It’s always seemed to me, when looking at the works of the old masters, that the parts of their paintings, as you get close to see them, are as enchanting as the entirety of their paintings and that the structure of the small details echoes the organization of the whole. A certain logic governs throughout the image and that logic scales so that the same thought process is carried through pretty much wherever you look.
I want that quality in my paintings. Moreover, thinking about it in this way gives me ideas about how to finish a painting. After all, what if I take some portion and pretend that it’s now the whole image. It gives everything a new relationship to everything else. Imagine a grid overlaying the whole painting and inside that grid are smaller paintings, each one needing attention.
But this grid isn’t static. It’s not as though I really drew a regular, mathematical grid over the painting, rather — imagine a grid that moves, that changes its scale depending upon where you’re looking. And for all the shapes and forms contained in that grid at whatever juncture, there’s a new painting — one that needs to make sense in all its parts. The part becomes a whole that has in its turn smaller parts.
This is more of an ideal than a specific practice. After all my problem is procrastination. My imaginary grid turns one painting potentially into many miniature paintings. That would seem to multiply the problem rather than solve it. So I don’t take my analogy literally.
But I do look at the painting as needing to make sense all over, in the large scale and in the small.
As I have already mentioned I’m painting koi these days. And the koi painting is a very abstract and free image since the fish are moving and their precise shape and anatomy is not visible. My koi sometimes won’t even come to the surface to greet me. Then at other times they fly out of the water as though they’ve momentarily forgotten that they’re fish. Consequently I see them as fluid distortions that blend with the water in which they live, and their presence reveals both surface and depths.
So it seems odd that I should be thinking about little squares, but I am. For a long time, I’ve had a complicated emotional relationship to the works of another artist, American contemporary painter Jennifer Bartlett. (More about her later.) While she certainly did not invent the square, to which delight I think we owe thanks to someone among the ancient Greeks, she did give the square rather more of a high profile than it had enjoyed in a long time. Even there, of course, she borrows (whether knowingly or not) from a famous precursor Pierre Bonnard — who saw squares everywhere, even in the foliage of the trees.
Perhaps it is not strange then that I look at my koi paintings with an eye to discerning the grid that possibly overlays their pond. If I sought a very precise rendering of the image that I’m painting, as I translate from a reference photo to the canvas, I might impose a grid over the photo and block it in square by square. Since it’s interpretation I seek and not a photographic idea, I have no motive to desire such precision. However, the idea of the grid still beguiles me. I think of each square as a window that opens up a more intimate view of that section of the picture as though we might open a door onto some little corridor of reality. I want to peer into those squares to see what each one holds.
But the grid that overlays reality, conceals as much as it reveals. Ce que tu montre et que tu cache … there is this elusiveness, this ineluctable something, this je ne sais quoi that persists. It is the mystique.
[Top of the post: Photograph of a shower curtain (with a design in blue squares behind which can be seen parts of a paper mache fish), photo by Aletha Kuschan]