Part One: Pigments on a Canvas
By Daniel Siedell
With this post we are launching an occasional series by Daniel Siedell titled “The Poetics of Painting.”
After twenty years of teaching art history, curating exhibitions, and writing about contemporary art, painting still baffles me. The more I study it and the more I talk to artists about it, the more impenetrably wonderful painting becomes.
What I have learned over the years is how much faith is necessary to make a painting. For most of us, a painting is just smelly and messy pigments smeared across a canvas. But for the artist and a handful of others, it is much more.
It seems to me that the very existence of painting in the world is an act of faith, leaning into the scorn and skepticism, the accusations that it is a waste of time and energy. This series will explore the mystery and mechanics of painting.
Unfortunately, we as curators, critics, and theologians of art often work hard to de-emphasize the radical faith that is required to make (and to look at) a painting. In our verbose and iconoclastic hands, it becomes an image, an expression of the artist’s emotions or intentions, or, for the more theoretically touched, it is a discourse that starts a conversation, initiates community, and the like.
All of these fail to take into full account the aggressive, take-you-by-the-throat-and-throw-you-to-the-ground that is painting.
It seems to me that painting does something more than express an artist’s feelings, emotions, ideas, and beliefs. It seems wildly counterintuitive, but I would like to suggest that it doesn’t communicate—at least not in the way we typically assume communication to occur.
This dawned on me one morning ten years ago during an undergraduate studio critique when I watched a young student stand in front of his work and begin talking. He talked about how he felt, what he was trying to communicate, veering into psychology and philosophy, his upbringing, even his political ideas.
While he talked, the committee and I never talked about the paintings themselves. The committee discussion focused on his comments, discussing the ideas he was trying to communicate in the paintings.
No one on the committee bothered to look at one of the paintings and ask that young man to justify himself as a painter of those particular paintings: What are they doing in the world, here, in front of us? Why that line in the foreground? Why did the space created in this part of the painting disappear in that part?
I was horrified. For that earnest and intelligent young man, the paintings served only as an excuse to talk, to initiate a dialogue about a myriad of interesting topics, but nothing that we could accuse any painting of initiating.
We were helping him talk about his paintings but offering virtually no guidance, no critique of the mechanical concerns of painting itself. This disregard for the mechanics of painting is derived from the assumption that the artist is sending a message with her painting.
It goes something like this: The artist has a message for us. She puts it in a fancy gift box, wraps it, puts a bow on it and then gives it to us. Our job, as receivers, is to tear open the paper, fancy wrapping, and pull the message out of the box.
The paint smeared on the canvas, the imagery that emerges from this smearing of paint, is often treated as an obstacle to sending and receiving the message. The form paint takes is only a device to get to us that meaning, emotion, message, occasion for community, or an aesthetic or theological point we can debate.
The trouble is I don’t think painting works that way. The artist’s intentions must decrease while the work of art itself increases. The gift-wrapping is the message. A painting is all surface. Its depth, its mysterious, disruptive depth, is all there on the surface. It is not something to unwrap, walk over, or move to the side.
What are we to make of this? I’ve discovered that a painting is more than the sum total of the artist’s intentions, desires, beliefs, biography. An artist brings all her life experience, intentions, fears, and desires to a painting, yet the end result is an artifact that exists beyond her scope.
Abstract expressionist painter Willem De Kooning said that he knew a painting was finished when he had painted himself out of it.
We too often assume that painting is a form of diary writing, visual journaling, painted confession. And our role as viewer is simply to peer over the artist’s shoulder as he or she expresses, emotes.
But I think that a good painting releases itself from the grip of the artist who brought it into being. It exists in the world because of the artist’s emotions, experiences, and desires, yet it transcends them in order to confront us.
Artists do not paint to express something they already know or feel, but to discover something about the world or themselves, that they do not already know and cannot know by any other means than painting.
But we professional theologians of art often do all we can to prevent that encounter. We write extensive wall labels to explain the work, and museum docents use the paintings as visual cues to talk about the artist’s biography or feelings. Painting then becomes about the artist or about abstract concepts like beauty, the figure, or exile.
And perhaps we do so in order to avoid the confrontation that a painting can provoke.
Freed from its maker, what does a painting do to us?
That will be the subject of my next post.
Daniel A. Siedell (M.A. SUNY-Stony Brook, Ph.D. Iowa) is on staff at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale where he is curator of Liberate, the resource ministry of Tullian Tchividjian. He is the author of God in the Gallery (Baker Academic, 2008) and numerous writings on Christianity and modern art. He blogs weekly at Cultivare.