At last he came to the Vermeer which he remembered as more striking, more different from anything else he knew, but in which, thanks to the critics’ article, he noticed for the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and, finally, the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall. His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious little patch of wall. ”That’s how I ought to have written,” he said. “My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall.”1
The ‘little patch of yellow wall’ which held the gaze of the writer Bergotte as he dies in Proust’s epic novel, is of course, iconic. The repetition of the phrase and the event within the context of the novel gives this detail great significance, which is not, as Miguel de Beistegui argues in his book Proust as Philosopher, because it is intended to symbolise the painting as a whole but rather it has the ‘ability to draw within itself people, places and affects that are essentially heterogeneous’. He goes onto say:
A fragment can be a part that reveals the whole; it can be the microcosm of a macrocosm. But it can also signal a reality of its own, juxtaposed in relation to another, but not leading to a higher unity: a multiplicity of differences, or a set of relations, rather than a gathering of identities, or an organisation of units. 2
I want to explore this idea in the hope that it will illuminate that moment when we stand up close to the picture surface, fascinated by ‘that bit’ that seems to hold the key to why the painting is so unfathomable. The harder we look the more it seems to escape as we remember once again that, of course, the secret can’t be found in the physical stuff of dried paint on surface.
This painting La Garganta de Albers, Las Muelas de Gaudi (Albers’ Throat, the Teeth of Gaudi) (2003) is one I have never seen but I have looked at its reproduction many times in my studio, and I have made many paintings based on my fascination with what I imagine it to be. The reproduction, which I come across as I leaf through the pages of a catalogue of his work, is effectively a fragment too; never its literal stuff of printed ink on a page (that feels glossy to touch) but an image always doubled by an imaginative space that includes memories of looking at other paintings by Usle in the flesh and by memories of putting paint on a surface myself.
1 Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time: The Captive, (London 1996), p207
2 Miguel de Beistegui, Proust as Philosopher: The Art of Metaphor, ( Abingdon, 2013), p102
The Bits and Pieces of Painting: Some Thoughts about Albers and Gaudi in Usle’s La Garganta de Albers, Las Muelas de Gaudi
In the centre, in the upper half of the painting is a motif, a copy of an Albers painting or a least it may be (for I haven’t discovered which one yet). The motif recognisably belongs to Albers’ Homage to the Square series of paintings which he began in 1950 and made during the final twenty six years of his life. Having said that it is upside down; Albers’ squares gravitated towards the bottom edge not the top edge3 and the white border on the outside is unusual in Albers oeuvre; a copy of a reproduction rather than a painting, perhaps?
It’s not ‘a little patch of yellow wall’ but how might this fragment ‘...signal a reality of its own. Juxtaposed in relation to another...’? How might it relate to other fragments in the painting as a patchwork of pieces juxtaposed, stitched together [infinitely whole?]; rather than a whole and continuous piece of fabric or garment? If we go back to the title we might suppose that the other fragment has something to do with the architecture of Gaudi; eccentric shapes that mimic external features of his buildings. How do the fragments come together, not to create some higher unity (Greenberg’s properly instantaneous experience of painting), but as de Beistegui describes as ‘a multiplicity of differences’?
As my interest in this painting has deepened over the last three or four years I wonder why I became interested in it in the first place. What motivated my decision to dwell on this painting which I have never seen? What was the nature of that decision and is there a relation to my decision-making in the studio, of which it actually forms a part?
Something caught my eye but that moment was not exactly chosen. The decision to write in relation to this painting was not made from a selection of alternatives; it wasn’t made because I had something to say. That moment of sustained fascination became an opening and a challenge not to let it pass - to notice it – an interruption as if something from the outside broke the continuum of my purpose-orientated perception. A paradoxical moment, perhaps, when what was undoubtedly new and alien was also a moment of familiarity – a connection to on-going questions in the studio, no doubt, but also a chance encounter with what seemed to have been waiting to happen.
‘This he [Proust] calls the memoire volontaire, and it is its characteristic that the information which it gives about the past retains no trace of it. ‘It is the same
3 The ‘world turned upside down, perhaps?
The Bits and Pieces of Painting: Some Thoughts about Albers and Gaudi in Usle’s La Garganta de Albers, Las Muelas de Gaudi
with our own past. In vain we try to conjure it up again; the efforts of our intellect are futile.’ Therefore Proust, summing up, says that the past is ’somewhere beyond the reach of the intellect, and unmistakably present in some material object (or in the sensation which such an object arouses in us), though we have no idea which one it is. As for that object, it depends entirely on chance whether we come upon it before we die or whether we never encounter it.’4
If what grabbed my attention was the irruption of involuntary memory then it was also beyond the ‘reach of the intellect’; present in the material object of the painting or rather in its image on a page in a book, picked up, flicked through, pored over; present ‘in the sensation which such an object arouses in us’. In comparison to a conscious act of remembering, involuntary memory is an unconscious remembrance. In a very significant sense it is, therefore, not the memory of lived experience but suggests the possibility that with every perception or lived experience there is an accompanying unconscious ‘unlived’ experience; a time that doubles that which we are aware of – a ‘fold of the real’ p51). In other words each perception produces a virtual image that was never present but which returns, at certain moments; moments of chance when there is no purpose or goal to achieve. [What are the conditions of possibility for its return? What does it signal? Why is it tied to a material situation How is it an image of an image? P53]
‘By “involuntary memory” Proust understands something like those “unconscious remembrances” which, randomly triggered by some sensation, some spoken word or some encounter, arise from the very depths of our being and from the forgetting to which a wilful intelligence and a wilful memory, both orientated wholly towards practical action, would have condemned them.’5
[or quotation by Proust onp48]
Would it be pure speculation to suppose that Usle’s decision to include a motif that copies an Albers painting was informed by the irruption of involuntary memory? Indeed the opposite may be true; for it could only be speculation to imagine that this was a reasoned choice intended to bring into play ideas which associate themselves with Albers as an exemplary modernist (materialist more than formalist...). And furthermore, such a claim would be to become distracted by narratives about the artist rather than by allowing ourselves, in the words of Damisch, to become educated by it [Bois ‘Painting as Model’]
4 W Benjamin, Illuminations, (London 1992), p155
5 Miguel de Beistegui, Proust as Philosopher, (Abingdon, 2013), p38
The Bits and Pieces of Painting: Some Thoughts about Albers and Gaudi in Usle’s La Garganta de Albers, Las Muelas de Gaudi
The importance of involuntary memory is to be able to think beyond the image of the motif (beyond observation and what can be described). Although the motif recognisably refers to Albers oeuvre that is only a semblance. Following in Albers footsteps, Usle experienced, as a physical act, laying specific colours next to one another in a geometric format, he felt the reversal of the gravitational orientation, the reduction in scale; the translation of one picture into a motif or figure embedded into a picture of his own. The specificity of the motif is more intriguing than a general sign for Albers. A personal opinion, of course, but I am trying to grasp the significance of the irruption of involuntary memory as a sign for something more important than appearance suggests, a sensation that is incomprehensible but from which a new kind of thinking can emerge. What emerges is the radically new = a return wht signals a metamorphosis of the real itself...p53
To grasp this slippery idea (and following Bois) the first concept I will import is that of the ‘radically new’. This is a term used by the Deleuze scholar Keith Ansell-Pearson in his book Germinal Life: The Difference and Repetition of Deleuze to draw attention to a distinction between what we usually call the new, which is actually a new arrangement of pre-existing elements, and the ‘radically new’ which begins with incomprehensibility but from which a new kind of thinking emerges. This appropriation is not simply to call incomprehensibility by another name, as if it were a quality that could be identified in the painting. It is instead to establish a philosophical ground for the ‘dynamic’ process of interpretation which Damisch’s question implies; dynamic because the interpretative methodology must be invented as the same time as the artwork. As Ansell-Pearson explains, whereas its converse, the relatively ‘new’, satisfies the intellect because it is able to compare the new with what it recognizes as the old (fashion, for example) and is predicated on the representation of objects of perception as static things - effectively “bracketed out” of the flux in which they operate – ‘the radically new’ refers to an event that happens only in the flux of unpredictability and chance; it is the event of the creativity of cognition not the act of recognition and judgement.
This idea of a new kind of thinking emerging from an initial incomprehensibility is also expressed by Deleuze when he writes in Difference and Repetition:
Something in the world forces us to think. This something is an object not of recognition but of a fundamental encounter...its primary characteristic is that it can only be sensed. In this sense it is opposed to recognition. In recognition, the sensible is not at all that which can only be sensed, but that which bears directly upon the senses in an object which can be recalled, imagined or conceived.
And so I want to explore the idea that by including the complete image of a work that exists in the world outside the painting, as a fragment within a new painting, and by juxtaposing it with another ‘image’/material object? Usle’s painting becomes a site for ‘dispersing’ Albers work rather than reifying it as a completed object of art history.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. For it is not the Albers motif which, in its repetition, is the ‘cause’ of the irruption of involuntary memory; for it can have no cause, it is singular moment that happens by chance. It is but a starting point for an investigation into the structure of Use’s painting. I am not trying to persuade you that you will have to same encounter. This is not a personal narrative but an investigation into the organisation of the painting. it is the relation with that other fragment, with Gaudi, which is what creates the sensation of the painting, What I am trying to say is that the painting creates connections between virtual elements of two different, heterogeneous material objects. For the sake of argument these objects are woven together in the material object that is Usle’s painting
Involuntary memory and the return of the past – how the past as ‘unlived’ experience returns – this is important because it implies that what was not lived now returns because involuntary memory irrupts through sensible material – what returns is immaterial – virtual relations - the importance of the juxtaposition with Gaudi is that a connection is made between objects that do not resemble one another but are different – a relation of difference – but how do I introduce this as metaphor? Where is the metaphor? Perhaps I have to say that Albers operates metonymically and point to the difference with Gaudi as metaphor but then go on to say that there is a bigger operation at stake that includes both – a kind of arche-metaphor. (see notes dated 9th April)
Is it the case that what may have begun with an intuition to use the Albers image began a process of reminiscence? A process that is the act of painting, not a landscape, for example, or an expression/repetition of self - the ‘revival of a lived experience’ (Mde B p38) but which explores a dimension of experience which remains to be lived. This is not the memory of representation but the memory of feelings which remain ‘a memory of the body (p40) [But doesn’t this still imply that this is the memory of what was sensed even though it remains an unconscious excitation?) This is the memory that was never conscious and thus could never be retained or recalled – in this sense it is the memory of what has never been present. but it implied a different notion of time from that which passes in a linear way.
In fact we could say that as we live in the present we perceive only that which interests us but that does not mean that the rest is unimportant – we didn’t notice it but passively it becomes our past as it passes away, contracted, always there awaiting action (JW, p28). And so when we speak of an image of Albers painting that means only a little because we see only what Usle has consciously remembered/copied – he has cut out from a plenitude of sensations, ideas etc. an image, but the image doesn’t really belong to him (it may have done when he made a conscious decision to use this image) but if we are writing from the painting’s point of view it now belongs to a new painting, a new present, a material form which nevertheless brings with it the repetition of what is enfolded (which I will elaborate later on). In this sense the present is process, for as soon as I say this, it too has passed and I am unaware of all that accompanied my conscious thought has also passed and remains awaiting. However, it would be wrong to imagine a space which held all those stimulations, as if captured in such a way that we stand outside of time and see that ever increasing volume which never changes and which has a separate existence. It means nothing until connections are made in the moment of the living present i.e. a perspective created in the living present that select a path and which brings order ‘out of a chaos of unrelated particulars’ (p30)
It seems to me that the question of “what is the commitment of/to painting as an aesthetic and/or ethical/political practice” cannot be decided through observation – as if we develop a set of ideas and then look for an example to back up the thesis. This would seem antithetical to very notion of commitment itself because it would suggest that the work itself does not think (does not have freedom) but can only represent either the thought of the person who made it or the person who writes about it.
Therefore, I have put analysis at the centre of my response; to work out what might constitute ‘commitment’ in practice, not through narratives about my own practice, nor by representing the work in terms of ideas about commitment that it might illustrate but by allowing myself to be educated by the work itself.
The problem of knowing where to begin and how to proceed with such an analysis is discussed in Bois’ lengthy introduction to his collection of essays Painting as Model, (to which Sunil refers) where Bois cites Roland Barthes who insists that (quote) ‘one does not “apply” a theory; that concepts must be forged from the object of one’s inquiry or imported according to that object’s specific exigency; and that the main theoretical act is to define this object, not the other way around’.
Thus, the essays in Bois’ book take the problematic nature of a specific work (as he say to give the work primacy and specificity) as its point of departure and invent or import theoretical models, in part of whole, form other disciplines (what Bois calls a ‘right-to-store up’ policy) in order to strive for that renewed intimacy with the work which Damisch speaks about when he asks:
Could there be a form of analysis whose aim was not to capture painting in the net of discourse but rather to allow oneself to be educated by it, even at the risk of undermining the linguistic model? ...Is it possible to escape the descriptive illusion in any way other than by denouncing the representationalist hypothesis from which it proceeds, while retaining the rights to an analysis that’s not about painting but rather proceeds with it...an analysis aimed less at helping us to understand that at helping us to see, and which would strive for a renewed intimacy with the work that is painting’s own province?
Hubert Damisch The Origin of Perspective, p263
This ‘renewed intimacy’ belongs properly to painting, not as if painting has a universal essence, but in the sense that each specific painting is the actualisation of thought; not the thought of the person who painted it but of thought which belongs to painting itself. Perhaps, my argument is that commitment is the expression of such a thought; a thought that can never belong to anyone but the painting.
This ‘being of the sensible’ cannot be recognised, not because it is unfamiliar, but because it is imperceptible from the point of view of common sense. Rather than being limited to making a contribution along with the other faculties, to form a common sense, sensibility becomes free to ‘find itself before its own limit’. Such a disjunctive synthesis already implies a folding of inside and outside because what ‘can only be sensed’ is neither an object situated in time and space outside the subject (an object of recognition) nor does it have the identity of a subjective mental object as it refers, not to a general idea, but to an encounter which, in its specificity, requires a body. The object of a fundamental encounter depends upon an understanding of the genesis of perception as processual, beginning with the body (bottom up, as it were!) rather than the reverse which begins with abstract mental concepts applied to what the body senses.
Of course the question remains how that ‘new kind of thinking’ emerges from an encounter with the specific artwork if it begins with an incomprehensibility (which suggests a radical discontinuity) and yet at the same time strives for a renewed intimacy with the work. In other words, what is at stake is how commitment can be understood, not as a relation of cause and effect (as if we might be able to measure a work’s efficacy at engaging with social issues) but as a function of the internal organisation of an autonomous entity seen from the inside, as it were, not judged by us standing outside as an identity that matches our criteria but understood in principle to make a difference.
On a practical level the difficulty of establishing this ‘in principle’ as a function of its material actualisation begins with what happens to our available vocabulary; descriptive terms such as “abstract” and “figurative”, for example, which are
designed to identify certain characteristics of the observable, fixed and stable object.
The idea of the ‘radically new’ suggests that, paradoxically, analysis must begin somewhere other than with empirical experience, in Deleuze’s terms to ‘go beyond the state of experience toward the conditions of experience.’ The only alternative is for these terms, if they are to be used at all, to become purely theoretical in the sense that, rather than being linked to observable characteristics of the work they are understood to be its generative principles. In practical terms such an idea presents a considerable challenge because it puts into question the ‘truthfulness’ of the relationship between painting and the writing which ‘proceeds with it’. Without the requirement to ‘prove’ an argument using observation as evidence the prospect is that the latter becomes mere fiction. Although, perhaps this idea could be an important ‘sign’ of commitment; a free act inspired by the encounter, with no other purpose than to make something new, Damisch’s question implies that some necessary relation with writing and painting is at stake, so that painting is not simply a starting point but remains the focus as writing seeks to define its specific exigency.
In order to meet this challenge, the second concept I will import is “autopoiesis” (or self-production) which was developed by biologists Maturana and Varela as a logical method to distinguish living entities from non-living ones . Rather than beginning with the observable formal characteristics of the organism as a fully formed entity, their aim was to develop a method capable of analysing the genesis of that entity as a living form; that is from the point of view of the organism and not from that of the observer. A theoretical framework, in other words, that is not based on empirical observation but on logic. The living organism is not examined in isolation but in its dynamic relation to its environment. Their method is significantly different from a Darwinian perspective, in which the organism is understood to adapt to a pre-given, fixed and objective environment. On the contrary, the logic of autopoiesis insists that the genesis of a new species is also the creation of a new form of sensing the world so that there is the simultaneous creation of a new environment. For example, a wasp and an orchid may inhabit the same spatial region but their genesis actually creates two different environments according to what is important or significant to each species. By examining a species from the point of view of the species itself the autopoietic model resists the authority of
Darwin’s transcendental position which applies the logic of competition and telenomy to all species; a model perhaps for an alternative view of the world based not on competition but on expression.
Indeed, I would argue that implicit in Damisch/Bois is the idea that the work of art does operate as a form of life; ‘painting as model’ implies that painting creates a new way of sensing the world (rather than represent the world as it is); differentiating a new environment of which analysis is a product. Rather than adopting a fixed and stable position outside of the work writing creates a dynamic relation to it and, in so doing, affirms the life of that work in the new context of interpretation. A gift to the reader...? (p9)
As investigative method, the purpose of autopoiesis is to (quote) ‘understand the organization of living systems in relation to their unitary character’ ; a unity that is a dynamic ‘network of relations’ which the authors call its organisation. These (virtual) dynamic processes actualise the living system as a machine with no other purpose other than to “create itself”. As the defining feature of the living organism, its ‘organisation’ is the object of analysis not the observable components of the system, which are merely its products and so, it would be contradictory to begin an analysis of painting with its image. The question remains how to enquire into the nature of the virtual, invisible ‘organisation’ which generates visible form through logic not observation?
This is complex and something I have written in detail about elsewhere but I will try and give a brief account here that I hope will make sense. Let’s imagine for a moment that the life of the work of art, its organisation, is generated by forces structured like a genetic code. According to the field of bio-semiotics genetic material is not a blue-print for development but is interpreted by the organism’s relation to the outside; what they call ‘code-duality’ constituted by forces derived from inherited ‘memories’ that have evolved in time (“vertical” semiosis) and forces encountered in the environmental context (“horizontal” semiosis).
How might Mal de Sol express the idea of code-duality, what is the mechanism for its genesis? Although the vertical and the horizontal axes are always in flux and are inseparably entwined, for the sake of clarity, let’s say that the materials and their processes that make the work create a system that enfolds and unfolds a (vertical) memory of painting, one that becomes interpreted by an
environment which is differentiated at the same time as the painting is created. According to the autopoietic model the organism responds, not to identities but to difference; the organism interprets its environment through ‘significant sign relationships’ and not as a passive object subject to a given environment and the forces of natural selection. The number of potential differences that surround the system is infinite so for difference to become information that can be interpreted these differences must first be selected by some kind of ‘mind’; the recipient system (a system in this case whose materials and processes involve paint applied to a flat surface). Therefore, information is conceived of as difference that makes a difference to the recipient. Earlier writers such as the 19thC ethologist Jakob von Uexkull also viewed environment as a species- specific ‘objective world’ or Umwelt and understood the form of a living organism develops through its ‘contrapuntal’ rather than causal relations with other organisms and its physical habitat (contrapuntal referring to the musical idea that two melodic line move in respect of one another but maintain their independence).
According to this idea of ‘contrapuntal’ rather than causal relations between entities we could say that one ‘news of difference’ that makes a difference to this recipient system is that between abstract painting and figurative painting, or more correctly between two historically mutually exclusive spatial systems (which in turn enfold many concepts, ideas and beliefs). However, it is the difference as sign that the organism is interested in, and which is interpreted by the paintings’ ‘organisation’, and not identities or terms. How is that expressed in the work?