Constructions About Painting
Published in the artist’s book “Daniel Senise: Ela que não está”, Cosac & Naify Edições, São Paulo, Brazil, in 1998
Senise’s work has often been placed as an archetype of the “return to painting” which took place from the 1980s in the visual arts. As such, he is positioned as a Brazilian equivalent to Anselm Kiefer, Guillermo Kuitca or Rainer Fetting, three artists who led the rebirth of interest in painting as an expressive medium, a reaction against the conceptualism of the 1970s.
Such a reading of Senise’ s work, however, does not hold beyond a simple similarity in certain physical characteristics typical of the new painterly generation: large formats, a certain romanticism, suggestive imagery, etc. It soon becomes apparent that Senise’ s work is in fact far removed from traditional painting, at least on the surface. To star with the most obvious contradiction, many of Senise’s recent works are not “painted” at all, but rather constructed from layers of materials as diverse as rust, voile, resin, glue or dust. In fact, many recent works do not use paint at all. Also, there is an absence of gesture in these works, precisely the feature which was supposed to be rediscovered by the new painters. Finally, although Senise’s works are undoubtedly romantic in mood and atmosphere, they do this without reference to specific cultural systems such as psychoanalysis or national mythology, which give meaning to the work of many of his contemporaries.
Yet Daniel Senise’s works are nonetheless very much concerned with painting. One of their most interesting characteristics is the way in which they are engaged with complex discourses on the nature of imagery and representation, which were born in and long to the world of painting. As such, one could argue that painting is the subject of Senise’ s works, if not always the technique. They are indeed constructions about painting.
The Death of Painting: A Modernist Myth
One of the many problems about speaking of a “return” to painting is the fact that not only did painting never die, but also that as an issue and concern it has been at the centre of modernist debate. As Michael Phillipson has written:
“Within the visual arts and perhaps across the arts generally, it is on the site of painting that the question of modernity has been most explicitly fought over and worked through. From the emergence of the modern commitment through to the post-modern era it has been painting which has been at the very centre of critical debates both within art (among artists) and within the realm of critical/analytical practice”.(1)
Throughout the 20th century, so the fashionable story goes, painting discovered its inherent qualities: essentially “flatness”. In the linear and Hegelian discourse of modernism, painting realized itself in the extent to which it recognized and embraced this “flatness”. However, even the most radical abstractionists soon realized that there was within painting a powerful counterweight which created illusion even with the most pure and ascetic form. For example, a diagonal line on a white base would always suggest depth and movement however flat and anti-illusionist the line may be in its application on the canvas. However, the discourse of “flatness” was powerful enough to polarize the artistic world for most of the century, and even today it remains one of the dualities and contradictions which not even post-modernism can reconcile.
Yet there have always been painters who, at the risk of ridicule and isolation from the critical establishment, have defended the picture plane, the canvas, as a field of action on and in which significant action can take place. This has not always meant a return to photographic realism, as the case of Francis Bacon illustrates well, an artist who was able to return to a brutal realism while still respecting the modern possibilities of the treatment of paint on canvas. In fact, one of the remarkable characteristics of the 20th century has been the ability of painting as a medium to reinvent itself. As Dore Ashton has written:
“There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myths we inherit from abstract art – that painting is autonomous, pure and for itself … But painting is “impure”. It is the adjustments of impurity which forces painting’s continuity”.(2)
The concept of “impurity” is one that may help in the reading of Senise’s work. On an almost accidental level, Senise’s works often incorporate elements taken from the floor of his studio against which he leans the canvas surface, collecting dirt, dust and residues, which then form part of the overall pattern and construction of the work. In terms of the subject matter, images are presented which often have specific cultural references (art history, utilitarian catalogues, etc.), but these are shown discontinuously with jumps in the narrative which elude a direct reading. In some recent works, the surface of the canvas is invaded by ants; in others by bones or levitating silhouettes. In all cases, the relationships between the figures could only exist in the artifice of the picture plane, a space which they simultaneously inhabit and deny.
In creating such an artificial world, Senise is not only drawing attention to the artifice of painting and art in general, but he is also redifining his relationship (and by extension that of the spectator) with the visual world in general. Such an attitude can also be found in a number of contemporary artists who, although vastly different in style and content, also try to use art as a direct tool to understand the physical world, without need for a complicated theoretical apparatus. The British sculptor Tony Cragg is one such artist, and his statements reveal precisely this creation of an artificial universe as a “thinking model”:
“My initial interest in making images and objects was, and still remains, the creation of objects that don’ t exist in the natural or in the functional world, which can reflect and transmit information and feelings about the world and my own existence… I think that you have to make images of objects which are like thinking models to help you get through the world.”(3)
Senise’s paintings inhabit a similar world between recognition and fantasy. In particular, those works, which incorporate landscape such as Paisagem com Levitação, the work Na estrada or Untitled hover between the naturalistic rendition of a romantic landscape and the bizarre appearance of figures from the history of art. These juxtapositions open whole universes of pictorial and philosophical possibilities, and even more so because they offer no clues, no keys with which to unlock a hidden “meaning”. They are constructions of eloquent silence, and as such a direct challenge to the predominance of conceptualization in contemporary art. Senise’s paintings must be experienced visually, and no system external to the visual helps in reading them.
SEEING-IN AND REPRESENTATION
If Senise’ s works are purely visual and belong to the tradition of painting as argued above, it may be useful to look at those aspects of his art which define his activity as being specifically painterly. As already noted, Senise constructs rather than paints his canvases, but the ways in which the image is engendered and treated calls on the oldest traditions of painting. Richard Wollheim in his discussion of painting as art(4) identifies what he calls “seeing-in” as the key to visual representation. Seeing-in is the ability – unique to the visual arts and painting in particular – to suggest form without describing it in full detail. A good example would be Leonardo da Vinci’s advice to artists to look at stains on a wall until figures emerge. Another example might be the way that we see forms in clouds or smoke. Within the history of art, Velazquez’ s almost abstract treatment of paint to suggest form is a justly celebrated example. According to Wollheim, seeing-in has a direct relationship to the formulation of painting as art. relying as it does on the human imagination to complete the work of the artist. Seeing-in relies on a particular form of perception, which Wollheim describes as “twofoldedness”, referring to the dual quality of the painter to create surfaces which are at once abstract surface and also representations of an external object.
To look at any work by Senise is to look at an example of seeing-in. In works such as Igrejinha (1991), the use of smoke could almost be a direct reference to visual exercises like those recommended by Leonardo da Vinci. The more recent incorporation of real nails (substituting the painted ones of earlier works) also creates this tension between the reading of physical matter (the nails) and the image (the artist’s mother, boomerang trails, rings, etc,). Likewise, the richly textured background of works, like Untitled (1988) [ Ver Imagem] or Untitled [ Ver Imagem] create large areas in which the eye and the imagination can fill, and which the artist leaves intentionally undefined. The result is that Senise’s works create an ambivalent relationship with the spectator, precisely because it is hard to see what his intention might be.
The large unresolved areas of Senise’s works serve not just as backgrounds to the central figures, but rather as an intrinsic part of the excercise of looking at painting. Although the areas do not resolve into figures or scenes, this is part of the artist’s intention. Wollheim recognises this type of work in the following terms:
“There is a kind of picture that is half-way house to representation. There are pictures in which it is correct to see something – to see something rather than nothing – but there is nothing – there is no one thing – of which it is true to say that it is correct to see it in the picture.”(5)
In other words, although there may be no figure explicitly contained in the looser areas of his works, part of the intention of the painting can be contained in these passages in which the eye is forced to “see-in”. What Senise seems to be emphasizing is that painting is not just about brush, paint and gesture, but rather the way in which images are created and held by the picture-plane.
DIFFUSION AND DENSITY
If, as I have suggested, part of Senise’s intention is to diffuse meaning across and into the surfaces of his works, one of the ways he does this, in addition to seeing-in, is through the creation of density. On one level, the actual construction of his works creates a physical density, particularly through his use of voile to build up layers that avoid the construction becoming a sculptural relief by unifying the surface. The fine mesh of the voile and its transparency creates a deceptive effect on the surface, at once suggesting and denying a physical depth to the canvas itself. the voile also serves, in some cases, to diffuse light in such a way that it creates an optical and kinetic effect, which in turn dematerializes the surface.
The other way in which density is created in these works is through the subject matter. Senise, like many of his contemporaries, uses “borrowing” in his works. “Borrowing” has become associated over the past decade with post-modernism, particularly with regard to the borrowing of historical styles and motifs. In many contemporary works, this “borrowing” is done with irony and often forms the subject of the works themselves, as in the photographs of Cindy Sherman. If, as I have suggested, Senise’ s works are not primarily concerned with narrative readings or subject matter but rather with the processes and possibilities of painting, the creation of ironic manipulations would rely on the application of a code which would be in contradiction to the main interest of the work. It is my opinion that the use of borrowing is there precisely to create density.
Senise’s repertoire of subjects is limited, and most are figures taken from history of Western art. The choice is eccentric, ranging from Giotto to 18th-century silhouettes or Whistler’s portrait of his mother. It would be hard to read any specific intention or programme into this choice, and it is more likely that it responds to a series of personal obsessions. The very act of borrowing is one which inevitably creates a series of resonances and memories in the spectator, which may or may not correspond with Senise’ s own, but in any case, a visual and cultural density will be generated. In some works, the borrowing is further elaborated by working within the negative of the image. For example, in Untitled, Cliffs and Mountain or Untitled, Senise works with the textbook illusions generated by visual negatives, in this case making a vase from the negative space between two seated figures. This kind of visual effect was much used by Gestalt psychologists, and there may be a mild pun in Senise’s painterly use of the motif, bearing in mind that Gestalt has been one of the main supporting planks of much 20th-century abstract or conceptual art, and has often been related specifically to Brazilian neoconcretism, one of the many movements to decree the end of painting.
The use of the negative appears again in the series Ela que não está. Here we are presented with the shape created by the areas of the Giotto’s St. Francis series where the fresco has been damaged. The shape is immediately recognizable to many through art history books, postcards and tourist images, yet it forms an unintentional motif, one never seen by Giotto himself. Senise is once again drawing our attention to those aspects of iconography which are there and not there (thus the title of the series), while suggesting that images belong as much to the subconscious as they do to the conscious. This is partly what gives his images such potency: their ability to hold on to a magical quality, one which can’ t be explained away through content, narrative or circumstance.
1 Michael Philipson, Painting, Language and Modernity, Londres, Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1985, p.22
2 Dore Ashton, A Critical Study Of Philip Guston, University of California Press, 1976, p.2
3 Tony Cragg, apud Germano Celant, Tony Cragg, Londres, Thames and Hudson, 1996.
4 Richard Wollheim, Painting as Art, Londres, Thames and Hudson, 1987.
5 Richard Wollheim, ibid, p.50.