on Painting and Sensation

July 26, 2011

Three Canons

Be still with yourself
Until the object of your attention
Affirms your presence

Let the Subject generate its own Composition

When the image mirrors the man
And the man mirrors the subject
Something might take over

– Minor White 1968

Deleuze’s Painting and Sensation offers a celebrated critique of the painted works of both Paul Cézanne and Francis Bacon. This critique is earned as both painters are masters of what Cézanne himself calls the Figure, a poeticized image which can bring forth in us a moment of great affect. Here the paintings of Cezanne and Bacon don’t open up a further understanding of the world but do allow us, if we can manage that magical mental act, that supreme transference of awareness, to simultaneously become in the paintings. That is, to embody both the worlds of Cezanne/Bacon and to embody our own worlds within the painted image. The paintings generate representational spaces (LeFebvre), which can then be appropriated by us and embodied by the imagination.
It is the imagination that draws me back to what these painters are not doing, which is making paintings of figuration; of abstracted signifiers. In the essay, Deleuze shows us a forked path. On one side we have the path of the Figure/sensation, and on the other side we have the path of figuration/abstraction. The former acts directly upon the nervous system, the flesh, with the latter acting only upon the intellect. The philosopher JG Fitchte offers that ‘all reality is brought solely from the imagination … this act which forms the basis for the possibility of our consciousness, our life’. If we see all reality as being brought forth solely from the imagination (as a product of our total embodied knowledge, both body and head) then isn’t an understanding through sensation more potent solely because it is more complete?  Understanding through sensation is understanding through sensation ‘and’ through imagination/intellect, that is both the body and mind. Where as figuration/abstraction is solely an understanding through the mind, and less evocative for it.
So, in wanting to become the embodied sensation of a painted figure, should we also acknowledge the conditioning effects of the environment in which we view the work? A painting, as much as it generates an image occupying two-dimensional space, is itself an object in time and space. I might view the image of the painting on my laptop while sitting at my dining table, or I might view the image depicted in the painted canvas itself hung on the pre-conditioned walls of an art gallery.  Which of these mediums generates a true understating of the image (if indeed there is such a thing)?  At the gallery wall I might respond to the physically of the paint on the canvas, bearing the embedded traces of the painters hand and generate a powerful response to the work, or am I just ‘fan-ed out’ here, pressured by the white box world of the gallery to revere the celebrity artist? While through the acid glow of my laptop will I be too neutralized by my own familiarity to open up to the Figure in the image, or is it only then that I can remove the obstructions of the painting’s own status and finally occupy the representational space it depicts? Though as suggested my Minor White above, it seems that regardless of the venue, it is necessary that I be still with myself first before I can let the subject generate its own composition.

Kim Bridgland


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