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  • Terry Channell

Painting is a visual medium: some thoughts

In viewing my work, a colleague commented ‘you must remember that painting is a visual medium, people can’t see what’s going on in your head’. True, my work, painting in oils, is often hard to decipher, its meaning so buried in my subconscious that even I don’t understand it. I did, however, resent the implication that I had somehow missed the point of painting. We also briefly touched on Saatchi art as a way of marketing and selling work. Again, this raised my hackles; Saatchi being the outrider for Thatcher’s ‘price of everything, value of nothing’ approach to life. Suitable roused, I began thinking about painting – a few millimetres of oil on a flat surface – and its’ place in the 21st century.

Oil painting is ubiquitous in western societies. Most towns and cities will have their amateur artists and local selling galleries with work from the simple to technically accomplished. Larger towns and cities will have their museums, with historic sweeps of painting styles and eras. Major centres will have contemporary galleries with exhibitions of cutting edge paintings. So, a thin layer of paint can be the product of a Sunday afternoon’s work or a lifetimes struggle. This suggests that the classification ‘visual’ is hiding something much broader and deeper, something woven into the fabric of people’s lives and the fabric of society.

Accompanying the paintings themselves is the whole panoply of art schools, art history and art criticism with their associated academic disciplines, educational activities and economic activities. Our thin veneer of paint is being stretched in all directions and has influence far beyond the visual.

Buried in all of this is the artist – the individual who is committed to the practice of painting. Here I am interested in ‘critical art’, painting that is about the art of painting, what painting can do and the ideas that it can contain. Even these descriptions stretch the envelope of painting – painting can ‘do’ something, it can ‘contain’ ideas. The active in paint and painting is at the core of my relationship with the medium and why I believe that the ‘visual’ label is too limiting.

Contemporary painting is often loaded with references to the historical, the other (sexual, cultural) and previous artists. Michael Armitage refers to his Kenyan heritage in his work, Michael Kashora directly references (copies?) canonical works from art history. So we accept the non-visual, referential and ideas based elements as essential parts of a painting. We can also see that the sources for this come from a wide variety of inspirations. For my work, I look internally for what was, originally, external. Following the ideas of Anton Ehrenzweig from his book The Hidden Order of Art, I believe that everything we have ever done, seen, experienced is captured and subsumed within our subconscious – into the ‘oceanic depths’ within each one of us – and that through painting, these disparate, often unrelated, elements surface and inject themselves into our work. The paint, therefore, ‘holds’ the experiences of our life.

Again, I believe that painting is more active than this. The act of painting is a process of discovery – of what is subsumed withing us set within a dynamic interplay with paint – surprising ways in which paint combines to create forms and shapes, its’ tolerance for meanderings and mistakes. This is freedom to experiment, push to the limit, to be scared and yet, in Bacon’s words, ‘trust in the paint’. Take Auerbach’s paintings; a geology of approaches, retreats, overlaying, scraping back, idea on idea. To stand in a room of Auerbach’s paintings is to go beyond the visual to multiple presences, each quietly there and potent with responsive emotion. The paintings are charged and experienced.

To be able to relate to painting in this way requires a developed sensibility, the ability to experience beyond materiality. To be able to paint in this way requires a step outside of daily reality, a step once made reveals a parallel world (or worlds) that have always been there. I came to making art in my 50’s, at art school, and had never realised such worlds existed. A previous life in business kept me grounded in the everyday, yet constant looking at art gave me a sense of something more (in spades with William Blake). The act of making – sculpture, film, drawing, printmaking – drew me into the creative way of being – so different – and oil painting was the world in which this creativity at the deepest level could be realised. All of this is contained within those few millimetres of paint.

Experienced in its extreme manifestation, the act of painting, in one brushstroke can, in a millisecond, feel like the universe is experienced and drawn down to one point, or project oneself to a completely different world, time and place. These experiences are shamanic, for a moment the being is transmuted into the other, an other that is always there but usually neglected.

What about the viewer? Even the phrase limits the encounter – we view, are restricted to what our eyes show us and our brain interprets. I believe that art is an experience – we sense a presence as well as see an object.The object of a painting itself has a history, a meaning that, if captured, can be experienced by the ‘viewer’.I enjoy the experience of people looking at my art. Much of my work is not recognisable as a ‘thing’, which allows the viewer to interpret whichever way they want. The following is typical of my work.It has been described a good ’15 minute painting’, in that it holds the attention and requires that length of time to study.To study a painting for 15 minutes requires more than viewing.There must be a process of exploration, of dialogue, of pulling up reflections and memories stimulated by the image.So, visual, yes, but as a springboard to ideas and thoughts, an active engagement with the presence of the object.

Can the viewer ‘see what’s going on in my head’, rather than respond with their own feelings?

This is a big ask, but those who know me and my work, who have followed my development since art college are certainly insightful. Often, they see things I don’t see and recognise motifs that appear in different guises. The most insightful can feel the emotion contained in the work. The following has been described as holding desolation and loneliness, and yet also the landscape motifs from a series of work done whilst at college. In generating feelings and memories, we could argue that we have gone beyond the visual.

It is but a short hop to think about painting, as described above in the context of Saatchiart, an online gallery for contemporary painting. The digitisation of the world (TV’s, photography, even money) is repackaging art at a pace. Artists have to have an online presence - Instagram, a website, Facebook. Such an incongruous mix – the clean keyboard and screen sat in a studio covered in paint, rags and smelling of turps. But the power of computerisation conquers all. The ability to show your work anywhere in the world at no cost is too good to miss. It makes life easier for the gallery owner, for the college who can see an artists’ work and judge it without its’ physical presence, and for the artist who can splash his work wherever.

Clearly, I am concerned that the march of digitisation reduces the artwork to a commodity, and, in doing so, strips away the rough edges, removes anything it doesn’t like and reduces the space in which the painting exists. It changes the lens through which we experience the work. To take a simple example – exhibition catalogues. We know that catalogues (whether paper or online) are poor at representing a painting. The colours are wrong, the size is wrong, the image is flat. You get no feel for the work. The disappointment when looking at a catalogue after seeing the exhibition is palpable. Equally, the reverse is true. Having only seen Rembrant’s Lucretia (1664) in books, to see the real thing is an amazing experience – the colours and textures bring the painting alive.

My concern is that, whatever benefits and opportunities digitisation brings, it tends to denude the sensory experience of what it ‘captures’. Only recently, I realised that I no longer use cash – everything is ‘on the card’. The physicality of money, metal and paper, it’s weight and smell, then need to carry it, the interaction it requires of the giver and receiver, the clink of coins in a cash register, is all passing away. What has replaced it? A plastic card that, in no way reflects the value that is being transacted – whether £1 or £500 – and has no need for a human recipient. Does this matter? I think that it does shrink us to 2 dimensional actors, that have an intellectual connection to what we are doing but a minimal physical connection.

I recently made a film about manual typewriters – using students to gauge their reaction to using one. Most had never seen one, a few remember family members having one (‘my Gran had one of these’) and a few older students had used them for real many years ago in work. What I didn’t anticipate was the whole world that surrounded the typewriter coming to the fore. It has a big physical presence – its size and weight, the physicality of hitting keys and their clickety clack on the roller, the ‘ting’ at the end of a line, the smell of carbon paper, the dexterity in putting paper into it and so forth. Stepping back, the whole industry of making and maintaining them, the typewriter ‘pool’ and so on. Within one or two generations, that whole world has passed and is nothing but a diminishing folk memory, replaced by the deathly hush of a laptop.

Does this matter? My concern is that the power of digitisation is such that it overrides all other concerns. It’s ability to make transactions convenient and cheap will change the aesthetic. The gallery will happily evaluate work electronically and sell electronically, and the art school will accept a student on the basis of electronic images of physical objects. This pressure will result in work being made that more readily fits this model – flat, with little depth and with immediate visual appeal? The status and importance of the physical object – the object that contains the presence, the experience, the subconscious input that makes a painting what it is – is being traded for convenience: you can have it any size, colour, in any number you want anywhere in the world as a print. What kinds of paintings survive in this particular system? And what does painting itself become as the art schools and galleries gear up to a digitised medium.

I do not think that we can predict the impact of the Saatchi approach to art on the development of painting, but I am nervous that the qualities that make oil painting such a powerful creative force are being undermined. The ‘death of painting’ has been predicted many times – with the arrival of photography and with the development of conceptual art. However, with such a powerful driver as digitisation who knows – who would have thought people would spend hundreds, or thousands, of pounds on a painting from a screen without first seeing it for real?

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