Originally Published in Setup Magazine, early 2012, Vancouver
Entering a Painting
Entering a painting with your body must be very difficult, of course, because there is not enough physical space. However, knowing the complexity of dimensions, it seems one may accidentally enter a painting with his or her body, as my most recent experience attests. However it was only upon leaving the picture and reflecting upon my memory of intense color and vibrations that it became clear to me what had happened. Exiting the painting had happened naturally, but remembering how or why I entered the painting in the first place is impossible to recollect. In this case my memory begins already inside the picture, but not knowing at the time, where I was. The primary experience was of immense pressure, intense vibration, and a kind of overwhelming green ochre. The multiplicity of vibrations in my body was also overwhelming and impossibly surreal. Imagine your body is a gong or cymbal, hit with a large mallet near the center so that all the vibrations resonate right from your core. At the same time, you are like a string that has been heavily plucked and then suddenly tightened, so that the vibrations become smaller but more powerful. These vibrations were continuous and somehow did not diminish under the pressure of color that filled up all the negative space around me. I was smothered in color, and pushing against the color only revealed more color, other elements in the painting. In particular, complex patterned bands of red were often revealed when I tried to move.
Before I was to begin a public discussion about painting practices in Vancouver, it occurred to me that I had in fact, nothing to say. What was remarkable about this thought was not its extreme reticence, potentially disrupting the speaking engagement; rather it was the total self-evidence with which this thought had presented itself to me. So convincing was this intuition that I felt it presented no threat to the situation and that the audience of 200 or more would be completely satisfied with my statement that there were no remarks to be made, and we would all look at each other for a very long time with wholesome gratified smiles. Of course it was hardly this way, and it followed that during the discussion I had another realization: my reticence to speak did not come from any particular part of my project as an artist. In fact, the work I was presenting strove to stop short of meaning, such that one could speak about the work, endlessly perhaps, without ever completely closing the work. In view of the public discussion, where no actual artworks were present, it was precisely this relation between art and language that interested me. Nevertheless there was a discourse in the air, hidden in plain view that narrowed the scope of the art/discourse relationship. It was the art/theory relationship that had overcome the room, and the obligation to this relation, which I attempted to resist, was remarkably strong. My partner on the panel interpreted my resistance as being cryptic, although I did not intend to mystify. Instead I was struggling with the pressure I felt to deliver commentary on the art/theory relationship. I thought about how the theoretical texts that seemed to ground the discursive subtext of the conversation (simply put, a range of continental philosophy and left leaning art criticism), were very enjoyable to me, however I felt pressured to make a decision for or against these texts in relation to art. This was disconcerting given that my fellow panelist and I agreed to the discussion because of our commitment to art regardless of theory, or painting, or anything else.
I knew that some of Vancouver’s best artists, the “photo-conceptualists” were well versed in theory. I also knew that Jeff Wall, the most well known artist of this kind, was very interested in ideas, as well as creating poetic pictorial artworks. He had recently mounted a polemic in defense of canonical art forms, forms that did not necessarily require theory based approaches. It followed then, that a much more rigorous analysis was necessary to figure how and why theory was haunting the stage that day. I did not attempt to be anti-intellectual, but the experience I was having on the stage, was of a specific mode of thinking theory that oppressed the discussion. Attempts outside of this mode of thinking were only possible by placing them, at best, in tension with theory itself. This tension however, was generic, because theory was not given any specificity beyond loose references to the great but usual suspects (Barthes, Althusser, Deleuze, Benjamin, Marx to name a few). Crushed by this very narrow yet completely generic discursive mode, one could only claim that either all art is in some way conceptual and therefore theory should play a primary role in its articulation, or that art eludes language and theoretical analysis in order to provide alternative sensations and experiences. It was an afternoon dedicated to discussions about painting and I wondered how we could have let the vitality of picture making be eradicated by a bland confusion about the degree to which theory should or should not play a role in making and understanding art. (An analogue argument could happen between an artist with precise technical skills and an artist with expressionistic tendencies, and we know how useless that argument would be.)
It seemed that theory had come to symbolize the idea of an articulate intellectual artist, and painting had come to symbolize the idea of a wordless sensual artist. In the confusion of the moment, however, it didn’t occur to anyone, myself included, that both of those positions are completely unacceptable. Of course today, those who consider themselves sensual artists feel marginalized by those who consider themselves intellectual artists, but one can easily imagine the inverse. Art however, is precisely the place where categories of this kind are completely absurd. Art itself has no care for any particular approach. An artists’ goal is to make art, and the wide range of sensual and intellectual possibilities give art its endless diversity through its various mediums and forms.
To be sure, the art/theory debate is not new, especially in Vancouver. Its enduring and irresolvable consistency has taken the form of a fetish where the missing pieces, the break, or crisis, that this fetish is meant to conceal, is not clear. Unfortunately the diminutive minutia of argumentation between the poles described above may suggest that the crisis is actually very great and far-reaching. Today, theory represents a position of power and possible reasons come to mind including the institutionalization of art by universities and the pervading obligation that art should play an obvious critical role. In these cases, theory is something that can be taught and deployed. By contrast, the deeply engrained and popularized romantic stereotype of the artist as expressionistic, sensual savant, is disreputable, and artists less interested in theory have had trouble diversifying new ground beyond this narrow stereotype. If the art/theory debate is a fetish, I propose that the fetish hides a loss of faith in the category of art itself.
Truly the category of art has been attacked relentlessly from all sides throughout the 20th Century. There is even a great artistic tradition where artists criticize and destroy art, transforming it into anything from garbage to life itself. Theory has also played a primary role in attacking the category of art. Every attack against art, however, is premised on the idea that art is vitally important. The attacks are meant to radically alter art so that it can continue to be a profound category of human endeavor. Conservative attacks are simply the inverse: to preserve the fundamental or true nature of art. Each attack is severe, and the severity attests to the importance accorded to the category of art. Today, however, it seems that the category of art has slipped away. The defenders of art do not know what they are defending and critics of art replicate received ideas about arts supposed problems. Intellectual artists endlessly and uselessly critique the market while still participating in it, and sensual artists create vacant commodities. It follows that the power of theory stands in for art in order to justify artistic behaviors that have lost the self-evidence of their ground, and those less inclined towards theory are unable to build a new discourse because the true ground on which to debate art has disappeared.
In terms of the relation between art and theory, or more broadly, between art and philosophy, there will always be camaraderie. Perhaps a curiosity with the world, asking incredible questions, and the play of abstract thought and poetry help unite art and philosophy together. Certainly art and philosophy have taken complimentary approaches to concepts such as ontology, truth, phenomenon, experience, perception, transcendence and imminence to name a few. Mentioning these concepts, however, automatically leans towards philosophy, this text itself far closer to theory than art. This is fine, for discourse, and artists should participate in discourse like any other, because if the ground of art is to be restored and silly arguments about art and theory are to be disposed, it will be artists themselves who play the decisive roll. Artists are in a position to work intuitively and exercise special freedoms and I would call artists to work accordingly towards greatness, genius, love, and truth. Surely these concepts are vitally important to art and theory themselves. Artists, those workers with so much potential to engage intimately with human spirit and experience, those artists, more than anyone, should know what art is. Intellectual or sensual never mind, art is diverse and contested, magnificent and real.
Listening to A Rainbow in Curved Air on the Roller Coaster at night.