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Perceptibility by Barry Schwabsky

I have for some time been trying to call attention to how most contemporary painting of the sort commonly referred to as 'representational' is based on premises radically distinct from those of the Western representational tradition as it developed from the Renaissance through the 19th century; for this reason it seems better to call such art – one inconceivable except as coming after photography and abstraction – 'image-based' rather than 'representational'. 'Representation looks back to something,' as Pierre Schneider put it in his reflections on Matisse; 'an image invents a presence.'

And yet there does exist a small number of representational painters at work today – good ones, I mean; painters whose art involves long, hard 'looking back' at the phenomenal world in which most of us, transfixed by the 'screened' realities of television, the internet, and so on, spend ever less and less time; painters consumed with the problems involved in transcribing some portion of that world onto a two-dimensional plane. In my experience, the strongest American exponents of this increasingly rare project have been Catherine Murphy and (English-born) Rackstraw Downes, both now in their sixties; but in the work of Ellen Altfest – a former student of Murphy and an admirer and friend of Downes – the tradition takes a new, strange and rewarding turn.

Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. Unexpected things often happen when you keep looking at things for a long time – all the more so now that this long looking has become increasingly rare. 'Seeing,' as Paul Valéry once wrote, 'is forgetting the name of the thing one sees' – a statement now perhaps more closely associated with Robert Irwin, the artist who was the subject of a book that used that statement as its title, than with its author, unfortunately. Valéry was a great coiner of paradoxes, yet I wonder how many readers have ever considered the paradoxical thought at the heart of this little aphorism: that under normal conditions no one ever quite arrives at seeing anything – at least not by looking – since we don’t normally forget the names of what we perceive. Consider any of Altfest’s paintings. Their bluntly denotative titles remind us that by no means has she forgotten the names of the things she’s painted – for instance, Cactus, Desert Flower, Gourd, Tumbleweed, Two Logs, Penis. (I know, it’s tempting to stop and focus on the last item on that list, to notice how it seems to have wandered in by mistake from some other list altogether, but let’s reserve comment just for now.) Considering the paintings to which these titles are attached, the viewer is immediately aware that they are the fruit of prolonged observation of the named motifs. But all this observation, all this looking – what seeing has it brought about?

The answer is ambiguous. Take Tumbleweed, for example, which viewers may remember from the 2006 exhibition 'USA TODAY: New American Art from the Saatchi Gallery' at the Royal Academy. Who could forget it? An exhibition that did not lack graphically striking images of, for instance, battles, blow jobs and pyromania, the undramatic, nearly colourless Tumbleweed – the very name of it a byword for the uneventful, for a non-event in an inhospitable wilderness – turned out to be one of the most mysterious and arresting works. Its eponymous mass of tangled stalks and tiny, desiccated, needle-like leaves is shown sitting on what one can guess, knowing other recent works by Altfest, to be the artist’s studio floor; to its left we glimpse part of a radiator, behind it a metal door of a sort typical of industrial spaces in New York, beneath it some grungy wooden flooring. But mostly, the tumbleweed itself pretty much fills up the pictorial rectangle, by which it is nonetheless almost entirely contained. A nearly nondescript thing, and yet no one would ever think to wonder what got the artist interested in it, or what led her to ship it from the desert of the far West to her East Coast urban workplace. Because it’s mesmerizing. The density of information it contains is massive. One looks into it and into it. Every minute bit of it seems to have been rendered separately, on its own, with immense care and assiduous attention. Yet, more amazingly, the painter has not lost sight of what cannot be directly rendered – the space between each stalk or stem and the next. In fact, space is what this painting is about, if anything – it contains an immense amount of it, as well as (or perhaps I should say 'and therefore') a vast quantity of what I can only call perceptibility. That is, when I look at this painting, I have the sensation of being able to perceive much more about what it shows than I would be able to perceive if I had the thing itself in front me to look at directly. If the tumbleweed were here with me, I’d have a hard time seeing it except in a very general manner. Even if it occurred to me, as an exercise, to try and look at it steadily, systematically and deeply, I probably wouldn’t get very far. My eye would become confused and, finally, worn out. I’d be sure to give up before long. Something similar may be true of Altfest's more recent paintings of decaying gourds. The more they decay, the less one wants to look at them – and the more fascinating it may be to paint them, or to look at paintings of them. In these paintings, the artist shows time in a different way, by making an issue of the fact that the paintings must have taken too long to paint than these objects, in their ongoing process of decay, could have remained in a similar state. In each moment of its making, Altfest may have tried to adhere to the truth of what she saw, but the synthesis of those moments in time can only be a fiction.

In a representational painting, the artist sees something for me, sees on my behalf. Normally, the painter then gives me a precis, an efficient résumé of this act of seeing. Not Altfest. In a famous essay Rosalind Krauss once attributed to Sol LeWitt a refusal 'to abbreviate, to adumbrate, to condense […] to use, in short' – as I myself have just done by way of the ellipsis I have substituted for a bit of Krauss’s text – 'the notion of etcetera.' Likewise Altfest, though of course in every other way she is an utterly different kind of artist. But any other representational painter would surely have put a bit of etcetera into their rendering of a tumbleweed. Thanks to her, I can see as a whole as much of this tumbleweed that could possibly be seen from a single vantage point, and perhaps a bit more. I can take it in from a distance, but I can also, as it were without moving, get close and inspect it minutely, even somehow seeing around the sides of some of its branches as if I were sticking my nose into it to see more from another angle. It gives me the use of an immense power of looking, and yet without encouraging in me the illusion that this power is mine. Another way to put it might be to say that it puts at my disposal the immense quantity of time the artist must have spent on this looking, without tempting me to pretend that I have used my time in this way myself or even that I would be capable of doing so. (I can see it’s something I wouldn’t have the patience for.) This lent perceptive capacity does not leave me unchanged, however. In it, I give myself jubilantly to perception and to time and therefore increase my own perceptual capacity.

Still, the question remains unanswered: what seeing eventuates from this looking? Looking at Tumbleweed, do I see a tumbleweed? I certainly see something. But if the spirit of René Magritte were suddenly to appear – and why not, when the thing appears as uncannily on the studio floor as the apple filling a whole room in one of the Belgian Surrealist’s works – reminding me that Ceci n’est pas un tumbleweed, how could I argue? Yes, it’s a painting and I see it as a painting. In fact, although it has been made in a completely different manner, I can hardly help seeing it as a sort of citation of the dripped or poured paintings of Jackson Pollock: both are essentially tangled skeins of lines of immense energy – 'infinite labyrinths', as Parker Tyler once called Pollock's lines – yet contained by the rectangle of their supporting canvas. Of course Altfest’s is, obviously, not an abstract painting, nor one in which pictorial space is entirely flattened, though each of the marks that constitute it maintains its own integrity in the abstract. But by the same token, its realism does allow for a certain forgetfulness of its nonetheless absolutely literally attended-to motif – enough forgetfulness to allow me to lose myself for a time in the space it conjures.

Painting a tumbleweed must have been, for Altfest, something like a way of conceptually punning on her preference for what can be called a 'dry' style of painting – dry also in the sense of being emotionally undemonstrative. Yet her approach is not merely workmanlike. One never senses that some detail has been included out of a sense of duty. Quite the opposite: one feels that she was so engaged with the activity of looking and painting that it must have been hard for her to stop, to let go. There is an exorbitant desire at work here. Some new paintings she’s been working on recently seem to talk about this a little more openly. They’re paintings of pipes: grey, crusty water pipes, scabrous with rust and peeling paint. And the painter has rendered the full tactile force of this dryness – to look at them is already to feel their roughness if you were to run your fingers across their surfaces. There’s something repulsive about them, yet Altfest handles them without any particular fastidiousness but also without indulgence; that is, she neither evades what I can only call their ickiness but nor does she play it up. Disused and discarded in one case, though still attached to the wall and therefore presumably functional in another painting, these pipes could hardly be more communicative of the idea of dryness, though it’s obvious that it is precisely moisture that has created these rough, scaly textures, and that they exist only in order to channel streams of fluid. So in a way, these paintings talk about flow, about liquidity, by showing what seems to be the opposite.

Still, to paint pipes – or gourds, or a tumbleweed – is something like painting abstraction, to the extent that while they are things to which we easily lend meaning (as we do to the squares or brushstrokes of abstraction) they are nonetheless things to which we are fundamentally indifferent, things that may provisionally contain meaning but that are not in themselves charged with meaning. A painting of a pipe must always be above all a painting about painting – not necessarily an exercise in style, but rather an investigation of art’s ability to give meaning and to withhold it. To paint a penis, I suppose, is something else altogether. Altfest’s painting named after this organ was also shown at the Royal Academy, where its surprising kinship with Tumbleweed was evident: she had painted every strand of her model’s pubic hair with the same immeasurable care as she had portrayed every wisp of the uprooted plant; there is something about representing a mass of seemingly uncountable distinct linear elements that fascinates her. But in this case, of course, there was something more to look at. And Altfest had studied every fold and wrinkle of the drooping penis and baggy scrotum, no less and no more than she had the tumbleweed or the pipes. A strange realization: I’ve never looked so carefully at a penis before, or had it looked at so carefully on my behalf. I suspect I’m not rare in this. But the fact that something of such symbolic importance – the Lacanian distinction between the phallus (as signifier) and the (merely empirical) penis has always been somewhat elusive – is so rarely just looked at is telling. The problem is not the same, incidentally, as those posed by her more recent paintings of a nude male model. How is Altfest able to retain the same disinterested neutrality toward the penis as toward a metal pipe? Presumably, a different sort of effort is involved. She evokes neither lust, as Courbet did painting a woman’s pudenda in L’Origine du Monde, nor alienation, such as that of the heroine of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar ('The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed'); she neither humanizes nor dehumanizes her motif. But her disinterestedness does not exclude love, since what she loves about her motif is neither its meaning nor its use but its perceptibility.

© Barry Schwabsky

Barry Schwabsky is an American art critic and poet living in London.

See 'An Art That Eats It Own Head: Painting in the Age of the Image' in The Triumph of Painting (Jonathan Cape and The Saatchi Gallery, London 2005), and 'Sheer Sensation: The Origins of Photographically-Based Painting in Modernism' in The Painting of Modern Life (Hayward Gallery, London 2007)

Pierre Schneider, Matisse (Thames & Hudson, London 2002), p.218

Rosalind E Krauss, 'LeWitt in Progress' in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA 1985), p.253

Parker Tyler, 'Jackson Pollock: The Infinite Labyrinth' (1950) in Pepe Karmel (ed.), Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles and Reviews (The Museum of Modern Art, New York 1998), pp.65–67

First Published in Schwabsky, Barry, Ellen Altfest: Paintings, Jay Jopling/White Cube, London, 2007