I was paging through a notebook a few days back looking, as it happens, for titbits to throw around here this evening, and I came across what, for me, appeared to be the perfect opening line. It’s from Roland Barthes, The Lovers Discourse, “I am a mass of irritable substance – I have no skin except for caresses.” Isn’t that beautiful?
It’s a perfect opening line because it goes to the heart of what all paintings are and to the heart of what all painters experience. This is where our hearts beat, the painters heart and the heart of the painting. These heart beats lie in the love affair of irritable substance with caresses, with the yearnings of substance and psyche for communion, yearnings for fulfilment and transformation, transformation through caress (I’m using “caress” to stand for touch in the wider sense). All paintings have skin, some, admittedly mostly poor paintings, have skins that are insensibly numbed. But others, the best, are animated by a participation mystery - a mysterious ‘there-ness,’ – you feel me in the room, says the painting, because my skin is alive to your eyes.
Now I’d like to think that this small and even tender thought might just, without too much polemic from me, gradually begin to shift our thinking - shift it from reading a painting as a picture of something, a depiction, to a position where we start reading a painting as an accumulation of acts, as an accumulation of decisions and touches, as an accumulation of caresses. And as this appreciation grows, as you entertain more the presence of the skin of the painting, the scene, the depiction, might disappear or, better, dissolve and what might then become more apparent is what one might think of as an archaeology, or an autobiography. For a paintings life-history is what it is, it is it’s life story, so to speak, and its life story is its image. We’re now in the realm of surface, the dermatology of paint, the French Philosopher Jean Luc Nancy has called surface “a force that forces form to touch itself.” And here’s the rub, the core of the alchemy: formless blobs of pigmented goo (irritable substance) by repeated touching (caressing) becomes living skin. The word living here requires some qualification, because truly we can only speak of the skin of paint as living by analogy. But this doesn’t weaken the argument at all, on the contrary, this is where the magic is, this is where poetic power lies, evocations and invocations made by analogy. The great “as if.” Paintings begin with an adventurous “what if” and end with a numinous “as if.”
In her wonderful book on Cy Twombly, Mary Jacobus uses this line: “The paintings dream-navel reaches down into the unknown.” This recalls for me the border place where, I think, Keats might speak of Eros coming and going unseen or unbidden. And once one begins to snuffle around at this dream–navel and mischievous Eros lurks nearby, all sorts of strange behaviours are possible, probable and even necessary.
It is not possible to over state the case for strange behaviours. Now remember that oil paint can’t be used in measured quantities. Our first encounter with paint is a squeeze of a tube resulting in a fast spurt or a slow extrusion, you never know what’s going happen, and then, from hereon out the imprecisions multiply. Consider our irritable substance and its possible appearances:
Oily, dry, thick, thin, watery, blobby, smeary, scabby, bloody, fast, slow, troweled, caressed, pressed, scumbled, dragged, pushed, creased, pleated, spread, ladled, spattered, spilt, swept, rubbed, worried, teased, softened, crusted, flattened, heaped, spotted, dotted, stretched, stained, dripped, licked and so on …. (notice, I’ve not yet used the word brushed).
If on an unfortunate day the plumber is in to fix a blocked drain and the said plumber starts to bend the pipes in to curly bits and then adds a length of orange PVC, just for fun, to see what happens, your plumber has morphed into a painter. If your attorney starts to tear up agreements, pile all the subjunctive clauses in one corner of a page and scatter page numbers at random on another page, your attorney, too, has morphed into a painter and both should be fired. They should be fired because they’re snuffling around the wrong dream-navel aren’t they. “The paintings dream-navel reaches down into the unknown,” and it reaches down into the unknown because good painters are always searching for uncertain outcomes or at least unpredictable ones. Like poets, painters dream with their eyes wide shut, reaching for light through the dark. Novelist Peter Handke has this to say about a character in one of his novels, “He didn’t sing with feeling but searched frantically for a feeling which was as puzzling to him as to anyone else.” And Joseph Brodsky, speaking of Danilo Kis, writes “It is not that the thought is felt but, rather, that the feeling is thought. Unlike prose, poetry doesn’t so much express an emotion as absorb it linguistically.” John Berger once referred to “a preverbal hum.”
It’s my contention that like poetry, paintings too absorb and therefore hold and make available. But where according to Brodsky poetry absorbs linguistically it is fair, though clumsy, to say that paintings absorb feeling through touch and therefore through touched paint and hence my focus on surface, on the layered archaeology of behaviours that make up the skin.
Painters necessarily practice strange behaviours with their paint, have different relations with their materials. On the silly level, most of us do it standing up, and some do it sitting down, sometimes we turn the canvas upside down to get a novel view, and the weird amongst us even do it back to front, as my friend Lou Almon does. So imagine this, you make a painting, turn its face away from you, press it on to something else, discard the first image, and retain the sticky residue. What you have now is a mirror image of a painting. An image of what a painting would see of itself if it could see itself in a mirror - a mirror image of a painting, of a painting that got away so to speak. A silly thought, perhaps, but bear with me just a little because this line of thought opens up another avenue to the experience of the archaeology I’ve been speaking of. It raises the experience of time. It points to the painting as a memory of itself and it asks, as well, that you hold two contradictory thoughts, fixity and mutability. The lost first painting is present as a memory of itself, as a sticky residue. “Look,” says the sticky residue, “I am the real chimera, the fiction of a fiction, frozen in my fleetingness.”
And that’s why some people choose to do it back to front.