‘Looking Again’; Minor Practices within Contemporary Painting and the Production of Knowledge

This blog post introduces my current research, focusing on my proposal to ‘look again’ at contemporary painting practices as a form of knowledge production, by shifting our attention to how the viewer encounters the work. Future posts will expand on, put into practice, and perform the methodology introduced here. 

My proposal to ‘look again’, as an ethical, vulnerable, collective and participatory activity, responds to Irit Rogoff’s call to ‘look away’ from the artwork on display in an exhibition (2002, 2005). Like Rogoff, I wish to propose an alternative way of occupying and producing knowledge in the exhibition space, which disrupts the dominant understanding of the viewer-object dichotomy within the structure of the art institution. Like Rogoff, my intention is to shift attention towards the collectivity and participation of the audience within the exhibition. However, with the permission granted by Rogoff to look away from the artwork, I want to consider the potential for ethical, situated knowledge production by looking again at the work, looking differently. Specifically, I am focused on looking differently at contemporary painting practices.

Amy Sillman, ‘The Nervous System’ at the Arts Club of Chicago, 2019. Available at http://www.amysillman.com

This intervention takes place within what Gilles Deleuze has named ‘a major narrative’, the major here is the history of painting and its display in the art institution. My academic and artistic research shows that both artist and viewer continuously contend with that major language of paint. Deleuze describes a minor narrative as not coming from a minor language, but as that which a minority constructs within a major language, which possesses the inherent qualities of deterritorialisation, political immediacy, and collective value (1985). I ask, how can we encounter painting differently, so as to produce a minor practice within its major language? By looking away from the individual artwork, Rogoff offers the audience agency to occupy the space as a collective, generating meaning through participation, while resisting being placed in the traditional position of viewer. My concept of ‘looking again’ at the artwork as a minor practice, maintains this collectivity and participation, moving away from understanding painting in terms of individual reflection, and instead in terms of encounter. I am proposing the concept of ‘looking again’ as a minor practice which deterritorialises the major narrative of the exhibition, which has political implications and collective value. 

I deal specifically with the medium of painting in the post-medium condition as defined by Isabelle Graw, as a ‘highly-personalised semiotic activity’, producing a ‘highly-valuable quasi-person’ (2012). I wish to consider how this potential position as quasi-artist, which Graw describes, makes it particularly sensitive to the kind of ethical, participatory viewing encounter I will describe in future blog posts. This is distinct from understanding painting as pure expression of subjectivity; Graw is clear to include methods of painting where the artist never touches the canvas within her post-medium definition. My understanding of the medium specificity of painting is in its position as medium between the artist and the audience. This will be unpacked under ‘Encountering Painting as Quasi- Person’ (p.14). 

Whilst my concept of ‘looking again’ is hoped to be a productive approach to any form of artwork, I am focused on painting firstly because of its potential to become a kind of ‘quasi-artist’ in the absence of the work’s maker, as Isabelle Graw argues. Secondly, as painting has historically been the privileged medium of artistic expression it is more often viewed and critiqued as a major practice. Rather than looking to other art forms more generally understood as participatory or relational, I am particularly interested in looking again at painting, in paying attention to the minor within the major.

The way of approaching painting which I am considering, of looking again in a way which empathises with the artist’s encounter in the making of the work, has implications for how we critique painting. The original look is bound within the viewer-object dichotomy, the major, which Irit Rogoff encourages us to look away from. The second look is different; it is a conscious, attentive, ethical looking, within the multiplicity of the art space. It is empathetic to the artist through vulnerable participation with the artwork, thus producing new knowledges around how we think about, and critique, painting. This kind of knowledge production is not about visual literacy, applying meaning or assigning the work a place within our pre-existing knowledge, and as such it constitutes a minor practice within the major narrative at play within the exhibition. By the production of knowledge I refer to Donna Harraway’s understanding of situated knowledge production (1988). I pay attention to the different kinds of knowledge which emerge from fully inhabiting an advanced practice, as do the artists I deal with. The situated knowledge produced from a partial-perspective may join up to many other’s partial, embodied perspectives in order to form a community of knowledge within the pre-existing knowledge of the art institution. This research presents such a linking of multiple partial-perspectives.

Informed by Irit Rogoff, my research intention is to be attentive to minor practices so as to disrupt the major narrative of how we approach artworks in an exhibition, to consider the audience as a collective of difference and co-producers of knowledge, and to think differently about how we practice critique in response to contemporary painting.

The Minor Within The Major Narrative of Paint

In his study of Francis Bacon, Deleuze states that “it is a mistake to think that the painter works on a white surface” (1981, p.86). He is referring to everything that the painter is already holding in their head and projecting onto the surface of the canvas, everything that surrounds them in the studio, and everything that the canvas itself represents – the virtual presence of every painting that has been made before. This is what he refers to as ‘the painting before painting’, and it is what every painter has to contend with as they work. This research is not an attempt to recuperate or alter this major narrative of paint, but rather to pay attention to the minor practices which may emerge within and beneath painting, with the potential to disturb the major from within.

Simon O’ Sullivan, contemporary art theorist, has investigated what may be considered a minor art practice, under the Deluezian understanding of major and minor (2005). Deleuze describes a minor literature as that which a minority constructs within a major language. He examines Kafka’s use of German as a Czech Jew, as being “a sort of stranger within his own language” (1985, p.26). Simon O’Sullivan identifies painting as the major media of art, and therefore characterises practices which “abandon the canvas” as minor, offering Outsider Art as an example. This is in line with Deleuze’s statement that “there is nothing that is major or revolutionary except the minor. To hate all languages of masters” (1985, p.26). However, following from O’Sullivan’s assertion that “a minor literature does not occur ‘elsewhere’ or ‘apart from’ a major literature (this is not a dialectic) but on the contrary operates from within, using the same elements as it were, but in a different manner” (2005, p.2), I want to look again for the minor within the canvas, after looking away from the major (Rogoff). A practice becomes minor by producing movement from within the major. Inhabiting a minor practice therefore involves a complex relationship between dissent and affirmation of the major language. The minor cannot simply refuse the major, as to solely occupy a position of dissent is to “remain reactive rather than creative” (2005, p.7). It is in fully occupying the liminal position of movement between dissent and affirmation, rejection and recognition of the major, that one is engaged in a simultaneous process of “the production of new subjectivities as well as turning away from those already in place” (2005, p.7), and new knowledges may be produced. As painting has historically been ‘the major media of art’, painters producing a minor practice have the most baggage to negotiate. The major of painting cannot simply be ignored, it is in a kind of stammering of its major language that new ways of thinking and knowing may be produced.

Donna Harraway has described the importance of situated knowledge for the feminist project, stating that the claim of an objective perspective is more often the perspective of the white, straight, male. Rather, feminist objectivity may be produced through the linking of multiple embodied, situated knowledges and partial perspectives to form a community of rational knowledge (1988). “Situated knowledges are about communities, not about isolated individuals” (1988, p.590). It is with the intention of forming a collective subjectivity and community of knowledge across difference that I approach the practices of painters and researchers Amy Sillman and Bracha Ettinger, as minor practices which must constantly negotiate the major.

Amy Sillman contends with the major of paint every time she works, through fully inhabiting her advanced practice;

“Making a painting is so hard it makes you crazy. You have to negotiate surface, tone, silhouette, line, space, zone, layer, scale, and mass, while interacting with a meta-surface of meaning, text, sign, language, intention, concept, and history. You have to simultaneously diagnose the present, predict the future, and ignore the past – to both remember and forget…When people talk about colour as decorative I just don’t know what they’re talking about. Try mixing oil paint: it’s hideous 95 percent of the time” (2016, p.110)

Amy Sillman, ‘Landline’ at the Camden Arts Centre, London, 2019. Available at http://www.amysillman.com

Sillman is referencing the huge amount of particular knowledge and thought which is involved in her advanced practice. She is describing how she must negotiate the major of painting, while constructing a minor practice within that language. This is not information that the viewer possesses. Sillman has described her surprise, when talking to an art historian she realised that he had no knowledge of the different weights of paint, a logic that was second nature to her as a painter (2016). I want to pay close attention to this gap in understanding, the gap between the embodied experience the painter has making the work, and the way in which a viewer understands the result of that labour. How can one apply meaning to a painting, criticise it and fit it into pre-existing knowledges about what and where painting should be, without ever having held the weight of paint in their hands? This is not to say that one should hold paint in order to behold paint, however it does highlight an ethical question of how one can approach an other, non-I, when the other is difference.

The gap between viewer and artist is mediated by the art object, inseparable from the conditions of making, showing and viewing artwork. The painting as medium is what triangulates this relationship. In what way can looking again at the medium narrow the gap between holding and beholding paint?

When the audience look at the attractive colours in a painting and deem them ‘decorative’ they dismiss the specific embodied knowledge that went into the mixing and application of that colour. Through their lack of attentiveness to the medium they maintain the gap in knowledge between viewer and artist. At the same moment as Sillman recognises the major, the inherited meta-surface of paint, the ‘painting before painting’ (Deleuze), she must simultaneously ignore it. This is an important double-bind in painting, the painter must both deal with its history and meaning and suspend that knowledge in order to produce something new. It is part of the liminality of contemporary painting processes. Liminality, a concept first developed by Arnold Van Gennep (1909), describes the state of in-betweeness experienced by being at a threshold, for example in the midst of transition during a rite of passage. It is the space where things are neither what they were before or what they will become. I use this term to describe the flux in painting practice between knowing that you are going to make something, but not yet knowing how exactly it will happen, or what it will turn out like. Inhabiting a painting practice is a liminal state, of not being entirely in control of your medium, in the midst of things being neither as they were, nor what they will become. Painters immerse themselves in this uncertainty, this liminality, the process of working with matter, surface and meta-surface towards an unknown endpoint. The painter therefore has a specific body of knowledge, which emerges through simultaneously engaging with what is already known, and producing new situated knowledges through that active engagement.

It is a practice of constantly looking away from all of the knowledge and information they possess, in order to look again, differently.

Amy Sillman, ‘Landline’ at the Camden Arts Centre, London, 2019. Available at http://www.amysillman.com

Looking Again

The motivation behind Irit Rogoff’s 2005 paper ‘Looking Away: Participations in Visual Culture’, is to investigate what’s next for critical analysis in visual culture, beyond defining and judging the structures within which we do critique. She asks what criticality can do beyond pointing its finger at the “master narratives” (p.118), and finds a response in the “shift of the traditional relations between all that goes into making (practice) and all that goes into viewing (audience) the objects of visual culture attention” (2005, p.119). She defines the artwork in an exhibition as that which is meant to compel our attention, which we are essentially forced to look at in the allotted role of viewer, and instead proposes ‘looking away’ as an alternative form of participation. This is not looking away as resistance or rejection, but as taking part in a different way. By encouraging the viewer to look away from the work Rogoff interrupts the presumed role of the viewer, and therefore the presumed role of the artwork. It creates a space in which the viewer is an agent of participation on their own terms. The audience becomes a collective of difference – neither unified or singular. Looking away is a performative act, a staged disruption allowing the audience to occupy the space collectively, beyond the roles assigned to them (2005, p.130). Here there is potential for a linking of partialised subjectivities, and therefore the production of a community of situated knowledge (Harraway). For Rogoff community is formed not through identity, but through mutuality (2005, p.123). Rogoff hopes to simultaneously “unframe the realms of art from all those deeply isolating grand privileges, from all those impossible demands, while at the same time allowing it to be the space of collective engagements” (2005, p.124), an intention aligned to my own. She believes that “art does not have to be overtly political in its subject matter in order to produce a political effect” (p.122). I, similarly, will be locating the political efficacy of minor practices in the kind of audience they produce. Building on the permission granted by Rogoff to look away from the work, thus subverting the obligatory viewer-object dichotomy she speaks of, I wish to consider the value of looking again, re-searching, as a form of knowledge production in an ethical-aesthetic collaboration.

Rogoff grants us agency to look away from the works, breaking that allotted role and shifting the production of meaning away from individual reflection and towards collective engagement (the viewer does not ‘complete’ the artwork as in Barthes’s Death of the Author, 1980). In light of this, the decision to look again at the artwork is one taken freely and deliberately. The artwork does not represent an obligation, it does not solicit a specific response, it is not something we are “being forced to look at” (2002) within the major narrative of the exhibition. Instead it offers an invitation, which may or may not be taken up by the viewer. The decision to take up that invitation then becomes an ethical one. The viewer now turns towards the artwork differently. This shifts the subject position which the viewer occupies, and therefore their partial-perspective and the situation from which they engage with knowledge (Harraway). The viewer looks again at the work not as an isolated individual, but as a part of the collective of difference realised through the looking away. Rogoff remarks that “meaning is never produced in isolation or through isolating processes but rather through intricate webs of connectedness” (2002, p.1); by looking away from the artwork she provides a space for the audience to notice and participate in their shared webs of connectedness.  

The ‘We’ formed through collectivity, mutuality and participation does not just include the ‘citizens of the art world’, art-lovers, critical theorists (Rogoff, 2002, p.1). I also want to pay attention to the ‘other viewer’, the unexpected drop in, the supportive granny, the stray viewer who does not fit into a pre-assigned category. Their encounter is a part of the situated production of knowledge which I am articulating here.

Looking again at the art object is an act which includes it as part of the multiplicity of this encounter, as part of the collective of difference and the community of knowledge produced in the art space. Further still, I propose that the audience’s (collective of difference) looking again includes the artist, through the medium of the painting, in the production of a community of knowledge within the art institution. I will expand on this below. As a minor practice I claim that ‘looking again’ is an activity which deterritorialises the major narrative of the exhibition, which has political implications and collective value.

Sillman describes her painting process as “a series of adjustments and overhauls with scraped-off colours, until a kind of weight or visual surprise tells me something I didn’t already know and I stop” (2016, p.115). It is this moment that I want to pay attention to with the painting process, the moment when the painting tells the artist something they did not already know (remembering the volume of pre-existing knowledge they are dealing with) and then they stop. This is a moment where new knowledge is produced, in the same moment as the painting separates from the body of the painter. This moment becomes sealed as the paint dries, and is the same moment which the viewer later encounters in an entirely different context. This situated production of knowledge, the surprise which Sillman describes, arises from within active engagement with what is already known; the major, the canon. It is through this active engagement with pre-existing knowledge than new knowledge may emerge, which changes or alters what it was that we thought we knew.

Amy Sillman, ‘Mostly Drawing’ at Gladstone Uptown NYC, 2018. Available at http://www.amysillman.com

Encountering Painting as ‘Quasi-Person’

Isabelle Graw has noticed the traces of the artist’s labour inscribed in the surface of the painting (the preserved moment of knowledge production) and associated it with the enduring economic value of paintings. Her project is to propose a medium unspecific notion of painting, in order to allow engagement with contemporary painting in the ‘post-medium condition’ (Rosalind Krauss). Graw is trying to establish a language that can deal with painting in the expanded field, as it is no longer synonymous with the flat, square canvas on the wall (which defined the medium specificity of painting according to Clement Greenberg). To allow specificity when discussing contemporary painting she defines it not by its medium of paint, but as a “highly personalised semiotic activity” (2012, p.45). Painting produces specifically indexical signs, which point to the absent artist whose presence is still felt in the painting (2016, p.80). Graw understands painting in terms of semiotics in order to firstly account for painterly signs in non-painting, and secondly to explain the strong relationship between object and artist which painting suggests (2016, p.90).

According to Graw what is specific about painting is its ability to suggest a particularly strong bond with its maker, whilst being separate and distant from them (unlike performance art for example). It’s indexicality differs from that of other art forms insofar as it indexes its own author. She is interested in the economic value of paintings and their enduring dominance in the international art market from a Marxist perspective, and as such associates painting’s success as a commodity with its ability to imply this strong bond with the absent artist. This is within Karl Marx’s association of value production with lived labour, under which logic “buying artworks indeed comes close to buying people” (2012, p.47). Painting’s capacity to evoke a feeling of “subject-like force” (2012, p.54) and to seemingly store the lifetime and labour of the artist (2016, p.82) contributes to its enduring economic value.

Painting shows evidence of a physical connection to the person who made it in the very marks on its surface. It thus suggests the latent presence of the absent artist, becoming charged with subjectivity. This produces what Graw terms a ‘highly valuable quasi-person’. This is not to be mistaken with the understanding of painting as a pure expression of subjectivity. According to Graw the artist does not even need to touch the canvas for it to perform this indexical effect (2016, p.82). Rather, painting produces the sensation that it holds living labour, it seemingly stores the artist’s lifetime and labour, due to its indexicality.

I want to take up the non-medium specific definition of painting which Graw offers, through paying attention to the traces of the artist’s body and subjectivity left in the work. However, instead of approaching the work as potential purchase, I am seeking a mode of approach which is more empathetic to the struggle that Amy Sillman describes, and the particular forms of knowledge it requires and produces. Amy Sillman has expressed resistance to the commerciality of painting (another double-bind, resisting that part of painting which may also make it a sustainable profession). Viewers (artists, art-lovers, critical theorists, and the ‘other’ uncategorisable viewer) engage with painting all the time in a way that is totally separate to its role as commodity. It is the looking of these viewers that I want to pay attention to, and their potential for empathy. This empathy is an attempt to narrow the gap between the knowledges generated in the making of work, and the pre-existing knowledge applied to it when it is viewed, the gap between holding and beholding paint. What kind of thinking is present in the quasi-person/painting, and what does it help us to think about? The difference and otherness of an artwork does not negate the viewer’s ability to be attentive to it. Rather, there is a realm of potentiality for the production of collective, situated knowledge within this attentiveness. This is an ethical relationship to the other.

Graw states that “painting’s capacity to appear particularly saturated with the life and labour time of its author, while remaining distinct from it, makes it the ideal candidate for value production” (2016, p.101). Allow me to bracket the last two words of this quote, and instead make a claim that paintings capacity to appear particularly saturated with the life and labour time of its author, while remaining distinct from it, makes it the ideal candidate for an ethical-aesthetic encounter, for inclusion in the collective of difference which the art space calls into being, for participation in the production of a community of knowledge.

This inclusion of the painting as a partialised subject therefore also includes the absent artist, whose latent presence is felt through the painting (quasi-artist). Both painting and painter participate in the community of situated knowledge being produced by the collective of difference called into being by the artspace. Rogoff states that “theoretical analyses are also lived realities” (2005, p.129). I question how there can be a theoretical analysis of painting, when the lived realities of the painter and the viewer/ critic are so different? Through engaging with the practices of Amy Sillman and Bracha Ettinger in future blog posts, I hope to propose a way of encountering artwork which is more empathetic to the artists continuous process of looking away in order to look again. A model of encounter which maintains the liminality of contemporary painting. My use of the term ‘encounter’ is informed by Simon O’Sullivan’s definition (2006). Encounter moves us to thought; whereas representation reconfirms our way of being in the world, an object of encounter will disrupt our systems of knowledge. This encounter is a moment of rupture, “in our habitual modes of being and thus in our habitual subjectivities” (p.1), but also one of affirmation, that there is a way of thinking and seeing differently. I am interested in the productive potentiality within this simultaneous moment of rupture and affirmation, offered by an aesthetic encounter.

Through a particular kind of viewing encounter which runs parallel to the artist’s original encounter, I propose that the exhibition may call into being a collective of difference inclusive of the institution, audience, artworks and the absent artists, and therefore be a ground for the production of new forms of minor, ethical, situated knowledge.

Published by nataliepullen

Dublin-based visual artist, writer and researcher. Visual art practice: www.nataliepullen.com MA Art in the Contemporary World (1.1), National College of Art and Design, 2019

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