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The mystery of painting

Still Life with Pocket Door

Still Life with Pocket Door

If someone were to ask me right now what my painting is about, I might offer something that would probably occur to me if I were someone else appraising the work I’ve done over the past couple years. I might say Dorsey is continuing to work in several different modes: adding to the series of large jars he has exhibited in the past, doing a few suburban landscapes, and exploring smaller alla prima paintings executed very quickly, almost like Japanese sumi-e. In all of this work, he’s drawn to the ordinary and everyday. Mostly, though, he has continued his central pursuit of fairly traditional still life. His love for this genre seems to come from a variety of influences. Yet the effect of these paintings when seen together, aside from whatever virtues still life has always had, is to make one feel as if the artist is wistful, even desperate, for a world that’s fast disappearing. There’s something about these paintings that reminds one of the rag waved in the air by the uppermost member of that pile of survivors in Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, the one trying to catch the eye of a savior on the tall ship just emerging over the horizon before time runs out on the life raft. In a time when the middle class seems to be rapidly disappearing, taking with it the promise of opportunity for most people in our society, Dorsey seems to be drawn again and again to the subject of domestic serenity as embodied in a little heirloom sugar bowl or a couple flowers from a backyard garden. Intentionally small potatoes—though, strictly speaking, he hasn’t painted any potatoes yet. Domestic happiness was the daemon of both Chardin and Vermeer, two painters who have had a powerful sway over his work so far. It isn’t a small thing, though, to have reminders of what it meant in America to have a flourishing middle class, a thriving bourgeoisie so despised by intellectuals, the economic topsoil of a robust free society, something fast disappearing in the world right now.

This might be what someone would say about the paintings in this show, though it’s merely hindsight and speculation on my part. None of this even crossed my mind as I’ve done this work, though much of it sounds sensible enough now. Subconsciously, I’m drawn to simple and commonplace subjects, and now that we live in a time of extremes, a novel way to go against the grain these days might be to offer little glimpses of a lost American dream. But this commentary is all ex post facto on my part. None of this has much to do with what consciously drives me as I paint, which is mostly concerned with tackling formal challenges. If I have a philosophy of painting, it’s essentially that most of what a great painting conveys to a viewer is invested in the painting subconsciously and non-conceptually—at the level where a painting is a sort of visual music. It can’t be translated into words, and what matters most remains as elusive for the painter as it is for the viewer. A good painting’s effect has far more to do with the physical act of painting than an artist’s intentions. You start off wanting to create an image that captures certain qualities of light and color and form, and yet what often has the biggest impact on a viewer isn’t, strictly speaking, visible at all. It’s the silent resonance of the slow time invested in making the picture. Painting is an act of intense mindfulness, a way of training the mind for the patience required to see and show what’s actually see-able as clearly as possible, in the hope of triggering a sense of an entire world behind and around it. Slow time, as Keats put it, is how I lure my heart out into the open so that I can get to know it a little better.




Formula for Success

The formula is quite simple: if attained aeffect matches desired aeffect, then we’ve succeeded. If it doesn’t we’ve failed. If attained aeffect comprises a fraction of desired aeffect, then we are on the right path. Expressed as a mathematical formula (that we just made up) it might look like this:








Here’s how it would work in practice: say you want to create a piece that would engage and inform and involve people in the struggle to create community gardens. Only ten people showed up at your first organizing meeting, and you would you’re your piece to double attendance. You make the piece, show it or perform it all around the neighborhood and, lo and behold, twenty people show up at your next meeting. If we plug those values into our formula it looks like this:

S = (20-10) = 10 = 1 = 100% success
(20-10) = 10 = 1

If 15 people show up:

S = (15–10) = 5   = 1 = 50% success
(20-10) = 10 = 2

If 10 people (or less) show up:

S = (10-10) = 0 = 0 = 0% success, or failure
(20-10) = 10 = 1

If 30 people show up:

S = (30-10) = 20 = 2 = 200% success, or successful beyond expectations!
(20-10) = 10 = 1

And, if we were aiming toward multiple targets, as we might if we were planning a campaign, we might set X different goals/measures and find the average success over them all. That formula would look like this:


(Plugging in real variables gets so complicated and takes up so much space that you’ll have to trust us that this works. It does.)






There we have it: the formula for successful Artistic Activism!

Are we serious?

Yes…and No.

The math works, but what it can work on is very little. At times, with relative straight-forward objectives that can be easily measured, like increasing the number of people showed up at an organizing meeting, you might be able to use a formula like this. But such easily quantifiable objectives are few and far between. We offer it here as more metaphor than mathematics, a heuristic tool to get us thinking about the aeffect of artistic activism.

Art is marvelously irrepressible. It is forever producing affects and effects that we did not predict or even desire; one could even argue that this is its strength. Art, if it’s any good, always creates a surplus, bubbling up and slopping over the sides of whatever categories we create to contain it, spilling out on the floor, making new forms and patterns that demand new perspectives to understand it and new measures to judge it. Some aeffects of our artistic activism may not be discernible, not in the short run, or even in our lifetimes – mass changes in sense perceptions or bodily patterns, for instance. How do we judge the success of, say, the Re-Distribution of the Sensible which, if we are successful, will have created entirely new criteria of success and failure?

We probably cannot. And that’s OK — we need to make peace with this. Changing the world is a long project and we needn’t get dispirited if it doesn’t happen overnight. Artistic activism, when all is said and done, is an art, not a science. There is no singular way it works, nor formula to determine if it has worked. Acknowledging this, however, does not allow us to retreat back into magical thinking where we create a piece and poof! change happens. We may not have, nor want, the one metric that can be applied mathematically to all artistic activism, but we can, and should, have a methodology. Sometimes the formula above will work; sometimes it won’t. But in all cases it’s imperative that we think seriously about exactly what we want to do and how to know if we’ve done it.

(Thanks to Professor Matt Stanley for the math assist.)

Black Mirror

black mirror

For an bit of interesting commentary on the power of contemporary media, try the first episode of Black Mirror. It’s also a sidelong statement about . . . well, watch. The series as a whole is well done.


Perceptual painting on view

Dining Room into Living Room, Mark Karnes, 2009-2012, acrylic on board

Dining Room into Living Room, Mark Karnes, 2009-2012, acrylic on Masonite

In fortuitous lulls during the Siberian Express of snow and frigid temperatures here in the Northeast during the past week, I drove six hours to Maryland to see two fantastic exhibits, both devoted to “perceptual painting.” One, organized by Matt Klos, tracks the largely unrecognized history of this movement, showing how perceptual painting enables representational art to evoke a liminal, dreamlike intimation of a world around and within the surface of things. That may be a pretentious-sounding way to say that perceptual painters enable you to see what they saw, mostly through direct observation, but they also convey a loving, sustained hunger to evoke something much larger, the poetry of the everyday. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. I want to write a long post about both shows, or maybe several posts, when I’ve tackled some other things on my plate, and this is simply a quick reminder for anybody within a few hours of Annapolis to invest an afternoon on these shows before they come down. It’s some of the most compelling painting being done right now, and it’s also an interesting attempt to further define what “perceptual painting” is, in the wake of earlier shows, such as the one recently at Manifest and a year ago at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. It kills me not to be able to attend the exhibition events today, but I pass this note along from Matt Klos for anyone able to attend:

My curator’s talk for “A Lineage of American Perceptual Painting” has been moved to Wednesday, February 25th at 5:30pm located at St. John’s College in the Drawing Room adjacent to the Mitchell Gallery. There will be ample time to walk through the gallery before and after the talk. St. John’s College, Mitchell Gallery, 60 College Ave, Annapolis, MD 21401 
A panel discussion for the exhibition will be held this Sunday February 22nd at 3:00pm also located at St. John’s College. Follow signage when you arrive to the gallery… we will either meet in the auditorium or the drawing room depending on turnout. Although not required please call the gallery to rsvp for both events, 410-626-2556.St. John’s College, Mitchell Gallery, 60 College Ave, Annapolis, MD 21401
“Lineage” Artists and Panel Discussion participants will include: 
James Fitzsimmons
Elizabeth Geiger
Philip Geiger
Mark Karnes
Scott Noel
Charles Ritchie
Aaron Lubrick and Matt Klos will moderate. Several questions will be asked of the panel including this one, The painter Jake Berthot in a letter to Ryan Smith once wrote, “The mind lies and is capable of making a justification for anything. The eye and the hand are incapable of lying. Look with your heart and it will tell you through your eye what your hand needs to do.”  Can you talk to us about what you think Mr. Berthot may have meant? What does that statement mean to you? I hope you’ll come join the conversation.
Special guests Erin Raedeke, David Campbell, and John Lee will also attend the Panel Discussion. These artists currently have work on view at Anne Arundel Community College in the Cade Gallery in an exhibition “Subject & Subjectivity” curated by Matthew Ballou. On the day of the Panel Discussion (Sunday, Feb. 22nd) artists will be on hand in the Cade Gallery to discuss the exhibition starting at 1pm. John A. Cade Center for Fine Arts, Cade Gallery, 101 College Pkwy, Arnold, MD 21012

Elmer Bishoff

Orange Sweater, Elmer Bishoff

Orange Sweater, Elmer Bishoff


This week we’re taking a look at the McDonald’s Videogame, where you own and operate a McDonald’s restaurant.

In the game you have the choice to try to operate ethically or make decisions like using genetically modified soy or administering bovine growth hormone. If you go the ethical route, you bankrupt the company and lose.

The game is designed by Molleindustria,  an Italian guerrilla semiotics and culture jamming website.

Check out more info on the game at our Actipedia entry, here:

Phenomenology and painting


My lifelong, simmering interest in Martin Heidegger, plus my recent quick rereading of early Nietzsche, has a couple friends wondering if I’ve become a dreaded existentialist, whatever that is. (No doubt this would mean someone who understands what “existential threat” means.) The answer would be “no.” My faith, humble and simple and nonsectarian as it is, remains unshaken—it’s a way of life, not a set of propositions about the world. But Heidegger keeps appearing in my path, even when I’m not seeking out books or essays about him. For example, while painting this week, I caught up with some of the latest episodes of In Our Time, a great, brisk discussion from the BBC about almost any subject as long as it’s dense with information: history, music, religion, art, and philosophy. I clicked on the “Phenomenology” episode and listened to a discussion that repeatedly reminded me of why I started painting years ago, as a way of seeking “meaning.”

Melvyn Bragg had three guests: Simon Glendinning, from the European Institute at the London School of Economics, Joanna Hodge, from Manchester Metropolitan University, and Stephen Mulhall, from the University of Oxford. The discussion turned out to be a sort of back door into an examination of what has generally been called “existentialism” though none of the panelists ever once used the word, instead referring to Heidegger and Sartre as phenomenologists because their work descended from Edmund Husserl’s. This off-the-cuff dissection of phenomenology was articulate and effective—and quick—so I’m going to reproduce some of it here, partly because by the end of the podcast I was struck by how much painting is, or should be, a phenomenological exploration.

Here are portions of the conversation, paraphrased and condensed in places, starting with an overview whose bearing on representational painting should be glaringly obvious:

Stephen Mulhall:

Phenomenologists are fascinated and struck by the fact that we grasp and comprehend all of the various entities that the world throws at us in the course of our everyday experience of it. The world and everything in it present themselves to us and we understand them, make sense of them. They’re intelligible to us. Phenomenologists are interested in the way reality manifests itself to ordinary human subjects. Their concern is one of the central ones in Western philosophy: the relationship between how things appear to us to be and the reality of those things. In modern philosophy that relationship has tended to generate a skeptical anxiety because philosophers worry about the ways in which appearances might mislead us.

The phenomenologist wants to understand how appearances can be appearances of real objects and events. If you want to understand how appearances can disclose reality you have to understand the content of those appearances. We can understand what makes appearances the kinds of things they are by careful elucidation of the underlying structure of them. You don’t need to invoke a reality behind them. Pay extremely careful attention to what is really going on when you experience real things as they present themselves to you. (Note: This sounds like the first rule for a representational painter.)

The discussion continued to unpack how this thinking evolved. One of the key steps for Husserl and his followers was what he called epoche: an attempt to suspend one’s natural, inherited understanding of what’s real. In other words, if you’re a psychologist, you simply observe what’s happening without interpreting how the mind or emotions work through preconceived theoretical templates. (A New Yorker piece by Adam Gopnik a few years ago about his study of figure drawing with Jacob Collins, the founder of the Grand Central Academy in New York, made a similar point about drawing: try to see the actual shapes that meet your eye, rather than attempting to duplicate the object you recognize. What you think you know can prevent you from seeing what’s actually there.) For a philosopher, this meant putting aside—putting in “backets”—all the previous schools of philosophy with their metaphysical assumptions about appearances and reality, from Plato to Kant.

Simon Glendenning:

Epoche is an ancient Greek term which, in its philosophical usage, describes the theoretical moment where all judgments about the existence of the external world, and consequently all action in the world, is suspended.

It is something that belongs to the method of phenomenology… you have to first conduct this epoche. He means it as a suspending of normality: the natural attitude. In the natural attitude we are immersed in our lives and engaged with things, a cup on your table, a car in front of you. This everyday way of being in the natural attitude bears with it a presumption of existence. (Phenomenologists) will bracket this assumption, put it out of play, to bring you back to . . . the stream of experiencing life that is irreducibly related to you, as an experiencing subject. Partly because what he wants to do in holding off from the natural attitude is to see the way these everyday objects are constituted as the things they are within the field of subjective experience—the glass on the table, the steering wheel in your hands–rather than thinking that we are simply encountering things just as they are.


Bragg: Does this meld into what he later describes as the life world?

Yes. It was a later development. It will arrive in the same place in a certain way. He wants to distance us from a scientific conception of the world. What we might call the objective world of science. Science belongs inside the natural attitude. It’s looking at the structure of objectivity in its material formation: if we are looking around ourselves now we have the familiar world, with tables and chairs and other people. Science seems to be able to provide a more fundamental account of that reality in its objectivity, but Husserl, in his idea of a life world, rather than an objective world, he wants to say, “look, in our lives as subjects in the world we don’t inhabit an objective world of science. We inhabit a world of meaning where things have sense and matter to us and have significance.” He wants to displace a conception of what it is to be in a world (away from the scientific conception of objectivity) toward this lived, immersive idea of a life world . . . (Note: life world sounds quite close to Wittgenstein’s forms of life as a structure of meaning.)

Stephen Mulhall pushed this even further:

What it challenges is a certain assumption of naturalism. The field of significance or sense that is disclosed by doing the bracketing (epoche) is one which is a condition for the possibility of engaging in a natural way with objects and for a scientific investigation of the world. Unless we’re able to grasp the world as a meaningful field, we couldn’t go on to study it. There is a tendency to believe that once we have engaged in the natural scientific project we will be able to account for everything of significance in human life. What phenomenology is staking its claim on is the idea that that simply isn’t going to be possible. These fields of meaning and significance are not the kinds of things that we can possibly understand if we restrict ourselves to an understanding of an objective world understood purely as a world of matter in motion.

This seems crucial to me, as a way of understanding why painting represents a way of revealing “the world as a meaningful field” distinct from the way science does. In what sounds like a very dry analysis of a century-old school of philosophy, I actually hear echoes of a consternation at the root of most creativity. No, I admit I haven’t done a survey, but I’m convinced that most artists who are driven to make something meaningful—a song, a poem, a painting, a film—have, at least subliminally, struggled with the need to clarify “the field of meaning,” which serves as an unacknowledged foundation for our way of making things happen, or simply being, in the world. We live in a world where purposeful, pragmatic action, and thinking, has become our definition of human life. We work toward pre-determined ends: build a house, finish the update of a software program, get a satellite into orbit, defeat an enemy in the Middle East, or just flip a burger. It’s all purposeful behavior within the context of a “natural” understanding of life that goes largely unquestioned, or simply unrecognized. Science and technology aren’t simply how we make life “better” (leaving aside the issue of how they might diminish life), they have become the backdrop, the unconscious framework, for how we think we understand everything in the world and the world as a whole—and so the open question of who and what we are, and why we exist, remains unasked, except in the terms of science and its propositions about “a world of matter in motion.” Ask that question and you get talk of the Big Bang or evolution, which are entirely beside the point for someone in the grip of wondering what the “point” of life actually is. Wittgenstein would no doubt say that state of intense wondering is a way of having been fooled by language into asking a meaningless question, but I don’t think that recognizes why the question matters. There isn’t an answer to it, but being engaged in that impossible-to-answer question is at the heart of creativity, and, I think, philosophy, at least for Heidegger.

Phenomenology gave Heidegger a way to revive what he saw as the fundamental question of what the world as a whole is. We don’t ask that question because it has no answer, other than the partial ones that science offers which illuminate nothing for a person who craves a sense of meaning for everything as a whole. As the discussion moved to Heidegger, the participants said that Heidegger claimed the entire history of Western philosophy put aside the question of “the unifying nature of being.” The “question of being” gets ignored in favor of questions about what’s meaningful or real.

Joanna Hodge addressed this perfectly:

For Heidegger there is never going to be a proper answer, or even an address to the question of the meaning of being, because that’s the moment at which the thinking process gets started and it’s always receding away from you as you start doing your analysis and producing your answer to your question. It’s the question that has gone missing at the beginning of the history of Western philosophy for Heidegger. . . even since the pre-Socratics, the primary original insight that gets philosophy going in the first place—what is there? or why is there something rather than nothing? or how do we have a conception of truth?—that primary moment goes missing in a whole series of failed attempts to answer the individuated questions (of philosophy), instead of addressing oneself to the wonder of there being anything at all.

Painting is one way of addressing oneself to “the wonder of there being anything at all” through the lowly act of representing the appearance of things. How the act of doing that conveys something much larger, and more encompassing, is the mystery of visual art. (Heidegger hints about that mystery in one of his essays in his passage about Van Gogh.) Last night, I got a third of the way into Making Sense of Heidegger by Thomas Sheehan, published late last year, and it’s as delightful as a book about Heidegger can be, in some places written almost conversationally, but without sacrificing the careful, subtle distinctions he conveys—along with the decades of study he has invested into his understanding of Heidegger. Part Two is where he really hits his stride, and for the most part it’s fantastic to read. His thesis seems to be what Heidegger meant by “being” is actually what we mean by the word “meaning”: things and the world have being for a person only insofar as they have meaning. Being human means to be the creature for whom “meaning” is like water to a fish. The world is “meaning”, not matter in motion. I think this is where his subtitle comes in: “A Paradigm Shift.” Sheehan’s approach seems to be exactly that, but I need to get through the book to see what he thinks of the sense I get from Heidegger that we need an entirely new way to ask about “being” or, in Sheehan’s terminology, a new structure of meaning for understanding our place in the world.



I’m an avid admirer of Suzie MacMurray’s work, after stumbling onto her show at Danese/Corey in 2013 and spending quite a bit of time there absorbing it. I got an email from her about a new installation, Cloud, to commemorate the loss of British soldiers in the First World War. Wish I could get across the pond to see it, but I’ll be checking for glimpses via the Internet. Sounds intriguing, and substantial, and no doubt brilliantly done.