(time to call the honeywagon....)
I postponed the subject of ‘time’ for 2-3 months, but now I am ready to write about it….
When I was a child my adults determined what ‘time’ meant; I did stuff and they told me when to stop. As an adult, the numbers on the clock structured my days: employment, studies, art practice and play. To fit into society, we accept the imposed meaning of numbered/time and behave accordingly, and although I am still capable of punctuality, ‘time’ feels like an old elastic band that cannot stretch as far as it used to, and I have less in front of me and lots trailing behind (memory, events, people etc.). Hmmm, enough whining, what I really want to discuss is how art redefines time.
We are aware of the potential art has of opening our eyes to recognize and value something hitherto invisible or seemingly banal, and, of transforming our attitudes and sensibilities. For example, art questions and redefines: Nature, Humanity, the Cosmos, and more abstractly: Truth, Space, and Time. How does it do the latter?
John Berger attempts an answer in the essay: Drawn to that moment, in The White Bird(1988) The Hogarth Press.
The advent of the cinema and television means that we now define drawings (or paintings) as static images. What we often overlook is that their virtue, their very function, depended upon this. The need to discover the camera, and the instantaneous or moving image, arose for many different reasons but it was not in order to improve on the static image, or, if it was presented in those terms, it was only because the meaning of the static image had been lost. In the nineteenth century when social time became unilinear, vectorial and regularly exchangeable, the instant became the maximum which could be grasped or preserved. The plate camera and the pocket watch, the reflex camera and the wrist-watch, are twin inventions. A drawing or painting presupposes another view of time.
…. The drawing image contains the experience of looking. A photograph is evidence of an encounter between event and photographer. A drawing slowly questions an event's appearance and in doing so reminds us that appearances are always a construction with a history. (Our aspiration towards objectivity can only proceed from the admission of subjectivity). We use photographs by taking them with us, in our lives, our arguments, our memories; it is we who move them. Whereas a drawing or painting forces us to stop and enter its time. A photograph is static because it has stopped time. A drawing or painting is static because it encompasses time……. How does a drawing or painting encompass time? What does it hold in its stillness? A drawing is more than a memento - a device for bringing back memories of time past. ……..To draw is to look, examining the structure of appearances. A drawing of a tree shows, not a tree, but a tree-being-looked-at. Whereas the sight of a tree is registered almost instantaneously, the examination of the sight of a tree (a tree-being-looked-at) not only takes minutes or hours instead of a fraction of a second, it also involves, derives from, and refers back to, much previous experience of looking. Within the instant of the sight of a tree is established a life-experience. This is how the act of drawing refuses the process of disappearances and proposed the simultaneity of a multitude of moments.
From each glance a drawing assembles a little evidence, but it consists of the evidence of many glances which can be seen together. On one hand, there is no sight in nature as unchanging as that of a drawing or painting. On the other hand, what is unchanging in a drawing consists of so many assembled moments that they constitute a totality rather than a fragment. The static image of a drawing or painting is the result of the opposition of two dynamic processes. Disappearances opposed by assemblage. If, for diagrammatic convenience, one accepts the metaphor of time as a flow, a river, then the act of drawing, by driving upstream, achieves the stationary.
Hmmm, a lot to think about here, from someone who understood art from the perspective of practitioner and writer/philosopher. I was saddened by Berger’s death, but his words still reassure me, as I step into my studio, since I am stepping into a process that I am just beginning to understand. I redefine my adherence to sequential time when I begin painting and enter into a state without numerical boundaries - hence my feeling of suspension, of finding myself in the middle of a painting without a roadmap or other security inspiring references. The suspension of time makes room for intense engagement, and the ‘open-endedness’ so necessary to discoveries. I am totally responsible for what occurs and what if any, results from working freely. The potential is huge, the gains immense, and the losses disheartening. I am still not certain if I chose this path or if the path chose me.
Yesterday was a struggle. All the inconsequential thinking that passes through my ears lingered,
sparking the useless questioning that undermines my determination. What the hell am I doing this for? Why am I immersed in an art form that few understand and even fewer value? What am I really contributing to life? And on and on… Normally these considerations dissipate, but lately they intrude - perhaps because I am more frequently lost in my ongoing paintings. The ‘sequential time’ that I have devoted to art in my lifetime, seems big and as I age I am reminding myself not to count the moments, not to rush the activity, and mostly, not to anticipate a rewarding result. Painting has endured centuries, thousands of years if we begin counting in the caves. Its potential will outlive my numbered life, I just hope I realize maturity as a painter, before senility claims me.
* 24 hours has passed since my discouraging art- negative work day. Yesterday’s frustration and anger propelled some unexpected and unrestrained moves on the paint surface - gestures that make sense today. So, encouraged, I plan to return to the studio at 3 o’clock, to lose(or loose) myself in an activity that has no o’clock and continues to awe and surprise me.
Have a good holiday season - if you celebrate, and I hope to communicate again in January. I am beginning to ponder about what it means to be a ‘contemporary’ painter….