Contemporary Painting, the Artist’s Studio and the Production of Knowledge.
This text responds to a six month collaborative research group on ‘the artists studio’ with the Irish Museum of Modern Art, facilitated by Nathan O’Donnell. February – August 2020.
Both the discipline of painting and the tradition of the artist’s studio may first appear more relevant to ancient history than to the production of new knowledge within contemporary art discourse. Both have frequently been dismissed as dead and irrelevant within an art world preoccupied with the digital, the immediate, the relational, the event. They sit comfortably side by side in what Deleuze would term the ‘major narrative’ (1985) of art history; the weighty history of the production of art, its display in institutions and its commodification. Their position in this history has most often been at the top of the hierarchy, as the privileged medium and location for artistic production.
We cannot undo or overturn this history, however, given the stubborn refusal of both painting and the studio to die, perhaps it is worth looking again at what it is that the artist in the studio does. Looking for the ‘minor’ within the major. The anxiety around the lack of affordable studio space in Dublin, as well as my own experience of being denied access to my studio during lockdown, reminds me that there is an enduring necessity for designated workspaces for artists. A necessity that we have not quite found the language for, a language to defend the studio within the contemporary moment.
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). Rather than focusing on that which exists outside dominant structures, and seeking to overturn, undo and replace these structures from the outside, Deleuze’s description of the minor allows us to notice the small disturbances that can be produced from within dominant structures, which may link together to shift or alter the narrative. I want to be attentive to the minor practices which emerge through the contemporary painter fully inhabiting their studio practice, and how this movement of the minor within the major may produce new ways of knowing. The ‘major’ cannot be ignored, rather artists must continually reckon with this history, a history which is particularly heavy for studio-based painting practices.
How do artists think? How does art ‘know’? How does artistic research create the studio as concept, and how does the physical studio support artistic research through practice?
To these big questions I offer only my own partial-perspective (Haraway, 1988), generated through fully inhabiting my painting practice in my studio. Any knowledge produced through studio practice is situated knowledge, as defined by Donna Haraway. Rather than make claim to an objective, universal knowledge, the situated knowledge produced through one’s own partial-perspective may join up to others’ partial-perspectives, forming a community of knowledge. As such it is my hope that through theorising my own emergent knowledge, generated through inhabiting practice, it may link to that of others.
“What artists do is interesting, because the only luxury we have is that we are given a space and time to think about what we do. The only power we have is to think about every gesture we make”Mario Garcia Torres in conversation with Lucy Cotter, 2019
(Can you imagine how difficult it is to think about every gesture that you make?)
Artist’s work is different to that of the academic, the scholar, the curator, the critic. They think in a different way. Artists are burdened by constant big, existential questions what am I doing, what is this thing, where is it going?
Whilst we emit a constant quiet plea for more studios, better studios, cheaper studios, have we practitioners stopped and really thought about what we mean by the studio? What do we want the studio to be? Can we imagine an artist’s studio building as that which is produced through a linking (but not merging) of multiple partial-perspectives. The recent graduate next door to the established artist, next to the writer, to the craftsperson, designer, to the performance artist. A multiplicity of media and approach. Can we imagine the community of knowledge this could produce?
I tried to materialise this potentiality on Culture Night 2019, at Abbey Artist Studios, by facilitating an open, rolling discussion group on “the artist’s studio as a collective, diverse and sustainable research space”. The idea was to open a rolling conversation between a variety of practitioners and members of the public, where people were free to come and go and contribute to the conversation or not. It aimed to make public the usually private conversations artists have all the time about their work in informal contexts, in the studio corridor or in the pub. I imagined a space where diverse perspectives and opinions could meet, mingle and unfold side-by-side, without conflating or synthesising to a single idea, and with no expectation of an outcome or conclusion.
Similarly, but in a more formal way and over a longer period of time (and mostly over Zoom), the studio research group with IMMA which has motivated this writing has performed or mimicked artistic research in the way that we have pursued questions rather than seeking answers. We have allowed diverse ideas to sit alongside each other, generating new ideas through associative logic (Cotter notes that artistic thinking is more often circular and associative than linear, 2019, p.13). We embarked on collaborative research and discussion for its own sake, rather than for a specific outcome. We held open a space to think things differently. What does it mean to not know what you’re looking for?
Artists frequently embark on work without knowing how it’s going to end up. They inhabit the unknown. It is very difficult to make time for the unknown is a society that prioritises time management, returns, efficiency, production. How to say no to paid labour or domestic labour in order to spend time in the studio, knowing that perhaps nothing will happen today. Knowing that in the eyes of the outside society you appear inactive and unproductive. To repeat again and again (practice) this act of embarking into the unknown, trusting that something will come. The studio is a structure which may protect and support this fragile endeavour, offering a useful legitimacy to time spent there as well as a practical space.
Art working holds its own logic, its own laws. It has its own temporality, there are times of intense activity, and time of inactivity. Time is moderated by the needs of the materials, negotiated with by the artist. Materials come with their own ideas, which the artist must be partner too. Artworking looks different to capitalist working, to the patterns and behaviour people associate with valuable and worthwhile work. The medium is not used to illustrate a pre-existing idea, but the idea emerges between the medium and the artist. The work comes into being in the studio.
The painter becomes an expert in their medium. In the mixing of colour, the tension of the surface, the different kinds of marks different brushes make, the consistency of different mediums, drying times, dealing with the edges, the alchemy of paint. To manage the heaviness, the slipperiness of the medium. The painter knows, without being able to articulate this knowledge. So, there is this simultaneous deep knowing alongside the not-knowing – where is it going, what is it going to look like. The knowledge of the behaviour of paint is not synonymous with the control of paint, it is an uneasy, unpredictable partnership. It is a complicated, ambivalent way of thinking, holding many things in your head, suspending pre-existing knowledge, allowing for intuition.
To work with matter, with its own rules, logic, history, meanings, makes one vulnerable, awkward, doubt-filled. The studio is important because it is a space where the logic of art working is the dominant logic, distinct from the dominant logics at work in the rest of the world. It is a space where the unique rhythms and flows of a practice are what makes sense, are permitted, are protected. The studio protects inactivity, protects slow research, thought, conversation, protects the needs of the materials – their drying times, resting times.
The studio supports that struggle, but is also a part of that struggle.
The reality of the studio as a physical space is rarely ideal. Yes – the studio is not a static entity but that which is produced through a multiplicity of artistic practice. But just as artists struggle and negotiate with their medium, so too is there a struggle with the materiality of the studio itself. It is never quite right; it is too small, not bright enough, there is not enough wall space. It is too expensive, too isolated, not private enough. It is too far away, you have it for too brief a time, you never have enough time. There are too many stairs up to it, it is too cold, there is no wifi. Artist’s studios are often found in forgotten places, places which slip through the net of capitalist production, which exist in the margins of society. This struggle with the reality of the studio becomes part of the artist’s work too. How to stack without damaging, how to clean and clear, how to store, how to get there. When is it worth it to get there, to commute, to journey, when you don’t know what’s going to happen once you’re there?
Painting has historically been the privileged medium of artistic production, and therefore has the most ‘baggage’ and associated pre-existing knowledges (the major). Within this pile up of history and expectation, how can the contemporary painter produce new knowledge through inhabiting their studio practice? The painter must constantly reckon with this major narrative, the history of paint, the symbolism and meanings associated with each colour or particular technique. (Pour paint and you speak to Helen Frankenthaler, drag paint and Gerhard Richter is looking over your shoulder, colour fields bring Mark Rothko and a crowd of others into your studio). Philip Guston described how when you begin a painting everything and everyone is there in the studio (2011). Unlimited possibilities, the entire history of painting, the history of the studio, the meanings associated with colours, surfaces, symbols, the painting as a commodity within the contemporary art world. But as you paint they slowly start to leave, as you move from anything being possible to only certain things being possible. You have to find a way of suspending all that knowledge, of ignoring that history and symbolism, of looking away, in order to make anything new. The doubt-filled painter carries on, as doubt becomes form. A logic of paint is generated and begins to take over, in all its contradictions, tensions and paradoxes. The existence of this mark here, means that this mark, this colour, must now go here. Working, re-working, erasing, leaving, returning. In my experience the painter continues until the work stops asking for things, and starts offering something. A moment when the work surprises you, tells you something you didn’t already know. The shock of recognition. This is the moment of knowledge production, held within the drying paint.
I am speaking to a kind of knowledge that is closer to intuition, which emerges in the movement between the known and unknown. The constant turning towards and away from pre-existing knowledges generates new knowledge, or perhaps non-knowledge. The studio gives physical and intellectual space to pre-thinking, to the notebook phase, to that which cannot quite articulate itself within the speed and productivity of contemporary art discourse. It is a space for what Sarat Maharaj terms the ‘Pregross’ (Cotter, 2019). The unfinished, the incomplete, that which can never reach gross form, can never be fleshed out into the full thing . This is what art thinking does which academic thinking cannot; it stays with the question rather than seals with an answer, stays with the discomfort of ambiguity. It accesses and materialises spaces beyond language, it holds open space to think things differently. The radical potential of art “lies precisely in this destabilisation of reality, insisting on this essential incompleteness, a non-closure or non-totalising of form” (Cotter, 2019, p.12). It accesses registers of knowing that cannot be assimilated into formal knowledge.
The work exists in the studio in the liminal space between creation and recognition. But the artwork never becomes just one thing, never a discrete, isolated object – never closed-off, never finished. Instead it is a point of thought, part of an ongoing thinking practice. The artwork opens itself to its surroundings, the viewer, the art-space, other artworks, art history, the curatorial, the conditions of its making and exhibiting. It offers an invitation to enter an interconnected web of potential meaning and knowledge production. Art-thought moves in circles and back on itself, it follows its own associative logic. It moves beyond the available frameworks of thought. The studio is the first locus of this activity.
In searching for the language to defend the studio I have found that it is precisely that which language cannot articulate that the studio protects.
Cotter, L. ed., 2019. Reclaiming Artistic Research. 1st ed. Berlin: Hatje Cantx Verlag GmbH.
Deleuze, G., Guattari, F. and Maclean, M. (1985). Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature: The Components of Expression. New Literary History, 16(3), p.591
Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), p.575.
Sillman, A. (2015) Shit Happens, notes on awkwardness. Frieze Magazine, 10 November 2015
Sillman, A. (2016). On Color. In: I. Graw, ed., Painting beyond Itself; The Medium in the Post-medium Condition. Berlin: Sternberg Press.