Fact Without Witness
Cecília de Almeida Salles
Article about the artist published in French on Genesis – Jean-Michel Place Editions, 3 rue Lhomond 75005 Paris Tel 33 1 44 32 05 90
Daniel Senise’s work may be viewed from the perspective of the routes taken in the course of his creative activities. This is a vision which transforms the work of art into process – the product in production – returning to it each time from a fresh perspective.
From the moment I held the books in my hands, (produced by the artist between 1988 to 1999) it was as if I had left the public realm of exhibited works and had entered the inner sanctums of creation charged with a sense of apprehension and fascination, which, almost always accompany different forms of privacy- invading phenomena. When I saw the last book and began to read it I was surprised at an entry by the author in which spoke of the concept of painting as an “occurrence without witness”. This was no longer to be the case. At least a part of this conception had just gained an accomplice. In the position of one who has witnessed an event, I was no longer observing works, but had come face to face with their individual backgrounds. Certain traces left behind in the books provide insight into some of the ways in which the mind of this creative artist works. As I turned the pages there seemed to suddenly appear connections between the subtle movements of the mind and hand of the artist, principles underlying the realization of his works.
This is what is known as the genetic vision of the critic which accompanies, stage by stage, the realization of the work through a close reading of the documents left by the artist throughout this process. They are temporal portraits of the works genesis which signpost the paths of creation. The focus now shifts to the materials used in the process. The artist frequently experiences the need to record certain ideas, images and stray impressions, which may take form in the work in question or assist in its construction. Generally speaking, this documentation performs two very important functions throughout the creative process: storing and experimentation. However, each artist has his own way of operating within this particular space where different information is gathered and works tested. Contact with such material involves us in the sense of spectacle, at times purely at an intuitive or imaginative level, at other times when it is overtly expressed in the particular work.
It is clear that Senise’s paintings themselves serve as the point of departure with regard to processes involved in their creation. Their very existence sparks an interest in the systems used in their creation. During the time I spent studying the artist’s documents his works systematically became a permanent frame of reference – closely representing what had been sought in the process. The act of turning the work over to the public can be seen as a unifying element. The significance of all material used in the creative processes comes to light once a relation has been established to the final work where it acts as a point of reference in the decision-making process of the artist during the creative period. The public exhibition of the works thus forms an integral part of their creation.
As the work merges with the rhythms of its construction processes, carrying with it uncertainties as well as the ever- present possibility of change during its realization, it becomes relative as a final truth settled within that object surrounded by an aura of perfection. Aesthetic considerations linked to the notion of perfection and a polished finish are now faced with something tentative and incomplete. This vision of a work of art extends into a dialogue with the sciences that speak of truths which lie embedded in the processes of the search itself and which can thus be neither final nor absolute.
Observing Senise’s work from the viewpoint of constructive processes we frequently find ourselves dealing with the fleeting, the fragile and the hesitant. The work no longer is, but is becoming, evolving along a process composed of a complex web of events.
Daniel Senise and his books
Senise’s books serve as portable devices for a wide range of records. They vary in size, testify to remarkable mobility and while they bear no sign of frequent use or access, they possess entries relating to a variety of geographical locations. The artist apparently, carries a book with him on his travels, jotting down ideas randomly in the same way as Klee regarded his diaries, Senise’s books are works of the time.
He uses this storage space for several reflections and in order to keep a record of the information he gleans from the world around him, making use of both written as well as visual notes. We can therefore find recollections, accounts of dreams, thoughts about paintings, the questioning of projected works and those already exhibited. At first glance, the object appears fragmented and heterogeneous. However, as one reads further, the books progressively become means of mediating between the world surrounding the artist and his works as well as his creative flourishes. The emerging fragments begin to cohere into a related whole. The artist has frequent recourse to these indices in the course of his work. There are however, certain forms recorded in the books which shed greater light on the artist’s creative activities and which shall be discussed as follows:
The Space of Perhaps
His books contain a profusion of inchoate and vapid images. These are fragile outlines – without concern for the kind of graphic detail related to interpersonal communication, showing a series of figures which are always sketched as possibilities to be tested at a later stage. They are visual hypotheses, still to be filled out, like the lines of which they are composed, awaiting future evaluations by the artist himself. Images are repeated, but always tentatively and transitorily. A hint of doubt and uncertainty spring forth from many of the books pages, resulting in the designated “perhaps” space, a resonance I felt while reading them on coming across a page with the following remarks: “Perhaps it’s better not to use the whole canvas” and “Use a pure earthen colour. Perhaps for the elephant”.
While keeping the work in mind we notice that some of the books’ images have apparently been rejected, or “coagulated”, as Louis Hay (1990) remarked referring to the notes that had not been assimilated into any of the works at that stage. Many other images however, fill out over time and are subsequently transposed from the realm of books to become part of the work itself. The books therefore serve as a refuge for notes during moments of uncertainty, but with an inclination towards painting. In such cases the images find in the books room to develop and mature prior to being incorporated into future works.
Senise’s books are more than merely a register for the birth of his works, but form a series of complex relationships with his paintings. Such relationships divert our attention from any linear vision of the creative act, or overwhelming and definitive insights which, written down, immediately come to life on canvas. Over time his notes begin to permeate his works in a number of different ways. His books are a testimony to much of the time spent during the creation phase. This stage of maturation is composed of choices, decisions taken and various levels of elaboration, as demonstrated by the illustrations.
These visual notes show how fragments are later worked upon prior to taking form on canvas.
Let us proceed with our attempt to reach a better understanding of the relationship between Senise’s books and his works.
Painting as a process has always been the focus of attention for critics of this artist’s work. His works are not painted, but rather constructed (Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro). They show a physical and thematic density through highly worked surfaces. It becomes apparent that any substantial reconstruction of the elaboration process is impossible. Nor can the materials used in executing the work be easily defined. (Dawn Ades).
Senise’s canvases embody a creative process consisting of the addition of objects and layers which, by interfering with each other, sustain the texture, which is marked by the constant exploration of new materials. Senise’s notes indicate the importance he attributes to the physicality of painting, a process which implies exploring the “painting’s physical properties” and the “discussing of its surface”.
The books of the artist in turn, reveal an insular process where active layers of creative thinking lend a density to the texture of the canvases.
A Poetic Project
In his notes, it is possible to discern the development of the artist’s thinking in the midst of his creativity. The doubts here are less apparent and provide room for reflections on art in general and contemporary art in particular, and on his own painting, thus lending “theoretical” support to the discussions engendered by the canvases. These notes allude to the use the artist makes of the term book referring to the studied documents in the sense that it reveals the perennial character of such reflections as they expand and increase in complexity in the course of time.
It is at moments such as these that the painter makes full use of the written word, often demonstrating his concern at how these thoughts are to be articulated as if they were stray fragments searching for more suitable words to give them expression. It is interesting to note how these verbal reflections in both English and in Portuguese intertwine, frequently and for no apparent reason. Image and word complement each other ñ on equal terms ñ and interact to form a single conceptual universe. The books allow for the opportunity to construct and systemize the poetic project of the artist, in some way guiding his works.
This project is not clear to the artist, but takes shape as the works themselves are being executed. What is at stake here is not pre-established principles. The books appear as a means through which the artist is brought closer to his grand project which is distinguished by its uniqueness. Commentaries of exhibited work appear to serve as a means of familiarising the artist with his overall project. The books, on the other hand, bring the artist closer to the knowledge of what it is that constitutes his painting and how he perceives himself as an artist. At times like these his notes appear to define both the ethical and aesthetic threads that bind all his works to date. These discussions which the author enters into with himself and which are recorded in his books also contain indications of how the cultural and historical environment of the artist interact with his creative processes.
There are certain considerations which serve to underpin the ongoing poetic project. These are described as follows.
The Power of the image
In these reflections regarding some of the guiding principles in Senise’s work we notice one element in particular that stands out owing to its recurrence at different points in his books, distinguished by its intensity and the different angles in which it is presented: What is referred to here is his belief in the power of the image. “I believe in painting, or rather, in the image. I’m not concerned with the problem of lies. For me the image is the incontestable truth”.
When considering those elements he regards as essential to his work, for want of a better definition, the phrase “the mystery of the image” seems to arise.
The power of the image is already present in this artist’s perception, something that becomes apparent when he refers to his recollections: “There is always a predominating image (belonging to a moment) 1) that fills the memory 2) overcoming the desire to seek other images of the same title”. His mode of capturing phenomena is supported by his unique manner of cutting, framing and choice of angle.
While still on the subject of the perception of images certain tendencies start emerging concerning the way in which the artist perceives the world. We find for example, a large number of people ñ men, women and children ñ in drawings or cuttings who are captured in profile. It is the silhouettes, so pervasive in his works, which are also present in his vision the world, itself a part of a creative process.
Senise perceives in some of his canvases that are still in the stages of completion the primacy of the image: “in the ‘kiss of the missing link’ it is the image that commands”. On some occasions he explores images which he usually avoids, such as facial expressions, flowers, volcanoes, genitalia, machines, cities and clothes.
This power of the image can also be discerned in some accounts of his dreams, such as the one recorded in October 1992, which contains vague descriptions of a scene (a frequent feature in dreams) condensed into one image, which possibly engendered his 1994 work: airplanes which become boomerangs.
“The airplane begins to perform manoeuvres over a sea full of small cabin cruisers.
(…) The aircraft was about to make an emergency landing on water. Only now it was no longer an airplane, but two long boomerang-type wings.”
And the image of the boomerang continues its flight in his books.
Art and the Artist
In this realm where the image reigns supreme, Senise reflects on contemporary art and artists, and in particular, on painting.
Let us take a wander through his notes in order to take in some of these considerations.
“If I conceive of art as an a way of creating whose method incorporates ‘the conscious and the submerged’ I therefore do not consider it necessary that art should justify itself, in the same way as nature does not feel it necessary to justify its presence. It just is. If I imagine that the artist’s commitment is not only to reason, several problems arise:
What then represents the model of the artist?
What parameters are imposed on the artist in putting together his art as a whole?
Is there such a thing as a work of art without a context? (or a history)?”
It is possible to notice that some of the answers can be found in the questions themselves.
“What defines the object [event/incident/image] as a work of art? Two measurable and visible premises”, which Senise summarizes through context and language. These items are developed. “Works of fundamental importance carry with them through time these two premises” (…) “in their structure but not their appearance”.
“Today’s artist once more picks up the pre-modernist argument, incorporating systems and strategies of modern art”. He also combines this procedure with contemporary science and proceeds to establish links with what he has read: “Illustrating the exhaustion of vanguard strategies is the decision of so many contemporary artists to opt for social/racial/ethnic themes, for ‘contemporary social problems’. Manifestoes of oppressed minorities etc… (which Robert Hughes refers to as a culture of reclaiming).”
Contemporary art is for the most part thought of in relation to modern art: “Modern art has remained so attached to its history with which it has become confused with it, developing in linear fashion. When it came to an end so did a certain type of art history. It is this confusion of modern art with its history that brought about its end. There remains therefore a history of art that has become anachronistic as a way of looking at art.”
This preoccupation with reflecting on contemporary art interferes with its realization in the classroom: “My contribution during the course will be to put forward a means of reflecting on contemporary principles which influence a two-dimensional creation by means of a set of practical exercises.”
In the course of discussions about his painting, Senise concludes, for example, that he does not paint in order to tell a his-story. “I paint in order to relate/ put across/expose an impression”.
By observing new procedures selected by him modern art returns as a comparative term. It now works its way into his painting, at least as he perceived it at that stage of his life: “When I glued a canvas to the ground I was also disassociating myself from a modernist tenet. My painting could be seen more as an object than as a painting”.
While Senise’s books contain drafts of future paintings still to be exhibited, they also offer him the opportunity to reflect on those exhibitions which have already taken place.
He notices, for example, common themes in two exhibitions and that “the treatment of the theme nails and rust (treatment and theme) has evolved.” In the following he muses “1) develop the theme/formal; 2) research treatment-theme? and 3) join the idea of theme (1) with the treatment-theme (2)”.
Specific works are also evaluated, using as a criterion their relation to other works. For example, on the second of February 1994, Senise writes: “The painting of the pot is the only one of its kind. It’s presence in the project for the exhibition is inhibiting the “process.” Several weeks later the canvas is re-assessed: “The painting of the pots on which I had so prided myself a month earlier now no longer holds any charm for me. I now see it as a footnote to my work. […] No digressions are permitted. It is what it claims to be”.
The diptyches are also verbally and visually discussed: “There is no gap between 2 thoughts. The gap remains between two canvases. The gap measures 3cm/5cm. There are 2 images. That which arises from them”.
The role performed by what the artist refers to as sudarium-memory in his art occupies an important place in Senise’s reflections and on the identity of his painting. At times the positions accompanying his discovery are varied and even contradictory, yet serve as a guiding principle in the construction of his canvases.
Here are some of these reflections. First, let us see what Senise means by sudarium/memory:
“Sudarium and memory should not be seen as two separate themes, but rather two poles which establish a link between painting (visual therefore physical) and the human question of memory”; “sudarium is the registration of an event. Painting as in the case of sudarium is both representation and object at the same time”.
While aware of its advantages and disadvantages, the twin concept is taken to be a thread running through the works of the artist, an attempt at capturing the quality of memory present in much of his work.
“A theme which I am about to develop in my work is that of the sudarium”.
“To establish the sudarium (memory principle as the focus of speculation regarding my work will enable me to facilitate things in the sense that if I should get stuck midway through a project or process, instead of searching for formal examples in my latest works, I can reflect on the relations governing the new work using the principle sudarium/memory.
This could result in a greater diversification of works on a formal level provided that a new work is consistent with the principle s/m.”
Sudarium/memory at a given moment appears as a space, offering infinite freedom or possibility for the artist, only to appear later as a possible inhibitor of the creative process, as we shall now see:
“This procedure of accessing the theme/object using sudarium/memory as the operative strategy involved in the execution of a work is fraught with imminent risk.
1 – It may turn into a bureaucratic process resulting in clear illustrative images of an equally clear idea. And this is just what I don’t want. In order to forestall this, the right thing to do would be to continue working in the same way as I work and when a new image arises, to examine it according to the s(m grid and see how it responds.
However, the act of arriving at the synthesis s(m means that from now on I can work in a more focused way, less speculative and more methodical. In order for this to happen it is crucial that I fully believe that the principle s(m is present in all my work to date and that should I continue to work in the way I have been doing all these years I would continue to arrive at the similar results, i.e. those related to the sudarium/memory.
An attitude to shore up this “belief” (that this theme is my focus whether I like it or not) is to individualize, personalize this concern.
To establish, for natural reasons that my guideline is memory and the visual record of memory and that this is valid as a premise for a work.
2 – The second risk involved in basing my work on the idea of memory and its visual record is that what is expected to happen, might fail to do so and turn out to be discourse for a series of lifeless works. (I will never be able to measure the effectiveness of this principle)”.
“Later I thought that an important theme in my work was the double/ twin/ reflected or the symmetrical. For this reason it is foolish to think that an entire problem may be localized in the twin concept ‘sudarium/memory’ principle”.
“There was a time, however, when I attempted to define what I was doing through the concept ‘sudarium-memory’ which I couldn’t even adequately formulate. Later I discarded the concept, which had now become obsolete”.
The compound sudarium/memory has demonstrated its relevance in Senise’s process at a time when it served to organize his works once they had been completed, lending them a sense of unity. The principle seems to have been abandoned when it became obvious that it was an inhibiting factor – a kind of impediment to the continuity of the process, yet one which nonetheless left indelible marks on his work.
The Creative Process
Also contained in Senise’s notes are reflections on certain aspects involving his creative procedures.
Some entries reveal certain inclination in his creative process: that of continuous conquest, never allowing himself to fall into in any bureaucratic procedures, for example that of repeating previously discovered forms.
He notes that painting a picture or in a more generic sense, painting itself, reflects the necessity to conquer something, or conversely, that there is ‘something’ out there that needs to be conquered. The existence of something to be conquered is the key factor. This conception of process as conquest is discussed in counterpoint to the ‘bureaucracy of painting’, which in turn, is linked to the repetition of procedures and to the adoption of sudarium/memory as a strategy reducing all future works to mere illustrations of this concept.
The need for new conquests is expressed in another entry: “the series ‘Ela que não está’ (she who is not there) has exhausted all formal possibilities. That is my nature, the nature of my work. The next will require a new solution”.
The communicative aspect of art appears in several notes such as in the case of those previously presented in which Senise claims to paint in order to tell a story, pass on or expose an impression to someone. The same question is raised in other notes: “There has been much discussion regarding loss of communication between art and the community. It was this fact more than anything else that made me take up painting (painting contains a built-in function)”.
Senise narrates the search for suitable procedures for the construction of certain of his works. He notes in 1991: “The last picture I painted in Rio was an attempt to escape from tracing techniques – due to the fact that I had in the final stages been gluing and canvases to the wall and then peeling them off. The picture up to this point had not been named but was dedicated to the kiss of the missing link with the missing ‘she’ (O Beijo do elo perdido).
“I had almost reached the point of stagnation in the last forty days. Nothing had evolved. The pictures of Giotto were not flowing. I tried two different ways of presenting them: one with a little cottage repeated on three different occasions each using different materials. The other in what I have called ‘the altar’, with the cottage in the middle and two canvases (the one beside the other. Still, I have my doubts concerning the value of these works”.
Later, in the same book, Senise continues his search for a formal solution in the series of canvases regarding Giotto’s house and considers adopting the strategy of “Painting the canvases starting from the background. Experiment with materials. Return to the old methods”.
Some days later he writes: “Today I have solved the problem of Giotto’s canvases. I realize now that the problem was the background”.
The Logic of chance
While still on the subject of features relating to the creative process discovered in Senise’s notes, there emerges the question of chance. Reading the painter’s books brings us face to face with the artist’s careful search for objects and images in the elaboration process discussed above. Objects and images are thus sought after, and not found simply as a matter of chance. This brings us to reflect on the role of the accidental in the process of creation. An element of chance can often be discerned in the course of creative activities ñ moments of fortuitous evolution in the thinking of the artist. There is a momentary change in direction. The artist takes this chance element on board, incorporating it into the work, which is underway. After this inclusion there is no going back to the point at which the work was interrupted. As in similar processes, this interruption in the artist’s work becomes unavoidable.
To speak of chance in Senise’s process goes beyond ingenuously observing the unexpected entrance of extraneous elements. The books make it clear that the artist is seeking the accidental, an activity which may be referred to as “constructed chance”. The notes frequently act as means of “planning” chance, however paradoxical this may sound.
It is in cases such as these that the artist places himself in a position conducive to the intervention of extraneous elements. There is, from this point of view an expectation of the unexpected. On the other hand, the incorporation of chance elements depends on their quality: they are accessed by the artist: “As a painter, my own physical participation in this accident is necessary. It is not about “found objects”, as Senise argues in one of his notes. In this sense it is possible to speak about chance as representing an internal logic in terms of the artist’s creative activity, giving us cause to reconsider the role of the accidental in the processes already discussed and the personal touches discernible in the treatment of the unexpected.
In an attempt to reach a better understanding of the relation between Senise’s works and his books we observe that the texture of his canvases is enriched by reflections on a range of questions concerning his poetic project as well as his creative process, and which in a certain ways corroborate those choices which the works themselves represent.
Senise’s canvases, as I have already mentioned, demonstrate a work of ongoing experimentation which, by exposing to the naked eye the investigative nature of art, irrefutably brings it closer to the field of scientific research. His books present clear evidence of another mission: a complex undertaking conducted at different levels, which I will be discussing, from other perspectives as follows:
I have previously discussed the power of the image as one of the foundations of Senise’s poetic project. I would now like to concentrate on the role his books play in the gradual enhancement of images.
The artist dedicates many pages of his notes to the history of images that will only later develop into paintings. These are moments of visual reflection in black and white, most of which appear as preliminary sketches derived from various sources, destined at some later stage to appear in colour on canvas. This story is visually narrated, undergoing an initial selection process which singles out and captures certain images from a plethora of subjects taken from a world to which the artist relates.
Senise is, for some reason, provoked by some images as opposed to others. What remains clear is that the provocation in itself is not sufficient: perception, memory and imagination are applied to it, bringing into being an image more powerful than any other, producing an even greater effect on the artist’s sensibility and enabling it to be assimilated into the canvases.
Some of these images, chosen at a particular moment, gather in strength throughout this process of analysis, which becomes increasingly frequent both in books and in the actions of the artist in transferring them to the canvases. New selections, accompanied by intensely personal criteria, are thus made.
These drawings, although they appear as sketches or as preliminary exercises, do not fulfill their function as preparations for canvases, but seem to function more as a way of elaborating the images themselves. There seems to be little concern for graphic precision or any further adjustment of the image as in the case of those sketches that prepare the painting, even if they are also characterized by the same fragility or precariousness in their execution.
The images chosen are meticulously analyzed by means of a tireless multiplication. Every time a shape is drawn it is changed by the time it is finished. Different positions, angles and combinations allow the artist to become more familiar with them and to evaluate them. Senise’s creation is, from this perspective, knowledge gleaned through action. In the act of juxtaposing a large number of apparent repetitions the images accumulate experience and meaning, gathering consistency within the poetic project of the artist.
One of Senise’s notes regarding his work helps us to reflect on how closely his images are related to his books: “I can say that my work is a juxtaposition of two things with the purpose of creating a third”. From the juxtapositions of the drawings, out of the “tension between two figures” other (third) figures emerge.
The elaboration of these visual notes leads to procedures, which cannot, in themselves, be described as a successive elaboration of fragments. The construction of each image acts dialectically upon the other. His books bear witness to a singular approach to his work in the following notes: at first every image acts upon the entire content of the books’ pages. When this image is taken up again on another page it finds its way into a new context. This procedure demonstrates that the painter’s attention, at this stage of the process is focused more on the image in the true sense of the word, than on the composition into which it is embedded. Once they have moved on to the next stage these image-fragments will become part of a new context and, consequently, a new set of relations that the work will now put forth.
The nail is a powerful image in the artist’s imaginative universe. It is interesting to note its presence as a figure that consistently acts either in isolation or upon other recurring images, such as a cloud of smoke, brain, mother of the artist, and naturally, the hammer. The nail, intensely elaborated upon in his books is transposed onto Senise’s canvas as an image, and when rusted, is represented as memory of its own material essence.
Each new drawing does not take the place of previous ones, but rather becomes contaminated by them, impregnated with their history in the course of the artist’s creative process. There is a concentration of meaning and a natural loss of external reference to the fictitious world. There is also evidence of a copious elaboration of images harvested from a world external to the creative process. His books show a personal repertoire of images whose definitions are continually expanding with every new drawing, while at the same time revealing an interplay of visual associations, similar to the procedure adopted in the diptyches and polyptyches and in other series of verbal associations found in the books. Let us examine one example:
lost link nails time someone who stays and won’t return
someone who never goes – who goes and returns
like the infinite symbol
like the water cycle
like cars in traffic
like international travels
like dogs – the primitives
like an inconclusive thought
like the wind – like a wheel
the severed heads are such pleasant folk
like the forms clouds take
like careless gestures
The deserted field of the sudarium, previously discussed, is prepared in his books in the presence of images. His books are accordingly, the space where certain graphic representations gain fictitious consistency. This is the process, which many of his images undergo prior to becoming paradigms of Senise’s work. The books therefore engender new sources which point the way to possible new pictorial worlds.
It is in the pages of his books that the imaginary universe of Daniel Senise is forged. The notes offer a window onto the imaginary world of the artist as it is translated onto canvas. The books represent his own private attic where odd “remains” are elaborated as hinted at in one of his notes: “my landscape contains nothing except remains”. It is an attic of personal belongings – “remains of memory, of culture that have drifted into my beach-attic”.
This space used for storing and elaborating images also contains some of the latter, which, for some reason, were not carried forward and did not undergo a selective process by the artist, as previously discussed. This can be observed on several of the books’ pages.
The belief in the image as professed by Senise is therefore reinforced by these creative routes preserved in his books and highlighted by his devotion to many images and the selection and the enhancement of others.
There can be no doubt that the creative vitality of the books widens the scope for action and changes the substance of his pictures, further enriching their texture. His books put across the sense of being able to feel and see the activity of the creating hand driven by the artist’s passion and the reflections that serve as the foundation of his works.
Term used by Daniel Senise which is justified, according to him, not only by the appearance of books, but also by the nature of the notes themselves: the concept of books differ from the notion of sketchbooks by their solidity , compared with the more perishable notes which are easily lost.
The Sacred Sudarium – The sheet that covered Christ when He was already dead (shrowd);
The cloth used to wipe Christ’s brow while he was carrying the cross to Calvary.
Translation: Christopher J. AinsburyBack