Becoming painting

At the NCAD symposium last Friday (March 23) – ‘Abstraction, More Or Less’  – Robert Armstrong introduced proceedings with a few seemingly casual but deft remarks.  These included the observation that for painters the process of painting was never really completed but amounted to a sort of, “… endless approaching”. The phrase reminded me of certain philosophical ideas about change. Hericlitus (famous for his aphorism about the impossibility of stepping twice into the same river) said “Everything is in flux, everything changes … all things are flowing … nothing ever is, everything is becoming”.

Becoming is a central motif in the writings of Gilles Deleauze and Felix Guattari. They wrote how identity is always in motion, always coming-into-being, a never-ending project of becoming. Our commonly held ideas of resolution are phantom, they argue, things change but there are no completions, ‘Becoming produces nothing other than itself … what is real is the becoming itself’. Thousand Plateaus

Deleauze and Guattari have influenced the thinking of many artists (at least they must have because artists often refer to them). I can attest to two unread volumes on my own shelf. I’ve always liked the title of Deleuze’s book, ‘Difference and Repetition’. It’s a mantra that accompanies my efforts in the studio, though strictly speaking my mantra is a reversal – “Repetition and Difference”. The phrase seems connected to the medium of Printmaking too, its emphasis on alignments, mirroring, and multiplicity.

Talking about abstraction and representation at the symposium Ronnie Hughes reminded us that there was in effect no such thing as abstract paintings; paintings are always representations. He quoted Thomas McEvilley (approximately remembered here) to the effect that, “… a painting represents the energy that made it”. Ronnie illustrated his theme with images of paintings that straddled a middle ground between figuration and abstraction (now that I think about it would unambiguously ‘abstract’ and ‘figurative’ examples have made a better case – to show the abstract in the explicitly figurative and vice versa?)

Showing images of Agnes Martin paintings Madeline Moore said how Martin had written about, ‘wanting the painting’, to make a painting you have to want it. That simple thought rings true, and cuts through many doubts, you make something because you want it, you want to see it in front of you – the minds eye is a tease ­­– desire demands an encounter with the made thing.

I left the symposium to go to the studio and came back at the end of the day to hear Merlin James give a talk called ‘Abstraction, Now and Then’. James is a thoughtful, careful, and erudite speaker. His slides presented a set of slyly measured comparisons between European abstract paintings from the fifties and sixties and the fashionable abstract paintings of today. Illuminating, if slightly facile, his presentation benefitted from being delivered sans script and with wry anecdotal asides. Ronnie Hughes took issue with his conceit of side by side comparisons, feeling a disservice was being done by emphasizing compositional similarities (the result of comparing images of objects rather than the objects themselves) over material considerations such as size, texture, and so on. This contributed to an interesting discussion about the material of painting. It became somewhat curtailed when an impatient Dougal Mckenzie complained about the ‘fetishizing’ of paint and declared that he didn’t actually like paint. He seemed a bit sheepish once he got that out, perhaps remembering he was in a room of devotees.

Normally engaged with the stuff and activity of painting painters can make good talkers, perhaps because their words are strained through the activity, and are complimentary rather than central to it.

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The real thing

For now at least I’ve finished making test plates, I want to see the real thing. Working on large zinc plates I’ve draw lines through a hard wax ground with a fine etching needle. The lines are drawn against a steel edge, one plate of horizontal lines, tight together, and another of verticals. Printed one over the other they form a dense cover, a mesh-like structure that mimics the structure of the paper underneath.

Artists share the space of the printmaking studio and fielding comments about work in progress is part of that dynamic. Queries can prompt explanations for what is understood inherently  – in this case that the irregular marks on the drawn plates are a kind of byproduct of the relatively mechanized drawing process. These marks – scratches, dragged areas, pits and gaps – are a kind of interference; they produce a visual static that becomes part of the image.

Sound seems important in these works (as yet, like sound, they exist mostly in the ether)

 

Test plates

First day back in the studio yesterday.  Making lots of things in my head over the past few weeks meant the encounter with reality could only end in disappointment.

The image below is from late January when I’d been working in the Black Church Printmaking studio for a while. There are test proofs on the wall showing the results of various metals etched in different etching agents. I kept the drawing approach essentially the same to better gauge the different results. In the past I’ve used nitric acid to etch copper but I’d prefer to avoid nitric now (it’s too toxic) so experimented with copper sulphate solutions to etch different grades of aluminium. The characteristics of aluminium and how it’s etched produce a lot of irregularities. Copper behaves more predictably and is a more beautiful material to handle. I’m not giving up on the aluminium yet though.

I was making softgrounds. The technique requires that you draw indirectly on the plate, usually through newsprint or other light paper, so as to make an impression in the soft wax underneath. The resulting etched lines mimic whatever tool you’ve used to make the drawing.  After printing the paper is still damp; I pin the sheets to the wall so they will stay flat as they dry and shrink.

I like how the coloured pins look.

Some of the newsprint sheets are on my studio wall. As always with printmaking there are discrete stages. Each stage produces it’s own byproducts and I often find these interesting in themselves.

A room

Last night at the Kerlin gallery a panel of three speakers (their roles privileged with chairs) led a semi-supine audience through a worshipful recollection of the artist William McKeown. The audience was invited to sit on the floor, or we must have been, because suddenly everybody did. I wasn’t entirely comfortable – and sitting on the concrete floor did my back no favors – amongst the familiar faces of the congregation, and noticing how the less familiar ones are getting younger and younger (or more precisely how I’m getting older and older) I wondered, not for the first time, if I had strayed into an event that wasn’t meant for me.

I loved Willie’s work (I bought a drawing when he first exhibited at the Kerlin in 1996) and found in him and his work a sustaining influence. The same age as me, his significant career (though it’s trajectory was not as blessed as some may now believe) ran parallel to my own paltrier version. We exhibited together in 2001 (along with Fergus Martin and Richard Gorman) at the Fenton Gallery in Cork and his nod of approval for the drawings I showed then meant more than my nonchalance allowed. He had an unusual certainty about things, his work in particular, and that self-belief could be infectious.

Willie was renowned for his sensitivity to the natural world. An early riser, his keen gaze held the morning hours and it’s emerging light at the centre of his attention. Curiously, for someone so fixated on natural elements, he seemed equally interested in interior spaces and rooms within rooms became a recurring feature of his gallery installations. His luminous paintings and drawings refer to nature and to the vivid reality of the present moment. Simple titles, ‘The Meadow’, ‘Raining’, ‘Buttercups’, allude to a direct engagement with the world around him, while others, ‘Open’, ‘The Morning’, ‘Hope’, express an allegiance to what is always coming.

William McKeown, IMMA installation, 2008 (courtesy Kerlin Gallery)

When he died suddenly last October I felt a sense of shock and an acute sadness for him. I also, and this was very immediate, felt a painful question – what now? What does his work mean now? I remembered how in the aftermath of his death I felt his absence as a negation of the values and experience his work had avowed. I felt the demoralizing effect of a testimony being disproven, a sensation of meaning being unmade. When the audience was invited to speak I wanted to ask the panel the same question I had been asking myself but the tone of the event was reverent and uncritical and my question seemed too provocative. Perhaps it’s too soon to know what the work means without him, without the possibility of renewal it always implied.

Isabel Nolan remembered his extraordinary fastidiousness when during a gallery installation she found him holding a magnifying class to a canvas and tweezing invisible specks of fluff from the surface. This prompted Declan Long to quote Saul Bellow, an aside to the effect that Willie was, “a Columbus of the near at hand”. ‘Conversations’ like this usually throw up something worth remembering and that line was it for me. I guess there is no easy answer to the question I wanted (but didn’t want) to ask, but Bellow’s great phrase, recalled by Declan Long, sent me back to ‘The Adventures of Augie March’.

Christopher Hitchens highlights the following lines in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition and they seem appropriate here:

“I drank coffee and looked out into the brilliant first morning of the year… the snow polished and purified blue … The sailors who first saw America, that sweet sight, where the belly of the ocean had brought them, didn’t see more beautiful color than this.”

And Augie reflects later, as the novel is coming to a close,

“Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of that near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze. I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.”