What a wonderful and strange place it is this “Land of Paint” and everyone who paints wants to get there. You get into it as much by touch as by sight. How heavy or light the touch; how considered or spontaneous the hand movement; what freight of colour or viscosity of pigment gets carried on the journey begins to settle this land. You make a beginning so you can start to look. Then you can travel. Where you want to go is a place you have never been before. You know when you arrive that it will be a place you seem to know. What makes it familiar is something from the past and also something of the future – a promise. But the main thing about this land is that it must be made to exist in time present. As authentic as a tea cup, taking its time and space.
As the painting begins to insist on its space occupying your space you negotiate an uneasy contract, between you and it, which sets the lie of this land. Touch and look your way into it. Then continue the looking for a” long time. Nothing gets your concentrated attention like this; your eye’s are peeled; looking for a long time. until everything is radiant, significant. It looks interesting. You look at the floor; that now looks equally radiant, significant and interesting. More interesting because it is ‘really in the world, part of it, authentic, stupifyingly real. Not a representation, not a blueprint, nothing at a remove, but right there, now. This is what you want the paint to be. But you are seeing too much. The half of painting that is pain begins to operate here. Begin again.
Touch our way in, scraping, layering, digging out, plastering on, scraping off. Looking, looking. The eye skating on it, sinking into it. There are two speeds. The first slick and shiny; the eye races across the paint surface, skidding away. The second, glutinous, slow motion lava; tracing the imperceptible movement and growth of stone. Ancient, lithic, grey…. Just paint.
Bring light to this place. Everything receives light but painting contends that light; trapping it so that this dumb, resilient, buttery paint seems to radiate a light of itself. It is the hopeless faith in that impossibility that makes this land of paint so human, touching and sometimes amazing.
The worst is not over, yet I know
You will be happy here. Because of the logic
Of your situation, which is something no climate can outsmart.
Tender and insouciant by turns, you see
You have built a mountain of something.
Thoughtfully pouring all your energy into this single monument,
Whose wind is desire starching a petal,
Whose disappointment broke into a rainbow of tears. John Ashbery
Take heart from the cliche “dumb as a painter”. Press on. Concepts such as “landscape” are merely hooks to memory that steady the eye. What traps and holds the eye is an adhesiveness special to this place of paint. It is another world and part of getting into it comes with the realization that, as you look at it, it is looking at you. (If everyday things in the world start to look at you, something is wrong; if painting does not do it, something is wrong.)
Look how it looks. That sweeping scan of stops and glides that sometimes stall to saturation; glimpses that flick as highlights, slow searches that drag across the surface only to be turned as trummels that impede, spur and lift to hover forever. This is a look to which even time cannot bring repose – for time is what is missing from this land. It is language that unfolds in time; in this place of space
…. time has turned into space and there will be no more time. Beckett.
Consider scale. Whether we see this land as detail or panorama – it could be either – is incidental to the size and scale of the painting itself. Sometimes you get the small, one-shot size; you see it in one take. These are like babies and they hold the fascination of babies; designed for success and even small ‘peculiarities’ seem full of promise. All seems nascent, full of broiling potential and they are the ideal size for the eye to hold and feed. When they get bigger they demand attention at the uneasy periphery of vision. And look at the time they take ! We want these unruly adolescents – or curmudgeonly elders – to simply stay in the frame that is our conceptual frame. It should be landscape but it’s paint; it should be paint but it’s behaving like weather; it makes sense now – close up – but what is it doing over there, and now where has it gone? These paintings are grown ups – you don’t so much understand as accept them – and they are not so easily accommodated by the eye which must now give time and thought to come to terms with the fact that this moiling mass, macro or micro, will be eternally
…. causing some features palpably nearer your pecker’to be
swollen up most grossly while the further back we manage to
wiggle the more we need the loan of a lens to see as much as the
hen saw. Tip. Joyce.
And besides, you can’t help thinking – if only you could stop thinking – this is a bad time to be painting. It is as incorrect as the Full Irish Breakfast – and for many of the same reasons. Blood, ghee, muscle and brains condensed into a life threatening assault on the system is dangerous. It could be a matter of life and death; the risk level is high; taking terrible chances. And what has any of that to do with art? That was then. Now read today’s menu: “Vegetarian sausage with just a hint of hickory”. That weasel “hint of” points modishly to the fact that you have the wrong agenda.
But you know, you just feel, that deep down what everyone wants is the art equivalent of the F.I.B: the Velasquez, the Goya, the Vuillard, the de Stael, the Guston, the de Kooning, the Reubens and yes – the Bacon. The full edible listing. The Ates.
Turn back from these trophic metaphors; they lead to the same queasy euphoria that confuses the floor with the painting. What is needed now is something to prevent the painting becoming linoleum. You have buried the natural light of the blank board where those original marks danced and took their first breaths. You have layered and pulled and tried to save interesting passages that finally had to go under because the logic of this place had begun to take a different turn. This has led you into darker dullnesses where everything seems to die under your hand. Thick and synthetic as lino, it bends and buckles, its light has gone. It can be designed now anyway you push it. It gives but there is no take. There is no resistance. This is the terror of abstraction; how to stop it being design. (Design is a problem solving activity; art solves nothing – just more questions.) Where you are now, numbed in this paintland, needs craft; something that works. What do you know from the past that might revive it? Salmon pink will never again travel as miraculously as it did across the silver grey of the small Infanta’s dress, but try. There will never be touch like that again, but go on. Not under or over but on and in. That may help, maybe that pink has brought something flickering to life. Believe it. Begin again.
What a wonderful and strange place this is. You think you may now know this place because you have traversed it some time ago and traces remain of your having been there. You have shifted things and things have shifted you. You recognise things you made happen but most interesting are things that just happened and …. just appeared out of this land. These are the events that constitute the reason you do this.
Still, elements feel wrong. (like ‘constitute’ . What you want is ‘consistency’ – in the medium that is – like ‘sinewy’. No that’s wrong too. Go back. Erase. And loose the breakfast section. Won’t fit. And that part about pictures looking was wrong. Try again).
It is not that the painting looks at you – it is usually too involved with itself for that – but, if you get into this land, it will show signs of your looking out. This is called style.
Press on past these ideas of signs and style. They must emerge – occur. If you carry their freight into this land they will hang out or wander the place like bleating sheep, cute and lost. Think dumb, then maybe, if you have truly entered this land of paint, and if you are lucky there will be a moment when you feel you can’t make a mistake. You may be wrong but something of your stuff and its stuff has arrived. Just pinch its cheeks, brush its hair, straighten its dress. It’s behaving itself, maybe. Send it out into the world. (An act of faith of course, but how sustaining it is, the lie of this land).
This now is something from the land of paint. It has light. Look at it looking. Thoughtfully pouring all of your energy into this single monument, you have signed off on this contract. You will be happy here. There is a logic to this place. Lighten up.
‘The Vision of Mac Conglinne’
Haunch of Mutton
Is my dog’s name
Of lovely leaps. (From the 6th century Irish)
Noel Sheridan 1997
Posted by Robert Armstrong