Monday, November 23, 2015

Religare - A painter's thesis

[After letting this settle for a couple of years, I am posting this as a resource. Should you use this material in any way - academic or otherwise - please make the necessary citations. Thank you - RS]

Reconnecting to Faith Through Representational Painting

by Robert Sullivan
Master of Fine Arts in Visual Arts 
Art Institute of Boston, Lesley University
Boston, Massachusetts
January, 2012

I believe there is a contemporary and profound import in reconnecting to “faith” – that is, faith as a dimension of trust in art, self and society – through a traditional artistic practice like representational painting. The original connection between painting and faith has been slowly worn away since the Renaissance. What was at first religious became romantic, then prosaic, and ultimately, the subject of an ironic cynicism. There is now a conspicuous absence of the faith/art parallel in today's secular discourses. My project is to syncretize painting and its native religious impulse without the burden of the ideologies that have diminished its significance.

This thesis explores both historical and modern aspects of spirituality and representational painting as they relate to recent developments in my artistic practice. Discussed foremost are the rifts and divisions to which these systems were subject, and the subsequent disconnect from their faith-based character as reflected in the contemporary, secular Western world. Through this lens, I will assess the changes, discoveries, and recoveries I have made in the wake of questioning of my own faith in these once-revered cultural bastions.

“It is impossible to talk sensibly about religion and at the same time address art in an informed and intelligent manner: But it is also irresponsible not to keep trying” (James Elkins, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, 116).

Were it not for the book that I've quoted above, I may not have chosen this particular path for this thesis. The former part of the sentiment Elkins expresses here is certainly true: this is a difficult subject to broach. For many, it is far too personal, and thus rendered unassailable and alien to the discursive structure of contemporary art. And so it was that I did not arrive at this thematic immediately, let alone lightly. It was only when I understood my concerns regarding faith and art were reflections of larger discourses that I began to understand the import of their relationship to one another. It became an artistic and personal imperative that I critically engage in a process of syncretization and reconciliation of these significant subjects. The title of my thesis reflects this: I've used the Latin term, Religare, in the Lactantian tradition, meaning, “to reconnect over an obligation.” (Aiken).

“Faith” is manifold in its definition. It can refer to religion, an apprehension of the spiritual, or a strongly held theory or belief. Ultimately, though, it is a dimension of trust. Trust, of course, holds the prerequisite of fruition, time and truth. But, when trust is undermined – when new information is revealed that compromises perceived truths, leaving the possibility of fruition in fetters – then faith is shaken to its core.

When important life-events manifest synchronically, it is difficult to not take notice. Only a few years ago, two such events occurred in my life in this very way. In great dismay, I renounced the Roman Catholic faith in the wake of the escalating sex abuse scandals and subsequent cover-ups. Not a few months later, I began a critical engagement with my artistic practice (representational oil painting) at the onset of my postgraduate studies. These events resulted in a major shakeup, shifting my thinking as an artist and as a person of faith. In time, it became abundantly clear that a critical rigor needed to be employed in order to reassemble these components of my personal makeup into a workable and cohesive structure. This thesis documents the conceptual, research and process-oriented methods I've conducted in pursuit of this objective, and ultimately argues the necessity of such.

I will begin with a brief history of faith and art, noting how these once-linked systems were subject to an inevitable splintering. This dovetails with my preconceived notions regarding traditional painting practices and how they, too, were fractured in a similar fashion.

From that point, I will explicate the processes by which I have endeavored to re-negotiate my belief systems (a “reclamation of faith,” as it were). This will be done primarily through examining modern discourse on the matter, as well as a practical application through my work as a traditional oil painter.

Fundamental to to this are my subject-oriented explorations into images of the everyday, or quotidian. My relationship to this particular trope will be discussed in connection to my work, as well as within the modern media construct, as it relates to the changing definition of 'quotidian.' In an amalgam of these concerns, I will show how, through the lens of 'flight' and flying-related subjects, a certain kind of creative liberation is revealed that supports a negotiation with transcendence, and the complications of contemporary representational painting.

This paper concludes with the contention that painting operates as a distinct space for contemplation in today's high-speed, highly-secularized culture. I will summarize my explorations and show how new approaches have been implemented in my practice, gaining traction in my latest paintings and allowing for future development of faith – in my work and that which lies beyond it.

Historical and Contemporary Foundations
Representational oil painting once served as a primary agent of truth. These truths were fundamentally tied to religion. In Western cultural history, the primary motivator in this instance was the Roman Catholic Church. At times, painting provided assistance in exhorting Christian principles, but often the painted works themselves were powerful enough (i.e., sanctioned as sacred) to fully convey the message. For artists, the patronage of the Church signified great success. Western civilization put its faith in the Church and the Church put its faith in painting as its promotional vehicle. However, when Church dogma was called into question via the schism of the Reformation, both institutions began to lose prominence in the wake of escalating secularity. In both society and painting alike, an excursion into a more worldly aesthetic ensued via the vehicle of the Enlightenment.

Vincent Van Gogh avowed that “painting is a faith” (Lublin, 113). This declaration was made as a counter to the troubling expansion of cultural secularization in the 1880s. A century and a half later, we find that not only has most of the Western world been thoroughly secularized, the scope of painting has also been substantially delimited. With the inclusion of all sorts of radical and contemporary media (digital, video, installation, performance, etc.), painting has been pushed into a very narrow arena. When I entered the crucible of postgraduate study, I was made acutely aware of these closed-down parameters, and this caused me no small amount of concern.

It was also troublesome to find that not only were my formative Romantic and Neoclassical tendencies rooted mainly in systems of antiquity; the formal aspects and thematic content reflected a kind of 'history painting,' or a nostalgia untethered from contemporary ideas. It was time to understand that my unproblematic perspective was limiting, if not treacherous.

However, in this attenuated space for painting, the 'truth' of expression may be closer to hand. It remains one of the great epistemic leftovers of art history that painters are impelled and compelled to urgently respond to the “now” with veracity. As an artistic posture, this is not only plausible, but vital. I have thus been encouraged by the still- present practice of representational painting by the following contemporary artists who reflect this mandate in their work:

Michäel Borremans Vija Celmins Mathew Cerletty Anna Conway
John Currin Vincent Desiderio Peter Doig Judith Eisler Tim Eitel Wynne Evans
Emily Eveleth Eric Fischl April Gornik Julie Heffernan Kurt Kauper
Ulrich Lamsfuss Marilyn Minter Richard Phillips Paul Rahilly
Neo Rauch  Gerhard Richter Peter Rostovsky Ed Ruscha Jenny Saville
Serban Savu Adam Stennett Luc Tuymans Paul Winstanley Cindy Wright Lisa Yuskavage

Explorations and Difficulties
Finding the correct language to reconnect with my artistic practice proved the most arduous task. I had been fortunate enough over the years to gain a solid skill set with regard to the formal, technical aspects of painting, but, my 'worldview' of art had not been moved by anything other than the highly traditional. Therefore, the look of my work was static – physically as well as conceptually. I began to take cues from contemporary representational painters, such as Vincent Desiderio. Rather than expand the dramatic narrative for its own sake, he does so by focusing upon the development of the technical narrative, which Desiderio believes to be “the embodiment of the thought of the painter.” (Art Talks,13:10). But, I also noted that his work was deeply coded in large triptychs using dreamlike, mysterious imagery (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Vincent Desiderio. Pantocrator – oil on linen, 83” x 194”. 2002

In this format, Desiderio strives to further revivify narrativity in what he terms a “cubistic thematic situation.” (Art Talks,12:05). I could not help but consider that, if the viewer of a Desiderio painting does not invest in a highly intellectualized engagement with the work, meaning may well be inscrutable. Nevertheless, through such an influence, I initially fell into the language of allegory, hoping that an encoding of multifaceted concepts within the work might garner interest and conceptual weight.

Fig. 2: Sketch for Systemic – charcoal on paper, 11” x 25.5” (2010).

This proved to be a false start, as I soon became mired in allegorical narrative games within the picture plane (fig. 2), and abandoned such projects before completion. The painter Kurt Kauper pointed me to the academic work of Benjamin Buchloh – specifically his 1981 Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression – in which he launched a condemnatory critique of a return to figurative practices in German painting. Many of the artists he denounced worked in figural, allegorized formats, and Buchloh equated this artistic practice with those of the 1920s and 30s, which ran tangentially with emergent forms of fascism and Nazism. Through the connection, Buchloh found this contemporary maneuver highly questionable politically as well as formally regressive artistically:
“Is there a simple causal connection, a mechanical reaction, by which growing political oppression necessarily and irreversibly generates traditional representation? Does the brutal increase of restrictions in socio-economic and political life unavoidably result in the bleak anonymity and passivity of the compulsively mimetic modes that we witness, for example, in European painting of the mid-1920s and early 1930s?” (40).

Of course, this critique did not convince me that my penchant for allegorical representation marked me as an agent of reactionary politics. However, I did realize through this essay that the historical tropes of allegory have been fatigued through overuse, encumbered with the weight of sociopolitical and art history. In the wake of this realization, I recalled – with newfound clarity – the remarks of J.R.R. Tolkien:

“... I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author” (xv).

So, then – in hopes of paring my concepts down to their essential meanings, I painted Atelier 2010 (fig. 3). This self-portrait is decidedly unconventional, as it depicts the artist, nude, shearing a sheep, in a space bound only by an oriental rug. This was an exploration into my psyche at the time, using a simple visual metaphor for the strange and naked discomfort of rediscovering myself as an artist under the scrutiny of peers and faculty. The message is not cryptic, but the image can easily be misconstrued as fetishistic. The neoclassical handling of form and paint lends a kind of irony to the latter perception – a bit of self-referential mocking humor with a deviant twist on the heroic works of Jacques- Louis David (fig. 4) or Jean-Leon Gérome.

Fig. 3: Atelier 2010 – oil on canvas, 24” x 24”. 2010

Fig. 4: Jacques-Louis David. Patroclus – oil on canvas, 48” x 66”. 1780

Inasmuch as this new tack in concepting showed a step forward in my artistic considerations, this direction in my work did not engender further examination. The mild tongue-in-cheek and ironic nature of such a subject did not provide me with the 'truth' I was seeking. I wanted to execute a visualization that encompassed the scope of the viewer's perceptions, not cleverly reflect known tropes back to myself. This presentation would not only create an expansiveness within the work, but would also connect me with that which is 'outside' my own consciousness: the collective consciousness of humanity. Through this connection, I might find that path back to faith.

Religiosity and the Contemporary
Inside the institutional canon of contemporary visual art, ideas about religion are generally treated as a matter of antiquity or as a subject of an intense, disparaging criticism. More often than not, however, it remains conspicuously absent – in magazines, in critical texts, and even in pedagogy. The origins of this exclusion are well-documented and undoubtedly well-merited. The ideology of Christian doctrine (not to mention other monotheisms) has arguably wrought more disharmony than it ever intended. This in mind, one may ask: does the complete dismissal of an historical precedent engender yet another ideology? Perhaps, but it may never be fully formed, for a religious underbelly still pervades, as I shall explicate. It has become evident that throwing out the baby, the bathwater, and the tub did not completely expunge the essence of religiosity from the Enlightenment project. Recognition of this may well be the way back to a feeling of belief and belonging, as opposed to individuated, relativistic systems.

In the seminal 2-volume Theory of Communicative Action (1981), Jürgen Habermas proposed that Western society found its way to modernity through dismantling entrenched ideologies, one in particular being the institution of religion (87). History indeed shows how trending philosophical notions – particularly the postmodern tenet of poststructuralism – have borne this out. Western society (whose practices have been bleeding steadily into the wider world) is now in a heightened state of secularized existence and the discourse of contemporary art reflects this as its primary function. It is very interesting to note, at this rather disjointed (or 'pluralist') juncture in our current cultural model, a self-described 'methodological atheist' such as Habermas has conceded some ground to the essential import of Christianity. In response to a dialogue he'd held with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), Habermas stated, “This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of a continual critical reappropriation and reinterpretation. Up to this very day there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we must draw sustenance now, as in the past, from this substance. Everything else is idle postmodern talk” (Essays, 149). In this statement, Habermas seems to have located the boundaries of his strategic project of demythologization. He now recognizes that it is possible for religious systems of articulation to harbor an integral cognitive content that cannot be unconditionally overruled by secular renderings. As a result, he is very much interested in a new dialogue in which secular and religious discourses mutually inform and learn from each other.

Within this framework, consider the discourse of Marshall McLuhan, derived as it was from his adherence to a Thomistic Catholicism. As such, there remained a practical realism in his epistemological strategies in the study of technology and media as a cultural driver; his scholarship was not adversely affected by his belief systems. In fact, it was within these systems that he often discovered a template for his academic work. Catholic traditions hold to the idea that, in a chaotic world of unbelief and sin, epiphany is made manifest through communion (sacramentally, the Body of Christ). In the same fashion, McLuhan posited that through the sound and fury of technological chaos, new order could be achieved by way of communal experience through the simulacrum. He considered this the “new universal community” (48).

Even as far back as the 18th Century, the progenitor of German Idealism, Immanuel Kant (Habermas is often referred to as 'Neo-Kantian'), had been making similar connections. It is part of Kant's approach to humanist logic that he privileges thought over religion due to the latter's supernatural tendencies. However, in his seminal work, The Critique of Practical Reason (1788), he still regarded the core tenets of Christian texts and teachings as material which could support an organic morality regardless of any truth or fiction in the mystical components (61).

The philosophical paradigm shift that Kant had begun stemmed from the groundwork laid by his development of an aesthetic philosophy, which systematized the notion of the sublime (starting with his 1764 work, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime). This notion of 'greatness beyond human calculation' manifested profoundly in painting during the Romantic period of the 19th Century. European painters like Caspar David Friedrich – and later, in America, the Hudson River School artists (fig. 5) – used the awe-inspiring tropes of the natural world as 'a sublime envisioned.' In some sense, this acted as a surrogate religious discourse, engaging with the divine through a codified structure of natural-world mysticism. As religiosity has withered from modern art since that time, the sublime has strayed into shaky territory. In a contemporary panel discussion, James Elkins warned that it is “... in danger of becoming the most popular (and overused) term for what secular artists rely upon when they want their discourse to remain secular, but it contains parallels to religion” (42:30).

Fig. 5: Albert Bierstadt. Rocky Mountains near Estes Park, CO – oil on paper, 19” x 14”. 1890

This is the territory I investigated with the painting, Sublimation (fig. 6) – a commentary and conflation of the past and present uses of the sublime. The background in this painting consists of a traditional, awe-inspiring landscape of the Alps. In the lower foreground there exists a more contemporary idea: a 'commodified sublime' in the form of a Porsche, which has crashed in front of the natural spectacle. This presentation demonstrates an editorial tack, showing the failure of the inauthentic notions of the present-day sublime in the face of the more authentic (original) one. But the presentation here is somewhat flawed: I was merely calling to light the quasi-religious trope of the sublime (albeit in a contemporary mode) – a questionable move considering Elkins' explication of the matter. And the message is still coded and indirect; there remains too much provocative content over which to parse out didactic meaning.

Fig. 6: Sublimation - oil on canvas 40” x 60”. 2010

Having established these notions, I understood that in order to create a 'religious' painting without religion, I needed to do so without subversion through philosophical constructs. The work would be better served using the concept of faith as one not blindly (or otherwise) adherent to an ideology, but to a more primeval tenet inherent in the subject and its presentation through painting. This would involve a further 'stripping away' of context and content within the formal space of the picture plane, and a realignment of focus on a more centralized subject. In order to correctly project these notions, that subject would require distinctly recognizable qualities, such as those of the everyday, or, quotidian, object.

The Contemporary Quotidian Image
As a project, a presentation of 'the quotidian' assumes that something inherent is being suppressed by a dominant ideology in the image's signification. This is what Gerhard Richter posited with his 'Atlas' of collected imagery, saying, “There is a contrast between the message carried by the text and that suppressed by the illustration” (Text, 260). We now live in a time where it is commonplace to associate images with experience, combining the terms "virtual" and "reality.” It is a 'post-Matrix' simulacra, if you will (referring to the 1999 Wachowski brothers' film). Out of the virtual world of the internet and associated digital technologies comes an endless stream of images – are they real or imagined? The writings of Jean Baudrillard address this directly: “[P]aradoxically, it is the real that has become our true utopia – but a utopia that is no longer in the realm of the possible, that can only be dreamt as one would dream of a lost object” (122-123). If we take this theory further, into the realm of objects and their representations, we can assert these two things: first, when a subject is so perfectly realized virtually, it becomes the object experientially; second, the original (the real) object's significance becomes wholly compromised as a consequence. As a result, this problematizes the idea of what is deemed a quotidian – that is, 'everyday' – object.

Norman Bryson also points out an original distinction regarding objects and their everyday-ness in his essays on the still life painting of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (figure 7):

Fig. 7: Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. The Silver Goblet – oil on canvas, 16 7/8” x 19”. c. 1728

Megalography is the depiction of those things in the world which are great — the legends of the gods, the battles of heroes, the crises of history. Rhopography (from rhopos, trivial objects, small wares, trifles) is the depiction of those things which lack importance, the unassuming material base of life that ‘importance’ constantly overlooks” (61).

In this moment in history, Bryson's distinction has been rendered unclear. We have come into an era of total visibility and exteriority, and consequently, the megalographic and the rhopographic end up on the same level. The sense of 'quotidian' now anticipates not only a certain domestic modesty (as with Bryson's explication of Chardin's painting as “a studied informality of attention” (91)), but one also infused with the standardized convention of something akin to a Skype screenshare – where everything is accessible. The painting of modern life has to include everything – the modest and the grandiose – because it is all available.

Should there be such an investment in the nothingness of virtuality? Like other deficient systems, the digital world is one that is highly mediated, and consequently, images have been corrupted. This corruption has brought about a failure to recall attachment and meaning in images due to the immediacy of the (digital) screen. Painting, I believe, is a way to liberate the image, for it is still an honest presentation of image; it is not deceptive. Looking at the subject in a painted format, in its reliable and contemplative sphere, the viewer is reminded how detached they have become from the image, and from there, can experience a newfound allusiveness.

With these things in mind, I was attracted to the idea of re-presenting the quotidian with representational painting. In order to promote the allusiveness I was seeking, I selected photographic reference from the internet, mostly from amateur stock sites. In such an infinitude of imagery, how does a painter choose 'the everyday' ? This was trial-and-error in nature, and I hoped to qualify my choices in paint. I experimented across a range of subjects and found some were much more successful than others in terms of their ability to sit on the canvas in a visually ambiguous and open fashion. By opting to work with a monochromatic palette, I sought to move the subjects away from their conventional signification. In the same vein, I also worked towards a removal of context – such as backgrounds, horizon lines, or any visual trope that might create unwanted narrativity.

Fig. 8: Heterarchy – oil on canvas, 30” x 40”. 2011

Two paintings from this series are shown here as an example: Heterarchy (fig. 8) and Imago (fig. 9). Both of these works compound several notions, the most obvious being the gestalt of 'flight,' but also: abstracted/iconic forms; distilled moments of action; and a 'close encounter' with the viewer, as it were.

Fig. 9: Imago – oil on canvas, 24” x 30”. 2011

To foster further allusions, the titles themselves are highly suggestive. In the case of Imago:

It often refers to the adult cicada as it emerges from the larval stage. This particular type of Bell helicopter bears a striking resemblance to that insect, especially at the angle depicted in my painting.

Additionally, it is a designation co-opted by Carl Jung to describe a way that people form their personality by identifying with the collective unconscious. In this light, is this flying machine made banal, baroque, or alien with so little context available in the painting? What new associations can be made, consequently (if any)? And what do the answers to these questions project back upon the audience?

Interestingly, the term is also a truncated form of 'Imago Dei,' or 'image of God.' With this in mind, the viewer might perceive the helicopter as a Messianic vision – one of rescue and salvation.

These disambiguations do not have to be stock knowledge for a viewer, but the implications remain there, visually and textually, for the offering.

The Numinous, Transcendence, Flight, and Contemplation
“Art is the pure realization of religious feeling, capacity for faith, longing for God... The ability to believe is our outstanding quality, and only art adequately translates it into reality. But when we assuage our need for faith with an ideology we court disaster” (Richter, Text, 200).

The suggested presence of divinity, religiosity and/or spirituality is often referred to as 'numinous.' It functions as a mechanism wholly different from the Sublime, which has, as I've noted, been subverted through morphological deconstruction via critical agencies, losing what essentiality it once had.[1This is to say – the numinous emerges out of the nonverbal, not the textual. It is experiential, an unknowable space. The mystery of such a singularity must be relevant to consciousness, as we are inherently aware of its existence when it manifests. This alone merits investigation through the instrument of the arts.

Therefore, I believe it is necessary for the numinous to be reinstated in contemporary art, as art has clearly moved away from (if not totally forgotten) transcendental experience as well as mediated theological discourse. That said, it is the latter which may interfere with encountering the numinous, as language has been purported to be distinctly relative to experience. Leon Schlamm infers that the two “are inseparable, each epistemologically contaminated by the other” (169). However, since the primacy of theology has been effectively deconstructed and discarded by virtue of postmodernism (at the very least, watered down by secular discourse), then perhaps a genuinely numinous experience may now be achieved: A revelation can unfold that is, perhaps, a mystical or transcendental encounter that cannot be fully clarified.

And what of this encounter? Where now is art's place as a privileged space for contemplation? If art no longer occupies this space, where then is that place in our sphere? And, from there – where can resonance and insight remain? Or faith? To be sure, it no longer exists under the yoke of ossified religious traditions, nor within the effacing tropes of postmodern discourse. The straight answer is, it all still lies in an art – perhaps in painting more than in any other medium. It is not so much a failure of language, but a failure of secular experience – or non-experience, if you will. Painting can re-open that contemplative space in which numinous experience can still exist.

This is, in the realm of the contemporary, a decidedly difficult project. The referentiality in representational painting shows up its own disadvantage. Theodor Adorno refers to this as a 'tendentiousness' of the image, “programmed ever to find what it is looking for” (Wilson 53). This points up an ingrained dialectic that gives a qualified specificity. To fight against the identification of 'what an image is' – that is, to subvert concretized meaning in order to gain resonance and insight – is a difficult and necessary challenge that painting can address directly. My current body of work appears secular; perhaps simply interpreted as documentation. The representational aspect engages the world with a straightforward, perhaps even banal, fashion. But once the conceptual content of spiritual engagement is established, the metaphors of flight and the longing for the transcendental changes the initial reading of the work.

The insight, resonance and numinous quality that my work seeks to provide has evolved through centering on the postulate of 'what is quotidian?', and that, in turn, has become more focused through the lens of flight. Flying is a premise that can operate not only metaphorically, but as a technical endeavor, an oneiric notion, or a child-like fantasy. Japanese film producer/director/animator Hayao Miyazake understands the power of this premise, as he incorporates dynamic flight sequences in all his films. Miyazake expands on the metaphor in an interview with Jeannine Thorpe, remarking, “I believe that we humans are able to subsist on this planet Earth, yet continue to long for something more – stuck here, as we are, because of gravity. So my feeling is that flight expresses is a liberation from that gravity – so for me really, flight is a form of liberation” (1). I accept this postulate, and am encouraged especially by the concept of 'liberation.'

Fig. 10: Salutus – oil on canvas, 20” x 24”. 2011

In my most recent work, Salutus (fig. 10), I have represented a moment from the 'Miracle on the Hudson' – that is, the rather incredible safe landing of a damaged Airbus 320 on the surface of the Hudson River. I selected this particular image for many reasons, but the initial one was a formal consideration that provided greater variation to its signification. In the majority of footage and still photos of this incident, the floating, damaged plane is surrounded by rescue boats, the Manhattan skyline, and a general flurry of rescue activity. This tightly cropped shot removes the context of much of the peripheral theatricality, yet a certain drama remains – the definition of which is not now fully discernible in light of the popular understanding of the event. 

In this salvation (see title), there exists a caesura, an interstitial moment where transfiguration or transcendence may exist. Not only did I wish to encapsulate this mystical notion, but to also explore ideas that move through contemporary realms, such as a rescue becoming a Beuysian metaphor of care. There are many disparate meanings, and I would posit that, with further study, the viewer can easily break from didacticism into a complex, spiritual realm where they may locate a certain kind of faith. This is not an ideologically-based faith, but one borne out of a deeper, introspective contemplation of the unknowable through the vehicle of the known.

Proviso and Conclusion
It is not my intention to now produce work out of a purely conceptual/theoretical proposition. I do not ingest imagery in hopes of illustrating or castigating theory (i.e. - as Mark Tansey is wont to do). My creative impulse comes from a gravitation towards a certain kind of image in a Barthesian-punctum manner; the image “leaps out,” as it were, and the theoretical premise comes out of the analytic process of how/why this discovery is made. It remains an important distinction for me to know that the place for theoretical discourse in painting should not be seen as a conceptual alibi. Far more important for me are processes and formal strategies. An ineffable painting should mobilize many theorizations – as opposed to something so visually impoverished that all the textual antecedents from which it was derived will still not generate discourse.

In conclusion: My faith has been reaffirmed. I can now hold to a newfound conviction that painting is one of the last bastions of contemplative space. And I believe that I have reconnected to a faith that had gone missing – of course, not in my original, naïve understanding of the term, but in this sense:

“Art is not a substitute religion: it is a religion (in the true sense of the word: 'binding back', 'binding' to the unknowable, transcending reason, transcendent being). But the church is no longer adequate as a means of affording experience of the transcendental, and of making religion real – and so art has been transformed from a means into the sole provider of religion: which means religion itself” (Richter, Text, 34).

This conviction, combined with today's ubiquitous technological sensorium, places painting in a McLuhanist context: “the medium is the message.” That said, painting is not (and should never be) an ideology unto itself, rather, it should function as the space in which ideology cannot function – where the dogma of theory and religion are displaced by an honest medium.

As I began this thesis with a James Elkins quote, I shall fittingly end it with another: “The idea that merely looking, and allowing yourself to be moved, might be an act of
faith that answers what the painting proposes” (26).

[1] - The 'essentiality' to which I am referring is explicated by Richter, as he looked at a series of Titian paintings: “I don't know what motivated the artist, which means these paintings have an intrinsic quality. I think Goethe called it the 'essential dimension', the thing that makes great works of art great” (Richter, Text, 85 ). These indefinable 'x- factors' in art always delimit a fragile space, for, in the Foucauldian sense, the agents of power (discourse, commodification) will rush in and seek to instrumentalize them. Through such instrumentalization, ideologies spring forth.

Resources and Works Cited:
Aiken, Charles Francis. "Religion." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 2 Sept. 2011

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Print.

Bohman, James and Rehg, William, "Jürgen Habermas”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. 17 May, 2007. Web. Sept. 15, 2011

Buchloh, Benjamin H. D. “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression”, October, Vol. 16 (Spring, 1981), pp. 39-68. Print

Bryson, Norman. Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting. London: Reaktion Books, 1990. Print

Desiderio, Vincent. “Art Talks.” MFA Program at The Art Institute of Boston. Boston University Kenmore Classroom Building, Boston. 11 January 2010. Lecture/DVD.

Elkins, James. On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print."

  • “Keynote Address: On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art." Biola Art         Symposium. Biola University, La Mirada, California. 15 March, 2008. Lecture/DVD.

Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion (1927), The Standard Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989. Print

Habermas, Jurgen. Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity, edited by Eduardo Mendieta, MIT Press, 2002. Print
  • Theory of Communicative Action. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984. Print. Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Practical Reason. Trans, Ed. Mary Gregor. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print
Kuspit, Donald. The End of Art. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.

Lublin, Albert J. Stranger on the Earth: A Psychological Biography of Vincent van Gogh. New York: Henry Holt, 1987. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall. "Catholic Humanism & Modern Letters", Christian Humanism in Letters. Hartford, Connecticut: St. Joseph's College, 1954. Print.

Richter, Gerhard. Text, Writings, Interviews and Letters. London: Thames and Hudson, 2009. Print.

  • The Daily Practice of Painting. Ed. Hans-Ulrich Obrist. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995. Print.
  • Forty Years Of Painting. Ed. Robert Storr. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2002. Print.

Thorpe, Jeannine.  “Spirited Away: Miyazaki at the Hollywood Premiere.” 13 Sept. 2002. Web.

Schlamm, Leon. “Numinous Experience and Religious Language.” Religious Studies. Vol. 29, 1993. 169-184. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. Foreword to the Second Edition. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. xiii-xvi. Print

Wilson, Ross. Theodor Adorno. New York, Routledge, 2007. Print.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

New year, new look

Please note that this blog has a new name and look. "Differentia Critica" is Latin for "A Critical Difference." I suppose I could have named it the latter, but I have not only had a penchant for Latin titles in my work of late, I like the fact that it has the secondary translation of "a different (kind of) critique." This points up what I'd like to offer in this refurbished blog: a look at representational painting through a contemporary lens regarding art, philosophy, and socio-political ideas.

Before I launch into this idea more fully, let me get us up to speed since this thing has been on hiatus for over a year:

Things got awfully busy once I launched myself into my practice post-grad-school. I applied for numerous shows, grants, what have you, and ended up getting not a few opportunities to show my work -- not the least of which was the New England Collective show sponsored by Galatea Fine Arts, Boston. This was a juried show with 500+ entrants. 50 works were shown and one artist was chosen from that show to have a solo show in the next year. That was me. Suffice to say, this was an amazing chance to make new work with a purpose.

While making work for the show, I had work at Aucocisco and Greenhut (both Portland), as well as a fantastically curated Art Institute of Boston MFA Alumni Show (Objectified) on the Lesley U. main campus in Cambridge. But, the culmination of events was in my suite of 12 new paintings -- The Detached Muse Project at Galatea, which showed in Boston this July. You can go to my website (here) to view the show's images.

There's a lot I've learned along the way, and I will address it here on the blog. I daresay that the way in which all these things were handled was not that much different from my MFA program's thesis semester: it was a mental/ physical/ time-oriented struggle. But, I have to thank the AIB MFA people for preparing me for this very thing. If I was able to do it in the name of academics, I should be able do it in real time. Sure enough, I did it. It's equally difficult, but it is not impossible.

I have given an informal talk on the "DMP" and there is extant written research on the topic. However, I've yet to make it coalesce into an exegesis, but I hope to do so here. And, resultant of my painting and research efforts, I have developed a new perspective on representational painting in a contemporary context. I wish very much for the kind of art that I enjoy and practice to stay relevant in a progressive fashion. It is possible, but there are many mitigating factors -- not the least of which are modern painters who want this mode of working to stay fixed in the past, which is to say, be regressive. I cannot align myself with that. Representational painting has far more potential than to settle for being a kind of historical reenactment.

But more on this later.... Please keep watching this space, if you're interested.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

New Website is LIVE

Needs a few tweaks and additions, but it's up and running. Take a look.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Here at the End of All Things

Final Residency Summary:
A Master’s Thoughts on 
The Art Institute of Boston’s MFA Program

“Well, I’m back” (Tolkien, 1008).

And, like a Tolkien character, I have been greatly altered by my experiences. Expectations were such unknown quantities at the start of the program (save to obtain Master status in two years), all I could do was, as I’ve said in the past, remain as objective as possible. Admittedly, it wasn’t always possible, but I can say that I entertained new and difficult material with a great deal of consideration. This mindset helped enormously; it changed me. I’m not ashamed to acknowledge that it effected a maturation - one that occurred at a critical, personal, and especially - an artistic level. In hindsight, this was a very necessary transformation.

Before I begin in earnest, I’d like to share this little anecdote: “Journey,” as a word to describe one’s participation in our program, is an insinuated taboo for students, especially when you’re writing thesis and appearing as a Group 5 in the last residency (at least in its first few days). We all try really hard to not say it, for fear of reprisal: “You said the ‘j’-word, you noob.” It is a little trite, perhaps; a little new-agey for a program where critical language is employed. Maybe it’s because the word suggests more of a travelogue than sheer experience? Still, though I did hear the expression bandied about, albeit unintentionally, I always gave the speaker the benefit of the doubt. One can argue that such an excursion is one of the mind - traveling to places in your head that you’ve never been (let alone knew existed). And, truth be told, I personally logged quite a bit of actual mileage back and forth to New York in order to visit mentors, shows, museums and the like. So, despite the mildly illicit nature of the “journey” as a descriptor for one's time in the program, it is somewhat apt.

In those travels (speaking of which) I was able to meet and talk extensively with artists who operate on the upper tiers of the contemporary art world. Some of them are now considered friends. I’d never dreamed of such a thing. By virtue of the program, it became a reality. I went to shows that, in the past, would have held no interest for me, but instead, I found great edification in critically engaging with the content. It’s true that I travel with my family every so often to New York, but these visits were nearly monthly, and the need for continued scholarship justified all these trips - otherwise, I would not have bothered... And I did feel that NYC was the only place, really. Yes, I was born, raised, and completed my undergrad work there, but I also knew - inherently - that there is no substitute when it comes to its great wealth of art and artists. For me, in order to complete my MFA work to the best of my ability, despite the 400+ mile removal and the difficulty such travel imposed, it was there or nowhere. It was the best decision.

Of course, those who set the tone for how to approach and participate in critical thought deserve the greatest amount of praise. I cannot stress the incredible pedagogical strength of the AIB MFA faculty. The diversity of scholarship, the way in which critiques were addressed, the sheer depth of information they all (individually and collectively) hold amazed (and still amazes) me. Their presence was a gift, no mistake. I cannot thank them enough for what they have done for me. If I can remit payment in any real way, it will be through the fact that any achievements of merit in my future shall sit as testament to the quality of these individuals.

Yes, I did learn a thing or two. But it was only through investing in the opportunities as presented to me by the artists and scholars I met along the way. Much of what I’ve gained can be found in the text of my thesis. The thesis is, in many ways, cumulative, though not necessarily an aggregate of the texts I’d penned in prior semesters. It marks more of a confluence and fruition of all the thematics I’d been exploring -- and some with which I had not yet come to terms. Research, writing, style, content -- it is all fully actualized in this final document. The latest paintings are reflective of this, too, and are but the inkling of the thesis project as a whole; a new platform upon which I can base many more paintings. This is, I believe, the crux of the thesis -- and any MFA program worth its salt. So, then, I developed: a new understanding of art (cumulating in the contemporary); a richer understanding of my own art as it relates to contemporary art; and through this, established a new and solid base from which I launched a project that reflects these understandings. In other words, the thesis acts as a touchstone to bigger things, post-Masters.

Since this is a pretty informal document, I will be candid here and let the reader know that this program - again, like any program worth its salt - makes high demands of the MFA candidate. That said, in the low-residency format, where one might hope (note the word choice) to fold the required work into one’s daily life, while not in-residence, instead, just adds to the challenge. It becomes an imperative to harness the self-discipline to NOT sink into domestic regularity. I realized that this required, of course, a great deal of effort, and I was familiar enough with the task, having spent a decade as a freelance artist for a New York illustration agency. The routine - or, at least, operating under an art-based sword of Damocles - came back soon enough. The more pressing issue was how to promote the idea that I was actually a full-time student. It is terribly hard for anyone save your AIB peers to understand the reality of the situation. Even close family and friends cannot really fathom the fact that, for two years, you have adopted a lifestyle of art and scholarship, as opposed to a part-time dalliance. But your presence (or perhaps conspicuous absence, since you might be trapped in your studio or library) at the table - yes, your very corporeality - makes it seem as if you are some sort of ivory-tower hobbyist, play-acting at something of tertiary importance. Now, I can’t say that this is the absolute truth of the matter, but, from my interactions with my fellow students, it is not at all an uncommon experience. Relationships can become strained, and feelings of guilt can encumber your process. Sleep gets to be luxury. Stress is your familiar. All you can do is put your head down and work through it all. It’s the only solution, because sublimating your difficulties through any other activity is ultimately a waste of time. Time is in extraordinarily short supply; it's the ultimate luxury. The warnings proffered by advisors and peers (like me, as a recent alumnus) - especially regarding the subject of time - seem like so much rhetoric. They are not.

If you heed all this, you will get through it. As with anything, it sounds easy on paper, but the real-time execution is something else. Personally, however, I wanted far more than to merely “get through it.” I wanted to know how far I could push myself without throwing the positive aspects of my art (i.e., my painting skills) under the bus. Holding on to representation and skill was, in hindsight, a harder road -- and I’m glad I took it. But that was not the driver. The driver was, oddly enough, the intellectualization of art and its relation to the world at large. Again, my thesis explicates this more fully, but I still marvel at my naivete coming into the program. When I was introduced (immediately) to all I had missed (the sociopolitical, theoretical, and philosophical components of art), I became extremely disturbed at my lack. This super-motivated me to remedy the situation. I daresay I almost overcorrected in my second semester, but some well-placed admonition set me to rights. Again, in hindsight, I think if I had cruised along semester to semester with little issue, it would have meant I was doing something very wrong. As creative thinkers, we need to go off the rails in order to see where the track lies. Once you re-orient, there is far more clarity and trust in future judgement.

If I can give, with this brief essay, some sense of closure to my own experience, then I must conclude with some remarks about my “people” - my peers. Realistically, we do not spend a great deal of time together as compared to perhaps any other program - only 20 days out of the year. But, the crucible of the residencies are truly white-hot and the bonds we form are hard and fast. I’ve gotten to know some incredible people who also happen to be incredible artists. The last residency is truly a gift, in that I was able to be with members of the other groups in the formal settings of critiques and seminars. Also, it needs to be disclosed that the social activity at the bars in Kenmore Square after an ever-long day of residency is an integral part of the experience. This decompression is vital. To suss out, over various libations, the sheer density of the 12 hours of theoretical art discourse in which everyone had just engaged, is perhaps the only way to stay balanced. Without this, I would have hit the wall of non-receptivity pretty quickly. Now, to speak specifically of my own group, the 15th graduating class of the MFA, is to speak of family. We underwent perhaps the greatest personal transformation of our adult lives, and, as mentioned earlier, we were the ones who most fully understood how much it meant to one another. In the loneliness of the semester, physically separated from my art companions, I could still rely on their understanding, compassion and sheer want for my success (as the feelings were mutual) to get me through any dark period. We were all in it together, though apart much of the time. It made the times we were together that much sweeter. I’ve said it before - in fact, I publicly announced it in our final ceremony: I could not be more proud of us, nor be more proud to call myself part of the 15th AIB MFA Graduating Class, January, 2012.

This is not the last of my writing. Not that I am an essayist, but I am also, as it turns out, not merely a painter. I am an artist. The written word is another function of my creative vision, and I will engage in writing when it is prudent to do so. In fact, as long as I am painting, I will no doubt also be writing.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994 ed. Print.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

MFA Final Statement

Robert Sullivan
Artist's Statement - 2012

Religare – (from L.) 1. To reconnect. 2. Lactantian root word for 'religion.'

I believe there is a contemporary and profound import in reconnecting to “faith” – that is, faith as a dimension of trust in art, self and society – through a traditional artistic practice like representational painting. The original connection between painting and faith has been slowly worn away since the Renaissance. What was at first religious became romantic, then prosaic, and ultimately, the subject of an ironic cynicism. There is now a conspicuous absence of the faith/art parallel in today's secular discourses. My project is to syncretize painting and its native religious impulse without the burden of the ideologies that have diminished its significance.

Using quotidian images that recall the notion of flight, I endeavor to reframe them as  symbols of spiritual yearning and transfiguration. These recontextualizations do not exist merely as representational surface idioms, but also signify an engagement with the transcendental and how it might be expressed in a contemporary vernacular. The construction of my paintings employ a simple rather than a more baroque presentation, promoting a contemplative space where speculative thought and objective observation might happen. It is in this space where that inherent principle of spirituality in art can still resonate, free from dogmatic doctrines, and offer a reclamation of faith.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Knee Deep in The Final Stretch

Well, there's been a good break in posting here, but it's essentially because I am now in my Thesis semester and all my energies are being dedicated towards that big 'ol document (there is very little studio time to be had at this point). I had considered posting it in installments here as a WIP, but that seemed a little foolish, considering the major alterations that will take place until the final is released in November.

I do have some images to post that I didn't get around to before the last residency. Those will be forthcoming.

There will also be new paintings that will accompany the thesis, but they are only in development right now, and will manifest only after the writing is near-completed.

In the meantime:

(apologies to for the appropriation -- though it IS appropriate)