Some reflections

(Longer version)

I’ve spent a lifetime painting and drawing and passing on to others insights about these skills, forever pondering the question: what is art? Whatever I’ve done and am doing must be of some value to society… I haven’t starved yet!

I’ve encountered prehistoric art in southern France, ancient Egyptian tomb painting in the Valley of the Kings, rock shelter art in Kakadu, as well as the great Gothic windows of St Chapelle and Chartres and the extraordinary frescoes of Renaissance Italy. I’ve taken pilgrimages to the Venice Biennale and have guided bewildered masses through many Sydney Biennales. With all these experiences I still ask myself, “What is art?” As close as I can get is: “any object made to be viewed aesthetically, when viewed aesthetically”. My definition therefore requires the act of production or creation, then put “out there” for aesthetic response by a perceptive, sensitive, knowledgeable viewer… are there any out there? Art is a performance to an audience. (I think that artists are their own best audience.)

No matter how famous an artist is, only the artist will fully see the layers of creativity that the work of art has locked up within it. By retracing the endless decision-making, the informed viewer can enjoy some of the frissons of discovery, and have some of the “ahh, ha-ha’s” that make up the “aesthetic response”. The artistic contract has been created.

In my experience of watching gallery-watchers, most viewers dispatch a painting in three to ten seconds. They will spend more time reading the label than they will spend encountering the art object. We have been taught to read text, we just have not been schooled in “reading” the art object. I think that for many of us our first art instruction took place on mother’s knee, our first pictorial matter was probably a magazine. We learnt to recognise: “puppy dog”, “pussy cat”, “house”, “lady”, etc, and we were rewarded by the enthusiastic response of our parent when we became pictorially literate, that is, when we could recognise printed representations of the real world.

This “object recognition” approach has stuck with us, with the added sophistication of joining up with a narrative cause and effect: “The lady holds the pussy cat away from the barking dog as she enters the house”. We “read” the picture as painted language.

Anyone wishing to pursue this line of thought should read an excellent tract, The Painted Word by Tom Woolf; but Woolf, for all his insights into the critical/marketing aspect of art participants and promoters, does not venture into how we should look at a work of art. Unfortunately the “art work” may not have been created with aesthetic viewing as its primary aim. Much of what currently bedecks gallery walls has been created to be viewed politically, sociologically, environmentally, art-historically, etc, which makes it a bit frustrating for those who go to the art work looking for visual delight. I may be regarded as antiquated, left-footed, off-field, quaintly old-worldly, etc, however all of my paintings have been created to be viewed aesthetically. It is now my task to explain what I mean by “aesthetically”.

Painting is a form of design. Design, I believe, comes from two Latin words, “Deus” (God) and “Signo” (sign)… therefore “signature of God”. (My Oxford dictionary doesn’t support my theory, nevertheless…) The world to most is a chaotic set of happen-chances. To the artist or scientist falls the task of bringing it all together, to show order where perhaps little cohesion seems to exist. The rectangular frame through which most artists view the world is an artificial device, which, once accepted, dictates to the pictorially sensitive eye the many adjustments necessary in the adaptation of the visual world to the structure of the picture plane. This is the act of composition. For many years I struggled to rid my art of the rectangle, my carefully carpentered, cut out images avoided background and the enclosing rectangle. Nevertheless the rectangle is in some way implied if not explicit. Like the prodigal son, I returned to orthodoxy more a believer than ever before.

The world is ever-changing and 3D; that which is caught on the picture plane is timeless and flat. Sitting at a street-side café watching the world go by is endlessly fascinating. A photograph of it is somehow a little less than fascinating. However a painting of it, say, Rembrandt’s Night Watch, despite all that it lacks – smell, sound, and changing light sources – has what raw reality doesn’t have: design. It is this wrestle between reality and geometry and the thousands of choices that must be made that provides the aesthetic adventure which is there to fascinate us, should we wish to stand and ponder.

Unfortunately the millions of gallery visitors to the shrine of Rembrandt get a little dazzled by the bright lights of fame and monetary value; many leave, wondering what all the fuss was about.

Most art students study to gain the skills to depict “A” and “B”. The next skill developed is to be able to put “A” and “B” into a pictorial relationship, whereby they have a bigger unity (the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts). This whole then needs to be related/justified to the rectangular frame.

In some way artists never really get it all together. All paintings have unresolved or poorly resolved areas; nevertheless the viewer’s pleasure can be in the involvement as to how the resolutions are made. Much the same way, our brain participates by anticipation of the next note or chord that becomes resolved, in a piece of music never heard before. How much reality? How much geometry? What have been the pictorial sacrifices? What have been the aesthetic gains?

Fifty years of my artistic ramblings may be arbitrarily broken up into excursions which will bear the labels: “nudes”, “portraits”, “landscapes”, etc. However metamorphosis and geometric devices like the grid are the linked threads of my seemingly haphazard journey.

Hansel and Gretel dropped pebbles to mark their journey into the wilds. Theseus had a ball of string to enable his exploration of Minos’ maze. My advice is to let yourself go and get lost; there is no right way.

Robin Norling

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *