Painting as Tableau. Tableau as Process - Mick Finch
(IMAGE 1) James Elkins’s book, What Painting Is, acts both as a primer and a stalking horse for this symposium. Elkins book is specifically about the act of oil painting as driven by touch and gesture; an elemental condition where he says:
‘Paint is water and stone, and it is also liquid thought’ (1).
(IMAGE 2) The image of the painter evoked by Elkins is easily recognisable as a central and stock character of popular culture, the mercurial, passionate figure; an alchemist conjuring elemental forces.
Frederic Jameson, in his essay 'The Deconstruction of Expression' (2), famously and similarly mobilises an image of the painter, close to Elkins, in the form of Van Gogh and through the example of his painting ‘Peasant Shoes’. However this chimera is conjured in order to create a contrast and to displace it with Warhol’s ‘Diamond Dust Shoes’. The shift in modes of production in Jameson’s analysis is away from the ‘depth’ models of representation marked by what he calls the ‘waning of affect’. He says: (IMAGE 3)
“What replaces these various depth models is for the most part a conception of practices, discourses and textual play, ………suffice it merely to observe that here too depth is replaced by surface, or by multiple surfaces (what is often called intertextuality is in that sense no longer a matter of depth)” (2).
I’m going to consider this latter model, of intertextuality and surfaces, as opposed to a depth model, in talking about painting here, less as an ‘act’ as such but rather as a complex compound of practices. The perspective here is that to narrowly mobilise gesture/touch as the principle model of painting, as Elkins’s discussion suggests, is to preclude a contemporary, more complex understanding of it as a meta-practice. Here I would say that the binary of a flatness/depth model of painting, which is specific to an Anglo-American post-war context, is useful to contrast with the peinture/tableau model of how painting has been thought through in other discussions most notably Hubert Damisch’s La Fenêtre cadmium jaune (3) and in Michael Fried’s Manet’s Modernism(4). This can be brutally understood as a distinction between the act of painting, its basic materiality and the handling of paint and a more complex sense of painting, as an object and the schema and mechanisms of representation which subtend it.
(IMAGE 4) An example of this distinction is the purely painterly reading of Titian’s Flaying of Marysas that privileges the virtiousity and distinctiveness of the handling, a reading that in the 1980s was used to promote a neo-expressionist return to painting. This reading of the moody painterly late work of a great artist obscured the more robust analysis of late Titian in terms of a material interpretation of Ovid where shallow space and fluid brushwork lend itself to themes of metamorphosis. This material interpretation can be said to be at the level of its status as tableau. (IMAGE 5) Similarly Foucault’s essay on Las Meninas in Les Mots et les choses (5) concentrates upon its qualities as ‘tableau’, as a total composition that structures the spectators experience of the work at a number of levels and not as a virtuoso performance by Velazquez. (IMAGE 6) A more contemporary example can be derived from Gerhard Richter’s Betty especially as it has been often exhibited in close proximity to one of Richter’s dark grey, glazed monochromes. The painting is actually after a photograph of Betty who is, simultaneously, faced with both her reflection, in the glazed painting, and the work itself. These mediations between the materiality of photography and painting, in terms of mechanisms of looking and reflexivity, add up to a dispositif of spectatorship which is in the realm of the work's status as tableau and which predominates over other readings (however skillful or achieved the handling of a painting is as ‘facture’).
(IMAGE 7) This example of Richter raises the question of his relationship to images in general and to the archive that serves his practice. Richter’s Atlas has become a thing in itself and demonstrates his relationship to mediations of images, both as photographs taken by himself, by other people or appropriated from the wider media ( - (IMAGE 8, 1,2 &3) a relationship that, in itself, is one of the motifs of the series October 18, 1977 where images taken by the Baader-Meinhof group themselves, forensic images and journalistic photographs open up the discursive spaces of the images). The production here is arguably akin to syntagmatic structure (6) where rhetorical and syntactical aspects of image are at work and where embedded codes that fuel models of communication are being mediated.
(IMAGE 9) Richard Prince uses such relationships to image as a foundation for his wider practice. Like Warhol, Prince is not strictly a painter, his practice occupies a space of inter-textuality and meta-practice. The images he collects and organises into his Gangs, taxonomies which are central to his work often culminate in paintings as diverse as the text gag-lines, Nurses or car hoods (which are ‘symbolic’ monochromes). (IMAGE 10) The spacing of the image that Prince manipulates in the Gangs and Richter in Atlas bring to mind a relationship to Warburg’s pathos-formula. Warburg's concept is most evident in the planches he used late in his life to demonstrate the iconographic movements and relationships between works particularly in a migration from the pagan to the renaissance. Such iconography was already, by the 1920s, at work in the wider culture as the photographic image became increasingly material to public space, consciousness and ideological formations. This points to processes of appropriation, re-transcription and re-contextualisation at work in a contemporary context (which have arguably always been at work, as alluded to in the earlier example of Titian). As Duchamp says:
The word “art” etymologically speaking means to make, simply to make. Now what is making? Making something is choosing a tube of blue, a tube of red, putting some of it on the palette, and always choosing the quality of the blue, the quality of the red, and always choosing the place to put it on the canvas, it’s always choosing. So in order to choose, you can use tubes of paint, you can use brushes, but you can use a ready-made thing, made either mechanically or by the hand of another man, even, if you want, and appropriate it, since it’s you who choose it. Choice is the main thing, even in normal painting. (7)
The point I’m making here is that a sous-sol of processes, at the level of painting as tableau, are increasingly determining questions of materiality, composition, execution, presentation and a hybrid relationship to technologies in terms of medium specificities that can be understood as painting. (IMAGE 10a) In addition, for painting, a so-called expanded field has arguably been at work in terms that pre-date Rosalind Krauss’ lucid application of the term to sculpture (8). The ground upon which abstraction was invented, within the space and practice of painting, and where collage and montage also appeared, signal an idea of an expanded field that throws into question recent explorations of the genre simply in terms of a literal, painterly colonization of three dimensions. The expansion signalled by painting’s modernist past points to its relationship to the discursive spaces of photography, film and to the frontiers between medium and objecthood and which can also be expressed as painting working at the level of the tableau. To borrow another term from Duchamp this can perhaps be thought of as an infra-thin space where the hand of the artist is barely present or has retreated completely or where the structuring of the work depends upon that which is hidden, obscured or effaced. Examples of practice where such tableau processes can be said to be at work are:
(IMAGE 11) Simon Hantai’s folded canvases. Volumetric is expressed via the pictorial surfaces propensity to be developed as a thickness, through folding and manipulation.
(IMAGE 12) Daniel Dezeuze’s Echelle’s de Bois, the grid as a structural and conceptual tableau basis
(IMAGE 13) François Rouan’s tressages, where two canvases are combined. The screen of the surface highlighting the structuring of the visual field as much in terms of what can’t be seen
(IMAGE 14-15) Domenique Figarella’s photo-collaged paintings, miss en abyme
(IMAGE 16) Christopher Wools printed paintings; complex layering and transcriptions that move towards an effacement.
(1) James Elkins What Painting Is, 1999, Routledge.
(2) Fredric Jameson 'The Deconstruction of Expression', July/August 1984, New Left Review 146.
(3) Hubert Damisch, Fenêtre jaune cadmium, ou, Les dessous de la peinture,1984, Seuil.
(4) Michael Fried, Manet’s Modernism, 1999, University of Chicago Press.
(5) Michel Foucault, Les Mots et les choses, 1990, Gallimard.
(6) Syntagmatic structure (structure of syntax) is "the mode of time-awareness which listeners are placed" such as 'narrative', 'epic', or 'lyrical'. A Syntagma is one syntactic or syntagmatic element. Narrative structures feature a realistic temporal flow guided by tension and relaxation, privilege difference, and "as diegesis, songs speak to or address us by organizing a particular stretch of time into a conscious experience, and an experience of consciousness" (Cubitt 1984, p.216). Epic structures tend to the opposite, privileging repetition, creating a mythic state of recurrence, and "emptying out" the subject (ibid, p.216-17). Lyrical structures lie in between and feature symmetrical open/closed and binary forms. (Middleton 1990, p.251 and 217)
(7) Marcel Duchamp, interview by Georges Charbonnier , radio interviews, RTF, 1961 (translation by Thierry de Duve, cited in Kant After Duchamp, 1996 MIT Press.).
(8) Rosalind Krauss, Sculpture in the Expanded Field, 1979, October.
Strictly Painting? - Mario Rossi
‘the object is still important, it’s just not as self important’. Robert Morris
‘the medium specific approach to painting is still possible in artistic practice and in critique’.All it has lost is its status as self evident. Since painting is realised today within the horizon of conceptual practice, it must be grounded in a context that is no longer its own.’ Jan Vanvoert
Thank you Mick for such a rich, highly discursive, and if I may so densely layered paper, which I must admit has presented me with somewhat of a challenge- (not least in relation to responding within time).
I think we broadly agree that the quote from James Elkin’s reveals a somewhat limiting definition of painting in that it implies an interpretation that simultaneously excludes a swathe of pre- modern, advanced and more nuanced approaches. The term gesture itself in relation to painting in general is somewhat vaguely defined. I make a distinction between the stand- alone modern gesture and the depictive haptic gesture which is dominant between Titian and Post-Impressionism and which has some seepage at either end, continuing into the present and which finds its material apotheosis to my mind during the Roccoco, in the combination of the frivolous subject and superquick wrist action of Fragonard- a precursor to Warhol’s fascination with surface. So either we conclude that this stylistic trope is an irrelevance for painters today (which evidently it isn’t- Glenn Brown, David Reed, Cecily Brown, John Currin) or that what is being suggested by Elkins is a specific kind of painting that identifies the point where subject and medium (not necessarily image and medium) interfuse- and that is something that I think interests us both. However I’m not sure we arrive at this point via the same route.
So if I may return to the phrase ‘Not strictly a painter’ which you use in relation to Richard Prince, as it seems to reveal the matter of thresholds. What does it mean to be ‘strictly a painter’ or ‘not strictly a painter’? Where do we draw the line and does it really matter? I have never considered my self to be ‘strictly a painter’ and yet your paper makes me wonder if I am stricter than I previously imagined, or if I have indeed, not been strict enough.
What I distill from what you have compellingly set out for us and perhaps I am oversimplifying it, is the opening up of the potential of the language of painting, based on, not only or not even; the trace, gesture or depth model but a more self-conscious approach along the lines of Arthur C. Danto’s ‘post conceptual art’ suggestion –“that the momentum of art has shifted from the historical development of form to a model of “philosophical self-consciousness”, raising the challenge that has evidently resulted in new possibilities for painting by questioning it’s own foundations. You provided what we might consider ‘strict’ examples of meta-practices that elaborate painting’s significance through embedding meaning in process—performativity- and a critical engagement with the archive. And then there are the ‘not very strict at all’ painters who play fast and loose with painting’s tropes - Art and Language- portraits of Lenin in the style of Jackson Pollock, Richard Prince jokes- Andy Warhol’s--piss paintings, Martin Kippenberger-almost everything. And yet which is the perpetrator and which the victim of these incursions. As this endless interrogation of the limitations and failures of the language paradoxically continues to provide a reinvestment in painting’s significance. There seems here to be a mis-casting of painting as corpse and the question emerges as to who or what is holding this fantasy in place? This is partly what David Reed’s ‘Vampire paintings’ (which Mick showed earlier) allude to. In his book ‘The Parasite’ Michel Serres explores and extrapolates at length the relationship of the host and the parasite which he describes as a ‘milieu’ the complex symbiotic mingling necessary for recovery, productivity or vibrancy in all aspects of exchange. In effect an attack on all manner of boundaries and thresholds.
Alain Bois drawing on Hubert Damisch compares the discourse of painting and it’s episodic moments with the model of game and match. The game of painting and each period of revival as a match. I think this paradigm is no longer of much use as we seem to have shifted from the episodic to a more atomistic and heterogeneous mode of engagement with art practices. The question hasn’t been for a while whether the game is over, its just that the goal posts have shifted, along with a lot of other co ordinates, not least of which is the digitalisation of the image and communication in general. In addition, I suspect it is also the result of the expanded and multiple layers of the art world and the sense that legitimisation comes from a far broader horizon.
In relation to the conceptualisation of painting as tableau I would like to add a few more possibilities -the exploration of painting in relation to context and social spaces outside of the gallery (Daniel Buren a contemporary of Support/Surfaces and who to my mind represents a more radical and urgent position in relation to painting is a precursor to this, but I am also thinking of Thomas Lawson’s tarpaulin paintings wrapped around building scaffolding, Andrew Carnie’s site specific museological documentary constructions, Rudolf Stingel’s interplay on the topography of painting, private and public and audience interaction. These are modes of painting that engage audience and registers of visibility at the level of intervention.
The second is what Jan Verwoert describes as a ‘strategic situative’ approach. Painting put to work in a broader dynamic with video, photography and installation. Jack Goldstein explored the thresholds of these elements and pointed to a potential overlap. But more recently, Anton Henning, Adrian Paci and Franz Akerman amongst others have brought them together within a rich mix of references.- these artists might be said to reflect the disjunctions and contradictions of the moment and enlist (or choose) painting from the position that takes the internal dialogue and it’s episodic trajectory as complete. Preferring instead to allow it fully formed, with all it’s attendant associations both in relation to process and image to play out as one component within a non hierarchical matrix. In short to be itself.
Another possibility that interests me is the space that Ranciere calls ‘the meeting place, between artistic and political practices, where art takes over territory vacuated by more traditional political spheres’. I’ve become increasingly interested in this space not only in relation to painting but in the breadth of my own practice. Certainly ‘strangers to ourselves’ curatorial projects picked up on this in 2001 and since then in relation to issues of displacement and re- territorialisation it is clear that political institutions still lack the will or any productive mechanisms of response. While the political debates seem to gravitate towards various Global Art Bienieles, Documenta and the forthcoming Manifesta. The question I have been asking is how can painting engage with these issues that have become the accepted territory of lens based or documentary practices. Perhaps it is in response to this that terms like ‘image’, ‘affect’, ‘empathy’ ‘subjectivity’ and ‘beholder’ begin to re-emerge as tools for engaging with politics across the boundaries of public and private, citizen and individual.
From my perspective I no longer think there is anything to be gained from positions in relation to ‘legitimacy’ . I think what is at stake now has to be in the realms of placing practice in a vulnerable, uncomfortable position. Exposing it, working in the problem rather than in relation to it. Again returning to Serres’ Parasite –which suggests that through the agency of pest or mixing it, there is the potential for a minor language to gain influence within broader public discourse.
- In relation to supports / surfaces which emerged as a type of post colour-field painting historically contemporaneous to the violent and politicised situation of Paris 1968. Unlike other movements associated with unrest like Arte Povera which foregrounds significance in materiality, or Helio Oiticica and Lygia Clark’s, constructions and social interventions– Against this febrile backdrop s/s produced an approach to painting that could be interpreted as a retraction into practice ? And as such instead of destabalising the architecture of power-(the institution)- actually becomes more reliant upon it. Is there in your view the potential for a political dimension to be at work here?