Sight-Free SeeingFebruary 10, 2010
A conversation with John Zurier and Linda Geary
“The small gap between the explanation of a picture and a picture itself provides the only possible perspective on painting.”—Luc Tuymans1
Luc Tuymans’ paintings often lead to critical responses that become wholly concerned with the problems of narrativity, history, and representation inherent in the works’ photographic sources. A February 3 New York Times full-page profile of the artist and his work allots a scant two-and-a-half sentences to describe the visual and material quality of his painting. It’s as though the fact of their existence as paintings is a mere technicality. This marginalization of painting-ness would be staggering if it weren't already the norm in many critical approaches. In fact, the phenomenon is by no means exclusive to Tuymans’ work. It’s indicative of a widespread, logocentric suppression of the visual in the dialogue of contemporary visual art.
Seeking to unpack the causes and conditions of this weird, almost Orwellian paradox, I had a conversation with abstract painters Linda Geary and John Zurier, who both teach at California College of the Arts. Both are respected for the integrity of their practices, which often tread the limits of intentionality in gesture, materiality, and composition. We met on a rainy winter morning at Geary’s studio in West Oakland and found ourselves talking about the uses and misuses of photography in painting, art education, and the language of criticism. Even though we didn’t address it directly, this was in many ways the opening of a conversation about the possibilities of abstraction (in both representational and non-objective work), and the pressing need for a critical language that can address it.
Bruno Fazzolari: With the upcoming Tuymans show, I've been thinking about the use of photography in painting. Tuymans does compelling, painterly stuff with photographic images. Some very sophisticated visual and formal things take place in his work. It makes that approach seem very appealing. But most contemporary use of photography in painting is anything but compelling. I sometimes wonder if what’s missing is a better grasp of abstraction. I’m aware of this assumption that abstraction has no content, or can’t have specific content, and that photography does have content, or at least a subject. There’s a lot of confusion of subject with content in the art world in general, and that gets very muddy when photography is pulled into painting. What makes photography so attractive to beginning painters?
John Zurier: I love how Luc Tuymans manages to address our engagement with the images that are all around us in his paintings, without being didactic. The photograph, how things are seen through images from television, the internet, film, and what we know, think we know, or don’t know about these images are all very real aspects of his painting.
In the classroom, I see people using photographs mostly as source material and for subject matter. Difficulties arise when the image remains separate from how it’s painted. With Tuymans, there’s a complete integration between what is painted and how it’s painted. One of the early struggles we have as painters is learning to integrate subject matter, content, and form. I think it’s a little harder for young painters right now because there’s a notion out there that somehow you’re not being completely contemporary if you focus on formal issues. But as painters, formal issues are what we have; that’s our language. The integration, or the structure of the integration is what matters. It’s as true for a representational painting as it is for an abstract painting, which may or may not have a subject. How it’s structured is what matters.
Maybe this idea of separating the image from the paint goes back to the academy when a fully resolved painting was required to have a certain degree of finish. You would have a subject that was either historical or mythological, and the subject was actually driving the painting. The painting involved achieving a certain kind of polish or level of finish—the approach that Realism and Impressionism broke away from.
BF: Enter modernism, exit academy…
Linda Geary: I have this experience a lot with students who are working from photos. The paintings that come out of them—not always, but most of the time—are rendered as photographic space. They follow this idea that the painter has to replicate what happens in the photo, and it couldn’t be more uninteresting as a painting. It’s because they create photographic space, not painting space. But what you see in Tuymans’ work is painting space. It’s about the slippage between the two, and that expands the photograph so enormously. He takes the photo and goes way beyond what a photo can do.
I often have this conversation with students about how you can use a photo as a starting point. To make it more interesting than the photo is really difficult. You don’t just answer that. You have to figure it out through making, and dealing with, a lot of failed paintings.
JZ: There’s this idea that the more detailed you are, the more realistic you are. In a photograph, there’s this immediate illusion that you're seeing all this realistic detail, but it's just a representation, through one-point perspective and the like. Tuymans’ solution is to create this light, which gives you a sense of reality—or unreality in some cases. I think one of the things people working from photographs have to come to grips with is how to create overall light and space. A sense of real atmosphere as opposed to just detail.
One of the reasons people gravitate toward using a photograph is because the process seems straightforward at the outset. They have an image that is already presented to them, and so it seems to be merely a matter of transferring the image. But the painters who are really looking realize that there’s not that much information in the photograph. I mean, it’s all about information, but many painters quickly discover that there’s a lot of information they need for the painting that they don’t have. For instance, they’re trying to see into a shadow or describe the volume of a form, and they discover that the photograph has graphically flattened the whole. There’s this disconnect between what they expect to find, what their memory brings to it, and what they actually have in the photo.
BF: Which is exactly where Tuymans’ practice is located. One of the great things about Tuymans’ work is that it actually slows down the photographic instant into the slow time of painting. Robert Bechtle does the same thing. Each one does it in a very different way, but in both cases you get this temporal and spatial distortion when you’re in front of their paintings.
JZ: There's an experience of time in painting that doesn’t happen in a lot of photography. A photograph tends to stop time. It’s a segment of time, something that’s already past and been frozen, whereas a painting seems to be constantly moving. For me, painting and film are much closer to each other in their temporal aspects than painting and still photography are. Though I think that when most people start to work from photographs, they assume that photos and paintings have a closer relationship, since they’re both still and flat. But the more they get into it, the more they start to see these differences.
BF: Or else they don’t see the differences and that’s how you end up with problematic paintings. People imagine that it is continuous, so they keep forging ahead and don't question that disconnect, that disjuncture. But also there’s the apparent stability of a photograph, which seems to have to do with security…
JZ: I think that’s what attracts people. They’re looking for security, something to hold onto, a kind of certainty. Tuymans’ paintings excite me because they feel unstable, which agrees with my sense of the world right now. The ambiguity he creates spatially, especially through his color tone, can be really unsettling, especially if you’re looking for a stable, visual form. Tuymans seems to dissolve that, so that there’s this sort of slippage and you’re not sure: “Is this a photograph? Is this a painting? Is this an image?” and you get into all these questions about what you are actually experiencing and seeing. For a painter, that process can be uncomfortable if you’re looking for security.
BF: That’s basically the artist’s job description, to work with dynamism. And that’s actually the most frightening part: being able to swim out into that turbulent space and swim with it rather than freeze in it.
BF: Tuymans’ use of photography often leads to critical responses that nod to the subject of the original photographs (Auschwitz, the Congo) and then move to address failures of representations, history, memory and so on. While that approach is an important part of what’s going on in his work, it often fails to address Tuymans’ pictures in terms of their visual impact as images and painted things. It’s an aspect of his work that is very highly developed, but it gets weak attention. I wonder how helpful or harmful the effect of what is essentially a narrative-based critical response to art (which isn’t by any means limited to Tuymans’ work or painting alone, but extends to a very wide array of contemporary practices) is for young painters. Subject and content are not the same thing but they get confused in criticism a lot, and if the critics are confused…
JZ: When people are confronted with a visual experience and have to try and formulate their language around painting, especially in the beginning, it can be very difficult. Part of our job, as teachers, is to help students talk about painting in clear terms. But sometimes, in class, it becomes easier to talk about the story and the content. The painting’s subject matter will often be addressed while the painting itself is not addressed. It's as if the painting has been talked about, when actually the painting hasn’t even been looked at.
LG: The visual experience of really looking for a long time at a painting and dealing with what is happening visually is the thing I feel everyone is avoiding, because it’s a hard thing to do. I made my students go to SFMOMA last semester and sit in front of a painting for 20 minutes. Most of them told me that they had never done that before! I mean, this is what the students are here for. As teachers, we’re supposed to make the students pay attention. But actually sitting and just paying attention to something visual is a little uncomfortable.
On an educational level, it’s complicated. For one thing, there’s a big difference between the goals and experiences of undergraduate and graduate students. We had this discussion the other day about risk in my undergraduate senior painting class. These are students who are just about to graduate. They’re very exuberant, and they have nothing to lose because they’re undergrads. So they have this infectious, energetic approach to their work, which is really great to be around. We were talking about what risk means, and what it came down to is “Are you going to risk being humiliated?” That’s what it’s all about. It’s not just about rebellion, but what it means to really let your work fail in the studio.
The grads go through something that’s much more intense. They arrive, and think it’s going to be this really transformational experience, which it is, but they end up having to go through the exact thing that they’ve been avoiding as artists. Like whatever they’re trying to hide from, it’s going to be the thing they have to face. They go through a lot and it’s a good process, but in terms of having to articulate all that in two years…
BF: It’s a pressure cooker.
LG: It just takes a long time. People who are trying to mature their practice through a material process, one that animates their perceptions through the making of their work, are not going to get all the answers in grad school. I don’t separate abstract painters from others, but it’s often the abstract painters who face this. If there’s a conceptual or narrative hook, the student might have an easier time in school than someone who is working with abstraction and doesn’t have language to put to it. Sometimes it seems that there’s more emphasis on framing work before it’s even been made, or putting it into a context before it’s mature enough to even talk about.
JZ: One of the things that is really difficult about grad school—about being an artist, actually—is that you’re not allowed to fail. You’re encouraged to take risks, but if you do fail, well…
BF: No disasters! Also, the expectation to develop a certain level of professionalism has been so high these days. At one time, you were expected to take a few years after you graduated to shed your grad-school identity and come into your own. But during the “art boom” it seemed like graduates had to leave school fully formed and ready for Basel.
JZ: Which is why being able to articulate your concerns and what you’re doing is given so much prominence. It’s a way of showing that you have a clear focus in your work. What young artists are trying to do is to make something that’s really real for them but that often requires an enormous amount of failure—or willingness to fail. So there’s this tension between the desire to have it all together and the willingness to fail that is required to get there. I don't see this so much when I work directly with students, but sometimes you have this situation where someone makes a painting that is this visual thing, with this structure that they've put together which is this particular painting, and it’s just not working. But if they can talk about it in a certain way, that might excuse the failure.
BF: I think that’s true of the art world at large.
BF: I remember from grad school that it was hard to get support for intuitive aspects of studio practice, for those times when you didn't know exactly why you were doing something, but you were following a thread. Similar to what Linda was saying about framing the work before it’s been made. It’s interesting to consider intuitive production with regard to Tuymans, whose work lends itself so well to the highly rationalized critical discourse, which everyone calls theory these days. When you go back and look at Tuymans’ early development, you see the first paintings made from pre-existing images, and then you learn he briefly abandoned painting for film. In the next group of paintings he brings his film experience and storyboards directly into painting as source materials. But the practice is awkward and complex, sometimes gestural, or exploring line and drawing, as well as image-based. What’s evident is that, in its early development at least, his practice was tentative and intuitive.
LG: Intuitive was a problematic word a few years ago.
BF: I think it’s been a problematic word for a long time. I remember situations in school where students weren’t allowed to use that word around certain faculty. And we had a lot of conversations about “Why can't I use the word intuitive?” I had just come from this intense academic world at Berkeley with Critical Studies, so when I was in grad school, I was on the other side and arguing for greater conceptualization, but I guess my perspective has changed a little.
JZ: So many things come up with the word intuitive. One response to that word is that it means, essentially, unthinking, uncritical, and painting from my guts…
LG: …and spilling it out…
JZ: …spilling it out and self-expression, instead of direct immediate knowledge, which is what intuition actually means. Language has so dominated the discourse of art, so dominated our society, people have forgotten that painting is a visual art and that response to it is visceral and visual. What’s so terrific about Tuymans is that he’s a visual artist from the get-go. I really admire his touch and how he sustains his energy. You get a sense that, in the moment of painting, there is this free place where the process is allowed to generate the structure of the content. So it never comes across as a theoretical painting to me.
BF: The attitude that doesn’t respect intuitive production is really out of step with contemporary research in neuroscience and cognitive science which says that all creative thinking is intuitive, that highly analytic types of thinking—scientific thinking, mathematic breakthroughs—are a matter of direct immediate knowledge, as you put it. It happens in this non-verbal part of the mind that scientists are just starting to figure out, and where artists used to live 24/7. This is one area where the art world seems to lag behind science in terms of valuing a truly progressive and liberating methodology. I suppose the real issue is whether the framework or intention supporting the gesture is sufficiently clear, but that doesn't necessarily equate to masterminding it all according to a theoretical recipe beforehand.
BF: I keep returning to Linda’s assignment to spend 20 minutes in front of a painting and what that says about contemporary visual culture. I remember those music classes in college where the assignments involved listening to music and then responding in writing so that you became a skilled listener. It seems that we don’t have much in the way of skilled sensory experiences these days. Which is strange because we used to have a critical culture that did a lot of looking. But now any criticism that is primarily visual is labeled as antiquated, and gets categorized as formalism, or Greenbergian, even though there are so many other modalities for that kind of approach. As a result, we’ve forgotten how to speak the language. And so a language that validates or valorizes looking and seeing is missing, or seen, wrongly, as antithetical to this other language, which is about dissecting the content, and disassembling the cultural constructions of what you're seeing. Maybe “learning to see” is no longer a cultural value. If that’s the case, how do you get people to look?
LG: Sitting in front of a painting and looking at it for a really long time is not really perceived to be enough. It’s almost like there’s a total mistrust of intuition. Even other words beside intuitive—like internal response or perceptual response—are mistrusted. Because it’s not enough, you have to have more. I think of this student we both teach who is doing really interesting abstract painting. He’s really gone through the wringer with it because he’s had to answer, “Why would you make an abstract painting?” There’s this expectation that you have to have a broader framework for it. He’s come out on the other side and he’s actually doing well as a result of it, so I think these questions are serving the students. I think it’s making them more rigorous. But at the same time, there’s not much trust of the unknown. There’s this whole academic thing that gets in there and displaces the conversation, so we end up talking about the narrative and don’t have to look. Who’s even talking about the visual? Artists want to, but it’s demanding. It demands a sort of poetic language.
BF: I don’t think that that’s true; I think that represents a failure of criticism these days. Criticism exists to provide a language. There are very rational, scholarly, and intelligent ways to respond to the visual. I don’t think it has to involve poetry necessarily. There’s a certain critical laziness where you don’t have to engage with the object, you can just respond verbally to other verbal notions, so you don't have to engage with the instability of perception…there it is again, instability. What are you going to do with this unstable thing?
LG: The discomfort around it.
JZ: For me, a definition of poetic language would be a very clear, precise language. I was going to say “exact language,” but then I’m thinking about how Matisse says, “Exactitude is not truth,” yet his marks are very precise.2 Writing and painting both need the same clarity and precision.
LG: In all that we’re talking about, I’m interested in how uncomfortable it is. The discomfort and lack of stability and the inability to address that. This desire to be in a safe place with art is really curious to me.
BF: Like why would we want that from art?
LG: Why would we want it? Why is that even interesting?
Linda Geary is a painter who lives and works in Oakland. She is the Assistant Chair of Painting at California College of the Arts. She has upcoming solo shows in June at Rose Burlingham Fine Art in New York, and in October at Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco.
John Zurier received his MFA from UC Berkeley and is currently Eminent Adjunct Professor at the California College of the Arts. His work is represented by Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco and Peter Blum Gallery in New York. He currently has an exhibition at Galeria Javier López in Madrid, Spain, and an upcoming exhibition at Peter Blum Gallery in May 2010.