Sunday, March 28, 2010

Art and Idea

Process Reflection: I worked on this panel this weekend. It's two feet square, divided into three vertical zones. I had already put a thin coat of white gesso on the plywood panel and sanded it back down to where it was nearly transparent.  I prepared the panel by gluing 1" square strips along the perimeter on the back, and then taped off the middle area and used gel medium to glue down aluminum foil on the two sides, which I then used a roller to flatten out. I like the aluminum surface for the acrylics because it creates unusual and somewhat unpredictable effects when you put acrylic onto it.

I took the prepared panel to my Saturday morning class with George. During the class I used a couple of different-sized squeegees to lay down acrylic. I intentionally began with a quinacridone violet (which is more like a red) that I have never used, just to see what that the impact of that would be. On the other side I used an ultramarine blue. I tried to create a rough, irregularly textured surface that took advantage of the irregularities in the surface of the aluminum that had appeared when I glued it down. Then, at George's suggestion, I used my fingers to rub some pigment directly into the wood section in the middle, which I then wiped back off, leaving traces of color in the wood grain. I began with brown, wiped that off, then went back into it with the violet and the blue, and wiped those off. Someone remarked that the panel looked like the flag of a little-known nation.

I decided to work on the surface some more. I took the point of one side of a pair of scissors and began distressing the aluminum surface, which created scratches in some places, and tore the aluminum in others. Then I went back over the aluminum panels with a soft yellow acrylic, with interesting results that you can see here: the yellow settle into the places where there were cracks and tears.

I was sort of not sure what to do next. George pointed out, accurately, that the two outside panels were a little too much like one another, and that I might want to try doing something different on one side or the other. I brought the panel home after class and was thinking about that. One way would be to change the surface itself. I thought about burning it or scribing it in some way. But I also though thought I might try to add some collage elements on one side, and there on my desk I had some leaves from the bodhi tree that my wife had given to me. I tried several of them in different configurations before deciding that I like the look of a single leaf in the upper right. It seemed somehow to complete the sequence from the purely mechanical and metallic stripe on the left, the wood texture in the middle, and the more organic green and blue panel on the right. So I used gel medium to put that down.

It still felt incomplete. I remembered I had an envelope full of the shavings from where I had chiseled paint from a previous panel in green. I often try to use leftover materials from one painting in another down the line; it creates a kind of process linkage, a larger narrative arc between paintings. So over on the right hand side there were those triangular yellow spots where the aluminum had torn, that suggested the shapes of leaves, and the idea occurred to me to reinforce that suggestion by using acrylic medium to glue down the larger paint chips from before. I left it to dry overnight, then worked back into the left hand panel with some brown and blue paint today, used some alcohol on the surface as well to craze the surface a little bit more, then wiped back into it with a rag and lightened up some of the random shapes. So now it feels done to me.

We had an interesting discussion during class yesterday about some key concepts in painting - materials, technique, style, and subject - and how they stand in relation to one another. I think that in painting, as in writing, it is probably more usual for an artist or writer to start with subject, and then use various materials and techniques to deal with that subject in a certain, often predetermined, style. As a writer throughout my life, and more recently as an artist, I've been drawn to coming at it from the other direction: starting with the materials and the technique, and arriving at a subject as an end product of the process.

If you were to ask me what the subject of this painting is, now that I'm more or less done with it, I might be able to come up with some plausible line of thought about the relationship between the synthetic world and the natural world, or about the quest for enlightenment in a diffracted world, or about the centrality of the organic, or about the underlying interconnectedness of all things in the universe. In a sense all of those things are present, having emerged in my mind at least in the process of putting together the painting; in another sense, none of them are. It's just a panel with colors and wood and aluminum and glue on it. Gerhard Richter again:

Pictures are the idea in visual or pictorial form; and the idea has to be legible, both in the individual picture and in the collective context - which presupposes, of course, that words are used to convey information about the idea and the context. However, none of this means that the pictures function as illustrations of an idea: ultimately, they are the idea.


Holly said...

Very thought-provoking! I took a class in (still life) composition last year and found myself making comparisons to writing process/class. Do you think/how do you think it would be possible to have students approach writing from your "starting with the materials and technique" approach and working towards a subject? What would that look like, I wonder?

Holly said...

Don't mean to imply I'm just interested in process reflection as metaphor/analogy for writing! Also it's fascinating to read as the record of design decisions. My artistic sensibilities are pretty rudimentary--I've always had a bit of a problem "getting" non-representational art--, so I also found this very enlightening from that perspective as well.

Bruce Schauble said...

I do like to give students the chance to try writing from the upside-down or inside-out perspective. One interesting assignment is to ask students to write a full page that makes no sense whatsoever. It's a lot harder to do than you think it's going to be, but it forces you to start thinking about the act of writing differently, in a more elemental way: it's sequences of words on a page. Take away paraphraseable content, and other things come to the foreground: sounds, rhythms, textures, shapes of words. It's not at all unlike what happens when you drop pictorial representation off the agenda when you begin to paint. You're left with the materials and the instruments, and a world of possibilities.

Randomwriting or stream-of-consciousness is another good point of entry.

"Reading" non-representational art has really become much more interesting to me since I've been confronting the challenge of trying to make art of my own. You don't really know what's hard to do until you try, and then when you see what someone else has done - Diebenkorn or Rauschenberg or Richter or Johns or Schwitters, to name just a few I've come to admire - you're left agog.