The Interstice Between the Sentimental and Cynical Act of Painting

This essay was first presented at the 98th Annual Conference of the College Art Association held in Chicago, IL in February 2010 for the session "The Object of Nostalgia"

“Only dull and impotent artists defend their art by reference to sincerity.”
Kazimir Malevich, From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Realism in Painting (1915) (1) 

Let me begin by saying: I want to be a believer, I need to believe – the part of me who needs to believe is regrettably controlled by the little red devil on my left shoulder. You know the one that holds a terminal degree in studio art. He’s smart and stubborn, but he can never seem to quash the other one, the one who loves to paint – who is in love with the process and all it stands for…

All this said, I am a happy, well-adjusted child of the post-structuralist critical environment that was the American art school in the early 90s - I wholeheartedly accept and still believe in that critical discourse, I know that painting set it self up for its inevitable death and resurrection which has been played over and over again ad infinitum, what Douglas Fogle dubbed “The Lazarus Effect” (2) . I believe that when a medium dictates an art form to the point that the material support trumps the concept and when technique becomes orthodoxy – that it’s asinine. And I recognize that painting is as guilty of doing this arguably more so than any other discipline. But. Yeah, but! I said it.

Well then, what exactly is the trouble with painting, as questioned by Fogle in an essay for an exhibition catalogue he curated titled "Painting at the Edge of the World" at the Walker Art Center in 2001? In this essay he compares the state of painting with the Hitchcock film The Trouble with Harry. This film opens with the discovery of a body that is polluting the otherwise pristine and pastoral autumnal landscape of rural New England. After the discovery of the body, the local townfolk respond in dramatic and often quite comical ways. They care for the body and bury it, exhume it and bury it over and over again. The body and the lack of knowledge of its demise is so troubling that in the end the body is cleaned, dressed and returned to the place where it was found. Fogle uses this narrative as a departure point for his adept examination of painting, which like Harry’s corpse is uncovered with great regularity. This causes as much confusion for the institutional artworld as the body in the Hitchcock film affected the inhabitants of the small Vermont township. Obviously, painting’s death – even though it is passé to even utter the phrase, has been disproven and heralded sometimes in the same breath for the past 200 plus years. But, is the trouble with painting its vitality? Rather, Fogle leads us on to question the ontology of painting as a way of moving past the discussion of its death and countless resurrections. As we all know painting hasn’t been suffocated, strangled or drowned in a sea of other cultural competitors; it has simply been infected. Much like the reaction of a bacteria to an antibiotic – it has simply mutated and expanded as a form. But, what about as an idea?

Many have postulated that painting is a mode of thought. But, is it more than what that implies? Is painting also an emotion? Is it tied to us in a way we dare not discuss or are able to completely understand? Is it such a complex and sophisticated form of communication that immerses us in another realm so effortlessly that we can’t seem to put its body out to pasture? And for that matter can you even embark on an ontological discussion of painting without being dismissed as some type of fundamentalist?

To be a painter is to be aware of the pale of history that precedes your practice, to act in faith, to embark on a practice that has been executed and been resurrected countless times. To long for an authentic relationship with an entity that is simultaneously an image, an object and perhaps a memory. This phenomena was described rather poetically by Jonathan Lasker in an interview with David Ryan in this quote: 

I've personally always asserted that in fact it's one of the most interesting media currently, because of its capacity to engage illusionism, or rather a mediated image, something that doesn't actually exist, and at the same time to present a very actual experience. It's a dialectical situation. In this way, painting presents these two tendencies very clearly, whereas other media do not. In most films for example, you're really not aware of the cinematic process, you go straight “through” the medium into the illusion. (3)

According to Lasker, when one is confronted with an image encased within a painting it is impossible to see the depicted space without being simultaneously aware of the processes, mechanics and limits of painting. An interesting assertion, considering that the immersive experience he describes connects the viewer with the artist and deepens a sense of longing and intimacy.

But, this statement only goes part of the way in describing what painting is (its limits and the nature of its being), I feel. So, perhaps we should compare it to the text that accompanied the “refusal to exhibit” performance by Daniel Buren, Oliver Mosset, Michel Parmentier and Niele Toroni in 1967 in Paris. The empty sign placed in the gallery at the conclusion of a day of painting performance read “ Buren, Mosset, Parmentier, and Toroni are not exhibiting” and went on to list the rationale of their reductivist vision of painting practice.

Because painting is a game,
Because painting is the application (consciously or otherwise) of the rules of composition,
Because painting is the freezing of a moment,
Because painting is the representation (or interpretation or appropriation or disputation or presentation) of objects,
Because painting is a springboard for the imagination,
Because painting is spiritual illustration,
Because painting is justification,
Because painting serves an end,
Because to paint is to give aethestic value to flowers, women, eroticism, the daily environment, art, Dadaism, psychoanalysis, and the war in Vietnam.

We are not painters. (4)

But does painting serve an end? Or is it the vehicle where a static, distant and dying thought can be permanently etched into our souls? Is it possible to render a fleeting moment, or emotion concrete? True, painting is a springboard for the imagination – much like Proust’s famous madeliene. It can transport us. Revive our sensibilities and push us, sometimes reluctantly, to another place. Through the extension of someone else’s eyes and hands we are permitted access to an interior landscape, painting perhaps through the mechanics described by Lasker allows us to re-experience the world around us in many divergent and fascinating ways.

I would advance the theory that the seemingly paradoxical position between the sentimental and the cynical (or avant-gardeist, modernist, or post-Duchampian notions) in contemporary painting practice, is driven by the engine of doubt. Notably, Richard Shiff (5) has postulated that Belief and Doubt belong to the same experiential category and they can only be distinguished in degrees. Therefore, one can state that Doubt is a weak belief so conversely Belief can be seen as a strong doubt, since when the doubted fact gains in degrees of acknowledgement it becomes belief. The rationale to see the connection between Doubt and Belief rather to focus on the differences is to enable us to study instead the middle between these two extremes - to focus not on the binaries exclusively and the recognize that the middle can also be seen as revolutionary. This “middle”, this interstice is where painting is the most interesting, part of what makes painting such an interesting activity to practice and behold is its ability to be both nostalgic (or sentimental) and cynical at the same time.

Cynicism often prevails over sincerity, and spectacle for its own sake is frequently prioritized over substance. This is an old “battle royale”. I’m interested in the locus rather between these two extremes, for it is in this space that I find the most interesting painters working today, artists of my generation whose practice was formed in a critical landscape where the efficacy of painting was under constant attack and defense. Or to consider it from another vantage point framed by Chrissie Iles, “… painting has come to represent a crucial irritant within that now vastly over-determined collective identity, reasserting the personal in the face of conceptual and abstract language that has been co-opted by the commercial advertising and design world.” (6)

This framework begs us to ask the question which Yve-Alain Bois so eloquently posed in “Painting: The Task of Mourning” - how do we escape this double bind? To acknowledge that no the end of painting has not come due to its continuing proliferation in the marketplace as he stated is “undoubtedly an act of denial”, while saying yes the end of painting’s purpose is complete is to surrender to a “historicist conception of history as both linear and total” (7). Every day I grapple, and I know I’m not alone, with the question of painting after Duchamp, Buren, Malevich and Stella. Bois goes on to state the obvious, that painting is not dead – but that only a particular history of painting could be considered dead: modernist painting. But, reductivist modernist painting as we all know was supposedly the set to decide the match of the end of painting. The answer to this conundrum, at least in terms of theory, was ushered in with the concept of the post-historical by Hal Foster. Now that history (or a very particular history) was played out, we could start a new game – one free of the confines of history.

But, once again these ideas have been challenged – and here we go again burying, digging up and re-burying the corpse of painting. How do we break the viscious cycle – simply abandon it?

I say no, rather than accepting we are free from history – we find ways to work between the traditions, mores and theories of modernism and post-modernism. I embrace my cynical understanding of painting. My ability to only see it at times as smoke and mirrors, to only see the affect. And to recognize that at times even the knowledge of the old man behind the curtain doesn’t quell my emotions when confronted with a painted object. Because painting can be both – it can be simultaneously form and idea. To be a painter is to straddle the line between doubt and belief.

This panel was envisioned in part to ask whether the world of objects as opposed to the world of images still has something to tell us, and to examine what the goal of nostalgia may be in the context of contemporary visual culture. Does a sentimental attachment to an object correlate to a nostalgic recollection? In a way, it challenged me to consider why it is important for me to both paint, and to paint images that deal in part with matters of intimacy, sensuality and memory. It has been touted that the drive behind realistic imagery in visual art is the effort to capture the essence of the thing itself – what could be more sentimental, but at the same time more of a distant intellectual act due to the complexities I described up to this point.

The remainder of this presentation will examine specifically how I employ and/or deflect the sentimental during the protracted relationship between myself, and an otherwise alien object.

In my work, I am interested in the collision of the public and the private. In the way the photographic image is used to create experience and to document our lives, and how that experience is mediated through the lyrical practice of painting. 

I am interested in the implicit narrative that occurs on the periphery of constructed memory, and the images that help construct this condition. This famous image by William Eggleston has always been curious to me because of its nakedness – this type of image and its “emptiness” says something about who we are. It points to a narrative that exists beyond the frame. A meaning that is implicit rather than explicit. 

The critical discourse of photography is entrenched in the idea of the veracity of the image. Yet does photography truly document and reflect memory? Is it an accurate reflection of our mind? As you all know memory or even dreams are not “fuzzy” around the edges, they are not vignetted as is often the syntax employed in television or film to signify such an experience. No, memories are often clear, precise fragments – sharp images that are taken out of their original contexts.

More and more we experience and recall the world through fragments employing a photomechanical rhetoric of some degree. This, of course, has become more pervasive through the advent of the internet. This slide shows several screen shots from Jennifer Ringley’s now famous webcam – Jennicam. Ringley is credited in some circles with being the inventor of the cultural phenomenon of the “webcam”, which she began in 1996 while a college student at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. Her webcam was subtitled “Life, Online” and through a series of cameras publicly documented via a live feed her every movement while in her dorm, and eventually beyond. Way back then, I found this site fascinating, because this person was putting their life on-line – unfiltered and unedited for a subscription fee, and many, many people paid to see her studying, sleeping, talking on the phone and mostly views of her empty lonely room. At its height of popularity the site boasted over 100 million regular visitors, of which I was one. What was the obsession of peaking into someone else’s life – and why would anyone desire to show this to the world? I had already begun to document the ins and outs of my daily life, and this type of diaristic desire was not new to genre painting in particular – but this was different it had an edge and was totally distant and anonymous at the same time that it was intensely introspective.

It reminded me in fact of an experience in undergraduate school in New York. My studio was down the street from a Duane Reade – which had a photo-processing lab inside and everyday without fail I would pass by and find a random picture lying on the street. Disposed of by its owner in typical New York style of the day – just tossed on the sidewalk. These images would be from the beginning or end of the rolls of film – an accidental exposure of someone’s thigh – a blurry face, or even a fog of color from an overexposure. I was enthralled with these images – and why they were so disposable. And the wealth of information they contained – like these images which were published in a magazine calledFound which publishes found snapshots and notes from people around the world, who share my fascination at this highly intimate and raw glance into someone’s life.

The principle interest of my studio practice is this exploration of the fine line between the forgotten or over looked moment and the fetishized memory as simultaneously seen through the filters of portraiture in the west, snapshot photography and the rhetoric of surveillance.

I mine the landscape of the common, the mundane, and the fragmented as they are presented in the context of notation, documentation and memory. My work additionally navigates the intersection of the overabundant surveilled image and the poignancy of the intimate vignette or home movie. Implied narratives and contexts are generated on the margins, between the images and outside the frame. The resulting images appear disjunctive and out-of-context, alluding to the “lost” images on a roll of film, the in-between moments and the “throwaway” image - the mistake.

My work examines, in part, how these images are transformed or resuscitated through the process of painting - the internalizing, or re-internalizing of an image. How painting is a process for remembering, a task by which we as artists confront an object, dissect it and through a cognitve process best described by John Berger transform it into a lasting, pregnant and live moment. This transubstantiation of memory through the process of painting only occurs when one has faith, belief tinted with knowledge and doubt.

This brings me back to where we began, my need to believe in painting – in all of it’s proclivity for pastiche and its profundity. In my work I attempt to delve into that place between the extremes, where it is possible and even desirable to surrender oneself to nostalgia as a way of exploring the space between the cynical and the sentimental.


1. As quoted in the essay “Education by Infection” by Boris Groys (p. 29) in the text Art School: Propositions for the 21st Century by Steven Henry Madoff, 2009, MIT Press, ISBN 978-0-262-12493-4.
2. Douglas Fogle, “The Trouble with Painting” from Painting at the Edge of the World. (p. 14) Walker Art Center, 2001, ISBN 0-935640-67-3
3. David Ryan, Talking Painting: Dialogues with Twelve Contemporary Abstract Painters. “Jonathan Lasker in Conversation with David Ryan (1997)”. (p. 147) Routledge, 2002, ISBN 978-0415276290
4. Douglas Fogle, “The Trouble with Painting” from Painting at the Edge of the World. (p. 15)
5. Richard Shiff, Doubt. (p. 24). Routledge, 2008, ISBN 0-425-97309-0
6. As quoted by Tony Godfrey in Painting Today – ISBN 978-0-7148-4631-6
7. Yve-Alain Bois, Painting as Model, “Painting: The Task of Mourning”. (p. 241). OCTOBER Books, MIT Press, 1990, ISBN 978-0-262-52180-2