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  • Terry Channell

The inner life of the art object

Recent developments in my practice have brought to the fore the role of the object. As a painter, I am obsessed with paint: what it is and what it can do. In this respect I am a typical painter, but I’m now becoming more aware of the status of the object, or subject, of a painting. We talk about ‘painting a portrait, or landscape or even an abstract’, giving the paint and painter supremacy over the object. Paint is the active force and the object is there to be represented and interpreted. Magritte’s caption ‘Ceci n’est une pipe’ (this is not a pipe) says more about painting than the physical object.

In this paper, I wish to explore the experience of a different power relationship, one where the object is given primacy in its own right, not as a subject. Focussing less on the relationship with the paint, and giving the object the right to stand forth brings us into the realm of understanding a more about this neglected aspect the process of painting.

Definition – art object has multiple uses. Art object = a piece of art. For this article – the thing that is painted

I want to take multiple views on the object to try and build a picture of what it is I engage with as a painter. In parallel, I am painting the object to provide practical experience of engaging with its properties.

Scope of this paper, need to be selective in terms of artists, ideas, authors and philosophers referenced. I could be accused of having to many ideas and failing to explain any of them; in my defence I would say that I am exploring ideas of an object in the hope that I can see which have some merit, which may be worth investigating in more detail.

The object is a beach pebble. The term ‘beach pebble’ immediately conjures up the idea of a stone that can be held in the hand, and whose purpose is to be thrown into the sea or, if interesting, to be takien home to add to the collection of stones and shells. Perhaps an uninspiring start into an enquiry into painting and its subject, but, for many of us, mention of beach pebble will it generate thoughts of happy, sunny days walking on a beach (or cold wintery days with waves crashing on the beach). In generating a response, we define the object in our own terms – our view of a pebble and our personal associations of it. But we have said nothing about this individual pebble – its colour or shape or where it was found. We have used a generalised notion of a beach pebble, and filled it with our own thoughts; we have neglected the real object.

I suspect, in a similar way, that in our intense scrutiny of our subject when painting, we impose our perspective rather than let it speak for itself. So, in this paper, I want to explore how we may view the object, the pebble, in different ways to try and establish ‘what I am looking at’ when I paint. Initially, I will apply the lens of science onto the pebble, then consider the subjective human response and a philosophical view. I will then consider the experience of painting the object, not as an account of ‘the mystery’ of painting but of key events in the painting of this particular object. I will then draw some conclusions from this enquiry and make some personal statements on the position of the object in painting.

The Object in Pictorial Art

The scope of this paper does not require a comprehensive study of the object in pictorial art, rather a few examples will illustrate the range of relationships that can exist between the object and artist. This, in turn, will provide a context for our examination of our particular object and artist.

Perhaps this stereotypical painter-object relationship is exemplified by the still life. Established in the 16th Century in Holland and then France, this is the point at which ‘the representation of inanimate objects became quite separate as a genre in itself: the still life’ (pompidu). High standards were achieved in pictorial representation of flowers, crystal glass, fruit, musical instruments and so forth, exemplified by painters such as Chardin.

Still life can be seen as representing the historic view of an artist: the painter at his easel, painting the subject before him. Even this simple arrangement contains essential elements of the object – artist relationship. The painter is clearly the dominant, active force, who prepares the objects in terms of content and composition, and, in a telling phrase, paints the object: the painter is painting, the object is there to be painted. The objects are there as examples of their type. We can see that although passive, the object has a greater role than just being itself. It often is used to represent a greater truth, illustrate great wealth or cultural standing, or make a moral point about the vanity of man and the shortness of life. The use of skulls in painting is an obvious reference to the theme.

From our examination of the still life in painting, we can see that the artist and abject perform a function. In still life the artist plays the lead role, whilst the passive object is expected to deliver a meaning greater than itself.

Cezanne significantly developed this relationship. He renounced ‘all suggestion of poetical or dramatic allusion’, seeking form ‘in its pure essence and without reference to associated ideas’(Fry53). He was seeking something essential in the object, ‘the concrete reality which, in every other experience, eludes our comprehension’ 53. The object is not just an apple, jug or table, but, in combination, a key to a more profound understanding of reality. This is still a relationship dominated by the artist; Cezanne arranged his objects with an ‘architectural rigour’(54), achieving specific relationships between them and in relation to the picture frame.

A radically different approach came with Duchamp’s : Porte-boutellies – 1914. A bottle rack bought from a Department store was, unadorned, the object and artwork in one. An ‘ordinary object elevated to the dignity of the work of art by the mere decision of the artist’ (Dictionanaire abrege du Surrealisme, Andre Breton, 1938). With this, the object ‘has left the picture frame’ (pompidu) and takes centre stage, whereas the artists’ role is reduced to selecting and presenting the object. As for meaning, the object is just itself yet also a means for debating the meaning of art. The objects themselves are mass produced and have no inherent value particular to the work, reproductions ‘convey the same message as the originals’ (Duchamp).

In subsequent developments, the object is combined with other object (and umbrella, iron and dissecting table) or rendered useless for its original purpose (metal spikes on an iron). These readymades go beyond our interest in painting at this point, but return to the fold later, re-appearing in the picture frame, or at least reappears on the canvas, in the works of artists such as Rauschenberg. His First Time Painting, 1961, incorporates oil paint, fabric, sailcloth, plastic exhaust cap, alarm clock, sheet metal, adhesive tape, metal springs, and string on canvas). Instead of being the art object, it became another palette, providing ‘infinite possibilities of colour, shape, content and scale’( R142).

Duchamp commented on these ‘combine’ paintings, that artists’ tubes of paint ‘are manufactured and readymade products’, therefore all paintings…..are “Readymade Aided”’ (R141). So objects become an integral part of the artists’ palette, to be manipulated like paint or other media. It is worth noting that, with the advent of the readymade, and later with conceptual art, much of the meaning of the object in the work has to be established by the viewer or art critic. Whereas Cezanne is illustrating significant properties of the object (mass, form), the objects here are as they are, both the real thing and yet telling us nothing.

This discussion on the object could be extended into many areas – other genres such as pop art and new realism, earlier art back to ancient Greece, or into non-western traditions of representation. There is also scope for extending the definition of the object to people, landscapes and architecture (*). For our purposes, however, I think that we have established a variety of relationships between the artist and object – the dominant role of the artist in selecting and portraying the object, the need for the object to be more than an itself, or not.

Braque – the painter thinks in terms of shapes and colours, the object is poetics – one must not merely reproduce things. We must penetrate them, become the thing ourselves’

Done to, asked to represent something, analysed and taken apart – So, what more is there to do? from the objects perspective?

(To my mind, arrangement neatly parallels the cartesian world view that was emerging at the time, setting a way of being that this neatly characterises the western subject (ie painter) – object world view, one that establishes a relationship of the active agent internalising, examining and reporting on the objects in the world. So we can analyse the object in this way, using the scientific method.)

The Scientific Perspective

The scientific method enables verifiable data about an object to be defined in terms that minimises ambiguity and state exactly what the object is. Through this process, the object’s material properties are determined and recorded in a way that can be verified (or disputed), and used as evidence for ideas about its origin and functioning. Such a description can sit alongside (or replace?) artistic enquiry and provide another view on the object I’m painting.

Geology is the scientific discipline most suited to examining a pebble for our purposes; it provides a methods and techniques for analysing rocks and establishing their composition and origin. I have applied some simple analytical tools to our pebble to give the following results:

A simple investigation into our pebble is given below.

Source: NW of Lyme Regis, Beach, Grid Ref:334949/92888


100mm x 59mm x 39mm

Light grey with white veins

Fracture lines – c20mm square

Can be scratched

Grains not visible under hand lens; shelliferous(?) clasts

Medium response to mild acid (white vinegar)


A Cobble

Charmouth Mudstone

Deposited between the Sinemurian and Pliensbachian Ages (approximately 183-199 mya - Jurassic)

Depositional environment: a shallow sub-tropical sea degrees, detrital deposition (shell/coral fragments), 15 degrees north of the equator

The pebble is therefore assigned to the Charmouth Mudstone Formation. We can place the pebble in its geological context: what it is, when it was formed and its relationship to other formations. There is no interest in this particular pebble beyond it being an example of a kind; individual characteristics would be of interest if they were not consistent with the overall classification (i.e. had the expected Charmouth Mudstone features, but contained fossil fragments that were not characteristic of this formation).

If science defines things in an absolute, unambiguous way, is there any value to an artist in this analysis? There are a number of significant points to be made here. Firstly, science isn’t complete – physics (though encompassing more of our world/geology with ‘in the language of physics’ (RealAOB) to be ‘improper, irrelevant or fictional’, categories that art has no problem with

Geology most appealing to creative – aesthetics/imagination – thin section, coloured maps, history dinosaur remains etc

Application of human mind, where numbers don’t squeeze all humanity out, inevitable. We called it a pebble, science would say a cobblestone due to its size)

So for our purposes, our pebble is more than its physical characteristics. As noted earlier, even its generic name fires the imagination. Our scientific description similarly fires the imagination, Clearly not; the thought that this small rock began to be formed nearly 200 million years ago – the time of the dinosaurs – starts to tickle the imagination. Follow that through with the realisation that Lyme Regis was, at this time, under a tropical sea 15o north of the equator, and the scope for wonder and thought is boundless. Imagination, wonder and thought, a starting point for creativity, if only in the mind.

So, there is something about our scientific description that allows for artistic creativity. Firstly, geology brings science to a human level, we can hold it. Secondly, it uses language (though numbers are rising inexorably in geological journals). Jurassic, sub-tropical, coral all resonate with non-scientific content. Geology, as a physical science, is seen by the physicist as less than pure science. The ‘appropriate language’ of geology (ie words) provides the creative mind with material to work with. So now we can examine our object at the purely human level.

Note that, without the application of the scientific method, we would not be able to have such an array of imaginative responses (old times, biblical or fantastic references – devils toenails)

The Human Response

My first responses to the pebble were to do with touch, rather than sight. On being handed it, I was surprised by how heavy it was; it felt cold in my hand and yet smooth and bulbous, inviting my fingers to close round it and feel its shape. I recognised it as a typical pebble of parts of the south west – the light grey streaked with off white. I did notice that its form resembled some kind of animal, probably aquatic with its fishlike shape, mouth at the front and the appearance of an eye.

The engagement of hand and eye made the object come alive, it has character and is an individual, rather than a sample type. Physical engagement prompts a visceral response, not logical or scientific.

For me, I am holding something that was formed around 250 million years ago. I see a shallow tropical sea, where a shaft of sunlight passes through ammonite filled tropical waters to touch a light grey seabed scattered with fragments of seashell and coral; and I just hold the thought that this is what our pebble is made from, this 25 m2 patch of seabed – the broken fragments can still be seen in the pebble, in spite of its history that took it several kilometres below ground to be compressed and injected with liquid quartz, and lifted it several kilometres above ground to be eroded and revealed.

Most significantly from our perspective, the pebble was included in a painting of beach pebbles, that was subsequently sold to a german collector.

Knowledge of (scientific context)

Origin/history -------------------------- object ----------------------------- artist Experience of (sight/touch/feel)

Human mind absorbs all it has about a subject – oceanic knowledge – whether scientific


The Stone on the path is a thing

I wish to base this section on Heideggers ‘On the Origin of the Work of Art for three reasons: it is talking of art; it has general principles which deal with our relations to the world that have a direct bearing on issues in this paper (notably science); and it has ways of understanding things that can be applied to our understanding of the pebble.

Fortunately for us, Heidegger lets us know that ‘the stone on a path is a thing’ (4), unfortunately a thing in his terms ‘”thing” applies to anything that is simply nothing’, and a stone is classified

The artist has these two sources to draw from – how much of the origin of the object does the artist ‘know’ – Erehzwieg p29 must have visual element – or experiential

We can add to this knowledge through information that emerged during the painting. We know that the pebble (or more correctly, cobble, due to its size) was collected, with others, on a beach. Why was this pebble chosen; is it being fanciful to assign some significance to this? I would merely note that, given the history of this small piece of rock, the chances of it ending up as garden ornamentation and also a feature in a fish tank certainly helps to build a mythology around the object.

As an object to paint – we can see the complexity held in this object, and have only scratched the surface, as we shall see later. It is worth noting that none of this ‘discovery’ has been forced, it has revealed itself as part of casual conversations and actions, and co-incidences. Equally, it is possible to take a much more complex subject – a landscape or a person – and build a scientific and social commentary in great detail, which may, or may not, interest the artist.

I am interested in the object, for this discovery a well defined and manageable object. We have already seen the relationship between the human response and the scientific method, and I would argue the human, in daily life, has its existence within this human response. There is clearly a role for the scientist, in this case the geologist, in creating a sound, evidence driven understanding, but for the majority their world is more immediate.

I am taken by Heidegger’s description of the world view that is based on ‘”sound” common sense’ (H120 oteot) which, unless one is prone to probe deeper, is the world of the everyday. A pebble is a pebble, and can is good for throwing or ornamentation. However, common sense is restricted to the useful and self-evident, and the philosopher and the artist seeks the ‘what-is’ of the world with ‘her essence-seeking eyes’.

I wish to apply (and possible miss-apply) some of Heidegger’s thinking with regard to our pebble. In our engagement, we can see that we are addressing the minutest fraction of what this pebble is, what it has been and what it will be. In seeking the essence of the object, the artist is searching for some kind of truth that can only be represented by her art (taking Greenberg’s idea, if it can be done by other means then the artwork is redundant). If the scientific method doesn’t capture the humanness of the response, we focus on the object and let it stand before us in its own right

  • Letting something be, in the open

  • Letting be – let the object be what it is – truth is not the mark of some correct proposition made by some ‘human’ subject in respect of an object p336

  • Letting something take up a position opposite to us, as an object, that which is 328 – stands fast as the thing it is but is comes towards us in some way

  • Overtness – is the coming towards us, the medium in which we engage

Key point is the mystery, the fact that we can’t know the totality of an object

Curious, the mixing of philosophy and the practical engagement of painting

Process of engagement

– (not creative decisions) – makes the situation more complex, in this case. I’m not talking about the ‘alchemy’ of painting….. but the difficulty in applying absolute concepts to an object.

Variation of light – landscape painters – significant here in mood, what is revealed, how it is painted

Acid test – what am I painting – patina representing time – backstory, had been scrubbed – still half and half – impact on the artist

Broke – 3 times in spite of best efforts (deliberate?) change the character of the pebble – was it still a pebble or 3-4 pieces of a pebble or 3-4 pebbles – impact on the artist H broken stone ….p25 how to respond – mood of pebble - dwell on it and let it mature – but need to continue the work eg dwell on the fractures, what they mean, how they influence the painting, produce other paintings

Try and unpick what is happening here

Heidegger – peasant shoes – over interpret, what did VG know, or a simple representation of what is there – scientific approach - experiential element

I am struck at the ‘gaps’ that exist – scientific, painter and whether there is space for the ‘other’ to emerge

If we look at the situation from the other end of the telescope, creativity and painting. The object has multiple facets, so equally does painting – a form of alchemy, a process to which the painter is incidental etc. Increasing amount written Barbara Bolt, what is painting, Heidegger, psychology. As well as representing 3d on 2d surface.

To be specific, one example – in the zone, unaware of what I am painting or even how I am painting. Is framed by a sense of starting and ending, and a purpose. But in the zone – listen to music, Sibelius or Beethoven – does this influence what I am painting, is it in the work? Where am I technically – can’t paint perspective leaves flat canvas, can’t blend leaves edges and boundaries. Reading Fry on Cezanne – shrot brush strokes, or studying Sickert or Rembrandt (real examples). So a process that doesn’t succumb to science.

Process of engagement – judgement calls – how to represent (medium - painting, photography: surface etc.)

In this instance, something held me – let it speak for itself – but photography would pin it down too much, painting. 6 different views and long engagement to parallel the research above.

Still painting – 6 views not consistent – mood etc.


Over and above its thingliness (diss 14) OOO concepts diss17

Humans exist in the non-scientific space (science necessary – medicine, building etc.)

An object has much more than can be seen

Human response sensitive – object changes and human response changes and vice versa; human response changes even if object doesn’t (v unscientific)

in ‘an encounter not veiled by science’ (wpi 7).

Coincidence – pebble given to me by chance, had already been painted, had been in the hands of another amateur geologist, the actions acid test etc revealing, mention of coral in book, Dickenson poem quoted with no knowledge

Artist inconsequential

Pebble – a bringing together a community of things

By way of introduction, I will examine a number of philosophical ideas that underpin my thinking and then I will examine how we view the object by reference to direct experience of engagement through painting. Then …..

My starting point in thinking about these issues is the application of some philosophical ideas in understanding the concept of the object. These may seem difficult to grasp fully for those not familiar with such thinking, but it is worth rehearsing them as it will inform the more straightforward description of the object.

The ancient Greek concept of poesis (the root of poetry) can be thought of as ‘bringing forth’. This is usually applied to the artist who ‘not only shapes his or her material ….. but in doing so liberates the material from the artisan until….it obtains an independent being-in-itself’ (Di Pippo, 2000). Although usually applied to an artwork, I wish to use the concept of ‘bringing forth’ to the object on which the artwork is based, for reasons that will become apparent later.

Alongside poesis, I apply two other Greek concepts that have been adopted by Martin Heidegger that I find very useful tools…. Firstly, enframement: the idea that we view the world as objects and in doing so we fail to see their true essence. In everyday terms, we use nouns (dog, pen, table) that convey a general idea but nothing specific. In more elaborate terms, we develop constructs for describing things (aesthetics, the scientific method, logic) which help us analyse but reduce our understanding of the whole. In Heidegger’s terms, enframing is an assault on the essence of a thing, whether artwork or a tree (see Haynes diss 16). The act of enframing will be illustrated in the description of the painting object below.

In parallel with my philosophical research, I am painting the object that provides the practical evidence of the ideas I have been discussing. The aim is to examine the experience of giving the object of the painting primacy: I am not painting it as a subject but allowing it to express itself, so that, in Heidegger’s terms, ‘the artist remains something inconsequential’ (tootwa)19); the difference being I am inconsequential not to the work as Heidegger would have it, but to the object itself. To a great extent, the work (i.e. the painting) is only a means to explore this idea.

The object that is given this primary position is a pebble, given to me by chance. From this humble beginning a whole stream of thought, ideas and discovery is emerging (I am currently only halfway through painting the object).

Define whatit is im painting

My starting point is, naturally, the object itself. I will begin by using the scientific method to describe the pebble, thereby providing a baseline of awareness. The human response cannot be supressed for long, and I will describe my feelings during my initial engagement with the pebble. Through the process of painting and investigation, more is revealed about the object and its ….Overtness, reveal

(1) I recognise that the approach adopted in this essay could equally be applied to earlier times, back to antiquity (particularly Greek antiquity, which has provided the insight for some of this analysis) and other traditions (equally true); however, to develop the argument in the first instance, we need to consider a manageable, bounded scope, in the hope that, if useful, this thinking could be applied….


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