Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Dead End of Reason

So, I blew right past the first anniversary of this blog without noticing. Woo hoo! One year of posting not nearly enough!

OK, so I'm working on a painting. Here's the painting so far:

The model is Alley, about whom I've written before. The canvas you're looking at is 5 feet tall by 3 feet across, and it's actually the left half of a two-canvas painting. Alley appears in a reversed pose in the second canvas, also 5x3, and the two of her are holding hands.

I don't know about you, but I learn about my own paintings as I paint them. They generally start with the simplest thing - some kind of an image, even just a combination of colors, which has no concepts attached. I'll just be walking along, and this idea will pop into my head, and I'll like it enough to paint it.

So I had no idea what this Alley painting was about when I started it. But it's been showing itself to me as I painted. First, I found out why I thought to have Alley stand like that. Here's the reason:

That's Augustus St-Gaudens's Diana, originally designed for Stanford White's Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. I've seen it many times at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and had gotten its 19th-century classicism of figure stuck in my head. This classicism is different from actual Greek classical sculpture; there is something sleeker and thinner about it. The forms are less pronounced, certain facial characteristics (a more heart-shaped face, a narrower nose, eyes more widely spaced) are common to the genre but not to its Greek origin.

Alley, from the angle in my painting, looks like this angle on the Diana. Let's look at another angle so you can see how similarly their torsos are structured:

Well, OK. I learned that. So I started thinking about why, beyond the resemblance, this St-Gaudens image resonated with me. I placed the cultural context of the Diana against the lighting I chose for Alley's face. She has that proud pseudo-Greek forthright gaze, but her eye is sunk in darkness - she herself is lit, but she is looking into the dark.

To me, this second element completed the concept I was seeking. The painting is about the dead end of reason. The Diana represents for me the last great gasp of baroque classicism, of enlightenment idealism. Choking beneath the weeds of the modern, this sculpture was a final burst of decadent creativity from a dying worldview, a worldview based in the concept that rational analysis was a legitimate method, and the steadfast application of this method could reveal a truth, called The Truth. It was a worldview that was profoundly shadowless. Just as Socrates considers, and then dismisses, the very possibility of evil, so this rationalistic worldview did not accept that unreason might abide, might be built into the fabric of things. All present irrationalities were problems not yet solved.

This is a worldview with which I have a lot of sympathy, even though it was an attenuated and aestheticized echo of itself by the time St-Gaudens came along.

Now, this Alley I have groped my way into showing, is an Alley coming from the land of bright shadows, of form and optimism, but her eye is shadowed because she is looking into darkness. I might like to live in the aerodynamic world of St-Gaudens, but I cannot; I know what has happened since. So my variant on this goddess looks into the dark. She is standing at the very dead end of reason.

This is what the painting means to me now - sure. But the painting is less than half done. The second Alley faces the first one, and her face is lit. Perhaps I will find out that this is hopeful. But I think I will find out that it is uncanny. The two of them mirror one another, and they will stand (eventually) in an intricate, abandoned maze of arches and staircases. I think that I will find, in the end, that this is a painting about the fearfulness of analysis in a region that is beyond analysis. In this region, to persist in analysis is itself unreasonable. Reason, in this context, is like an unwelcome tumor. The brutal irrationality of the space refracts reason, producing two where there was one. Beauty, form, hope, humanity - all of them are unwelcome in the cold inhumanity of the seething, irreducible complexity of the uncharted maze.

It is just as likely, however, that I will conclude the painting means something else entirely. In the meantime, I am simply painting it.


I meant to include this link - it's a post describing a very similar process which my friend Kevin Mizner went through in a painting he's working on:

I did think to write this post before reading his, but I would say I'm damn near ripping him off. The similarities and contrasts are worth a ponder if you're a painter yourself. He writes well about the evolution of his painting.


Much, much more on the rather dubious contentions made in this post, here.


  1. Congratulations on your blog's anniversary. I enjoy it a lot since I discovered it.

    I love this painting, but you knew that. I love that you discover things about your paintings - and why you paint them the way you do - throughout the process. A lot of this is over my head and I'll have to read it a couple times more, but I wanted to chime in with congrats and to express my admiration for your painting and your ability and willingness to share your thoughts about it.

  2. "I enjoy it a lot since I discovered it?" What the hell kind of sentence is that? English, surprisingly, is my first and only language.

  3. Happy Anniversary! You know, I think a painting has three meanings: What we originally wanted, what it became, and what the viewer thinks.

  4. Ed - we don't discriminate here in favor of those who can write proper English. I'm really glad you enjoy it a lot since you discovered it. And please keep in mind that what at first might seem over your head might, in actual fact, just be incoherence dolled up with fancy words. I was super-tired when I wrote this so I was kind of riffing randomly on themes I'd been pondering.

    Kevin - thanks for the good wishes! I think you are right about these three meanings, although each one can also include many meanings in itself. I have this sneaking suspicion there's a whole branch of literary theory devoted to this very issue, which I have been assiduously avoiding in order to not have to come to the conclusion that the entire concept of meaning is riddled with problems. I don't think it is, even though I am right with you on the distinctions you are making.

  5. I think the standard art historical sequence would associate the discarding of the notion of capital-T Truth to the postmodern period beginning in the mid-20th century, whereas the 19th century transition was more about letting go of the idea that a nude had to be saddled with a lot of heavy symbolism, because maybe sometimes a nude is just a nude. It seems to me that contemporary art has returned to the old-fashioned puritanical attitude that aesthetics is not a sufficient basis for art and that some dour analytical idea has to be there because beauty is an exploitive lie and god forbid anybody simply enjoy contemplating loveliness and wonder. Of course in the 19th century the baggage was allegorical whereas now it's ironic or political or psychiatric. I kind of enjoy reading your thoughts about the dead end of reason and such, but when it comes right down to it you could forget about all that and I would still appreciate that you can paint a damn fine naked lady.

  6. Kevin and Fred, if this were facebook, I would 'like' your comments here. It isn't, so I can't. But I do.

  7. Fred; old fashioned Puritanical, or ancient Greek aesthetics? The contemporary objective painters I'm hearing yell loudest about 'Beauty' are calling for a bastardized version of a Platonic Ideal, and using Modern terms like "Visual Language" and "Visual Art" to do so. Surreal. What the hell is pure visual language anyway, as if one can really remove the idea from the image? In that you can, in terms of a direct image/sensory/emotive response you move closer to Rothko than Ingres. No?

  8. MCG, what I was calling puritanical was not so much the objective painters yelling about Beauty (you're referring here to the Art Renewal Center types, perhaps?), but the broader worldwide contemporary art field that may or may not be figurative/objective, but that is judged more by its engagement with theoretical discourse (such as "interrogating representation") or other such intellectual ideas, in preference to the kinds of responses to the work that a person without special schooling might have.