“Paint records the most delicate gesture and the most tense. It tells whether the painter sat or stood or crouched in front of the canvas. Paint is a cast made of the painter’s movements, a portrait of the painter’s body and thoughts. The muddy moods of oil paint are the painter’s muddy humours, and its brilliant transformations are the painters unexpected discoveries. Painting is an unspoken and largely uncongized dialogue, where paint speaks silently in masses and colours and the artists responds in moods. All those meanings a re intact in the paitnigns that hand in museums: they preserve the memory of the tired bodies that made them, the quick jabs, the exhausted truces, the careful nourishing gestures. Painters can sense those motions in the paint even before they notice what the paintings are about. Paint is water and stone and it is also liquid thought.” (James Elkins “What Painting Is” p5)
I feel very honoured to be opening Anna Whheers’s show tonight. I met Anna at the National Art School where we studied together, but I’ve come to know her much more since we finished 5 years ago. Anna has been a great friend and colleague, holding our old studio together by helping us keep in contact, and she’s has been a great mentor, inspiring me with her painting practice. Despite this I’ve found myself being led astray into academia, with my main artistic practice being the Sunday life drawing where Anna and some of our group from art school still come. Studying art theory has given me a great outlet to explore words and ideas, but it is with some trepidation that I attempt to offer a few words that may describe Anna’s latest show.
Painting is something largely conducted in the wordless spaces of the heart and hand, and I’m afraid that words may encircle the paintings and close off the possibilities of what we may see in them. One of our teachers at art school said that painting is about secrets. What you see, or what I see in Anna paintings may be the same as what she sees in painting them, but it may not be, and I’m not entirely sure how right it is to try to name all of these things that we sense and maybe wonder at, and maybe feel deeply moved or touched by, but can’t quite state why. In these paintings, I feel that Anna has offered us a part of herself which is very intimate, and very sacred in a way, and I don’t want to take that away from her.
So I’m going to try to offer some words and ideas, to encourage people to look at the paintings, and maybe to articulate some of what happens when we look at her work, and why I believe her work is so powerful and special. For me art appreciation comes from the heart. It comes from what happens here, in my chest when I look at certain works, and the rest is trying to find words to give shape to what is an emotional process first.
When I first sat down to write this speech, I dragged some books off the shelves and pored over them, and then thought oh my God, I’m not giving a lecture, what will I write? Then I went to the beach. And it was looking out into the ocean, into the flashes of light folding over endless moving waves. Watching colour constantly changing, moving, crashing and flying, I lost track of myself, of time, of everything, and let myself be memorised by the strange union of vision, sensation and my own imagination. This state is called “reverie”. It’s like dreaming with your eyes open, no it’s better than that, because we don’t necessarily see images or stories, but see our emotions and imagination unfurl and flow in the matter of the world around us. (OK I’ll admit this idea comes from a book “L’eau et les Reves” by Gaston Bachelard). For me the same sensation is captured in oil paint and the best oil paintings, like Anna’s, have this quality.
The subjects of Anna’s works seem deceptively simple. Her last show was titled “Cows, Goats and China”. And the subject matter and titles of the works; still lives, animals and figures are hardly the stuff of cutting edge post modern conceptual wrangling. But for me, the titles, the fleeting images of cows, goats, fruit, vases, these are not the subjects of the paintings. The subject of her works is the paint itself. I believe for Anna, that subjects like the goats act as the seed of the painting. She starts with the form, or the idea of a goat, and then in the act of painting it, enters into her own reverie, and follows her hand and her imagination into where the colours, and textures of the paint lead her. I hope I haven’t said too much. And maybe what I’m saying makes no sense, I am also an oil painter and I’ve got my bias, and some of the audience may be wondering why this would interest them in a bright coloured painting of a goat, or a cow or a bowl of fruit. So I’m going to try and explain what happens when we looks at the works, when I look at the works, and you can look at the works and see if you agree.
If I discuss this horse painting here: the horse acts for me as the threshold, where our eyes enter the painting and our imagination starts. It’s bright coloured, not much like a horse, but the shape is definitely like a horse and makes me think of a horse, and that horses remind me of speed, energy, wildness, but a kind of fragility and gentleness as well. If she’d done a perfect George Stubbs style horse painting, we’d see a perfect George Stubbs style horse and admire the glossy coat and well rendered anatomy and not have any emotional reaction at all. In Anna’s painting, she hasn’t’ reproduced a horse, but suggested a horse, and so we thinking of a horse while we look at the other shapes, marks or gestures in the painting. It is the semi abstract nature of the work that gives it it’s power. So I see in the marks, a force, and a fragility, a youthful energy and yet a nervous shying, and for me this painting is really powerful. If it was purely abstract, I’d get lost, unless I could find figure like images in the paint. If it was purely representational I’d get bored too, because there wouldn’t be anything left to imagine. Bt there is something else in her works, more deeply related to the unique talent Anna has.
When we, or when I, look at the marks made to produce Anna’s paintings, what we see are body prints of the movements that Anna made in painting them. We have a direct impression of Anna’s own gestures, and so looking at her paintings, is not so much like looking at a photograph or a film, but like looking at a dance or a ballet. I believe this is why paintings are so much more moving as images than photography or film, because they are a record of movement and the movement of a person’s body, and they affect our own emotional states in the same way that watching dancing in or hearing music does. There are so many paintings where this voice, the movement, is held so tight it’s like a whisper. I can imagine the person holding their breath, holding their arm stiffly, not wanting to let any uncontrolled mark or movement escape their strict intellectual idea of what the painting should be. Other paintings are kind of like a boorish roar, loud monotonous holler in the name of someone’s ego or bank balance. Anna's paintings are neither of these. They are like a song, and I can sense her voice when I see them. This is one of those songs that goes up and down, and is not always in perfect tune, and sometimes it is loud and throaty, and other times soft and playful, and sometimes, like Annie de Franco and bluesy and angry and wild, but all the time, this lovely melodious quality. There’s a playfulness in the work. Not like a flippant “I’m so clever” kind of play, but a genuine, “oh, I wonder what will happen if” kind of play, a continual testing and trying and learning. And Anna does learn, her paintings have evolved, and gained in richness as she has continued. And at their best her paintings are like metaphor for life itself. Don’t be afraid to live. Don’t be afraid to breathe, and don’t be afraid of colour. We are living in increasingly beige times, of conformity, fear, materialism and selfishness, and such open, generous alive works as Anna’s are a wonderful reminder that it is absolutely possible, and necessary even, to imagine and to live more fully.
copyright: minoumayhem 2004.