R I C H A R D    L O V I N G

PAINT STUFF: Material Evidence in Painting

Richard Loving

Art of this century has been defined and influenced by photo-based processes which have profoundly altered the way we view painting. In the last half of the twentieth century an immersion in the vast stew of popular culture has altered and clouded our vision. Adding to the static in viewing art are the complex frames and filters of psychoanalytical, social, and political perspectives. In this context a dilution and short circuiting of the process of “seeing” has occurred. This has weakened or obscured the manner with which we look at some of the core properties of painting.

Surrounded, seduced and saturated by media and viewing digital two-dimensional images in internet, print and video has established impediments to the engagement with and the experience of the physical impressions of a painting. Slides and photographic images that fit an image to the screen size or print page format further obscure impact of painting. The size, surface and color have been altered causing a dilution of the physical materiality and a clouded ability to see and respond. The “defusing” aspect of reproductions eliminates the spectator’s visual awareness of process. Art, and in particular painting, is then seen as a media-generated simulacrum stripped of information that is essential to its meaning.

While digital processing that presents much of the painting we see may represent an evolution towards larger audiences, it is valuable to note what can be lost. Walter Benjamin in his book The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, suggests that what is missing in mechanical reproduction of art is “aura.” What produces a greater sense of aura is the physical actuality of the medium and its effect on the psyche. Close awareness of medium and surface produces clues to construction, space, surface and intent which in turn gives clarity and intensity to meaning.

It is not the intention here to produce a critique of visual media. It is important, however, to note that a loss of contact with the capacity to see and engage with the physical presence of painting has occurred. This raises several questions. What is unique about the medium of painting, and what are its means and methods of fascination? How does a painting as a complex two-dimensional object, that can be called “thin sculpture,” stimulate the process of intelligent seeing? How does the excitation process begin? What is the viewer’s share in the activity of really “seeing” and how is it stimulated into action?

Material and process present their evidence of content and execution to the eye from both the left and the right brain. The painting’s surface energizes meaning for the viewer. It links the work of the mind, the eye and the hand of the painter to both unconscious and conscious parts of the viewer’s psyche in an intuitive response. The evidence of meaning revealed in the physicality of process is critical to an understanding of most painting. Links to the viewer are made through image, artist’s concept and the fundamental elements of design. These connections are heightened by the application of the materials. Gesture adds emotional and conceptual messages which reveal signs of the painter’s meaning and intent. The flat surface is energized with meanings and elements of content. Even a near-mechanical smoothness of surfaces tells a story. Varieties of mark making and material application lead to a “kindling” of sensation and illumination in the spectator. For even the untrained viewer these elements can be felt and eventually brought to awareness.

Deciphering the process of making art, and viewing it, however incomplete, is an element of its visual fascination not unlike geological or archeological study. The artist and the viewer negotiate the surface of the painting. The process of viewing becomes one of give and take. For the viewer, as well as the artist, material can become the catalyst that accelerates discovery and pleasure. The spectator becomes a participant in this transmissible language infusing content with inflections of emotion activated by the force of the spectator’s memory skill, sensitivity, hidden thoughts and experience. These gleanings stimulate many threads of associational meanings that convey a basket of responses that is at the heart of visual discovery. The viewer constructs a lens of seeing that tints the surfaces of the painting and the reciprocal negotiating process of viewing art is started. Turmoil, ecstasy and rapture are incorporated into the manner of application.

Experience of content in an amalgam with formal construction is made visible through a construction of space, surface and a compulsion to order. Significant amongst these clues is the brush stroke with its unlimited variations of texture, energy and speed controlled by the artist. Perceiving the colored skin of paint, its transparencies and its tactile variations of surface adds an emotional charge to the material and gives impact to meaning. The viewing process that is stripped of the clues seen and felt in the physical actuality of art diminishes the experiencing of the art of painting.

In the end, painting continues what is sometimes assumed to be a problematical practice. The material of paint and the means of its handling and application deliver a physical and emotional language as well as a psychological reward. Suffused with a range of feelings, paintings provide a direct means of communication. They provide a special kind of visual information that is generally missing from media-based vernacular art and photo-based gallery art. To physically view the surfaces of paintings helps address the sense of detachment that is a pathology of modern life. In its small way the act of viewing redresses that imbalance by producing meaning through physical components that construct a skin that acts as a carrier of thought and emotion.


Selected sources and thoughts:

Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936. Benjamin speaks of the reproduction “enabling the original to meet the beholder halfway” but surprisingly omits any discussion of the material in the hands of the artist producing a physical component to “aura.”

Bruce Nauman interviewed by Michael Kimmelman, New York Times, February 21, 1997. talks about William DeKooning and Barnett Newman: “ It took me years before I saw their paintings except in reproductions…I had always thought that Newman was a hard-edge painter, until I saw the physicality of his paint--maybe it was something I might do too. It made it real.”

The term ”negotiating” is from Richard Francis’s introduction to the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art’s catalog for the show Negotiating Rapture, June 21-October 20, 1996, and also in its use by Homi K.Bhabha in an essay in the same publication.

Roy Lichtenstein makes a witty comment on the “brushstroke” as icon in his painting of the same name by virtue of its later execution in the silk screen process on kiln fired porcelain enamel avoiding the look of the unique hand made.

Copyright: Richard Loving 2009