Daniel Senise or the Rugged Passion for Painting
Bernardo Pinto de Almeida
Published in the catalog of the artist’s exhibition at Galeria Canvas, Porto, Portugal, in 2001
Painting has not for a long time been the historical centre of major arts, or the art amongst arts. I.e., the space of representation by excellence that throughout centuries, and particularly since Renaissance, justified its use as a privileged mean of communication by image. To this, first a codification mainly of symbolic value was attached – nowadays decipherable almost only by iconological knowledge – and later on, already in lay times, a purely pictorial value that would guarantee, in the Modernist period, the persistence of its experimental dimension.
In other words, if we approach the works not as specialists capable of understanding the profound meaning inscribed as a cipher in past’s works (where from colors to themes everything had a precise significance that signalled the exact meaning of each representation) the reading we can now make of history of art examples is like being in front of a large display of images accumulated in the coffers that became our Western tradition museums. This purely formal or visual reading was largely responsible for freeing painting from its more esoteric significance. And so Duchamp could state, somewhere between premonition and irony, that all the painting from the past was a ready-made like anything else(1).
Although not very cultivated, the first moderns – mainly after a certain liberation of form and some humanization of themes brought by Romanticism in the first half of the 19th century – were the first to understand, be it intuitively, the painting from the past as a large repertoire of visual forms that it would be interesting to prolong and deepen strictly in that formal dimension.
Thus we could live, particularly with Courbet and Manet in the second half of the 19th century, a movement of painting’s progressive secularization, the first giving it a statute of image of reality and the latter one of reality of the image. It was also Manet who, opening the door to bi-dimensionality, would allow for the surging of a painting particularized in the impression and sensation domains, regardful of minute variations in light and of a model of subjective and intuitive interpretation of reality that would be used later on by the Impressionist movement.
The Impressionists were, in all the history of this art in the West, the first to make a strictly formalist or visualist reading of painting’s reality, thus opening the way for what was called the modern revolution. This consisted mainly in the final liberation from all of its codes of representation, not only from those that demanded a certain fidelity to the real but mainly from the already mentioned, connected to a web of occult significance, decipherable only within a certain elite’s culture.
With them painting became impression, sentiment, and personal vision. With the speeding of that particularization of subjectivity, painting had rapidly to be tempted by the path of expression, thus by expressionism.
Fauves, Nordic and German expressionists, etc., very fast became the large contingent that would explore that subjectivist intention in the art of painting, of romantic heritage at the level of its sentiment but of brutal expressionism at the level of its eloquence. Somewhat forgotten geniuses like Van Gogh or Gauguin were recovered as genuine predecessors of that cry for freedom new artists sustained was absolute truth and undeniable creed.
After those ten first years in 20th century art, painting was de facto stripped off every old memory and, at the same time, freed for a massacre Modernism would ensure to the last consequences, i.e., until it was itself closed in the contingencies of a codified historical process.
Picasso and Braque’s, or Gleizes and Metzinger’s, Cubism, Delaunay’s Orphism, Malévich’s Suprematism, Kandinsky’s Lyrical Abstraction or Balla and Carrá’s Futurism, not to mention other -isms of the European 10’s, would be enough to guarantee the knocking down of all old co-ordinates and to institute another territory where painting became a mere exercise in experimentation of its own limits. Formal and ideological limits, beyond, naturally, limits of the representative.
Representation – understood as a relatively faithful reproduction of external reality – gave finally its place to the affirmation of pure subjectivity, from an artist’s subject-centered point of view, on his way of seeing things from himself more than from things’ form, whose register of pure impression would become the major motive in every pictorial action. From external reality we passed then to internal reality, a vague notion with no concrete meaning that the appearance of psychoanalysis, circa 1900 and thanks to Freud, in a certain way put into context in the field of the unconscious’ revelation. A new situation to which Surrealism would bring an imaginary and poetical legitimization that no other science, natural or human, had ever known.
The Modernism procedure was then to deepen and to make conscious those values instituted by the first vanguards – Dadaism included. And to build, from that first and founding corpus, the programmatic (and in a certain way normative, as later on Greenberg’s interpretation proved) sense of what painting should be, in order to become an art in progress able to reflect the historic development. In that sense the whole of Modernism constituted itself a Hegelian re-reading, i.e., dialectical and prophetic, of all previous history of art, assuming its mission of elaborating the ultimate sense of artistic practice.
This way, the re-reading Modernism made of the history of art that preceded it assumed a progressive meaning, where the succession of movements and gestures seemed to be easily explained by the need to make a supposed adventure of the human mind, like every other means of expression, progress.
But Modernism, born and created in the violent assumption of a search for pure art, had inevitably to have a tragic end. The so-called last vanguards from the beginning of the 60’s were a sign of that, as well as the progressive reduction to minimal vocabularies by the minimal artists. Most of what Greenberg, after Adorno, defended in terms of isolating art from all impurity and all kitsch, came to be in Donald Judd’s theory of specific objects.
If Pollock expressed largely the hypertrophy of the subjective, through the performing projection of pure paint over the canvasses in purely automatic constructions, it was Judd’s role to make art specified in a path of concept. That finally isolated it from every contamination from the body, thus elevating it to the level of pure construction of the mind and closing the modernist cycle.
Maybe it was necessary to make this somewhat rushed recapitulation in order to argue against all that thinking ñ whose major figure is the German-American critic Benjamin Buchloh(2) – that considered the so-called movement of return to painting as a purely regressive moment in this century history of art.
I have been sustaining, and I see no reason to change my mind, that the return to painting corresponded largely not to a need of going back to a burned-out model of representation but to go back to a practice which the development of Modernism itself had progressively de-legitimized by the reasons I already explained.
What I maintain is that this return, if it was one, was not made to painting itself, seen as a model of representation, but to what was left of painting after its mise-a-mort by nihilist violence (Hegelian branded) of the so-called last vanguards.
It was then going back to a practice considered moribund and, in a somewhat romantic but pregnant of consequences gesture, to question its pertinence in a new technical, technological, mediatic, social, economical and cultural reality.
Instead of thinking that particular reality as a market’s passing victory ñ which work so well selling installations as objects, painting or anything else, as the question is a totally different one ñ I think it is urgent to rethink this return to painting as a sign that intuitively communicates another type of phenomenology. For example, the one that confronts us with the need the human body and vision have of measuring themselves with the verticalised and bi-dimensional image, as a double and as a space of fiction.
Because this reappearance, although somewhat subjectifying in its more immediate meaning, has a lot to do with two other phenomena we cannot ignore. On one hand, with the relatively recent notion that identity is not a fixed apparel but a process in constructive building, where the subject’s desire has a concrete role, not totally over-determined by collective pressures of the social instance.
On the other hand, because the so-called information and mass-consumption society has created ñ through cultural industry mechanisms – a equivalence of all the images so out of proportion that devastated the whole of history of art’s building, turning it into a mere image bank or an endless imaginary museum. It was largely this the new context that would soon be designated as post-modernist, by opposition to the modernist normative, often projecting globally a purely hedonist and regressive sense that was present only in certain circles.
Artists that since the 80’s have assumed and still do, against accusations of being reactionaries, this return to painting have been acting as a kind of inspired archaeologists that have been edifying over the remains of a formerly major art ñ and partly thanks to the conceptual conscience created in the 60’s and 70’s – another way of understanding and mainly of questioning image through a renovated practice of painting.
Another form that, though not ignoring the technological devices of mass communication and cultural industry, still tries to save from its announced death a restitutional practice of a sensitive truth (desiring and liberating) that is only possible through it. To understand it aesthetically in full it will be necessary to return to the very momentous theses of Merleau-Ponty(3), about what he designated as the phenomenology of sensations and perception.
It was in fact this great French thinker who most clearly understood, in his reading of Cezanne, the true nature of painting, underlining how much it reveals itself in everything that is lacking in the world to be a painting. And all the elaboration around the so-called d or its consequent understanding as a regressive practice clashes with this powerful argument that defends painting as a way of revelation of man to himself, in a dimension that no other process confers within techniques known up to now.
The relation between the eye and the spirit, to quote M. Ponty’s famous title, is verified ñ both by the practitioners and by the ones that see it ñ in painting as a source of the renovation of the imaginary. We need painting for that, to give us what neither photography nor any other medium offers us. Daniel Senise, the object of this text, said so very exactly when he spoke of “a desire for non-existent objects”(4).
That desire for what does not yet exist ñ another way of speaking of worlds to come ñ is nothing but a metaphor to designate what interests us in art, i.e., its capacity to transform the real, and at the same time of investing it with hypothesis of other development’s s possibilities. Reality is not defined from the start. It exists as a future possibility, an uncertain movement, open to an infinite field of possibilities.
All the misery of historicism consists precisely in the belief that reality is predictable by the alleged predictability of history’s analysis.
But history – that has not by any means ended, as a certain so-called post-modernist but structurally conservative illusion pretended(5) – on the contrary gave in, from the context generated by post-modernity advent, to an open space where a web pregnant of possibilities is generated as a network of meanings and possible continuities.
This non-determinism of history, open again to the sense of the tragic – notice, for instance, the shift in course and the violent comeback of history due to the 11th of September events in New York – has in a certain way been also present in that almost Freudian return of the repressed.
Was not painting Modernism’s big repressed? To the place of form, the place of idea was systematically opposed, as if they were two antagonist realities. And was not its return desired as a breach with historicist Modernism’s dominant model (Plato-Hegelian) that wanted the absolute of idea to triumph?
I would say the return of painting, so often commented upon as a mere collateral effect of market’s ideology, corresponded rather to a new seizing of the body, of intuition, of the imaginary, of sensitivity, of sensuality, and even of sexuality and desire in those still non-existing objects. By opposition to the spiritual desert, purely rational and absolute of the idea perceived as the place by excellence of art created by the Modernist equivocal.
In this sense, artists like Julian Schnabel, Georg Baselitz or Daniel Senise integrate precisely the group of those who oppose decisively this predominance of the conceptual. They denounce its structural fragility and, what is more relevant, its also historical incapacity of dealing with other realities. Those that surpass a path closed by the totalitarianism of pure mind against the right to express what partakes rather of a corporeal reality of the sensorial and of the imaginary itself.
To show not only the non-existent objects but also their desire (including the psychological living of that desire) will very precisely make clear the forms of a desire for a long time postponed by Modernism, namely by prohibiting in its final stages subjectivity’s freedom of expression. And why should we all think and feel in the same way?
Some of the social and politically engaged art of our time continues to insist, partly thanks to a reactive regression, in the need to escape the world of forms in the name of a kind of good conscience of the politically correct. This is the sure sign of a never stated fear of that confrontation with the sensible and material reality of the body that has always traced the paths of the most innovative art in the Western world. The one that was properly able to invest the imaginary body as a source and object of all art.
Another of the ambiguities existing in this art, that so often claims a mediatic realism, consists precisely in its incapacity to invent enigmas, spaces of diversity, limiting itself most times to copying figures from the real. It takes them as hints or technological instruments that do not manage to subvert the existing mediatic landscape or to stop the continuous flow of the most common mass-mediatic alienation.
It is not by chance that most of this new art that demands the use of painting as a medium comes from those regions that for a long time were peripheral to the Modernist continent. Kuitca, Galan, Sarmento, Senise or Adriana Varejão do not belong exactly to the centre. They affirmed themselves outside of it and then were pulled to it by the verification of their work’s intensity.
What these artists’ painting brings as evidence, as expression or even as meaning, is but that need of re-empowering the work with an imaginary intensity. This, verifiable also through the use of other media, refuses to abandon the possibilities of painting as open territory to the expression of those imaginary realities. Which are able to configure from the sensitive side (that is why it was so often called neo-Romantic), the perception of other worlds and other sensations that would otherwise be incommunicado. Assuming all that is inventive in its tradition.
Dawn Ades(6), referring precisely to Daniel Senise, resumed this very well when she wrote “it is not about creating a new visual language but a dialectic between the intangible and matter, the aleatory and the given”. Or again when she referred to “the desire for a presence in painting of something that is not from this world (like the body absent from the sudary). Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro(7) also mentioned these realities when applying Richard Wollheim’s seeing in theses to Senise’s work. It is in fact an attempt to recover one of the biggest enigmas that from Leonardo to Max Ernst – not to mention pre-historical painting – has awakened the desire for the pictorial as a way by excellence of inscribing an imaginary dimension in the world.
Painters like Senise (or, amongst us, like Sarmento) proceed precisely from that notion of applying, through image, a certain epiphanical way of perceiving the real ñ the time that elapses when someone is getting out of a car, the evocation of a sound like a lighter clicking in the night, to give but a few examples of that epiphanical way. In its genesis it evokes what Duchamp called the inframince (that we could more or less translate as interstitial), that would not otherwise be communicable.
If we assume painting is an explicit way of building images and, at the same time, of revealing the gestures of the body in the bi-dimensional space, it will produce in whom sees it small illuminations. This experience opens a field for what an inspired José Gil called the universe of small perceptions(8). Daniel Senise’s painting, as with some of his contemporaries, is about the need to return to a certain experience of the sensitive body, expressing through it and in front of those available for this sensorial adventure the communication of a sensitive knowledge of the real. Although this can also happen through other media, it often needs the painted form to reveal itself. In this way, Man Ray could state that he painted only what could not be photographed.
This procedure is well explained by Cliffs and Mountain (1994) – in lacquer and dust of wood over canvas, they can be seen as negatives of each other. They conjugate a certain evocation of painting’s memory (from the distant landscapes in the frescoes windows of the first Renaissance to William Blake or Victor Hugo’s watercolours, via some of Max Ernst’s organic-fantastic figurations) on one side with the material and constructive experimentation, authorized by the elements themselves. This conjugation relays the spectator to a space of spectral experimentation and environmental suggestion that communicates a sensation of de-territorialization and of imaginary strangeness.
In the artist’s most recent series (where a method already experimented in previous works is reused) Daniel Senise captures through frottage (the method invented by Max Ernst that uses brushing to obtain the negative of a given surface) the image of sculpture workshops’ floors in New York. Then, over those residual images, where we can find superimposed stains, lines and erasures that recall archaeological vestiges, underlining suggestions of perspectives or simple diagonals, the artist rediscovers fictions of uncertain architectures, corners, pieces of emptiness, that can refer us to the urban reality or to desolated interiors of abandoned buildings.
It is, naturally, the construction of a fictional space, of architectonic reference, as so often happened in his work, but where new questions are raised or others re-elaborated, often recovered from the first Modernism vocabulary, like the duality between form and content. A fictional space defined mainly by the way it does not take painting for what it is not anymore, and can never be again – a simple question of representation or of de-figuration of the represented – but precisely by what it means, as a way of capturing the image of something that did not exist yet, but that could still be the target of a desire (an anxiety).
In this way all the painting emerging from the post-modern context is in debt to some of the most fundamental intuitions of historical Surrealism. The biggest being this conviction that image, in all its forms, is the chosen vehicle for the repositioning of the imaginary, its only mediation with the visible world and the only possibility of inscribing itself in it.
The painting of this remarkable artist sends us to that space of the not having yet (or the visible-future) built from a methodology that operates through the attempt to configure a field. Of generating it from a strategy of walking around, precisely because it is conscious that what it wants to show does not yet belong to the order of the visible. But, its procedure being one of a visible-future, it is still subtly connected to the sphere of the invisible, of the momentary revelation (epiphanical) of another reality.
That is why its most essential space belongs to the fictional order. Through it, it materializes the knowledge of another endless territory, in its own game of matter and always from the trick-crafting learned in the painting’s tradition (we are thinking in Morandi or in Friederich), always beyond and behind every image, the territory of the imaginary.
Being that its primary source, and also its most truthful, it develops at once as a rugged passion of the painted painting and as an impossible distance and almost dramatically conscious of its impossible fulfillment.
Passion and distance being opposition and mutually excluding forces they generate drama, the almost imperceptible subtle climate of tension where the space of mise-en-abîme of Daniel Senise’s painting is built.
That is where its spectral character comes from, its reason for non-coincidence, its vertigo for the invisible, but also its visual efficiency, its rigor, the perplexity it provokes in us, always with the feeling of having arrived slightly before or after the happening itself. That is where it evokes Atget’s images.
If, like I think, a happening is the coincidence of a time with a space, Daniel Senise’s painting, that works through de-coincidence, presents itself as a non-happening, like a subtle imperceptible gesture that threatens the order of the visible. That is where its apparent impassivity, its serenity, its anti-spectacular meaning are generated, but also its character of desire for what does not exist.
De-coincidence that operates, vis-à-vis the visual landscape that conditions and touches us all, the mediatic oppression, at once archaic and advanced, reopening the path to the imaginary. Where freedom is always present because the imaginary is a territory that neither logic nor reason dominate.
Subtracting itself from the consecrated forms of the mainstream circuit and from the allowed visible, Senise’s painting frees us to another understanding of things. Of other things.
Translation: José Paulo Moura
1 – C.f. Pierre Cabanne, Marcel Duchamp, o engenheiro do tempo perdido – Entrevistas, S. Paulo.
2 – C.f., for example, Formalisme et historicité, Autoritarism et regression, Ed. Territoires, Paris.
3 – C.f., amongst other titles, L’oeil et l’esprit, Gallimard, Paris.
4 – Talk to Ivo Mesquita. Quoted on Daniel Senise, Ela que nao esta, ed. Cosac & Naify, Sao Paulo, 1998, p.14.
5 – I am referring specifically to thinkers like Francis Fukuyama, according to whom the end of history would be connected with the universalization of the neo-liberal model.
6 – In op. cit., pp. 19-20
7 – In op. cit., pp. 27-31
8 – Ed. Relogio d’Água, Lisboa.