Donald Short is an artist working in the UK

Notes On Paint versus Painting

Notes on Paint versus Painting.

The case for and against painting as a form of illustration/representation versus painting as a process from which the stuff of paint is predominantly the subject, or at the very least on equal terms with the subject, was one that came up often during a year that I spent studying for an MA in 2007-8. My supervisor at the time, Eric Butcher, although appreciative of my technical gifts, was keen to counter them when possible; encouraging me to deliberately frustrate my natural tendency to describe things in paint and explore the potential of the process to act independently of the subject matter.

In his book Art, published in 1914, the Edwardian critic Clive Bell, takes a similarly invidious position. Bell not only aims his criticism at the Nineteenth Century academic imperative that demanded slavish representation but also, in the advent of photography, the obvious redundancy of such an endeavour. For Bell, a painting to be a work of art it had to transcend illustration, possessing what he calls ‘significant form’. Bell picks his targets wisely, attacking the superficiality and sentimentality of much English and French Academic painting; painting in which ‘form is not used as an object of emotion, but as a means of suggesting emotion.’

By the mid Nineteenth Century, French and English art was essentially a vehicle for edification as well entertainment; its subject matter carefully codified and policed. As a procreative act it afforded little space for self expression, its formative mysteries taught in rigorously defined stages; the outcome never in doubt. In France, with the advent of Napolean the Third in the 1850s, there was some loosening of the rules that governed painting, but popular taste, which seeks moral certainty above all else, was always going to be against innovation whether it had an official stamp of approval or not. England, of course, had Turner; a brilliant, wayward painter in an otherwise docile community of academicians. One such academician was William Frith and it is his hugely popular, The Railway Station, which Bell targets for particular criticism in his book. The Railway Station, is a technically superb evocation of three dimensional space in which a cast of hundreds gather on the platform at Paddington Station and play out little narratives like actors on a stage, but Frith’s painting is not art, according to Bell, whose verbose and at times opaque essay meanders interminably toward a final barmy climax with sentences such as ‘Yet, though the echoes and shadows of art enrich the life of the plains, her spirit dwells on the mountains’ ; and my personal favourite, ‘Like the sun, she warms the good seed in good soil and causes it to bring forth good fruit. But only to the perfect lover does she give a new strange gift — a gift beyond all price.

But what if we apply Bell’s theory to some of the greats: Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens? Titian, who lived to an unusually old age, became more expressive, looser as he grew older and in doing so the medium, the stuff of paint, as well as the process, becomes more apparent in his work: in some of his paintings he even appears to have used his fingers. There are numerous theories as why this is, the most credible of which is that many of the late works (The Flaying of Marsyas is often held to be paradigmatic) are in fact unfinished. However, let’s for a moment assume that Titian was making a conscious decision with regards the finish of his later paintings and compare two of his greatest works, both in the National Gallery, London: Baachus and Ariadne of 1520-23 and The Death of Acteon, painted toward the end of his life, approximately forty years later.

In accordance with Bell’s theory of significant form, you would have to say that the first painting, in its emphasis on finish and ‘suggested emotions’, is as much an illustration as Frith’s. Both paintings display crowds in which small incidents of carefully formulated social intercourse occur: a man is apprehended by detectives in top hats, Silenus, a follower of Baachus, at the point of falling of his donkey is supported by an attending satyr, a soldier alighted from the the train holds up his baby while his wife looks on happily, a dog barks at a young satyr dragging a deer’s head in its wake. Interestingly, a women in a red cape on the far left of Frith’s panoramic view adopts the same pose as Ariadne in Titian’s; albeit seen from the other side. In comparison, The Death of Acteon is more obviously a painting made with paint, with a distinctly uneven finish: compare the carefully modulated, glazed treatment of Diana’s flesh and red tunic to that of Acteon’s; or moreover, the extraordinary bushel of leaves at Diana’s feet: a form, which first and foremost (before it is a plant) is an inky silhouette dramatically highlighted with thick, hastily applied strokes of paint. In this square metre of paint, you will find the origin to every Constable sketch you will ever see. In contrast, the foreground in the earlier of the two painting is awash with botanical illustrations in the same vein of Holbein, Marianna North and Ruskin; each blade of grass, petal and leaf rendered in precise detail. Does the immediacy of the later painting; the oscillating tension between process and image, afford it significant form? Conversely, is Baachus and Ariadne, gloriously resplendent in its bold use of of colour, dynamic asymmetry and sheer technical brilliance, less of a painting because the creative process is hidden within the forms it represents?

Along with his friend Roger Fry, who organised two exhibitions of Post-Impressionist art in London in 1910, Bell was responsible for bringing to the attention of the British public artists such as Cezanne, whom he likens to the explorer Christopher Columbus; and it is in the work of Cezanne that Bell identifies significant form in its highest sense; painting in which the application of the formal elements, line, colour, tone etc. result in what he calls ‘aesthetic emotions’. Cezanne, of course, is best known for his landscapes around the town of Aix in the South of France, paintings which become increasingly more atomised and self critical as he gets older. What Bell is describing when referring to aesthetic emotions is in effect a pleasure at seeing painting as a medium opened up and revealed; to quote the critic, Clement Greenberg, (using) ‘art to call attention to art’. Nineteenth Century academic painting, founded on a tradition going five hundred years, took a different approach: what was praised was the artists’ ability not to call attention to his medium; disguising the creative process behind carefully applied layers of paint, as Titian does in Bacchus and Ariadne and Frith in The Railway Station. French academicians called this precision, Le Finis. As Greenberg points out ‘Whereas one tends to see what is in an Old Master before one sees the picture itself, one sees a Modernist picture as a picture first.’ Take any late Cezanne and this is obvious: You see the flatness of the canvas, the ostentatious frame in which it is invariably contained, the ponderously applied painted marks laid like small pieces of mosaic one beside the other or overlapping; and then you see the craggy ochre rocks with their mauve and blue shadows, the emerald greens and lush chromes of the firs and oaks framing the distant mountains: part mass, part ultramarine outline, pressed against the oscillating blue sky. At a recent exhibition of paintings at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford only one painting really stood out and that was Cezanne’s; the rest: flash Manet, flashier Monet, feckless Soutine, execrable Modigliani, couldn’t compete.

Nineteen years earlier, I had spurned a good opportunity at Chelsea School of Art, turning up for my MA interview in a foul mood seemingly hell bent on destroying any chance of being offered a place, which I duly and not surprisingly wasn’t; although I did oddly make the alternate list. My interview at Chelsea came at the end of three difficult years at Camberwell School of Art and Crafts; years in which I progressed no further than being the pale imitator of a range of artists, moving from Auerbach type landscapes in my first term to large scale abstract paintings by the end of my third year. As an indication of my creative anxiety and confusion, my conversion from illustration to abstraction happened relatively quickly: within my first two terms. At the time, Camberwell was in a state of nervous transition with old school traditionalists and pedantic technicians (I was taught to make oil paint by mixing pigment by the urbane Graham Giles) and hard line conceptualists (mostly second rate mid-career artists that had hopped beds at the Slade in the early 70s) fighting it out in an internecine war. There was a semblance of what you might call a course in the first year but after that I was left pretty to my own devices. By my third year I had moved out of college altogether and taken up residence in a disused working man’s club around the corner. By the end I left in a hurry, depressed and disappointed and didn’t paint another picture for five years.

Age 42, I now found myself once again exploring the potential of paint to be more than just a means of accurately configuring an image. My supervisor would, I think, have been happier if I had committed fully to the cause; in the words of Clement Greenberg, to ‘dissolve (content) so completely into form that the work of art cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything but itself’ but that was never going to happen; nor was I, as Eric once suggested to me, tempted to leave my paintings outside for a week in order to let the weather intercede in their final appearance: something Edvard Munch was reputed to have done and which, admittedly, I have encourage a number of pupils to do since. It was a friendly relationship, but one that belied an undercurrent of creative differences and intellectual outlook. Here was a man who, as I once put it to him, was never tempted to draw the cat; or indeed draw at all. Eric Butcher’s background ironically mirrored that of one of my tutors at Camberwell, Ian McKeever: both had become artists after completing university and both approached painting from a conceptual rather than creatively intuitive position.

Toward the end of my second year at Camberwell, I went to work for Ian McKeever at his studio beside London Fields in Hackney and over the course of a few weeks stretched a number of large diptychs bound for an exhibition in Zurich. Curiously, the size of the pictures and the lack of any adequate portal with which to get them out of the building seemed not to overly concern him: the studio doors were too small and the large industrial metal windows had no openings. Alarmed by his suggestion that we knock a hole in the supporting outside wall, I proposed hacksawing off a 50 cm vertical section of a large square skylight in an adjoining room and posting the paintings through the slot and onto the flat roof above; and from there, transport them to the street below.

Up until the previous year, McKeever’s paintings had been overtly inspired by the landscape; in particular walks and expeditions he had taken in England and abroad. One such painting now hangs in Preston’s Harris Museum: a neo classical temple of bargain basement mediocrity made up in part of the type of sentimental Victorian paintings Bell riles against in Art. Entitled, Beside the Brambled Ditch, at first glance McKeever’s painting appears to be nothing more than a violent flurry of random black and white painted gestures, but on closer inspection one sees the traces of a photograph beneath. What is the point of this act of effacement? Is the photographic image a catalyst for a more dominant creative response, which ultimately erases it? In the paintings from this period, these questions are overwhelmingly present; McKeever gradually resolving the matter and holding back sufficiently to reveal larger portions of the photographic stimulus: a transition neatly demonstrated by the other of McKeever’s paintings in Harris Collection, Old Trees (1985), in which he gives the empirical second layer a conscious side parting and in doing so affords the eponymous trees equal pictorial weight. This transition would reach fruition in a series of extraordinary paintings based on a trip to Lapland the following year, which I first saw in his studio in the Fall of 1986. As with Old Trees, the first layer comprised of large, part torn, black and white landscape photographs glued on to the support (so large in fact that the stop bath was exactly that, a bathtub) and upon which he expressed himself in a manner similar to De Kooning, Klein, Twombly and late Monet. The painted marks, compromising of violent daubs, swirling gestures and poured stains, sit clearly on the surface of the support, beyond which one then sees the photographic image: a silhouetted tree, a cascading river, an ice field of rocks and snow; and in doing so McKeever posits two distinct forms of pictorial space uncomfortably next to each other, or, moreover one artlessly over the other, like a child’s scrawl on an Old Master painting, while at the same time indulging in the simplest of creative responses: slashed gestures echoing the form of tree trunks and tangled branches as in Hearing You Breathe I; poured and thrown paint splashing and pooling like water, as in Crossing: the effect, painterly photographs.

Is the Lapland Series therefore about the act of painting itself: about paint versus painting; abstraction versus representation? If so, it is an irony that is given a final clever twist: the shallow pictorial space established by the expressive daubs, stains and gestures have a way of congealing into frames or forming screens to the left or right of the image; and in doing so McKeever borrows a traditional composition device whereby screens (like theatrical flats) in the form of buildings, trees, crowds etc. allow the pictorial space to recede in anchored stages, amplifying the illusion of space. To see what I mean compare Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral From The Bishop’s Grounds (1825) with The Moth Tree and Night Fall, or more obliquely, an earlier painting, Night Light where the painted gestures (which cross the support from top to bottom like bolts of lightning) operate similarly to the lances of the gathered army in Velasquez’ Surrender at Breda.

Two years on from the Lapland series and the work I posted through the skylight onto the roof of Ian’s studio was very different; the frame restored to its tacit position at the edge of the support and the photographic image all but expunged, although the works’ titles: Palimpsest, The Rock Mushroom, Trilobite and Pelee’s Hair etc., suggested that beneath the layers of paint there was still a tangible romantic idea rooted in the landscape. These paintings were also entirely black and white, although perversely enriched in some cases by Builders’ Tea to create a reddish brown glaze (10 bag pots, from what I recall). Their impact on me was immediate and lasting. Short term, I borrowed the globular stains (resembling microscopic cells) in one paintings and reused them for an entire series of new works, some of which would comprise my degree show; long term, the stark beauty of these monotone paintings was unforgettable. By the time we met again a few years later, this time in Berlin, his work was entirely abstract and entirely black and white.

It was the globular cell paintings that I took Chelsea for my interview in 1989. The panel, which included Jennifer Durrant, appeared to like them, but I was not at all so sure this was what I wanted to be doing for the next year and was alarmed at the thought that I might be offered a place, which I sensed I wouldn’t have the courage to reject. My memory of the occasion is a little vague but somewhere in the process I managed to deeply offend Ms Durrant by insisting that the recent Mark Rothko show at the Tate Gallery had been hung in such a way that the great man’s work was reduced to looking like wallpaper: the paintings were all hung very close to each other, apparently something Rothko preferred.

One wonders what Bell would have made of Mark Rothko, or more to the point abstraction, which, in simple terms, is about the totality of the formal elements: colour, texture, line etc. in the creation of a work of art; a tendency that the New York art critic Clement Greenberg felt compelled to trace back to the work of the French painter, Edouard Manet. Manet’s paintings, in their use of strong outline, ‘crudely’ modulated tones and, in at least one famous example, a deliberately askew perspective, became, in Greenberg’s words, ‘the first modernist pictures by virtue of the frankness with which they declare the flat surfaces on which they were painted.’ Twenty years earlier, in his seminal essay, Avant-Garde and Kitsch, Greenberg establishes a wider cultural context for this watershed, claiming that an aesthetic shift came about in mid-Nineteenth Century France as a result of enlightened scientific discovery and socio-political turmoil and the concomitant disintegration of established norms and signs that inevitably followed. The ‘verities involved by religion, authority, tradition, style’ as he calls them, ‘are thrown into question and the writer or the artist is no longer able to estimate the response of his audience to the symbols and references with which he works.’ Interestingly, Greenberg states that in the past this erosion of the status quo had resulted in what he refers to as ‘motionless Alexandrianism’, which apparently translates as not much of cultural advancement, but he offers no clue as to why in this instance it produces the opposite. Maybe it was the absinthe!

Ultimately, what Greenberg is proposing, is that out of the vestiges of 1789 and the aftershocks that reverberated throughout France and the rest of Europe for the proceeding fifty years, a new artistic class unexpectedly emerged, one which he calls the avant-garde; a class that by virtue of finally attaining a position outside of the establishment through the moral empowerment of fighting for a supposedly just cause, could now clearly ‘isolate their concept of the bourgeois in order to define what they were not’. The same outsider position presumably that afforded Baudelaire his own detachment from the past and which he referred to as modernite. Political and social fragmentation, Greenberg concludes, begets artistic fragmentation and at the root of this fragmentation for Greenberg was the expression of flatness. Flatness for Greenberg was a sort of holy grail, and in Manet’s work Greenberg claims to identify the beginnings of this tendency, the point when the formal atoms that had previously made up the pictorial whole: colour, line, tone, composition and by extension, gesture and marks start to be microscopically revealed, rather than hidden. Manet, in Greenberg’s mind, is like a new magician revealing an age old trick; and in doing so he fulfils Greenberg’s dictum that to be truly modern, artworks must acknowledge both the medium and the process by which the work is made.

For over five hundred years, artists had of course sought to do the opposite, countering the dilemma of flatness (and in doing so hide both the medium and the process by which a painting is made) by using two key principles to create an illusion of three dimensional space and form: linear perspective and chiaroscuro. Upon these two devices were hung myriad narratives: mythology, religion, history (Paddington Station) usually with the sole aim of conveying a moral or political message; and all completed in such as way that the artist’s creative hand is carefully disguised behind a meticulous, smooth finish. This is what Manet was up against and why his work was judged so harshly. It should be remembered however that artists as varied and Gainsborough and Goya had courted expressive mark making and varying degrees of finish; as had Fragonard. Furthermore, the sketch or esquisse, (made en plein air if you were a landscape painter), was an integral part of French academic training, albeit one that, until the Impressionists and before them the Barbizon School, were consigned to the drawer marked studies.

In Manet’s work the resulting tension between what is being represented and the means by which it is represented see-saws: Going up, Manet establishes the image, albeit one with some conflicting cultural and thematic signs. Going down, he courts the possibilities of the formal process reading independently of the subject matter, resulting in what Greenberg calls ‘dialectic tension’. This tension is, of course, much more obvious in the gradual ‘silting up’ of the painted surface to a chromatic porridge of gestural punctuation: commas, taches and dots which characterise your typical Impressionist impression of the 1870s and 80s; so much so that by the end of century Cezanne was inspired to the dredge this mucky pond (which by then had been reduced, particularly in the work of Monet, to emetic pastiche) and find clear water again: to ‘make Impressionism something solid and durable like the Old Masters’.

What Cezanne felt had been lost in the thirty-year war against artistic convention beginning with Manet, was the idea of pictorial unity; and so he sought to reconcile this old school trope with the optical and aesthetic effects of Impressionism, and in doing so according to Greenberg, ‘changed the direction of painting in the very effort to return it by new paths to its old ways’: or, in Cezanne’s own words, ‘redo Poussin after nature’. Interestingly, neither Manet or Cezanne, who can be seen to bookend this first phase of Greenberg’s modernist time line, had much appetite for being outsiders, both craving to be accepted by the establishment. Manet, who was a sort of talisman for the angry young painters of the 1860s and 70s and a close friend to a number of them, importantly chose never to exhibit with them. How much Manet was conscious of what he was doing is uncertain but perhaps the answer to that question can be found in the unusual range of influences that informed his work from Japanese prints and photography to Velasquez and Goya.

I have always enjoyed working directly from the landscape, whipping up this dialectic tension in my attempt to quickly capture the fleeting effects of light. Thirty years ago in my first term at Camberwell, I was tempted to take this process to the same extremes as Frank Auerbach, literally bludgeoning the landscape into painterly submission with blow after relentless blow of existential brush work until the result was no more that a set of elemental clues as to what the original subject really was. Much has been written about Auerbach’s dedication to his immediate environment in North London but in truth, such is the measure of his inexhaustible painterly ego that it matters not a jot whether he paints Camden, Carlisle or Cairo for Auerbach – to use a musical analogy – is an artist who can only play one note; and which, more that often he does far too loudly. His paintings are, in effect, all the same painting; myriad pieces of an overblown puzzle now spread across the world’s museums which, when they come together (as they did for last year’s Tate retrospective) attest both to his creative mediocrity and his madness. More recently, in a series of seascapes made out of doors in Portland in the summer of 2010, I took Corot, Valencienne and Monet as my measure; more reasonable artists who could at least play a tune with both hands.

The subject of my paintings while studying for my MA were first the human figure and then architecture, making my willingness to explore the ‘potentiality of paint’ as my supervisor I think called it extremely challenging. Making something and then consciously trying to unmake it at the same time is, in retrospect, rather foolish. Nevertheless, all those countless hours of experimentation were not wasted and when I returned to teaching the following year, I began to deliver a series of workshops based solely on exploring the potential of paint to convey a wide range of abstract surface effects; the same effects which I had ultimately failed to reconcile with my natural desire to draw the cat. These workshops had a number of titles over the years but ended up being called Paint versus Painting; and it came to many of my pupils as a bit of a shock, especially those who had spent their GCSE years carefully transcribing sunflowers in coloured pencil.

The room was cleared of tables and laid out across the floor were a dozen or so lengths of canvas, part primed, part un-primed. On two large tables at the back of the room were a pile of notebooks in which the pupils were required to make ‘scientific notes’, a stack of boiler suits, a full set of acrylic and oil paints, household emulsion, vegetable oil, linseed oil, varnish, white spirits, water sprayers, scrappers, sponges, rags, newspaper and spray paint. Using all these different materials in various combination either directly or in the process of building up layers, they were instructed to carry out a wide range of approx’ 20 cm * 20cm experiments on their supports and record the results both on their phones and in their notebooks. And so they set off, pouring, spraying, dragging, printing, combining media; building up layers broadly within a framework that took into account basic principles of colour relationships. The resulting canvases operated both as finished works as well as independent experiments. The experience and knowledge gained from using paint so liberally was lasting and could be seen in many of the pupils’ later work, regardless of whether they returned to the pensive exposition of a landscape or flower painting or went hell for leather in imitation of Klein or De Kooning. In one notable example, one of my best pupils painted some exceptionally fine horses in the manner of Stubbs and Munnings behind which – in motion blur – she created a storm of multi-coloured, go-faster stripes reminiscent of Gerhard Richter. In a later version of this workshop, on the suggestion of a colleague, pupils were challenged to create a representational painting of a close up photograph using the abstract techniques they had learnt; resulting in some excellent paintings in which the images – water, roots, a reflection, peeling paint – were interpreted through the application of painted effects rather than painted per say, which brings me to work of William Sasnal.

Sasnal is a painter I first came across on my MA. An artist who stylishly reconciles the history of abstract painting with the history of figurative painting in a seemingly effortless stream of disinterested artworks: he apparently produces one a day. Sasnal’s work is unashamedly meretricious; reminding me of one of those absurdly talented ball jugglers who you can find on You Tube; footballers who wouldn’t last twenty minutes in League Two, let alone The Championship: all art and no substance. Sasnal borrows and steals a range of techniques filched from other painters and fits them neatly into whatever figurative motif he appears to have randomly chosen that day; images for the most part from the internet: a pillow, a factory, a ski jump. When Richter famously said ‘what should I paint, how shall I paint’, I am not sure if he quite had Sasnal in mind. Richter the high brow, personable German who has consistently swung both ways for the better part of fifty years, famously creates images of photographic realism as well as abstraction; sometimes one on top of the other. For a more studied version of paint versus painting, there is, Thomas Eggerer – another stylist but one with a bit more consideration than Sasnal. Just as my pupil had done – just as the apostate Rauchenberg had done in the mid 1950s – he borrows the language of abstract expressionism; the broad brush, wet on wet weave of gestures, and puts them to good use as background fills for his uncanny narratives, mostly involving children and young adults in various leisure pursuits: at the beach, in the playground, sailing. For Richter, Sasnal, Eggerer there is no one versus the other, there is only what is. You could also say the same of Fiona Rae, who is not so much an abstract painter but a painter who paints paintings of abstract paintings. Her painted collages are unashamedly insincere, ingenious, brilliant; no more than the sum of their layered parts: the go faster stripe, paper print effect, spitfire roundel, 360 degree pour and my favourite, the two, three and four coloured squiggles. Like Sasnal, she borrows and builds upon effects and ideas gleaned from more ‘serious’ work; akin to stripping a church for household decorations.

Fifteen years on from our last meeting in Berlin, I met Ian McKeever again, this time at his studio in Dorset (where we both now coincidentally live) and it was Ian who kindly wrote me a reference for my MA. It is fascinating to see how his work had developed; for here is an artist who, unlike Fiona Rae, is seriously abstract. I was duly impressed but not, as I had been so many years before, tempted. I have though referred to him on numerous occasions when guiding pupils interested in pursuing abstraction and one day found myself again bending over a large stretched canvas, as I had so many times before in the winter of 1988, and demonstrating how to create cell like blobs using paint diluted with vehicle.

Finally, the impetus for this new series of paintings of the Cornish coast came initially from a series of images in which a photographic negative was combined and exposed with a directly painted negative (cliché verre), so that the final effect is one of a painterly photograph; one where the painted gestures overlaying the photographic source operate both independently from, as well as echo the image, just as they do in McKeever’s Lapland Series. This was not a conscious decision, but as soon as the work emerged I sensed that somewhere in the back of my mind I was, in part, guided by memory.

Ultimately, these new paintings are the result of a long period of gestation going back thirty years, one in which the countless failures of my year studying for an MA, filtered through the teaching of abstract effects and their purposeful application, finally found an appropriate outlet.

Special thanks is due to three exceptionally talented pupils, Phoebe Kennedy, Bryony Duff and Adam Da Vere, who all taught me a great deal.

605 days ago by Donald Short

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