admit many types of representation that aim at capturing something honest about the natural world. But one breed of naturalism tends to prevail as the most correct or ‘realistic’ in our modern eyes: the kind that makes us mistake paintings for photographs. We have permitted photography to become the unerring benchmark for ‘reality’ in the visual realm. Photography conditions our experience of sight.

Photography, it must be pointed out (for it is often forgotten), lets us down on many accounts. It fails to match the rich spectrum of colours our eye is able to enjoy, or to exhibit such a fine sensibility towards tonal gradations; it is not binocular, and does not have the luxury of flitting around a scene just as our ever-active eyes devour it, composing a view out of collected fragments. A photograph, an arbitrary slice of time, is often precisely the ‘wrong’ slice that we feel does not represent us, caught blinking or speaking or chewing. Focal lengths distort perspective, bending our physical constitution. As a measure for ‘reality,’ photography makes a fairly poor standard, and probably a worse one for coming so close and deserting us when we least expect it. If we are ignorant of its shortcomings, our conception of ‘reality’ is itself swallowed up by photography.

Selbstbildnis 2

I do not want to attempt to define reality, for this is an immense task I should not like to claim responsibility for. But I want to suggest that our own vision is more remarkable than photography. When we judge the success of any representation, painted or otherwise, we might remark how near to our own complex visual experience it comes. And we might bear in mind that sight is one thing, and representations are quite another, and the camera, let us not forget, offers but another mode of representation.

And as Gombrich argues, every representation is founded on schemata. Painting that orients itself via photography imports the schemata of photography into painting. The schemata of photography are not simply felt in the work of artists who copy photographs. They permeate the work of many who work ‘from life,’ who directly observe the world, but whose strategy in painting is to organise what they see just as a camera would. They crush dark tones together, even ones that are not actually shadows. They blanch and flatten light areas, uninterested in the undulating forms of the voluminous object before them. They impose a high tonal contrast—very dark against very light—to great dramatic effect, but utterly without nuance. Softness and blur takes on the uniform flavour of the lens, unlike the scattered haze that bleary or myopic eyes encounter. But when refining a surface they disguise lack of structural understanding with microscopic precision: paying painful attention to the blemishes and creases and stray hairs that are prized as ‘detail.’ ‘The artist’s starting point will determine the final product,’ cautions Gombrich (1959: 92); ‘The schema on which a representation is based will continue to show through the ultimate elaboration.’

self-portrait-2

Put differently: choose your influences, guide your aesthetic. A painter is constantly growing and adjusting her schemata according to what she pays attention to. It was at this point in my reflections that I realised my paintings are bound to become jubilantly vivid and muscular: I feed on a steady visual diet of Baroque paintings. What I relish are full forms, highly energised compositions, three-dimensional rhythms flowing in and around each other, electrified but systematic application of light in its confrontation with colour. Rubens hands down his schemata which celebrate the writhing, swelling, interlocking qualities of the natural world, basked in vivifying light.

And thus, when I paint, I bring other concerns to my easel than the artist who corrects himself by the standards of photography. Uninterested in a snapshot moment, I wade into the confusing and rich task of melting together a multiplicity of moments. A painting takes time to make, and my eyes take time to wander over my subject, drinking in every shifting property and letting them settle into a sustained, unified impression. I continually consider the whole, the way the elements relate to and influence each other. I use line to investigate visually pleasing trails, and I use drawing to animate nature. I orchestrate the elements into a cohesive composition, uninterested in a ‘found’ image, but determined to take responsibility for the construction of this image from the very first.

hands-ink

I make tonal decisions—how closely to group my dark tones, while preserving a logical gradation; separating shadows from halftones so I can meaningfully describe the way light plays over the surfaces. I consider the gamut of colours available to me in my paint choices—how a cadmium yellow and a pale rose red can stretch it further than a yellow ochre and a deep transparent red. I know that no matter what, paint does not have the reach of light, and it is not possible to match the full range that I see. So I establish my limits, reserving the highest chroma available to me for where I most need it, and correspondingly dulling the rest. I impose a logical system of neutralising colour with the falloff of light, conceptualising the relationships between colours as a three-dimensional space that I can move through with increasing fluency. When I vary yellow, I factor in the way purple neutralises it, and what that would mean in my picture, and I consider the ‘vertical’ shift I want to make in tone and in chroma as I transition from one colour to another.

hands-ryan

I think about the brush in my hand, how stiff or springy its bristles are, how splayed, how neat and flexible, and I invoke textures by the movement of my hand. Those textures hang in relation to one another, I must reserve certain techniques for smooth objects compared to coarse ones. And everything must fit into the system dictated by the quality of the light: whether it is diffuse, grey natural light, or blue unclouded daylight, or orange-yellow artificial light, or something else. ‘Every artist has to know and construct a schema before he can adjust it to the needs of portrayal,’ Gombrich (1959: 99) is right to insist. And my schema, derived from many places, but notably not from photography, is reasonably sophisticated.

hands-ink-2

 

 

Painting the ever-shifting natural world demands visual acuity, but also a mental acuity. For as painters, we do not merely observe and transcribe, but we organise what we see. When we paint, we establish relationships, and the character of those relationships—of light to dark, of vividness to neutrality, of smoothness to coarseness to softness to brittleness—directs the quality of the painting. Painting is not, as Gombrich (1959: 78) argues, ‘a faithful record of a visual experience but the faithful construction of a relational model.’ All painters construct relational models; it is only a question of what the model is based on, and how well the painter understands that model.

self-portrait-7

And the crucial point is whether a painter is passive or active. Because an artist worthy of our attention and respect does not work mindlessly, or randomly, or uncritically. She tests every new observation, and wrestles with it until she finds a way to work it into her system. She pushes her system to do more and more, to cope with greater ambiguity, to suggest more with less, to reflect the shimmering richness of the natural world. To do that, she will probably have to move away from the sufficient but sorely limited laws of the lens, to embrace the sticky willfulness of paint and to try to subdue the chaos in new ways, even if they are unsuccessful at first. ‘[The artist] is the man who has learned to look critically, to probe his perceptions by trying alternative interpretations both in play and in earnest,’ (Gombrich 1969: 265).

My paintings are a head-on struggle between what I see and the beautifully restricted medium in which I work. They document the hard-won schemata that I continue to grow as I bounce between the natural world and the teachings of other artists living and dead. ‘Naturalism’ in painting should never be fettered to the camera, for photography is only another means of representation, with other limits that painting can be blissfully free of. We are mistaken to find a painting more ‘realistic’ the more its relationships match those we are familiar with through photography, because, as Gombrich (1959: 75) puts it, ‘there is no neutral naturalism.’ Paint offers so many subtle and lively possibilities that approach the rich and nuanced experience of sight in ways that photography never will.

Selbstbildnis

 

Gombrich, E. H. 1959. Art and Illusion. Phaidon: London.

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Between dimensions

Ordnung (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum on canvas)

Ordnung (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum on canvas) – Courtesy Galerie Crone

Berlin painter Ruprecht von Kaufmann recently exhibited in several art fairs across the world, and our far-flung circle was able to simultaneously attend two: in Vienna, natürlich, and in Chicago. We have up till now only encountered von Kaufmann’s eerie phantasmal universe in the flat pages of books and on flat laptop screens (which somehow manage to feel more flat than a book’s page), staring tensely at his dot-eyed spectres, his tormented ghosts half appearing and half disappearing through the surface, writhing and struggling through mysteriously colourful and seemingly interminable mists. It was therefore a relief to come face-to-face for the first time. The paintings are big, audacious; their feverish presence is impressive on a grand scale, enclosing one–as they did at the Galerie Crone booth at the Vienna Contemporary–on three sides. At Galerie Crone‘s booth at the Expo Chicago, despite the chaotic setting that threatened to drown them out, the main figures–a leaping horse and a ghostly couple–each remained bravely focused on their own personal battle to escape from the surface on which they were painted. For this is what quickens von Kaufmann’s paintings with that desperate, pounding pulse: that his figures seem to struggle against some invisible prison.

(c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum)

Kapriole (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum) – Courtesy Galerie Crone

What commands one’s attention above all is von Kaufmann’s drawing, and the calm assertion it seems to make: never be afraid to simply draw. For the drawing holds everything together, like a firm, strong thread. Sometimes the paint is so boldly understated, so lightly smeared, only hinting at the form with minimal tonal and colour contrast, but the way it is drawn exudes unending confidence. His drawing has swagger. It lilts across the picture with easy-going self-assurance. Von Kaufmann is noticeably comfortable in his figures, which distinguishes him from most contemporaries; they are drawn completely without strain. His figures are so lightly, breathily fixed to the surface. In person, one sees there is hardly anything there, and yet what is depicted is so substantial.

(c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum)

(c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum) – Courtesy Galerie Crone

The surfaces themselves are the other instantly striking thing about von Kaufmann’s paintings, and something that makes seeing them in person a whole other experience. This in itself is a battlecry for painting: an assertion that painting is a thousands times more than the image, that it is no laborious photography substitute. Paintings hold their ground in our digital age, they can leave us breathless in their physicality when we expect only pixels, cropped and filtered, able to be slipped into our pockets. No, von Kaufmann’s paintings do not respect digital borders, and they barely respect their substrates, with rebellious paint crawling over the edges, fused by time in their thick, viscous flow.

Von Kaufmann is near-abusive of the surface, pushed by his inquisitive, open-minded approach (and, one suspects, his sheer love of the tactility of his medium) to use tools of destruction against it. But every gouge in the surface is part of a larger vision that serves the image rather than destroys it. The large paintings in Vienna and Chicago are painted on linoleum (the small ones being in gouache). The lino itself becomes an intrinsic part of the picture. It buckles and bows–a three-dimensional quality not conveyed in digital reproductions–and seems to inflate figures intentionally under their deftly-painted folds of fabric. The synergy between image and surface betrays intention: von Kaufmann responds to the physical substrate, or plans its variegation; he is no careless adulterator of paintings.

Ordnung (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum on

Ordnung (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum on canvas) – Courtesy Galerie Crone

The lino emerges in yet other ways, the more one attends to the paintings. In places, the paint simply gives way to the bare lino, its neutral colour and mid-tone in perfect sympathy with the mostly dampened, melancholy purples, greens and blues. It shows through energetic scumbles of rough, matte paint. And even more dramatically, von Kaufmann digs into the lino, carving out broad shapes in a necessarily stippled manner, or scribing frenzied lines that swarm in textured scribbles and transmute imperceptibly into painted lines. Ordnung works the interplay of surface and content in a remarkably sophisticated way. The ‘figure’–for there is hardly one at all, only a skin of clothing trembling in the air, his deflated ankles withering away to nothing where they meet some worn shoes full of character and strongly drawn–sits burning with furious thoughts, his head just a fierce, pink glow. The ghostly outlines of fingers (again, paint gives way to drawing), loose and limber, seem to draw on a sketch pad, the little finger poised to hold the hand delicately aloft from the page as an artist might. A carved thread of line floats out of the page, inflating into a scribbled cloud–but even this web of lines belies an assured hand, able to exert lively control despite the force needed to cut into lino, despite the reversed direction of such a tool compared to the brush. This haze should be airy and insubstantial and seeming to come forward, and reads so in the context; but is provocatively flat, sharp and submerged in the buckled surface, physically rejecting all visual assumptions. From this abruptly two-dimensional fog, a fluidly-painted, mutely-coloured male torso with slick, shining skin slides (upside-down) into a cardboard box. The boxes likewise defy space, though all the tools of illusion  of depth are employed. A visual feast of textures vies with our comprehension of illusory space, with planes of the cartons variously scratched out, scraped, or heavily laden with mottled paint.

We sense that all this apparent violence against the painting–the scratchy, indistinct figures, the heavy daubs of paint that take on an agonising reality in their protrusion from the surface, the deep gouges in the lino–is invoked to a deeper purpose. The figures themselves are struggling to come to life, to rip and tear and ooze their way out of the flat two-dimensional prison in which the very medium of paint confines them. Von Kaufmann is merely trying his best to help his creations come to life, tearing open, re-stitching, surgically extending his works into the third dimension in a desperate effort to let his ghosts out into the world. Sometimes, when his distortions of the canvas body itself run to extremes — as in his recent Der Gefährte where straining heads are actually sculpted from flat painted strips of plastic — he takes on the role of an obsessed Dr Frankenstein, and his creations threaten to really enter our world.

(c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum)

(c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum) – Courtesy Galerie Crone

And one must also mention the patterns. Flat, geometric patterns that embellish the surface by infinitely subtle colour and tonal variations. We are continuously shaken from our three-dimensional illusions by these happy odes to the flat surface. We shift between three-dimensions and two with disconcerting ease by means of these decorative patterns. And, in a feat of technical integration, von Kaufmann sometimes paints their broad shapes, sometimes merely carves them as linear echoes, our eyes having to work hard to find the disjunct. This control over so many elements, both physical and visual, formal properties of composition, atmospheric effects, makes von Kaufmann a formidable painter. He experiments, but not to shock us: rather, he generously accommodates us, working to integrate traditional elements and unexpected ones alike into seamless images.

An der Haltestelle (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (gouache on paper)

An der Haltestelle (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (gouache on paper) – Courtesy Galerie Crone

Our suggestion that von Kaufmann’s works are a struggle between dimensions might deserve some words of explanation. The charming book Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by English schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott, relates a scene in which a three-dimensional sphere explains his existence to a two-dimensional square:

‘I am not a plane Figure, but a Solid. … When I cut through your plane as I am now doing, I make in your plane a section which you, very rightly, call a Circle. For even a Sphere—which is my proper name in my own country—if he manifest himself at all to an inhabitant of Flatland—must needs manifest himself as a Circle. Do you not remember, I say, how, when you entered the realm of Lineland, you were compelled to manifest yourself to the King not as a Square, but as a Line, because that Linear Realm had not Dimensions enough to represent the whole of you, but only a slice or section of you? In precisely the same way, your country of Two Dimensions is not spacious enough to represent me, a being of Three, but can only exhibit a slice or section of me, which is what you call a Circle.’

The secret behind von Kaufmann’s partially-rendered figures, with their hands, limbs, and sometimes heads disembodied or invisible, is not unlike the grin of the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland–it is a clue that we gaze upon beings whose essential existence lies outside the flat surface. The claustrophobia that permeates many of von Kaufmann’s pictures is masterfully conveyed through elements that are constant and repetitive. He uses the same opaque colours over and over, pressing in on all sides, and rigid abstract spaces that leave no room for life. All invention and novelty spring from the beings within the spaces, who seem to use every means available to them to try and escape from their perpetual limbo. The price is often high — a fantasy made into reality can become ugly, and the faces and bodies of von Kaufmann’s figures melt and scar when they are rendered in thick paint, often just escaping the  edges of the frame. The ghosts of older von Kaufmann paintings (which can still be called ‘paintings’ in the usual sense) evoke sympathy and sadness, seemingly lost in their flat prison cells. The figures of recent work inspire rather a feeling of fascination and fear, as we watch them slowly being born into the three-dimensional world, in ways that are sometimes transcendental and sometimes gory, but all of which affirm their independent life. We timorously beg von Kaufmann to stop before it’s too late–to keep the gate closed.

(c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum)

Kapriole (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum) – Courtesy Galerie Crone

The flying steed in Kapriole seems a triumphant transgressor of the plane — the outline almost suggests an empty space left behind by a real horse that now roams about somewhere in the gallery. In its wake, even the clouds have become dislodged and stand out, physically removed from the canvas, glued to it only by the paint. The dimensional tension is comparatively more subdued in Berührungspunkt. The two figures here remain confined to their world, she looking wistfully behind, while he looks sadly the other way. Each perhaps contemplates a different route out of the canvas, but he, slumped in his armchair, seems more resigned to his prison. She is blown by a fitful wind that draws her towards the light, but is paused in the motion of turning, only by holding on to his hand.

Berührungspunkt (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum)

Berührungspunkt (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum) – Courtesy Galerie Crone

We’ll give von Kaufmann the final word:

‘Often ideas become more clear while I am working on them, and sometimes the idea will change as it evolves on the canvas. That is also a reason why I don’t use models or photos as reference. They tend to trap you in whatever reference material you have, and force you to stick to your initial plan to the bitter end. However there often is a certain point, when the painting develops a life of its own, and demands of you to change your mind, to surrender and follow its guidance.’

Der Sammler (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (gouache on paper)

Der Sammler (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (gouache on paper) – Courtesy Galerie Crone

This paper was written in collaboration with physicist Dr Jacques Pienaar.

 

Abbott, Edwin Abbott. 1884. Flatland: A romance of many dimensions. Seeley & Co, London.

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Sight & touch

Tea and sympathy (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Tea and sympathy (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

The eighteenth-century German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder penned some truly delightful thoughts on Sculpture that make my fingers itch to knead and shape wax or clay. His observations, dripping with unexpected warmth and vitality, dip and meander through many themes, some more credible to our modern intelligence than others.

Sight and touch, he begins without delay, are fundamentally distinct, and we stand to gain very much by teasing them apart (Herder 2002: 33). Not least, we might gain a deeper understanding of beauty, a heavily sight-oriented notion (Herder 2002: 39). Touch demands something more solid of beauty than does sight, something more connected to purpose and to strong and healthy forms than to the shimmering and retreating effects of light. Touch searches out truth. This truth grounds us in the world of physical bodies, of living beings and of complete forms, discoverable even in the dark. ‘The dark of night’ even comes to the aid of our sense of touch: ‘with its sponge it removes all the colours from things and obliges us to attend to the presence and existence of an object’ (Herder 2002: 81).

Leave it to the other arts, urges Herder, to chase after ‘breath and speech,’ after the breeze that animates hair and drapery, after ‘the fugitive butterfly of wit and abstraction’ (Herder 2002: 97). Sculpture, like the very stone or wood or clay from which it is formed, is too weighty for such preoccupations—lovely though they are. ‘For this the statue is too true, too complete, too unified, too sacred’ (Herder 2002: 97). Let us touch on each in turn.

Copy after Rodin in wax

Copy after Rodin in wax

 

Too true

While sight allows us to swiftly estimate beauty, it only permits us to assess a surface, as it were. The physical world, as delivered to us by sight, is far more comparable to a flat picture than we commonly admit: sight gives us shapes, and only the ones revealed by light: we see but ‘a continuum of things placed alongside one another’ (Herder 2002: 35, 36). If we have learned to see bodies, to understand that they occupy space, that they consist in a substantial volume that is not at all times present to our eyes, we have learned to supplement our sight with touch, argues Herder (2002: 40): this ‘is not something we can learn through sight.’ It is merely that since childhood we have quickly learned to use these ‘sister’ senses together, such that they have all but fused together in a seamless partnership (Herder 2002: 39).

Sight affords us many excellent things, of course. What is present before our eyes is perceivable in an instant, and does not die away as do sounds. Because of this, Herder describes sight as the most philosophical of the senses, if the most artificial; it coaxes us into meditation and contemplation (Herder 2002: 39).

Rodin

‘Sight gives us dreams, touch gives us truth’ (Herder 2002: 38). The more we concentrate on the surface features of an object, on the shapes revealed to us by light, on the flattened field before us obscured by roving shadows, the less attentive we are to the physical body before us (Herder 2002: 81). ‘It is remarkable how rarely a person appears to us,’ he (2002: 82) writes, ‘that someone embraces another person and holds him in such affection that he carries the person with him and gives him eternal existence.’ Touch uncovers the object, the person before us, by revealing to us how she consumes space, how her masses flow into each other, how they integrate and how they jointly operate. Light glancing off a shoulder tells us nothing of the fleshy functioning of the shoulder girdle, nothing of the astonishing flexibility of the clavicle, nothing of the tensing and softening machinations of the pulsing and breathing body before us. Touch gives us our first shocking awareness of substance.

And once we admit something substantial into our presence, we are able to inhabit that other form, as it were: ‘inner sympathy alone, feeling and the transposition of our entire human self into the figure we touch, is the true teacher and instrument of beauty’ (Herder 2002: 78). Observation is not enough, insists Herder (2002: 79; 81); we must also exist and feel in order to approach truth.

Riemanschneider

 

Too complete

Herder summons the Greeks and their arguably unsurpassed sculpture to demonstrate the strength of the whole in sculpture. The soul ‘expresses itself through the entire body,’ (Herder 2002: 79; 81) and each feature, each limb, each mass, each connecting joint displays the bearing of a person, all united to honestly convey something about the inner workings of that person. And conventions play no part here, Herder insists. Beauty consists in inner perfection, betrayed by the completeness of body (Herder 2002: 77):

‘The sublimity and beauty of the human body, whatever form it may take, is always an expression of health, life, strength and well-being in every limb of this artful creature.’

Herder takes us on a sensuous tour of the expressive parts of the body, describing how each reveals some inner truth about the person before us. Some suggestions are rather fanciful, but others quite profound, no less for an artist, who, in learning to construct the body, finds that no part exists in isolation. Even the humble foot, far from being a simple load-bearing base for the body, is ‘animated through to its smallest parts.’ The dedicated student of anatomy will attest that one does not simply learn to draw a foot, but ever thinks of how the block of the ankle, though quite distinct, flows seamlessly from the tibia into the prism of the foot; how the outer bump of the ankle is none other than the end of the fibula which stretches inflexibly up to the knee, where the hamstrings—some crossing two joints, reaching down from the pelvis—latch on to it. Our divisions are arbitrary: the foot ‘is not detached from the rest of the body and pulled on as if it were the shoe of a worm, but is one with the whole, which flows into it and is supported by it’ (Herder 2002: 75).

Von Stuck

 

Too unified

Painting has opportunity to explore abstractions, ideas, relations and stories, but sculpture, Herder argues, is not only too direct for such preoccupations, but is too pared-back and concrete. Sculpture gives us the person as a unified whole, divested of complex relations and extraneous props and setting. ‘It is never abstract love that stands before us, but the god or the goddess of love’—‘a single ensouled whole’ (Herder 2002: 97; 100). Sculpture suffers when it ventures into allegory, into weak and faceless ideals; it grows in strength when it presents a real, grieving woman to us rather than a vague and anonymous Pietà. Sculpture cannot cope with ‘the butterflies of wit and meaning,’ with the divisive interplay of multiple personalities in a group (necessary to depict a story), which rend the form with jarring wedges of air (Herder 2002: 100, 101).

Figures

And in more formal terms, a sculpture is unified in its independence, in its fierce solitariness. Herder (2002: 93) beautifully asserts:

‘A statue does not stand in light, it creates its own light; a statue is not placed in space, it creates its own space. … Sculpture does not possess a viewpoint: it explores everything in the dark, following the shape of limbs and forms.’

Too sacred

We sensuous human beings are so susceptible to touch. But a gravity accompanies sculpture, where a picture would stir our easily aroused imaginations. The truth embodied in sculpture, argues Herder (2002: 92), must encourage the graver failing of idolatry. An imposing physical form comes alive in still and solemn moments, in darkened and deserted rooms; ‘the daemon that animate[s] it [is] also present to the senses.’ Faced with such seductive, convincing, powerful forms, we must decide ‘either to pray to them or to destroy them.’

Though, Herder (2002: 92) notes, this spell does not last forever. The Italians’ long cohabitation with sculpture demonstrates the inevitable decline of art: ‘their extreme and exalted feeling would, with time, have resolved itself into art; art would have resolved itself into taste; and taste into disgust and neglect.’

Alex as statue (oil on linen--grisaille)

Alex as statue (oil on linen–grisaille)

Sight and touch, so often united, pull us in different directions. Sight is ever quick to carry us away, to adapt to new conditions of light, to new arrangements of colour and shape, to stimulate our fancy by seductive paint or by gleaming pixels, or by the very play of light rays reflecting off the natural world as if it too were nothing but a flat panel, a high-resolution display. Touch is simultaneously solemn and seductive; it returns us to the flesh, it grounds us, it makes us press ourselves up against truth. Painting is a playground for imagination; sculpture is the art form that ‘is able to hold us fast to substance and to reality’ (Herder 2002: 98). Should we accept such a distinction, we would have access to a deeper kind of beauty anchored in substance—in health, in content, in function, in truth—rather than appearances.

 

Herder, Johann Gottfried. 2002 [1778]. Sculpture : Some Observations On Shape And Form From Pygmalion’s Creative Dream. Translated by Jason Gaiger. Chicago: University of Chicago.

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Farbe

Solution (Dr Jacques Pienaar) © Samantha Groenestyn

Solution (Dr Jacques Pienaar) © Samantha Groenestyn

If I could kindle your enthusiasm about just one thing, it would be paint. If I use overly impassioned language when describing paintings, it’s not to be floridly arty—it’s not to transfigure paintings into words, and thus do away with the picture. I only want to show you how to be caught up in what you see, to guide you with a language you already understand. I want to show you a way in, and expose my own thoughts so you might feel confident in your own.

I feel so strongly about the physicality of painting. Every day I paint, and far from confining itself to a neat, two-dimensional substrate, paint subdivides and multiplies and sticks to everything. In my haste I smear it on my hands, I lean into it and get it on my clothes. The stuff has a mind of its own; like amoebic eighties horror film monsters it exists in three-dimensional space. With patience and determination, the painter tames it and uses it to describe something. This is why much contemporary painting disappoints me so much. Paint has lost its body. It has become a hesitant filler. It is so often reduced to a broad medium for covering an expanse in sloppy colour, as though with the click of the fill-bucket button.

Kunst Handwerk

My eyes are ravaged by it everywhere: just enough paint is used to block in a shape, a thin scratchy film, cheap bleached white canvas and its prickly texture shouting through it, proclaiming its cheapness. No wonder painting is so unpopular, when cheap paint smeared thin as vegemite across cheap canvases presents such a shamelessly insipid surface.

Daffodil

Robert Nelson cautions against the ‘fetishisation of paint,’ but a little over-enthusiasm might be needed to correct this scourge of painterly apathy. Painting can be more than colouring-in: paint, as German so poetically (in its beautifully literal way) reminds us, is farbe—it is colour itself. Nelson (2010: 39) argues, ‘Paint as colour is less interesting than colour as paint, because paint gives to the very concept of colour a willfully mutating character.’ Rather than thinking of paint as the filler that wedges between the lines of your drawing, you might embrace paint as ‘mobilised colour’ (2010: 42).

Yellow

Yes! Far from stretching like a skin over empty space, paint—embodied colour—can sprout from a surface, can clamber over itself, undulate, amalgamate. Colour as paint is nothing like a grid of pixels, an expanse with no depth. Paint allows us to move colour around almost as if it were clay. Of course, we are still constructing a two-dimensional illusion, and I am not arguing that one ought to paint in relief. But we ought not forget that we have a real substance in our hands and that its expressive properties are every bit as physical and substantial as clay. This is our advantage, as painters, over digital painting and photography. The quickening of our surface is what sets us apart from our sister arts. And it is the reason paintings need to be seen in the flesh, and why their pixelated reduction to disembodied colour is so dissatisfying.

Blossoms

John Dewey draws an interesting comparison between physics and the arts which perhaps makes a good analogy for Nelson’s conception of ‘mobilised colour.’ Nelson describes paint by way of its fluid application rather than by its dried and polished result. ‘Paint,’ he writes (2010: 39), ‘which first arrives on the palette in distinct colours, is nevertheless contrived in analogous viscosities so that each colour slips into its neighbouring colour and becomes another colour entirely (or other colours, prolifically mutating), often imperfectly dragging two or more discrete colours into a kind of staggered spectral section.’ For the artist, paint exists not only as a clever arrangement of colours, but it exists as colours struggling with each other in time, dancing about each other, harmonising, violating each other. Paint exists as colour-in-application: as colour in time. And this is Dewey’s contention: we are misled when we separate space from time in the arts, just as physicists were forced to wrap their heads around the concept of space-time. ‘For the extension and volume of an object, its spatial properties cannot be directly experienced—or perceived—in a mathematical instant,’ he (1934: 183) explains, ‘nor can temporal properties of events be experienced save as some energy displays itself in an extensive way.’

Physics roof

Vienna

 

None is more conscious of this than the artist herself, and it is something I am eager to convey to people who like to look at paintings. Perhaps it is something people make some attempt to come to terms with when they ask such questions as, ‘how long did this take to paint?’ But rather than quantifying a painting (and probably attempting to see if the price matches the labour), recognising the marriage of time and space in painting will bring a richness of understanding to a picture. A colour spans some distance. But paint, pulled by the vigorous action of a stroke and grooved with the bristles of the brush, is distance over time.

v = d/t

Dewey elaborates (1934: 183-4):

‘The separation of temporal and spatial in the fine arts was always inept. As Croce has said, we are specifically (or separately) conscious of temporal sequence in music and poetry, and of spatial co-existence in architecture and painting, only when we pass from perception to analytic reflection. The supposition that we directly hear musical tones to be in time and directly see colours as being in space, reads into an immediate experience a later interpretation of it due to reflection. We see intervals and directions in pictures and we hear distances and volumes in music. If movement alone were perceived in music and rest alone in painting, music would be wholly without structure and pictures nothing but dry bones. …

Any section of the music and any cross-section of it has precisely the balance and symmetry, in chords and harmonies, as a painting, statue or building. A melody is a chord deployed in time.’

In fact, Dewey insinuates, we sort of already experience the arts as both temporal and spatial. It is only when we try to describe them that we build these artificial distinctions. The painter knows it when she drags a loaded brush across a canvas, and the pianist knows it when he visualises a chord as the shape of his hand or as a numerically arranged hieroglyph on a stave. And the viewer and the listener taste it when they are absorbed into the aesthetic experience, or else something likely rings false to them.

Belvedere storm

Belvedere, Vienna

 

Perhaps, then, trusty English has something to offer us that German cannot. For the word ‘painting’ describes a process, a happening, an event. And this is Nelson’s (2010: 40) point, which clarifies Dewey’s: ‘The medium intrinsically narrates the events of the process.’

And this is why I live in hope that painters will express something bordering on a fetish for paint in their work. That their disturbing obsession with it might infect the viewer. For painting, as Nelson (2010: 39; 40) so satisfyingly insinuates, is very sexy: ‘Paint, … certainly, you can keep it neat, but the substance is made for creamy interaction. In any intercourse with another wet colour, the paint visibly mutates by the muscular caress of the brush. … As one colour works its way into another—according to the slewed interpenetration just mentioned—traces of the process are left visible, because the pre-existing strokes remain manifest even as the dramatic stage in which fresh impulses have collided.’

And perhaps Nelson (2010: 42) is right to insist that paint as mobilised colour, as colour through time, with its ‘inestimable expressive potential’ is more than ‘pretty extravagance’ or ‘material fetish,’ and rather something so lofty as ‘an existential resource.’ But I’m not above admitting to a little predilection for paint bordering on the prurient.

Tulips

 

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

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

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