Rough Trade – Thick

We’ve discussed Style Vs. Brand, and the beginning of Postmodern culture at the turning point of 19 Sixty. We’ve seen how it started, where we were going and where we are. Now we’ll take a very detailed look at where we can go. But before I begin, I want to make it clear that I am a painter first and foremost and that is where my focus will be. I came to painting late, though I drew endlessly from the time I could pick up a pencil. When I finally found painting and realized that I could actually do it – suddenly everything made sense in my life. In other words I fell in love. And I still feel that passion. I realize that this sounds romantic and maybe a bit juvenile, but it is my truth. Now as I’ve said in other posts I began to realize that I didn’t fit in with the Postmodern world I had been taught to venerate. I tried, I really did. I wanted all the things I saw other artists achieving – both artistically and materially. But there was a moment when that all changed, and it was hard letting it go. I had to relearn everything and begin again with my own thoughts. All of which can be frightening. I found that I had worked myself out of the system. So where does one go? These posts will be about the things that I see and the solutions I believe address the problems that I face in the Art World of my studio. They may not resonate with you, but that’s OK. That’s what art is. If you like come along and I’ll try to be as open about this as I possibly can be, and I promise, that I shall tell and show only that truth. SO with that disclaimer I shall begin…

Caravaggio Detail Martyrdom of St. MatthewCaravaggio’s screaming boy was painted in the early days of the 17th Century. It is an apt metaphor for our current moment, and as we end the first decade of this century, this face looks extremely contemporary. In Caravaggio’s painting this boy is a witness to a vicious murder, and it is the visual idea of the inevitable outcome of that violence that twists his face. He sounds the alarm that this horror is happening, and he registers the fear and alarm at what is happening before his eyes. It is a silent scream lost in the thick black painted darkness that engulfs the entire painting, and yet we hear it ringing out in our minds. At the back of the painting you can see Caravaggio forcing himself in as if he’s heard the scream. He tilts into the scene to see what’s going on. It allows the context of the painting to exist in a deeper dimension. One that starts with sound and ends in vision. But in many ways we live in an opposite universe – we move from sight to sound bypassing vision, in fact we are overcome by the aural. But in these faces that Caravaggio painted so long ago are the beginnings of our thoughts for this moment. In the studio – what does it mean to paint as the world of vision collapses around us? What does it mean to witness, to see and to think with one’s eyes, when the world no longer cares about such concepts?

Now at this moment there is so much plurality in the Art World that at any time one can find contemporary artists making art from any era, some of it updated, some of it exactly as it would have looked in its day. This is because art is now a discipline like any other, a profession. There is something for everyone made by and for the institutional world. But we won’t be following that road. It is well traveled and filled with conservatism – old values that have nothing to do with our situation. So let’s start here – after we have left the road and say straight away that THERE IS NO GOING BACK. Yes, we can enjoy the history, we can indulge in its delights, we can build on its strengths and expand its wisdoms, but we MUST NOT expect it to carry us through THIS DAY. We also can not succumb to the joys and frivolities of Postmodern critique. It can not move us ahead because it is joined in a dance of aesthetic death with its own cleverness. We’ve watched it over the last few years, drunk with its own power, succumb to nostalgia and narcissism. And finally, we can not and must not expect that technology will deliver us from our Conundrum. It is just another tool to be used, a plaything that will whither in the light of a new upgrade or handheld. But if we do not question the ideas that created those tools we remain in thrall to them. I understand that electronic technology is wonderful and full of potential for delivering ideas and visions, but what we REALLY need to discuss are the IDEAS and VISIONS we display on those tools. And that’s true whether it’s on an ipod or an upload to the microchip in our heads. What we have to remember and practice as a mantra is this – NEO is NOT NEW.

Michelangelo Damned ManWhen I’m at work in my studio, whether I’m painting or thinking, there are a thousand voices and visions that bicker and converse. They pull me this way or that, they natter, they play or they lead. But at a certain point I have to tell them to shut it and let me get on with my work. I’m sure it’s the same for you as well. Making a painting is not so much about “painting,” but allowing the visual truth to emerge. And by truth I mean what is real FOR the artist. And I concede that Truth may be a subjective experience, but we experience it objectively, which sounds like a strange thing. For instance I see truth in Caravaggio, and I see it in Picasso – neither of them is from the same world and neither expressed it in the same way. Truth will out. But for us it’s time to realize that truth has nothing to do with using other visions. Even when one is conversing with a Master or one’s rival one must stand on one’s own feet rather than in someone else’s shoes. In the end it is about YOU. The vision you’ve created attests to your strength, your vision. And it is this strength which makes an original.


A while ago I gave a painting to a friend and he said to me, “The Greats always give it all away.” I didn’t understand at the time, but he was right. The thing that sneaks into the back of one’s mind in Michele’s Sistine is that the vision is his whole life, both sublime and venal. High and low converge in the scenes and figures blurring boundaries of taste and acceptance. Even at its most Mannered he’d throw in a moment of pure visual brilliance and malice – the flayed skin for one, and the look of resignation, horror and understanding in the face of the man on the left. Michele may have been the King Of Mannerism, but he didn’t always play by its rules. He gave it all away – and after he had – all that was left was that sorry, ridiculous bag of skin. He was emptied out with a vision of Heaven and Hell, and in turn, he leaves us emptied out. We walk into that vision and we’re alive in his world – the rippling muscles, the theatrical faces, the COLOUR, the drawing, the light, the dark and the idea that this man, this hellion, could leave this vision behind so that we might delight in its endless visual play. What came after were the schools, the copycats, the academics, the hangers-on and the occasional brilliant students – they were the ones that made Michele rich and famous. But then another Michele appeared with a new vision – darker, blacker, harder, more earth-bound. We don’t get the sack of skin, but instead, we get the moment of the flaying, we get the screaming face. We get the rawness in contrast to the refinement, and yet, those juicy surfaces, that wondrous reality, those smoothed strokes and that luminous colour – and again the flesh, the reality of life is there. A different idea, but the same truth. I’m not talking about other art here. I don’t particularly care for the endless referencing of the past that has created this plastic appearance of art. What I’m talking about is life – the real story of one’s truth. And the only way to get to that is by emptying oneself of everything.

But it has to start somewhere. For painters it begins with seeing. And we will be discussing this at length in another post. But for now, let’s just say that we need a new understanding of visual communication. It isn’t enough to stay on the surface of things, to determine one’s attitude to other art or to strike a critical stance when approaching paintings. As we’ve said earlier – “It is not the “fresh air…around the painting” that we need to be looking at. We’ve had fresh air around painting for FAR TOO LONG. We need fecund, thick air in the painting itself. We need to be panting, gasping for air, in front of the painting.” And it’s here that we get to the thickness of things. It’s like when one holds a thing in one’s hand – it has heft and weight, volume and form. It has temperature and texture, it asserts its existence. These are exactly the same things that happen when we look at things without the critical play, when we look at things straight away and it should happen when we look at art. We should see the Thickness of things and by seeing it, we should feel it. Picasso was famous for his belief that his eyes could possess whatever he was looking at, and apparently he convinced a whole lot of folks that this was true. But that idea of visual possession is something we should look at today. We should see our way to thickness, to visually holding on to our existence, because as we’ve seen, we’re becoming lighter and lighter in the glare of the POMO sun. Emptying out is not the same as disappearing. For painters and for artists of all stripe – Thick is what we need.

So we begin with Rough Trade.
Stay tuned…

4 thoughts on “Rough Trade – Thick

  1. “In the studio – what does it mean to paint as the world of vision collapses around us? What does it mean to witness, to see and to think with one’s eyes, when the world no longer cares about such concepts?”

    I really like your solution of embracing/(demanding?) experiential “thickness”. Great essay.

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