Scrolling through my collection of notes for blogs-in-waiting, I’ve turned up this quote from Peter Schjeldahl in the June 9 New Yorker: “Painting is a medium of concerted imagination, symbolizing consciousness. It’s not a flat dump for miscellaneous ideas.” This is an accurate assessment, and it strikes a chord with everyone who loves painting. Independent Curator Suzette McAvoy incorporated it into her lecture last week at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. She was talking about the simple act of seeing, as it relates to Lois Dodd’s paintings (whose exhibition remains on view through July 19).
Making a painting remains the solitary pursuit we've always thought it to be, and it is a complicated one, too. Cognitive theories are not much help to the painter confronted with a subject, a blank canvas, and a palette full of paint. If there is no subject, as is the case for pure abstraction, the complications multiply. So how is it that the viewing of a painting is a simple act, and one to which we must bring an open mind empty of theories?
Painting appeals to the senses. It’s visual, it evokes both sound and smell, it’s tactile (too bad that in galleries and museums we are not allowed to touch). I have a friend who once licked a Van Gogh – giving him perhaps an enhanced understanding of the painter’s struggle. Our sixth sense, intuition, or instinct, tells us whether we like the painting or don’t, but it also does much more. It brings up a host of visceral associations, and it is to this conciousness that we should listen first.
What a painting means in formal terms or in light of its subject matter and narrative, are layers to be discovered as one’s sophistication increases. But the simple act of seeing opens the door, makes the connection between the lived world and the depicted one, so that walking outdoors one fine day, with sudden insight we may see a Welliver sky or, driving through the city, come upon a Hopper row of buildings. It’s our imagination plus the artist’s skill that makes these moments happen.