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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