Truth, Lies and Dodges

I had a conversation yesterday with LP (Lisa the Poet) about speaking the truth whether it be in poetry or in the visual arts. She went to the same lecture by Jenny Saville that I have written about here (although at the time we did not yet know each other) and felt immediately at home as Saville took her audience on a visual tour of many of her haunts for inspiration—the morgue, slaughterhouses, plastic surgery medical files. LP said that Saville was showing us the world and saying in effect, look at these things, really see and accept the reality that is life.

As a non-representational painter, truth speaking takes a different form for my work. But it is still important to me—very important. It feels like this is music written for a different scale, that doesn’t translate over into a 12 tone frame. I was also painfully aware of how difficult it was for me to articulate this distinction in my conversation with LP, something that made me feel the need to pay more attention to what this is.

So I returned to my notes from Saville’s lecture. Here are a few of the jottings I took down that night that may or may not offer insights into this complex but compelling set of issues.

Some excerpts:

Saville said she used text in her earlier works out of desperation. “Writers are more precise.”

Getting out from under the “burden” of painting was important to her. When she started looking at medical images and reading about the body in that detached, scientific way, the “veils of art” were gone. She began a phase where she stopped looking at art and turned to other image making forms to get at the raw state of things.

When matter is out of place, everything changes. That is what she was seeking in her exploration of “monstrous” sized bodies that live outside the norm, or in putting pig intestines in unfamiliar contexts.

Warhol presents icons of violence in a cool and detached way. It is his endless multiplicity of an image that is the violence in his work.

She looks for the in between–a body that is too big, a hermaphrodite, siamese twins, the border between life and death.

Figuration is very problematic. “It is embarrassingly hard to create the reality of human presence.”

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Although not referenced in her lecture, I also found this passage from Umberto Eco’s famous book, A Theory of Semiotics, also fitting for a meditative approach to this topic:

Semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign. A sign is everything which can be taken as significantly substituting for something else…Thus semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used “to tell” at all.

More is needed on this, clearly.

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2 comments

  1. Virgin in the Volcano’s avatar

    That LP sounds like a bit of a hack. In any case, I think it’s interesting that you jotted down Saville’s use of text as a mark of her desperation. That earlier work is my least favorite. The text feels cheesy and imprecise, the words–support, delicate, decorative–shorthand for more specific and compelling stories that might be better suggested in the image itself. But hell, she was 22 then.

    In contrast to your thoughtful notes, my most coherent scribbling from the lecture is a direct quote: “One of my dreams has always been to paint a carcass. I went to meet the beast the day before at the slaughterhouse.” For me, these two lines evoke the whole Saville story: who she is, her angle on the world, her process of negotiation, her raw nerve. I don’t really need to know her biography or influences. This kind of attention to a carcass, her natural fascination with the tension inherent in recognizing it as both beef and beast, dead and live, the willingness to encounter it head on before, during, and after it has been killed, this is in every brushstroke in the Torso paintings. From the ton of flesh slung from the ceiling, extend the terribly tender hooves. It’s very real blood stains the foreground. And for me, this kind of recognition, of accounting, feels as essential as being, as breathing.

  2. Deborah Barlow’s avatar

    I agree. The texted images from her earlier oeuvre feel jejune. I admired her for showing them in her presentation even though she has moved past that approach. Once again, she isn’t self-conscious about her image but is dedicatedly committed to her craft.

    Love your second paragraph. Far from hack my dear, very far. Thanks for valuable add.

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