"The soul, in patches, shapes the tattoo, the set of crossed lines drawing a force-field: the space occupied by the formidable pressure of the soul in its efforts to erase gently the shadows of the body, and the major entrenchments of the body to resist this effort. On the skin, soul and object are neighbors. [...]
The ecstatic transformation, the loss of the body into the soul, removes the tattoo."
- Michel Serres, The Five Senses (p. 25)
Cropped detail of intaglio print, "Tracings", Amanda Clyne

Cropped detail of intaglio print, "Tracings", Amanda Clyne

Mirroring Empathy

A few months ago, I started a new series of paintings that, instead of fragmenting multiple versions of one source image, I began building new portraits by combining sheer layers of multiple source images. The paintings aren't completed yet, so I have no great reveal for you right now, but since I began this work, I keep bumping into parallel universes that are signalling to me I may be on the right track.

Inspired by the connection of the mirror/image to the desire for empathy and intimacy, I felt the fates twist in my favor when I recently came across a reference to "mirror neurons". Seriously, MIRROR neurons? If things couldn't get any better, it turns out this is science's name for those neurons in the brain identified as the source of our empathic instincts. I just had to know more. To start, I found this pretty good video produced by PBS's NOVA series that explains the current research findings.

And if that wasn't awesome enough, I then came across a random Tweet about an amazing artist, Megan Daalder, (who I am now painfully jealous of!) who took this idea of the mirror neuron one step (or perhaps more accurately, a million steps) further by creating a "mirror-box" to enable two individuals to physically merge their mirror reflections into one another in real time. It is a living, breathing version of what I am exploring in my paintings, and it could not be more inspiring. I beg you to watch the video about her work -- it's an amazing story of the power of art, the promise of technology, and the mysterious science of empathy.

In The Flesh

I admit I am slightly tortured by the idea that 99% of the people who will see my work will not be seeing the real thing.  They will see it on a screen with different brightness and color settings than I see on my screen, and they will have to imagine how this little digital avatar might look in the flesh, so to speak.  And indeed, "in the flesh" seems the apt expression.  They will not see how the light reflects off the oily mushy paint strokes, how the color changes and shifts depending on whether the sun is beaming through the window or dimmed incandescent lights are quietly liberating it from the dark.  They will not see how big it is, how each face is larger than life size, how the painting stares at you as you wander around it, how the whole painting relates to their body.  They will not be able to look at it from different angles, from different distances, to move around the painting and experience the image collapsing into abstract details as they approach closer and closer.

Walter Benjamin described the work of art has having an "aura", and famously warned of the consequences of the future omnipotence of the reproduction.  California artist Robert Irwin never wanted his paintings to be photographed, since "Irwin felt that a photograph could capture none of what the painting was about and everything that it was not about.  That is, a photograph could convey image but not presence."*  For me, that seems true of all art that manifests itself as a physical object.  I heard Chuck Close say one time that the modern perspective of the history of art was not an examination of the history of painting but merely the history of slides -- frozen, stale reproductions, where all emphasis is given to image and little else.

One of the greatest compliments I can get for my work is, "it looks so much better in real life!".  I love having that experience myself -- of anticipating a particular experience with a work that I've seen online and then just being blown away when I get to see the actual work.  I had that visceral thrill most recently when I went to see Mark Grotjahn's spectacular exhibit in New York at Anton Kern this past summer.  Unreal.  So real.  Of course, too often, it can go the other way -- sadly, some paintings are much more impressive in reproduction.  I'll refrain from giving examples.

Here are a few different versions of one of my recent paintings ("Veiled", 48" x 28", oil on canvas).  Each image is "accurate" according to particular screens I have viewed them on.  I don't know what you see.  Each one of them is only an idea of the painting.  I wish it could be more.  I wish you could see the real thing -- in the flesh.

* From Lawrence Weschler's amazing book on Robert Irwin, "Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees"

Reflecting on the Image

In the last week, I've been to a couple of shows/events that have dealt with the relationship of painting to digital technologies (including photography): the show and panel discussion "Facing the Screen" at the University of Toronto, and the exhibition "Beautiful Fictions" at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I should have blogged sooner about my response to these exhibitions, but painting has been (and is) consuming me these days. But I don't want to forget some of the key ideas that sparked my interest. So for today, I'll begin with a brief mish mash of some of the ideas from the "Facing the Screen" exhibition.

At the show's panel discussion, artist Michel Daigneault spoke of the screen as a "double skin" which can be penetrated through details of the image to expose the first skin, ie. the paint. My work has always emphasized the details of an image pictorially, and in my most recent work, the painterly details in the surface are taking on a new prominence. I like the metaphor of a "double skin" since in my work now, I am questioning the screen not only as a technological skin but also as a type of mask that conceals certain desires and vulnerabilities.

Metaphors of the screen often reference a type of reflection, as mentioned by Daigneault with respect to the work of Peter Doig (see photo posted above). I admit I have not looked at Doig's work in this light, but now it seems obvious. Certainly the association of the screen and reflections is a natural one, since the reflective surface multiplies the real by way of an image. Repetition of an image is commonly used to reference technological reproduction, and has always payed a critical role in my work. But now that the images I am working with focus on images of the body, the notion of reflection and references to the mirror is an important conceptual step backward for me (backward in the sense of moving from an emphasis on the digital reproduction to the mirror's crude reflection). An exploration of the digital screen's relationship to painting undoubtedly remains in my work, but the rich associations of the mirror (with vanity, beauty, solitude, confrontation, etc) are giving my work a more sensual, emotional resonance.

Saved By Elizabeth Taylor

After hours of playing with images and working with more and more complicated compositions, I realized that I was sucking the emotional content out of the images by making them far too cerebral. While looking for images that were more couture-related, I came across this iconic image of Elizabeth Taylor, and was immediately reminded of the now even-more iconic interpretation by Andy Warhol (this is the painting that Hugh Grant sold for $zillions a couple years ago). Because Warhol's work shares many of the same concerns as my work, I loved the idea of creating my own translation of the original image. I have chosen to do two paintings, each derived from a different fragment of the original image. After making my ink prints of these fragments and photographing each print repeatedly over a few hours, I combined the various versions into one image. But the compositions are simple - much simpler than anything I've painted in quite some time. I think they have a dreamy quality that I've been wanting in my work but haven't achieved so far. (Sorry - I'm not going to post my composed images until they're painted.)

It's made me rethink the idea that an excess of detail can seduce the viewer to look longer. With all the visual excess we face everyday, I wonder if painting would do better to exploit its stillness rather than fight against it. Painting can seduce the viewer with a type of image that offers a quieter source of contemplation rather than yet another visual bombardment. The abstract painter David Reed disagrees, arguing: "Feelings start with motion. Seeing films and TV make this necessary. I don't think we can go back to a notion of stillness or balance in painting and the kind of contemplation this implies." (David Ryan, Talking Painting: Dialogues with Twelve Contemporary Abstract Painters, p. 204). I'm not sure yet whether I disagree with this statement now (even though I relied on it in support of my thesis), or whether the concept of motion is more complex than his statement perhaps implies. Reed works with fragmentation in his work, but the fragmentation is quite limited. Perhaps the juxtaposition of two fragments implies enough motion to excite the contemporary eye.

I guess I'll just have to wait and see what happens when I translate it all into paint.