Palaces, Pollock and Pixar
Inside Out, the recent Pixar movie, contains a scene I found overwhelmingly, hysterically funny. The action is set mainly inside the mind of Riley, an eleven year old girl, which is occupied by five figures personifying her emotions – ‘Joy’, ‘Anger’, ‘Sadness’, ‘Disgust’ and ‘Fear’. In the scene, two characters, Joy and Riley’s ‘Imaginary Friend’, take a short cut through a region called ‘Abstract Thought’, despite clear warnings that they are entering a dangerous zone. As they travel through it, the processes of visual abstraction transform them. First their anatomy is fragmented and re-organised in a non-naturalistic formation, they lose volume and depth, their outline is simplified, they become flatter and flatter. Just at the point of extinction they reach the exit and their figurative integrity is restored.
The scene is a highly edited and compressed account of pictorial abstraction’s evolution, familiar from university art history modules on the subject. What’s interesting is the panic that overtakes the two characters as they approach pure abstraction, and the relief they feel when they return to their familiar pixel-based environment. Even as an abstract painter, I felt it difficult not to share this sense of relief.
Dealing with the topic of abstract art within the format of a popular animated feature is pretty unusual. But the collision between the illusions of the computer generated image and the reductive processes which lead to non-representational painting reveals something that maybe worth reflecting on to do with ‘space’.
Pixar space is pictorially remarkable. It is an extension of the space in which most of us live. It’s post-cinematic, even post-photographic, in the sense that it does not require the camera as an organising principle or mediating apparatus. It’s not modernist because, unlike all the methods of filmmaking that involve camera work or technique, it does not draw attention to its own processes of facture. It’s almost not a medium. Instead it is a fully ‘public’ space.
Historically, the cultural take up or success of pictorial space has depended on paintings offering themselves as extensions or extrapolations of the different spaces that the viewer occupies; not just generalised, quantitative depth. In Las Meninas we encounter the space of the palace and that frames our experience of the work. The space in the Ghent altarpiece reflects the religious conditions of the church or chapel for which it was made. So the space in Velasquez’s painting could be said to be ‘palatial’ while in Van Eyck, it is ‘ecclesiastical’. In Fra Angelico, the space is monastic.
The space in landscape painting reflects our experience of ‘outside’. It’s made up of the ground plane under our feet, receding from foreground to the horizon until it meets with the immeasurable depth of the sky above; The city, the street, the landscape, the palace, the church, the monastery, all have characteristic spaces. Moreover, these are essentially public spaces. There are no restrictions limiting the viewer’s access. In the case of the domestic interior or still life, the viewer’s unrestricted right of admission is that of the invited guest, visiting the rooms, freely inspecting the objects, fruit, flowers, people and furniture that they contain.
Abstraction, as fairly depicted in Inside Out, does not offer a public space. ‘Geometric’ abstraction especially operates best in the foreground, near to the surface, leaving the picture plane intact. It can produce a sort of depth experience, around push/pull, colour space or optical space. There’s nothing wrong with that, but optical space or colour space, as I understand the terms, are not public. Given the history of pictorial art, that is against the run of the play.
The public space of Pixar is constructed not photographed. It operates like Sienese painting, where the painter, if they wanted a tree, would have to paint three roots, the trunk and (say) three branches dividing in two, then two again. To represent foliage they would have to paint a finite but large number of individual leaves. You couldn’t flash in a wristy, scumbled depiction of greenery, and add a few quick ‘leaf’ dabs because that wasn’t how the Sienese pictorial economy worked. You couldn’t allude to a tree. If you didn’t paint it, it wouldn’t be there. As in Duccio, everything in Pixar is intended.
As Inside Out triumphantly shows, the Pixar system can conjure any kind of space, objective or subjective, either grounded in the world or in people’s skulls. Everything is stylised or exaggerated, but like the Sienese tree, fully convincing. Yet there’s no entry point, no rite of passage to negotiate in order to enter the illusion. From the start the viewer is immersed in the spatial experience as one is immersed in ‘real life’. Hence, as I said, it seems to reflect all the spaces in which we spend our waking moments.
The process of abstraction illustrated in the film’s scene, followed on from the changes that occurred in European painting around the 1860’s, which had already reduced publicly accessible pictorial space. Painting became gradually shallower from Manet to Impressionism, Cézanne, Early Cubism and then to Late Cubism. Developments after Cubism propelled matters further towards flatness and frontality. The painters of the sixties took their line from the planar abstraction of the sort practiced by Newman and Still and Rothko, sealing any slippage or misalignment between forms that stayed close and parallel to the picture surface in the colour field genre. But everyone wanted to distinguish between extreme flatness, which implied design or decoration, and a kind of flatness that could be mitigated by some memory or suggestion of dimensional interplay. The experience of non-illusionistic ‘depth’ in the context of planar abstraction is usually a result of advancing or receding colour of the sort described by Hans Hofmann, caused by chromatic exchanges between abutting elements, or differing densities within an area of the same hue. These, and other material events, create a space that Greenberg famously called ‘optical’, which is ‘accessible to eyesight alone’.
The problem is that such a space is specific to painting. It reflects a space that is the property of the medium defining itself, deliberately withdrawn from other everyday experiences of spatial situations. Just as we need to have been in a palace to appreciate that the space in Las Meninas is palatial, or a church to feel the ecclesiastical character of the Ghent altarpiece, we have had to have a meaningful exposure to a lot of painting to value the depth of opticality. This is fine for anyone committed to the art form, well informed on the subject of its history and interested in connoisseurship. But these are preconditions, and to some extent, restrictions which prevent optical space being a public space. ‘Eyesight’, as Greenberg describes it, is different from the more routine powers of visual perception that might occur in the general population who don’t look at a lot of paintings. Another problem is that the sixties geometric ‘colour field’ works, before which the optical approach was a reasonable strategy, have almost entirely fallen out of critical favour.
In the early fifties planar abstractionists, like Newman and Rothko, stuck with their hard or soft geometry formats, working beyond the constructive devices of cubism and setting the agenda for the next generation of American painters, the sixties high modernists. The efforts of Stella and Noland and especially Louis could be usefully linked to Jackson Pollock’s post cubist output of the late forties, particularly his canonical drip paintings of 1947-50. But around this time Pollock and de Kooning decided to take a more revisionist position. They went back to slightly outdated, still broadly cubist ways of putting a painting together, re-introducing more overt imagery and mobilising the methods of drawing necessary for images to emerge in the process. Significantly they revived their profile as ‘abstract expressionists’, a label that never really suited Newman or Rothko. They were committed to emotional force, to painterly gestures that channelled inner feeling, the corniest concept in art’s repertoire.
The less ‘advanced’ style adopted by de Kooning in his ‘Woman’ series and Pollock in the black paintings offered an emotional or expressionist space that was accessible to more than eyesight alone. It was personal, but not private. It was built out of elements that are highly dynamic and seemingly directly linked to the painter’s individual agency. It displays the fluidity of the material and pigment’s ability to register the exact amount of physical energy used in mark making. I think this expressionist space is publicly accessible in the way optical space is not.
It is not a simple as that, of course. The everyday manifestations of emotions, negative and positive, have an accompanying gestural vocabulary. Someone who feels angry can show anger in their movements, posture, facial distortions and so on. They may do a painting in which that anger is evident, and made public. However, the key component of Abstract Expressionist theory, especially for Pollock, is the ‘Unconscious’, and that complicates matters. Believing that the source of art lies in something hidden from us calls for techniques that look capable of making it visible, ‘optical’ one might say, but not concrete or palpable. Pollock’s solution was to cut away parts of the visual field, as he had done in Out of the Web (1949), or draw attention to the lacunae or gaps in the black lattice where the canvas shows through to suggest some emergent if indecipherable mythopoeic alphabet, as in the black pours.
Pollock, I think somewhat reluctantly, makes these things public, presenting them in an accessible cubist setting, but entering the space is more problematic because it is, if not private, then highly personal. The viewer might feel that they are delving into Pollock’s stuff rather than visiting his loft, even though the Jungian archetypes are supposed to be part of everybody’s collective subconscious and therefore not strictly speaking, private property.
In the black paintings Pollock produces a personal space to which the viewer can relate in gestural, expressionist terms. However, the role of the unconscious works against autobiographical explanations, even though there’s plenty of life events to support any number of iconographic interpretations. This keeps the space vague and non-definitive, like ‘optical space’, but opens it up to viewing strategies that engage with the imagery as well as material properties of paint on canvas. The paintings are personal. They are not just ‘by’ Pollock, but they also ‘belong’ to Pollock, and that is part of the spatial experience they offer.
The corny idea that art can come from something hidden and personal has been out of fashion for some time. Models of creativity supported by post modernist practice depend on bringing together things that are openly circulating within the cultural archive, from anywhere and from any time. Based on the belief that nothing is new, innovation comes from the surprise selection and juxtaposition of recognisable visual material, maybe adding a touch of irony for good measure. The central creative event is something like the image of in vitro fertilisation, the moment of conception taking place in a glass Petri dish as a result of the manipulation of genetic material.
At a time when rearranging the archive may have become less rewarding, Pollock, from late in his day, suggests an alternative, in utero model of creativity that is highly suited to the medium of painting. Painting uses simple technology, direct methodology, immediately responsive material and is a cheap and unthreatening art form many people practiced reasonably well when children. The levels of skill involved can be modest, yet the results can be impressive, avoiding the necessity of virtuosity and the problem of alienation. So the painting belongs to the painter. The space is personal, but accessible. But the gynaecological metaphor has to be followed through. The beginning of the creative event is hidden from us, so the model needs a component like the unconscious, though it doesn’t have to be branded ‘Freud’, ‘Jung’, ‘Lacan’ or whatever.
The personal, the lack of distance between the painter’s actions and the painting, is maybe why the medium is still being taken up by younger practitioners as an alternative to other forms of image making that flourish in our age of mechanical reproduction. The personal may be more obtainable than the ‘auratic’, that special un-reproducible quality attributed to the art of earlier periods. I’m partly thinking here of the Turps Banana graduate show, which I’ve not seen, but on the screen, appears to be striving for something like the aura of the personal. They certainly don’t seem to be ‘quarrelling with Michelangelo’ or trying to catch the attention of art history.
That might imply that at the moment painting is settling for cult status, with abstraction a niche enterprise placed with in it. As a genre, ‘personal’ may sound defeatist, lacking in ambition – heartfelt and committed perhaps, but ‘unelectable’. However, because it comes down to individual practitioners, working with elements from partly unconscious sources, the results of such an enterprise, either in quality or wider audience appeal, are impossible to predict.
When I say ‘painting’ I mean the proper sort that stays within its bounds to maintain its function and possibilities, not that breaks down and becomes preoccupied with itemising its own elements – ‘flatness’, surface, canvas, stretcher, staples (staples was a joke). It’s only when these elements are bundled or packaged together that painting is interesting, that it has spaces; palatial, monastic, optical, personal.