In the current edition of TATE Etc (Autumn 2017), there is a brief article by the artist Miroslaw Balka, titled ‘You don’t need to see a work of art in the flesh to love it’. In it, Balka describes how, as a child, he loved a black and white photograph of a sculpture by Michelangelo, and yet, when he saw it ‘in the flesh’ as an adult, he felt no emotion. Coming across this article unexpectedly provoked a range of conflicting emotions for me, as I had recently written an essay on Balka (Miroslaw Balka and why I paint: Reflections on ‘Remeberence of the First Holy Communion’); my response was, in part, understandable – I had recently been thinking, and writing, about his work; I have only seen his work in photographs, we both have a strong sense of childhood in our work, and so forth. What is more significant for me is that my response revisits my major concerns in my essay ‘Why I paint’ and allows me to develop my thinking further. This is important as my practice is pushing my painting to the limits of the tradition/aesthetics, of composition, form and colour (see my Presence I series in Galleries on my website for early examples of this work). Articulating where I am now with my work provides a record of my journey and helps me to hold on to some rationale as to why I’m doing what I’m doing, enabling me to pursue this path to its end (which may well be abject failure and some degree of ridicule).
My starting point for ‘Why I paint’ is mirrored by my response to Balka’s TATE article: confusion shot through with a streak of emotional chaos, and a subsequent sense of questioning ‘what should I do with such a response’. I could ignore it as overly emotional and proceed to a more rational approach, or hold the emotion and try and work with it. In ‘Why I paint’ I characterise this as the debate triggered by Heidegger in ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ – on the one hand, I have an immediate, emotional response, and on the other I could repress that response and take a more enframed approach, informed by aesthetics. The conclusion that emerged from my essay is that experience shows that the emotionally charged response is a signifier, worthy of further, un-enframed, consideration. Furthermore, the significant elements of the emotional response are not capable of verbal explanation; they are too confused, confusing – they relate to a pre-verbal sense of being that we still retain. Paint, however, has the properties necessary to allow an investigation of these elements – to address ‘deeply defended personal experiences’.
It is in this context that my practice continues to move from figurative or abstraction modes to what I call ‘painting without a subject’. I acknowledge that this work may be seen as abstract expressionist, even surrealist, or, as I prefer, in the shadow of Paul Nash and more specifically, Ivon Hitchens. I feel more comfortable (and true) when I carve out my own little niche with the idea of the’deliberate mark’. But, I am already falling back into the trap of using language – trying to express what cannot be adequately described in words into words.
So, when ‘painting without a subject’, what do I do? I have outlined the basic process in my November blog. Since then I have started my new series, Presence II, which is another iteration of this process. This is the current status of one piece:
So, I am building up the painting with ‘deliberative’ brush strokes. The result looks like a collection of badly made marks – and even without the enfaming aesthetics they look pretty awful. There is a real collapse of confidence at this point – the paranoia returns – I have been found out, I can’t paint, my ideas about painting are rubbish etc. etc. The sense of worry that one is about to be ‘found out’ as a fraud is not unique to painters, and is fairly common. As a businessman, close colleagues would confess to this feeling, even when they have a track record of success and are highly regarded.
But this is of little comfort when one is really in a spiral of despair. I fall back on the following: the statement from Ehrenzweig. in his analysis of the creative process, that artists viscerally detest their work during the early stages; that I have been here before and come out with good work; and the clincher, what else am I going to do, walk away? This does little to alleviate the pain, but I continue. I try to mould some elements to show elements of relief, I introduce a motif from earlier paintings (the grey lines across the canvas), I copy an idea from a Rembrandt I have been meaning to try since I saw his work at the Nat Gallery after delivering my work to the Mall for January’s exhibition (lace), and l add the image of heel marks seen in mud on a recent woodland walk. With the exception, perhaps, of the lace cloth, any figurative element is lost as they are only partially presented, and are totally outside of their original context – the viewer would not recognise what they ware or represent.
Introducing these elements relieves the anxiety of being a failure – but raises the question of being a fraud – am I simply compiling fragments in the hope that something will happen? Perhaps, but as described in ‘Why I paint’, I find that elements of my hidden being, ideas held in my sub-conscious, start to emerge as I paint, and are present in the final composition. Often, I am not aware of these for several months after I have finished. Part of my research process in Presence II is to see whether, if I rely fully on the ‘deliberate mark’ approach, the resolved piece has these characteristics. More broadly, I am looking to see if the work resonates with me in the first place, the viewer, and finally the biggest test, fellow painters. As discussed before, this latter category is the most critical (in a good sense), and I suspect I will need several series of work before I can develop the technique to satisfy this audience (or collapse under my over-inflated expectations).