Friday, August 22, 2014

Is purity possible?

October 10, 2009 by  
Filed under Art Politics

I am in the process of getting a couple of interviews and posts that may take me a few more days to get posted. In the mean time I wanted to throw out some ideas as a topic of conversation. I am convinced that the many excellent painters commenting recently will come up with far more thought provoking material than what I could alone.

A number of people have commented they would like to see a discussion on what exactly defines perceptual painting. There seems to be a wide range of opinion about how you could define perceptual painting, how strict the definition should be (or not be) to be considered pure perceptual painting. I thought it would be a good idea to get a conversation going about this topic. To have a thread that specifically addresses this topic in depth. In this blog I have tried to show the range of possibilities in the works from some contemporary painters working from direct observation as well as those who work with a variety of sources.

Maybe to pin down a definition of perceptual painting it would be easier to say what it isn’t rather than saying what it is. But even that can get blurry if you stare at it long enough.

For instance, It is generally agreed that performance art and installation art tends not be be confused with perceptual painting. However as we have seen, looking at Cindy Tower’s Industrial paintings you start to see a possible way to merge perceptual painting with performance art.

Clearly, perceptual painting shouldn’t be confused with abstract painting but what about paintings like those of Eric Aho, who often paints plein air but some of his work becomes almost completely abstract. He emphasizes the underlying gestural, abstract design and recognizable observed forms are difficult to discern at times despite being done from life. deKooning painted landscapes outdoors that were completely abstract and with no apparent relation to what he was looking at. Does that count?

Paintings made from imagination is another area where you it should be a cut and dry case of not perception. But what about paintings like Charles Burchfield’s watercolors of the deep forest where he painted in plein air some wonderful sensations of nature not usually seen without first taking some mind altering substance?

Clearly photorealism tends to be more about the copying of photos and photographic detail and has the look of a photographic realism. Some perceptual painters, like Rackstraw Downes will include an almost photographic exactitude in the rendering of details but has the look of life and doesn’t seem photographic. Some perceptual painters use photos to further refine work that had been started from life, perhaps to further refine details that had the larger space, light and masses of tones worked out beforehand from direct observation. Perceptual painting purists would object to this practice, saying it invalidates the truth of the visual experience, which is of primary importance. That drawing and painting should only come from the close observation of nature for it to be truly considered perceptual.

In a recent comment here John Lee (a great perceptual painter by the way) said: “Perceptual Painting may aim for this ‘pure’ response, painting as one Sees (I am not in any way trying to sully that notion!)…but if we think about Monet and Giacometti as BOTH desiring to paint it as they see it, we get 2 different concepts. Monet wants to see in terms of color patch/color spot/brushmark/juxtaposed flat notes of color….while Giacometti wants to understand form as a complexity of planes in space, realized through LINE. Line is a concept for the one, Color Patch for the other. Is it really possible to be ‘pure’ in painting?

I think that question would be a good starting place for a discussion. Anyone care to share there .02?

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Comments

21 Responses to “Is purity possible?”
  1. Philip Koch says:

    Well for me the key thing about perception is how much emotional content it often carries. Rembrandt and Vermeer both fit easily into the perceptual painters fold, yet each in there own way create an unmistakable mood.

  2. Ira Barkoff says:

    Contrast Perceptual with Conceptual and you begin to see the difference.Perceptual has nothing to do with style and everything to do with presenting your idea of visual beauty. Conceptual has to do with presenting a mental idea.

  3. AM says:

    Before visiting this site I had never encountered the phrase. Or, if I did, it was just forgettable. “Perception” is pretty broad. Observation seems to be implied, but not necessarily paramount or for that matter even necessary.

    On another note, I think it’s always better to veer towards inclusion. I’m all for purity (sincerity?) in individual work as well as organically formed movements and schools. But at other times, dogmatic, such purity rings mostly of a reactionary cliquishness. The literary is such a alluring, dangerous siren, IMO.

    • Larry says:

      Ira, good point. I did as your url here suggested “google Ira Barkoff” Very impressive work, you are someone who really knows something about “presenting your idea of visual beauty” Thanks for commenting here and look forward to hearing more from you.

      AM, Thanks for saying this… somehow the phrase perceptual painting slipped into the art vocabulary when I wasn’t paying attention. A few years ago, I was talking to someone who told me, oh, you do perceptual painting (there was a slight tone of derision as I recall but that’s another matter!) It stuck with me thinking that; ” ok, that must be the overall genre I’m working in, I can live with that…” It all really boils down to good painting vs. bad painting imho (whatever genre) but now that there is a name for this people want definitions and boundaries (which we will never really get of course)

      I agree with veering towards inclusion as you say…”But at other times, dogmatic, such purity rings mostly of a reactionary cliquishness. The literary is such a alluring, dangerous siren, IMO.” However, I suspect that many are concerned about such things as when painters paint from projected photos on the canvas and other tricks to circumvent the difficult process of drawing and painting from life – sometimes using highly rendered details to impress the rubes and/or to make up for lack of visual and emotional power.

      Philip, true, mood and emotional content seems to more likely to “naturally” flow from artists who are directly responding to nature. When working strictly from photos I would guess many painters wanting emotional content in their work will need to consciously work at it. When you are a good enough painter like Rembrandt and Vermeer then it really doesn’t matter what you are working from. I think painters who have worked many years from life and then turn to using photos are likely to continue making the similar emotional content they did before, it’s in their bones.

  4. Rebecca Harp says:

    AM, I like this post of yours, quite a lot. Broadness is a problem and a blessing; trying to preserve both takes quite an effort, if you want to. I thought a great deal about it today, I actually spent nearly 8 hours writing about it, rather than painting. Writing does help clarify things from time to time, I think. I do believe pure perception is possible, but if perception excludes emotional reaction and experience due to perception, and conceptually ideas of things that are not perceived, I might find it simply a scientific study which does not grasp the entire picture. Extremely interesting, but perhaps just quite not enough (for me).

    Personally, since this thread started, I have had some serious, intense painting days, thinking and re-thinking, starting and cancelling. Reconsidering nature, instantaneous perception, and the photograph, and much of what I know and so much of what I do not know. Thank you Larry, for starting the discussion.

  5. John Lee says:

    I like the term ‘Responsive’. I think that one is always being Responsive when they paint (or should be). The question is: are you responding to your ‘Perception’ (Seeing) or are you responding to the ‘Construction’ (The painting, and how it is put together, built, to relay/find an expression, a poetry).
    I guess when I think of a pure Perceptual Painter, I am thinking of the Premier-Coups of Edwin Dickinson, or maybe Monet (the Cathedral Facade Paintings perhaps).
    Vermeer is of course very much interested in Light, and in Looking, but he is also very interested in the construction of the painting. I was showing a class some slides last week, comparing Mondrians Neo-Plastic paintings with Vermeers Interiors. Both Dutch Painters are interested in the tensions created using vertical and positive divisions of the rectangle (the canvas). Mondrian with his black bands and primary rectangles, Vermeer with his tabletop, map, window, wall (the Milkmaid painting).
    I think the fact that painting is NOT pure is one of the most interesting aspects about it. The way that a painter can make a mark on the canvas that is beautiful in that it simultaneously reads as a plane in space, or a light, that it ‘sits’, and ALSO is understood as a mark sitting on the canvas, an abstraction, meaning created in that case primarily via its relationships to the other marks/shapes and their relation to the work as a whole.
    10 painters all paint the same subject results in 10 distinct paintings, even if they are all trying to paint it as exactly as they see it.
    The variables might include: the palette/colors used, the conception of understanding and seeing color, the key of light (how dark/light the final painting), the preservation or obliteration of the hand/the mark, the EYE through which the viewer sees and understands the painting, the concerns of the artist (one looking at Value and Tone, the other looking at Color (Bonnard), another painter more interested in Surface qualities (I am thinking of Richard Maury (Forum Gallery)).

    Painting ends up being a sacrifice, a compromise. I think Painters are aware of that. Painting is about having your cake and eating it too (or, at least attempting to do so). Great Painting might be defined as an attempt to resolve unresolvables: to marry two aspects of making a painting that really don’t fit together (at least not easily, to say the least).
    There is understanding Form via Color and the Sensation of Light, that is very hard, if not impossible, to Unite with a strong sense of Form. Impressionism vs. Academic Painting. There are a number of examples of Great Painting that have aspects of both, true. But an edge can not be soft and sharp at the same time. Think of a subject ( a figure lying in a bathtub of water) and two very different depictions of that subject: Pierre Bonnard (with Impressionistic/Fauvist Color, Soft Edges, Apparent Mark-Making and Antonio Lopez-Garcia (Muted Palette, Aggresive Concern for Proportion, Measurement, Relating, a strong drawing aspect, use of line, use of Perspective). Both are attempting to paint it as they see it, to make it ‘right’.
    I believe that painters have similar concerns across the boundaries of time and space, at least from a responsive understanding (responsive I am understanding as standing somewhere between perception and construction), yet they all come from a different school/language/region that may or may not impose, to some degree, a way of seeing and translating the world with 2D form. These painters proceed with their work, KNOWING that there is no answer, there is no resolve between extreme absolutes.

  6. I always took ‘perceptual painting’ to mean narrowly work done from a motif, not a value judgment nor an indication of style. But, as mentioned above, many haven’t even heard of the term; I’ve certainly gotten enough puzzled looks to pretty much retire it. The reason we paint is to reach past any verbal description, but if the aim is to stir dialogue, this is certainly as good a jumping off point as any. Until I start seeing the kind of navel-gazing productions that fill most of the spaces devoted to art, I won’t be too worried about this site casting too wide a net…

  7. According to Ira Glackens, William Glackens’ last painting in life was a small still life of a totally spent tube of paint. Never having seen it, I have no doubt that it was faithfully and beautifully rendered. It was most likely painted from life, although Glackens was a crack illustrator and could “just make stuff up.” But considered as a last painterly utterance, it has a conceptual beauty that Joseph Beuys could never hope to equal. It is impossible to tease out the various philosophical strands that make a great painting, because they are so intricately interwoven within the web of life and language. Is it perceptual, conceptual, realist or abstract? Of course it is abstract, unless it maps reality mite for mite and molecule for molecule. Does the artist use photographs, a grid, i.e. tools? Does the artist use a camera lucida, or a level and a plumb? All art is artifice, and the real crux of the matter is this: Do you have anything to say?

    I know many plein air painters, and I myself first began painting en plein air in the late 1960s. But truth is not a matter of rendering what is in front of your nose. Certain truths cannot be so rendered as they are either too fugitive, or it is too dangerous to attempt to render them thus. Painters have been using photographs since the dawn of photography and before. It is not surprising – painting as a technology tends to model perception in the same way as the camera. That this is still controversial after two centuries is absurd.

    I’ll do whatever it takes to make my painting work. If I’m painting en plein air and the landscape becomes a distraction, I’ll take the painting home to the studio and work on it there. If I have to make up figures or invent a shadow to resolve the composition, I’ll do that. I am not a purist by any means, and I have to wonder what narrow period in history can anyone be “pure” about. I know painters that swear by white lead, or flake white. It’s what the old masters used. Of course the rutile form of titanium white wasn’t invented until about 1922, so the old masters couldn’t have used it. And the old, old masters, prior to Van Eyck, used ground marble and gypsum, i.e. gesso or chalk as their predominant white. Titian still used these, in conjunction with white lead.

    I consider my own work to be “Contemporary Realist”, and I mean the latter term to be philosophically consistent with the thread of thought and practice that began with Courbet, wended its way through the Impressionists and Naturalists, found fellow travelers in the American Scene painters and Social Realists of the 1930s and 40s, and still finds favor amongst a large number of contemporary painters. But I model perception in pretty much the same way that Alberti and Zuloaga did, and I suppose that this then makes me a perceptual painter. I always try to be faithful to my subject, but then, as Wm. Merritt Chase said “there is nothing so boring as a man who is scrupulously honest.”

  8. Rebecca Harp says:

    I began using the term “Sincerist” not too long ago. Meaning, sincere about what I see, why I paint, how I feel, what I do not know, what I try to grasp but sometimes cannot. A silly term I know, but none of the others get as close to what painting is for me.

  9. Hunter McKee says:

    I thought of “perceptual painting” as referring to seeing, plain and simple, as opposed to “idea” art… art without a political agenda, or
    narrative…art that comes out of an indulgence in the act of seeing.

    The term doesn’t speak about the final result…that object that gets
    hung on the wall …only about how that object came to be realized.
    The object came to be as a result of the artist’s concentration on the
    act of seeing without a preconceived image of the final product in mind. The final product could be simple or complex, photo-like, or
    not.

    This is what I thought when I heard the term, and since it is how I approach most of my own painting ( but not all ) it appealed to me.

  10. Valentino says:

    John, your brief analysis is an interesting read with some good points.

    However, I do not think that what you call ‘Perception’ and ‘Construction’ are mutually exclusive approaches to painting.
    I mean, we re emotional beings and nobody can be as indiscriminate viewer as camera. Even camera can not register all that is in front of its lenses.

    Speaking of which – what realism (perspective/ responsive painting) really stands for? Representing things as they are, that is – as though the artist does not exist…? I mean even if we put compositional and esthetic considerations aside, it is not possible – as you noticed.

    Very few painters can resist making smaller or bigger adjustment while painting from life. Even Sargent who often just went out in the field and paint everything that was in front of him without too much consideration for design, made some compositional sacrifices. Yet, what you call ‘Construction’ is always in play in the back of painters mind.

    We all do it, consciously or not. An artist omits, adds, moves and distorts elements in his painting in order to make it work. Just because a painter moves a map on the wall closer to the figure (as I suppose Vermeer might have done), makes the building taller than it is or widens the distance between the trees doesn’t mean he is (because of it) less “perceptional” – or less true to the nature.

  11. When I first found this site, I finally felt like I ‘belonged’. I had thought calling myself a representational or realist artist was enough, but then perusing other sites and forums I found just how naive I was. There is such a range of definitions for realism from the painterly, nearly abstracted to the classical atelier (where I felt pushed out by elitist ideals). Finally, with your blog I found a home in the realm of contemporary representational painting, where I fit, mostly because Painting Perceptions WASN’T strikly defined. I felt freed to come to this site and to accept the quality paint, as seen by Larry, as Perceptual Painting. The term was being defined slowly for me, as the blog evolved. Now I fear that trying to force a clear and concise definition on the term will muck things up a bit.

    Having said that, I am trying to clearly remember how I defined PP in my head when I first found this site at it’s near inception. Beyond painting what you see, it must also include a sense of the moment, the time in which it was painted (maybe that’s emotion?). When not only the perception of seeing is involved, but all of our perceptions are a hum and in tune while in that zen state sometimes acheived thru painting (not matter which tools you choose for the day’s pracitce). I realize this is a very hard thing to achieve but I thought that that was at the very least the goal of the Perceptual Painter.

    Rebecca, I think your use of the term “Sincerist” speeks volumes to who you are as a painter and as a person. I think you should continue the use of the term no matter how it may feel trite.

  12. Hunter McKee says:

    What Rebecca says about sincerity in painting is what I think makes for a good perceptual painting. Somehow BS is communicated in a painting, as is integrity, commitment or lack thereof, strength and weakness, etc.. All that is communicated in a “perceptual painting” amounts to the appeal for both constructing the painting as well as looking at the work of others.

    Looking at the work of others is a little bit like “Being John Malkovich.” Larry spoke of purity in painting, and then gave examples of very different approaches to painting in order to suggest, I think, that purity was impossible. Purity may be impossible, but I don’t think for the reason that the painter focuses on one aspect or another of perception. Purity, if it is achievable, would be a matter of purity of intention, and that I think takes one back to Rebecca’s point.

    I see the perceptual painter as something of a hero who packs up his
    tools and willfully heads into the unknown, hopeful to return with
    something new and true. He may only return to himself and be the
    better for the experience, or he may bring some benefit to others in the form of inspiration to live more fully. This is how I have benefited from the art of others. I’m not particularly interested in
    an artist’s opinion of what is nice, or pretty, or cool as expressed in style. Nor am I particular interested in the subject matter for it’s
    name sake, but only for what the painting of that subject does to me.
    Like Larry’s trees…they do something to me, and because of that, trees offer me more than they used to.

  13. John Lee says:

    Valentino,
    yes. I wasn’t implying that perception and construction are mutually exclusive. That would be impossible. I am talking about being aware of the two aspects. It is like the language of 2D Form: we talk about line, shape, value, color as being seperate, yet they are intertwined. when one makes a mark on the canvas, it is simultaneously a shape, a value, a color, a location, a position in space, etc.
    I suppose my point was that there is no purity. I agree: it is not possible to simply paint what one Sees, in a purely objective fashion, like a camera. And we can understand that a camera does not create a pure image either.

    It is interesting that the word ‘Sincere’ has come up. Leland Bell would use the term ‘Sincere’ (or was it ‘Honesty’?) Here is the quote I just found:
    The important thing [about Mondrian and Derain], who seem to be at opposite poles, is that each of them is dealing honestly with the elements of form and color and that’s all we can ask of painters-to deal honestly and probe reality at its deepest level. –Leland Bell

    Leland Bell worked at times from life, but he was not a painter who perceptual, but more of a construvist painter. He proceeded by responding to the work itself (rather than to a setup before him) in order to find, through searching and improvisation, the underlying rhythms in the work.
    but Honesty is the key word here. I think the real distinction, when it comes to perception/perceptual painting is NOT based on something like: was photography used, and to what extent? I think the questions should be: what are the questions being asked? what is one finding? what is the search?

    Here is another term: Imagist.
    I would oppose Imagist to Perceptualist. The perceptual painter is responding to nature/the painting/painting’s history in its search for some truth.
    The imagist painter is concerned with presenting an image. stopping when the image is believable, when it reads as a believable figure in a believable space. when it looks real.

    I like to think that the perceptual painter allows the subject to consume them, and is never satisfied. the imagist on the other hand, has a stopping point. this could be a slap-dash conclusion, it could be a meticulous, time-consuming process. but is it about a search? or is it an illustration? stopping at the point of recognizability.

    this is something much more difficult to talk about, as it is not easy to pin down. one can talk about things like the use of photography as a resource, and make lengthy justifications but the problem is: how does the photograph contribute to the work? Is the painting a probe, or a finite image? How or How not?

    What is interesting is the search, the response to the subject. Euan Uglow, Bonnard, Frank Auerbach, Stanley Lewis, are all probing, always. The last thing they want to do is illustrate. It doesnt matter whether they used photography, the point is that the photograph offers them nothing that aids or interests them as a painter. so, its not a purist Stance, but merely a matter of fact.

    “There is one thing I think realism is definitely not, though it is often confused with it, and that is a technique. Technique is a skill you can learn so you don’t have to respond to what you are looking at, you don’t have to be inquisitive about it. If something is real to you, the question becomes, not How do I do that, but What is this phenomenon I’m perceiving?”
    Rackstraw Downes, American painter (1939- )

  14. I like and recognize a lot of what John Lee says above. With his definition of ‘imagist’, he takes the discussion back towards the conceptual/perceptual divide. Painters working in situ aren’t the only ones who start out without knowing their destination. Many working abstractly are certainly involved in their own kind of search. The big divide is between those for whom the actual painting is but a tedious chore necessary to realize their already-formed vision, and those who hope to build up to something concrete or resonant through an accumulation of meandering and searching marks…

  15. John Lee says:

    I suppose I was getting confused myself as I was writing the last comment. I was attempting to blur the definition of ‘Perceptual’ to include painting that responds to the work itself as it comes to being. Including “nature/the painting/painting’s” as part of the definition of ‘perceptual painting’ was part of my intent to do so.
    also, the inclusion of Bell, and his process: responding purely, almost purely, to the painting itself. Absolutely a painter like Mondrian is working improvisationally, searching for the right tensions in his work, the final result coming through many many changes and layerings of paint. Still: to continue with abstraction, a comparison between two painters like Ellsworth Kelly and Sol Lewitt. Lewitt is absolutely a conceptualist, pre-planning a large abstract mural, including a set of instructions for a group of workers to complete.
    Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings, from my understanding, are not searched for in the making of the final product, but drawings and small sketches, color notes are then used in creating a then pre-concieved large final painting. Still, I don’t see his work as being conceptual.
    I really like the last line of Dmitry Samarov’s above: “the big divide is between those for whom the actual painting is but a tedious chore necessary to realize their already-formed vision, and those who hope to build up to something concrete or resonant through an accumulation of meandering and searching marks.”
    I know what is being said here, meanwhile the more I think about it some thoughts pop up: for example, George Nick’s work. I think there is a good deal of the ‘chore’ necessary in Nick’s realization (but I mean ‘chore’ in the best sense, and its definitely not tedious!). A sculptor in marble does have to have a strong sense of an already-formed vision. There must be a lot of preconception with Michelangelo’s David, as well as the understanding of carving marble by hand as being a chore (a portion of the task of the carving, anyway (?)).
    That becomes, I think, a division based on the technique. or at least, sounds like that. I don’t think that the technique,or approach, is the real question, the real divide. the Old master painters may have legitimately worked out their search through studies and drawings before re-realizing that vision on the large canvas. Hacks (to use that term) might have no idea what they want, throw some marks on the canvas only to make a mess. what IS important, is the vision, the finding. What was found through the process (whatever it may be) that creates some results.

  16. Rebecca Harp says:

    Thank you Alia and Hunter, you said very nice things about what I said, and I appreciate it immensely. I also just had a thoroughly invigorating day: an invited visitor to Israel Herchberg’s opening day to his master class students. I have felt like a student. one to learn perpetually, for a long time, yet I know my challenges to face. I filled up 4 pages of notes from his comments. All great. Starts with big slides of Dickinson, ends with Emily Milligan, but he got caught short, wanted to say more. Which would be tomorrow, but I cannot go.

    Learning never ends. It is just so important to realize how human we are, how 99 percent is failure, yet because we are human we seek vision. Seeing truly, like the first time. Just keep trying, all of you, none of us is being paid to do so. We just want to.

  17. Rebecca Harp says:

    Emily Nelligan, I wanted to say. Sorry for the spelling error. Here is a link to her drawings if you do not know her: http://www.junefitzpatrickgallery.com/enhome.html

  18. The above discussion has been very helpful to me. I’m not going to attempt to define what perceptual painting is. I hate it when people ask me what “kind” or “type” of painting I do. Placing it in some category seems so pat and just capitulates to people’s need for reducing things to preconceptions. There have been some very clear statements above. Search. Seeing. Responding to what one sees and what one does and what one feels. Intentional mark-making or obscuring the hand/mark. Some interesting names have come up. Every now and then someone says something I absolutely disagree with (e.g. Sargent painted landscapes with little sense of design – I guess we need to explore Sargent some day)

    So it seems that if you’re a painter or a lover of painting and you are digging this site, then it doesn’t matter what we call it. As long as I keep seeing interesting painting and intelligent discussion I keep coming here. I have to say that Corot’s Narni as the backdrop image for the site is, in a way, a great example of the origins of what we are talking about and doing. So if images speak a thousand words, that painting is what it’s all about.

    dm

    • Larry says:

      I agree David. There is no need to spell out exactly what perceptual painting is or isn’t. Most of us just want to make good painting and whatever helps us to get there is valid. I think by seeing and reacting to what other painters are doing in this endeavor we can better understand what we think is valid or not for ourselves. Part of what gets many of us worked up over this debate is the position perceptual painters find ourselves in the art world. Where much of observational, non-narrative type painting often is viewed as being of lessor importance. Easy to get crazy in the head when you see astronomical price tags and lavish attention being paid to the top conceptual artists and the perceptual painters get the crumbs. This is an old story and not worth getting into though.

      What is important is to find positive ways of promoting good painting and to help people see how rich the possibilities are from painting from life. That painting doesn’t always have to be shocking or bad to be good. That observational painting can have just as much of an edge as any other kind of painting. Of course, there are lots of poorly made, kitchy, and fuddy-duddy painting going on, that is all too apparent online many times. The best way to counter this is to promote representational, realist, perceptual, objective, observational painting that is above all great art.

  19. Ross A Hale says:

    Perception is subjectional but the ability to acknowledge beauty is universal.

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