Vocabulary

In the past couple of days, while putting together some information on my work, I had to look at paintings from some years back and articulate ideas about my painting vocabulary and the way it developed at that time. The motivations for the changes I made then were visceral skepticism of certain types of marks and gestures, and a desire to rethink my syntax. It was a complicated process. A few years ago, I was recounting it in some detail with my brother—who is very knowledgeable on contemporary thought—and he said, “You know all those weird French theories? Well, you got there by yourself.”

Around that time, I was noticing more and more different types of marks around me: oil slicks on the street, paint spills on the floor, coffee stains on the table and other similar things. These were interesting in part because they were the remains of other actions. They had a kind of authority, that of an unselfconscious activity, that a gesture in a painting could not. For example, one day I had cut out a piece of card stock and walked away, then returned to see this framed bit of my work table:


A few weeks later it had turned into this:

 

These seemed to me completely satisfying as images. Paint can rings, gel spills, sand embedded into the table via unintended adhesive effect, the slices of a razor into the wood—all artifacts of prior tasks. It also got me started thinking about color in a different way, too. The colors artists use are gorgeous, unguent, saturated things. They are both immensely attractive and utterly unlike most of colors around us in our daily surroundings, which are more neutral, utilitarian and unspectacular.

When we do see an astounding color, it is unforgettable, like the late spring day I saw one of these outside my window in Brooklyn:

Scarlet Tanager, photo by Glen K. Peterson

By contrast, I looked six floors straight down at the pavement one morning and caught this zany mess:


Someone had dumped two five-gallon containers of ice cream on the sidewalk and left them to melt and decompose.

I decided to start working with a vocabulary of residual marks, or marks that were ambiguous regarding their origin in some way. Doing a painting while obscuring traces of how the marks arrived presents some curious challenges, especially if one wants to retain dynamism in a painting while abjuring the more conspicuous fingerprints of the maker. Of course, it requires artifice to achieve the effect, but artists know better than anyone how much artifice it takes to make art seem artless, and once that is accepted it vaporizes some of the conundrums around ideas of authenticity and genuineness. Often there is a negative correlation between what something looks like and how it got there. Malcolm Morley told me that the red “X” he painted on “Race Track” that looks dashed off was painstakingly planned and applied. This is another example of how our conditioning to the syntax of painting after 50,000 years (at the minimum) is so complex, vexatious, unavoidable and rewarding.

Malcolm Morley, Race Track (South Africa), 71.6 in. x 91.7 in. (182 cm x 233 cm), acrylic, wax and acrylic resin on canvas, 1970, Ludwig Museum, Budapest (photo: Ludwig Museum)

In my studio, these meditations led to this right out of the gate:

Increase, 28 in. x 42 in. (71 cm x 107 cm), oil, silicon, spray paint and pencil on paper mounted on linen over panel, 2005.

And a bit later this: 

I Ask You, 30 in. x 44 in. (76 cm x 122 cm), oil, acrylic and spray paint on paper mounted on linen over panel, 2006.

And developed into this after about a year:

Brú na Bóinne, 68 in. x 68 in. overall (173 cm x 173 cm), oil, alkyd, acrylic, metallic paint and sand on canvas over panel, 2006.

I usually find particular things for a reason, and the reason is often that the groundwork or foundations that need the “discoveries” are already inside, waiting to be paired with an external catalyst. After a while, the tacit motivation for a particular result becomes less important, and things flow more organically while working. In general, doing things for a prescribed end in painting seems less and less a good idea to me. At best such a concern can be distracting; at worst it skirts dogma, which is toxic to art.

Having an explicit teleological or “that for the sake of which” target for a work can obscure broader possibilities. I also think it’s intuitively obvious that one creates richer and deeper work when one yields to what one finds along the way, rather than working toward a predetermined conclusion, no matter how important the aspiration or noble the intent. Philip Guston once related a useful comment by John Cage that bears on this: “When you are working, everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, the art world, and above all your own ideas…But as you continue painting, they start leaving one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.” (Michael Auping; “A Disturbance in the Field," in Philip Guston, Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2000.)