October 6 - November 27, 1983
Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
Catalogue Essay, Ian Wallace
1. Painting in Spite of Art
The generation of the 80’s has returned painting to its historic position as the primadonna of western art. But the former grace that marked its place in the pantheon of high art is no longer there. Now entirely new conditions are at work that affect the ideal that motivates the painter and the expectations of the audience.
Painting had always been a heroic mode. This attracted artists who held to the ideal of high art and the privileged place that painting had in it. But the aristocratic culture that underwrote that heroic tradition had withdrawn under the democratizing power of modernism and its effort to diminish the rhetoric of high art. The trace of the rhetoric remains unbroken, as a substrata of authenticity which assumes its place within the general ideal of art.
But in order to attain the trace of this authenticity, the painter also had to overcome the negation and critique of that ideal perpetrated by the enormously influential avantgarde of minimal and conceptual art in the 60’s and 70’s. The critical dimension demanded of artists during this period could barely be accomplished in the self-reflexive language of late-modernist abstraction. The dialectics of critical art demanded a language that responded to history, politics and strategy. This is most effective in art that mobilizes the politics of representation by appropriating the language and media of publicity; namely print, photography and video. But all of this seemed so remote from the exclusive and contemplative space of the primed canvas, the primal field of inspiration.
Unless the artist was totally isolated from the furor of the street, the concentration necessary for the purity of painting was absent. Younger artists, looking for the instinct that would lead them to the painting that needed to be made, found themselves standing in front of the exclusive rectangle of a debased and an irrelevant tradition. Desiring freedom from the rules of thought promised to them by the rhetoric of modernism, yet haunted by the moral imperative of the critical avantgarde that had already put painting and its ideals on trial, these artists at first sought a position that would accommodate both antagonisms.
How could that exclusiveness of painting be justified in a world that called for a mess to be made of history, for a revolt against all the exhausted values of culture? Some turned their attention towards the content of this disaffection, hoping that what might stand as quality in all its exclusive understandings, would also reach an accord with the aspirations of a changed world. Painting under these conditions could no longer be taken for granted; it no longer had any exclusive perogatives that would automatically overrule art as the primadonna of the ideal museum. Painting could only exist in spite of art.
In the mid-70’s, during the interregnum between the dominance of the critical avantgarde and the recuperation of painting, these artists found their place of retreat in the debased and devalued territory of painting itself. They occupied it as a readymade territory prepared by history, but broken from its tradition and thus available for a free rearrangement of its parts. The terrain vague of painting, mapped by all the archaic signifiers of aesthetic production; the rectangular frame, the trace of the brush, the assembly of the glutinous mass of paint into an ideal phantasm of the image, now could be converted into the imaginary of an ahistorical culture, that contemporary idealization of a pure present.
The symbolic refusals and interventions of the historical avantgarde were appropriated by the new painting to an intentionally dislocated and ahistorical culture of the vernacular. They now represent neither the refusal nor any critique of reality. That reality, replete with all the media of consumer culture, is now a dislocated complex of free-floating signifiers, where meanings can be exchanged at will. They are logos that float in the space of cultural desire, wandering until they attach themselves to the bodies of discourse that will guarantee the meaning that they lack.
By the late 60’s, the self-justifying aesthetics of modernist painting, having discovered within itself its logical nemesis in the social critique of conceptual art, thus prepared its own demise as an exclusive art. Having become obsolete within the enclosed history of high art, it was appropriated by popular culture to entirely different ends. All the codes of modern art, those of abstraction as well as surrealism now became part of the vernacular language of popular culture.
The transgressions of Picasso, formerly appraised in terms of a modernist evolution of formal values, now appears as a travesty of high art collapsed into a culture of barbarism. This burlesque of the avantgarde has valorized the transposition on all the signifiers of modernism into the general culture and made them accessible to the new generation of painters. Painting, in this reassignment of its values from an aristocratic to a mass culture had also to reconstitute its ideal. The adventure of the most recent generation of painters who have emerged from the academies of modernism has been to somehow reinterpret the ideal of the modernist avantgarde into the new terms and the new demands of vernacular culture.
But painting offers something more than a home for lost thoughts. It underwrites the debased culture of media with the authenticity of touch in all its materiality as well as mystique. The touch of the hand of the artist within the space of the imaginary, onto the object of desire, translates into the desire of the general will. This search for the mystique of authenticity has found in painting the relic of a heroism that rises above the dross of the everyday, on the wings of history and the adulation of the distracted crowd. It idealizes that desire for a transcendental selfhood that rises behind each mark of representation. The inscription of the mark forms a landing site for a subjectivity that seeks its body, its reconstitution within the impure space of the canvas.
2. David MacWilliam
David MacWilliam began painting when he was a student at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1975-76. In the early 70’s he was a serials bindery clerk at the University of Victoria Library and had the chance to read a number of art magazines on the job. Thus he was exposed to reproductions and articles on Duchamp and conceptual art that were featured in both the American and continental journals in the early 70’s. He was attracted to NSCAD by the presence of the NSCAD Press, which under Kaspar Koenig had produced books on Michael Snow, Claes Oldenburg, Steve Reich and Simon Forti, as well as print editions by a number of influential conceptual artists. But by the time he got to Halifax, Kaspar Koenig, who had built up the Press to the influential position that it had in disseminating the attitudes and activities of the college, had left Halifax for New York. David MacWilliam thus took up the job, along with his studies, of handling some of the press business, including managing sales of what was already published.
Beginning in the late 60’s, NSCAD had a faculty that included important conceptual artists who gave it an international reputation as an avantgarde institution. But by 1975, this first wave of NSCAD activity was already over. Just as the faculty that had attracted the attention in the first place had gone elsewhere, the first group of students attracted to this activity had just begun to arrive. They were looking for action.
But again, already by 1975, the initial intellectual force of conceptual art was exhausted. Only a few who understood and felt the power of its ability to form a critique of the given culture were able to bring fresh ideas to this attitude. But others were more disaffected and felt the intellectual rigor of conceptual propositions either too limiting or too rigorous to pursue fruitfully.
But 1975 was also a low point for painting. It was washed over by the first wave of conceptual art and media-oriented art of the late 60’s and early 70’s. There was a struggle to believe in it, but the question was how to convince everyone else it was worthwhile. Nevertheless, the younger artists at NSCAD, including David MacWilliam, had come to feel that they could not go much further with conceptual art and they began looking at painting as an empty spot to occupy. David MacWilliam at this time had already tried some video work as well as painted objects and small painted sculptures. Some of these pieces resembled propellor shapes, introducing a theme of flight and the floating or suspended object that appears soon after in his earliest paintings.
When David MacWilliam turned to painting it was at first in a very modest and hesitant way. He made little pictures that could perhaps be felt to be personal insofar as they were so specific that they had a singular identity of their own. Yet at the same time they were painted with such a determined and thoughtful and carefully prosaic sense of touch, that one could be just as impressed by their ‘objective’ look. They had the look of a flat declaration of fact, as though they might be a template for a part of some useful object or an architectonic model. These painted shapes tended to float in the approximate center of a single field of colour. They had an ambiguity that hinted at an air of secrecy, yet they also suggested the diagrammatical instructions in a model airplane kit. In fact some of these pictures were painted with the enamels that were used for model airplanes.
Confused perspective and inert purposeless objects appearing in these first paintings were an expression of the cul-de-sac of content, the stasis of painting, that came into conflict with the persistence of MacWilliam’s pursuit. The willful, perhaps even ingenuous modesty and awkwardness of these early works made them very hard to take seriously. There was a feeling that this work would be unpopular, but he felt that he was ‘onto something’. Despite the complete lack of attention given to this work, he persisted in a consistent and determined way. It had to be felt to be a way out of the norm.
These works were generally small and painted on paper, giving them a fragility and a ‘worthless’ look that belies the seriousness of their intent. He felt consideration would seem unexpected coming from someone whose background might loosely be called conceptual art. Nevertheless, there was a strategic outlook here that was learned from conceptual art. That is, how to come across the right way of doing things, how to open a path for yourself by taking the wrong path.
The recovery of the potential of painting could only be the result of unpredictable results, a movement in the dark, a resistance to the expected. The work could only infer the potentiality of meaning, but could not articulate an intellectual or reduced finality. This situation, of course, is exactly that of the demands on art as a whole. And the condition of artistic choice is both a symptom and an alibi for the condition of culture as a whole.
The apparent serenity of the eccentric shapes of MacWilliam’s painting hovers in an atmosphere of crisis and are charged with expectation. The modesty and ambiguity of his paintings acts as a decoy for the language of crisis. The slackness of line is full of the tension of a protracted decision whose ends are scarcely within sight before they bend out around the corner again. Staying within the line, brushing carefully but with an intensity that could almost be intellectual, each shift in the logic of perspective takes on the movement of potentiality that overcomes the inertness of the centrifugal configuration that stands for a supposed meaning. Painting about control, painting up to the line to define the shape that gives the identity to these untitled paintings is really about building something that might be about to fall apart.
Thus, in the work of David MacWilliam, whose desire to paint over-rules its theoretical impossibility, a comedy of meaning forms shapes of resistance and potentiality in the insufficient space of the canvas. Serenity and crisis are the axis of its content. Its subjectivity disguises itself in shapes that are traps that refuse the effortless absorption of the self into the other. The certitude that forms each of his paintings is not one that assumes a pompous heroism by which the academies can rally to the cause. Instead it affects all the looks of taboo, of botched and debased artistic traditions. This conspicuous cultivation of decrepitude infers all the melancholy of loss and the energetic release of inspiration free of authority. But his work also has a history. It is not so much an attempt to create paintings as such, but just to answer the challenge to make art at all. And to do this he has to take up the challenge of painting, painting that is both undesirable and impossible. He has answered it in shapes that hang in the place of painting.
3. The Shape That Hangs in the Place of Painting
Obeying only the law of the image, these shapes float senselessly in the quadrangle of the canvas. Wings, towers, fluted bridges and cones all suggest some universal that we can tentatively identify. They form no rational relationship to the rectangle of the painting that contains their suggestibility, yet it is the quadrangle of the canvas that itself is the over-determining universal. It is the remote space of the canvas and the pure history of the quadrangular frame that passes its legitimacy to the interloping subject, that of the shape that overcomes this primary identity.
Seeming to fulfill our expectation of consistency, these shapes in fact are wandering structures that rotate within themselves in the logic of the accumulation of every stroke that counts as painting. They fill space by shrinking from the frame, seeking the logic of form-giving light. But in the end they are satisfied only by the logic of the mental light of their imaginary configuration, which forms the manifest subject, a decoy which leads us away from the strategy of its meager existence, that is, to occupy space as painting.
The shape of the empty vessel, spinning inertly in the whirling configuration of brushstrokes that accumulate the energy of its own predetermination, recalls the empty vessel of painting, the fluted tower of a former heroic enterprise tilted slightly to reveal its vacuity. The bag that hangs in space, the cornucopia, no longer offering its plentitude, bulges from the strength of its own shape, not from the fullness but from the force of its propulsion, the momentum of the illustrious but exhausted history of painting.
Thus the shape that hangs in the place of painting, its independent form resisting the law of the quadrangle, is the sign that emits its inert potentiality as an occupation of the idea of meaning. But it also resists the decipherment that would relinquish its autonomy to the invasion of the beholder. Self-sufficiency is its ideal state. That it be known but never understood. That the rich and perverse modulations of colour allow them to appear anywhere, anytime, and are guaranteed to refute any accord with their surroundings. Yet if this possible and tentative reading of a symbolist ambiguity be offered here, we will never know it except in its insistence as art. That is enough. And perhaps that is all that is possible at the moment.
Nevertheless, this work suggests another potentiality which might pull all the empty hearts of an aspiring culturatii who wish to retrieve the grand manner of the ultimate art without ever having known what it might have been, fearing the possible sham of it, yet seduced by the hint of its ideal reality, the truth of art.
Suspended as a decoy of truth, it cannot reveal truth even if it might be known, for its negativity would collapse all inversions of that diminishing perspective, and return all such idealizations back to life itself.