Monday, 19 May 2014

control, manipulation and breath

Zoie Kennedy
Seems to me this wise essay on puppets could apply to any artform...

And here it is rewritten for painting...

The Myths of Painting
Eric Bass/tamsin haggis
May 14, 2014
Every object has natural properties. For the moment, I will use the words painting  and object interchangeably. The painting is, after all, an object. The natural properties of the object are determined by the materials, and by the size, shape, and function of the object. These properties are true of paintings, as well, and one can add to the properties of the painting, the painting’s character, which has emerged as the painting appeared in the studio. That character is not only a matter of style or figuration. It is also a matter of the limitations of the function of the painting. A painting cannot do everything that we would expect of images in life. It is allows for a specific range of tones, gestures and shapes. These limitations give it its character as much as any painterly elements.

The Myth of Control
There are two myths about painting that need to be exploded. The first of them is the more obvious. It is the myth that the artist controls the painting. This myth is, of course, supported by numerous catch phrases in our language and culture:
 He’s so talented, what skill she has, she’s a natural creative . All suggest that the artist makes the painting do whatever he or she wants. Although some artists do try to impose their will on the objects of their art, most know that this is a disservice to both art and to the painting. Our job, our art, is to bring the painting to life. To impose control over the object is, in both spirit and practice, the opposite of this.

As painters, it is, surprisingly, not our job to impose our intent on the painting. It is our job to discover what the paint can do and what it seems to want to do. It has propensities. We want to find out what they are, and support them. We are, in this sense, less like tyrants, and more like nurses to these objects. How can we help them? They are built for a purpose. They seem to have destinies. We want to help them arrive at those destinies.

A simple example: What are the properties of a ball? It rolls, and sometimes it bounces. To put a ball onstage and have it never bounce or roll is a denial of what that ball is. Even if the ball does nothing, it can be said to be waiting to roll or bounce. A painting’s properties may not be quite so obvious, but they are there, and so is its character. Analyzing the character will not get us very far. We have to discover who our two-dimensional partner is. This is true of its shapes, gestures, and its voice. Our cleverness in thinking of great things for the painting to do or say will not help the painting live. They will only draw attention to ourselves. If we try to impose them on the painting , what we produce will not be about the painting at all. It will be about us, the manipulator. Or it will be about the conflict between us and our painting.
The practice of our art, then, requires that we be the exact opposite of a controller. In fact, it requires that we step back and allow our paintings to perform their shapes, their tones, their moments of life in the world. It requires from us a generosity. If we try to dominate them, we will take from them the life we are trying to give them.
This practice of discovering the painting’s intentions can take a long time. Often we make a painting  to play a role in a script we have written. If we are sensitive to our work, we may take the painting and propose the actions and text of that script. But it is very likely that something will not fit, that the painting  does not seem to embody those actions or text easily. It might seem as though the painting is fighting us. What can we do? Start the painting again? Rewrite the script that informs our intention? Possibly a little of both, first one, then the other, until we find the place where everything fits together. This can be a long process. The art of the painting has very little to do with what we want, and everything to do with what we allow ourselves to discover, support, and follow.

The Myth of Manipulation
This brings us to the second myth. This myth is more illusive. It is the myth that we manipulate the paint with the skill and technique of our hands. What is manipulation, after all, than the moving of an object
 with the hand? This word does not serve us well.

For a moment, let’s look at a bigger picture. We come to the art gallery. To see what? The painting? I don’t think so. I think that we come to the art gallery to experience the world that the painting gives form to. That world is a reflection of our world, so it is of great interest to us. We come, then, not to see the painting, but to see through the painting, and out into its world.

About thirty-five years ago, I did a performance in a beautiful Zen temple in Rochester, New York. I remember the temple as having been built without nails, but rather with wooden pegs. As I and the rest of our ensemble entered the temple, we saw a very large drum lying horizontally on a high stand, like a huge barrel suspended in the air. The drum had two skins, one at each end, with the barrel in between. A monk was playing the drum and its sound was deep and reverberated through our bodies. I asked the monk if he would let me play the drum. He generously handed me the two sticks and stepped aside. I took my stance at one end of the drum, raised my sticks above my head and began to beat, trying to emulate what I had seen the monk doing. Very quickly, he stopped me and said, “You are doing it all wrong.” Wrong? What was I doing wrong? “You are playing the skin of the drum.” What should I be playing? “You should be playing through the skin, through the second skin, and out into the world.”
This seemingly mysterious statement is not so mysterious as it seems. For me, it is the same with painting. We should not, in fact, be painting at all. We should be playing through the painting, and out into its world. We do not manipulate the painting at all. It is a means to evoking its environment. And that environment, that world, is not a material world. It is a sensory one, and we, the audience, can only experience it through the senses of the painting. How can our hands manipulate immaterial sensations?

In fact, our hands are only the middle men in this transaction, like the paintings themselves. Our hands are sensors, not actors. The are transmitters of our breath. Like all artists, like musicians and dancers and even good lighting technicians, it is in our breath that the living response is found.
Breathing Through Our Hands
Breath is how we experience the world. Everything that we experience we breathe in. We pass, for example, a window of a shoe store. There, in the window, we see that pair of shoes that we have been dreaming about. We gasp. In a sense, we
 inhale the shoes. If we do not inhale, we do not really see them. It is the same for nature. We inhale the sunset, the vast sky. We inhale the view of the mountains, the distant skyscrapers approaching a city. Our inhale connects us to the world.

Even in our dreams, our breath connects us to the world of our imagination. We dream we are being pursued. In our dream we are running. We awake, suddenly, panting, gasping for breath. And yet our bodies have not moved. We have been asleep in bed. But our imaginations have been running. Whatever we imagine, our breath corresponds.

And so we have an equation: It is not our hands manipulating the paint that brings the painting  to life. It is our breath corresponding to the world of our imagination. Between our breath and the imagined world, our hands take up the paint. We allow our breath to go through our hands, through the painting, and out into the world. And we allow the imagined world to go through the painting, through our hands, and into our breath. If we assert more than the minimal amount of effort needed to support the painting, we lock the piece into being about our hands and the paint. If we keep our hands receptive, to let our breath flow through them, and through the painting as well, we have the potential to unlock a richer content, and a richer experience.

Our first act of generosity is to let the painting be about the painting, not about us. Our second act of generosity is to let the piece be about a greater world outside the painting. This is where our breath and the breath of the audience meet to make meaningful art. Ultimately, a painting is about how the piece is offered and received, rather than the intention of the marks. In painting, we can choose to impress the audience with our muscle, skill, and technique; or we can choose to invite them to follow an inanimate object into a world that reflects their own. We meet our audience there.


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