The personal thing

NKN Gallery (2015), Melbourne

The thing about some painting, particular types of painting, is that it has the capacity to bring the world into an intimate space. In painting ‘the world’ can be represented as an inner sensual experience, opened out in terms of ideas or associations but freed from the manoeuvrings of our day-to-day interpretations and understandings, transient and fluid while approximating the very real nature of what we know to be our actuality. Fundamentally this type of painting reveals a space or experience of being outside one’s self, but simultaneously where one is aware of one’s own singularity. This forms as an unstable or unsolidified awareness, where we search for solidity but equally seem to eschew it.

This is held within many forms of painting, but is very much present in non-representational painting, abstraction.

It’s to do with the substitution and breaking down of the painting object in one’s mind, where one instead mingles and circulates through a sense of larger things, a type of equivalence of being, embodied through the painting. Here, I’m suggesting that what we understand to be the nature of being is potentially un-shackled from any tangible or ideological precept, to rather be discovered in a felt experience, a coalescence of associations of thoughts and ideas, comparable to what we know of holding a presence ‘in the world’. In this way painting, abstract painting, provides a parallel or alternative ship within which to be.

Other forms of art have equal or various capacities to do this. However the idiom of painting generally carries with it the sense and history of being a ‘pictorialized body’, where paint and colour are experienced through sensations coupled with the desire to psychologically and emotionally be ‘within’ those perceptions of colour, and the attendant sensations associated with the effects of colour. Cultural theorist Elizabeth Grosz considers our experience of art as an impacting sensation rather than a cognitive understanding: ‘… a relation between fields, strata, and chaos.’ (Grosz 2008). This compulsion to be drawn into paintings affects a type of disembodied experience, something that also occurs in different ways in cinema and theatre.

This type of encounter within the idiom of painting is found in works across time and cultures. But painting equally presents in other ways, through the many insightful vantages that have been invariably explored in relation to ideas ‘about the world’, as well as a long-standing self-reflexivity that now seems inherent within the idiom.

In profoundly exploring abstraction over the past century, artists have formed a persistent and ever-changing discourse around what the idiom of painting is, resolute and full of single-minded signs, but shifting historically as a complex and disordered set of experiences. Abstract painting was the radical exemplar within the vanguard of much art of the past century, and it’s now difficult to imagine how one would have considered the world prior to abstraction coming in to being. Abstraction has formed so centrally to our idea of the world that we may have forgotten how it once disturbed our perception of reality.

‘Abstraction was not the inspiration of a solitary genius but the product of network thinking – of ideas moving through a nexus of artists and intellectuals...’ (Lowrey 2012) in many ways forming as a current, perhaps even precursory model to the many extraordinary societal developments during the past century. Therefore, perhaps one could consider that presently the notion of abstraction as a principle, as a word describing a conceptual process, an over-arching super-categorical noun, could be thought to be ubiquitous and pervasive in a world now condensed to fragments, to reduced and edited forms. Increasingly we’ve eschewed narrative interpretations of our realities and today most artists engage in a world of undisciplined contemporaneity, where within the bounds of knowledge there exists a borderless concept of art, art forms, and the role of art within society. Considering this, abstraction in painting may be apposite while the idiom of painting may hold a unique form of agency, notably historically mutable, marked by continuous systems that shape and develop within a perpetually changing sense of itself, and therefore perhaps most appropriate to our times.

‘… the work of the work of art is the activity of its materiality that yields the disordering effects of matter…Through these destabilizing effects, the work of art exercises its potential to expose heterogeneity and to provoke difference…it is the production of difference as divergence, a differentiating force aimed at interrupting the circular economies of representation’ (Barad 2003).

American feminist theorist Karen Barad and Elizabeth Grosz consider materiality to be unstable, that ‘things’ in the world constantly shape and reform with each other. This is the perpetual mutability of abstract painting and the network of thinking unendingly taking place in the circulatory idiom of painting.

I like to think that the act of making a painting could be seen as the making of a space, a pause, or an alternate shape, and that perhaps paintings function in this way for the producer of the painting, and perhaps also for the viewer (because the relationship between author and viewer is quite symbiotic). In some ways one exits the exteriority of ‘the world’ to look at a painting, and therefore the viewer has some agency of choice with this alternate space. In addition painting also involves duration and invention during production, rather than recording (as with media) and therefore it may be that painting signifies invention in opposition to the role of a contemporary passivity, providing a familiar encounter within an unknown space.

Peter Westwood

Barad, K., 2003, ‘Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.

Grosz, E. A., 2008, Chaos, territory, art : Deleuze and the framing of the earth. New York ; Chichester, Columbia University Press, USA

Lowry, G., 2012, Inventing Abstraction 1910 – 1925: How a radical idea changed modern art. Museum of Modern Art, New York, Thames and Hudson, UK

© Peter Westwood 2020