Wrongness (Peter Saul)

The new issue of Turps Banana is out (always exciting). It opens with a conversation between Mark Greenwold and Peter Saul. Greenwold’s work is new to me and I don’t yet have eyes for it, but Saul’s I’ve known for years. His paintings are among those I associate with interesting “wrongness”  (maybe everyone their own list, mine includes: vache period Magritte; late Picabia; The Hairy Who painters; the Bad Painting exhibition; Jim Shaw’s collection of Thrift Store Paintings; some Kippenberger and Oehlen; Manuel Ocampo; some Mike Kelley; Robert Crumb when he apes “modern art”; Carroll Dunnham). I’ve previously written about this wrongness here. It is something to do with transgressing “good” taste, whatever that might be (sometimes a straw man, sometimes an almost insurmountable consensus). What I call “wrongness” definitely does not require knowingness. Outsider art (like Henry Darger’s) proves that one does not always need to know the rules before breaking them. But in Saul’s case, it’s interesting that he certainly does know the ways in which his paintings are transgressive.

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Peter Saul Didn’t Hurt (1998) acrylic and oil on canvas 118 x 90cm

Here are some Saul quotes from the Turps Banana article. I find these interesting in relation to the “wrongness” that I see and appreciate in Saul’s work. Emphasise my own:

“… At that moment [1958], it seemed all known, professional artists wanted to be involved in the plastic elements of art – line, colour, space, form, etc; what I thought of as ‘technique’ – and tried hard to avoid that ‘other’ thing we call content, story, psychology, history, etc. So here was a chance to distinguish myself by doing something wrong, …”

“… Suburban Home is a swell subject, an opportunity to make a lot of architectural mistakes, and have the wrong attitude in general; …”

Wrongness is in the eye of the beholder. I often get a “wrongness” reaction to my own work (bad colour, bad composition, poor choice of subject matter, banality). That never feels good, at least initially. Occasionally I embrace it. More often I partially repress it in process – which can be counter-productive as it usually results in work that’s neither enjoyably “right”, nor interestingly “wrong” (all totally subjective, of course). So far, I’ve largely dodged the issue by approaching my paintings as “exercises”, “experiments”, and “doodles”, but I don’t wish to take that noncommittal position indefinitely (or maybe I should, who knows!).

In regard to picture content, these words from Saul encourage me to consider a lighter and less guarded approach.

“… my imagination doesn’t worry me any. … I turn my imagination loose. I can think any thought. It’s OK! If my picture needs something really, really horrible, I can think it up right away with real enthusiasm and not worry that it’s something I might not want to do. … Anything can be pictured; doesn’t mean it should, could, or would happen. It’s only a picture. … I like to laugh and curse while I work, and modern art is a field of enjoyment for me.”

Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form

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Erwin Panofsky Perspective as Symbolic Form (1924)

Excited about getting this book. I have a general idea about its thesis, but I’m looking forward to reading it properly. Recently I’ve been experimenting with atmospheric perspective, but I haven’t used linear perspective for a while. Last September I went through a phase of adding linear perspectival elements to canvases that were otherwise covered in doodles (the idea came from de Chirico via Rauch). I was surprised by how forcefully the perspectival lines opened up an illusionistic space behind the doodles that were already on the canvas.

These paintings are hard to look at now (the colour, especially), but they make me think about how I might try using linear perspective again. I’ve been avoiding it because I felt “old” linear perspective had been pretty thoroughly revisited by the New Leipzig School painters (Ruckhäberle, Weischer, Rauch), and contemporary/futuristic versions of linear perspective were already covered by others (incl. Julie Mehretu, Franz Ackermann, David Schnell). Maybe Panofsky’s book will give me ideas about other ways of approaching perspective in my own work.

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160905a (2016) oil on canvas 40 x 35.5cm

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160906a (2016) oil on canvas 46 x 43.5cm

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160906b (2016) oil on canvas 49 x 40.5cm

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160909 (2016) 46.5 x 43cm

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160911 (2016) oil on canvas 49.5 x 39.5cm

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161001 Purple/Yellow House (2016) oil on canvas 37.5 x 26cm

Looking back

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paintings from Feb 2016 – January 2017

Today I assembled this composite of paintings made between February 2016 to present. It’s for my blog header, but it also gave me a chance to reflect on what I’ve been working on (although this is only a small fraction of the paintings I’ve made during that time). I’m not sure how beneficial it is to view paintings clustered in this way, but I feel it could reveal things that sequential viewing might not. It reminds me of Tumblr, and of genre paintings of art collections (below).

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David Teniers the Younger The Archduke Leopold Wilhelm In His Picture Gallery In Brussels (1651) oil on canvas 123 x 163cm

What strikes me about the composite of my own recent paintings is how abstraction has given way almost completely to a cartoonish figuration, often in cramped airless compositions rendered in high-contrast garishly coloured chiaroscuro. It almost looks more like the development of an illustrator, rather than an artist (though that’s a difficult distinction). The subject matter is varied, with no particular theme, but a preponderance of lumpen forms and protuberances, like crudely carved wood or modelled clay.

Everything so far has been, to a more or less extent, an experiment or technical exercise. I’ve almost never made changes or overpainted, because I haven’t been seeking to arrive at a finished “good” painting. I complete each experiment quickly. I’ve learnt a lot by working this way. My aim has been to practice so much that I become as comfortable working with a paintbrush as I am with a pencil, and that’s slowly starting to happen. But the paintings made during this learning process don’t represent much more to me than their role in that development.

Today I tried making a painting in which I overpainted anything I wasn’t happy with, and kept going until it felt right to stop. I arrived at this image (below). I’m not sure if I stopped for any good reason, or just because this reminds me of a type of paint handling that I positively associate with Kippenberger, Oehlen and Schutz. In any case, it makes a nice change to make an image with some space in it, instead of giving in to the compulsion to fill every part of the canvas with some kind of technique practice.

I’m truly looking forward to making paintings focused on how they look and what they do, and not simply what I can learn from making them.

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170122a Alien Antenna (2017) oil on canvas

From primordial soup to primitive forms

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170121a Blue Forms (2017) oil on canvas 41 x 30cm

Last year I often made random marks and hoped they’d eventually develop into spaces and forms, like a world where things could happen. These marks were the earliest stage of that evolution, so I called them primordial soup. Today’s paintings reminded me of those, because these were made in a similar way, except that now there are definitely forms (life forms? primitive objects?) taking shape in illusionistic spaces.

When I painted these I gave almost no thought to the forms. I concentrated only on the basic principles of representing form and light in space, mostly from what I remember of Rudolf Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception. I start with the background and work forward. I don’t have much of a sense of how the picture will look until I finish it. I thought this coloured one (below) was a total write-off when I was about half-way through, but I finished it anyway, and when I put the foreground objects in, the whole thing made a lot more sense.

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170121b Forest Forms (2017) oil on canvas 32.5 x 41cm

On reflection, this painting reminds me of Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963). I grew up on both.

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Walt Disney Alice in Wonderland (1951) animated film

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Maurice Sendak Where the Wild Things (1963) illustrated book

The yellow forms on the ground in my painting also remind me of Schutz’s painting, Hand (2004).

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Dana Schutz Hand (2004) oil on canvas 152.4 x 228.6cm

New material: Wing mirror

So useful, I wish I’d got one sooner! A car’s wing mirror, slightly convex. It allows you to view paintings in reverse, which helps making compositional decisions. It’s also like seeing the image with fresh eyes.

This is the first time I’ve used one and already it feels indispensable. I never would have got through this crowded composition without the mirror. I checked it every time I added a new figure.

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170119 Crowd (2017) oil on canvas 25 x 28cm

This was another exercise in my effort to learn how to “barrel through densely packed scenes efficiently, using a big brush, and not getting caught up in illustrational details“, as Salle put it. As it is, the picture went further than I wanted into a kind of cartoonishness, but it was an interesting process.

I invented the content as I went along, with nothing particular in mind and no source images. I’m surprised that a lot of the content now appears to me to be a comment on the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the US, which is happening today.

The nazi salutes, and the raised arm on the right turning into a tree branch with a rope tied to it, seem to refer to fascism and the US’s history with race. Some of the figures even seem to me to resemble real people with connections to this inauguration: Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, Elizabeth Warren, Don King, Barack Obama. This was all unintentional. The rope was only added to solve a compositional problem. This reminds me that painting content without giving it thought is always likely to produce unintended implications that appear to be intended.

It was impossible to paint this crowd without remembering other painted crowds. The main difference between these paintings and mine is scale. They’re all at least four times the size of mine. The Schutz is thirteen times the size. Here they are in chronological order:

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James Ensor Ensor aux masques [Self-Portrait with Masks] (1899) oil on canvas 80 x 120cm

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Philip Guston If This Be Not I (1945) oil on canvas 107 x 140cm

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Dana Schutz Fanatics (2005) oil on canvas 228.6 x 243.8cm

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Nicole Eisenman Biergarten with Ashe (2009) oil on canvas 165 x 208cm

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George Condo We Are Who You Think We Are (2010) oil on linen 177.8 x 152.4cm

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Antonio Ballester Moreno Untitled (Expect Anything) (2011) acrylic on canvas 200 x 250cm

Off days

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170118a US Admiral (2017) oil on canvas 24 x 20cm

Not every day can be a good day. Yesterday I made a painting that I like, and when that happens I always think: Okay, I’ve cracked it. Now I know what to do, I’ll only get better.

Then today things weren’t coming out interesting. But I think probably I learn as much from making the disappointing paintings as I do from the gratifying ones. It still all feels like practicing so far.

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170118b (2017) oil on canvas 48 x 28cm

Litterbug

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170117 Litterbug (2017) oil on canvas 18 x 23cm

Another doodle.

Sometimes when I finish a painting I spend a very long time looking at it afterwards, usually looking at a photograph of it on my laptop. Maybe even longer than it took to paint. It’s compulsive, vaguely pleasurable, but a bit odd and probably bad for my eyes. I think it has something to do with thinking about exactly what works well in the painting, what’s not so good, what I would do differently next time, etc.

When I made it, I was thinking of my (current) favourite Schutz painting, Twin Parts (2004). I’m not worried about not being original with this kind of thing. I’m learning so much from this Schutz obsession, so I’m just going to keep working through it.

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Dana Schutz Twin Parts (2004) oil on canvas 198.1 x 182.9cm

Last year I made some small studies of heads, and I really like four of them (below). Eventually I want to be able to make a whole painting of figures with heads like these, but so far I’ve had trouble making that painting technique work in a larger more complex composition.

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1611 Four Head Studies (2016) oil on canvas, four irregularly cur pieces, total 36 x 30cm

Wet-into-(white)-wet

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170116b (2017) oil on canvas

Been meaning to try this for ages: Painting into a white undercoat while it’s still totally wet. I like how the white lightens the colours. In the top left of 170116b (above), I tried using a pale yellow-green as the undercoat, but that gives a less luminous effect. Might still be useful in some instances.

It reminds me of watercolour on white paper. I did the background this way in 170116c (below), but painted the foreground objects without a white undercoat, so they would be less washed out by comparison. As a quick exercise it was interesting.

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170116c (2017) oil on canvas

In 170116e (below) I tried drawing into the undercoat, doing a sort of loose hatching (thinking of Ray Pettibon). Some of the coloured parts in this one remind me of felt tip pen on white paper.

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170116e (2017) oil on canvas

Bigger doodles

By “doodle” I mean drawing or painting without a plan. No preparatory sketches, no particular subject or composition or colours in mind, just start painting and keep painting. I like the idea of it, partly because doodling seems too casual for a medium like oil painting, which is sometimes weighed down by its own history. Also, the low-stakes improvisation of doodling seems to me to be conducive to unguarded imagination, although I haven’t got there yet.

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170114b (2017) oil on canvas 30 x 45cm

This one was a true doodle. I started painting the ribcage and went from there. I wasn’t copying from other paintings, but I can see a jumble of influences here. The way the skeleton is painted comes straight from Albert Oehlen’s Black Rationality (1982), the girl’s washed out face is from Karen Kilimnik, the patchy high-contrast modelling of the neck and folding arm are from Dana Schutz, Judith Linhares and Philip Guston (the blades of grass definitely Schutz), and the composition owes something (not a lot) to Neo Rauch. But with so many influences jostling, it ends up looking more like something else, some kind of surrealism, but I’m not sure who (Sydney Nolan? Paul Nash?).

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Sydney Nolan Glenrowan (1956-7) oil on hardboard 91.4 x 121.9cm

It’s all fine with me. The more I paint, the more I relax into it, the more possibility there is for ideas to come into my head and get into paint without a lot of fuss. It’s like the TV set in Poltergheist. Gotta have the portal open before the ghouls can come out. The fact that I now feel confident doodling at a slightly larger scale, and with more illusionistic space and figuration, will give me more freedom to invent content, which I like.

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170114c Bosse-de-Nage (2017) oil on canvas

I started painting the greenery, then decided to put Bosse-de-Nage in the picture. It’s a character from Alfred Jarry’s writing. He has a dog’s head and a baboon’s body, I think. I’ve only read about him briefly in the Pataphysics guide. My painting doesn’t really look like a dog or a baboon, but I had fun negotiating the arrangement of limbs, imagining where the light might fall, trying to make it a legible form. I didn’t know what to do in the space on the left, so I just used up the remaining paint. Now I think it looks like he’s witnessing another similar creature vaporising. That part of the painting reminds me how much I want to get gesture and abstraction back into the mix of my paintings. I like how it’s more dynamic than the figure’s fixed pose.

Cryptomnesia

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It has a name! (full definition, Wikipedia) I’ve written about this a lot. It sometimes happens when I try to paint “from imagination”, and then I remember the original source image after I’ve finished the painting.

Here are links to all the posts in which I’ve mentioned this phenomenon, which until now I’ve been calling “subconscious referencing”.

Imagination and Memory

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Subconscious reference

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Here comes the queer

Blue skies, Bad Painting, and The Hairy Who

Robert Crumb’s “unconscious inspiration”

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Man in the Mirror

Subconscious repetition: Scooter Woman