MAIN SPACE EXHIBITION
OCTOBER 5 – OCTOBER 27, 1990
RECEPTION: FRIDAY, OCTOBER 5, 1990 AT 8 PM
LOCATION – STRIDE GALLERY
722, 11 AVE S.W, CALGARY, ALBERTA
This exhibition presents new large format paintings using the image of the weave of canvas enormously magnified. SORROW AT THE END OF THE CANAL continues to offer new possibilities for the artist who is becoming increasingly interested in the paint surface as a site for mediating issues of potentiality and of closure. Patton explores how painting can respond to the underlying uncertainty pervading the postmodern condition. The image becomes a simulacrum of painting, offering complex sets of competing signifiers while undermining a resolution of self.
ANDY PATTON was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1952 and received his Bacelor of Arts from the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 1972.
SORROW AT THE END OF THE CANAL
Poetry has no exact prose counterpart, and vision no real verbal equivalent. I don’t think that my paintings “speak” or “have something to say”. At best, they are an opportunity to become implicated in appearances.
They don’t speak; they only appear–and I can only talk “about” them, around them. What I’ve tried to do in this catalogue is to present a series of notes which are simply part of my own attempt to understand them: to sort out for example, why all of them are blue, or what fascination the image holds for me and why I would repeat it over and over.
Since 1987 I’ve used only one image, of woven fabric enormously magnified. Its source is a sheet of Letraset texture. Janice Gurney (whom I’m married to) used it in two of her works, “Anticipatory Mourning” (1983), and “Screen” (1986). (I think that this sheet of Letraset is also the source for the image of canvas that Meyer Vaisman formerly used in his work.) At any rate, I got used to seeing left-over scraps of it around the studio, and eventually I borrowed one (an off-cut from “Screen”), thinking that I could do something with it. I magnified the image enormously, and reversed it–so that now the “threads” were white figures on black. The influence of “Las Meninas” perhaps was acting on me: I saw the chance to make a painting about painting, something that couldn’t escape itself.
The found imagery I’d used before had come from many different sources; I’d come across them through the job I had at the reference library in Toronto for ten years. Each night as we closed, I’d reshelve the Language Centre’s newspapers and periodicals, in a hundred languages around world. Most of the images I used came from news stories or advertisements in those papers and magazines. When I left, I realized that to continue to work as I had, I’d now have to visit the library deliberately, and search consciously through those sources. They were no longer an immediate part of my life, no longer simply “at hand”. What interested me before faded when it was forced to become deliberate. So I had to change. Perhaps the simplest way to explain it is this: I couldn’t sustain the earlier imagery anymore.
I thought about what it was that I did every day –which was simply that I painted canvas, I covered it with paint. I’d always though I was a painter of images, not of things. To paint an image of canvas seemed like a way of presenting – not the veil itself where illusions took place—but its expanded image, the ghost of a surface which divided off the public from the private world.
In that image I saw the opportunity to make a painting from what was not important, from what is banal, from what is taken for granted in paintings. A painting without drama, without dramatis personae. A painting without any imported drama: with no illusion of the world outside except that of the gallery’s light falling to illuminate it. A blank, a network of holes: a fabric with nothing behind it.
For several years all my paintings have been in dark, dark blues of different sorts. My friends joked about my “blue period”, but I think I’m in a blue life—I never decided to paint only in this dark range, it’s not a programme, not a plan. It’s not that I have no interest in other colours—I simply haven’t been able to reach them. And now the tubes of red, yellow, green are buried somewhere below all the different blues that cover the surface of my jumbled pile of paints. I see the odd one poking out and wonder about it. Venetian Red, Chrome Yellow. I don’t know what constrains me. It makes sense that I would be restricted to darker tones. Since I paint the figures in as whitish translucent ghosts, they need a dark ground to emerge from. But still, why blue? I never really mad much of a clue, until cruising the bookshelf at a friend’s house, I stumbled over a passage Kristeva wrote on Giotto’s blue.
What she pints out is that blue is the first colour to appear, at sunrise for example. This is because of the physics of colour: blue has the shortest wavelength visible to us. When white light passes through a prism and breaks up into the full spectrum, blue will appear at one end—all the colours below it are invisible to us. I think that I always returned to it because I was trying (unconsciously at first) to make a work, a space, a colour that emerged. These blues then would be the first colour that could emerge from the darkness of what does not appear. I see now that if I had forced myself to make a green painting, a red painting (both of which were possibilities I wanted to try, but never could quite bring myself to do) then there would always be an arbitrariness to them—because of the laws of physics, because of how we actually perceive the colours. Green for example, the second colour-it could only be a colour that has already emerged into sight. I know I would feel, bodily, the gap between it and darkness, sense some missing colour or increment. Some boundary between it and darkness, between it and un-existence.
Kristeva goes on: “in dim light, short wavelengths prevail over long ones… Under these conditions, one perceives the colour blue through the rods of the retina’s periphery (the serrated margin), while the central element containing the cones (the-fovea) fixes the object’s image and identifies its form. A possible hypothesis… would be that the perception of blue entails not identifying the object; that blue is, precisely, on this side of or beyond the object’s fixed form; that it is the zone where phenomenal identity vanishes.” I wouldn’t know whether or not what she says about the neurophysiology of vision is accurate or not, only that it explains some of my intuitions about the way ” this peculiar colour/space/feeling acts on me. I hope that identities in these blue paintings only begin to emerge-or begirr to disappear into a receptive first space. “Thus all colors, but blue in particular, have a noncentred or a decentering effect…” What I’ve wanted is less a work than a moment just before the recognition of things. “The hissing of the gaslights, the blurring dissolving shapes of things…” (Robert Musil.)
George Bowering’s book said in Errata that “Margaret Laurence loved attaching other people’s words to her books.” For several years-since 1986-I’ve attached other people’s words (and by extension, their works) to my own paintings. I like to think of this as a form of weaving.
“Sorrow at the End of the canal” is the title of Du Fu’s great poem. And of the paintings shows at Stride: “The flower at the cliff’s edge…”, “The soul dispensing reels…” are titles from the modernist Italian poet Eugenio Montale’s series of Motets; “There was a Father” is the title of one of Yasujiiro Ozu’s films; “Page of Madness” the title of a strange film by Kinugasa Teinosuke; “Red Glow of Sunset” is the title of one of Mizoguchi’s films.
The silting down of paint. In the most recent paintings, where the image of the canvas mesh is submerged in washes of blue, I’ve tried to break down the body of the paint by thoroughly diluting it in turpentine—until it runs as thinly as watercolour. These washes don’t bind or dry as paint more-or-less direct from the tubes does. The binder in the paint is broken down, and the pigment silts down into the canvas as the turpentine evaporates. As a matter of faith I’m convinced that, somehow, this time—the time of the paint being deposited—is registered in the painting itself, that the slowness is there, a permanent moment which van be apprehended “all at once”—as paintings are, and as language, music, dance—those actually temporal arts—are not. A chance to feel time where it stalls: a sometimes centuries-long moment.
When I used to work with found imagery—with a variety of images and not just this incessant one—I used to feel that that was important to me was less the image than the exact qualification of the image—its conditions of appearance. I think that’s easier to see now, when those conditions or qualities aren’t hidden under the variety of different images, when there’s nothing to see except the inflection of seeing.
One afternoon this past winter I was downtown, in an underground mall. When I emerged from it on the street, the sun had gone down. I looked up into the dark clear sky—blue, not black, but very very dark. And clear, the way the Toronto sky rarely is. At the end of the Bloor Street the sky was lighter, a sweet neon blue I suddenly realized was one end of “my” spectrum. The sky overhead, the same blue, gone dark in a hundred coats.
I was born on the prairies, with a huge sky overhead.
I remember seeing in Florence, the Donatello in Santa Croce’ an angel kneeling at Mary’s feet. I hadn’t expected to be so moved by it. Beautiful grey stone, pietra serena, gilded details here and there, grey figures within the frame of a shallow grey space, high on the west wall of the church. I stood there seeing whatever it is you see long after you’ve seen everything there is to see. Eventually an angel kneeling at Mary’s feet. Beautiful grey stone, pietra serena,, gilded details here and there, grey figures within the grey frame of a shallow, shadowed space. A tour group came up, and someone—the guide perhaps—dropped coins in the machine to illuminate the sculpture up for a moment. The lights came on and flooded the sculpture, washing it away in a tidal wave of light. But now I could see that the work was dependent partially on darkness. The way the forms were defined in the grey stone—the slowness with which they emerged—was organized around the dim ambient light of the cathedral. Donatello’s work—which is only the exact way that the figures became visible, greyness that finally through the shadows in the church became figures—was erased with light.
Our age wants total illumination: as thought everything can be stated, everything must be disclosed. Darkness, silence…Hannah Arendt said somewhere that privacy was “the dark ground” nourishing the public realm. The Mexican architect, Luis Barrageon, said that “Architects are forgetting the need of human beings for half-light, the sort of light that imposes a tranquility, in their living rooms as well as in their bedrooms.. About half the glass that is used in so many buildings—homes as well as offices—would have to be removed in order to obtain the quality of light…”
The particular blue I seem to have settled into in the last few years—Hortensia Blue—is a peculiar paint, a stain really, which unlike most paints does not simply become weaker when diluted. Instead, it changes radically, becomes suddenly sweeter—electric, as though it were charged with neon light. This allows me, through the long process of applying five to forty or so very thin washes of paint, to slowly submerge the image, initially qualified; and from this one colour, at least two very different blues will suddenly emerge of their own accord. The pigment has its own life, its own light. My friend, the poet and particle physicist, Kim Maltman, says: “ The deep blue is the blue of Cerenkov radiation, light produced (much as a sonic boom is) by particles travelling faster than the speed-of-light-in-water through the water of the proton decay detector.”
Somewhere along the way I became frustrated with titles—with how they always explained the work, or (to put it the other way around) how the work illustrated the title. I suppose I needed to complicate the relation of the painting and the viewer.
There was a catalogue on Frank Stella’s Black Paintings that interested me. The notes on the paintings discussed the titles, not the paintings—yet this seemed plausible. What was there to say about paintings so reduced? Language could hardly approach them. But the titles were language—and so much more loaded than the paintings were supposed to be. “The Marriage of Reason and Squalor.” They re-oriented the paintings. I loved the idea that Stella and Andre have drawn up lists of possible titles, and then spent hours trying them out on different paintings. “The titles of the Black Paintings are not about the paintings” says Brenda Richardson. I could see they were just attached to the paintings—and something could occur there, between the painting and the title, something that might never be conclusive since the title never quite united with the painting.
I’m not sure that artworks have meaning—that they contain a certain meaning ready to be mined by viewers, dug out and taken away with them. I’m not sure that they “say something.” All I’m certain of is that we say things about them. We insist on meaning; we can’t help but interpret. Just as human life itself does not have meaning it itself: we give it meaning.
Whether I’m right or wrong, I see something of this in the paintings. For paintings which are still representational, they’re fairly “empty.” What makes its appearance in them—a scrap of canvas—isn’t very important in itself, or very dramatic. I don’t think they “contain” large statements about the world. What interests me more would be a work which showed itself to be prior to the interpretations and meanings we make of artworks, people, events, the world—if this is possible. I don’t want to pretend that these are given to us.
Most of the titles I’ve used in the last five years or so have ben English translations of the titles of films by the Japanese directors Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse, and others. But mainly Ozu. I loved the titles because they contained for me a sense of things I knew I couldn’t attain: a specific poetry, a constrained, almost sentimental politeness—or should I say, measure.
These titles were, in part, a private self-criticism. I knew how different their films were from the films, novels, paintings of our culture. Ozu’s films, which focused so carefully on the world of things. Naruse’s, which always considered the intimacy of the group. A careful, ritualized order. My own paintings had sometimes struck me as too Hollywood: too obsessed with the self, and too ungentle, too dramatic—always asserting the importance of the human world, our importance.
(No, I don’t expect people to know where the titles came from, or even that they are in some sense arbitrary. There is always some interpretation you can make that will tie painting to title—it’s a question of how much faith you will place in that interpretation you construe. But I hope that someone would sense that gluing-on of titles. And perhaps someone else might come across these films from a culture not my own. Maybe it would estrange my paintings for themselves.)
When I’m painting I think of the image in many ways: I day-dream it. I thought of nets—of fishermen raising and lowering their nets, of “safety net”, of women weaving. For a ling time, I imagined the image as a net to capture mortality in. I hoped by expanding the image so much, I might reach a point where you could see that it wasn’t something solid, that it was as much holes as material stuff, that maybe the holes in it might be felt, just for a moment, as a threat to the material stuff of it—a faint whiff of our own mortality.
In the autumn of 1989 I visited Ravenna for the first time, to see the 6th century mosaics for which the town is famous, and to see the site of “Dora Markus,” Montale’s great poem. Nothing else in art has struck me so forcibly. Not the Uccello frescos, or the Gates to Paradise, or even “Las Meninas” I’ve admired for so long. The sheets of purest colour: the blue Galla Placida, the green vault of Sant’ Appollonaire in Classe. The amber light though the alabaster windows filled the interiors with a thickened light. Walking down the nave I felt as though I was pushing my way through honey. The accumulation of detail, rituals of seeing: every tiny bit of glass ceramic, its light refracted by just the slightest differences of angles. Colour made tactile. The scent of the pine forest nearby, Italy’s last. And the sense of an art, a world unlike ours—unlike the Renaissance that is still so much our own. A world that was still fresh somehow. By comparison our art, our time strikes me as terribly knowledgeable.
If I had visited Ravenna before I began to paint with that pure blue, I could explain my own work better. I’d say that visiting Ravenna had cleansed my sight. But it’s not true, not true. It would be better if I could edit time, as you can in a film, so that now, I went there first.
We don’t know how color works; only that it doesn’t function within perception, as it seems to within language. A red painting isn’t angry. A green scarf isn’t jealous. Perhaps colour is part of an instinctual realm, or perceptual realm, less penetrated by language than other parts of our lives. Paul Hills suggests this in his book The Light of Early Italian Painting when discussing Taddeo Gaddi and the hegemony of the church extending itself though artworks.
“Giotto could shift from monochrome to polychrome without loss of power. In the Baroncelli Chapel sensuous fullness of colour is no longer allowed free play. Through the introduction of a kind of neutral staining the insistence of modeling obtrudes, shaping and defining. Might it be suggested that this invasion of grisaille formerly reserved for didactic concepts, into the emphatic, human context of the narrative indicates a reassertion of the ideological primacy of meaning over the instinctual play of feeling?”
“…the grey foundation that damps down colour is literally an assertion of authority.”
Felix had been thinking about blue, and told me about a short story he’d read. A mapmaker was visiting NASA Mission Control, and saw, live, an image of the earth from space. He was shocked, had never even seen anything so blue. I was as though he was imprinted by it. From then on he was obsessed by that blue, and searched everywhere for it. After several years, in Morocco he saw a young man wrapped in an intense blue fabric, and fell in love with him. I don’t remember how Felix said it ended, or even if he told me.
What fascinates me about this image of canvas—in part—is just that it reiterates the surface on which the painting is made. And that surface is the membrane which divides off public from private realms. We see the finished work; we can guess, but never know, what went into it. We can never know what thoughts and feelings where in the artist’s heart and mind as she or he was making it. No communication is perfect. But then, art as communication has little interest for me. I like the noise or the difficulty and even obscurity in works of art or literature; it doesn’t bother me not to know. Actually, it’s communication that bothers me. The work communicates a message—and once I’ve received it, the work no longer seems necessary: it has replaced itself with its message. Perhaps artworks are sometimes resistances to meaning, to language.
Image (Objective Correlative)
Since I first came upon their poetry, I’ve ben saturated by the way in which T.S. Eliot—and even more—the Italian, Eugenio Montale, used imagery in their poetry. Eliot thought of the image as an “objective correlative”, a sign which concretized the thoughts and feelings which occasioned it—which did not reveal them but called them up. “The lightning blanching/ walls and trees, freezing them in that/forever of an instant” wrote Montale: “My poetry in those days had no choice, except to become more closed, more concentrated.”
“Today it is clear that the short poem was bound to gain in intensity what it lost in extension: it is a brief step from the short poem to the intense, concentrated poem; and it is an even briefer step from the intense poem to the obscure poem. And here we have arrived at a sufficient explanation: one of a great many, we realize. The supposedly obscure poet is, according to the theory most favourable to him, the one who works his own poem like an object, instinctively reconciling the irreconcilable within the poem so as to make it the strongest, surest, most unrepeatable, most definitive correlative of his own internal experience… The tendency, among all the infinite variations, remains the same: toward the object: toward art invested, incarnated in the means of expression, toward emotion which has become thing.”
(from “Let’s Talk About Hermeticism” by Eugenio Montale.)
Perhaps visual artworks can be studied in terms of whether they attempt to expand or contract vision, as the pupil of an eye dilates or contracts. I think that my paintings being to that group which try to open themselves to vision, to expand sight’s domain. The magnification I rely is obvious an extension of sight, offering it a world impossible without technical assistance. Similarly, the slide projection I use to throw the image on the dark grounds mechanically extends sight. But that’s to simplify. I’ve found that in the course of a painting, I need to have the ability to see—to make out what could appear—occluded here, enhanced somewhere else—much as in classical chiaroscuro. The play of light and dark is the struggle in the eye between what is visible and what is withheld, what strains the sight. This is a way of working within what forms the ground for our ideas about whether we “see things clearly” or “through a glass darkly”—whole relations to the world, and to “a dark time.” Colour also is a means by which sight is restricted or opened; it seems to me that by using such pure colour I am giving the eye an opportunity, that I’m giving the viewer the chance to be implicated in colour and space.
-text by Andy Patton