Artist's Notebook, Correspondence

About an image, without an image: Reflections on looking at a painting

Contributed by Paul D’Agostino  / Not long ago, an acquaintance on social media posted an image of a recent painting in one of those temporary-story-style series of images, and I reacted favorably, at first with emoji-tive enthusiasm, to that particular painting. 

I did so because I liked the painting rather instantly, and I paused the slideshow to keep looking at it for a while. I’ve known the artist’s work, and to some extent the artist, for a long time, dating back to some more or less casual studio visits here and there in the past decade, and I think the artist’s recent work is particularly strong. I guess of late I’ve looked at it with greater interest. It appears more assuredly mixed in media, marks, surface treatments, textures, and abstract and incidental formalities as compared to earlier works. It’s less blatant and more alluring; less wrought or aggressed and more curious; less punchily pop and more hazed in chromatic nuance; less shouty and more like a murmuring. Less cleverness and cheek. More confidence and rigor. 

In these recent works, hints of brilliant chromatics and swaths of aerated strokes, the latter often somewhat more candid or saturated, seem better housed. They’re no longer errant or passing through. Maybe less ironic, now closer to their physical, extant truth. In this sense, their presence in the work is simply more situated at home. Not at all in a way that’s now placid or boring, but in a way that does less pointing elsewhere. In tandem with and response to stronger palettes and treatments, many other formal matters seem more adroitly resolved. 

More simply, I could say, I simply dig the new stuff much more. I dig in much more. 

I’ve liked a fair amount of the artist’s earlier work, too, though not all of it. I’ve never thought it was bad, in a word, but it hasn’t always been evenly interesting. It hasn’t always demanded extensive, extended looking. Rather, it hasn’t always made me look at it so extensively, extendedly. That’s important to note here, since all this verbiage is so patently subjective. What I’m noting as strong points, indeed as ‘stronger’ points, might well be noted otherwise by other viewers. 

There’s an additional thing I’d like to note about this matter of subjectivity, but I’ll come back to it after addressing the artist’s quick response to my reaction. To an extent, it was the exchange that ensued that left me thinking about the painting – or more pointedly, about these kinds of longer-pause moments of looking at artworks, especially on social media – at much greater length, and that led me to put down, on a whim one day, this assessment of some of those thoughts. That’s why I’m not including an image here; these reflections are less about a certain artwork by a certain artist than they are about the variably mediated and inflected contexts in which we might look at and ponder art. 

As for the exchange in question, it was brief and friendly, in sum, and maybe not exceptionally noteworthy in many respects, but for me it remained tenaciously sticky. In large part, this was because for me, in a way, it started out against my will, even though I was clearly the one who’d started it with my initial reaction. Again, that reaction was something along the lines of a thumbs-up nod of approval, in context swiftly, maybe all-too-facilely expressed as some fireballs and a gold trophy. I like using the latter to suggest something is ‘champion’ or ‘a championship.’ The former, in my mind, scans more or less as, ‘Oh, hell yeah.’ 

Whatever. We all know what this stuff means. 

So I sent it all real quick-like. And I kept on looking. I then got an unexpected response pretty quick-like:

“What do you see?”

‘What?!?!’ was my first thought. ‘Are you really asking that?!?!’ was my second. On the one hand, many artists who make works of such an abstract sort don’t care to hear that kind of feedback, at least not readily. Some abhor it. They sometimes don’t want to know what others see in their compositions of ostensible non-objectiveness, because they might have nothing or something else in mind, and they don’t want a work to then become, in their minds, ‘some other thing.’ Some, of course, are pretty relaxed about it all. For them a piece might depict, however imperceptibly, a seascape-suggestive atmosphere interceded by the disruption of an ambiguous presence glimpsed in the obscurities of the figments of dreams. But they might not mind hearing a viewer speak of seeing a group of friends at the beach arguing over the nothing of everything while laying out blankets and applying sunscreen. 

So, all fine. We artists have predilections aplenty. Some are kind of absurd. On some, we’re really firm. On others, super chill. Oh well. The universe shrugs. 

Anyway, I was a bit surprised by the artist’s request to know what I saw in the piece, as if it were some kind of Rorschach test. Also, the same artist hasn’t ever seemed all too interested in much description or further discussion, even during studio visits or conversations at shows. It occurred to me that the newer work does offer itself up differently to viewers’ varying modes of envisioning, but still, the request jarred me. 

Also, I admit, I just didn’t feel like diving into much verbiage at that particular moment. At all. I know that with certainty. ‘Damn,’ I thought, ‘I clearly like it, I’m clearly stoked to see it, I sent you a friggin’ trophy, ain’t that enough? Now I need to qualify it?’ 

Of course, people who know me know of my tendency – or predilection, even! – to qualify or narrate or wander verbally around everything. (See: this essay.) Sometimes, I think, requests like this are just what I get for not shutting up. 

So I pretty much replied with all such energies in mind, and pretty quickly, and with hints of annoyance but also obligingly. I responded all at once, but in two parts. What’s here is basically verbatim, though lightly modified for clarity and anonymity: 

“What do I see? I see an intriguing painting, which should suffice, not least because it’s intriguing on many painterly levels alone, whereas so many paintings out there not dramatically unlike this one might fail on those same levels, falling flat because they’re under painted or overwrought, unlabored or too worked, basically ill conceived or ill executed or ill achieved, and thus often okay enough to look at but not intriguing in the least, an important distinction because intrigue holds the eyes and turns scrolling glances into still gazes.

But since that doesn’t seem to matter as much as my answer to a quiz question, I see a huge head surging forward toward the lower register of the painting from left to right, as if its face is crashing to the floor, a huge cartoonish kind of head, the surging crash implying some kind of fall or tumble or something of dynamic, perilous lunge. But that’s patently not what holds the eyes. It’s what might amuse the narrative in the mind. What holds the eyes is the rest of the piece. Of course, maybe I’m seeing the ‘wrong’ things entirely. In that case, I’m the subject falling flat on my face, busting up my head. Either way, at least your painting as painting neither fails nor falls.

So, I guess that’s what I see.”

And so, after so much prolegomenon regarding artworks and looking and pausing and pondering and social media and reactions and visions and so on, there you go: those couple chunks of words were my response to the artist’s question. And that was basically the extent of our exchange. My notes were met with a few words of thanks, and we sent salutations of some sort back and forth, and then that was that. 

I know, big deal. I agree. 

But still, the whole thing stuck with me. I kept thinking about it not only, or not merely, because I liked the painting. On some level, sure, but we all see loads of artwork we like and don’t constantly keep quite so actively in mind. I can easily conjure the piece in question with no image at all. Cool. It’s in my mental museum with lots of other artworks, too. And lots of other stuff. And tons of cerebral junk. 

One rather specific reason the exchange stuck with me, though, is that I ended up feeling happy that the artist had asked me what I saw. Yes, initially it had definitely annoyed me. Totally. I felt like I was being obligated all of a sudden, and in an all-too-breezy and rather lifeless context, to furnish some proper-discussion-type feedback. Surely that was just me exaggerating the matter. I doubt the artist would’ve minded at at all if I’d just said, ‘Well, I guess I see this huge surging head kind of thing. Cool piece. Peace.’ 

Maybe I should’ve been so brief. But somehow I couldn’t be. It seemed necessary for me to point out that what really worked about the piece was not its graphic aspect or potentially latent, perhaps dark humor, but its overall presence, its successful housing of disparate features. 

Reflecting back on feeling thusly obligated – obligated, that is, to note not just what I saw, but why or how the painting worked for me – got me thinking harder about the subjectivities at hand. It was all in the context of social media, and a temporary scrolling post at that, all of which furnished the act of looking with its own fleeting subjectivities of timing, happenstance, networks, attention spans, algorithms and so forth. 

But that aside, there was also the subjectivity of this particular artist now making this kind of work, and me seeing it with that awareness. If the piece were more typical of the artist’s work over the years, it might not have been as particularly remarkable to me, especially since, as I noted in my response, there are other artists out there working in a relatable sphere. Another subjectivity related to that, I think, is that this artist didn’t have to take an improbable leap to get into that sphere, such that it seemed insincere, but did have to leap successfully in several pictorial ways all at once. Yet another subjective fold here is that only an awareness of someone’s work over a long enough span of time can lead to this many levels of reasoning for finding certain pieces especially intriguing. For all their ills and exploitative exploits, social media platforms have certainly enabled many of us to know more about one another’s work, and about more artists’ work, in a consistent manner over the years. 

It also struck me that if the artist had posed a less jarring question, maybe just asking why I liked it, I might not have sent much of a reply. Moreover, I realized that if I knew the artist better, personally, and had a greater history of dialogue to draw from, I also might not have replied at much length right then, figuring we’d chat about it more some other time. In fact, it’s sometimes the fellow artists with whom we have the closest relationships who don’t care much to have such exchanges through social media, or who don’t really ask for them there. 

I could keep on describing subjective layers I considered the longer I ruminated on this somewhat singular exchange, but I’ll cut myself off there. This sequence of thoughts has likely gone on far enough here to be tedious, maybe bordering on trite. 

So I’ll draw it to a close with just a couple additional notes. One is that this matter of slowing down, looking harder, thinking harder, gazing longer has been an increasingly active conversation in recent years. In art and criticism, for sure, but also in literature, and to some extent in music. It arises in lectures and artist talks, in studios and classrooms, in casual conversations and in group critiques. It comes up in other spheres as well, such as education, agriculture and culinary arts. We even hear quite a lot about it in sports, in fact, and I’m not talking about curling. NFL players practicing yoga and mindfulness during training camp isn’t an unrelated phenomenon. 

I don’t pretend in the least to be offering any great insights about the broadening cultural discourse around slowness, but I do find it interesting that, with regards to art, the more you also slow down the modes of thinking about, or back into, all the looking, the more intriguing it becomes to consider closely all the circumstantial angles of certain particular acts of looking. The subjective peelings cleave as sheets of a shallot. 

It’s also interesting how the vociferousness of the growing choir of the virtues of slowness corresponds to increasing anxiousness and anxieties of various sorts – societal, political, physical, personal, interpersonal, environmental, universal. While social media have heightened all this anxiousness to feel less anxious – and to look at things longer, more thoughtfully, less anxiously – they’ve also, especially in the past year and some change, been relatively useful platforms for unraveling them. It’s all for naught; it’s not all for naught. 

A contemporary philosopher who has unpacked and repackaged these discourses in especially trenchant, incisive ways over the past decade or so, often with copious references to art and literature, is Byung-Chul Han, a Korean-born Swiss-German professor of philosophy and cultural studies at the Universität der Künste in Berlin. Most all of Han’s books treat these matters in one way or another, but of particular interest here are The Transparency Society (2012), Scent of Time(2014), Saving Beauty (2015), The Disappearance of Rituals (2019)and Capitalism and the Death Drive (2021).* They’re generally slim volumes, and neither laden with theory nor drily academic, but you won’t read them swiftly. You just won’t want to. Han’s prose is captivating, focused and fluid, as pleasurable to read and reread as the observations it carries are profound, resonant and, ultimately – indeed importantly –not entirely dire or hopeless. 

I’ll add one more thing, then shut up: 

I really miss seeing lots of art in the real – in lots of places, all the time, for leisure or for work, with interest or without, or even with disgust, or with pomp and circumstance, or without, or with whatever else besides, and really just with insouciance, and maybe sometimes in crowds, for the theater and eavesdropping, and all that and so on. 

I know, duh. Don’t we all. 

Sigh. 

If you’re still here, thanks for reading. 

You’re a 🏆

______________________________

* Byung-Chul Han publishes in German but is very well translated in many other languages. Excellent English editions of Han’s books are published by Polity. See www.politybooks.com for catalogue, descriptions and ordering information. 

About the author: Paul D’Agostino, Ph.D. is an artist, writer, translator and curator. He aspires to parliamentary service as Minister Without Portfolio, leading committees on sports journalism, Garfield studies and Idian Wizardry. More information about him is available here, and you can find him as @postuccio on Instagram and Twitter.

Related posts:
Fiction: Consummate Saturday [Paul D’Agostino]
Paul D’Agostino’s pictorial discursiveness
Poetic Pursuits: The Truffle Hunters

12 Comments

  1. So insightful. I’d love to read more of the thoughts observed during the act of scrolling artwork on Instagram. It is a brand new way of looking at art and we have yet to know how it is changing us and the art we make.

  2. Thanks, Paul. I enjoyed reading your thoughts. We’re all navigating ‘these times’ with varying degrees of success. A tough pair to balance is the Slowness ‘movement’ with FOMO. 😂

  3. Benjamin C Pritchard

    Awesome 👍

  4. Paul, my brain is on fire with your analysis and my spirit is hungry to see this ‘sticky’ painting! Will you share it, or at least the name of the artist?

  5. Amazing piece-so funny and on point

  6. Loved reading this Paul

  7. Bravissimo Paul! Great piece! Great read!
    Grazie

  8. Brilliant as always. Thanks for the poignant ruminations, Paul.

  9. love this…⏸

  10. Love reading this Paul.
    Feeling bit stuck and slowed down recently, I’ve been leafing through notebooks, some new, some old. Slow, slowly, lingering… on the materiality of the pages, the crinkling paint, built up on pages. Unsticking pages long stuck… the paperness of paper. Pondering that moment in time, back when, when first done, or the build up and additions over the years. With pleasure, slowly…

  11. I think in ancient Greece, they might have called you an elegant sophist.

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