#11. Craig Staff writes on ‘Real Painting’

Angela de la Cruz, "Compressed 1", 2010

Angela de la Cruz, “Compressed 1”, 2010

With thanks to the Castlefield Gallery, Manchester, who commissioned this essay to coincide with their exhibition: Real Painting,12 June 2015 — 2 August 2015 with work by Simon Callery, Adriano Costa, Deb Covell, Angela de la Cruz, Lydia Gifford, David Goerk, Alexis Harding, Jo McGonigal, DJ Simpson, Finbar Ward

Painting qua painting (as noun and verb)

Tell him of things. He will stand astonished.1

Writing in Hapticity and Time: Notes on Fragile Architecture, Juhani Pallasmaa speaks of the need, at least in relation to the experiential basis of the discipline the paper was originally directed towards, to reinstate “opacity and depth, sensory invitation and discovery, mystery and shadow.”2 As a way of highlighting this apparent sensory gap or caesura, Pallasmaa seeks recourse to, inter alia, the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (philosopher and author of Phenomenology of Perception, 1945):

“My perception is [therefore] not a sum of visual, tactile, and audible givens: I perceive in a total way with my whole being: I grasp a unique structure of the thing, a unique way of being, which speaks to all my senses at once.” 3

On one level, Pallasmaa’s foregrounding of embodied experience, an emphasis he sought to inscribe as the means whereby the perceived “loss of materiality and temporal experience” could be countered, rehearses a particular set of debates that marked the project of late modernism and more specifically, Minimalism.4 Whilst the latter’s adoption of Merleau-Ponty’s ideas have been well rehearsed, the conditions of possibility for the continuation of this approach after Minimalism remains a compelling question.

In this respect, and at this particular moment, we can arguably take Richard Tuttle’s art practice as being emblematic of the means by which, although it shared a preoccupation with what Merleau-Ponty described, with regard to the canvasses of Paul Cézanne, as the “lived perspective” of the artwork, it did not correspond to Minimalism’s often highly rationalised approach to the artwork’s organisation.5

Although the Octagonal series, a body of work that Tuttle had first conceived in cloth in 1967 and subsequently realised in paper and then wire became increasingly pared down, the series nevertheless remained reliant upon and, to a certain extent delimited by the reciprocity between the body of the work and the respective bodies of the artwork’s audience.6 Indeed, Marcia Tucker (Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1969-76 and founder of The New Museum, New York, 1977) sought to further extend this idea in the essay she wrote to accompany Tuttle’s show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1975 by triangulating into this exchange the body of the artist. Positioning Tuttle’s practice at that time in a way such that it became analogous to dance, Tucker would make the following claim:

“Tuttle readies himself as a dancer would for the activity of making the work present to himself and to us. That so much of Tuttle’s work is a result of body activity is partly caused by the fact that physical activity is the most direct and common means we have of translating interior states into external expression; in a very direct way, frowning, smiling, closed or open body positions, etc., are our primary communicative means, because they are experientially rather than analytically comprehensible. Our own experience of our bodies is “pre-scientific,” primitive and immediate.” 7

Notwithstanding the possibility for the artwork to remain imbricated with the artist’s own body, what the Whitney exhibition more broadly educed was that the “critical reception of the art was a fundamental aspect of the landscape of artistic production.” 8

Finbar Ward, untitled, 2014

Finbar Ward, untitled, 2014

On one level, the conditions of the visible, such as they pertain to both Tuttle’s Octagonal series and to the works included in Real Painting (Castlefield Gallery, Manchester, 2015), are organised around an understanding that painting, or at least some account thereof, functions as the implicit horizon.

Whilst Tuttle’s work emerged at a point wherein painting, albeit in a contested sense, could still be considered in relation to the idea of it as being a fully bounded, discrete idiom, today no such assurances prevail. Instead, Andrew Blauvelt’s (Graphic Designer and Curator) statement, which worked to frame Painting at the Edge of the World, an exhibition that was staged at the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis, USA) in 2001, remains more broadly indicative of a concern that painting tendentiously continues to negotiate with:

“To expand notions of painting beyond these delimited essences would be to acknowledge the aggregative and complex conditions that constitute painting’s heterogeneity. In other words, it would not be simply enough to ask what makes a painting a painting, but rather to understand the ways in which painting differs from itself” .9

However, and conversely, it is because Tuttle’s practice sought to foreground the artwork’s innate (rather than essential) characteristics that his statement of 1972 naturally extends to encompass the works that fall within Real Painting’s purview.

“It is however an estimable fact that an artwork exists in its own reality and in that exists a certain cause and effect pattern which has baffled the ancients as well as myself. To make something which looks like itself is, therefore, the problem, the solution. To make something which is its own unraveling, its own justification, is something like the dream.” 10

Herein, one could say, resides a tension that marks the project (rather than the idiom) of painting today. On the one hand, to not in some way acknowledge, even tacitly, the conditions of which Blauvelt speaks would be churlish, if not circumspect; conversely, to acknowledge such conditions is always to position one’s enquiry in relation to the possibility of attempting to make painting qua painting, be it purportedly real or otherwise. The artists included within Real Painting, whilst certainly cognisant of the former, arguably make work that is oriented towards the latter.

Jo McGonigal, "Yellow Yellow", 2015

Jo McGonigal, “Yellow Yellow”, 2015

What this means in real terms is that the works orient themselves to what one might characteristically describe as constituting the grammar of the pictorial, namely: support, surface, facture, form, colour and ostensible flatness. Of course, these are not necessarily discrete elements that work independently of each other, but at times, and in certain instances, betray a co-dependency, what one might describe as a structural or indeed spatial co-mingling. So for example, in the case of Deb Covell’s Nowt to Summat (2014), surface is so closely bound up with support that the two become ontologically all but indistinguishable. Equally, in the case of Jo McGonigal’s Yellow Yellow (2015), whilst derived from the realm of the demotic, the ostensible form of the thing is the colour yellow.

Elsewhere in the exhibition works have been selected on the basis of the demands, both physical and temporal, that are placed on the viewer. This is partly due to the fact that the viewer is not required to become preoccupied with a work of art, and specifically painting, that is image–based. Indeed, one notable characteristic that is discernable with most if not all of the works in Real Painting is that they have relinquished dependency upon what one might, in the received sense at least, deem to be an ‘image.’

foreground: Deb Covell, "Nowt to Summat", 2014; background: Simon Callery, "Wiltshire Modulator", 2010

foreground: Deb Covell, “Nowt to Summat”, 2014; background: Simon Callery, “Wiltshire Modulator”, 2010

For example, Compressed 1 (White), (2010) by Angela de la Cruz, 11/20 Untitled, (2014) by Finbar Ward and Wiltshire Modulor II, (2010) by Simon Callery can’t be read through the image quite simply because in each case any image, at least in the received sense, is entirely absent. However, rather than construing the work as somehow being in deficit because of this basic fact, the particularity of their physical presence, or, in the case of Wiltshire Modulor II, its heft, is the necessary point from which we work outwards. As Callery has noted: “I make physical paintings – because I am interested in the viewer as a physical being – a fully sentient, inquisitive, perceptive, decision-making, information-processing, emotional, idiosyncratic thinking being. I want the painting to involve and engage the full attention of that person.”11

Whilst one could arguably interpret the agency of this “physical being” as entailing, inter alia, “sensory invitation and discovery,” the experiential basis of the artwork that Callery here is seeking to articulate and address perhaps more directly corresponds to and is consonant with another key reference in Pallasmaa’s text, namely what Goethe (Johann Wolfgang von) termed “Zarte Empirie” (Delicate Empiricism), which, according to David Seamon, entailed “the effort to understand a thing’s meaning through prolonged empathetic looking and seeing grounded in direct experience.”12

More broadly, and as Real Painting educes, by acknowledging and, by extension, being prepared to understand the visible, if not the operative, conditions of painting, be they aggregative and complex or otherwise, then, and perhaps only then, can the project (and not the idiom) of painting make a reciprocal and reciprocated something which directly stems from its own unraveling, its own justification. Painting qua painting.

Craig Staff  is Reader in Fine Art at The University of Northampton and author of After Modernist Painting: The History of a Contemporary Practice published by I.B.Tauris, 2013.

1 Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, in Stephen Mitchell, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, New York: Random House, 1982, unpaginated.

2 Juhani Pallasmaa, ‘Hapticity and Time Notes On A Fragile Architecture,’ The Architectural Review, vol. 207, no.1239, May 2000, p. 78.

3 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘The Film and the New Psychology’. In Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sense and Non-Sense, Northwestern University Press, Evanston 1964, p.18 reproduced in Pallasmaa, ‘Hapticity and Time Notes On A Fragile Architecture,’ p. 78.

4 Pallasmaa, ‘Hapticity and Time Notes On A Fragile Architecture,’ p. 80.

5 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Cézanne’s Doubt,” in Sense and Non-Sense, Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus, (trans.), Evanston, Ill, 1964, p. 14.

6 As Madeleine Grynstein notes: “[Tuttle’s Paper Octagonals] appeared toward the end of a five-year period during which Tuttle’s work underwent a successive reduction in its object quality, most clearly demonstrated by his work with the octagonal shape, made first in cloth, then in paper, and finally in wire. Tuttle made a total of twelve Paper Octagonals, their shapes based on a square set on its side and cut off at its corners: while the first examples have a pronounced symmetry, the later ones are more eccentric (with the last “octagonal” being nine sided).” Madeleine Grynstein, “A Universe of Small Truths,” The Art of Richard Tuttle, Madeleine Grynstein (ed.), New York: Art Publishers, p. 33. The artist’s contribution to the Biennale in 1976 was a diminutively scaled piece of wood “No larger than two joints of a finger, stuck on the wall and identified by a label that occupies more space than the object itself.” Hilton Kramer, “our Venice Offering – More a Syllabus than a Show,” New York Times, 2 May 1976, reproduced in Grynstein, p. 45.

7 Marcia Tucker, Richard Tuttle, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1975, pp. 15-16.

8 Adam D. Weinberg, “1975 Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art,” reproduced in Grynstein, p. 149.

9 Andrew Blauvelt, ‘No Visible Means of Support,’ in Painting at the Edge of the World, Douglas Fogle (ed.), Minneapolis, Minnesota: Walker Art Center, 2001), p. 125.

10 Richard Tuttle, “Work Is Justification for the Excuse,” in Documenta 5 (Kassel: Documenta, 1972), reproduced in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1996, p. 609.

11 Simon Callery, Interview in Abstract Critical 22/8/12. Questions for Angela de la Cruz and Simon Callery: Enantiodromia Part I. Fold Gallery, London.

12 David Seamon, ‘Goethe, Nature and Phenomenology: An Introduction’, in David Seamon and Arthur Zajone, Goethe’s Way of Science, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1988, p. 2, reproduced in Pallasmaa, ‘Hapticity and Time Notes On A Fragile Architecture,’ p. 81.


  1. This is a really thought provoking article. The notion of the ‘project’ and ‘idiom’ is worthy of further thought – these ‘paintings as object’ still reference the characteristics (e.g. surface, colour, paint, spectacle etc) of painting after all. There seems to be a developmental, historical, logic here of Cubism (anti-perspective) leading to Abstraction to Minimalism to the re-generation of painting. These painting/sculpture/object conglomerations still have to be looked at (“eye-balled” as Hockney said somewhere) and maybe walked around. Moving images?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Staff is a follower not a leader and all his writings are as second rate as they are secondhand or even third-hand out of a book. The truth is that it’s all figurative imagery of an alien that’s out to get the viewer and no amount of Merleau pontificating is going to change that.


    2. Cubism does not lead to Abstraction to Minimalism, that’s a purely arbitrary false history of art, Cubism is about the transcendental-of-the-holistic vision. Minimalism and Abstraction are the easy conceits of antithesis to that, they are not a development of it per se.


  2. There was a time not so long ago that I would have tried to point out what I perceive to be the failings of this essay. I have since come to accept, though not without some resentment, that art means different things to different people and that, much to my consternation, we also respond to art in different ways.

    There are those like myself who respond to works of art as physical events, perceive them aesthetically, that is through the senses, and feel that the pleasure derived from the process of perceiving is end in and of itself requiring no further justification or elucidation beyond the experience. Value judgments about the quality of a work of art can be arrived at based on these immediately felt aesthetic criteria alone.

    There are then those who respond to art based in part upon the actuality of the work and the elements and relationships that constitute it, but primarily on the thoughts and words that the works’ provoke. The work itself, while nice, is really a just a place-holder for meaning and value that exists outside of it, a prompt for discourse. Works of art are seen as “texts” which can, given the right tools and socio-linguistic background, be “read” and enjoyed and deemed good or bad.

    Finally there are those who respond to the lifestyle of art. They couldn’t give a shit about the work of art or the ideas and discourse it might provoke, or at minimum, they’re indifferent to them. They’re just here for the money, parties and free booze at opening receptions. Fair enough.

    If were honest with ourselves, most of us are combinations of all three at varying levels.

    Though I don’t know the author, I’d guess -and could be wrong-, that based upon my reading of this essay, he responds to art principally from a position of the second category. There’s no harm in that. I do, however, based upon the images that accompany this essay, think that the works of art in question are boring and fundamentally without the visual relationships that someone of my persuasion would find stimulating, and I take issue with this statement:

    “What this means in real terms is that the works orient themselves to what one might characteristically describe as constituting the grammar of the pictorial, namely: support, surface, facture, form, colour and ostensible flatness. Of course, these are not necessarily discrete elements that work independently of each other, but at times, and in certain instances, betray a co-dependency, what one might describe as a structural or indeed spatial co-mingling.”

    The author describes these visual elements as ” not necessarily discrete elements that work independently”. As anyone who has sustained a long-term engagement with the practice of art making will likely concur, these visual elements are never discrete within the context of a work of art as a per se unum. To attempt to abstract shape, facture, or color, from a singular work is to change its internal relationships irrevocably. It would cease being the work that it was, and become something wholly different. Words can be divorced from sentences still retain meaning; visual elements divorced from their relationship to other elements in a work of art are meaningless.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Craig Staff has used ‘International Art English’ to a very severe degree, so much so that I really can’t seem to make out what he is trying to say, will try harder and go through it again. The content of the work seems really minimal and extremely unengaging.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Don’t bother, you’re making the presumption that because you can’t make out what he’s trying to say, that it’s your problem. Staff missed his calling in life as a DSS employee where they write letters in gobbledygook on the off chance that you won’t understand any of it, it’s because THERE’S NOTHING TO UNDERSTAND. Any critic worth his salt would talk in a precise manner, it’s all pictorial for being a component of the visual field, these works are just that, components of the visual field, like rubbish in the gutter, glamorized for the gullible.


    1. Well to a certain extent everything which we use language to communicate is conceptualized, yet I would argue for the primacy -and independence- of sense-impressions which are mediated by language only in so far as they need to be communicated to others in some manner.

      I don’t conceptualize my ears, I simply hear through them and judge the quality of sound which they allow me to perceive. I don’t see a necessity for sense impression to pass through any kind of mental alembic in order for me to make use of them. The stimuli is there, its external presence is real and I respond. I don’t require language or ideas for that process to occur. Those things can enrich the experience, surely, but really one need only conscious awareness of the experience.

      I’m aware that I might be misinterpreting your question, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Provocative indeed, alas it provoked a sigh which often seems to accompany articles illustrated by a De Cruz, suffice to say that this kind of writing is a pretty ‘good’ example of what I alighted on AbCrit to escape from.
    I returned to Eurosport and avowed as Noela commented to tackle its self conscious opacity again later.

    It prompted a desire to read one of those succinct, pithy Judd reviews: ” …The larger pieces are made of two inch pipe. The ends are either filled or flattened shut. All of the pieces are painted flat black. In Prairial, some seven feet high, about nine pipes tilt in the same direction. One or two pipes tilt against this direction. Most of the pipes have one or two limbs, all going every which ways. The sculpture is nicely composed. The clump of pipe looks like a clump of grass seen from near its roots. All of the pieces look like this. The bundles of pipe or rods are disheveled, are in a neat tuft, are bent over, but are still like grass. The image is simple and uninteresting.”

    Ok, so the above is not the finest piece of Judd’s writing, but on a phenomenological level tells me more about the objects on show than anything I can fathom from the Real Painting piece.

    If I can get anything from the article in question one seems to be a call for a phenomenological approach, Husserl’s oft quoted; “to the things themselves.” Yet, not only are the objects themselves little more than placeholders for external texts as Alan suggests, but the article itself seems little more than an index card for a series of larger and not necessarily compatible external concepts the gist of which it fails to explain to the reader. This separation of text and object seems in contrast Cartesian.

    Far from even zombie minimalism the suggested debate about what constitutes painting surely is long dead and buried, a retired franchise – cremated? I would like to know more about the objects before ascribing their value in such a debate, is that drape cotton, canvas, molton? What of the dimensions, how does this relate to the ‘body’, what of it’s texture, weight, smell, sound? The phenomena!

    “The effort to understand a thing’s meaning through prolonged empathetic looking and seeing grounded in direct experience” has not been applied.

    I am left instead with the impression of a set of commonplace vanilla re-iterations of minimal classics, stripped of any of heft or materiality common to that genre. The ‘issues’ of means addressed long ago through, in the end, becoming sculpture. It all comes across as a bit “flat earth.”

    The allusion to the “embodied mind” is timely and in the academic air, but why has it taken so long, didn’t Heidegger kill off Decartes with his broken hammer? One would be better off giving us Tim Ingold deconstructing DIY to really begin to understand the act of making, it’s oneness of body and mind involved in the studio.

    To separate is to illustrate. Alas much work one sees still takes a text as stating point and ends up as illustration, rarely adding much to the text indexed. As with a student who begins; “my work references…” ones eyes glaze over, I return to La Tour and Latour too for that matter.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Why give a good writer like Craig Staff such a hard time? Craig, If by any chance you are reading, thank you, I found your article, reprinted here, very interesting. What you say about Tuttle adds to the discussion of his work that was taking place on this site a few months ago, and from a much more appreciative standpoint. Your comments about the work at Real Painting and your call to “prolonged empathetic looking and seeing grounded in direct experience” is enough to get me planning a trip to Manchester. Looking forward to seeing the show.


  6. There is another review of this show on http://thisistomorrow.info/articles/real-painting by Tom Emery. According to his short essay, the artist/curators, Deb Covell and Jo McGonigal, seek to redress the duality of painting’s ability to be ‘…representative of something, even when it is ostensibly abstract…’; and thus:

    ‘… this exhibition does not consider “what a painting means, but what it ‘does’”. This is an exhibition of paintings that exist on their own terms, for their own sake, works that provide a physical presence and don’t just passively sit on a wall to be admired.’

    Mr. Emery goes on to describe ‘Compressed 1 (White)’ by Angela de la Cruz:

    ‘…a crumpled and distorted aluminium construction, painted in white. It’s an astonishing piece, jutting out from the wall, approaching the viewer’s space with its painful, angular form. By using metal, de la Cruz brings to mind car-crashes, and more large-scale damage and destruction…’

    Confused? Me too. Presumably ‘Compressed 1 (White)’ ‘does’ a car crash, but without meaning? No symbolism, metaphor or allusion intended, just pure abstract-for-its-own-sake-ness? It seems to me – and I admit I won’t be seeing the show – that far from asserting some bold new abstract reality, this work is deeply, and in some cases romantically, metaphorical, quite old-fashioned, and dependent upon some pretty obvious allusions to the literal world, such as crushed metal and car crashes – because it is void of all ‘real’ content.

    The intellectualisations of Craig Staff, Tom Emery and others around this kind of generic work seeks to link such literalism with an uncorrupted quiddity. But contrary to the claims for its physical presence, this work sits far more passively on the wall (or floor) than most other painting, abstract or figurative. What it ‘does’ is very little indeed.

    There is, of course, no one kind of ‘real’ painting, only many degrees of the more or less ‘real’, the more or less ‘vital’. This work and its accompanying hype feels like a narrowing of painting’s possibilities; a return, and not for the first time, to some unchallenging sixties aesthetics.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed. The works’ dependance on external allusion (even if accidental) and celebration of vacuousness masquerading as authenticity in lieu of the more arduous, and infinity more complex and rewarding task of establishing a credible illusion, reveals how deeply impoverished this type of painting is. Its really a poor man’s sculpture which requires the persistent intravenous drip of absurdly “heady” discourse to keep it from collapsing under the weight of its aesthetic deprivation.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Given that the aim of this exhibition is to examine what painting ‘does’ I was reminded of the essay ‘What Paint Does’ by Robin Greenwood. It is archived on the Abstract Critical website and although I’m sure that Robin is far too modest to recommend either a first-time read or a re-visit it certainly is relevant in the context of this current exhibition of so called ‘Real Painting’


  8. My computer doesn’t respond to the ‘like ‘ button either, so yes I like Robin’s post and agree with Terry about Robin’s excellent essay on ‘What paint does’ in the abcrit archive.


  9. Though Mr Staff uses Tuttle as a progenitor of this approach, where de la Cruz is concerned, I think you have to look at that other post minimalist Eva Hesse. Start with ‘Hang up’ of 1966. de la Cruz’s work is about the vulnerable body politic. She has pulled the ‘high art’ ‘monochrome’ down a peg or two. She has made it homeless and wholly uncomfortable, with all its shambolic ‘underbelly’ and bodily failings exposed. Now she has, sort of, hospitalised this process- sticking it in an isolation unit, decontaminating everything till it becomes a whiter than white husk. Callery maintains the great English romantic landscape tradition with the loving care of a bespoke furniture maker. Thomas Gainsborough (lovely greens) and William Morris, I’m sure, are smiling down upon thee.


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