Friday, 13 February 2009

All is not what it seems.

"The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance”— Aristotle.

Pondering the above quote brings to mind several issues confronting art-making. As a painter who practises painting daily now I am frequently aware of the time I spend alone in my studio grappling with various issues. Whether these are simple painterly decisions regarding choices of colour or line or whatever thoughts and ideas are occupying my mind during the process.

I continually ask the question: "What does this mean?" I spend a lot of time sitting at a canvas daubing or sometimes throwing paint at it. I am not helping anyone by doing this. I am not saving the world, or actively involved in helping others. I am not serving the world, making it a better place. Who cares that the issues that I think about while I paint are often of a fairly deep and complex nature - philosophical issues, or political issues.
No-one knows that while I paint I may be wondering what South Africa will be like under the Presidency of Jacob Zuma or how much more devastation will happen in Zimbabwe before life is safe and equal for all who live there.
No- there are no witnesses to these thoughts. I am alone in that space. No-one except the cat is observing the minute-by-minute decisions I am making, or sees me abandoning the canvas to make a cup of tea, or water the garden, or feed the dog, or answer the phone. No-one hears the strains of Beethoven's violin romances or Cold Play or the sudden quick memory of a taste, or a sound or an event that assails my mind at odd moments, or exclamations of delight that accompany a stroke well-executed, or the sudden joy when a colour glides on juicily or a hitherto unfocused image suddenly leaps into focus. No-one sees the moment when a carefully applied tiny daub of paint suddenly makes the object I am painting spring into life and make sense proportionally.

None of this is witnessed or is of much consequence.

What is witnessed is the final result. The moment when the brush is finally laid down after the signature is scrawled somewhere unobtrusive. What is seen is the landscape or piece of fruit or portrait, daub or scribble.


How many layers of paint are between the viewer and the artist? When you stand in front of the canvas, are you aware of how many hours are invested in those strands of woven cotton? How many millions of millilitres of cadmium red are caked together, binding the threads together. How many missed strokes, too-thick, and then scraped-off, prussian blue. If you were able to peel back the layers second by second and see the thing unravelling before you, would you still "ooh" and "aah" and exclaim "Wow, that is fantastic" - or would you grow quieter and quieter as the layers unravelled before your eyes and find yourself thinking- this is just a mess, this is all an accident, this is all rubbish. Or, you ask yourself "Is this all that painting is- making messes and then correcting them? Indeed, the same question could be asked about Life itself!
Is painting, or Art-making, just about creating problems to solve? It is a continuing questioning and questing process. And the sometimes awful truth of it is that those questions you are asking may never be anwered. For me, regardless of whether the final work is never seen by anyone, the important thing is to go on asking them.

Aristotle's view, therefore, that it is the inward significance of things that is represented, is a fundamental one to consider when viewing the final painting. When looking at a painting one should be asking questions about it. In a cursory or casual first-glance observation, you will see what you want to see, you will learn what you want to learn. It is however when you glimpse in it what you need to see, that it becomes something more. What you need to see, will begin to show itself to you, perhaps - may even go some way to answering some questions you may be asking of yourself. The painting may even give you a glimpse into a personal truth, a way forward out of a personal crisis, or even a better understanding of a greater universal truth that is out there, somewhere, for you to discover.

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