Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Integrated Visual Field

OK, I've got one for you. I don't know if this is true, but I have a hunch that it is. Here's the idea:

1. Let's say you look at something. Of the visible field, your brain is only obtaining maximal information about a small area at the center of it. This part is true - I looked it up. A lot of the research, surprisingly but reasonably, derives from studies of automobile driver error. Here's a cool picture of the field of vision of the right eye, from here:

Note the macular area. This is described as the region of sharpest vision - you could say, of highest resolution sight. It's packed with receptors.

2. The macular area basically corresponds with the visual region I'm proposing, which I'd like to call the integrated visual field. Resolution is not the defining characteristic of the integrated visual field. Rather, it is the field in which the brain best comprehends data, allowing clarity in sense of proportion and of relation of objects to one another in space. Resolution is a question of information density; visual integration is a question of information parsing.

This applies in an interesting way to art. When you are drawing something, you can only properly represent proportions inside of the integrated visual field. The phenomenon exists between your eye and the subject, and more importantly, between your eye and the paper or canvas.

Now, as usual, I've tested proposition 2 at Maidman Laboratories (where results are neither verifiable nor reproducible). But I started pondering the idea recently, when I drew this:

This was a preparatory sketch for a painting. What's interesting about this sketch is that the proportions are very close to photographically exact, and yet the paper is 22"x15." Ordinarily, when I draw on paper this size, I make some kind of grotesque error of proportion, basing my work as I do on the shape procedure. Here's a recent drawing of Leah on paper of this size:

This drawing has some things to recommend it, but it has so many problems of strict representation that it's really more problem than representation. Her head is too small. Her left arm (our right) is too thick. She appears to be missing the upper part of her ribcage. There is very little left to do with this drawing except to pursue the Matisse path of heightening the problems and making something expressive out of them:

Henri Matisse, Large Reclining Nude/The Pink Nude, 1935
Oil on canvas, 26" x 36.5", The Baltimore Museum of Art

There was a difference in circumstance between my drawings 1 and 2. I was sitting when I did drawing 2 - the Leah drawing - with the paper taped to a board on my lap. To get the perspective I needed for drawing 1, I had to stand, and I put the paper on a table a little below waist level. I was at least a foot farther from the paper for drawing 1 than for drawing 2.

If, for the sake of argument, we accept my proposition, this difference in distance meant that the paper on which I drew drawing 1 (the male nude) was more entirely inside my integrated visual field than the paper on which I drew drawing 2 (the Leah picture).

That is very interesting.

I have no trouble drawing small faces and small figures with the paper on a board in my lap. Here's a 10-minute sketch, maybe five inches tall:

And here's a 20-minute sketch, also five or six inches tall:

The restricted size of the images means that they were inside my integrated visual field.

Now, if this concept is something like true, then it explains a lot of other phenomena in the arts. Here are a few:

1. Painters step back from their canvases. There are a lot of reasons to do this - to see how the brushstrokes look at the expected viewing distance, how the colors and values are working together. But I would contend that a major reason is to move the entire canvas into the integrated visual field. It's the only way to tell whether the figures make the sense intended - whether you're a proportionist like David or an expressionist like Matisse.

2. The sight-size method. This is a method at which I have always sniffed, being a snob and an ignorant one at that, which involves placing the paper or canvas on an easel at such a distance from the eye that the image can be made to appear exactly the same size as the subject:

It is associated with obsessive and quasi-mechanical measurement. There is no disputing, however, that it allows students to make extraordinarily accurate representations.

My suspicion is this - while the explicit methodology of the sight-size method involves finicky placement of subject and easel, and endless measurements, people aren't really computer programs and cannot resist some degree of natural visual processing. So the implicit power of the sight-size method is that it forces the entire drawing/painting surface into the integrated visual field of the artist. Therefore, much of the proclaimed benefit of the sight-size method, which is making largish pictures accurately, can be obtained, although more slowly, by just moving the drawing surface away from your eye.

3. The importance of analytic learning of proportions. This has been a big deal for, like, ever:

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)
from Four Books on Human Proportion

Why do artists do this? Well, not because it's so fucking interesting, let me tell you. The stated reason is a good reason - so good that it is sufficient: to understand, in an abstract and intellectual way, the very real complexities confronted by the artist when studying any given individual.

As you know, I spent a few years taking gross anatomy. And if there is one thing I learned from hacking up cadavers, it is that there is no overstating the value of attacking the specific with a strong understanding of the general. To know the general only is to know nothing, but to know the specific only is to understand nothing. Both are absolutely necessary and reinforce one another.

So the given reason for studying proportion explains its study. But let me slip a second reason in. The utility is not only in the artist-subject relation. It also resides in the artist-art relation. Which is to say, it lets the artist standing close to the canvas mimic the effects of the canvas appearing entirely inside the integrated visual field. If I can analytically say, "This part needs to be 3/5 the length of that part," I don't have to step back and make it intuitively so. I just have to measure it out properly and keep going, and the problem will take care of itself.

Careful comparison of this premise with my drawing of Leah above will reveal that I have not made any study of the rules of proportion whatsoever.

4. Hockney's problem. In his book Secret Knowledge, David Hockney proposes that artists have secretly been using the camera obscura and related optical techniques for centuries to produce accurate draughtsmanship. It's a fascinating and passionate book. Sadly, it relies on a weak and self-serving sense of historiography as, in fact, most conspiracy theories do. One of the more intriguing bits of internal evidence which Hockney cites is the tendency, in some paintings, to show slight shifts in perspective in different regions of the painting. He argues that these shifts reflect the small visual field resolvable by lens-based drawing techniques, requiring repeated shifts in lens placement, and thus perspective, to build up as a mosaic the overall visual field of the painting.

Well, Monsieur Hockney, perhaps you are right, but are looking at the wrong optical tool. The effect is only perceptible in paintings with high specificity of realistic detail. To paint that kind of detail, you have to get right up close to the canvas. And if you don't produce an analytic underdrawing using lines of perspective, then you're going to rely on a mosaic of regions of focus as you work your way over the surface of the painting, over multiple painting sessions. Any such mosaic, as my Leah drawing illustrates, will involve both perspective shifts and odd proportion issues at the boundaries between regions of stable visual integration (in my case: where the head-shoulder region meets the torso, where the length of the left arm - longer than my integrated visual field - is integrated with the width of the left arm, which lies within it, etc.).

I'm not claiming that I'm right and Hockney's wrong. I'm suggesting that Hockney's explanation is not the only available explanation, and that one consequence of the integrated visual field is an explanation of the phenomenon he cites without need for reference to external lens apparatus.


So there are a few examples for you. Let me sum up the principle by extending it: if this business about an integrated visual field is correct, then there is only one natural drawing size. The fact that drawings are different sizes occurs by two means: the variation of distance between the eye and the drawing surface, and technologies for artificial alteration of the drawing size, such as the grid, the study of proportion, and so on.

This is not to say that unnatural drawing sizes do not exist in art. Consider Stephen Wright at his most flamboyant:

Stephen Wright, Girl with Long Arm

If I'm correctly guessing what paper Steve's using here, this drawing is 90 inches tall. It is certainly not less than 45 inches tall. Steve is willfully putting himself closer to the model than his integrated visual field can handle, shattering the model into a series of regions of contradictory scale and spherical perspective. He's also willfully making the drawing bigger than his integrated visual field can handle, forcing his sense of proportion to slink off by itself and cry in a corner. The integration provided by the integrated visual field is the organic basis for our ability to freehand a drawing in mathematically correct perspective and anatomically faithful unity. Neither of these things interests Steve, so he devises methods to outwit his brain. He scales his draughtsmanship far outside his retinas' surface areas of integration, blasting apart euclidian space to evoke a subjective space approximated by the failure of the mind to unify the visual field.

That's my theory, anyway.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Web of Influences

Let me flash back to my art school experience for a second - and by art school, I mean the cafe seating area of the Borders Books and Music at 3rd and La Cienega in Los Angeles. Between 2001 and 2006, I spent a lot of evenings there. Once each evening, there would be a car crash right outside the window, owing to the bizarrely poor design of the left turn off La Cienega toward the entrance of the Borders parking lot. Eventually somebody thought to install a traffic light.

I was looking at art books and figurative painting magazines, primarily American Artist (an outfit I blog for now, actually). What I was doing was emotionally extricating myself from my indoctrination in abstraction. It was a tremendous help to find that some contemporary artists were painting the figure, which was all I ever really wanted to do. Over time, I identified and began to follow a constellation of painters. One of them was Patricia Watwood.

Brooklyn Self Portrait, oil on canvas, 24"x20", 2003

Watwood's work was not flashy. Rather, like Truffaut as a filmmaker, she was quiet and gentle in her methods. Like Truffaut, she seemed interested in reaching a clear and sympathetic understanding of her people. The muted quality of her work seemed to me both introverted and generous, like a shy person who observes those around her with deep focus.

Flora, oil on canvas, 44"x26", 2000

I never hung out with artists in Los Angeles - I hung out with models. The models have their own cohesive social scene there, which exists partly independently of the artists they work with.

Later, I moved to New York and started hanging out with artists. Among the artists I eventually met was Patricia Watwood. I don't know her well, but I know her well enough to greet her at openings, and to have told her how much her work helped me when I was becoming self-aware as a serious figurative painter.

Quite independently from that, I began painting a model, Leah, who is really an amazing model.

Day, oil on canvas, 60"x40", 2009

Leah's skilled modeling, in combination with her curvy build, made me think that Patricia might find her inspiring - I had noticed that Patricia liked to paint curvy women. So I recommended them to one another, and it turned out to be a good match.

I was eager to see the work. I like to recommend models I work with to other painters. I'm crazy about my models, and I'm crazy about other painters. I want to share them with each other - I want to see what things they can give each other, that are different from the things the models and I can give one another. I want to see those marvelous paintings...

So I looked forward to Patricia's work with Leah. As we've discussed, I'm a form painter. Patricia's a color painter. To make flesh fleshy, she carefully mixes and juxtaposes colors. It's all Greek to me, but we happened to be working on profiles of Leah at about the same time. Here's mine:

Leah, oil on canvas, 24"x20", 2010

Here's hers:

Faith in the Wilderness, oil on canvas, 16"x20" oval, 2011

I liked Patricia's better. I have wanted to do a good profile of Leah for a long time, but I thought mine looked a little awkward. Only once I was done, and looked at Patricia's piece, did I realize what the problem was. There is a particular drama to Leah's profile, but the drama manifests best when the viewer is slightly below her. My viewpoint was slightly above her, giving the portrait a static quality I wasn't going for. It's a nice portrait, but there was something specific I wanted that isn't in it, and that exact thing was in Patricia's painting.

I'm not above a little theft. I flashed back to Picasso and Matisse riffing on one another's work all the time:

As I said, I don't have any sort of close relationship with Patricia, as Picasso and Matisse had with one another. But I didn't see any reason I couldn't paint a response to her painting. So source #1 for my next Leah painting was Patricia's Leah painting.

Here's my response - I finished this a couple weeks ago:

Blue Leah #1, oil on canvas, 24"x36", 2011

This painting started with Patricia's painting, but it didn't end there. Most of my paintings are a tangle of thoughts, inspirations, responses, and influences. This one is too. Here's source #2 for the painting - a portrait by John Singer Sargent which hangs on the wall of my office and which we've previously discussed here:

A Spanish Woman, oil on canvas, 22"x18", 1879-80

I can't get away from the eye that disappears into darkness.

But that's not all - I realized, not long after I figured out the pose for this painting, that I was unconsciously replicating a pose from one of my favorite paintings. Here's source #3 for the Leah painting:

This is Study Head of a Woman by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805). It hangs to the right in the first room past the doors on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City - the room with the big painting of Antoine and Marie-Anne Lavoisier facing you when you come in. When I first saw the Study Head, with its vivid expression and vigorous swirls of thick paint on the cheek, I got very excited to have discovered Greuze. A little research sadly revealed that this was basically the best thing the man ever painted. He mostly did treacly domestic scenes which appealed to the nauseating sentimentality of the pre-revolutionary French bourgeoisie. After the Revolution, if I'm remembering my Schama correctly, he painted treacly domestic scenes which appealed to the nauseating sentimentality of the revolutionary French bourgeoisie. So if I've got it right, one of his major accomplishments as a painter was knowing which way the wind was blowing. This makes him kind of like David, but without the fawning portraits of Napoleon.

Be that as it may, this one Greuze is deeply embedded in my pantheon of paintings, and obviously, on some level I had noted Leah's resemblance to Greuze's young woman, and mimicked his composition.

But there's still another influence to unravel from this painting - and that's the cover of a book of writings by Degas:

I've had this book around for quite a long time, without having gotten around to reading much of it. However, I am very taken with the cover. I really like those pinks and blues, and I have sometimes thought, "I'd like to make a painting in this spectrum."

The Leah painting depends almost entirely on white, pink, grey, blue, and black. Only one or two sessions in did I look at it and realize that I had finally gotten around to painting in that marvelous set of Degas colors I had so long admired.

And one last dual influence - Stephen Wright and Alyssa Monks. What?! say you. How? Well, look, sometimes people say that I am writing as if I'm teaching. If this is true, then I'm mostly teaching myself. I have all kinds of ideas juddering around my head, half-formed. When I write them out, I see what they are. And then I can learn from them. I've been considering Steve's and Ms. Monks's big heads for a while. This led me to want to experiment with the premise of a big head painting. Leah's head is not so big in this painting - but it's big for me, and it's bigger than her actual head. Here, this will give you a sense of the scale:

I kind of like how it all turned out.

So those are the influences. Let me recap them for you:

Patricia Watwood, via Borders Books and Music, 2006:

Creation, oil on canvas, 36"x28", 2006

Spain, 1880:

France, 18th century:

Steve Wright, LC With Silver Cross, The Valley, 2007 or so:

Alyssa Monks, Laughing Girl, New York, 2009:

Patricia Watwood, New York, 2011:

All coming together for me in Brooklyn, July 2011:

Of all the many people in this web of influences, I most owe thanks to Leah, for letting me study her, and to Patricia, for silently, generously, continuing to help show me how.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Negative Capability

Taking a little breather from talking, strictly speaking, about painting - this week I read South African novelist J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace. I have read Coetzee before. Years ago, I read Waiting for the Barbarians. I found it so repellent I've been avoiding him ever since. But my friend R C Speck recommended Disgrace, and finding that I was between novels, and owned a copy, I took his advice.

Disgrace is significantly less violent than Waiting for the Barbarians, but no less intensely depressing. Spoilers follow for the rest of this paragraph. A mediocre literature professor and idle womanizer in contemporary South Africa seduces one of his students. He winds up dragged before the university's administration, scorns to defend himself, and is forced to resign. He spends some time on his hippie daughter's farm in the country, feeling old and unloved. He volunteers at an animal shelter, helping to kill dogs. His daughter is raped by a trio of black South Africans, an attack during which he himself is set on fire and suffers minor burns. The daughter refuses to report the crime. He argues with her about it. He goes back to his city for a while, and begins writing an opera about Byron. He returns to his daughter. She is pregnant. They continue to quarrel. The opera flags. He resumes killing dogs.

Coetzee, in my limited experience of his work, seems to be a poet of the unprotected outlands, of the place where the hopes of civilization go to be defeated, and die. The defeat he describes is not a matter of a conflict fought and lost, but rather a murky overwhelming of frames of reference, ending with the exemplars of civilization abandoning whatever principles they thought they subscribed to, and colluding in their own destruction.

Overlying this political dimension of his work is a kind of physical-ontological dimension, a sense of decay, of dissolution, of an unfeeling wilderness rich in entropy gradually encroaching on the withered remains of humanity. He describes age in such a way as to make one hope to die young.

Let me be frank with you. I hate J. M. Coetzee and I object to every single thing he stands for.

Now, ordinarily, that's enough for me. But this week, during my correspondence with Steve Wright, he made this remark:

Freud's work ... [is] physically fierce and churning like life ... while still representing life in an illustration way. That's why it's so much more powerful than just a rendering and hits you so hard as great art (I mean to me, art is about expressing the pathos of Life on all wavelengths as strongly to the viewer as you can).

I am generally diplomatic about dislikes I have for living artists, but I think you may have figured out by now that I hate Lucien Freud. How I hate that man's work! And in fact, I hate Lucien Freud in a way very similar to the way I hate J. M. Coetzee. Like Coetzee, Freud's emotional spectrum runs all the way from revulsion to despair. Freud's people, like Coetzee's people, are overrun by age, by slackness, by the degeneration of the organism into a mass of uncoordinated, rampaging, short-lived impulses (on the spiritual plane) and globules of fat (on the physical plane).

Freud and Coetzee seem to me to represent a civilization - European civilization - already well into its senility, its intellectual impoverishment, its final collapse and disappearance from the face of the Earth. They indulge in the perversities, the voluptuous fantasies, of a dying culture. They fetishize their enemies, they abase themselves, they scrounge around for any scrap of aspiration remaining and, when they find it, they shit on it. I once saw a wildcat in the zoo. The cat had lost its mind, and paced a circuit round its cage with unvarying fidelity, so that the circuit was worn bare of grass. Freud and Coetzee are like this cat; they have refined the madness of this cat into art.

As I say, ordinarily this is enough for me. You know my work by now; you know how I think. I do not feel the pressure of time and decay any less than you, but when I look outward, I see things that are not yet corrupted. When I look inward, I see things that are not only uncorrupted, but incorruptible. My eye goes to these things - to beauty of form, to love, to clarity. I think these are worthwhile things; I think they are real things. If, like Coetzee's people, the day comes that I am no longer graced to behold or express these things, the failure will be mine, not theirs; they will still inhere in the nature of being, even if they do not reside in me.

I am warlike by nature. When Freud sees decay, he embraces it. When Coetzee sees injustice, he submits to it. For my part, I think that there is much in the world that deserves a strong beating on the head with a stick; and if I, and what I am for, are to go down, I should prefer to go down doing grievous damage to whatever is against me, and what I am for.

But this is who I am personally. Now we are at the doorstep of a concept I raised once before, my friend R C Speck's idiosyncratic description of negative capability:

The capability of the person partaking of a work of art to suspend ordinary ethical judgments in contemplation of the characters, actions, and ideas depicted therein.

I thought I was very good at negative capability. But finishing Disgrace over a bagel this morning, and recalling Steve's comment about Freud, I realized that really, what I'm good at is berating other people to show negative capability. Ordinarily this happens in the context of these other people objecting to some bit of artwork that I like - Sargent's Madame X, in the case of the original post on the subject.

When the topic is work that I personally object to, my negative-capability-fu is actually very weak. For instance, I have never liked early Scorsese. I dismiss him and his disgusting characters as the "cinema of bad people doing bad things to each other" - and this has been enough for me to not have to think about them. Who really gives a damn about Travis Bickle?

The same issue applies to Freud and Coetzee. I have systematically substituted one scale of judgment - the scale of ethics - for the appropriate scale of judgment - the scale of quality. You ask me, "Do you agree with Freud and Coetzee?" I shout, "Hell no!" But then you ask me, as Steve and Speck ask me, "Do Freud and Coetzee make work that is good - that, in passages, is great?" Then I mumble, "Uh, yeah, yeah, sure." You say, "I can't hear you." I say, "Yes, dammit, they really are quite good, sometimes great."

Disgrace is a dazzling performance, packing a stunning amount of resonance into an absolute minimum of narrative, of language. Freud's paintings are incredible achievements - those built-up surfaces which are, actually, excavations, zones of finite breadth but unbounded depth of information.

I do not like their work; I do not accept their work. Their work is not even recognizable to me, except in the faintest echoes - it does not correspond with points in my own territory, as the work I like corresponds. But if I'm to be serious about this negative capability business - and I think I must be, if I am to be serious about art itself - then I must reluctantly expand myself to make room for them as well. The work matches, point for point, the demands of art, and worse, it has the bloody mark of the truth on its lintel.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Rock and Roll

I'm going to have to back up - way up - to take a running leap at this topic.

In 1992, I arrived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina for college. Coming from Toronto, Chapel Hill seemed like a green paradise. It's a very inviting place to those not native to it. So inviting that, after college, there is a tradition of hanging out for a year or two while you sort out your life. There's no shortage of multi-bedroom rental houses and apartments near the university, perfect for the aimless, low-budget life of the post-collegiate.

Apart from being a green paradise, Chapel Hill, at least in the 90's, was a center of talent and innovation in rock. This center had a number of nuclei embedded in it. One of them was WXYC, the college radio station, staffed by an enormous crew of student and graduated DJ's enthusiastically one-upping each other in esoterica.

While Chapel Hill is an inviting place to stay, it is also understood that at a certain point it will make it clear to you that it is time to get off your ass. One of the little signals that Chapel Hill sends you to get your act together is that you wake up one day and most of your remaining friends are WXYC DJ's.

Eight people, including me, lived in the last house I lived in in Chapel Hill. The other seven were WXYC DJ's.

While it was apparent that I was now putting off adulthood, this was also the period during which I listened to the most, and the most diverse, rock I have ever heard. Moreover, I actually thought about it and discussed it with my WXYC friends. One of these friends was the very Ehren Gresehover who appeared previously in my post on wit.

One time, Ehren was playing a soundtrack album called Dutch Harbor: Where the Sea Breaks Its Back. I said, "Ehren, what's interesting to me about this is that you have a melody, a structure, struggling to come out, and it is nearly overwhelmed with noise and chaos, and the drama of the music is not the evolution of the structure, as it is in classical music, but the struggle between structure and chaos." Ehren managed to make an expression combining sincere excitement for me, and eye-rolling, and replied, "Dani, this struggle you are describing is the basis for much of the concept of rock and roll."

I had a rock critic friend as well, not affiliated with WXYC, who characterized my own native musical tastes as "harpsichords on the Moon." I ran my observation about rock by him, and he commented, "Yeah, plus dicksweat."

I think you can see what he meant without my having to get into a discursus on gender. Suffice it to say that the dicksweat parameter is chosen for pungency and does not exclude girls.

So let's summarize what our visit to the spring of 1998 teaches us about rock:

1. struggle between structure and chaos
2. dicksweat

This is a very idiosyncratic definition of rock, written by a guy who is mostly about classical music. It's probably wrong, but it's the one I'll use here.

Now we leap to 2011. I'd like to discuss three artists with you, whom I see as displaying these qualities of rock and roll: Alexandra Pacula, Alyssa Monks, and Stephen Wright. Many artists display rock and roll, but for reasons I'll explain, it's tough to see if you don't study the work in person - and I've had the good fortune to study the work of all three of these painters in person.

Let's begin:

Alexandra Pacula: The Samurai Brushstroke

Economy, oil on panel, 12"x18", 2010

This is a small painting, but she tends to work big:

Now, what's interesting about this work in terms of our purpose here? Alexandra's current idiom primarily involves nighttime cityscapes, represented as if seen through a jostled camera:

Enigmatic Symphony, oil on canvas, 28"x36", 2010

When a camera jostles during an exposure, every point source of light streaks in the same path, recording the motion of the camera. In choosing this idiom, Alexandra translates the light-streak into the brushstroke. This mechanism radically foregrounds the brushstroke itself:

detail, Ardent Phenomenon, oil on canvas, 90"x108"

These brushstrokes are all visible - remember, the paintings are enormous. Alexandra has described using an entire tube of paint on a single brushstroke, and one time she thought about buying a broom to use instead of a paintbrush.

The brushstrokes are so big and distinct, in fact, that they inevitably bring to mind the act of their creation. These are bold brushstrokes, slashing across the canvas. Each one records a motion of the hand and arm. Moreover, each one records the same motion of the hand and arm. A single misshapen brushstroke destroys the composition. So Alexandra constructs her paintings as a kind of high-stakes competition with herself: one false move, and the painting dies. Each move is a samurai brushstroke, a record of an intense physical discipline which allows her to replicate spontaneity again and again. And yet, each brushstroke is individually sincere and fully expressed: the spontaneity isn't mimed, it is real. How do you repeat spontaneity? I have no idea, but Alexandra has done it.

detail, Explosive Implosion, oil on canvas, 45"x42"

But let's zoom back for a second from the details:

Explosive Implosion, oil on canvas, 45"x42"

Notice another thing about this painting: the perspective works. The Z's of the light sources not only decrease in size with distance according to the ordinary rules of perspective, but they also distort, spreading as they approach the viewer, according to the rules of perspective unique to the distorting camera lens. I asked Alexandra one time how the hell she does this - underdrawings or what - and she said, "You know, I put down a few marks when I start, and then I just eyeball it."

The samurai brushstroke, the life-or-death brushstroke, repeats at the level of draughtsmanship as well. She can neither misshape, nor misplace, a single brushstroke without ruining the painting.

So what we have in Alexandra's paintings is a testimony of physicality, of the athletic application of paint to surface, and this high-impact paint and its history remain visible throughout her paint surfaces. And yet, the paintings all cohere into complex images when you stand back. This is very important - the paint both presents, as paint, and represents, as component of image.

You might argue that this is true of all paintings, but much of the history of painting until the Impressionists is a history of suppressing paint as paint, of forcing paint to ever more perfectly represent, and ever less visibly present.

Then the Impressionists and their eccentric ami Van Gogh come along, and there is a brief period of fluctuating relationships between representation and presentation. And then the post-war period rolls around, and Abstract Expressionism rears its ugly head. This is very important - AbEx foregrounds paint as paint and eliminates paint as representation.

AbEx is not rock and roll. Rock and roll, as we've defined it, is the struggle between structure and chaos. In our translation of this idea into painting, the structure is representation, and the chaos is presentation - paint as paint. Without the struggle, there is no rock. AbEx is noise, not rock. If David, say, is as close to pure structure as we can come - if you need a magnifying glass to see the paint-as-paint -

Then Pollock is pure chaos:

Neither one rocks.

There is no one formula for rock. There is only a terrain - a zone in which representation and presentation grapple with one another, and both remain visible in the final painting. Oh, and dicksweat: the artist has to walk the razor's edge, the path must crumble behind the artist, allowing no turning back.

In this sense, Alexandra rocks.

Alyssa Monks: The Thousandfold Path

Now we consider Alyssa Monks. For some time now, Ms. Monks (I don't know her so well as I know Alexandra, so I'm going to call her Ms. Monks) has focused on the female figure in showers, bathtubs, swimming pools, and undefined bodies of water. Here's an earlier piece from her more strictly shower-door/curtain-oriented period:

Press, 50"x42", oil on linen, 2008

Note, first of all, the size - at 4 feet 2 inches, her figure is significantly larger than life size. Like Alexandra, Ms. Monks works large. Note also the loving rendering of the condensation and runnels of water on the shower door. It's nearly photographic - and as she practiced, it got more so:

Window, 48"x36", oil on linen, 2009

Here the figure is even larger - that face is about 2 feet 6 inches - and the representation of condensation is more confident and bracing.

This work looks photorealist when you see it online, but in a fundamental way, it isn't. Let me show you what I saw when I saw the paintings in person. Here's another 2009 piece, Smirk:

Smirk, 48"x64", oil/linen, 2009

Now here's how that piece looks when you stand anywhere near it:

detail, Smirk

You can only see the photorealism from across the room (or online). If you get any closer than that, the painting explodes into a cacaphony of brushstrokes. As Ms. Monks has worked on this technique, she has figured out how to unblend her brushstrokes further, how to retain more savagery in the application, while still accomplishing the mirage of photorealism from a distance. Here she is this year:

Squid, 2011, 48"x32", oil/linen

Now here's what you see when you stand a normal distance from the painting:

detail, Squid

This is pretty badass. She's eliminated much of the blending of adjacent colors, letting fractured parts of the surface retain the character of the brushstrokes that created them. She's evoking the patches of oil on the surface of the water by painting light strokes, wet into wet.

The light strokes, wet into wet, represent a deep leap of faith, faith in skill. When you load a brush with paint and drag it across a wet surface, the brush transfers the paint to the surface at a rate determined by the speed, angle, and pressure of the brush and the relative viscosities of the paint on the brush and the surface. There tend to be irregular hitches to the rate of dispersal as the bodies of paint, meeting one another, stick and unstick. The stroke becomes dimmer as the brushload depletes. These little circles of oil remind me of nothing so much as the ensō, the classic zen calligraphic gesture:

Like the ensō, Ms. Monks's little circles are statements of conviction, of union between mind, brush, and paint. Like the ensō, they are uncorrectable. They record the moment of the painting and present it clearly to the viewer, and each one bears witness to whether or not Ms. Monks was the painter she sought to be at the moment she painted it (and generally speaking, as Eric Fischl has noted, she was).

Now, you could argue that it doesn't take any great leap of faith to make a little circle of paint, and you would be right. It's not the circle in and of itself in which most of the faith lies. The faith lies in the contention that each of these brutal little gestures will contribute, when they are all added together, to an image that is absolutely correct, photographically correct. Go back to the entire painting, and you will see that the color seems to vary smoothly and continuously over the surface. It does this, even though passage by passage, the paint is riotous and distinct.

Let's look at one last painting:

detail, Think, 2011, 24"x36", oil/panel

Look at how crude, how simple the paint appears. It is virtually bashed onto the canvas. Now zoom back to the entire painting:


Again, the image coheres just so.

In Alexandra's paintings, there is a necessity of each brushstroke - the image can only become the image you see if each brushstroke is placed just as and where it is. This is Alexandra's solution to the confrontation of presentation and representation by the paint. In Ms. Monks's case, any of a thousand combinations of brushstrokes would do. Her blank canvas is the thousandfold path, and she navigates through it as she paints. The only constraint on her road is that it reach the destination - that pristine final wide-view image.

So we see in Alyssa Monks's work the qualities of rock and roll which I am raising here: the paint presents itself, yet represents an image. These two dimensions of the paint remain at war with each other in the final painting. On the dicksweat front: In a way completely different from that of Alexandra Pacula, Ms. Monks divides her circle of possibilities between a narrow slice of success and a thick wedge of failure, with no intermediate region. She aims for the narrow slice, and strikes it.

Stephen Wright: The Inside-Out World

As the longer-term readers know, I have been a fan and friend of Steve's for some years. His and Ms. Monks's paintings resemble each other, in a superficial way, far more than either one resembles Alexandra's. Both of them paint oversized figures, employ high-key flat photographic lighting, and apply their paint thickly. And there the resemblance ends.

Chair, Figure, and Lamp, 66"x30", oil on canvas

At this size, all you can see is the intense clarity of the image - the contrasts of light and dark, the vivid fleshiness not only of the woman, but of the chair, the cloth, and above all that gorgeous paper lantern, with its every ridge distinct and individual, its rip faithfully explored. This is the active physical landscape of the hungry eye, the eye that digs into every thing that can be seen, and concludes by throwing up its hands and saying, "It is not enough." We, looking at it, say, "How can this not be enough? This territory is so rich, so complex, its many parts so elegantly integrated - what is missing?" And the burning eye says, "I don't know - it is not enough - I'll try again."

In Steve Wright's paintings, there is always a combination of the plenty that is presented, and the wracking hunger for more.

Let's look at another painting of the same model:

Figure in Foreground, size unknown, but big

Now I happen to know this model, Jennifer, and I can fairly report that she is a good-looking individual. Here, she looks puffy, with uneven skin, sagging flesh, irregular pockets of fat. What has happened to her in Steve's representation?

Rock and roll, my friend, that is what has happened.

Let's look at the transformation on a microscopic level:

We return to one of our motifs here - the visible brushstroke. The paint is brushed on thickly, and neighboring brushstrokes are largely unblended. Steve's sense of color is very subtle - look at the range of pinks, reds, yellows, and greys on her chest - but he feels no need to make his color continuous. Consider this painting:

Portrait of Adrianne #2, Oil on Canvas, 66" x 44"

I happen to have had a chance to study this one in person at length. There are veins in her breasts. They are done in a light grey nearly the same value as the surrounding flesh. They were executed by dragging a brush with a little grey through the otherwise-complete flesh while it was wet, digging furrows into the paint; because the other astonishing thing about this painting is how incredibly thick the paint is. It rises out of the canvas, presenting an insistent tactile presence. Steve has explained that he has to use the heaviest canvas he can find, so it will be able to support the mass of paint he gloms onto it.

So we've answered part of our question - how did Jennifer get to look so blotchy? Because Steve made her that way. But why did Steve do that?

It is the ongoing hunger of sight. Steve's violent brushwork isn't an end in itself. It's a record of his radically personal hierarchy of the process of sight.

Generally speaking, we are taught to consider the value and detail of each part of an image in relation to the whole - this is why Ms. Monks's work looks photographic from a distance, because she has mastered relative value and detail. This is the hierarchy of natural visual cognition.

Steve has chosen a different hierarchy. He throws out verisimilitude of draughtsmanship and naturalism of local values. Instead, he follows where his eye finds the most interest, and he goes on painting the area he has focused on until he loses interest and moves on. So, finding the lines in Jennifer's forehead and cheeks interesting, he plays them up, much more than the scanning eye ordinarily would, until they stand out with grotesque specificity. His hierarchy is a hierarchy of interest. His surfaces are densely detailed because he finds most things interesting. His compositions tend to look as if they were seen through a fish-eye lens because he leans in toward his subjects to squint more closely at them.

This is the sort of procedure which makes most people say, "Well, maybe he doesn't know how to do it the normal way, which, after all, is pretty tough."

Consider this then:

Karen Jean 3, dimensions unknown, but, as usual, ridiculously large

Steve sometimes works in a more realist idiom. He just chooses not to most of the time.

John, dimensions unknown, blah blah blah

As with Alexandra and Ms. Monks, we have a situation in which the paint presents itself point-blank as paint, and simultaneously and intensely represents an image. Unlike the first two cases, though, Steve's technique leaves him free to paint and repaint parts of his surface. I've seen him seriously revise finished paintings. So if he can fix his mistakes, where's the dicksweat?

I'll tell you where. It ends in the physicality of the paint, but it doesn't originate there. Steve's visual distortions result from the nature of what he's doing: he's trying to objectify the subjective. His paintings, much more than is ordinary in figurative painting, are records not of the objects in front of him, but of his own state of sight, which is to say, of his state of mind and emotion.

American Goth

This is a painting of Kem, who is strikingly beautiful in person. So beautiful that when my wife Charlotte was reading Proust, she pictured Kem as Odette, which trumps you and your Angelina-Jolie-as-Odette every day of the week. And if you carefully read this painting, you will see that all of the outward structures which we take for beauty are intact: the fineness of bone, the definition in the features, the fragile grace. But they are animated by something different, something simian and heaving. There is an animalistic quality to this picture.

This subhuman intensity does not inhere in Kem. It does not inhere in Steve. It is a subjective state that flared into being in the moment of their interaction as they created this painting together. And the dicksweat parameter of Steve's work was his synthesis of the material, of the light and color and flesh, and the immaterial subjectivity which occurred in her and, more prominently, in him, as he painted this painting. This is a realm of acidic truth: difficult to spot, humiliating to enter, frightening to explore, and nearly impossible to communicate. Steve sets himself a hard challenge, and will not rest until he has met it, until he has turned the world inside out. His eye is constantly hungry because what he is seeking is invisible.

It has been said that Steve's work resembles Lucien Freud's work, which he had not seen when he developed his toolset. This comparison is true, and the mechanisms they deploy, both technically and emotionally, are surprisingly similar. But there is a difference which makes, to me, all the difference: Steve's work, for all its harshness, is animated by love, love of sight, of life, of his people and plants and chairs and cloth. Freud's is black with revulsion.


Rock and roll is not uncommon - I have chosen these three artists because I like their work and because I've seen it in person, and the paint qualities involved in rock and roll are essentially impossible to photograph. I could have written about Rembrandt or Tintoretto, Van Gogh or Manet, Fischl or Diebenkorn, Kiefer or Freud. Many painters show rock and roll.

What is the broader meaning of this peculiar quality? What is its significance?

I have a theory. My theory is that, as with almost every project human beings set themselves to, the project takes on human qualities. The created is the homunculus of the creator.

In the clash of paint as image, and paint as paint, we see a retelling of the mind-matter problem. We know for sure that matter is itself, is meat, muck, mud, dust. We also know for sure that matter is a vessel in which something immaterial is housed - the mind, seat of reason, of comprehension, of meaning. What we don't know is how these two qualities reconcile. There is a weak suture between them, a suture which has not stopped cascading sparks from the very beginning until now. The rock and roll quality of painting replicates this strange duality of matter and mind. There are unlimited modes of rock and roll painting because the rock and roll quality is located in the artist's individual revelation of the suture between mind and matter. The dicksweat arises because the stakes in the painting record the stakes in life: which is to say, if you seriously try to rock, then you have taken the vow not to bear false witness. So you're playing for your soul.