Viewers often ask two questions about my painting ‘Ugliness, 2005’: Why the title? Why is the bottom edge of the primed canvas left unpainted?
The short answer
1. The title: to challenge the viewer textually with the suggestion of something off-putting in tandem with an image that can be considered visually attractive.
2. The unpainted canvas strip: to invite the viewer to reflect on their experience of ‘looking’ at a painting in relation to ‘making’.
The long answer
In the mid-2000s, the nature of contemplating a painting became a focus in my work and to explore this subject, Japanese ceramics seemed the perfect visual motif. As if to slow down time itself in looking at a painting, I developed a slow approach to making my still life depictions of Japanese vases, flasks and tea bowls - rather than employ my customary gestural technique, which resulted in the flattening of an object, I modulated the paint to portray a vase or flask in the round, which also allowed me to shape and define pictorial space. I built up a depiction gradually through thinly applied layers of paint, the final top surface underpinned by a number of lost surfaces that to my mind, represented multiple versions of the same object moving through time. As each layer of paint covered up the layer underneath, it simultaneously added to and destroyed a bank of visual information, entwining loss and gain in material sensual form. The accumulating bands of paint also reminded me of the strata of earth in an archaeological dig.
Whenever I encounter a Japanese pot or flask on display in a museum, the object and its presentation focuses my gaze in a particular way and I love the feeling of how it slows me down, slows down my sense of looking. Within the museum setting, the flask is of course devoid of its usual function in everyday life, and has no metaphoric value: it is simply a marvellous object to behold. The longer I look, the more I open up to a life-affirming excitement that I locate generally in the pleasure of looking. This intense visual engagement with the object’s appearance speaks to my bodily self and triggers a heightened sense of the present moment, which makes me feel very ‘alive’. In selecting Japanese ceramics as motifs for my paintings, I wanted to embody this particular uplifting experience that derives from a sustained pleasurable deep sense of looking.
However, away from the museum display and back in my studio, my aim to materialise this celebratory aspect of looking became complicated. My painting of a flask immediately took on a metaphoric value: as a container with both an external surface that could be visually accounted for, and an internal space that remained withheld, the flask evoked a number of relational pairings fundamental to my practice: notions of presence/absence, seen/unseen, known/not known, light and dark. In grappling with my painting, I felt the positive uplift of presence, of being joyfully held in the present, mesh with an existential anxiety stirred by a sense of loss or absence stemming from the past.
For months on end I painted Japanese flasks and tea bowls, quietly absorbed in a philosophical meditation on the subject of presence and absence through the pleasure of making and looking. I felt enthralled by the gorgeousness of paint and of the objects themselves, roused by the dance between beauty and sadness. Eventually this absorption began to dissolve. It was as if the ‘absence’ component of the painting began to overwhelm the ‘presence’ component, a sense of sadness, or longing, ballooning in my mind. Instead of feeling grounded by the factual certainty represented by the exteriority of the flask, a nervousness set in, triggered by imagining what might lurk within the flask’s interior. Perhaps those beautiful flasks contained something unbearable. To my eye, the forms of the four flasks in ‘Ugliness’ have an unappealing monumental awkwardness. I seem to have re-routed my unease about some unendurable thing skulking within the flask’s concave interior through to its convex exterior form.
It was an interesting challenge to paint something I found visually unattractive with painterly empathy. I wanted to mildly test the viewer by entitling the painting ‘Ugliness’ to echo my attempt at holding her or his gaze through my loving touch with paint while subjecting her or him to something uncomfortable. Perhaps I was asking myself: will I still be loved if my own inner forms of ugliness are revealed to one and all? How can I continue to grow my love for the world and give to it in the face of all its uglinesses?
The strip of primed canvas along the bottom edge of ‘Ugliness’ showcases the visible edge of the painted background not tied to illusion as well as drips of paint that fell from my brush as I worked, shifting the painting from a highly-charged something to an emptied-out nothing. It evokes the ‘absence’ component of the painting, a material counterpart to the ‘presence’ component, which lies above in the body of crafted paint. This unworked dripped-on area also keys the performative ‘making’ aspect of painting. It interrupts the viewer’s engagement in contemplating the depiction of flasks and invites her or him to reflect on their own active sense of looking at a painting, on their imaginative participation, which is a vital collaborative form of making.