Today I organised myself, ready for the big push on painting. I spent many hours priming the (next) 5m canvas white. Existentially troubling as it felt rather similar to painting the white life class on Sunday, but with rather more certainty that it was a useful job … also assembled and stretched two 24″ by 24″ canvases, ready for Brick Lane work. Spent an hour fitting a front mudguard to the bike as I got covered in wet mud today on the way in along the canal [for Wateridge’s eyes only: took 18:34 today :)]
While I was engaged in manual labour, some thoughts emerged:
Today, I’ve been reading from ‘The Painting of Modern Life: 1960s to Now’, which sets out to look at the ‘most influential development in the history of contemporary painting’, being the use of photographic imagery. I’ve always had a knee-jerk reaction to the use of photographs as source material for painting, as I teach students whose work will always benefit so much from being able to ‘own’ their response to a subject, having earned that ownership by working through the analytical process of drawing – avoiding the use of photography as a short cut, in other words, when they ought to be drawing.
At the same time, an artist reacting to their ‘modern world’ is of course likely to use the preponderance of the photographic image in everyday life as a perfectly viable subject matter. This is perhaps the (in my opinion, not that seismic) difference between how (more) contemporary artists like Richter, Celmins, Warhol, Doig and Tuymans use photography, compared with Degas, Manet et al, who responded so positively to the exciting new possibilities that photography offered and made so clear. These elements included quality of light, black as a pervasive tone and compositional accidents, particularly at the edges of the image, all of which enriched painting so much and, arguably, made abstraction possible alongside Cezanne of course.
The linseed oil-based elephant in the room for me is that so often, contemporary painters using paint are foregoing the very thing that Degas and Manet found again, given the freedom born of confidence in the (photographic) image – I am personally quite bothered by the smooth, bland quality of so much contemporary painting derived from photographs. This bothers me so much because one of my main aims during these months in the studio is to rediscover how to use paint, so I am not writing from a position of (moral) superiority (how could I, at the beginning of my journey?) but much more from frustration that too often these intelligent and talented painters risk falling into the same (elephant) trap as A level students allowed to find subject matter within photographs.
This is of course why I have been making a regular pilgrimage to look at Auerbachs close up [NB must visit Christies’ between 9 and 13 Feb, for black and white Auerbach, Richter etc]
My source photographs, taken locally and on an earlier blog, are studies of brush strokes (what a great use of the iPhone in tolerant galleries – for students to record what they only can by being in front of artworks, handling of paint, surface, quality of colour and the nature of materials used) and blatant theft of ‘local colour’ in and around Brick Lane, to provide me with stimulus to mix palettes from.
In passing, it was a lovely way to ‘collect’ examples of panelling (so like framing) which may or may not suggest some lines of enquiry in and around abstraction ….
Back to the book, which contains a persuasive and intelligent essay by Kaja Silverman, called Photography by Other Means. Even while reading this and learning about Richter, Celmins and Warhol, I missed the kind of writing John Elderfield and co can share when looking at Diebenkorn, whose paint is always at the centre of any discussion of his work.
Silverman starts with this clear idea, responding to Richter’s claim that he couldn’t see the contradiction between figurative and abstract painting:
What is abstraction if not one long assault upon figuration? And what is photography, if not the primary medium through which figuration has fought back?
I see it differently, although this is obviously well-put. Bacon’s assertion that there is never any tension in abstract art leads me to want to paint from figurative (yes, even including photographic sources) subject matter and to be as fearless as possible, listening to my materials (thank you Theo Jansen) and to stand on the shoulders of Degas and try not to fall off.
This passage from Silverman’s essay offers an unnecessarily binary definition of abstraction, again so well written I had to read it twice to see through it:
‘An abstract painting … is autonomous. It does not stand for something else; it is rather a thing unto itself. Its essence also resides in its material properties. It helps us to locate this essence by turning insistently back upon itself – by being reflexive or self-conscious. Finally an abstract painting is flat; It abolishes the perspectival illusion of three-dimensional space.’
Simply, I would like to explore this passage, having removed the word ‘abstract’. It was so interesting, at the RA show yesterday, to listen to people discuss, quite properly, why there might be a helmet on the chair in Manet’s painting ‘The Luncheon’ and all sorts of other subjective matters, but in the end I feel that subject matter and narrative (or lack of) are secondary to the sheer painting ability of the man.
When Richter paints from photographs, he paints from the photographs themselves. The sheen, flatness, tonality of the photograph is his subject, as much as the subject matter …..
I’ve just pinned up my Brick Lane photographs and some details of brushwork at the Courtauld, from Cezanne, Degas and even Renoir.
I’m beginning to piece together a kind of course to follow, so that I have some very necessary structure, in fact three courses.
on large (black) canvas, to separate later and on various pieces
directly painted from sustained drawings
St Hilda’s East:
St Hilda’s painting
on large (white) canvas
assembled from individual drawings and Brick Lane colours
Drawn to Abstraction:
over studio drawing (?) and on primed canvases
draw for composition from found abstractions, refer to Brick Lane colours and research
course details to emerge ….