Time and Paint

Time and Paint

by Meeka Walsh

Making something is mucking around in the psyche and self, rooting for responses, manufacturing something whole from mind and matter. For a writer the opaque blank sheet must yield to transparency through the application of words. Sometimes they’re dense as lead; when they’re not they are as blessedly fine as often-washed cotton lawn. For painters, their material is also opaque, and dense as thick custard, and their intentions must be worked through this stuff, infiltrating and persuading a homogeneous medium to cede its opacity and become instead a veil or a glass vessel or a descending mauve sky.

When writing works, the black ciphers on the page (however heavily they are impressed and inked), are selfless, are never there for their own upright, conical or seriphed selves. Even in the case of concrete poetry, which has always seemed to me stagey and archly self-conscious, the words give up their place to meaning and image. But paint, as set as Lady Macbeth’s stain, will not out, will not disappear and must be dealt with first, and second–as material and what else? As symbol, image, information, meaning? The painter does this and, looking, we do it too, although differently. It is about transformation–something into something else.

What is this medium of transformation, this pigmented paste, that’s also described as buttery, oily, creamy, or stiff and resistant? Art historian and critic James Elkins says it is water and stones, or more precisely, in the case of oil paint–medium and pigment, which could be linseed oil and powdered rock. Two endeavours, he tells us in What Painting Is (Routledge, 2000), require water and stones and he draws them parallel in the book’s argument, suggesting, in a perspectival manner, that they do converge, say at the horizon, and draw apart as we approach, and intersect again as a notion at least, just beyond there. Painting and alchemy, water and stones. In alchemy, Elkins says, the achievement of the Stone, the philosopher’s stone, is the ultimate goal and a “sign of the mind’s perfection, the almost transcendent state,” where all the impurities have, through various processes, been removed.

Paint, its handlers acknowledge, is a unwieldy beast with a will and sometimes a life of its own, a partner, collaborator, agent and foe. It would be no surprise to painters when Elkins, in his presenting comparative endeavours of alchemy and painting, introduces the idea of hypostasis. This describes, he says, “what happens when fluids and stones have inner meaning.” He explains that, “A hypostasis is a descent from an incorporeal state into ordinary matter, or in general, an infusion of spirit into something inert.” So paint can be alive–in its application and in its apprehension on the canvas. I can understand hypostasis. When I was little but not too little to remember, there was a small event in a long day in a long yellow summer. I remember the incident twice-over. First as subject and many times thereafter at my mother’s telling because apparently it struck us both, in spite of its spareness, as something of substance. Simply: it was in the summer and I was four years old. I was in the front yard of the cottage where we stayed, in the small lakeside town of Gimli. I was there in the sun and quiet, squatting on my heels with knees and haunches balanced in the even way kids do, a position that creates a nice equilibrium. What I had settled in to do could well have been something I’d been meaning to do for some time and had set aside for the right moment, which had now been selected. “What,” my mother asked me, noting the intense stillness and deliberation with which I had located myself, “what is it you are doing?” And I, without lifting my gaze or attention from my study, had replied, “I’m watching a stone grow.”
Stones can grow and I was acknowledging that a stone had its own properties and maybe in some inchoate manner I was anticipating a stone’s potential (as paint). In any event, if a stone grows, it is slowly, and observing it requires close looking, time and patience–like making a painting, or seeing it.

Time is what we no longer seem to have, or aren’t impelled to take. We are victims of Beaudrillard’s “ecstasy of communication” where we’re given more–more images, more media, more information and less meaning, where we pan the surface with our own acculturated lens or through a packaged, formulated commercial lens and see, in the rapid sweep, only the thinnest skin of things, quickly. We are past the age of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” but here is Walter Benjamin reminding us what a painting has: “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”

The time it takes to make a painting: months or years or Picasso’s few seconds and 60 years; the time a painting takes, that is, its insistence on actually seizing and holding the moment; the time a painting lasts; the time it creates by its presence; and the time we need to look at it.

Where does painting come from, this made thing? It’s produced whole from mind and paint, medium and matter, but must begin with self. And here’s the fraught seductive setting. An artist’s studio: a contained space whether there are views to the outside or not, the smell of paint, oil, thinner, wooden stretchers, sized canvasses, steady labour, dust–because as often as not the studios are in old buildings that have exhausted their initial purpose, books, cards, photos torn from magazines and newspapers, their own paintings, useful empty cans, jars, cardboard rolls, shelves of paints and brushes, some furniture, a kettle and cups. And into this glorious, freighted, taut enclosure, the artist enters alone and here, to court some kind of madness, calls on self and alchemical partner, paint. Why madness? Because there’s a chance you’ll run out of self, or into it and use it up. There’s Elkins’s alchemical process of circulation where, in a sealed vessel, everything is heated, evaporates, condenses and returns to itself under the guidance of the god Hermes. Hermetically sealed, there’s the guarantee of purity and intensity and the real possibility of exhaustion.

It panics us, or causes consternation, to think of the time before time and we attribute beginnings to the primum mobile that set everything in motion, or God before Genesis, beginning the six days of creation, and always there’s the niggling, nervous–what before that?–and we see an endless void without light or warmth or refuge. The time before creation. In a smaller cosmology–in the studio or at the desk–the necessity of the first mark. Where does it come from, each time? Elkins says, comparing painting’s fixedness with film’s rapidly shifting images, “a painting remains still, waiting for us to dream the changes it might possess.” And this requires time.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot laid each mark in his paintings with deliberation. The painting Rome: The Coliseum Seen through Arches of the Basilica of Constantine, 1825, is a small canvas, 9 1/8 by 13 3/4 inches. In the foreground, set just behind a dark green, grassy band, are three remaining arches of the Basilica, distributed evenly across the painting. The middle ground is occupied by more building fragments and uneven ground, which only shows covering foliage here and there and could have been disturbed in a recent past. Beyond, framed by the arches, is what remains of the Coliseum and something about the smooth application of paint and the light of the lowering sun caught along the arcades seems almost photographic, although, clearly, it isn’t. The sky is pale blue with a thin wash of grey clouds delicately touched by a brush changing directions to follow the wind–vertical strokes, horizontal, and some disappearing into the weightless surface. What interests me in particular is the affirmative, deliberate brushing on of paint that served to build the Basilica’s arches. The darker umber strokes indicating, perhaps, the remaining stuccoed surface, the lighter, short horizontal brush implying the brick work underneath, and the short firm marks following the bricks along the top of each arch in a semi-circle. So certain is the brush on the arches on the canvas that it’s possible to hear the stiff bristles applying the thickened pigment to build the imposing ruins.

Thinking again about the hermetic nature of painting, what could more thoroughly embody a painter than his manufacturing himself from his own medium, painting himself into being with a self-portrait. Corot, Palette in Hand, circa 1840, was painted when the artist was in his mid-40s. The face, which is finely rendered, presents a speculative, assessing gaze appropriately interrogating the subject as to intention and the nature of his activity. It’s a probing scrutiny but not uncharitable. He is not passing judgement because he’s engaged in the unfinished business of actively making a still thing whose subject is far from resting from his own pursuits. The cover of Elkins’s book What Painting Is is a detail of one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, this one from 1659. He asks us to consider what is happening to the active, unruly, greasy, blemished, lined surface of this painted face. In its physicality the paint is metonymy–a portrait in matter, of a portrait. He says, “It is a self-portrait of the painter, but it is also a self-portrait of paint.” He says as well, extending his postulation that paint itself becomes the subject (I think of Artaud’s conviction that mind is body and body is mind), “The painter’s face becomes a portrait of the substances that filled his mind.” Corot’s self-portrait is calmer, cooler and less agitated–by disposition I would guess, and by chosen style and technique.

Lady in Blue, 1874, was painted the year before Corot died. In 1913 art historian and critic √Čtienne Moreau-N√©laton wrote about this painting, “La Dame en bleu belongs to the family of beautiful dreamers that were created joyously on a relaxed day, simply for the pleasure of painting, by the old man passionate about his art, within the four walls of his studio in Paris,” and it is quoted in the catalogue Corot, which was published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in conjunction with the exhibition “Corot,” 1996. This is a statement about a lifelong engagement with painting, written in a finely metred and almost limpid tempo, that speaks about the time a painting takes. The subject in the painting is a model in the artist’s studio, or she’s a stylishly gowned, pampered and beautiful young woman thinking herself somewhere other than where she is, which could be a salon or ballroom, or drawing-room after dinner.

The paint is plump and indulgent. It suggests the stiffness and body of the dress’s fabric, which folds with the slight resistance of taffeta, showing especially in the fullness of the bow at the back. The banding on the underskirt and the shorter top skirt are rich black, likely velvet. There’s fine black lace making a filigree at the neck and shoulders. The woman’s hair is a rich brown with reddish lights–like a chestnut mare–and black combs or a jet coronet hold it in place. The slight pink of her cheeks reflects youth and good health, not shyness, and the exposed skin of her arms, hands and shoulders, and the closed fan casually hanging from graceful fingers, seem to have gathered a pearly light not evident elsewhere. A languor infuses both subject and technique. The sense I have is one of opulence, not in the lavish application of pigment but in Corot’s revelling in covering the canvas with paint, with colour, in calling into being at the end of his brush a work that has us pause and move around the surface, and speculate, in fancy, about the subject’s particular story, and come to recognize, but not in haste, that he has made a painting.