BY Bruce Hainley in Opinion | 09 SEP 99
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Issue 48

Message to Michael

Bruce Hainley pens a letter to a friend on the seductions of art

BY Bruce Hainley in Opinion | 09 SEP 99

Dionne Warwick knew what she was up to; she had a Bacharach tune to carry Hal David’s words. She grasped her attack. Me? I start with (or in?) doubt: about what is seen, something not too easily separated from what seeing is, the art it hangs on, and how it relates (if it does, if it must) to, what could be written. Always the doubts that begin things: ‘What the fuck am I looking at’ turning into ‘how the fuck will I write – and “about” what.’ Retaining that unknowability. The looking in looking away.

Yesterday, driving up Doheny, at its intersection with Santa Monica Boulevard, the astonishment of a fresh hustler, working it on the corner (sadly, they’re rarely on the streets much anymore); shirt unfurled, as if her were exposing a glimpse of the Pacific to someone stranded in the desert, his honeyed tan rippling above a gold-pierced belly button. What would words convey about this availability? That piercing glint? Would a tongue riding the grooves of the gilted saline of his torso come closer? Come closer to what?

Somewhere in Funeral Rites (1969), Genet wrote about how ‘the text of [his] gaze’ inscribes what is gazed upon.1 Did I write that hot number on the corner into existence? What he’s offering, always getting more than he gets, whatever he gets, lies beyond the point of language.

You said you ended a class with the Chris Cunningham video for Aphex Twin’s Windowlicker. I started a class with it recently because, well, if only most video in galleries were so smart and strange, cared enough to think and let thinking go as far as it needs to go, a point way beyond premeditated transgression. In particular, that scene when Richard D. James first appears: the limo’s electric window gliding down, his head inside the car already topping the booty chicks’ bodies because the partially opened glass reflects their torsos’ curves – a careful shot alluding to everything that will follow. A depressing number of my students wanted to talk about the representation of women in the video, about exploitation. Uh, ‘what women?’, I wanted to ask. When the booty chicks start grinning with Aphex Twin’s demonic, techno-enhanced grin, are they any longer women, were they ever? I thought at least one person would just kind of babble, happily incoherent – ‘what the fuck was that?’ – relish how it refuses to parse. Windowlicker: why does the windowlicker lick the window? Maybe the surface of whatever it is that art presents should be licked – that’s the intensity of the gaze, over-coming a resistance which looks transparent, like it’s not there, but it is somehow, and yet the tongue hopes to get through. The problem of writing about looking is synaesthetic – windowlicking as a way of seeing. The synth beats loop and swerve, the soundtrack to the feedback of men’s desire to see themselves in everything. Licking window, much less a windowpane of acid, is never shown in the video; perhaps the act is too obscene.

There’s a scene in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time1913–27) which gets at this much more elegantly than I can. Little Marcel is on the Méséglise way, a path of so many ‘humble discoveries’, and is overwhelmed by his own enthusiasm for wind-blown grass, a hen’s downy feathers, dappled pink reflections of a tiled roof on a pond’s surface – the real, that catch-all placeholder, excited to the point that he cries aloud while swinging his furled umbrella: ‘Gosh, gosh, gosh, gosh!’. He feels that he is ‘duty bound not to content [him]self with those unilluminating words, but to endeavour to see more clearly into the sources of [his] rapture’. It is the first time he’s struck by ‘this discordance between our impressions and their habitual expression’.2 Within a few paragraphs, the narrator describes how it is in this same place that he had another revelation about the sadism haunting pleasure. In the Montjouvain woods, he spies through a cottage window – petit windowlicker – Mlle. Vinteuil and her female ‘friend’ enjoying one another, devouringly, in front of a pathetic photograph of her father, recently dead; a triangulated scenario setting up the novel’s architectonics of desire. Proust emphasizes the sadism of the scene, how Mlle Vinteuil ‘came at length to see in pleasure itself something diabolical’, since pleasure occurs always due to an indifference to someone else’s suffering.3 The blinkers of habit, like hackneyed expression, may alleviate suffering, but Proust again and again shows how they block access to encountering the pang and pung of the real. His project throughout the novel is to dehabitualize syntax, metaphor, vocabulary, meaning, vision so that the usually to quickly mediated, dethorned real can be grasped. Dehabitualisation remains crucial to the experience of beauty, why we fail to recognise it, fail to understand it, fail it; consciousness faced with ‘the insistent challenge of a form of which it possesses no intellectual equivalent’ cherishes secondhand climaxes.4 Needless for Proust to explain that this is why his novel takes its sui generis form, combining, bending and dissolving genre as his thinking demands. The way Benjamin put it still amazes me. After reminding those who had probably forgotten Cocteau’s observation that the intonation of Proust’s voice obeyed the laws of night and honey, Benjamin concludes that ‘Proust conquered the hopeless sadness within him (what he once called “l’imperfection incurable dans l’essence même du présent”)’, by building ‘“from the honeycombs of memory [...] a house for the swarm of his thoughts”’.5

I don’t think you got to see the Robert Ryman show last winter. Blew my mind. Can’t convey it – how the paintings blew my mind – to you. I made notes, but they just reiterate in my handwriting the materials (the materiality?) of what made up the paintings. Besides colour, the various stuffs ‘with’ which as much as ‘on’ which they were painted (I almost wrote patinated) – ‘archival board mounted on multi-density’ (at other times ‘medium density’ – these densities meaning what?) ‘fiberboard’; ‘stretched cotton’ as well as ‘stretched linen’ – stretched emphasised, reitereated, because in at least one compelling instance the linen wasn’t stretched but nailed with eight nails, making a rhomboid which didn’t fence the white oil paint in but let it drift beyond the nails. Does colour have a history, a biography, does it mean? Would a list of the tonal shift in hues amount to anything more than a list of beautiful words? I don’t know, but I’m not beyond listing them. My favourite section of Roget’s Thesaurus starts at entry 362 and proceeds from ‘colour’ to ‘colourness’, then ‘whiteness’, ‘blackness’, ‘greyness’, ‘browness’, ‘redness’, ‘orangeness’, ‘yellowness’, ‘greenness’, ‘blueness’ and ‘purpleness’. The section ends with either entry 374 or 375, I can never decide: ‘variegation’ or ‘universe’. Of course, I am not sure whether this list holds any interest for a painter since, rather than words, he or she deals with colour itself and perhaps with gradations that cannot be named because they have not yet occurred, appearing only as colour, light and paint – not name. Certainly my notes on Ryman’s colours only begin to address to those he painted, which is why I would have to become inarticulate or ungrammatical or overweeningly metaphorical and synaesthetic to dehabitualize how the word ‘white’ conveys anything much or whether I want it to convey at all. If, instead of the following notes about Pressor (1997) – ‘shiny beige white background messy duller brighter white foreground over grey/green (?) with pinkish “R97” in upper left corner’– almost none of which can be gleaned in a reproduction, I wrote ‘on a grey field bits of wedding cake frosted Vaselined eggshell signed with what could be a blushing highway route number make a square about the size of hallway mirror’, I’ve got nowhere. Since Ryman always seems to engage a surplus of something, I don’t understand the early Minimalist references; he’s a materialist like Proust, the stuffness of the world intrigues him, matters: goo and the viscosity of paint, wet and dry, sheen and matte, the various processes and tools of application, the surface substances to which it may be applied, and how those applied surfaces are mounted (taped, nailed, screwed...), all of it accrues to what kind of paring down? One critic grappling with these new small paintings said they exist when described as peculiarly in-between: ‘neither all cool and intellectual nor entirely sensuous and hedonistic’. But isn’t that a way of evading saying that Ryman pursues a method of painting which results in something – a painting – eluding reproduction, eluding description, eluding a translation into anything else, all of which is connected to why Ryman describes his work as ‘Realist’? It’s a more complicated word than ‘phenomenological’. You might have to be there, living your aliveness, present with presence. I don’t think most painters/paintings working today do this. (A similar pursuit might explain Warhol’s trajectory from painting to sculpture – the silver clouds floating away – to movies, to modelling and the social: Solanas’ shooting punctuated exactly what would not go on without him and what would.) Whatever move from white to white, ‘colour’ to ‘universe’, whatever referents are resisted or destroyed, Ryman’s work makes the body present by any of his painting’s becoming like a body – utterly itself (what it is, what it is made of) and something beyond itself: the spectacle on view is an expanding, desiring skin of opticality, in erotic tension between painted-thing and thing-painted. Some might harrumph that it’s all merely Modernist conceit rather than something actually new. Oh, well. Did I tell you that recently an editor suggested I shouldn’t use a certain word in a long review I recently wrote. The essay ended with the verb ‘date-rape’: ‘Andy Warhol date-raped art – already stripped bare, trashed – and made it look as if nothing had happened’. The verb doesn’t appear in the published text. Whatever. The term ‘date-rape’ gets at something I’ve been trying to struggle with for such long time: how to convey the shock, the happy and suffered abrasions of the real as it engages the impossible, the imaginary  the real as impossible. I wanted to say that Warhol ‘date-raped’ art because it confuses notions of his so-called asexuality and passivity. I wanted to say it because I like the fact that it’s a strange thing to say. The too-little known American poet Frederick Seidel begins his poem, ‘Spring’: ‘I want to date-rape life’.6 Well...exactly. Given the countless Odes to Spring, what are you going to say that would actually get at what Spring means, is. Say ‘Warhol’ to almost anyone and they think they know what you’re talking about – but I don’t know what I mean by ‘Warhol’ or ‘Ryman’ or whoever. Given that so few really bother to look, how is anyone to dehabitualize Warhol and his work so that it might be seen? I don’t know, but for me ‘date-rape’ brings up the fecund materiality that Warhol trafficked in, his seduction of the (often commodified) real and then his fucking (with) it – over and over.

I think it’s time to date-rape art criticism, art history. Too often art critics and art historians ignore the fictive element of their enterprise – they’re not scientists and they prove very little. Rosalind Krauss’ occasionally exemplary The Optical Unconscious (1993) remains the most amazing example of a strange conflict: the ‘little John Ruskin’ sections and the repeated mentions of ‘Clem’ Greenberg, her invocation of otherwise unidentified friends’ first names versus her reworkings of, what, Lacan’s L Schema – as if the poetic (her crippled discourse) must be supported by the crutches of a rigorously argued exegesis.7 Krauss’ poetic/fictive flights reveal more, and in a more complicated manner, than her burdened proofs. Instead of continuing to write impoverished little treatises which frequently obscure rather than clarify what might be seen, why not embrace the possibility that what is being written are fictions, and that the works (or whatever) that get the most interesting stories written about them, that can sustain wildly differing stories, are the things which seem for a time to be the most relevant. This is not the same as ‘fiction in response to or inspired by’ art. Janet Malcolm uses a quotation from a book by Sharon Cameron as the epigraph for her most recent book, The Crime of Sheila McGough: ‘He didn’t answer. He rather said: “It is possible to think this: without a reference point there is meaninglessness. But I wish you’d understand that without a reference point you’re in the real”’.8 In her essay, Malcolm examines the fictions of the legal system; everything she writes has profound ramifications for trying to grapple with the experience of what is called art but is a negotiation of something else entirely. Her epigraph should be the mantra of anyone thinking about art. Proust would say something to the effect that life has no plot – or else entirely too many to make sense of. The honeycomb form of his novel reiterates the sweet, complex accumulation of representing a living life: it dehabitualizes plot-line, it drowses, it speeds by, it lapses. What we want from art is some kind of concentration or intensity, some honey, of observation, something acutely experiential but whose reference points untether by displacement, displacing things – an approximation called the self, etc. – into the real, before it eludes us once again.

For example, Richard Hawkins. You know that Yves-Alain Bois book, Painting as Model? Well, maybe that model should be Iván De Pineda, a Bruce Weber discovery (is that the word?). You can see him glow, blinding solar flare amid Autumn’s goodbyes, in one of Hawkins’ collages. Iván’s a model of the impossible, walking around. Hawkins’ work often defaces or trashes something beautiful to grope at how it might be that it became so beautiful in the first place. He disarticulates, cuts up and dehabitualizes (pix of) particular bodily inhabitations or infestations of the beautiful so that it (beauty) might actually be seen as the rupture it is, a schism of viewer/viewed, appearance/blindness. Needless to say that his disarticulations, his collaging together of these boy parts, provide a way to ask what is the nature of making a work of art, the zero degree of making something into something else by (almost) leaving it as it is. Ryman disrupts and shatters every constituent part of painting to make a painting; Hawkins allows incoherence to cohere in order to grapple with what really is real and what really is a representation of the real, since they’re easily confused or blur into one another. But is this the best way to talk about it (Hawkins’ [tenderly?] monstrous research)? By trying to approach meaning or interpretation, can whatever the art is be seen more clearly, or does a narrative always elbow in to replace opticality?

I’m endlessly frustrated by the status quo of most criticism: no matter how rigorous or trenchant, it so rarely questions its own formal presentation. What is a short review? What is a critical essay? Not that there’s what might be too neatly called a progression in the arts (instead of a continuingly dawning delirium), but doesn’t it often feel that however much the look of art has changed, causing shock, delight, derision, the language employed to come to terms with it, the forms commentary takes, haven’t changed much since the 19th century? It’s not that art craves a text to which it has only a mimetic relation, but sometimes even that would be more interesting than thesis/exegesis. (Must seeing translated into text mean or could it ‘just’ be?) Confronting Hawkins’ collaged Iván or re-photographed Matt Dillon, what might be the best way to convey the seeming casualness of his careful, almost pained deliberations?

Gosh, I’m blabbering. The failure to get at whatever Matt Dillon is, is so close to the attempt to get at whatever art is. The question is how to find a language lubricated enough to allow opticality’s dasein to ride the sentence bareback. Language veering off toward the impossible, the unsafe, the incommunicable, somehow intersects the visual as it provides a model for what is not yet but what may possibly be. Call whatever cannot be verbalised, but which art nonetheless presents: ‘Matt Dillon’ or ‘Iván’.

Despite the incurable imperfection in the very essence of the present moment, Hawkins’ exact formal concerns try to contain and illuminate the miraculous blossoming of specific impermanences. Proust called them chrysanthemums; Iván and Matt are just their humpy stand-ins. Proust wrote: they invite one, ‘those chrysanthemums, to put away all [one’s] sorrows and to taste with a greedy rapture [...] the all-too-fleeting pleasures of November, whose intimate and mysterious splendour they set ablaze all around.’9 You once said that Hawkins contemplates the boys who might exist in Vincent Fecteau’s sculptures, which seem haunted by the possibility of occupation, resisting that occupation and any reference his fine, funny forms might begin to allude to. The sleight of hand’s all somehow in the way Fecteau negotiates space. He frisks something immaterial via mise-en-scène-like constructions in which the sudden possible cruising of the environs by any dude’s repeated non-appearance appear to be merely interior-decorated propositions. In their winnowing away of referents, which somehow allows intense referential accrual, Fecteau’s pieces resist, as Ryman’s paintings do, solutions – and something about the slide or transparency makes them go dead, fail to communicate whatever it is that constitutes them. Hawkins’ work tries to come to terms with the surplus, the jaw-slackening excess of a will to presence in certain manifestations of human beauty and, thus, of beauty in general; how it has to be mediated or it annihilates. Hawkins magic-markers parts of it (boy, boy beauty) away to help figure out the figure. Magic Marker - the name gets at the problem: can the mark make magic, can the mark get at the impossible, can the mark transgress the fissures between the real as it is and the represented, the imagined, as it is and is not? In Fecteau’s work, what look like maquettes for some unrealized (unrealizable) architectural structure really aren’t that at all; what look to be acute and yet somehow simultaneously funnily dumb takes on art history (Minimalist sculpture’s heavy steel machismo, girders, simple brute geometries; Light and Space’s auratic opalescence) metamorphose into nonce lightnesses, hobbyist notions, and swiftly transform again – magic! – into, say, nonchalant signs and erotic atmosphere of construction sites, and what manifestation of butch availability that could surround them. Intense studies of a foamcore-lite yet heavy-duty unverifiability, Fecteau’s play with various tubings summons analogies to the body’s alimentary articulations of waste and pleasure. But all of it always also structured by a reprieve of non-meaning, an actual presenting of the facts of the precise material suchness, nacreous plastic decal and/or precisely placed balsa wood. My failure in construing Fecteau’s elegant theatres of hermeneutic instability might point in the direction of his similar struggle to approach a sublime by way of popsicle sticks, secretarial bric-a-brac and gridded needlepoint canvas. What he achieves is only a reflection, a representation, of the meaningfulness or non-meaning that these materials, like a pop song, suggest, while simultaneously suggesting only themselves.

At the end of one his most elegant investigations, Fecteau collaged a picture of a brown wicker basket holding toilet paper on top of a toilet. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen – funny that such a toilet-paper-holding basket exists, that some art director considered its proper placement and lighting, that it (somehow) suggests that men have baskets and women don’t, the fact that Fecteau cared to notice such a nonce decorator accessory. Instead of artist, think, for a moment, art director, diverting attention to what would not otherwise be seen and yet, nevertheless, summons aesthetic atmosphere... Recently, thinking about Vince’s work while standing in front of various examples of it, I ended up drawing little sketches in pen, making notes about specific details: dove grey plastic drawing pin underneath the ‘girder’; blue jeans bracketing collaged around the edge of what I have always before thought referred to audio speakers but could refer to a mirror or a picture or just refer to nothing but shape and the angle of intersecting material and dematerialising planes.

What are these things, specific, accurate, but inconclusive: plastic drawing pins (a recurring material of Fecteau’s), do they desire meaning, or indicate a desire for meaning? How does the person who wants to say something about any work he or she finds fascinating, remarkable, haunting, get away from or unpin why or how something means, not so much as to be really against interpretation but rather simultaneously for and against it? Beyond it. Beyond, not against. Vince’s newer works demand such a contrafactual method: suggesting sets, parts of things, encounters, corridors leading nowhere, he suggests in these pieces an always evanescent sublime, while everything remains ‘just’ models or forms, baroque in their spareness, calm. End-less and perfect as afterthoughts.

When is a concern finished? Aphex Twin’s fascination with his own distorted face; Ryman’s with paint; Hawkins’ with the haunting representation of the other and its distance from him, its distance as him; Fecteau’s with the possibility of achieving even more with even strangely less. I don’t know if we’ve ever discussed Maureen Gallace’s work. Compact, thorny, intense and as deceptively calm as Albert York’s stubborn philosophical investigations, most of her paintings compel and repulse all the words used to convey what it might be like to abide by interiority while trying to be elsewhere. Everything appears to be so innocuous, innocuous as a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, which is to say not at all. Her painting’s subject matter is almost mundane: awkward little houses (are they really houses? – many things about her structures are hard to discern) in lush countryside, near the beach, situated in rural, unreal Connecticut. Of course, they’re not houses near beaches or Connecticut but paint painted to look as such. That seems obvious but perhaps isn’t. Gallace asks each time: ‘can I paint, for example, a house?’. And perhaps she can’t – can’t paint the house (which is the impossible). The house – one of the earliest things a child may draw – isn’t it kind of stupid to try to paint it? What would it mean to paint one again and again, mesmerised by the failure to convey all that ‘house’ might convey? Can one paint the present, or is knowledge only historical? Perhaps the reality Gallace has known no longer exists except as she paints it into existence. House house house no house no house no house. Only the indolent consider the same the same. Proust cautions, ‘there is no great difference between the memory of a dream and the memory of a reality’.10 What is the real really? How is it remembered? Ryman, Fecteau, Hawkins and Gallace struggle to get to exist models, representations, of what actually was, cannot be really, but insistently is: white space; ‘rooms’ with prop pillows in them; a guy flaunting his being or just his killer abs or corridor-like eyes; rose-tended cottage in the summer fog. They hazard something self-destructing, forgetting, failing, each time wronging the thing to get at what it might be.

At the end of the road, which is of course just paint, in Gallace’s Old Beach Road (1998), there is an open space from which to approach the painted sea; the ‘blank’ open space is about the size of one of the houses she usually paints. ‘What would the house that’s not there be like?’ seems a really dumb question to ask, but I’ll ask it anyway. Dumb as other questions. Summer fog, what is it? Overgrowing roses, what are they? House, home, can anyone live there? When, how, are these things just words, grammar? And is it paint, some materials, words, memory or a dream that get these things – looks – to coincide?

Is discourse about the visual a drone the visual can easily live without – droning on and on, amounting to I’m not sure what – or do words and seeing in some synaesthetic wronging concatenation somehow allow each other to be? (Would November for Proust occur without chrysanthemums?) While trying to discover something, failing, and perhaps discovering something else entirely, I’ve rambled on and come to no conclusion. I want art to date-rape me – seduced and then violated, shattered out of my self or beside myself because too often there’s too much self in me and I want to get beyond it, to find safe harbour for that beyond. The drive of meaning, but the resistant desire for it all just to be. Words or things. Words and things. Things as words. Does language always come between it all or can made things hold something true for a moment or even longer? My message to you: gosh, gosh, gosh, gosh.

(For Michael Lobel)

Main image:  Robert Ryman, Untitled # 1004, 1960-61. Courtesy: Robert Ryman Archive, New York.; photography: Bill Jacobson

1. Jean Genet, Funeral Rites, Grove Press, New York, 1969, p. 133

2. Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, The Modern Library, New York, vol. 1, pp. 218–219

3. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 232

4. Ibid., vol. 3, p. 57

5. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Image of Proust’, Illuminations, Harcourt, Brace and World, New York, 1968, p. 203

6. Frederick Seidel, ‘Spring’, Going Fast, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1998, p. 23

7. Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993

8. Janet Malcolm, The Crime of Sheila McGough, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1999

9. Marcel Proust, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 234

10. Marcel Proust, op. cit., vol. 5, p. 882

Bruce Hainley lives in Los Angeles, USA. His book, Foul Mouth (2006), is published by 2nd Cannons, Los Angeles.