Who's a painting really for: the artist who makes it, or the viewers who see it? Artists do love to run on about the importance of process, and how that is really where the art is--not so much in the product. It's the thoughts, the choices made, perhaps even the back-and-forth with the materials, that are important, they say. This makes it difficult for the viewer, who wants to look at something, some image--the results of the process--and who may not completely share the artist's passion for the process itself.
But on the other hand, to hear some artists talk, there is no completed artwork without the viewer's gaze. (And trees don't fall in the forest when no one is there to hear them?) Many artists have become extremely reluctant to say what their paintings are about or what they mean. They--whether out of modesty, out of uncertainty as to their own thoughts, or out of political correctness--decline to assert their purpose. It is up to the viewer to supply the meaning. (No one's opinion--however wide of the mark--should be considered wrong these days; that might scar their little psyches.)
I can't quite see why the viewer should do the artist's job. But in my more charitable moments, I believe that what these artists really are trying to say is that no matter what the artist means, each viewer brings so much to the act of looking that each individual's interpretation of the artwork will be different and--problematic though this seems--equally valid. But why that should preclude the artist knowing what she or he intended escapes me.
No matter what you may think about process and product, it seems clear that artists make images to be seen, maybe even to communicate--a goal beyond the satisfactions and private rewards of process. But what is painting for, exactly?
It must be for something important, because, in this virtual, mediated age, paintings continue to be made and shown. In fact, after its near-death experience a couple of decades ago, painting has surged back with the renewed vitality of a cancer patient after a successful bone-marrow transplant.
But what painting is for remains a perennial question. Is it to think about, or to look at; to analyze or to experience--or can it be for both at once? Is painting (despite photography) for representation of the world, or should it abstract from the visual world, thereby becoming more cerebral or possibly more spiritual? Should it provide a political platform, promote social change? Should it question the status quo or reflect it? Ought painting to convey emotion, or suppress it? Should it document, or tell stories, or should it be more like an essay, or perhaps more like a poem? Or should it eschew literary, language-based models altogether? Can a painting lead both its maker and its viewers to deeper self-knowledge and wider understanding, with or without verbal underpinnings?
Two painting shows currently at the Duke University Museum of Art (DUMA) have provoked this torrent of questions, as is appropriate for exhibitions at a university museum to do. Basically, the answer to them all is "yes." Yes, painting should do all these things and more. My tastes lead me to prefer certain objectives over others, but my only real caveat is that the artists not confuse telling with showing, and do their job of image-making with sincerity, no matter how sarcastic, ironic or theory-laden their souls may be. Don Eddy, whose retrospective of photo-realist paintings fills DUMA's main gallery, and Corrine Colarusso, whose "free wandering" landscapes hang upstairs, are equally sincere in their work, although they could hardly be more different in process or product.
At the opening reception for his exhibition, Eddy gave one of the best artist talks I have ever heard, discussing with great erudition ideas about a word-based understanding of the world, as opposed to an image-based understanding. He talked of his own journey toward self-understanding through the process of his work, and he spoke of the concurrent shift in the work away from a language base and toward "the envisioned." While his earlier work is visually stunning, it doesn't leave much for your mind to work on or return to. It is all spelled out. But in the more recent pieces, Eddy thinks in pictures, and his imaging requires that we imagine, apprehending meaning not through logic, but through a more Zenlike process.
As concerned as he is with perception and visual qualities, Eddy makes his pictures using photographs and sprayed paint in an obsessive, mediated, many-layered process that distances him considerably from any immediate visual experience and that completely eliminates the mark of his hand in the work and cools its emotional temperature. Not so Colarusso. She draws from life and from her feelings and memories of what she has seen, always working directly onto the canvas, building her layers and images in response to her previous marks, rather than from a settled plan. It is, she says, that unmediated experience of mark-making that keeps her painting.
Although their work contrasts sharply, these artists are similar in that they are both image-makers, not talkers in paint. Both play the delicious painters' game, insisting that a painting is color and line on a flat surface, an object independent of its imagery--yet both know the work is more than that, more than a game, more than a process for the artist, more than pleasing colors and lines arranged on smooth rectangles.
What such paintings depict and show may have a counterpart in literature or poetry, but good paintings do not translate from words, nor could they be traded for a verbal description. Their power lies in their images, which do not exist anywhere in the world in these precise arrangements. Arrived at through the artists' inscrutable alchemy and clarifying craft, the images matter to both artist and viewer: Process and product are in balance. These paintings have been made to capture and convey some nonverbal knowledge from the maker to the viewer. That's really what painting is for.