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  • Writer's picturesharonkingston

Finding Meaning in the Paint Itself

Earlier this week I referenced a post from SlowMuse about What Painting Is by James Elkins. I was able to pickup  a copy of the book at the library and want to share some more of his thoughts about the idea of alchemy and paint.  This topic came up in a lunch conversation with a fellow artist today and has been circling my head for a while now as I understand more and more what I don’t understand about how and why I paint. Especially now when art seems all about concept, it is refreshing to read about the mystery of the material itself and the power it has over us artists as we strive to formulate and respond to the quest to create meaning from pigments.

There was some of this magic going on this week in this painting–I was aware of the mystery but unable to comprehend the how.  The previous layers, the formulation of medium and paint, the temperature of the room, my state of mind–resulted in something beyond the physicality of the paint and surface. Some might say that I was visited by the painting fairy/muse (Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity | Video on a discussion for another day, but I believe it may have been a lucky merging of material factors.  From What Painting Is:

detail from What Waits Within Me.

There is a word, hypostasis, that describes what happens when fluids and stones seem to have inner meaning, and when numbers come alive.  Properly speaking, it is a religious concept: Jesus was the hypostatic incarnation of the Word of God into the ordinary substance of a human body, meaning that he was spirit that became flesh.  A hypostasis is a descent from an incorporeal state into ordinary matter, or in general an infusion of spirit into something inert.  It can describe the feeling that numbers have “souls and formal lives,” and it can explain the notion that two fluids, mingling in a bottle or on a canvas, are somehow expressing a state of mind.  Hypostasis is the feeling that something as dead as paint might also be deeply alive, full of thought and expressive meaning.  One moment paint is nearly nothing, an excuse for some historian to write about the influence of Florence on Siena, or the difficulties of realistic painting–and then suddenly it is also there in all its stubborn weight and thickness, clinging to the canvas, gathering dust, wrinkling with age…And when it is merely paint, it begins to speak in an uncanny way, telling us things that we cannot quite understand.  It seems to be infused with moods, with obscure thoughts, and ultimately–in the language of alchemy and religion–with soul, spirit, and “formal life.” From that moment on, it never stops speaking.  Like alchemists, painters are bound up in hypostatic contemplation: paint seems irresistibly to mean, as if the littlest dab must signify something.  It never speaks clearly because–as any sober scientist or humanist will tell you–every meaning is a projection of the viewer’s inarticulate moods.  Substances are like mirrors that let us see things about ourselves that we cannot quite understand.  And in painting there is another element in the equation, which suddenly makes the feeling of meaning tremendously interesting: the paint was laid down by an artist who also had hypostatic feelings about paint, and so it is also possible to interpret those feelings in pictures instead of just imagining them.  The most reliable way to do that–if anything this tenuous and personal can be called reliable–is to look at the marks as evidence of the motions of the painter’s body.  It is also possible for paint itself to have meaning as it works against itself, over and under itself, on the canvas.  All of this is speculative, and most of it is useless to cold art history, but it is the fertile hallucination that makes paint so compelling.  Paint is like the numerologist’s numbers, always counting but never adding up, always speaking but never saying anything rational, always playing at being abstract but never leaving the clotted body.

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