Making, Matter and Unity

“Surfaces seduce and entities evolve: It is exquisite getting lost in the mysterious pageant of the making.” (Close up of a recent piece)

I spend a lot of time alone. But being isolated for most of the day doesn’t mean the mind stops chattering. It chatters constantly, but the dialogue is either internal (between entities whose identities are still undetermined IMHO) or with that object in front of me, the WIP (work in process.)

Is there such a thing as a dialogue carried on with a painting? This is hard to describe to someone whose thinking is precise and linear. But for many of us, the objects we make are conversational and they do engage in a back and forth of ideas, tensions, directionals, outcomes. No, they are not sentient beings. But maybe they are something else. Maybe they are a something that has its own dynamic arc of aliveness. Like I said, this is hard to describe.

Something that showed up in a conversation between painter Philip Guston and art critic David Sylvester touches into this if just obliquely. Here is Guston talking about the picture plane:

We were talking yesterday at the studio about the picture plane, and to me there’s some mysterious element about the plane. I can’t rationalize it, I can’t talk about it, but I know there’s an existence on this imaginary plane which holds almost all the fascination of painting for me. As a matter of fact, I think the true image only comes out when it exists on this imaginary plane. but in schools you hear everyone talk about the picture plane as a first principle. And in the beginning design class, it’s still labored to death. Yet I think it’s one of the most mysterious and complex things to understand. I’m convinced that it’s almost a key, and yet I can’t talk about it; nor do I think it can be talked about. There’s something very frustrating, necessary, and puzzling about this metaphysical plane that painting exists on. And I think that, when it’s either eliminated or not maintained intensely, I get lost in it. This plane exists in the other arts, anyway. Think of the poetic plane and the theater plane. And it has to do with matter. it has to do with the very matter that the thing is done in.

And later in the conversation, Guston shares a few more painterly insights:

It’s terrible to rationalize about painting because you know that, while you’re creating it, you can have all sorts of things in your mind consciously that you want to do and that really won’t be done. You won’t be finished until the most unexpected and surprising things happen. I find I can’t compose a picture anymore. I suppose I’ve been thinking about painting structures for many years, but I find that I know less and less about composing and yet, when the thing comes off in this old and new way at the same time, weeks later, I get it, and it arrives at a unity that I never could have predicted and foreseen or planned.

Ah, the love of uncertainty. The thrill when “the most unexpected and surprising things happen.” Surfaces seduce and entities evolve: It is exquisite getting lost in the mysterious pageant of the making.

7 Replies to “Making, Matter and Unity”

  1. mdoallas says:

    I love these close-ups of your work! The textures and quality of other-worldliness are wonderful.

    And, yes, I do think artists converse with what they’re making, and that the conversation can be fascinating.

  2. Thanks for your kind words M. I fall under the spell of the micro images as well as the macro. They inform each other.

  3. Your paintings are certainly breaking out of the traditional picture plane with their expressive, eruptive surfaces. The quotes from Guston are very interesting. I wonder about the date of the interview; was it early in his career, when he was still painting abstractly? or later. It’s funny, but “picture plane” is never on my mind while I paint; I suppose it is in different language, but that language seems so 1950s to 1960s; do artists still speak of the picture plane?

  4. Altoon, the conversation with Sylvester is from 1960 so it took place well before Guston’s Big Change. I agree, “picture plane” is a term that feels out of date now but I have, for my purposes, substituted other ways of thinking about the experience of the surface and how it is navigated. I also found his comment about composition resonant. As difficult as Guston was IRL he has moments of honesty and clarity that continue to speak to me.

  5. Thanks, Deborah, for your & Guston’s reflections and for those wonderfully sensuous close-ups of your work. For us writers, there’s the plane of the computer screen on which we compose–and certainly there’s pleasure and mystery in the act of composing–but not the lush sensuousness of canvas and paint.

  6. Deborah, these close-ups of your work really inform me as I haven’t had a chance to see your work live. I feel like I’m looking at the surface of the moon.

    And I always enjoy the kind of discussion you posted regarding the difficulties of articulating the experience of making a painting such as your quotes from Guston.


    1. Thanks Val. I really appreciate your words. Looking like the surface of the moon is high praise!

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