© 2023 Essays written by Patrick Bryson and Gisli Bergmann
...Perhaps, A Narrative of Possibilities
The theme of the show Terrace @ Pictorem from, 5-28 October 2023, concerns thoughts on narration in relation to art, from abstraction to figuration, and artists are invited to consider how their work relates in the broadest sense to the terms ‘narrator’, ‘narration’ and ‘narrative’.
These essays consider narrative in a much broader sense than normal definitions imply. This show continues the themes and dialogue explored in the 2 previous shows – Terrace @ Karya 1 & 2, titled respectively There are no things only Relationships… and The Morality of Attention. Original text relating to those shows can be found here: https://www.patrickbryson.co.uk/about-7-1
The previous themes have bearing on the considerations explored in the following essays.
The first essay lays out a brief narrative overview of art history, to create context for exploring where we are today and then presents an interesting perspective on how to consider the purpose of painting, with the potential for new narratives.
This view of art history is highly selective and cannot include everything but is done to highlight how narrative (and narratives) have changed and adapted over time. The emphasis of the essay is to open up the subject of narrative, for conversation, and to view this from within the interiority of our experience rather than from a theoretical position, with the accompanying sense of detachment and certainty.
The second essay is a creative, subjective reflection on the same themes.
We are conscious beings... We occupy and travel through spaces. We exist in and experience the passing of time. Our brains – sophisticated, pattern-detecting, meaning-making devices that they are – love a good story, fact or fiction. We are wired to interpret our very existence as such – to construct a familiar narrative for ourselves based on external and internal stimuli. We may think we are objectively recording the passing of time and experience but our recorded narrative, taken from real events, also includes various contradictory, conflicting, unknown and misunderstood threads.
Science and Subjectivity
Science, for instance, tells us the human eye can detect up to 10 million colours… we are designed to notice minute changes and variations. Yet Joseph Albers observed that there is no single collective perception of colour 1 (we all see differently), and colours are realized in different ways through their interaction with each other and our eye.
Amy Sillman’s favourite text book on colour is Albers Interaction of Colour – as she states because it demonstrates that colour is not absolute, but is relational, dependent on the beholder…2
We record our experience of change, to make meaning, and we create stories about ourselves, events and others. We record this stream as memory and we embellish, we create, we forget. We erase and we re-member. We meet and share our stories and want to know and share what has happened or is happening to others and the world.
Often when we might experience chaos or confusion, we may attempt to find or impose order. From an early age we build up beliefs and preferences based on the passing and recording of our changing experiences and then these impressions create a filter or lens when we look outwards at the world or inwards to ourselves in every moment.
Some experiences or events we consciously and/or unconsciously reject and deny, creating all kinds of biases and potent attractors for our attention. Our experience as a result is populated by many factors as well as truth, including false narratives, ambiguity, imperfections, and doubt, and artists often wrestle with these ingredients through their work.
In normative Western narrative3, a causal or linear arrangement in time is constructed with the assumption there is an objective spectator outside the frame. But life is lived and apprehended not from an external distanced viewpoint but lived from within, as a kind of gestalt - an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts.
It is more accurate to say that the present moment and the collective past are embedded in each other, and in the perceiving self, in a simultaneous space-time frame. This would be a different consideration of narrative – from within the story rather than removed or externalised.
Many of our shared stories underpin social agreement. Ethics and morals are constructed and structure our communities. Stories and histories were told and sung, long before the invention of print and writing. Some were sacred, some were secret, and some were sagas, which communities depended on for cohesion. Children thrive on stories and reading, and storytelling promotes brain development, imagination, language and learning. Reading and storytelling also strengthens relationships.
However, reason, accuracy and truth are examples of deep stories that are now cracking under the assault of time and the scrutiny of new truths.
Post-Modernism4, (a term regarded as vague and meaningless by some critics) is largely understood as a means to describe the reaction against intellectual assumptions and values of the modern period in the history of Western philosophy (roughly, the 17th through the 19th century). Indeed, many of the doctrines characteristically associated with postmodernism can fairly be described as the straightforward denial of general philosophical viewpoints that were taken for granted during the 18th-century Enlightenment, though they were not unique to that period.
The reasons why 20th century artists abandoned narrative and started to adopt an adversarial stance derives from the first Western avant-garde, whose members were raised in cultures which officially regarded history painting (of Christian and Classical myths) as the highest Academic ideal. This movement began to explore non-narrative forms and alternatives to traditional narratives or methods of working. In doing so instigating a complex anti-narrative agenda for twentieth century art. 4
Post-Modernism has given birth to the term Global Majority and continues to challenge the imbalances of dominant power structures and bias. The term was used as early as 2003 as a way to challenge the normativity of a white majority or Eurocentric perspective.
Continuing through the 20th century, an emphasis on form began to take over the previous focus on narrative. Abstract art proliferated. Formalism emphasises the way it is made and its purely visual aspects – rather than its narrative content or its relationship to the visible world. Formalism as a critical stance came into being in response to impressionism and post-impressionism (especially the painting of Cézanne) in which unprecedented emphasis was placed on the purely visual aspects of the work.5
After the 2nd world war in the USA Abstract Expressionism exploded.
…through exploration of gesture, line, shape, and colour, many Abstract Expressionist artists hoped to evoke strong emotional reactions. Their grand scale created an overwhelming and, for some, almost religious viewing experience. Mark Rothko famously said that his paintings should be viewed from a distance of 18 inches, perhaps to dominate the viewer’s field of vision and thus create a feeling of contemplation and transcendence.
Some critics, such as Robert Rosenblum, considered Abstract Expressionism’s interest in the sublime to be a continuation of the ideals of the Romantics. Romanticism was an artistic and literary movement that emerged towards the end of the 18th century and emphasised the aesthetic experience and the emotions it evoked.
In 1948, Barnett Newman wrote an essay
titled The Sublime is Now, in which he asserted that America is where artists were finally achieving the sublime: Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’ we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings. 6
As story diminished in importance in 20th century art, preoccupations with form, with the manner of depiction continued to take over as the motive for new artforms.
Another example of changing narrative is 1960’s Minimalism, which is defined by a literal and objective approach to extreme simplicity, stripping away detail, ego, and external narrative completely. Minimalism or minimalist art can be seen as extending the abstract idea that art should have its own reality and not be an imitation of some other thing.
At the same time, a powerful counter-narrative emerged that is concerned with representing, deconstructing and exploring forgotten, repressed or untold narratives. In June 2020 when John Cassidy’s statue of Edward Colston was dramatically torn down in Bristol, during a Black Lives Matter protest, it was thrown into the River Avon.
This was one moment of collective reckoning with the story of our colonial past. Ironically the torn down, defaced and paint-splattered object was put on display alongside a selection of placards from the protest – transformed into a new narrative.
These are just some examples of how narratives in and through art have been rejected, upended and reconfigured. As artists increasingly occupy a non-literal approach and narrative as content loses relevance, the overall narrative changes.
The inundation of information in the digital age, in spite of the many advantages it brings, can paradoxically lead to a shallower understanding of the narrative of history. Attention spans dwindle, and superficial knowledge often replaces a profound understanding of historical events. Fake news has become a fact of life. The term has entered every-day language, and we use it to distinguish between truth and fiction. These disruptions can easily disconnect us from the past and hinder our ability to appreciate the lessons it offers, potentially leading to the repetition of past mistakes.
In response to this overwhelm in information – fake or otherwise, art is veering creatively in all directions. Figuration in painting becomes fashionable again with a resurging popularity of figures. Some critics believe that figurative art that makes clearer reference to the real world may help us feel more grounded in a challenging era.
Bad Painting, for example the work of Neo-Expressionist Julian Schnabel, appeared in the 70’s. This trend in painting, emphasising an exhausted mediocrity, has been dubbed zombie figuration.
Deliberate Bad figurative painting is a renunciation of art’s radical avant-garde potential, but also of traditional ideas of sublime and transcendental beauty. Often many of these forms end up communicating a cynicism and disturbed view of humanity.7
Even so, this return to figuration was a welcome relief from the process-based abstraction that critic Walter Robinson memorably dubbed zombie formalism. Then in 2014 a strain of quasi surrealist figuration started to emerge that seemed especially suited to the chaos of the digital age. Bizarre, provocative, mash ups snatched from art-history, fraught with meaning; collapsed divisions between male and female, analog and digital, real and unreal and with idiosyncratic, even cruel, depictions of our conflicted world.
In the past few years we have also seen what has been dubbed Hypersentimentalism - figurative painting, heavily influenced by Instagram culture, which focuses on personal feeling, irony, niche knowledge and micro-communities. Feeeeeling – with a capital F! It follows an “IYKYK” logic (which stands for if you know, you know) playing heavily on being
in the know - on the inside with the accompanying FOMO
(fear of missing out).8
Then, the 2022 Whitney Biennial took another sharp turn towards abstraction and a language of opacity, making demands of the audience to invest in artists’ backstories.
The themes running through the show were ambiguity, uncertainty, and a sensitivity to openness
The Next Chapter
So, where does this leave us as grander historical narratives have given way to cynicism and a multiplicity of clashing possibilities that do not fit into tidy stories. Times have changed as explained by Kat Siegel, an American Art historian and Curator In other words, there is no historical imperative, no moral superiority, no necessity, to any one possibility for painting. 9
Post humanism, new materialist and other contemporary theoretical discourses attempt to address the imbalances tearing at culture and they offer new forms of thinking that examine what it means to be human, critically questioning the concept of the human in light of current cultural and historical contexts. These theories and ideals, backed up by physics, biology and ecology, point to a living, interconnected world, where matter is also alive, valued and honoured, not dead and prone to exploitation in a disconnected materialistic paradigm.10
Related to these ideas, in the art world, is an interesting narrative brought to light by Amy Sillman, Jacqueline Humpries, Laura Owens, and Charline Von Heyl, all female artists, who relate their experiences as they studied under male abstract expressionists in the 70’s and beyond, at a time when to paint at all was seen as an artistic failure.
Text that follows is taken from: Statements of Intent – the art of Jacqueline Humphries, Laura Owens, Amy Sillman and Charline Von Heyl - Artforum International. 11
In relation to abstract painting Sillman states: There is a certain ‘transgressive’ goal in trying to exploit a collapsed and forbidden terrain (AbEx - Abstract Expressionism) in order to open it up, de-mythologize, exploit and change it for new people’s use. At the time it was basically like trespassing.
Charline von Heyl stated that during the late 1980s and early ’90s, she was around artists who are lionized these days: Martin Kippenberger, Sigmar Polke, Albert Oehlan, and Immendorf. The German art scene was, as she’s put it, “heavily male, very jokey, with an ironic stance toward painting. Anarchistic and also quite arrogant.”
As an antidote to Neo-Expressionism, there “was irony, mostly in the form of really stupid jokes.”
Sillman gradually developed a different language – a deployment of related (male) gestural modes, “but in such a way as to indicate a kind of hesitancy about its use. Each of her strokes reveals itself not as the final masterful decision but as just one more application on a surface already covered with other strokes, which you can see behind to the last one.
There was a departure from the authentic gesture of mid-century and the emptied postmodern gesture. Instead, canvases are populated by uncertain, fake, or unlocatable gestures. And where we find “real” drips or passages of firm brushwork, we find it impossible to read them as we once did. Meaning is thrown back onto the viewer as the artists’ own subjective investments in their decisions around paint handling become indeterminate and unknowable.
They are all well aware that the notion of the painting as a “living thing” has previously been dismissed as an absurd, romantic cliché, but nevertheless say that they get to a point where the painting begins to appear to them as an entity that makes calls on them, that might irritate them, surprise them, confuse them”. Von Heyl is clearest: “I don’t want to make the painting, I want the painting to invent itself and surprise me.
There is a term or idea that recurs in their accounts, and that is unknowability.” Humphries says, “I have to destroy the painting I know to make the one I don’t know yet.” Sillman has said, “Making paintings for me is liminal: not quite-known, coming-into-being, not-yet-seen, being-remembered.” Von Heyl phrases it thus:
“I can get beyond [design] only in the unknown.”
“I can force myself into that concentrated mindspace that is just looking and goes beyond thinking.” Owens makes a similar point when she speaks of her refusal to “language” her work—the word language, repurposed as a verb, referencing an exhaustive thinking-through of each decision, so that refusal to “language” is a kind of refusal to know, or to know too much.
Such invocations of unknowability could be caricatured as so many New Age bromides, but we would be wrong to characterize them in this way. For a start, the unknowable has a new premium in a culture that prides itself on being able to know everything via instant access (constitutional or not) to massive troves of information. The language of the unknowable also resonates with Eva Hesse’s claim that she wanted to get to “what is yet not known.”
Helen Molesworth, for one, had already pushed for the term unknowability in a 2013 essay on Sillman: “For me, feminism is a critique of power and mastery, and most of all it’s a warning about how the combination of mastery and power has, historically, led to violence. One result of this questioning of power is that unknowability emerges as a kind of virtue.”
What seems astonishing, and what may be the generative paradox at the heart of these practices, is the fact that each painter harnesses unknowability as an essential part of making art, but at the same time brings to her practice a profound knowledge of how to make, and fake, marks on canvas, how to navigate the histories and associations of those marks and control what impact they might have on viewers.
Unknowability in Action
Many artists in a similar fashion to the quoted references above, today are passionately committed to working away in solitude, in a purely intuitive way, having relinquished the need to tell any story, to not need to fully comprehend or to label what they have found and are perfectly happy to release their work into the world, where it is left in the hands of the viewer - the Narrator, to interpret and create story.
The narrative of style as description and classification of art is no longer relevant and has been called into question. Instead what is being acknowledged are more complex languages and structures that are taking shape in culture and painting based around self-awareness, considerations of body, interiority and relationships, all occurring in an interconnected, interdependent world, rather than focussing on externalised, formalist, elitist questions from a purely male dominated culture. What is fascinating is that this perspective makes more available for the participation of the viewer, and brings a freshness and continuity to painting, as new themes and values come into view.
A thread can be appreciated that runs from the artists creativity, through the making of the work to the viewer, who then brings the work alive, within their own life – this dynamic can all be seen within the larger whole - an interconnected ultimately, dynamic, creative universe.
Supporting this is another ingredient worthy of consideration found in the research undertaken by Jussi Antti Saarinen, at the University of Jyvaskyla, Finland which also points us inwards to ask Why do painters paint? Amongst other observations he reports meaningful experiences called Oceanic Feeling which many artists describe being generated through their process of art making. 13
The oceanic feeling is a frequent topic of discussion in both creativity research and aesthetics. Characterized by a sensation of self-boundary dissolution, the feeling has been reported to involve experiences of fusion with various objects, including works of art.
...I discuss the oceanic feeling in the specific context of painterly creativity. I begin by arguing that the oceanic feeling cannot be classified as an emotion, mood, or bodily feeling, in the established definitions of these terms.
A closer look at writings on both artistic creativity and aesthetic experience suggests that these kinds of feelings may be fairly common. As expected, the concepts and tropes used to describe such experiences are rich and varied. Even so, the depictions tend to point to a common experiential core. These states have been variously designated as “nirvanic, epiphanic, numinous, religious, flow, ecstatic, or oceanic” depending on one’s preferred orientation.
Abstract and figurative art can now invite viewers to participate actively in the narrative-making process. In the old model of narrative, as observers engage with abstract forms, colours, and textures, it has been understood that the viewer projects their own experiences, emotions, interpretations, even contradictions onto the artwork.
There is an additional way to approach the same scenario, with a call for consciously and directly engaging with the unknown and the unknowable in oneself and in the artworks – this requires contemplation – at odds with the 2.5 second attention span encouraged agressively by contemporary technology and fashion - then there is a molecular sense that only becomes through the body, as a vehicle for this form of action.
For the artist there comes a point in their development when they are at ease with the unknowable nature of this form of action, which then grows in strength, and a dialogue with the unknowable through painting opens, where the painting shows the path ahead.
Interiority and Interconnection
A new narrative is developing around this form of action and the reader can be party to all this though making themselves available and surrendered in order to view and enter the artwork. The reader continues to participate in the creation of the artwork, as the narrator and they continue to further tell the story that the work has engendered in them as their own narrative - igniting the question of where the agency of the work truly lies…fluid and alive, from creator to viewer.
From this perspective there really is no vantage point from where we get to be outside of narrative. What if everything is narrative, as the unknown, and narrative is in fact the structure of our consciousness simultaneously?
This participatory, living narrative aligns with the very essence of being human – the perpetual endeavour to find meaning and connections in the seemingly unrelated, inviting us to participate in the act of narrative making, transcending boundaries and connecting us to the essence of our shared humanity. Even if we decide or claim to deny participation, that is our participation – is it not?
We seek and make meaning. We can also (seemingly) contradict and deny meaning, but we do not have to be bound by any of it. We can discover, or know, what we didn’t know about ourselves before, and this is remarkable. That is our freedom.
1.~Josef Albers - Interaction of Color (1971, Yale University Press.
The Broom of the System: On the Quarrel Between Art and Narrative by Louise Milne.
13.~Jussi Antti Saarinen, at the University of Jyvaskyla, Finland.