Monday, March 25, 2013
MFA Semester II
1 March 2013
The Relationship between the Archive and Elements of Traditional Oil Painting
Sven Spieker, in his book The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy, traces the lineage of most archivist activities to the procedures first introduced by the Privy State Archive in Berlin. It was there, in 1881, that the principle of provenance was first introduced (Spieker 17). Documents at the Privy State Archive were not arranged merely by subject, but according to the time and place in which they were produced. This was a significant shift, for in Spieker’s words, “it is these conditions- this place- rather than meaning (or history) that the nineteenth-century archive aims to reconstruct.” (18).
One can see these concepts continue to guide the work of contemporary artists working in an archival mode. Using physical materials to which a particular time and place are attached, these artists work to evoke a past real or imagined. Discarded files, photos, ephemera- all become artifacts asked to stand for the past by proxy. Creating or confounding meaning, these artists use stuff to stand for time. While it may not be so novel or de rigueur, there is another, older art form that shares much in common with the techniques and intents of the archivist: traditional oil painting.
While one may balk at the notion that, as a lone document unto itself, a painting might constitute an archive, an important point must be considered: a traditional oil painting is constructed of many individual decisions, one built upon another. While it may appear to the untrained eye to be a singular burst of expression, oil paintings built on the time-honored technique of starting first with an underpainting yield to the educated eye a subtle timeline of the work’s creation. Work painted in this method is begun with an underpainting done in thin washes of earth tones to establish the basic drawing and lights and darks. Once this is dry, the painter can begin to go in with full color, adding increasing amounts of oil to each successive layer or painting session (a process known as painting “fat over lean”).
There is a chronological order indexed through these layers, like sedentary rock. These layers allow art authenticators to view earlier states of the painting through the use of x-rays. Even the naked eye is offered tantalizing glimpses into the history of the painting: the newer, fresher strokes of paint not only overlap the previous ones, but they typically are more glossy, as well, a byproduct of the fat over lean process. Even in heavily varnished works whose overcoat gives the painting a uniform sheen, one can still deduce where the underpainting peeks through, as it is almost invariably painted very thinly, with muted earth tones. In this light, a traditional painting can be seen as the manifestation of many moments, which can be viewed discreetly or en masse. Each of the painter’s strokes indexes an experience, a phenomenon witnessed. As Canadian archivist and video artist Jayce Salloum so succinctly puts it, “Fixing the temporal, space and time become conflated. (Merewether 186). Just as the Privy State Archive filed its documents according to the time in which they were produced, the painter’s decisions announce their own provenance through their position within the strata of paint layers.
This process of painting fat over lean serves more than an aesthetic concern, however, for one of the primary reasons for layering paint in this way is to maintain the flexibility and integrity of the paint film such that it doesn’t crack or otherwise destroy itself. In so doing, it serves the aim of many an artist and archivist- to preserve time and experience. One of the reasons this painting process has remained popular for so long is that it is one of the most permanent and stable. It is, in a word, archival- a term emblazoned across any artists’ material worth its salt. Artists go to great lengths to ensure that their work will withstand not just the onslaught of critics, but of time, as well. While some painters may experiment with materials they know to be ephemeral, most do not wish their testimony to be undermined by fugitive media.
Permanence should not be seen as an end in itself, however. “To amass an archive is a leap of faith, not in preservation but in the belief that there will be someone to use it, that the accumulation of these histories will continue to live, that they will have listeners” (Merewether 186). Although this statement comes from Jayce Salloum, an archivist who works with video, it applies no less to traditional painters. This is a concern that haunts artists of all stripes. No artists want their work to be a tree falling in the forest that no one sees. Why, after all, put in all the hours of solitary work for what usually amounts to very little money or critical acclaim? Yet thousands of painters labor away under these conditions this very second. Part of the reason for this must reside in the fact that, among other things, what painters document are their own lives and experience. The very permanence of traditional painting materials surely emboldens the ego of many a painter. If, after all, a properly painted canvas can survive with minimal care for centuries then one still has hope that their voice may eventually fall on responsive ears, and some small measure of immortality achieved. In other words, the fact that the medium is archival is, in itself, an incentive to continue.
Legacy is a notion that is of paramount importance to many painters, surrounded as we are by the extant works of generations upon generations of past masters. The fact that some artists identify themselves as ‘traditional’ signifies the value they place in being part of this continuum. Painters’ dogged insistence in clinging to a medium many have long considered outmoded speaks to this notion, as well. In working with the same exact materials used by the masters of yesteryear, they forge a link between themselves and their forebears, a link that is still not lost on the public or institutions.
Outdated or not, as an archival form traditional painting still has much to recommend itself. As new data storage systems come into being with increased frequency, so, too, do they become outmoded. Without the proper platform to read them, many storage devices and the information contained therein are rendered obsolete. Painting’s strength, however, lies in its very directness. All a recipient needs is eyes for a painting to divulge its information- no network connection or batteries required.
Painting’s role as a documenter may have diminished slightly since the advent of photography, but it has by no means disappeared. Sure there may be an increased element of subjectivity, but there are certain records (not the least which include courtroom and battlefield sketches) in which that element is prized, not as a corruption of the record, but as an integral and informative part of it. Emotions are no less a part of our life’s experience than the paperwork, photos, and other detritus we share it with. If the last few millennia are any indication, I expect that painting will remain a valued and viable element of humanity’s collective archive for some time to come.
Spieker, Sven. The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008. Print.
Salloum, Jayce. “Sans Titre/ Untitled: The Video Collection as an Active Archive”. The Archive: Documents of Contemporary Art. Ed. Charles Merewether. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006. 185-193. Print.
As per the suggestion of my mentor, I've been doing some drawings to help work out some of my compositions. I'm hoping it'll help speed up my process, too; that last little painting was a bit of a time drain. Here are some drawings from around the house and out the window:
Met with my new mentor, Katy Schneider, of Northampton, Mass. Check out her stuff at katyschneider.com- she’s a really great painter. Her figure work is especially impressive. She’s encouraged me to pay more attention to the abstract geometry in my work and to look for a little more harmony in my color- to get more of an overall complexion or dominant color. Here’s a new painting I did from an upstairs window:
Sunday, March 24, 2013
Here’s what I started upon returning from January’s residency. In keeping with my desire to share elements of the painting process with the viewer, I’ve shown myself in the act. I’ve pulled back to show both the mirror and the wall in hopes of highlighting the observational nature of this work; I’m not just painting myself, I’m painting the reflection of myself. It’s as much about the process of doing a self-portrait and the act of looking at oneself in the mirror as it is a statement about me or my likeness. Of course, as a painting, the work as a whole still bears an autobiographical stamp.
Wednesday, March 20, 2013
MFA Semester II
1 February 2013
Second Residency Summary
Regarding subject matter:
-“I think you are desperately in search of subject matter.”
-“As a viewer I feel like I’m somewhat left out in the cold here.”
-“Pursue these things that are all around you.”
-“I think that what happens when you’re out in the landscape or in a moment like this portrait- for me what happens is the painting opens up to a space of lifestyle. There’s a set of values that’s remarkably different from shit that’s made in China.””
-“Your subject matter is your life, but it’s also your circumstances and your environment, and your family… I feel myself wanting more access to that- more access to the portraits and the places and the feel of the skies in Maine… that kind of record of your life.”
- “Interesting tension in that it’s hard to tell who painted what or whom in the collaborative work…”
- “You’re projecting myself onto the object. In that way, the still life becomes a vehicle for an exploration of yourself. Seen in this way the duck becomes a kind of self-portrait.”
-Portraits and landscapes have ‘more of you in them’
-re. the hot dogs and ducks: “funny, yet disquieting…but human, too”
-“Explore the portrait.”
-Investigate the role of ‘painter as performer’
-“Studio is great- paintings that reflect on the time and solitude of the studio”
-“The compositions are non-compelling in the portraits.”
“The portraits aren’t interesting enough for me.”
“The ducks could be much more of a vessel, an emotional container”
“Make it (the duck) more of a fetish object. Make the stakes a bit higher. Think of these things as surrogates”.
-I was encouraged to paint not just from life- but my life.
-“There’s a stillness and quietness here that’s compelling.”
-“Landscapes are also evocative of a lifestyle that’s slower and removed from city life.. the time of rural life”
-“These paintings seem very personal, and that’s a strength”
As one can see, I received quite a bit of feedback on my subject matter this term, some of it contradictory. While the advice concerning the still lives (ducks, hot dogs, etc.) was appreciated, and I do still find those subjects compelling, it is clear that I need to pursue more personal subject matter for at least the time being. It is time to take a step back from the serial still life and to investigate the larger theme of my life as a painter living in coastal Maine. While the rubber ducks and other objects I’ve painted repeatedly over the years have come to have personal significance for me, I cannot assume that they will engender the same feelings in the viewer. My time spent painting should be double-downed on the people, places, and things with which my life is already entwined.
As much of my daily life is spent in the studio, I expect that it will also figure into my new body of work. These paintings will refer not just to my life, but to the act of painting itself. The practice of spending vast amounts of solitary, personal time with a few discrete pieces of the outside world towards the end of recording, in paint, the experience of observing them is a process outside the experience of most people. Painter, subject, and painting weather a substantial amount of solitary time together, during which a bond is forged that can be found in few other disciplines. Certainly, it is an experience far removed from the typical grab-and-go hurly burly of contemporary life. Bringing across an excitement, or at least awareness, of this peculiarly human endeavor to the viewer is a challenge I look forward to pursuing.
“Experiment with pushing the non-local color and leaving areas unfinished.”
“I like the paint handling better in the ducks than the portraits. Check out how Thiebault manifests his stuff.”
-“I’d like to see more juxtaposition of thin and thick.”
--“Don’t be so safe. Allow yourself to scream and shout. Be impolite. I want to see at least one ‘fuck you’ painting next term”
“Portrait is a pose I’ve seen before”
-“Put some obstacles between you and the work” (time constraints, etc.)
“Break out of this illustrative stuff. Get messier. More powerful. Make it more of a vital struggle.”
“Get up to speed with contemporary painters. Learn their vocabulary. Check out some more abstract painters. Experiment with paint handling a bit more.”
This was good stuff to hear. While I paint the way I do for a reason, it’s good to step back and question my rationale from time to time. Truth be told, some of my work did seem a bit safe once I saw it all up on the wall. I expect that I will revisit some of the bolder mark-making days of my youth over this next term. I resist the notion of adopting another painter’s manner sheerly for the sake of appearing more contemporary, though. Painting is a discipline steeped in tradition. Its ties to the past- not just recent memory or current fashion- is one of its strengths. Too often these days there is a tendency to equate ‘edginess’ with being au courant. It seems that there is an unspoken assumption that every profound statement must contain a note of doom or desperation. Still, I don’t want to keep my head stuck in the sand, either. Getting up to speed with what other painters are doing will not only open my eyes to options I have not considered, but it will help me to position my work in today’s critical discourse.
I agree that I could be a little more adventurous with some of my paint handling, and will endeavor to do so. I must remain sensitive to the surface and how the physicality of paint can help to carry the message behind the work. Matt Saunders’ talk was very inspiring in this regard. His content is inseparable from his materials, and they both work in support of one another.
I look forward to finding a tighter binding of message and expression in my own work this term. I have been charged with the task of letting my daily life direct my subject matter, and I believe this can only result in a greater degree of sincerity and genuine reality in my work. In addition, I am anxious to begin the process of situating my work, traditional as it is, in relation to contemporary discourse.
Each of my paintings represents an effort to encode the shifting complexities of the world and our place within it. Through the layering of brushstrokes and the decisions they represent, I work to create an organic whole suggestive of much more than the sum of its parts. My faith in painting rests on the conviction that any subject, no matter how simple or commonplace, may come to stand for not just a piece of existence, but the whole wide world.
I often work in series. This allows me to become more and more intimately familiar with my subject with each successive piece. I just completed my 43rd rubber duck, and have begun a series of hot dogs. There is a certain juvenile, crass American-ness about these objects I find endearing. There is a certain irony, too, in elevating such banal subject matter to the level of high art through the medium of paint that I find intriguing, as well.
While I have begun experimenting with the use of photos, I do still find the process of painting from life to be a magical one and worthy of note- sheerly because of the wonderful weirdness of it all. I mean, here we are in the 21st century, surrounded by wifi and other digital distractions, yet people still find reasons to sequester themselves away from the outside world to huddle next to a few discrete objects they’ve extracted from said world, spending vast amounts of solitary, personal time towards the ends of observing and then recording these objects in paint. While I can appreciate all the reasons and rationalizations for utilizing modern conveniences in fashioning an image, there is still a part of me that gets a thrill out of drawing or painting something ‘from thin air’. The extra time that this older process necessitates informs our relationship to the objects we are depicting and gets built into the final image itself.
My latest work seeks to impart some of my fascination with this process to the viewer. The newest installment in my long-running series of ducks pulls back from the still-life to reveal the box I’ve constructed in order to keep the lighting situation constant and controlled- it isn’t just a still life, it is a still life pictured. It has also come to bear on the collaborative works I do with my brother Nathaniel. While previously our works have always had a narrative bent, we have embarked on a series in which we paint ourselves, sometimes in the act of painting, further bringing an awareness of the process to bear on the viewer’s experience of the work.