"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

Intaglio Breakthrough

As a process-based artist, somehow I new that learning new processes would be critical to breaking through to new work. For the last six weeks, I've been learning various printmaking techniques. Lithography remains my nemesis -- yet to be conquered -- but intaglio and screenprinting have been pushing me out of my comfort zone in the best way possible. Yesterday, I had a breakthrough in finding a way to capture the sensations that I've been striving to convey with an intensity that I don't think I have been able to achieve in my previous work. I can only show a small peak right now. The works are still in progress, and there's still so much to resolve. But I'm so excited by the latest turn of events, I thought it was worth sharing.

Amanda Clyne, detail of a work-in-progress, 2012

Amanda Clyne, detail of a work-in-progress, 2012

Happiness Bores Me

At the artist talk that I just gave to a group of artists this past Friday night, a man asked me why I didn't paint portraits of women smiling. Why did I have to make them all look so sad? Without hesitation, I responded, "Happiness bores me." Everyone laughed (I didn't mean it to be funny), and several people looked at me with an almost pitying look. Doesn't everyone want to be happy? Why not paint happiness? But for better or worse, throughout my life I have always sought interesting over happy. And just 24 hours after my artist talk, reading the last few pages of the book The Psychopath Test, I found a kindred spirit in its author, Jon Ronson:
"There is no evidence that we've been placed on this planet to be especially happy or especially normal. And in fact, our unhappiness and our strangeness, our anxieties and compulsions, those least fashionable aspects of our personalities, are quite often what lead us to do rather interesting things." (The Psychopath Test, p. 271)
Happiness seems simple. Personally, I like complicated. One of my favorite quotes about the nature of art asks:
Amanda Clyne, "Silver Variations No 2", oil on canvas, 2010
"How is the artist's perception unique? I don't think that when you see the most extravagant, extraordinary exhibition [...], you're really seeing the art. These are maps or charts or clues to the process that makes the art. The art is [the artist]'s perception of the world. The art is happening in [the artist]'s head. These are the maps to that art." (Arnold Glimcher, speaking at an interview with artist Louise Nevelson, quoted around minute 19:00 of the video)
I like to think that people are similar to artworks in this way. In trying to understand others, we can only go on the clues that they may offer or reveal by way of their words, actions, appearance and deeds. Clues from happiness seem to offer little in the way of insight, and perhaps more often than not only serve to mask the more interesting flaws, struggles, fears and desires that remain hidden behind those smiling eyes. For me, happiness just seems too cozy with that equally deceptive and ever-suspicious "normal" and its nefarious kin "perfect".

These curiosities lie at the core of my art. How do we connect to one another and on what basis? What do we allow others to see of ourselves? What are we sensitive enough to see in others? How much do we miss? How closely do we really look?  And how do we navigate through all the fragmented and often irreconcilable clues to understand a person in all their meandering complexities? The veneer of happiness seems to offer little in the way of answers. So don't expect to see one of my paintings smiling back at you anytime soon. :-)

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"

Portraits of a Sensation

photograph, Amanda Clyne ©

I am not a storyteller. My curiosity in the world lies not in reconstructing a nebulous past or imagining a fantastical future, but in experiencing the pregnant intensity of a living moment. When I am drawn to something, whether a person, building, object or image, I place the world on pause to probe the source of my empathic fascination. I delve deeper into the experience, not by inventing accompanying narratives or researching encyclopedic details, but by envisioning ways to embody the moment and prolong the sensation. Art can fulfill this desire in me, either through the creation of my own work or through my experience of the work of others.

Growing up, I found that the art that spoke most profoundly to my sensibility was in the modern works of the 20th century, particularly those of abstraction. While I appreciated the skill and complexity of the great works of the old masters, their dramatic form of storytelling did not move me in the way that a de Kooning, Twombly or Agnes Martin work did. The more narrative I perceived, the less I felt engaged with it. I didn't even like reading. Stories just didn't do much for me.

So imagine my surprise when a few years ago my painting began to move away from abstraction and toward representation, of the human body no less! But my paintings are not at all about storytelling or even description. Is what I paint really representation? Is the use of the figure determinative of whether a work is representational?

I am beginning to find an answer in Daniel Smith’s erudite introduction to Deleuze’s book “Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation”. Without taking on the grand debate between Modernism and Postmodernism, I find myself drawn to Deleuze’s distinction between “figuration” and “the Figure”, as his concept of the Figure seems to offer a third category of imagery that seeks to challenge the conditions of representation while lying somewhere between representation and abstraction. Smith explains that for Deleuze, “figuration” is a form that is intended to represent a particular object to the viewer (ie. representational), whereas “the Figure” is a form intended to elicit a sensation from the viewer through more direct means, such as in the work of Francis Bacon. In my own work, the insidious melancholy and pathos I evoke is far from the violent rage in Bacon’s work, but I find I share with Bacon, as Smith writes, “the problem he shares with Cézanne: How to extract the Figure from its figurative, narrative, and illustrational links? How to “paint the sensation”…?”

For my last solo show, my exhibition “Illusive” was sub-titled “Portraits of an Image”, a kind of statement of purpose to clarify that I did not consider the paintings to be representational portraits of a woman. Perhaps I need to expand that idea, and conceive of my next paintings as not just portraits of an image, but as portraits of a sensation.

The Opposite of Intellect

Some people think I'm crazy to have this blog - all those thoughts, ideas, even a few (dare I say it) feelings about art, painting and being an artist. It may all come back to haunt me one day. It may be haunting me now. How much should we say about our art? Is it better to be the elusive but uber-hip Andy Warhol, the evasive but brilliant Chuck Close or the diaristic, soul-baring Tracey Emin? Is it all contrived anyway? Is it just persona-building and market-savvy calculations?

I've been thinking about this in the context of writing (and forever re-writing) my artist statement. How much does the viewer really need to read about the work in order to experience it fully? How much should I, as the artist, attempt to guide the viewer into the experience of the work? The intellectual aspects of the work can be explained, but the non-intellectual elements are not so easily defined. I've been trying to think of a word that captures those other aspects of the experience of art, the non-intellectual, non-rational side. "Emotional" is one way of describing it, but that can suggest an element of melodrama or intensity that isn't necessarily appropriate or adequate. "Spiritual" is sometimes used, but in today's culture, it smacks of new age philosophy and Oprah. "Sensual" conveys a contrast to the intellectual. I like to think of the term more broadly, as those responses that are "of the senses" and not just by way of touch. But even the dictionary on my computer tells me that this use of the word is naively optimistic, if not wholly incorrect:
"The words sensual and sensuous are frequently used interchangeably to mean ‘gratifying the senses,’ esp. in a sexual sense. Strictly speaking, this goes against a traditional distinction, by which sensuous is a more neutral term, meaning ‘relating to the senses rather than the intellect’ [...]. In fact, the word sensuous is thought to have been invented by John Milton (1641) in a deliberate attempt to avoid the sexual overtones of sensual. In practice the connotations are such that it is difficult to use sensuous in Milton's sense. While traditionalists struggle to maintain a distinction, the evidence suggests that the neutral use of sensuous is rare in modern English. If a neutral use is intended, it is advisable to use alternative wording."
But what would that alternative wording be? And if there is no adequate word to describe it, how are we, as artists, expected to explain it with respect to our own work? And how can our attempts to describe our intentions be conveyed to the viewer without the risk of being dictatorial, limiting, or disruptive?

I like to think that there is a lot more to my work than expressions of intellectual curiosities and opinions. But I'm not convinced I need to talk about it. Susan Stewart (in her collection of essays "The Open Studio") writes, " artwork can be completed without reception." My job as an artist is not to create an experience for the viewer that mimics my own, or worse, proscribe to the viewer the ideal or "correct" response to a work. The intellectual aspects of a work can be described (which may or may not add to the viewer's experience), but all the rest must surely be entrusted to the viewers to determine for themselves.

Lessons of the Poet

I love the word "poetic". For me it is one of the greatest compliments that I can give to an artist, one of the greatest compliments I can receive about my work. I can't say I know too much about poetry, but I love language, the play of words, and I am fascinated that almost every encounter I have with poetry or poets offers an insight into painting.  For instance, in her collection of essays "The Open Studio", Susan Stewart writes:
"...the conversation between visual artists and poets is always inflected by a knowledge of the limits of linguistic understanding. And just as a poet is struck by the ineffable dimension of visual experience, so is a visual artist conscious of the rebus-like aspect of visual choices, continually informed by memories of language and language's capacity for escaping the bounds of the material."
In "How to Read a Poem", Edward Hirsch writes extensively of the relationship between poet and reader, as well as the poet's passion to write. Throughout, the words "poetry"/"poet" could easily be substituted for "painting"/"artist". My favorite passage (a pretty accurate description as to what led my to painting) is as follows:
"There are people who defend themselves against being "carried away" by poetry, thus depriving themselves of an essential aspect of the experience. But there are others who welcome the transport poetry provides. They welcome it repeatedly. They desire it so much they start to crave it daily, nightly, nearly abject in their desire, seeking it out the way hungry people seek food. It is spiritual sustenance to them. Bread and wine. A way of transformative thinking. A method of transfiguration. [...] The are so taken by the ecstatic experience - the overwhelming intensity - of reading poems they have to respond in kind. And these people become poets."
And then today, inspired by a Facebook exchange I had with Canadian painter David Urban, I decided to troll YouTube for more lessons from the poet. The latest tidbit is the following video - I relate to his comments on the life of a poet, on the discipline of creative work and particularly his comments on translation, as I believe I am engaging in a form of translation as I learn to become a painter and shape my own language.

Not The Same

My latest painting: 45" x 33", oil on canvas (no title as of yet)

Untitled, 45" x 33", oil on canvas, Amanda Clyne

Technically, my process is to (1) take a photograph, (2) turn it into a type of painting that (3) I photograph, and then (4) turn into an actual painting, which (5) I then photograph in order to show it to a remote audience. And yet, the point of my work is largely lost when not experienced in the flesh. For me, the work of art that I produce is complete after step 4. Step 5 is merely out of necessity (and desire) to share my work with more people. But the experience of the painting is so different to this digitally distributed image - the scale of the work to the human body, the sensuousness of the oil paint, the warmth of the light and color, the varying views when close up or far away. So much of the experience is lost when re-converted back into a photographed image. I always want a constant disclaimer on my photographed work: " It looks different in real life." Real life. If more people see work as a photographed painting on a screen, is that not the "real life" with which I am forced to contend? Do paintings have a greater significance as paintings or as photographs of painted images - and if so, must we paint for the screen experience rather than the human experience, or is there still value in anticipating and working toward a physical confrontation between viewer and painting?

All About Steve

Yesterday I went to the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal - an amazing building on gorgeous grounds with a bookstore to die for (although I have a special thing for bookstores generally - a bit of a book fetish, really). Since it's the end of the summer, there was only one exhibit on - the rest of the building was closed off in preparation for the new fall shows. The show I was able to see was called "Speed Limits", about our culture's increasing obsession with speed. Upon walking into the first room of the exhibit, I saw a video of moving vehicles (rockets, cars in traffic, planes taking off, etc) projected into a large square on the floor. It took me a minute or two to look up and see a projection of a different video on the ceiling - of snails moving across a white, wet surface in real time. Fast. Slow. I get it. I can't say this is really my kind of thing. But an artist friend of mine, Steve Shaddick, has work that addresses a lot of the ideas that were explored in the exhibit, and I quickly started to see the exhibit through his eyes. I have to say, it became a lot more fascinating. I was charmed by things I don't think I would have taken notice of without having been familiar with (and a fan of) Steve's work. People must have thought I was crazy, because I think I had a smile on my face the whole time thinking about the fact that some integrated media artist had actually entered my brain enough to make me think this stuff was actually interesting!

The experience reminded me of my trip to New York with Nitasha - an artist friend who has a serious dark side and a fascination with things much more grotesque and disturbing than I can normally stomach. But having gained an understanding of her perspective of the world through her art, I found myself looking at artworks that were slightly gruesome or nightmarish in a very different, more curious, even more patient way than I ever have before. I looked harder, with a much broader set of intentions, with a much broader perspective.

And isn't that what art should do? To help us see poetry and potential in things from which we might have otherwise turned away?