Sight Undone

 

“[T]he work - the work of art, the literary work - is neither finished nor unfinished: it is. What it says is exclusively this: that it is - and nothing more. Beyond that it is nothing. Whoever wants to make it express more finds nothing, finds that it expresses nothing. He whose life depends upon the work, either because he is a writer or because he is a reader, belongs to the solitude of that which expresses nothing except the word being: the word which language shelters by hiding it, or causes to appear when language itself disappears into the silent void of the work.” (1)

Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature 

 

“My painting demonstrates nothing. Instead it gives space to aroused perception. We are much too inclined to order seeing as a thought process instead of appropriating it bodily.”

“The way I make something gives me a close relationship to the world…Sometimes I think that I wouldn’t even be here without this experience.” (2)

Günter Umberg Bilderhaus Schatternraum 

 

I have a life drawing made when I was a student some 40 years ago. The sight of it prompts in me the memory of where I stood in the life room, next to whom, the open window at my back, the light, the air temperature and time of year. It is a recollection of awareness that has its place as much in the body as in the mind.

 

The task of writing about painting is not one to be taken lightly. To do it justice requires something of the relentless rigor that Maurice Blanchot demands of literature – “Defiance of language, situated in language, which finds in itself the terms of its own critique” (3). Blanchot explores the limits of literature, the paradox of language approaching that experience of being which resists the form of language itself. Thus it is the province of painting to prompt an awareness within the beholder of that aspect of visual experience that does not exist as thought, that pre-exists thought. Painting does not explain or even represent this mystery, indeed it works in defiance of representation because it is, as Blanchot says, itself and nothing more. It simply reminds us. 

This aspiration, the elusive nature of  it, is what I recognize and admire in the work of Günter Umberg. Black Sun, Jan Thorn-Prikker’s interview with Günter Umberg (4), is an extraordinary document. Seldom have I come across writing which approaches the essence of painting so completely, from the nature of the physical object, the process of making and the connection of making to viewing, and the way it relates to the history of painting and the philosophy that it both informs and articulates. This rarity is not surprising. These are the most elusive of matters: perception, consciousness, the nature of being, how to sustain an awareness of what it is to be present to oneself. 

It may seem odd that a maker of images draws inspiration from this most rigorous of non-figurative painters, but only if you see painting as a kind of information or, more succinctly, if you are inclined to “order seeing as a thought process” (5). The paintings I make aspire to something more than image, something which might be understood as existing in the relationship a painting creates with a viewer. As is evident in the Umberg interview, this relationship has its foundations in very particular cultural associations and traditions, but it is not restricted to one culture or time. Beyond these structures the connection is primarily one of feeling, or more specifically it is a connection between seeing and feeling. I do not here mean emotion (although emotions can be involved) but refer rather to an apprehension of the world, which is oriented towards the senses: something that is as much felt through the body as it is thought.

Such a connection is not so much complex as incomprehensible. This is a particularly elusive notion when it comes to painting because it is never entirely clear what is being painted. Unlike photographs, paintings are images that declare a certain materiality. Painting presents us with, on the one hand, an image or illusion, and on the other, its own physical or material presence as object. This structural ambiguity, the play of illusion and materiality, became increasingly important with the development of photography but in truth it has always been one of the fascinations of great painting. Even the most finely worked painting bears the trace of its material construction. Pigment sits on ground, evident as smears and grains, lumps and puddles, no matter how minutely it has been applied, and at some level we see the feel of it.

In light of this ambiguity the distinction between abstraction and representation is diminished. Giorgio Morandi’s remark, that “nothing is more abstract than reality” carries a sly undertow. An inveterate admirer of Cézanne, this stoically figurative painter who was making small still life paintings in the 50s at the height of Abstract Expressionism, took evident pleasure in breaking every trick in the illusionist’s book. These small quiet canvasses, where the traces of his carefully insouciant brush never let us forget the painter, demonstrate that nothing is more abstract than painting. It should be noted however, that Morandi’s little jokes with illusionism - spatial ambiguities, false attachments etc – are made in the context of extraordinarily acute observation. Just as Cézanne went to great lengths to analyse and convey his “sensations”, Morandi’s paintings are marked by his close attention to the conditions of their genesis: his experience of subject and conditions (light, form etc.) in the context of painting (touch, materials, history etc.).

We assume so much about seeing and the visual world. Priorities dictate that generally we are not conscious of certain visual specificities - the fall of light on objects and the configurations they make in the world we inhabit - even though these details constitute the very fabric of our being. Our sense of sight is geared to a kind of shorthand of vision which functions as a generalising radar, filtering extraneous information, allowing us to get about, get things done. The effectiveness of this shorthand has given sight its primacy among our senses, and aligned visibility with certainty. Seeing is believing as the old saying goes but, as anyone who has taught or studied observation based drawing will have found, the reverse also applies: we see what we expect to see. 

Painting can interrupt and throw into doubt the assumptions that accompany what might be considered normal vision. It recalls to us a sense of the look of things, and reconstitutes the integrity of visual experience, providing an echo of the complexities and strangeness we edit out of daily life, the flesh and bones of the visual world that we ignore of necessity. In both the making and contemplating of paintings, the conventions or habits that allow normal seeing can be subtly disrupted, the path of sight retraced, and vision itself is slowed, questioned, revised. In this sense painting might be thought of as the “undoing” of sight.

 

Jude Rae 2011

 

Notes

1. Blanchot, M., & Smock, A., The Space of Literature, University of Nebraska Press, 1989 p. 22

2. Baumstark, B., & Strauss, D. Bilderhaus Schattenraum, Zurich JRP Ringier Kunstverlag 2000 p.91

3. Smock, A., The Writing of the Disaster, Maurice Blanchot, Editions Gallimard 1980, University of Nebraska 1986 p.vii

4. Thorn-Prikker, J., “Black Sun – A Conversation about the Art of Painting a Black Picture.” In Baumstark, B., & Strauss, D. Günter Umberg Bilderhaus Schattenraum.

5.Baumstark, B., & Strauss, D. Günter Umberg, Bilderhaus Schattenraum, p.91