Notes Toward a
Conversation on Painting
A critical question for many artists today is whether their work can make any difference in the world. Can art play a role in the profound political struggles of our time? Certainly, there are a variety of ways in which art and politics are intertwined. Many artists represent political subjects and use their skills as image-makers to direct viewers’ opinions and actions in one direction or another. Other artists seek to engage the political and economic status quo through the form or context of their work, for example by avoiding commercial galleries or the production of commodifiable objects. Recently, new forms of artistic practice have emerged that blur the boundary between art and politics by using social organization itself as a medium for new artistic creation. Called Social Practice or Relational Art, works of this kind often seek to explore or demonstrate alternative political realities within the permissive framework of the artistic sphere. One example is the collective Red76’s recent Revolutionary Spirit project, which fostered conversations across the US on the topic of revolution. Others, like the culture-jamming duo The Yes Men, raise the stakes by inserting their imaginary pronouncements into the very maw of the mass media.
But not all intersections between art and politics are in the hands of artists themselves. During the Cold War, for example, the US State Department co-opted the Abstract Expressionist movement for political aims. The Abstract Expressionist example is particularly interesting because it is generally assumed that if such work has political characteristics it is because of how it is used symbolically (i.e., to represent the artist’s “free” creative act) rather than how it performs in the viewer’s experience. In other words, the aesthetic of abstraction itself was not considered to be politically instrumental. Meanwhile, Clement Greenberg’s politically inflected defense of abstract painting in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939) argued that genuine Socialism needed abstract painting to preserve culture for those to come. So, even here, abstract painting is understood to be politically effective in the viewer’s experience—that is, as a handmaiden to a deferred Socialist apotheosis—only in contrast to other cultural forms (e.g., kitsch).
Painters today face an especially difficult challenge in assessing the potential political relevance of their work. Not only do they—like many artists working in other media—often feel trapped in the vortex of commodification, which has demonstrated the capacity to absorb even the most contestatory imagery, but their very medium has come to be viewed as a marker of old-fashioned, bourgeois status. Does the politically concerned painter—even one with overtly political imagery—have any choice today but to select a different medium or definitively to separate his or her political and artistic aims? Or is there even now a political opportunity available to painters—even to those working in an abstract vein?
The French philosopher Jacques Rancière argues in The Politics of Aesthetics (2004) that: The dream of a suitable political work of art is in fact the dream of disrupting the relationship between the visible, the sayable, and the thinkable without having to use the terms of a message as a vehicle. It is the dream of an art that would transmit meanings in the form of a rupture with the very logic of meaningful situations. As a matter of fact, political art cannot work in the simple form of a meaningful spectacle that would lead to an “awareness” of the state of the world.
I would like to offer some preliminary thoughts on how the prescription Rancière offers might apply to the work of the contemporary abstract painter, Suzan Frecon, an artist who seemingly strives to keep politics at bay in her work, despite being highly politicized, even radicalized in other spheres of her life. While she uses mass emailings to generate awareness of pressing matters concerning the environment and social justice, Frecon’s artistic practice is engaged with what appears to be purely formal concerns. Her paintings have no overt message and she is notably reluctant to say much about her work. It would be easy to set her often monochrome abstractions aside in any discussion of the political in art; yet, I resist doing so. Is it the extremity of her position that hints at a latent polemicism? Or, perhaps is it my own desire to reconcile an attraction to her work with my own feelings of political obligation? In any case, I would like to look more closely at her paintings—leaning heavily on the aesthetic theory of Rancière—to see what form of politics, if any, there might be.
Frecon’s practice is divided between diminutive watercolours consisting of simple brushstrokes or areas of colour and oil paintings that conform to harmonious—often architectural—geometries. In both genres, her primary investigation is of the infinite subtleties and nuances of colour. Her paintings in both modes delicately balance matter and ephemerality. On the one hand, she is profoundly engaged with the materials of her work and attends to the qualities of her supports and surfaces, pigments, and media with unparalleled care. Yet, even as she gains maximum understanding and control of the tools of her practice, aspects of randomness and chance intercede: the paper warps, the pigment pools, light shifts, and an image becomes obscured by a gleam.
Frecon’s reddish violet area (2004) exemplifies the arresting simplicity of her approach. A small sheet of old agate-burnished Indian ledger paper remains largely untouched. The lower right area has been painted with transparent watercolour, reddish violet in tone, as the title suggests. The paint is thicker in some places than others—apparently more the result of pigments coalescing in the pooling liquid than from intentional mark making. In the thinner passages we can clearly see through to the paper ground and note the rigid, vertical lines that remain from the process of the paper’s manufacture. In the unpainted area, various marks and stains suggest the acceptance of accident and found incident. The form of the painted area is only slightly more identifiably “artistic” than the unpainted area. It is roughly rectangular, but curves slightly at the top while on the upper left it hollows into a concave detail that momentarily and tantalizingly switches the figure-ground relationship. The blank paper seems to overlay the paint, almost like a hinge. With its wrinkles, holes, and marks, the exposed paper is indeed a hinge between the artist’s composition and the space and material of non-art that surrounds it, the frame, the wall, the room, the world. Plain as it is, this hollow/hinge at the upper left of the reddish violet area nevertheless possesses, with its modest little hook and curve, a tender element of lyrical décor. There is in this deceptively simple work, a remarkable interplay between intention and accident, visibility and invisibility, matter and ornament.
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About the Author
Lawrence Rinder is Director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. He is Dean of Graduate Studies at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.