When looking at a work of art, we could measure our physical distance from it and get a number in either feet or metres, yet this measurement will be of little help in explaining the perception of distance we get when we look at the work. A work of art creates the sense of an illusory space in our minds, a space produced as a result of the interaction of colours, textures and forms. One has only to observe someone looking at an artwork in a gallery to see a judgment of this spatial distance in action – a viewer shifts their weight and moves in response to what they are seeing – trying to feel the work’s visual gravity and make sense of its inherent pictorial or object space against their own actual physical space. Looking at art is a physical activity.
In good art this perceptual distance to my mind, feels at its closest: spatial sensations are brought up to our eyes forcing us to deal with them, to confront visual content head on, the art becomes part of our own physical sensibilities, feeling as natural or even mysterious as nature itself – it’s a fully visual experience – not an easily describable one, an existential or even an ‘enlightened’ one, but one that is full and complete, in and as, itself. It starts and ends in the arena of the visual.
As an aside here, we marvel at a good actor’s work; they possess a character. We believe in the illusion they create, yet we are simultaneously aware of the humanity coming from them through their characterisation. We can relate to them and find aspects of our own human story in their portrayal. So too, is the case in a good work of art – not necessarily present in any narrative or with any symbolism, simply in the ‘feel’ of it. We know it when we see it, so to speak. The way forms or colours have been articulated, the scale, the textures – all this ‘visual food’ satisfies our appetite.
I would venture the point that a painting should be a consequence of the decisions made in response to colour as a visual force, dependent upon surface, and not merely as a decorative element. I believe also that closeness can only be achieved in its fullest sense when these colour forces are working together to create a summative – greater – force. The articulation of these forces through surface and colour control, I would define as “drawing.” I have begun to realise that this – elusive – summative force is directly comparable to the fluid, moving space of sight. Painting is a static art form, yet it is overtly and covertly informed by our moving field of vision. This visual information is then synthesised by the artist through the processes of painting. The greater the synthesis, the closer the painting feels, I believe. Displays of fastidious techniques, self-conscious stylisation, or even imposed formats are all factors that can push us visually further and further away from a work. This distancing weakens the work’s visual potency and a dwindling of its latent humanity follows. Some observers will settle for this distancing though, subconsciously perhaps feeling more comfortable with art when it is perceptually more distant? I think it is easier even, to write about art when it is perceptually further away too – distance seems to afford an easier access and often helps facilitate a convenient understanding in trite, transmutable terms. Consider the reams of words written in defence of poor art (there is an inversely proportionate link I’m sure). The best, most advanced works are incredibly difficult to describe, moving from the visual into the verbal is not straightforward; whereas too often we see a lazy figuration, so called abstract “vernacular based” works with cheesy references to objects, people or places, kitsch subject matter, all lending themselves seamlessly to uncritical description – this is usually work where irony has become a refuge. Visual art seems unfortunately prone to this sort of cultural mugging.
An artist should respond critically to the materials they use, and through this response, stretch the physical qualities of these materials to their limits and thus explore their potency as materials for art making. Matisse thoughtfully noted this approach as understanding “the purity of the means of expression.” Degrees of expressiveness – if there are such things - could be said to manifest themselves in a work of art, as degrees of closeness. We can feel the humanity in a work of art through its closeness.
I have described how painting and sculpture are affected by our field of vision in their conception and execution, yet I wonder how much do they really have in common as art forms (if anything)? If you are a painter how different is that sculptural hat and vice-versa? I see painters often who make sculpture that is a three-dimensional approximation of their paintings, rather than existing as sculptural works which do something with real space. Conversely, sculptors can be equally guilty of painting out three-dimensional relationships in which colour is subjugated to a ” literal – spatial” descriptive role. Colour can generate space in unpredictable ways – it needn’t be choreographed.
I mentioned in the “What’s Abstract about Art” thread that due to the nature of sculpture and its multiple viewpoints, the relationship of seeing to making is possibly in a more advanced state as a product of its modus operandi, whereas we painters can often end up producing a spatial stasis by comparison. Sometimes it’s in the overarching, stifling appearance of a format, sometimes perhaps the self-consciously energetic approach, which involves much hit and hope and ending up with relatively little to show for all this attack. Another thing I have noted (and you can try this on a painting) the main field of activity is often a few centimetres inside the edges. Incidents sort of arrive at the edges but run out of steam by the time they get there. Advanced art has always acknowledged the importance of edge, but I am not sure if the problem has been solved with real conviction yet. Depth has replaced space too. Depth is a product of imagery, screens and illustrations. Space as felt by moving sight is a prize greater than staged or even accidental illusions of depth. The repoussoir devices and atmospheres of landscape often flavour even the better abstract art and the flip side of shallow-space overallness tends to undermine potentially more inventive, unpredictable spatial qualities. Cubist painting, as I mentioned in that thread, was dogged by a centralised pictorial weighting, often struggled with the corners and ended up merely filling space with awkward – literal – planes of colour rather than describing or discovering it as a palpable entity. Cubist space has cast a long shadow over abstract artists who have been happy to work in its shade. There is something here that makes me consider that synthesis can turn into artifice when discovery is not present, and cubism ultimately presented artificially “composed” rather than “discovered” spaces. A monocular space similar in feel to that of the fixed viewpoint or the single lens.
Being attuned to unpredictability is dependent upon having the confidence to ride out the shocks and uncertainty that go hand in hand with discovery. We could bring the notion of closeness back at this point, as maybe the visual quality needed to provide reassurance in the face of this uncertainty. There is more to discover in art – it should always be a work in progress. We need to remind ourselves of this. Looking at art from previous centuries is a sort of “communion” with the past that can surprise us in unforeseen ways. Think of a corkscrew turning in spirals through space – this corkscrew could represent art being made, constantly moving forwards as we look at it from a side-on viewpoint, veering up and down yet with ultimately, moving in a linear direction – our conventional notion of time passing. Now imagine moving around to one end of the corkscrew and we can see it turning in circles forever crossing imaginary radii which could be considered each as the different themes, approaches, whatever you want to call them, of art. From this viewpoint, art continues to cover the same impetuses, just at different times. This is why we can relate to it so strongly, so visually, on equally human terms. The best of art is always relevant, whenever or wherever it was made.
Look at the paintings Matisse made after the Second World War, known collectively as the Vence Interiors 1946-48. These are a touchstone for me for the kind of closeness that I have been describing. (An image of Matisse’s Deux Fillettes, Fond Jaune et Rouge, 1947 is here) In these paintings you see a quite different kind of space. Light behaves oddly here. When you see one of these in the flesh you fully appreciate this phenomena. It’s as if light reflects and ‘bends’ in a slightly convex way outwards causing the colour sensation of the picture plane to settle just in front of the surface – not as a cheap optical trick but as a physical sense of real, even, super-real space. Colour here creates a luminosity through the sum of its forces, and in doing so equals the luminosity we feel through all sight. There is simply nothing like them in describing space, handling paint, and orchestrating colour, all in one hit. They glow incandescently. Before Matisse, luminosity tended to be merely an effect created through localised – atmospheric-style colour relationships – you hear phrases about how light has been “captured.” This is tonal colour really.
Colour can be a light generator too though and not merely a painterly effect. I am persuaded Matisse was able to do this because he constantly looked and recorded as he did so. By bouncing his glances off the multitude of fabrics, furniture, objects, flowers, interiors, windows, mirrors and figures that he set up, he peppered his canvases with complex incident and seemingly in-exhaustive space-defining relationships. All this studio stuff gave him things to react to, and to invent with. Forms were absorbed into his muscle memory to be called upon spontaneously when he moved paint, or eventually cut paper. How can this fullness of space, this richness of incident be achieved without these prompts? Could an abstract artist gain a comparably expressive kind of muscle memory? And how can space be made that is part of our human visual sensibility rather than as an illustration of depth illusion, which panders more to the cerebral than the visceral?
As I have stated a good work of art is always made through a process of discovery, and as such is able to regenerate itself for successive ages and become non-culture specific. By this I mean, we are able to find fresh takes on it through the new viewfinders we create, as we in turn make our own art. Anecdote and symbol may be part of an educated mind’s codex, but humanity will out through the facts of the visual first and lastly.
Recently, I have made several visits to London to see the Diana and Castillo by Titian in the National Gallery. It is a stunning painting with a heady, sweaty-like intensity. Look closely at how the weave of space never breaks the picture plane. Titian can simultaneously make heavy fabric droop and fall and turn in space without becoming ‘sculptural’; it is three-dimensional yes but on painting’s terms not sculpture’s. Titian was the master at creating a wholeness in space and colour. The transitions of one body to another, dogs which pop up as inventive space-filling devices to maintain rhythms, and figures prone to propel ever more complex internal arabesques. The space is breathable yet entirely synthetic and artificial in conception. How does he do this? We can look at his works and map his development from early, more heavily composed, almost strategic paintings to the later ones that are “found” through the workings of the painting. He really dragged these forms out of the paint, creating the picture space and adjusting things as he worked. This fluidity became the essence of the work. Maybe there is a clue here? I am reminded of the sentiment of odyssey – you will find a treasure but not the one you necessarily seek. You can’t second guess your art. You have to make it.
I want to return finally to that point of sculpture and its relationship to painting. Wholeness is a prize in painting which may be achieved as I have suggested in its fullest sense through the closeness of the colour experience. I am still in the belief that the quality of wholeness is a relevant pursuit to painting, yet one that is remarkably difficult to achieve (especially the more challenge you take on). How can a sculpture gain this sense of wholeness or rather why should it?
Much advanced abstract sculpture has primarily concerned itself with the qualities of objectness, which, although is an approach that can still produce works to engage and impress, is not really developing the full potential of the medium. If a sculpture is to be truly challenging it needs to go beyond this approach and do something more urgent with space, move a viewer around it more, and through this movement set up relationships that cause conflicts as much as resolutions. This moving, relational, give and take is dynamic not static. Changeability is surely a virtue in a sculpture. I want to move when I see it, find its rhythms and be surprised as I move around it. If it has any awkwardness, this may not necessarily be a weakness, it may well be a marker for a greater completeness that is revealed through the continuity of time spent in visual dialogue with the work – an acidic note that sharpens a creamier one so to speak. Dealing with relational conflicts is something that sculpture may offer painting as another way forward too. Seeing an element as a force, in the way that colour can be perceived in a painting, is an offering coming the other way maybe. Sculptures should aspire to “completeness” rather than “wholeness” perhaps? Completeness would thus be time-dependent.
Those actors I mentioned earlier might have their good sides, sculptures needn’t be so vain. If a painting needs to open out space by creating a cohesive sense of light, a sculpture needs to open out space by creating a cohesive sense of time.