Monday, September 6, 2010

CT II Response: Revisiting the Phenomenology Of Painting

Pliny the Elder's story - contained in his encylopedic Natural History - of Butades the potter, his daughter and her lover, can be cited as the mythological 'origin story' for the plastic arts. Notably, the first physical action taken in recording a perceptual likeness is through drawing. Of course, the effortful mark making of the daughter was not one of strict representation, rather, it was a tracing – that is – an outlining of her lover's shadow cast upon the wall via a 'lamp' (candlelight). Butades, for his daughter's sake, gives this surrogate image dimensional form, casting it as a relief sculpture in order to give it tactile semblance. In doing so, however, one can assert that the original trace was destroyed (effaced) in the process.

Note the formalized practice illustrated in this story: perception of a subject; interpreting the perceptions spatially in order to record on a two-dimensional surface; recording this interpretation via system of marks (drawing/tracing); and using the drawing as the fundamental infrastructure for construction of the represented subject with a new medium. This procedure is systematically present in the painting process, especially that of representational painting.

Painters themselves began to celebrate the romantic mythology of the Pliny story during the Age of Enlightenment, and it was illustrated in well-known works such as Joseph Wright of Derby's The Corinthian Maid (1782), as well as Jean Baptiste Regnault's, Origin of Painting (1785). It is interesting to note, however, that the earliest known painted reference to the story is Bartolom√© Murillo's El Cuadro de las Sombras (c. 1660), and it serves as perhaps its most didactic pictorial translation. It does not depict the romantic scene with Butades' daughter and her lover, it is rather a formalized reference to the event: a male artist traces the shadow of a model and a rapt audience is seen in attendance, notably awestruck. The motif that undoubtedly concretized the venerable myth as a founding tenet of Western painting can be seen in the large cartouche in the lower right of the canvas. A translation of the inscription (as researched by Robert Rosenblum) reads: “The beauty that you admire in renowned painting originated in Shadow” (280).

James Elkins writes: "The material memories are not usually part of what is said about a picture, and that is a fault in interpretation because every painting captures a certain resistance of paint, a prodding gesture of the brush, a speed and insistence in the face of mindless matter..." (1999, 3). The latter part of what Elkins describes here is the physical act of making a mark with paint (oil paint, in this case). In this mark-making, the artist is enveloped in the modality of painting both consciously and unconsciously. The conscious aspect is the studied practice of making a mark. This singular action, in terms of modernist critique, has been treated to such reductionism as to parse it to its basest morphemes. This is cited by Michael Newman: “Structuralist semiotics posits an absolute rupture... a temporal explosion that is at once retroactive and catastrophic” (16). One can merely look at a visual timeline of modernism and see how that approach became an unfortunate eschatological exercise resulting in a supposed “death” of painting in the mid-1960s.

Paintings are inarguably pictorial, first and foremost. Treating the visual object as a strictly intellectual one is ultimately reductive. That said, let us speak to the unconscious aspect mentioned earlier. An apposite tactic for a painter seeking to parse the heuristic nature of the discipline may well be one that is more empiricist in nature than a strict, epistemologically rationalist one. One must bear in mind, however, that it is neither beneficial nor advisable to foment the contrasted aspects of theoretics versus physicality in the realm of painting. But, as was stated before, this has not been heeded: the former has outstripped (if not buried deeply) the latter in importance for decades. Therefore, it is important to bring balance back in a revivification of painting via the realm of the phenomenological.

Routinely, the painter engages in creating a work with a thematic at hand, albeit not necessarily an explicit one. Certainly, this demonstrates an objectivist's notion of intentionality. Yet, does the painter have a specific proposal of the final outcome already imprinted in the prescribed physical activity necessary to bring said work into being? Insofar as philosophical constructs would try to allow for such a thing, no painter has a clear expectation of such an exactitude of process; there are far too many variables. On that account, the common, didactic 'reading' of intentionality becomes a peripheral notion. Jacques Derrida muses on the phenomenology of conceptualizing subject matter as a kind of 'lucid dreaming': “Or, if you prefer, the thought of drawing, a certain pensive pose, a memory of the trait that speculates, as in a dream, about its own possibility” (3). As regards the physical process, Richard Schiff weighs in: “…the craft of painting causes [one] to ponder the phenomenological difference between… viewing a distant, elusive horizon, even a dream, and manipulating a brush held tight in the hand" (126). So it is, then, that the aspects of craft and conception merge in pure experience.

The very construction of a painting reveals a copious array of layered mark making. Often, marks are made preliminarily, either as a preamble to a more definitive application of paint, or in a gestural 'blind groping' (as Derrida suggests) for a precise line or rhythm that better suits the predilections of the subject, artist, or both. As a result, many marks are effaced, the 'purity' of their gesture overwritten, or perhaps expunged completely (relatable to Butades). Nonetheless, due to the very nature of traditional oil painting, traces and stains of the pigment remain embedded in the surface (plainly seen in the field of painting restoration, with the use of radiographic x-ray technology). Thus, not only do the physical traces of these marks still exist, the 'pure' – or phenomenological – aspect of those same marks are yet embedded within. This results in a palimpsestic quality that is distinctly peculiar to painting – a characteristic that can be evinced in even a casual viewing of a work by one who knows nothing of these formal traits. David Chalmers illustrates: “In addressing the philosophical mysteries associated with conscious experience, a simple color sensation raises the problems as deeply as one's experience of a Bach Chorale” (11). In looking through a phenomenological lens, a fixed link between painter and viewer comes into focus.

It is not immanent that specific aesthetic experiences will carry over from artist to viewer through a painting. However, there are “invisible conditions” (Elkins 1998, 18) which may emanate from a work, and such projection can be equated with the transcendental. If then there exists specific distinguishable and resonant aesthetic standards in a painting, it follows that specific provisions should converge to engender phenomenal consciousness for the viewer. It is not enough to produce (as was the modernist tendency) a wholly self-absorbed work in a rhetoric of indifference and completeness. It is, however, of greater import that said provisions commingle the former tendency with the 'theatricality of experience' that is the purview of the painter, allowing for an attractive (and mutual) entry point for the viewer. Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe expands on this: “Along with Lyotard, Michael Fried and Steven Bann have also pursued the distinction – also eighteenth-century in its origin – between an art in which one looks at something and an art about that act of looking, i.e.; an art in which one could look at oneself looking.  The first sounds like being attracted, the second like wondering what it means to be attracted” (167).

To revivify the discourse of the phenomenological in painting in full acknowledgement of the known critical systems is to bring painting into a fuller expression. It is far too simple to discount the experience of the painter and just parse the objects of his/her production with a distant objectivity, for the painter is just as much 'in the world' as the viewer (or critic). After all, the percipient role of painting is one of edification, so those who wish to do so may engage in a work and share in its full expression. This encompasses the 'being' of the painter, that is: “...the concretisation [sic] of a particular lived experience or 'world'.” (Wentworth 119)

The confluence of the sensorial and the conceptual waters within the phenomenology of painting results in a brackish harbor, rich with a newfound upwelling of nourishment for both painters and those who enjoy looking at paintings. If we choose to recognize this sustenance, it will serve to replenish and perhaps enrich what was lost when modernism forgot the most poignant notion of Pliny's story: Butades' daughter traced the shadow of the young man out of love. The phenomenology of love was forever and inextricably linked to that of art in an impassioned, original act of traditional mark making. We would do well to always remember that.

List of works cited:

Chalmers, David J. The Conscious Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1996. Print

Derrida, Jacques. Memoirs of the Blind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Print

Elkins, James. What Painting Is. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print
    • On Pictures and the Words That Fail Them. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Print
Newman, Michael. “The Marks, Traces, and Gestures of Drawing.” The Stage of Drawing: Gesture and Act. Ed. Catherine de Zegher. London: Tate Publishing, 2003. 99-108. Print.

Rolfe, Jeremy Gilbert. “Beauty and The Contemporary Sublime.” Impossible Presence. Ed. Terry E. Smith. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. 125-156. Print

Rosenblum, Robert. “The Origin of Painting: A Problem in the Iconography of Romantic ClassicismThe Art Bulletin Vol. 39, No. 4, December 1957: 279-290. Print

Shiff, Richard. “Digitisation and Modern Painting.” Smith 125-156. Print

Wentworth, Nigel. The Phenomenology of Painting. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004 Print


studio 8 said...

Great to read this -- inspiring! Have you read John Dewey's Art and Experience?
Like the Wentworth quote
LOVE the first sentence of your concluding paragraph--that needs to go into your thesis!

This relates to a topic that has always interested me--the spiritual effects of painting...for example, if you've been to Florence, the experience of Fra Angelico's frescos at San Marco gives the viewer an intangible, unexplainable sense of the artist's faith.
Other "religious" paintings do not necessarily have this quality. So it is not the subject matter as much as the artist's projection of his or her personal beliefs that can contribute to the impact of a painting.
Betsy Duzan

Dean Grey said...


I'll admit this post went completely over my head!

Sure makes me feel dumb now!

I just like to draw and paint. Simple as that!