A Total Ecology of Painting

Work in progress. Acrylic, charcoal, compressed ink on canvas. 48" x 48"
Work in progress. Acrylic, charcoal, compressed ink, aquarelle on canvas. 48″ x 48″

“Wandering” / “Exploring” / “Essaying” / “Probing” … These are just a few ways I could characterize my approach to painting, especially when working in a relatively larger format. I don’t rely on a lot of planning but rather sort of let my process guide me through the work. In this piece, there are several overlapping sketches and paintings … you can see the initial stages in my previous post “About: Color.” I work through these quickly at first and then slowly consider what is emerging, making decisions on the fly. In this way, the different levels of the painting tend to merge and present themselves all at once, which for me is a potent way of tying time together and presenting this work as an idea/process that may suggest something pointed or simply observe in a non-linear fashion. I often feel my role in a painting, and certainly in large works that fill my entire scope of vision, is that of the explorer, as ready to discover as I am to make formal decisions about the direction of the piece. Central to the way I work – and to the practice of painting itself – is the idea that whatever happens remains visible … Decisions made in the past remain in existence and are presented all at once to the viewer, which separates painting from most sculpture, video, performance, etc.

“Painting is not a closed system. It is a mode of thought.” – Katharina Grosse. Interview in BOMB Magazine #115 / Spring 2011

I came across this quote from Katharina Grosse in an interview she did about one of her massive painting exhibitions. She has several notions that resonate with me about the state of painting, the physical and imaginative/conceptual states of matter involved. She talks a lot about the specific location of painting itself in space and time, saying she thinks of her own painting as “clarifying the moment” where thoughts tend to dissipate and/or coalesce to create patterns related to the structure of transient realities that make up our universe. Her work is compelling to me because she is taking this very physical, stubborn medium of paint and using it in a way that elucidates an intangible, conjectural concept without using figures or much representation or – even more impossibly – semantics at all. Is there a semantics of visual elements? Her working materials themselves take a back seat (even the paint), and are only there to juxtapose against the unnameable interplay space between physicalities. It’s like she sandwiches the transitional fragility of perception between object and paint, encasing it in another arguably fragile container. Dirt mounds can be overturned, an old house can be burnt down, and that encasement dissolves. The moment flies away.

Work in progress. Acrylic, charcoal, watercolor, and ink on canvas. 48" x 48"
Work in progress. Acrylic, charcoal, aquarelle, and ink on canvas. 48″ x 48″

I identified with the comment about painting not being a closed system immediately. It made me think of art-making as a kind of ecosystem. You can of course think of this in a literal way … An open system depends on input from outside sources. The pigments must come from somewhere, the canvas materials must be acquired and assembled. Even after the point of being “finished,” the painting goes on to have a life where it in some way interacts with the larger systems around it. It may be bought, sold, or like the life of many of my paintings, sit on my bedroom floor for years before I decide to do something with it!

There is also an ecology of thought and imagination, maybe the “total ecology” of the painting, meaning the creative and intellectual sources and how they are transmuted from the conceptual/private world to the physical/public world. Questions here: In the total ecology of a painting, what qualifies as respiration? What is required for a painting to grow and develop? How are ideas exchanged, and with what scope? To whom do the ideas ultimately belong? How can thought metamorphose into a tangible object, and how suited is said object to represent the original thought?

How are regions connected to each other? How are colors connected to each other? Are they opposed or aligned? If there is representation, how does it signal to the larger ecosystem of our world, our realities? What does it say? Does it make itself clear, or is translation required? There is always a question of language when considering the players in an ecosystem.

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