Monkey See: problems for narrative painting today. An essay by Warwick McLeod
The Viewer Has a Story
It is a good idea for a painter to think from time to time about what it is that a person needs from a painting. Not to pander to or begrudge it, but just to realize that the viewer has a vote in the meaning of a painting, and comes to it with assumptions, prejudices and needs. This is the last and largest cog in the gearbox of any art piece; and artists need to think of ways to tap into it and shift it, to construct contexts wherein what takes place between artwork and viewer can be truly transformative, and help people. Painting’s reception is manipulated by social context, and so much of context is already organized before you are in the gallery door; but a painter has to believe that it can be reformed in the space between the eye and the painting, by the way the painting is made.
For a long time now the role of painting has been up for grabs, defined by nothing, but contained within the inadequate venues of dealer galleries and museums. Given this state of affairs you can still do alright to think of a painting’s function as a very personal space between viewer and artwork. Why is an individual with the choice choosing to look at a painting? There are all kinds of needs people have of a painting: the simple need to know you’re not alone, for emotional and intellectual communication, to keep from spiritual starvation; reassurance of one’s aesthetic tastes; affirmation of one’s social class.
In medieval times people could come to church on Sunday and see, on the walls and the windows, stories that would help people come to terms with the weekly strains that are native to the human lot. Within the narratives of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, or the life of Christ, medieval artists had every freedom of colour, line, composition and gesture to show stories that understand and console those who know how it feels to sacrifice a child to fate; to be deprived by a brother’s better luck; or to dig the earth under the memory of a lost innocence.
Knowing the reasons why people were coming through the door, and understanding the job to be one of tough love, medieval painting employed devices within itself to keep the viewing experience from being anything other than about the here and now: inversions of perspective wherever the lines of a book or architecture offer the chance, scale distortions at key moments, and using colour’s spatial properties to hold space up close to the picture plane, all prevent you from viewing the stories as if taking place through some kind of window into another world. The stories are mentally enacted in the present, in the viewer’s reconfiguration of the elements of space into the here and now.
Medieval theatre does that too. In what survives today as pantomime, an actor in a miracle play may hold a shovel or a cross to identify him as an Adam or a Christ, but he was always Joe the Baker playing Adam or Christ. There was no proscenium arch or scenography to separate the audience and transport the play out of the present time and place. There didn’t have to be any suspension of disbelief because there was no attempt at fiction. What’s important was the story, with the audience and actors participating equally to enact it. It was a process to come to understand and cope with basic human concerns.
We no longer live in a time when biblical stories are universally understood as embodiments of meaning. We don’t think of them that way anymore, and there are no other stories to substitute for them in exemplifying for everyone aspects of the human condition. But basic human concerns and the need to understand them haven’t changed. The human person still comes through the door needing to commune; to reconnect with a discussion of intimations about our place in the wider realm of human life and human history. They come through the door now out of democratic choice, intellectually independent; and should expect from an artwork a hard-headed point of view that in turn expects and respects that the viewer has had an experience of the world, an understanding, and opinion. These days people are also coming from an outside washed with a thin daylight where, for the omniscience of connectivity we less closely connect, for the ease to express we fear personal expression. What we need is an art that shows its hand, that gives an honest try but allows itself to be wrong; and thereby offers a platform to the viewer, to come in with their own history and point of view, to help bring art to meaning.
The Problems of Painting
The history of painting becomes the context of a painting, and so another of the biggest cogs in its gearbox. Tapping into it is inevitable, but perilous because while it exerts massive leverage it cannot be shifted; and its weight has grown cosmic with the advent of the media age. In the old days the opportunity to be influenced by other pictorial images was so rare that painters would save up for the trip of a lifetime, travel across the length of Europe, to see each other’s work, study it and copy it; to soak in as much as possible in the hope that that influence would guide them when the time came to pick up a brush. For a good time now – but still a length of time measured in decades rather than centuries – the paintings of other artists in reproduction have been not just available but unavoidable. Now that we live in a constant monsoon of reproduced images, it’s impossible to put a brush-mark down without immediately seeing in it - and knowing your viewer will see – a thousand ways this image has been made before (this by the way is the biggest pain in the ass when you are learning to paint - all you want to worry about is how to make the form of a figure on a flat surface – hard enough – when immediately you have to engage in a thousands-strong, centuries-old conversation with Painting). And the look of a painting brings down upon its head the burden and the blame of all of painting’s social history as well.
In terms of what painters and viewers know by heart from walking the halls of museums on Instagram, most of this history is the period from the Renaissance through to our own time. In this time much of the viewing of a painting has been inculpated with the owning of it, which also wrought the conditions for the painting of it. Painting was groomed to pander to the airs of the aristocracy or the craving of the middle class to sniff them. Owners wanted to see in a painting, and got to see, a story of their new social station. For the most part the achievement of that social station involved cultivating an identity from the past – the classical past most often, seconded by the medieval past by the time painting is serving the middle class of the 19th century. Painting’s fantasy-replication of these pasts, and then its replication of preceding ages’ fantasies of the past, created layers upon layers, and genres of genres, of historicism; such that you cannot look at any painting from this period without considering the genre it belongs to or refers to.
Of course these paintings aren’t all flattery and delusion; you can still make art in this situation. But you do so at stages removed, with allegories and the theatre of fiction, understanding that the assumptions of the audience are escapist. The drama manipulates a voyeur’s fantasy, with images of what would be seen by the eye out on a faraway landscape in a time and place not here and now. Key to this is the replication of optics. Throughout this period painting walks hand-in-hand with the development of optical science towards photography, investigating the perspective grid, the camera obscura, and other projection devices in its task to produce framed replications of an in-another-time-and-landscape-of-this-physical-world optical experience. In time, that became a discussion with photography per se, and then with motion picture, one that is still alive and dynamic with contemporary painters such as Eric Fischl and Neo Rauch, for whom the genres of cinema and TV are crucial background, and who are deep in discussion with Europe’s indigenous genres of history painting (and for both of whom projection is clearly a fundamental studio tool, however they may deny it).
For other painters if you wanted to paint narratively you had to give painting history a wide berth, to find a place to work that was unencumbered by genre. New primitivist painters on the back of gestural abstraction tried to find a manner of painting that was unmannered, taking a pilgrimage to stone-age petroglyphs. Pop artists realized that, to stifle paint’s immediate squealing to painting history, you had to take the hand out of it altogether. To go to photo-emulsion and stencils was a necessary decision because it cools everything down and allows the mind to impose a distance between yourself and your influence, from where you can try to open a squared-up communication with legacy. Very few painters have been able to bring the hand back to the job of narrating a more complicated human story, while still restraining its facility from assuming a manner that immediately diverts into conversation with historical genre. Philip Guston managed to do it, taking his lessons from cartooning, which had never had to second-guess its role of depicting human stories.
Because of this 5-centuries-long history of owned painting, people still look at a painting assuming they are invited to project themselves imaginatively out of the present. Abstraction was supposed to correct this. Abstraction was an important intellectual weapon in 20th century democratization because it freed art from having to join in conversation with one or other of these class-confirming, delusional genres of historicism. It expressed the existentialist soul of modernism to make a painting that was only here and now, that was nothing other than what it was made of. The problem was, alone of all stuff, paint has no identity in the here and now. It is and always was manmade expressly and purely to contrive the other-than-here-and-now. And another trouble is, along with severing its ties to the genres of representation, abstraction severs ties to recognition, and in doing so it ultimately joins the elitism it was trying to shun; it becomes a private language, like money and privilege, in disenfranchising the viewer. Obsessed with getting it right, allowing no error, abstract art discusses its meaning only with itself and the initiated; refusing the viewer an independent platform, in the form of any identifiable materiality or recognizable image, to bring their own life’s experience to the conversation that makes the art. So for companionship on their weekly grind people can consult celebrity-watch magazines and listen to pop songs on their i-pod, but they won’t get it from abstract art.
Painting is hard most of all because all of its complex and heavy parts fit into grooves in the human psyche that have long been threaded to accept them. There is no way to change this, but for the machine to operate again we need to forget how it looks good and remember what it is for. Painters and viewers need to find a way to relax the screws and dangle them from the wrong end in front of an ancestor’s dumb gaze, wanting to find in them nothing more than a way to get food.
Because we are the orphans of the 20th century, we have to find the significance of things, or their insignificance, by tracing their track back to our parents’ cold graveside. Just as for Pop Art the warmth and immediacy of the human gesture in brushwork had to be removed from the process, so the warmth and foibles of the live human being could no longer be a subject, replaced by its image, in mass-reproduction in movies and magazines and on TV. These are now our stories and the characters of our narratives. It may be a good enough claim to point out that the characters who traditionally enacted the narratives of painting are still present in the age of popular-culture representation: that Bounty is a soup can, Purity a box of soap; that Marvel comics superheroes and TV cowboys are the Olympians, Arthurian Knights, Old testament Prophets and Saints of our age; that Aesop is alive and well in Walt Disney. But simultaneously true is that we don’t really look at these characters as if they had relationships of meaning to us, provide some sort of counsel for our lives. They are consumption, celebrity, and entertainment, and in a certain daylight we look on them as markers of the graves of those relationships - that is the poignancy of Andy Warhol’s bored recitations and Jeff Koons’ stupid tombstones to meaning.
A Prairie Town on the Horizon
To say that is not to say that we don’t need to be able to create meanings for ourselves; and set up rendezvous to connect with them in ways that help us with our human lives, to get over our human obstacles. Meaning-making requires the proximity of likeness but the distance of difference. The relationship between reality and representation used to be a realm where approximation always provided the perfect medium for exploration of the space between life, as known from its daily facts, and the mystery of its meaning. For achieving this connection the image was once considered something almost miraculous, worthy of idolatry and iconoclasm. But the distance of our images from our lives has been reduced to zero, while Reality TV and social media have usurped the role of the fictional, and squeezed the realm of the approximate out of our lives. We are now propelled headlong beyond the age of mass-reproduction into an age where the rectangular image has more reality in our lives than the world does.
But to consider that painting can no longer adequately mean, now that everyone has an i-phone camera and a Facebook page, is just to warm over a facile truth that was obvious 150 years ago. What became just as obvious then is more so now: that there is nothing that can bring time to an appointment with memory, doubt, confusion, hope, focus, and will, to incredibly voice themselves in harmony, as the end of a paintbrush. All of these qualities of human fate are then held there in the paint, so that a viewer’s mind can find there a track of what was walked; to follow it back, tracking with the experience of their own life, to make this a mental pilgrimage of companionship, understanding, and meaning.
Our society hurtles towards who-knows-what, gliding on a frictionless rapid beam of glibness, wired with automatic switches of contempt for anything that is not the selfish meme, the popular app, whose utility is not immediately proven in the rush for mass approval, by which and for which we survive. Border towns build themselves for our comfort-stops, their infrastructure and the paths of their neighborhoods structured to our needs; and are rapidly left on the horizon, as ghost-towns: where however the cowboys still must walk to their assignations, where the shootout will appoint a death and a life, prove a tale of glory and hubris, tell a story of the stout-hearted, the cowardly, the stupid and the lucky.
Painting the image is like the dogged, dumb laying of a railway-track back to this town, trying to connect the everyday story of human life to an intimation of its meaning. When a painting contains a recognizable image, its connection to meaning is forged by both the artist’s imagination and a viewer’s recognition; they each decide to agree on a path, across a landscape that is in fact flung far, not just in every direction but in every dimension. Aiming for this prairie ghost town, each of the parties to the task lays their tracks, from opposite horizons; across the different terrains of their different backgrounds, measuring the ground with different understandings, driving their spikes with a warm breath and a beating heart. When in the end the junction is reached, it is with each other, with an understanding of the present, with the past, and in the knowledge that the whole rest of the wide landscape is misconnection and misunderstanding.
Warwick McLeod 2014