My old friend, the philistine, is most impressed by realist painting. “Why can’t you paint a tree that looks like a tree?” he says. I try to point out that painting never looks real to me, its just a set of devices that aspire to be more than the sum of their parts. My friend wants something he recognises, that he can believe in. I remember when every film I watched seemed real, now none of them do. “What is painting for?” he asks. Its quality, I say, is beyond comprehension, and the most difficult thing to achieve isn’t realism – that’s something any old hack can achieve – its all-overness.
“All-overness?” I’m trying to explain to him. Every part of the surface is held in a tension without breaking the plane. I’m having to qualify all-overness, with regard to say Rembrandt say, or Giacometti: they’re the painters where the solid forms emerge sculpturally from a ground. But all-overness, where the visual plane becomes a kind of scrim, or meniscus, as though reality, rather than a set of objects set in space, becomes a suspended field – think of Vermeer, or Cezanne, or how with the abstract expressionists all-overness became the singular condition. Freed of having to represent things, abstract painting could concentrate on its own essence, and its essence is to keep the eye moving around in a continuous flow, never stopping, never running out of energy, like a kind of perpetual motion machine. Or maybe because all-overness is the essential condition of illusionism, that rather than perspective, or foregrounds and backgrounds or shading, painting becomes a convincing illusion when it becomes all-over and seems to float in front of itself, suspended in the air. Reality becomes a field, even Uccello, who invented perspective, knew this. All-overness is a greater illusion of reality than realism because reality is all-over, we’re surrounded on all sides by infinity. Realism can be simulated, it’s relatively easy to copy a photograph, but how do you give it the quality of all-overness, how do you give the grin back to the Cheshire cat?
My friend is staring into the bubbles in his pint. It’s not romantic twaddle, I’m saying – all-overness is a quality that can be drawn out of anything, a doodle, a stain, a meandering drip, the most quotidian black and white photograph, it has the effect of turning the image back into a question, like suspending an image into a state of ambiguity, or giving the simplest geometry a floating quality – even the zips in Barnett Newman’s zip paintings are themselves fields, held by the surrounding fields of colour. It turns the tables on meaning because it has the effect of effacing the particular meanings of the image and elevating the image into a state of contemplation, as though you are able to contemplate something without being implicated in it, without it looking back at you and imposing itself upon you. “Painting is a laying down of the gaze” as Lacan said, but that becomes clear when you understand that the gaze is not your gaze but the gaze of things that gaze back at you, and painting is a way of suspending the way that the things of the world gaze back at you with all their meanings, all their implications and threats. Painting doesn’t so much annihilate meaning as suspend it and this may be why painting is such an anathema to conservative, rational thinkers. Wasn’t it Adorno who defined conservative thinking as “intolerance of ambiguity”? Yet ambiguity is the condition that brings relief from all the meanings in the world, relief from ideology and rational delusions.
Suspending, floating the image in the field of the painting, so we’re not implicated by the particularity of this particular woman but touched by the tilt of her head, a gesture as ephemeral as the ephemerality of the image, or the anonymous man, the staring man, who no longer stares at you but stares into nowhere, an all-over nowhere, into the nowhere that frees him from the particular. Similarly, if you stare at the image in a newspaper, it becomes a field of raster-dots, the image formed by the conjoining lines that connect each dot and fill the space between them in varying degrees, which creates from a distance the precise tones of the photograph, recreating the image out of the abstract field. This device of creating the image out of a field of conjoined or disconnected dots, or dots bleeding into each other, creates a transparent image, an image you can see through, so you can see the transparent layers beneath, layers of effervescent gestures and madly meandering drips, moving in many different directions at once.
“It’s all very well,” my friend says, “but a tree is still a tree. It’s all very well quoting Lacan and Adorno, and describing the qualities and ambiguities of painting, but surely things are simpler than that. I don’t necessarily want cod-transcendentalism, though I understand this quality you are describing, this all-overness, is elusive and hard to achieve. Sometimes I take a photograph and it hints at such a quality but most of the pictures on my i-phone are pretty ordinary. I like the way photographs frame the world and name things and I like the way I can take a snap of my daughter and she stands in alignment with the picture plane and sticks up her thumb and there she is. I really just want to name things, I want to call a tree a tree.” But I’m determined to prove to him that great paintings are more matter of fact than he is, that you can make a painting by squeezing and scraping the layers of paint with a squeegee, and the bobbles and buboes of paint that break up the surface, breaking through the colour that lies on top of them, or through the gestures made with a brush that reinforce the surface without ever leaving their matter-of fact condition. Through these pure relationships the parts become a whole.
Take this boring photograph of some trees, for example, this photograph of a burning candle, this farmhouse which is so familiar in its banality, so everyday it feels like home. If you painted it with enough subtlety, with enough neutrality, so the fields of paint conjoined with each other in an equally balanced way, the scrumbled leaves which are smoothed out by the fan brush, leaving tiny areas of impasto still breaking through the surface, if you could paint the photograph with an equalising touch it would lift, it would float, without losing its matter-of fact quality, without having to artificially enhance it with some kind of artistry, like an English landscape painter who might drench the scene in some ghastly wistful melancholia, some dreadful romantic nostalgia. Or take this network of drips, with more drips on top and below, a perfectly controlled scattering of red circles of dripped paint; an invented network, a reality without hierarchy, where the centre dissipates and disperses into multiple parts. The randomness becomes uncanny, the mind wants to reform the patterns back into something familiar, but the artist has got there first – heads appear, homunculi, alien life forms, strange microcosmic visions, where curlicues of paint become hails of fire, raining down upon an unfamiliar cartography.
It’s not realism that painting aspires to, or meaning; these are the qualities painting wants to avoid. No expression, no heroics. No empiricism, no reality. No ideals, no nihilism. No aspiration, no positivism, no negation.
“So what’s left?” my friend says, “what is left for painting to do?”
Everything, I reply. Everything that painting has ever done. Why did the Neolithic cave dwellers paint bison on the wall of their cave? Nobody knows. But one thing that has always struck me about cave painting is that it was painted by the light of a fire. The flickering light from the fire would create the illusion of movement in the static images painted on the walls. Why did people need this? Not to create meaning but to escape from it. It must have been claustrophobic in those caves. There was no freedom, every day was another hunt for food, the bison were quarry. But in their paintings the cave dwellers let them escape, they set them free.
“I don’t know,” my friend says, “my mind seems to have turned blank.”
Precisely, I say, that is precisely the condition we want to achieve.