Here is a painting; what, though, is it about?
As a preliminary to a first consideration, I must first establish the background to this very recent work: I had begun to paint portraits of my wife and two daughters a few years ago. One of the main reasons I decided to do this was because I wanted to avoid contrivance or inauthenticity: in particular, I wanted to focus on that which I knew from direct experience and not an ‘idea’ (such as ‘absence’ or ‘tension’ or ‘place’ or ‘angst’) or anything particularly metaphysical; I had also become more and more alerted to the way art seemed to be functioning in a neo-liberal world that appears to exploit every resource for material gain and/or the pursuit of pleasure. In relation to this, I had been persuaded by the observations of writers such as Lippard (1973) that even the most subversive works of art were likely to be ‘captured’ and domesticated by the exclusive locales of economic and cultural power; art had become a part of a febrile global ‘society of the spectacle’ – a distraction, a curiosity and an entertainment. In a way it, art (or at least much art) seemed to reflect a strange admixture of exploitation and pleasure. In addition to this, my early engagement with art during my foundational years at the University for the Creative Arts had exposed me to the basic problem of infinity: there is, as a matter of fact, an infinite number of ways of ‘making’ art. In the face of all this, what was I to do?
The answer lay in one of the things in which I still have confidence. It is this:
A part of my earlier education had been a long engagement with the Human Potential Research Project in the Department of Education at the University of Surrey; a core principle of its remarkable approach to the theory and practice of ‘being human’ and of ‘human being’ was the emphasis upon the reality of personal experience. If there was anything we could trust in the world then it was, provided we did not deceive ourselves, the reality of our ongoing and felt experience. In fact, the nature and character of our feelings and their connection to our thoughts and imaginings was the foundational ‘place’ in which to ‘be’ and ultimately to ‘come from’ in relation to the ways in which we might engage with others; in consequence, I had learned to be wary of my apparent and socially-constructed values and beliefs simply because they may have been ‘one-step removed’ from my direct experience; and, on top of this, I had become increasingly aware that I tended to revise my beliefs the more I lived and learned.
Against this backdrop, the way I solved the problem (of what I was to manifest in art) was to decide on painting the people I knew best. This I did. But after a while I was obliged to ask: what sort of painting was I actually bringing into being? Because I was uncertain as to how, in truth, to answer this, I only painted two or three canvasses in the second year of my MA. But then I happened to see a programme on the television about Lucian Freud and it rekindled my desire to paint: I immediately painted a study of my wife that, notionally, concerned serenity and repose, reflection and mystery; in short, it concerned ‘subjectivity’. I think it was partly influenced by Ocie Elliot’s song ‘Slow tide’ and probably by the inevitable and remorseless slowing down of my own life. (I like to spend time in a kind of contemplative dreaminess!) It was also a reflection of my sense that other people always remain unknowable and that, at best, we meet each other in the liminal space between the constellations of our separate being. Overall, it was at this point (that is, in the immediate aftermath of completing the first full draft of the painting) that I found myself re-visiting John Berger’s (1972) ‘Ways of seeing’. I wanted, first, to make sure that I had fully grasped Berger’s points of view, and secondly to apply his theoretical concepts to my own ‘ways of seeing’. I wanted to uncover exactly what I was doing in the making of the portraits of my wife and daughters. I wanted to consider whether or not I was beyond the typical expressions of the ‘male gaze’.
However, whatever it is that I discover about what might really be going on in this painting I hope it might feature in my final degree show … because it is something which pleases me …
End note: I also happened, very recently, to encounter the following remark by the potter, Gareth Mason, which nicely coincides with my interest in expressions of ‘subjectivity’. He wrote:
‘Some aspect of humanity has always needed the dark inner regions, the cave, the veiled, the liminal space between worlds, between states, between known and unknown. Our need for mystery is as potent today as it ever has been and this primitivity of suggestion is important to me; I believe in it. Consequently the interior (of the pot) remains as important to me as the exterior; it is a twilight space, reminiscent of other intimacies, where one feels one should not look but which fascinates nonetheless. Loaded with potential the interior is a conduit to what Gaston Bachelard described as “Cellar of dreams”‘ (Gareth Mason, 2020: 112)
Reference: Mason, G. (2020) ‘A decade in cahoots’, New York: Jason Jacques Gallery Press