Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Painful art

I'm meant to be doing matters tomal but reading through the comments I feel compelled to write some sort of serious response - especially to Ian & others comments about Parr.

What do you really think I would do if I saw someone get hit by a car????

I feel that I would

A) run over to them first
B) call for help
C) sit with them and bear witness to their suffering and terror - or death

For me, good political art is related to the latter - but oh but, art is related to life, and both (for me) at least are intensely related to FAILURE. (I want to do this -but I can't)

witnessing someone suffering is incredibly difficult and distressing and almost unbearable.

My way of bearing witness - or being with someone, or being with myself is to DRAW. Or to write. But drawing involves an immmediate response rahter than the refractory process of finding words........

I watched a close friend dying in hospital last year. I was sitting in a room with other artists. He was passing in and out of conscioussness and throwing up. He was in agony, and he was dying and there was nothing we could do, except to sit with him, so he wasn't alone. At the same time- he was so evidently alone. He begged us not to draw him. We didn't. At this point there was nothing I could do - suffering is a profoundly intimate experience - and yet also a profoundly social one. Later on I cried in my studio, while touching up paintings of him where he'd posed for me and others at a sketch club. Painting a body that no longer existed. Remembering flesh that was only mine to see and remember, not to feel. I finished the painting and gave it to his girfriend - who'd been the main carer as he died. My memories, sensations and impossible grief - all I COULD do with it WAS make a painting. I'm an artist and that's what artists do. Someone said to me that they regarded the exchanges of life drawing as about love, memory passing between people. we draw from someone that has a history of experiences, and who won't be present once they stop posing, and that won't be present when they die. Drawing is bearing witness.

I can't bear to visit the refugees in Villawood. I don't know how I would meet their face without sobbing. They would lose face and so would I. If I'd had the time, I would have attended Parr's live performance to sit with him and to draw him, slowly and intensely - so to have a discrete version of the exchange that is impossible to have. And yes - I would have like to have done a drawing of him, not to have an image of his performance - but to alow myself an extended moment of engaged spectatorship. I (niaively????) beleive that he did reach the Artaudian moment in these performances.

For a bit of context (this is where my life coalesces somewhat.) you can read about my experiences of activism, art and horrible suffering please see "this is what democracy looks like at:

the hard copy is available at COFA art store in a zine on sale where the cash goes to the NSw refugee action coalition.

I really love Jebni's discussion of Woomera 2002 on anti popper.

For my views on 'regarding the pain of others' (the exprience not the sontag book) see:

For my own visceral experience of pain and paint check out:

Hope someone has time to wade through the above.

ON pain and paint, Last night I attended the opening of my friend Steve Kirby at Legge Gallery.

His 6 small peices were in the back section of the downstairs gallery - and kind of next to the large collage works by Peggy Randall.

Both artists have produced these latest body of works while in physical pain. As I said, Steve is my friend, and I know more about his works and his conditions of producing them, so that's what I'll describe here.

Steve has previously shown works at Legge composed of collaged elements of paintings, all floating on a network of ply joints and floating in a box frame. An example of these is currently in the upstairs store room at Legge.

these latest pieces appear far more as representational paintings. There's one on the back insdide cover of september's art almanac. It looks like a bunch of flowers. Noice????

There is a big cultural schism between art criticism which describes art as a serious of semiotic elements - as representations of something (signifiers if you're a structuralist) or metonyic signposts of a discrete experience (if you're a phenomenological neo kantian) .... and the words of artists who experience art as a set of processes, exchanges with the pieces as residues of those experiences.

Steve is preoccupied with focal points - and what a painting becomes in the space within the focal point where it stops being an image. The difference for me between his last 2 shows - were that the collages - look like this:

ie large assemblies of pink blobs - objects/colours/abstracts....... they don't look like anything in particular - except something that the viewer wnats to have acloser look at. Once you are close, you can see the incredible array of marks and elementshat have beencreated and assembled together. Inside each fragment is another paitnng and another world that is incredibly suggestive.

the current paintings look like this:
which is ostensibly a view from his kitchen in the morning.

Up close the image looks like some delicate transluscent oil paint laid over a thick soft warm slab of gesso (plaster) which has bubbles in it. The image is disrupted by the surface of marks and the surface on which it is painted on. The varying densities of pigment in the windows is evocative of the abstract characters that Steve takes into his other works.

As I wrote earlier -he also has a bit from the mask of MArrickville Jelly Wrestling hero "The somnambulist". ( I'm not just adding this for official "quirky" kudos. The mask - a white disk with portals for eyes - evoke the role of viewing, and act as the figure within the painting - the mnemonic element which reminds the viewer of our own viewing into the scene. My favourite bit in the painting is actually the goopy little blue creature on the left (miraculously disguised in a bunch of lowers).

Steve's paintings are all about these strange little goopy creatures that viewers inveitably imagine when we are confronted with somethieng we can't quite understand. He has a strong intellectual interest in "analogic seeing" whihc is the historical process of how visual culture (everything form astronomy, to microscopy and art) has been informed byt eh processes of identificiation and imagination and anthropomorphism of viewers.

The best illustration of this preoccupation in this show (for me) is in the base of flowers. Steve said the only representaiton element is the shadow - whihc he copied onto the board from a shadow cast by a bunch of flowers. The shadows lookk almost lke a bunch of mayan glyphs on stalks. He repainted the vase and flowers - drawing from the shadow - again playing with the tension between object and image. If you have NO CLUE what I'm on about PLEASE go and look at the work. Stand up close and sniff - and go in the day - so you can see the crystalised glints of the gesso - and then stand back, and then move in again. Welcome to painting.

In these works the lumps, air holes and strange blobs act as a disruptive element for our desire to see an image. the present a type of visual static which is a distraction to the smooth play of verisimilitude. They are portals into this other play of objectness and suggestiveness within the medium of paint and the act of painting itself. What is interesting is to note, is the space inside the viewer - between the point of credibiility of an image and where it seems like mess or chaos, or disruption.

For Steve - this space is actually denotative of embodiment - and it is an extremely visceral and inarticulate space of sensation. Where something we look at is no longer an image and not quite a body - then what is it? "un tache" a stain, an abject remnant - it is extremely abject - something not quite us and not us - sort of evacuated from the body and yet intrinsically corporeal. Looking at something confusing in this way - does produce a deeply physical response. As much as I love these works - I and others EDGED AWAY when we tried to have conversations. They are discomforting, and affecting. They were interesting to be among, alone, but really disruptive to a coherent train of thought. they do evoke the strange spaces of being, of being as a confused collection of sensations and urges (oh dear I'm going Deleuzian).

they are also about pain and phsycial discomfort. I'm hesitant to write this because I'll end up presenting Steve's work like those foot and mouth painters. Hell . Everyone has a body - and bodies are painful annoying fleshy coils of mortality for most people - at least some of the time.

The visual censorship of imperfect bodies in consumer culture is not very far fremoved from the public cencorship of impoerfect images in art culture. I know when I'm teaching oil paitning - that I'm fascinated to watch the gestures of cleaning, containment and wiping that so many (women expecialy) engage in. Lots of my students ARE SCARED OF THE PAINT, and the awkward blobs of goop on their palette. The like to have perfect neat slugs of pure tubal paint that they squeeze out and apply onto the canvas as thin dry bits of colour in between pre drawn lines. They like neat palettes. Many othese paitners have neat houses, neat hair and neet bodies, and clothes purchased regularly washed and ironed. Its easy to mock the bourgeousie but its also amazing to note - when women spend most of their lives, wiping, cleaning, correcting themselves and their spaces that they carry this even into something as innoccuous as paint.

Here I'd like to revive my mank manifesto days and declare that the only form of artistic and personal liberation is through embracing chaos and abjection. (but fuck it was hard maintainign my dreadlocks).

What I'd prefer to emphasise -and what is more pluralistic - is that PAINT is an extremely good and safe space where we can explore a different form of embodiment and being in the world. We can be sloppy, and stupid, and messy and confused and cluttered and awkward. No one will die and you don't lose your day job. In painting we can fail and flail and its OK. For me interesting paintings are the ones where some of this fragility is maintained - not a dumb defiance or art brut - but a kind of aspiring, delighted, intense but not quite there yet, confused strange delerium. IN english paint is eaten up by the word pain. What a great language! I don't see pain as a morbid masochistic indulgencevof the tortured soul of 'the artist' (TM). but a space where life in all its mess and pain can be acted out and communicated to others. For viewers this erxists in the point where we fall in love with a work or can't take our eye off it and don't know why.

I'm starting to think of Cixous ravings about Rembrandt's Bathsheba and wishing I could be in Melbourne. Rembrandt rocks - his surfaces are very very embodied. His work "lives" todya not because he painted every day form teh age of 12 upwards and had a fine skill of a 17th century traditional craftsman (if you want see that do statens museuum fer kinst in denmark and you can trawl through rooms of the stuff - its cold). Rembrandt - especially in his later works -but hell its there in much of them - communicates a rich comfort with his own body - as a desiring, fleshy, goopy, aging feeling thing - his eyes are divine byt so art eh hands and faces - and this affective affinity wiht the complexity of feeling a body is what makes his work magic.

This segue is a prologue for me heading off to the MCA this arvo to be the "official painter" at michelle usher's audience forum for the Primavera artists talks. shebang starts at 2.30 - I'll be there by 4pm i guess. I doubt it'll be one of those painful new media vs old media debates (thabks god the 90's are over) so I'm interested to see what will happen.

1 comment:

ian said...

Of course you would rush to the aid of someone someone in an accident, so would I, so would Mike. I was simply extending the logic of artistic exceptionalism to the point of absurdity in order to make the absurdity clear. There is a very simple point to be made to any artist getting involved in politics and that is ITS NOT ABOUT YOU, IT'S ABOUT THE ISSUE. If you can't curb your ego, if you're not prepared to be anonymous, at least temporarily, then butt out. Political art is something that works in the street, at the demonstration, in the media. Forget about art galleries, there is plenty of time for that in 20 years or so, when the issue has been won or lost and forgotten. If what you did was really good that's where it will end up anyway.

That's why political art made for galleries never works. Never. Its being played out in an ideological context that is communicating something entirely different. So if Parr had donated money or artworks, or gone to a demo like you did, or done anything other than what he did I would respect him too. Even if he had done the same thing with other people outside Villawood, it would have had a different meaning and may have been effective. But the way it happened in a gallery meant that in the end it was just about him, not about refugees. Incidentally, although I haven't seen it yet and hope to be pleasantly surprised, I suspect the show coming up at Ivan Dougherty will have this problem. Raquel Ormella's work certainly has the problem, some of her work seems to be a tasteless parody of activism.

Apart from the fact that ultimately you cannot share anothers pain, and we all die alone, political art is a different issue to your moving and sad discussion about reacting to the death of your friend by drawing or painting. Of course that is what we do, we are artists, we think in images and objects. There is the grotesquely sad example of Monet painting his wife on her death bed, appalling and yet somehow so easy to understand if you are an artist. After all, how else could you get your head around the death of someone you loved except by making images of it. Or the other equally extraordinary example, Francis Bacon's paintings imagining the death of his lover George Dyer. But these are all things with a direct personal link to the artist, they are not examples of artists striking a political posture for art world consumption.