On Not Being Able to Paint (without a frame)

“It is fascinating…to follow [her] attempts to rid herself of the obstacles which prevent her painting”

– Anna Freud, 1950

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Sarah brought me a book the night we were previewing her install: On Not Being Able to Paint. It’s a reflection on creativity from the 50s, by psychoanalyst Marion Milner. I appreciated the timing: about to go public with her first big foray outside painting proper, she produced a treatise about what it means to not paint.

So far, I’ve read only the introduction the book, which Sigmund’s daughter Anna Freud – an important psychoanalyst in her own right – contributed. Analogizing the therapeutic situation and the painter’s context, Freud notes that both psychological and creative breakthroughs require dedicated spaces for uninhibited work.

The residency attempts to proffer such a space, and within that space, Sarah made another one. Within the venue, she delineated a corner for her installation by papering the walls in silver and smattering the floor with wood.  She needed a frame (in psychoanalytic lingo: a “container”). The outline is an entrenched habit – not just for Sarah, of course, but for the majority of painters everywhere for ages.

In fact, Sarah’s practice work comprises frames within frames. Each of the shapes she contributed is its own self-contained unit; the installation can be considered one painting rendered in space, but each component is also its own composition. The psychological underpinning is that Sarah privileges strength: she wants each part to be viable alone. When she started crafting the objects for her installation out of  foam, she hated the way its puckering read as scarring; that seemed vulnerable, so she gave them paper mache shells. She does not handle the finished shapes gently. Sewing, with its connotations of daintiness, was always off the table as a means to connect the disparate elements.

Now the painted, paper-mached foam is hung with fishing line, and today, talking about the negative space the shapes make, Sarah said she wished she could fill it with water. The idea made me see the objects as kinds of islands, and the whole work as a distorted, abstract seascape with broken horizons for surface-levels and seafloors. Technically, the shapes would be peninsulas, just umblicaled to the ceiling as invisibly as possible. (Sarah’s concern for their self-sufficiency is such that she even wants to cover over the tape that secures them there, although I like how their stilted lines echo the collaged stripes of the shapes’ surfaces.)

Ultimately, the respected independence of each piece lends the experience a feeling of happenstance. It reminds me of a  metaphor I read about how arbitarily the meeting of ideas and characters can seem in a writer’s mind, like they were all at a bus-stop when it started to rain, and suddenly all shared the same umbrella. The mingling can seem strange and forced, but precipitates the story.

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Ways to connect

I met Sarah at the space today to look at some of the discrete units of what will soon become the painting installation. They’re striking (out?) on their own: she’s used the colours in the paper mached newspaper, but whited out whatever was recognizable (and thus, distracting) on the pages. The resulting texture is sort of old-timey; it has the quality of a photograph somehow, and also a collage. The next step is figuring out how they all go together.

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After looking at the shapes we went to some galleries (some of Jennifer Rose Sciarrino’s work, at Daniel Faria Gallery, seemed especially relevant) – and happened upon some potential material on the grass nearby. I spent the rest of the day paying particular attention to  junk by the side of the road, and thinking more about all the different mechanisms that connect independent entities. This is my working list:

-gravity (suspended from above; stacked from below; layered without mortar like an igloo or leaning, a la Richard Serra)
-magnetism (could include the static that makes a balloon cling to a sweater). Here the magnets might attach to each other, or through some third party; there are apparently birds that navigate through magnets in their beaks that connect somehow with the earth’s pole. But note also that magnets can erase information.
-force of habit (but possible counterargument: the spontaneous falling of objects off surfaces)
-love, adoration, curiosity
-terror
-illusion (the seeming of two separated things to be touching when seen from a particular vantage; temporary attachment made to seem permanent via photograph)
-responsibility, promise, contract (to each other or to outsiders), expectation
-skewering (a more aggressive modification of sewing)

-adhesives (various tapes, glue, peanut butter, molasses)
-common enemies
-lengths of material: thread, floss, wire, rope, twine, cable
-enclosures, contexts (fences, cling wrap, fishbowls, houses, frames, forcefields)
-centrifugal force
-snaps, zippers, toggles, clothespegs, saftey pins, paper clips, butterfly clips, hinges, hooks and eyes, velcro (though all of these will likely mar the original surface)
-free association, implication, wishful thinking

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A Note on Realization

“What one paints is what can be painted; no one can do more; and what can be painted must stand in some relation to the muscular activity of painting it…In this new kind of painting the ‘plane of the picture’ disappears; it melts into nothing, and we go through it”

-R.G. Collingwood, 1938

Collingwood wrote this about the kind of painting Cezanne did (“Cezanne’s shapes are never two-dimensional…they are solids, and we get at them through the canvass”).

He wrote “we go through it” instead of, say, “it feels like we can go through it” because he also insisted that imagination was a constant supplement to the experience of art. He talked about imagination as the thing that upsets medium-specificity. For him, thanks to the imagination, a visual experience is never only visual. “It does not belong to sight alone, it belongs also (and on some occasions even more essentially) to touch”. (Incidentally, I think Collingwood would have approved the use of a musical venue for a painting installation; he often invoked music to illustrate the senses’ refusal to neatly divide). So imagination is responsible for us being able to get into a painting with more than our eyes.

Indeed, Collingwood explains that “imagination is indifferent to the distinction between the real and the unreal”. What I wonder, then, is what it means for a painter to really build a painting in space. What Sarah’s doing is realizing what was imaginary in her painting. Collingwood may have found it redundant, but I find something redemptive about  attending to what was always there.  This shift from imaginary to real is an important theme for psychological theory – which Sarah and I are both pretty invested in, so I’m looking forward to us both working out more about what it means to “realize” like this.

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And we’re off…

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Sarah’s begun making shapes for the space. Very interesting to see how a painter approaches sculpture! Check out interesting moments from her process (with commentary) here. And to keep updated, like our facebook page, ‘Somewhere There’s Art’.

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New Residency

We are super thrilled to announce that Sarah Sands Phillips (www.sarahsandsphillips.com) will be working in the space as artist-in-residence for November/December. Her project will involve re-interpreting her paintings  in three dimensions in the nooks and crannies of Somewhere There. More updates soon on the particular shape it’s taking, the specific ways in which it’s awesome, and the exact times you can come to take a look yourself.

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We’re Back!

It’s been a while, but some new things are in the works for future shows at Somewhere There. Watch this space!

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Guston

A musician who plays regularly at the space came in and looked at the show, and immediately wanted to know about the influence of Philip Guston on both painters. Austin has discussed his admiration for Guston (see this great interview about the show). It was something more of a stretch for me to see it in Sarah’s work. But then I read a great article about Guston, and it included this quote of the artist’s:

[W]hen you put paint on a surface, most of the time it looks like paint. Who the hell wants paint on a surface? You take it off. You put it on, it goes over here, it moves over a foot. As you go closer, it starts moving in inches not feet, then half-inches. There comes a point when the paint doesn’t feel like paint. I don’t know why. Some mysterious thing happens. . . . .But then there comes a time, if you persevere long enough, when the paint seems alive. It’s actually living, and there is some kind of release. That’s all I can tell you. . . . I think a lot of artists who paint have that experience, in one degree or another, of this release where their thinking doesn’t precede their doing.

Austin’s animation illustrates this process of changing and finessing, of moving things in increments (inches not feet, then half-inches) around a canvas. But it’s also striking how absolutely Sarah’s process embodies Guston’s observation: you take it off. She takes the paint off its surface very literally, and gives it the mobility to move many, many feet away. At which point, it doesn’t look like paint; it doesn’t look quite alive, but like it once was (and this makes sense, given how she describes temporality in her process:  “the gesture is always understood as past-tense“).

And, of course, Guston’s description of the unplanned doing of the “artists who paint” resonates well with the kind of improvisation performed almost nightly by the artists who make music in the space.

 

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