March 29, 2015

painting and photos--an argument with John Seed

* see note below

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 as references

Here Seed’s distinction between direct sensory “observation” and second hand sensory reproduction which “[relies] on photos” is made explicit.

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 directly.

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.