"You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen."
Joseph Campbell on having a “bliss station,“ in The Power of Myth [via Austin Kleon]
I recently received the following call for submissions for an issue of "Poets and Artists" curated by John Seed, professor of art and art history at Mt. San Jacinto
College in Southern California:
The Canadian artist
and filmmaker Jack Chambers has defined Perceptualism in visual art as
involving “a profound reflection of primary sensory experience, not simply a
reproduction of it.” For my curated issue of Poets and Artists I am seeking
paintings that are true “perceptual paintings” which emanate from the senses.
In particular I hope to discover paintings that demonstrate the ways that
sensory experiences can be heightened and amplified in the painting process.
Please submit only works that have their beginnings in observation and which do
not rely on photos as references. Feel free – and even encouraged – to submit
works that show how emotion and imagination can alter perceptually based works.
I had a negative emotional reaction to John Seed’s
description of “perceptual painting”—which has something to do with my own
questions about using photos as a basis for my work. So I thought I might to
use what he says here to clarify some of the issues I have about the senses and
painting from photos.
1. Seed’s definition of a “true ‘perceptual painting’” as
one which “emanates from the senses” implies that paintings can be related to
the senses either directly or indirectly.
This seems true to me. Some paintings are not at all
interested in observation. Andy Warhol’s ‘figurative’ paintings do not reflect
a struggle to “see” Jackie Onassis or a can of soup, but rather to play with
her image and its associations in the popular culture.
2. Seed further suggests that he is interested in work that
“emanate[s] from” rather than “reproduce[s]” sensory experience.
Here he takes a further step and suggests, I think, that
among those paintings which seem to relate directly to sensory experience, some
merely “reproduce” a sensory experience.
Seed doesn’t explain this distinction, but what I imagine
he’s thinking here is the difference between an artist standing in front of a
model painting and the same artist standing in front of a photo of a model and
painting. And, if this is so, he’s also suggesting that the artist using a
photo is only “reproducing” a sensory experience.
3. Seed confirms this line of thought, when, at the end of
the call he says:
Please submit only
works that have their beginnings in observation and which do not rely on photos
Here Seed’s distinction between direct sensory “observation”
and second hand sensory reproduction which “[relies] on photos” is made
I find this view of painting from a photo to be completely
wrong and fundamentally insulting.
I work from photos:
a. because working from photos relieves me of the complex
emotional response I have to working in front of another person. Having a model
in the room with me actually obscures my ability to observe clearly and respond
b. because working from photos allows me to observe details
of human expression and interaction which I simply cannot discern in the moment
of their occurrence. In this way photos allow me to have a very direct
experience of events which I could not experience without them.
c. because [and here I’m getting more vague] working from
photos allows me to observe without naming things. My immediate or “direct”
sensory experience is often the most superficial. My initial response to a
scene I wish to paint is to sort out “figure” and “ground” or “background” and
“foreground.” These sorts of distinctions are precisely what I often work to
overcome in my painting. The longer I work with an image the more connections I
begin to see between this eye and that corner of a chair or this flesh tone and
that shadow on the wall.
So to me the idea that we could distinguish between
paintings that “have their beginnings in observation” and those that “rely on
photos” is completely misguided and deeply spurious. The important question for
me as a painter is WHAT I want to observe and whether working from a photo is
the best way to explore that observation.
*I just have to note that the photo accompanying the call
shows John Seed standing with Caitlin Karolczak's beautiful painting "Between
my Chest" at the Center for Contemporary Art, Las Vegas—a work which
almost certainly relies on photo references.
“She told them that the only grace they could
have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they
would not have it. ‘Here,’ she said, ‘in this here place, we flesh; flesh that
weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it
hard.’” [from Beloved, Toni Morrison]
What would it be like to love the flesh;
to love, without shame, the weeping, laughing,
the flesh which so rarely takes the shape we expect
These paintings are about loving that flesh. Hard.
These studio notes are scraps of poetry and ideas that feed my work as a painter. I hope they establish a bit of context for the paintings and my intention in making them. Whatever I paint, I’m trying to create some space for us to sit with the questions that are not meant to be answered.