A quite open-ended, exploratory essay written for the exhibition Between Two Worlds — featuring the painters David Crone, Mark McGreevy & Dougal McKenzie — at the F.E. McWilliam Gallery, Banbridge, Northern Ireland, summer 2013.
Between Two Worlds
What two ‘worlds’ are conjured in the title of this exhibition? And what various creative strategies and survival tactics have these three very different artists — David Crone, Mark McGreevy and Dougal McKenzie — developed in response to the conditions of these distinct realms? The word ‘world’ is one that might ground us as we talk about art: it might suggest a need to consider art as something other than a special, separate ‘autonomous’ sphere. Edward Said once argued — as he proposed an expanded method of attending to how literature makes its way to us — for the need to remain alert to “the closeness of the world’s body to the text’s body”. This necessary proximity, he said, “forces us to take both into consideration.”[i] At the same time, to consider the bearing of the world on art, is also to consider how art bears on our idea of the world. Worlds are, of course, endlessly imagined: either in elaborate, crafted fictional form, or routinely, as we day-dream our desiring way through everyday reality (a ‘reality’, as psychoanalysts like to say, that could itself be a series of consoling fictions, masking the turbulent truth of a more complex, incomprehensible and inexpressible world below). So should we consider what the world is in relation to art, or what it becomes?
Considering the role of the studio producer, Brian Eno has asked if a musician’s “record” — in one straightforward way, as the word implies, a document of a captured event — should “be a picture of where you are now, or of all the places you could just as likely be?”[ii] The producer in Eno’s view has a role in imagining a ‘world’ — conceiving a new, undiscovered audio landscape for the otherwise largely recognizable structures and patterns of popular music to exist in. Thus imagined, couldn’t Eno’s vision of the producer suggest a correspondence with the world-making role of the exhibition curator, a figure who often takes on the role of envisaging a productive, unique world within which to best accomodate, nourish and connect the work of artists? Daniel Birnbaum, writing in the introduction to the Venice Biennale cataloge in 2009, noted how he had taken the American philosopher Nelson Goodman’s book Ways of World-Making as his point of departure for conceiving and realizing a monumental, intricately diverse gathering of artists within a large-scale exhibition. Birnbaum quotes an influential line from Goodman as a key inspiration: “World-making as we know it always starts from worlds already on hand; the making is a re-making.”[iii]
What we might understand to be “on hand”, however, surely varies according to perspective. This is one of the many ways — as the curators of this exhibition, Riann Coulter and Feargal O’Malley, instinctively recognise — in which the word ‘between’ begins to become profoundly important. There is not always a clear line between what we believe belongs properly to this immediate, empirical world and what we define as insufficiently substantial and measurable — or as separate and ‘merely’ imaginary, as products of the parallel worlds of imagination. Syvia Plath’s understanding of the subjective ‘worldliness’ of her own poetry is in this regard potentially revealing: her poems, she said,
attempt to recreate, in their own way, definite situations and landscapes. They are, quite emphatically, about the “things of this world”. When I say “this world” I include, of course, such feelings as fear and despair and barrenness, as well as domestic love and delight in nature. These darker emotions may well put on the masks of quite unworldly things — such as ghosts, or trolls, or antique gods.[iv]
Drawing on the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, Simon O’Sullivan makes a corresponding point about the ways in which art — with its frequent invocation of “quite unworldy things” — might be viewed as either worldly, or indeed, other-worldly. “Art might well be a part of the world (after all it is a ‘made’ thing in the world), ” Sullivan proposes, “but at the same time it is apart from the world, and this apartness, this ‘excess’ or ‘rapture’ … constitutes art’s effectivity over and beyond its existence as a cultural object.”[v] In O’Sullivan’s view, we should not think of art’s gestures towards ‘other-worldliness’ as somehow “transcendent”: this is an historically important, but too-easily relied upon way of describing art’s capacity to send us beyond the immediately known. Rather, he argues, “we can think of the aesthetic power of art very much in an immanent sense, as offering an excess not somehow beyond the world but an excess of the world.” The world, according to this line of thought — or this line of flight, to borrow a term valued in Deleuze’s writing as a way of stressing necessary departure from the habits of thought — is not so far from Plath’s stirring, strange mixture of fact, feeling and fantasy. The world is here understood “as the sum total of potentialities of which our typical experience is merely an extraction.”
Painting has a particular applicability to these questions of worldliness and other-worldliness. In a sense, it always occupies a provisional space between worlds. Painting as a form of art, perhaps more than any other, persistently sends us back and forth from the material facts of observable, tangible reality to speculative visions of imagined elsewheres. Reflecting on contemporary painting most especially, we can undertake rapid to-and-fro journeys from consideration of the experiential, tactile world of the physical human body’s engagement with paint as medium (smearing, stroking, dripping, splashing and layering liquid ‘substance’ against solid, absorbent or resistant surfaces that are clasped to solid supports) and onto observation of abstract or representational spaces of singular, ‘separate’ intensity, conceived either with careful deliberation or expressive energy, or maybe degrees of both. Much of the pleasure — and argument — arising from painting today is prompted by these travels between its possible worlds. But there is not always a reliable, discernible line between the different worlds of painting — despite our compulsion to categorize and so, often, caricature its range of options and orientations as a medium. At various moments, it seems that today’s most compelling painting appears to exist somewhere in the spaces between a whole constellation of corresponding worlds, each representing a version of what painting ‘is’. Jorg Heiser notes how among the “classic schisms of modern painting”, familiar polarities such as “abstraction versus figuration, reproduction versus unique original” can be seen to constitute “just two of the possible conflicts that can be contained in painting.”[vi] Painting can — even must — acknowledge the machine world that has displaced it as a method of picturing reality, but it also is a product of specific actuality itself. It can thus, Heiser says, operate between two important extremes:
Either wresting a kind of inscrutable elegance from the banality of the objectivized world, or wresting something akin to dignity and wit from one’s own obvious but ungraspable presence. One inhabits the two-dimensional world of endlessly duplicated pictures and forms, showing details and versions, simplifications and commentaries. The other brings three- or even –four-dimensionality back into play — physical presence in the here and now.
Contemporary painting stays interesting, Heiser believes, “when it moves between [these] poles without reconciling them.”
Typing ‘reconciling’ just now, I accidentally hit ‘g’ rather than ‘n’ — prompting the word processor’s predictive text function to propose ‘recognizing’ instead; the computer was jumping ahead, making its own decisions. Here is a stray moment when the unpredictable movements of one’s own mind and body clash with the processes of today’s technological ‘reproduction’ machine But, by accident, there is perhaps something to be said for the mix-up: rather than not ‘reconciling’ painting’s polarities, what if an artist’s way of working involved not ‘recognizing’ these historically familiar antagonisms? One characteristic that artists can display — when they matter — is an ability to dispense with given categories, with limiting definitions. And, as such, as Nelson Goodman says, they make the world by re-making it. The architecture commentator Jonathan Meades (a flamboyant critical individualist, a writer swearing by his own idiosyncratic intellectual and stylistic inclinations) makes the case for such a liberated version of working ‘between worlds’: “We should bear in mind” Meades states, that “anything which is any good creates its own genre.” Art that we can continue to regard highly, he is convinced, “exists in the interstices of the already extant”[vii]. The worlds that such art might be said to exist ‘between’ can be continually redefined, through greater subtlety, precision and ambition of thought:
If we cannot … suppress our instinct for what might be termed prospective classification we can at least control it and so to speak do more than differentiate between the edible and the non-edible, the snack and the meal, the threatening and the harmless. We are capable of re-classifying classifications. The more specificities we heap into the mix the more we bury cliché, which is off-the peg locution signifying off-the-peg thought …
New worlds are there to be discovered in the hazy space between existing worlds.
In quite different languages, each of the painters featured in this exhibition express distinctive ways of describing such hazy space. Maeve Connolly has, for instance, noted how the art of Dougal McKenzie has “explored both the continued significance of painting in an era characterized by the proliferation of screen imagery and the potential of history as a subject for painting.”[viii] McKenzie’s work thus foregrounds the indeterminate place of painting in the contemporary world. It is concerned with its place in relation to other past responsibilities of the medium (with the possibility of art having a bearing on the historical process) and with present, parallel visual forms, such as television and the internet, that today take on the role of capturing current events, but that more aggressively demand our perpetual attention. His works are studiously allusive, drawing our attention to characters and events — sometimes directly referenced through the inclusion of found photographs, sourced via the Borgesian library of online search engines. His art is deeply deliberative, informed and intelligent — but it retains an exciting, exploratory uncertainty, which allows for the realization of wholly out-of-the-ordinary visual worlds. The title of a painting from some years ago (dated 2009-2011) is in this regard telling: Through the Fog of History, Stumbling Metaphors Loom. This is a portrait of an Olympic athlete who has been the source of some of McKenzie’s scholarly fascinations as an historically-disposed artist. But the fog and the stumbling seem as vital as the astute, analytical engagement with the representation of history. Here, as in other paintings, such as those included in Between Two Worlds, there is an attention to the particular sensory affectivity of painting itself, creating surfaces of engrossing intensity — and spaces of singular ‘pressure’ between idea and material.
The American artist Laura Owens has recently argued for the necessity of a type of ‘pressure’ in painting, relating to the full realization of its essential properties. We might, quite quickly, begin to feel an exacting type of perversely pleasurable pressure in Mark McGreevy’s art. Where there is a push and pull between theoretical inclinations and more intuitive operations in Dougal McKenzie’s work, there is perhaps a different form of back and forth dynamism in McGreevy’s wildly unpredictable, large-scale compositions. McGreevy’s aesthetic predilections suggest a tension between the gravitational pull of the world and an effort to break orbit. His works are often full of wonderfully lurid places: terrains of elaborate growth, but also of seeming despoliation. There are ‘landscapes’, but they are not altogether earthly. There are figures too: but not quite people, not quite earthlings. Stable structure — in the form of recognizable pieces of the actually existing world — breaks down or begins to become something else in McGreevy’s radical re-orientations of reality. What makes these convulsive pictures more than extravagant sci-fi fantasies, however, is the emphatic, immersive rigour — and, again, the ‘pressure’ — implied by his powerful use of paint. We are brought back, perhaps to questions of how this antique art form, dependant on its unique means of making, addresses itself to the current exigencies of the world: but this is the world as it becomes something else in art; this is a world of proliferating visual potentialities.
How might we imagine the painter David Crone as a presence ‘between’ the worlds of McGreevy and McKenzie? Certainly he is their senior, an influential figure, schooled in an era of different priorities and possibilities for painting. McGreevy was taught by Crone — but the language of their landscapes (if the cliché can be excused on this occasion) is worlds apart. What seems vital in the triangulation of these three artists is the sense that Crone’s work offers the most ardent commitment to looking at the conditions of the worn-out, lived-in world. Urban subjects in the past and rural reflections in the recent present are explored with deep, lingering sensitivity to the combinations of things, his eye taking in the full tangle of the tangible world. Yet look even lightly at his paintings and we see that in his fundamental alertness to the affective power of paint itself, his pictured world is one that becomes beautifully altered through this process of subjective picturing. It is perhaps in this way, most obviously, that the three have a shared ‘worldliness’. In Crone’s paintings, the world ‘comes together’ in unexpected forms, with unexpected effects. Much like, perhaps, the suprising ‘coming together’ that constitutes the endlessly involving world of this exhibition.
[i] Edward Said, The World, The Text and the Critic (London: Vintage, 1991), p.39.
[ii] Brian Eno, ‘Bringing Up Baby’, Rolling Stone, November 18, 1991.
[iii] Nelson Goodman, Ways of World-making, (Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1978), p.6.
[iv] From the introduction to the programme “The Living Poet” by Sylvia Plath, transmitted on BBC Radio, Saturday, July 8th 1961.
[v] Simon O’Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze & Guattari (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p.40. All further references are to this edition.
[vi] Jorg Heiser, All of a Sudden: Things That Matter in Contemporary Art (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2008), p. 98-99. All further references are to this edition.
[vii] Jonathan Meades, Museum Without Walls (London: Unbound, 2012), p.6. All further references are to this edition.
[viii] Maeve Connolly, Artforum, March 2013, p.232.