Ideation of a Self in Checkmate, oils on wood panel, 8x6in — Caitlyn Rooke

On Painting

I am somewhat reticent to share the following ideas, as I do not want to give the impression that I think they are my ideas. We are what we consume and lately I’ve been consuming a great deal of ideas from various artists and thinkers and it’s likely that I’ve neglected to give credit where it’s due out of a confusion of memory (cryptomnesia). But some authors/artists whose words I hear echoing about are Williams James, Oliver Sacks, Adam Phillips, Vincent Desiderio, Annie Dillard.

That said, I’ve been thinking about painting. Particularly in consideration of the why, the how, the what of, and the what for. As I’ve mainly been interested in realism and representational painting in the past, that seems a good place to start.

Realism provides a correctness that is easily judged. And as such a comfortability within a set of rules, providing an easy system by which to make comparative judgements. Creating a work that is convincing within itself, as a thing in and of itself, rather than the thing it is depicting, is much more difficult to make judgements about. A strict and unquestioning adherence to realism can and does promote a fanatical system of judgement (often happily voiced in pejorative tones towards works outside of its church).

There are realist artists, past and present, whose work I love and admire greatly. And those are typically the ones who see their pursuit of painting to be a pursuit of truth. This interests me because I’m not sure an objective truth exists. We may all agree that the model is nude, male, with brown eyes. But, multiple artists see the same subject and produce multiple kinds of truths, based on the most interesting problem they find in the model. It may be the light, it may be the translucency of skin, it may be the emotional tenor of the person. Therefore it is realism as a tool for discovering something about their subject. It is a puzzle and a genuinely captivating one that has many solutions, or many truths.

What I am becoming more and more interested in however, is seeing how to take the abstract principles of realism, or the principles of representational painting, or this pursuit of truth, to their simplest extremities, which is potentially abstract realism, or abstracted figurative representation. And there are plenty of artists, past and present, who work within the realm of abstract realism. But abstract realism is incredibly broad and so it’s necessary to ask myself some questions.

Why paint representationally to any degree, or even at all? Why not paint purely abstract works? Possibly because I love consuming stories, making it only natural to want to create stories. Though I don’t necessarily need figures to tell stories, not to mention that’s getting into territory where the subject becomes decidedly more important than the way in which it is painted. Even if the artist is thinking abstractly to achieve realism, which most skilled realists say they do, most viewers will still only see a vase of flowers. And given how quickly our brain turns images into concepts (13 milliseconds according to one study ₁), I can’t help but wonder how scrolling through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook is affecting my desire to create an image that forces the viewer to slow down, an image that can’t be so easily digested as a generality…a flower pot, a nude model, a landscape…but something that requires more imagination and exploration, but which still invokes curiosity, the way that images of humans do ₂.

Or perhaps it’s the deception of representation that I enjoy. The deceptive representation of reality as painted through an idiosyncratic lens and the discoveries made through painting the deceptions. And the discoveries made by the viewers whose brains are turned on differently when they see people vs. pure colors. Or even when they are presented with abstraction and still manage to see people, an effect called pareidolia, i.e. seeing the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast.

I don’t necessarily know the answers to these questions and provocations, but I think some clarification may be found in paint application. Perhaps, one answer lies in making work which may be naive to “realism” (to some degree) but which is visually literate. An exceptional painting, like writing, is succinct. It has no more and no less than what is integral. And of course, in order to achieve clarity and brevity, a clear vision is required. For me, I am discovering that a worded theme is not sufficient as a starting point, nor is a superficial look. I want a cohesive vision that creates an inseparable impression of the concept and the technique.

What follows next of course, is me trying to work these ideas out in paint. Which likely means that I will make a lot of bad paintings and then hopefully a few decent ones.