Practice based research: making sense of my work
Why do painters paint? A simple question with, perhaps, a simple answer – painters are compelled to paint, and feel less engaged with life if they don’t. Whilst this may be true, my experience suggests a deeper and more complex relationship between painter and paint; and much of the experience of painting is derived from understanding and working with this relationship. Furthermore, this relationship evolves and requires constant attention – perhaps this is the essence of painting? I have been fortunate to find resources that inform and support my understanding of my painting process, and I now find it necessary formalise those parts of the process that can be externalise to enable my practice to develop. The reasons for this will become clear as I outline an approach to my work that will require an ongoing commentary in my blog.
By way of context, I came to painting after several careers in business. Whilst I was used to hard work and stress, I wasn’t prepared for the rigours of creating as a form of personal enquiry and expression. In particular, paint seems to engage with ones’ hidden emotions, leaving one totally exposed. As I have written elsewhere, I found the work of Anto Ehrenzweig enabled me to overcome the emotional and psychological barriers to revealing yourself through art. As my painting developed, I was able to rely on reference to other artists and to philosophy to inform my thinking. I find paint is taking me even further into areas I do not understand but feel the need to follow (intuition, I have learned, is something to pay attention to). During my 5 years of painting, I have noticed a persistent trend – my figurative work drifts into semi-abstraction. This is not deliberate. Frequently, these paintings contain elements that I did not appreciate at the time, but on later viewing, reveal themselves as symbols or motifs that reference my life. This duality of figurative and the revealed became most apparent during my Cloth series, culminating in an expression of a personal experience of a deathbed scene through representing a piece of cloth.
So, I realise that the act of painting is revelatory; one is bringing to light other than what is intended. I guess some may say that is well known, but to experience it personally, to have lived through this revelation, is worth noting. So, again, I focus on the non-figurative elements of my painting by firstly minimising them (latter stages of Yup’ik series) and eliminating it altogether (see my Presence series). What does this leave? Abstract painting? This is not my intention; I wish to avoid aesthetics or any intention of a pre-planned outcome. I don’t know what I’m painting; the painting is revealed through applying layers of paint. I am aiming to capture something of the ‘abstracted’ nature of my painting; those things that emerged but weren’t intended.
It is in this latter work that I require the greatest act of faith – I have no benchmark or criteria for success (not aesthetics, degree of likeness etc.). And I am struggling. I feel the need for some theoretical underpinning, beyond philosophy.
So, I turn to some current thinking on art as research. I can legitimise my approach by applying art related methodologies. Now, 2 points to make. Firstly, I realise that I may be doing this through a lack of confidence in my work, or to hide the fact that the work has no value. Well, hopefully, truth will out and I will stick to figurative work. Secondly, the application of a methodology is a means to an end – namely, to give me a kind of handrail as I make my pilgrimage of faith through this confusion. It may prove to be invaluable, allowing me to capture in writing some of what I hope to reveal in my work. Alternatively, it may be a crutch that I can ditch once I gain confidence.
The concept of art practice as a means of research has developed in response to increasing demands that art demonstrates a tangible value – everything has to be monetised, particularly when it comes to education, including art education (1). Whatever the merits of this development(2), I want to hijack the concept of ‘art as research’ to support my own ends, namely to:
Give a sense of direction as to what I am trying to achieve
Capture the experience, so that I can re-work it to develop my practice further
Equally importantly, provide a sense of support (emotional and intellectual) to overcome the sense of ‘freefall’ in what I do.
So, to have some formal element to this I need to a) have some proposition that I wish to test, b) a process for testing that hypothesis, and c) a method of evaluating the test results with the hypothesis.
This is my first, tentative, attempt to establish a research model.
a) The Hypothesis
So far, I have developed my ‘abstracted’ approach to painting by instinct – using the writings of Heidegger to inform my thinking and relying on the apparently random emergence of new forms from my figurative work. Now I have to define the basis of my approach, my hypothesis, in succinct form:
A painting can represent more than its materials – pigment, canvas etc; and
The process of painting can capture and hold a sense beyond meaning (i.e. a sense of presence).
I guess that we can believe the first statement can be true for work that has great aesthetic qualities or through its subject matter; so, I wish to remove these from the equation – is it possible for a painting to convey a sense of presence without use of figurative or aesthetic qualities. Presence in the sense that Gumbrecht discusses in The Production of Presence: what meaning can’t convey, but minimising the role of the senses and appealing to a direct appeal to the viewers’ being. Howard Hodgkin, but without the aesthetic appeal, and referencing multiple experiences from a lifetime. Abstract expressionism, but with the ‘deliberative’ mark (not spontaneous, like Pollock, or considered or ‘simple’ as Rothko), nor surrealist.
I recognise that I may be on ‘a fool’s errand’, but at least, hopefully, I will find out, and it may lead to a new, and more profitable direction for my practice.
The ‘deliberative mark’ is a concept derived from my experience of painting. It may not be a new thing in painting, but it does help me describe part of my painting process. The deliberative mark is not purposeful in trying to describe a figurative element or abstract idea, and yet is not random. It comes from the sense of the moment, a sense of what has been and what could be (for me). I remember that, during my research on Yup’ik culture, that an animal mask, at the point of use in a ceremony, represents not only that animal at that time, but all of that type that have been, are, or will be. This may seem overblown for painting, but I want the essence of this idea to draw me in a certain direction, away from enframing aesthetics. I have written about the ability of paint to express ideas that the painter is unaware of at the time, and the contacts and revelations made when in the intensity of the painting mindset. I, therefore, wish to use the ‘deliberative’ mode to try and capture a sense of this.
So, the process is one of building layers of ‘deliberative’ marks; starting with a roughly laid down gesso, each layer is a product of the moment and can be subjected to intense scrutiny, but where it is viewed primarily as a whole, and every part related to all parts, in order to generate a dialogue with the painting outside the subject-object or conscious-sub-conscious realms.
Painting ‘deliberatively’ requires practice; building a resistance to aesthetic considerations.
In two parts – extent to which the process of abstracted painting and the deliberative mark can be applied in practice (and lessons learned); and the response of viewers.
The act of the ‘deliberative’ mark is not a proven concept; it may not be achievable, or it may yield meaningless art. Equally, the layering of deliberative marks may result in nothing of value. So, these ideas need to be tested – can the deliberative mark be real, what does this act tell us.
Perhaps as difficult, is the act of assessing the final product – a painting made with no intention of a particular outcome, and no desire for aesthetic quality. The measure of success for a ‘deliberative’ painting is the extent to which the viewer has a sense of the ‘presence’ of a painting (disregarding figurative and aesthetic qualities).
The mechanisms for evaluation will need to evolve from the practice of painting in this way.
The following blog posts will record the experience of ‘deliberative’ painting and the application of this research method. To some extent, my painting has outrun my ability to write about my progress, so I will need to reflect on work already done (late Yup’ik and Presence I) as well as work in hand (Presence II and III).
(1) see ‘Research in Art and Design’ (Frayling, C. Royal College of Art, Research Papers Vol 1 No 1 1993/94) and ‘Incorporating Doctoral Programs into Art School’ (Scrivener, S http://new-tactical -research.co.uk/research/interview-stephen-scrivener/[30/01/2017])
(2) for an example of Practice based research, see 'Bolt, B., 2004, Art Beyond Representation: The Performative Power of the Image, I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd., London'