LG What does “significant form” mean to you in painting. How far are you willing to edit nature to get this form or structure in your painting.
SS I remember conversations during the early years out of school, with my friend and teacher Seymour Remenick, about the idea that subject matter was not the same as content. Around school, in several ideological camps, there was a sense that what one painted was important. For instance, going down to South Philly and painting the oil refineries was hip and relevant, as opposed to doing a still life which was considered to be kind of old fashioned. I believed this stuff. I remember there was even someone I knew who did paintings of white dogs biting black dogs, or was it the other way around, black dogs biting white dogs? As if that somehow made it important. You get it – hint, hint – racial issues. And I remember someone else told me that if you put black people in your paintings it would carry more weight than say if you paint suburban houses. Ok, all these matters of race and meaning are weighty ones and sociology is a deep discipline, but the painter swims in very different waters.
Subject matter, or the “what is it” part of what an image is, on many levels really doesn’t matter, it’s the excuse for something else, the smearing around of pigment. Or let’s say, it’s not the primary motivation. The basements of Italian museums are filled with Flagellations of Christ but why do we pull our hair out with such pleasure in front of ones by Piero and Fra Angelico? Not because of the story, because all those guys are doing the same story; it is because of how they have told the story, in form. I’ve seen students cry in front of Piero and Giotto, students who have no idea what the “story” is that’s being told. So there must be another story right? And that is the narrative of form, how the picture is built abstractly. Not what is it, but how is it? Where are the lights and where are the darks, what color are they and what shape are they and, what are the edges like? And of course this implies, how do they all fit together, what is the formal unity in which all the parts contribute to? And from all that, emotion, impact and ultimately meaning, all flow.
When we work either outside or inside, there is no obligation to what we see in terms of how much to edit or not to edit. That depends on what we want from or want to do in the painting. Nature is overabundant, simply too much information, way, way, way too much. And as Whistler said to his students, “Paint what you see and wait until you see what you paint.” Meaning, that it is not simply a matter of painting what we see because we indiscriminately see too much and the more we look the more we see and it all gets piled on top of itself as an incoherent disordered collection of observations. This is the fallacy and pitfall of the idea of realism. Was Giotto a realist, or was Piero a realist or how about Praxiteles or Pisano? Even someone like Canaletto, who paintings are full of lots of information, didn’t paint what he saw in terms of copying – he organized, composed, and rearranged, like a kind of conceptual Photoshop. We use nature as we need to and that means, we leave out a lot, we suppress, accentuate, modify, re tune, magnify, etc, we are after all, making a painting and not pasting down the actual nature itself.
To simply accept everything “out there” is like a visual terror unleashed on our minds by misuse of camera mentality and by the application of certain kinds of post enlightenment scientific measuring principles – and now, by the regimens of the reactionary ateliers that perceive modernism as somehow the destruction of painting, all this has left us really confused. (Don’t get me started.) Our job as painters is to dream ourselves away from the idea of representation as a stale inventory list, leave that to people who work in banks and actuarial offices. We want to be unreal, to be artificial, synthetic, to make an imaginary invention built around consciously composed structure, rooted in various ways to what is seen but also about stimulating feeling, mood and desire. I am drawn to a painting not because of the accuracy of the information retrieval system or because it looks like something polite from 300 years ago, but because of how it knocks me off my ass by way of the passion of it’s appeal. And for me, that is only by way of form, not through nostalgic or sentimental story telling. I love the early work of Jacob Lawrence, the Migration Series and of course he is telling a story, as Piero was telling a story, but it’s the graphic impact of those paintings that rivets our eyes, and that is his genius as a storyteller. Lots of other people told that story with words, but his strength is the image as an inventive composer.