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  • Terry Channell

Practice based research: capturing presence

Summary of research notes on Presence I

This blog summarises the experience of my first steps in researching the capture of ‘presence’ through a particular approach to painting – the use of ‘deliberative’ marks with no predetermined vision of what the work will look like.

There was a palpable sense of anticipation in laying down the rough white ground and subsequent underpainting, which was composed of energetic brushstrokes with paint thinned with Galkyd Lite. Painting with no determined outcome, other than avoiding figurative painting or aesthetically driven decisions, resulted in a range of creative pulses. Seeing all four under paintings, with their energetic brushstrokes crisscrossing and being dragged along the rough underpainting generated great interest – the amount expressed in one brushstroke, the variation in tone as one brushstroke crossed another, the ways in which apparently random mark-making make suggestive forms – all emerged repeatedly. The work was energetic and unsophisticated, and I was transfixed.

Figure 1: Brushstrokes in research painting

As part of my research, I spent time looking at the paintings individually and as a series, trying to be sensitive to my sense of myself and to what the paintings were exuding. I was, in part, trying to create an environment similar to that generated during the painting of the masks, where extensive periods of intense creativity generated flashes of inspiration and insight.

There were periods of doubt, however. These unresolved paintings had no apparent composition, subject matter or significant aesthetic qualities. Was I dressing up my inability to paint well by labelling it research? How could I expose such work to a critical audience? Artist’s frequently mention their self-doubts so I am comforted knowing I am no exception. More positively, I enjoy thinking about the psychology of art, notably through Ehrenzweig’s work, where negative as well as positive thoughts are essential components of the artists’ creativity. As a fallback, I can also reference my figurative work, which I continue to make. These paintings are of sufficient quality that they have been shown in London galleries, and give me the confidence to shield my more experimental creative processes from accusations of technical inadequacy.

I also experiment with paint to better understand its qualities - examining different pigments when painted on a white background undiluted and the overpainted by thinned paints; trying to get a feel for the interactions between paints that form the basis of my work. I find it difficult to retain this knowledge as factual – I have always found ‘factual knowledge problematic in this regard – and believe that any new understanding is accumulated instinctively, and that this feeds my intuitive style of working. In a way, this thinking enables me to bypass a potential pitfall. If ‘deliberative painting’ relies on making marks with no determined figurative or aesthetic intent, the artist that develops his technical competence is surely feeding figurative/aesthetic processes in his work. My response is that this may be so, but for me it is an intuitive, sub-conscious chain of events, and not a calculation (as in - if I put this small red mark here it will illuminate the rest of the painting). Whether this defence proves worthy will be tested as I make more work using the deliberative approach.

There is also the challenge of understanding the philosophical basis for my research. As I paint, I question how well I understand the concept of presence and its application in my work; or, more broadly, do I fully understand Heidegger’s philosophical ideas on art and how they could be applied? If challenged and if found wanting in my understanding, would that undermine my research? Again, I can take practical steps to ward this off – reading Heidegger and other philosophers, and talking with others, to improve my understanding: equally, I can rely on my own experience of making and the extent to which I do convey some sense of ‘the other’ to the viewer.

I continued my research by making bold brush strokes local and glazing, spending time between each layer to look and continue some form of dialogue with each painting. Producing four paintings in parallel creates a communal atmosphere, with each a member of a small family – seeming recognisable as part of the group yet having their own distinct features. One painting may readily contribute to a creative dialogue; being, in its composition, structured in such a way as to suggest a future direction for research. Another painting seems confused, providing no ready insight into its being, and causing me endless worry (what I call my problem child). But I love them equally and give each what it needs.

I have an ongoing dialogue in my head, intensively questioning my research - what am doing and why; thus providing another route for a critical voice. For example, I had a sense of treading a path tried by many others, perhaps abstract expressionism? Thinking of Pollock, I hold on to my, concept of the deliberative mark even though it is yet ill-defined, to generate a little space (perhaps alongside abstract expressionism) that is my own. I was excited when I came across Alan Davie’s work at the Tate, where his ‘accumulation of spontaneously applied marks’ build up a painting. With a little more investigation, I found that he seemed more in the pure abstract expressionist mould than I am comfortable with.

I was still at the beginning of my research, and many questions in my head seemed basic. Which way is up? I found that I could rotate paintings and they displayed different characteristics of interest. Being new to painting, I still had the laymans ‘common sense’ to deal with – everything has a top and bottom, a right way up that we can see (televisions and computer screens have a right way up, so do tables). How can a painting not? Does it mean its not a good painting? I reflected on life before the modern age, before everything was signalled as ‘the right way up’; and on pre-verbal thinking where ‘up-down’ hasn’t been learned yet. This was sufficient to give me the confidence to overcome ‘laymans thinking’ (I’ve no doubt that the orientation question has been dealt with in painting and I could have looked it up, but that takes me out of my creative line of thought and I dealt with the problem sufficiently for now: perhaps I should research it further at some point).

At this time I subjected my work to a formal crit with colleagues from my Artists’ Collective (Rhizome). The paintings had not been resolved but had their essential elements. The feedback startled me initially, but I recognised that painters will look at things in a painterly way. Observations were along the lines that there was a lack of structural coherence, the work looks muddied and the paint has come straight from a tube. My most troubled moment came when it was suggested that I take the elements of the painting that work and develop those and discard the rest: currently I look at paintings as complete things, where each element relies on all other elements (I suspect that I will need to become less precious and be more relaxed about discarding elements of my work to retain the best).

The key lesson here is that the framing of the crit needs to make the conceptual, philosophical context key, but that it is difficult for this to be put across effectively where one’s tradition is ‘painterliness’. I now remember that I came across this issue at Art College, where I felt my work had been 'destroyed' during a review as this conceptual element had not been considered (on moaning about this, someone noted drily that, in taking this approach, I have given myself ‘a hard road to travel’ – how true!).

I reviewed my work and took the most ‘aesthetically pleasing’ and worked on it further – adding highlights that suggested some sense of composition. I reviewed the four paintings with a more sympathetic painter who knew my work well. After some dialogue I felt he had worked his way into my work a little. I respect his judgement and appreciated him putting purely painterly criteria aside, allowing me space to think through my ideas as we spoke. I came to the conclusion that, by putting a more acceptable piece alongside my more challenging work, it provides the viewer with a ‘way in’ – an appreciation of what was (to me) significant in the work, and allowing a judgement to be made on success or otherwise. I must confess, the ‘prettying up’ of a painting still leaves me uncomfortable – feels like I am debasing the work for aesthetic reasons. Still, maybe this compromise is needed to allow my work to be understood?

Figure 2: Presence I (d) – aesthetic compromise?

In conclusion, to what extent have the objectives of my research been informed by the Presence I series? The concept of the ‘deliberative’ mark has worked in practice; I have been able to paint without figurative or aesthetic elements informing the mark consciously, except where I felt this was necessary to inform the viewer (in Presence I (d)). The process itself has led to consideration of the creative journey – confidence in the work and its philosophical underpinning; response of the viewer, particularly regarding technique and aesthetics; and the positioning of the work within painting practice.

Whether the work exudes a sense of presence is difficult to judge. There is a logic in the view that the work has impact without figurative or aesthetic intent, but the quality of the viewers’ experience depends on an understanding of the intent of the artist, and this has had limited success.

As a first step in my research, it has proved exciting and informative, but with a sense of an initial, incomplete and undefinative set of outcomes.

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