CURT BARNES WRITINGS|
Other titles: Simulacra, It's Alive, Pushmepullyou, Push-Pull, Imitation of Life
I've mentioned elsewhere something about how art has always imitated the condition of life. The subjects of cave paintings were living animals, spearthrowing men. But in more abstract terms also: its changeability, liveliness, movement, plasticity. One property of life is perceptual, and art has exploited that, too: that things change as we watch. Paintings that do that seem to be charged with lifelikeness in particular. We may call it "vitality", "energy," but that amounts to the same thing. For me it's the difference between good art and... dead art.
This can translate into visual paradoxes. One of the familiar ones I'm invested in is the paradox of self-contained vs. expansive: the art object as limited to its physical surface and the illusion that it extends beyond its borders, most literally, by forms going off the edges. My best work has it both ways, ie, can be read alternatively both ways.
Then there is the surface vs. the "behind the frame" location of a form, of all discrete forms within the perimeters of the work. I want to have it both ways, so there is an in-and-out energy, too.
Movement vs. stasis is another. This is also an old, traditional paradox.
And on it goes.
Have I said this before? I often reflect that it's beautiful moving from one idea to another, one body of work to another, in an altogether natural way, one that feels inexorable as much as the natural product of an unfettered curiosity. And then I reflect how easily this could have been distorted by external needs or pressures: to sell art, to impress a dealer, colleagues or the art world generally, to "keep up" with what's considered current. I reflect how easily this movement, transitioning from one invented idiom or language to another like a blind person inching his way along a mountain face, could be jeopardized, thrown off course, the path lost. Then I reflect that I wouldn't trade the course that I made, following a beauty outside my control, for anything-that, after all, I've done what I should have been doing all along.
With the birth of modern abstraction came the birth of pictorial space as content: an intentionally paradoxical space, a not-here, not-there space, not-the-surface, not-the-background space: shifting, polysemous, reversible, protean, seething, ectoplasmic, multivalent space. Changing, fluctuating, illusive, flat, deep, all foreground/all background, self-contradictory space. I have floated and stood and flown in it for forty years. "The culture of determined relations has begun." And we are in it still, no more engaging a preoccupation coming even close, certainly not for me. What can be more profound than an artwork that questions its own structure? And interactive? In the very act of seeing, the viewer is thrown back on his/her own perceptions. But also, alternatively, invited to accept things on a literal level: everything is surface.
The War of Art
an extroverted form that rewards introspection
strata that fight coalescence
Along with a few hundred other people in the 70s I began to feel bored with painting as something that always occurred inside a box. We branched out into other structures. Shaped canvas lost its fashionableness and others moved into sculpture or back to the rectangle, but I continued to find new expressive possibilities in what became more broadly known as constructed painting. I always kept the rectanglar references even while incorporating more sculpturally volumetric form, opposing the sculptural with linear, pictorial elements, something difficult and dangerous to do since it can bring about an optical schism. I have been surprised that otherwise iconoclastic types can have such button-down minds about compositional dicta, but I long regarded what was considered "good" composition as a challenge and a dare.
...To destabilize the space of painting recently I have found it necessary not only to work on convex curves but to be willing to bend the picture plane itself, that entity without which there can be no experience of painting at all. This has created a new sense of indeterminacy which I find revitalizing and exciting. And very dangerous--for many of my attempts to control such a bending have failed one way or another. But when it succeeds--and it has--I have discovered a vitality found nowhere else.
Why a curved surface?
A means of making the painting surface intrusive, physical, sensuous. And for me, sensual. Images tend to flatten out the curvature, setting up an opposition with it. When the eye focuses on the imagery, one is left to sense the dimension, knowing it's there without, for the moment, seeing it. Also, the curvature alters the imagery as the spectator moves with respect to the painting. And note that the curves are usually asymmetrical. This makes the physicality more dynamic and allows the imagery itself to conform to, or oppose, the particular asymmetricality.
With a curved surface it all becomes a new ball game, with new rules. Ron Gorchov, George Perle and others have worked with similar contours but have hardly exhausted the expressive or formal potential, I think. With a curved surface, the picture plane can detatch itself completely, or in less technical terms, the painting space can become quite muscular, the images advancing and receding and holding the surface simultaneously, or alternately as one watches. It's a very problematic space but one I enjoy trying to harness.
The shaped canvas of the 70s reinforced the contradictions between the physicality of painting and its inherent illusionism. My curvatures intensify this physicality while making more significant than usual, and more arbitrary, the stance of the viewer. The metallic surfaces work both ways, emphasizing the curvature and partially denying its clear solidity. Many of the marks and shapes also work both ways, being both matter-of-fact and illusive. Within the simplicity inherent in my self-contained, static objects, everything can shift.
In my own work, part, if not most, of the import of using a curved surface to paint on is that I have increased significantly the indeterminacy of the viewing process. Not only do the stock-in-trade of abstraction's figure/ground ambiguities become that much more ambiguous on a curved surface, but the very distance one stands from the curvature becomes a factor. A distance of six feet provides a markedly difference experience of the pictorial space of the painting than one of, say, fifteen feet. Finally there is no distance from the painting that can be safely thought "optimal." This isn't the case with a planar painting, or even an assemblage-style painting a la Stella. So here is an inert wall object, plainly painted, with no clear indication as to how it may be definitively addressed.
I am always interested in creating more than a mere two levels, in creating a mere physical/pictorial split. I am not a dualist in any sense and am content only if my art suggests that the universe can be divided into any number of mutually exclusive categories. I triangulate, demonstrating a minimum of three such perceptual categories.
Thus, the physical curvature is one level, the graphite capsule shapes another, and the painted spaces still another. There is the challenge to enfold them within one perception but also a defiant anticoalescence--the fact that they resist coalescence and want to be seen separately.
There are a number of contradictions at work: the physical curvature asserts itself, the lines flatten out the curvature, the painted forms want to create a fictional space. It is important that each of these levels be complete within itself.
A curving surface changes painting dynamics, so that even conventional figure-ground relations take on new possibilities. Like others I am inspired by the contradictions of two-and three-dimensionality, near and far, continuity and disjuncture, logic and mystery.
I am always searching for new visual structures. For art to exist, it has to reinvent itself. This means new forms, new structures. In painting new structures means new spaces.
A new space might be located in a figurative work. I haven't seen this in years, however. Abstraction--a non-referential format--still seems to be the most likely context.
Everthing I have is expressed through the experience of the painting space.
After the 70s the experience of art became exquisitely self-conscious. The processes of making and, more profoundly, of seeing, became part of the subject matter, and looking at the art that encompassed this expansion became deliberately, immensely, deliciously complicated. In the best work consciousness itself has become the playing field. Hence my interest not in "the painting space" per se but "the experience" of it. Time can be choreographed in these inert objects through a concatenation of conscious realizations.
So my idiom may be familiar, if not hackneyed-"hard-edge," "shaped," etc.-but the intelligence in their ordering is in accordance with a more recent, and developing, consciousness. I favor a viewer's interiorized experience that not only calibrates his/her own reaction to the forms but observes, and reacts to, the calibrations themselves.
All of this is tedious to explain. Happily in a work of art it can be a source of delight, rather than tedium, to experience.
There are two defensible ways to write about art. One is poetically; the other is tediously. I am no poet.
It is amazing to me how a geometric work of art can have so much personality.
It is amazing how mathematics can be so eccentric.
Gyorgy Ligeti is a composer. Itzak Perlman is a performer. Most painters today are performers. We say "well done," rather than "original" or "ground-breaking." I try to go beyond the tried-and-true conventions. This satisfies few people, neither the formalists who like their traditional aesthetics reaffirmed rather than questioned, nor of course the rest, who think painting is dead anyway, or a branch of cartooning. "Deprived of the esteem of the serious and the love of the frivolous, the two main pillars of opinion," said Machado de Assis.
It is amazing how people who should know better tend to be open toward conceptual or installation art but rather straight-laced when it comes to abstract painting. Perhaps recent painting "in the abstract tradition" has provided little in the way of real challenge and thus is perceived as a performance art, rather like playing Chopin. We all know the melodies--all that remains is to judge the interpretation. But I think abstraction is an open, vital form--the most open, as it is based on perception, not ideation. The only limitation is our perceptual prowess. If that can increase, so can the perimeters of abstraction, of pictorial structure, of our ability to relate shapes and forms and contain diverse elements within one visual construct.
I propose new constructs, new interrelationships, dangerous, "wrong" compositional juxtapositions that I submit as "right." And moreover an orchestration, over time, of perceptual discoveries that is the true structure, and life, of the work.
...But I chanced one day to look at my work in light of some critic's use of a term like "visual athletics" or "optical gymnastics." Then it occurred that [my family's] athletic genes may not have bypassed me at all: my work, in its weights and counterweights, its implied movements and dynamics, was as athletic as a fixed, predominantly planar art form can be made to be. And like an athlete, I was constantly striving to go beyond recorded achievement. It was what inclined me to go beyond the rectangle, but not so far as to make sculptural objects. I needed the reference to the rectangle, which functioned the same way gravity might in a dancer; wire hoists would accomodate longer flights across the stage, but the defiance of gravity provided its own tensions and thrills. One needs to feel the tension to experience the thrills.
Within the rationalizing confines of the human mind, the state of the universe is best communicated through contradiction. Hence work of manicured chaos, elegant funk, an appearance of precision and self-containment that expands to indeterminacy.
Painting's relevance is not as spectacle but symbol. Its metaphoric power is only for the self-aware. "No secret can be told to one who divined it not before." -Poincaré
Photographing my work