On Painting

The Beauty and Enigma of Broken Space

In an essay entitled “A Household” about Francisco de Zurbarán, John Berger discusses the painting “Veronica’s Veil”, and why when he first saw it in Stockholm, it “stopped him in his tracks.”

“The canvas in Stockholm made me realize something which applies, I think, to any visual work of art that has the power to move us. Painting first has to convince us - within the particular use of the pictorial language it is using - of what is there, of the reality of what it depicts. In the case of Zurbarán, of the kerchief pinned to the wall. Any painting which is powerful first offers this certitude. And then it will propose a doubt. The doubt is not about what is there, but about where it is...

Before any impressive painting one discovers the same enigma. The continuity of space (the logic of the whereabouts) will somewhere on the canvas be broken and replaced by a haunting discontinuity.

…The question is both material and symbolic, for every painted image of something is also about the absence of the real thing. All painting is about the presence of absence. This is why man paints. The broken pictorial space confesses the art’s wishfulness.”

golf course before dawn, from memory/imagination, 9 x 12” oil/paper/panel

Lately, I’ve been reading Berger’s Selected Essays, edited by Geoff Dyer. Mr. Berger’s insights from spending so much time in front of works of art are brilliant. He has a way of grasping the mysterious and putting words to it without robbing us of the mystery. It is a skill I long for but desperately lack. And so I paint.

For a little over an hour most mornings, before dawn - so early I’m embarrassed to say exactly what time - I walk the cart path around the public golf course behind our house. The golf course is a strange place. For a man-made manicured manufactured space, it holds a surprising amount of wildness. Owls and hawks hunt squirrels and rodents, and herons and other waterfowl fish in the perfectly round ponds.

Here the sky is wide open. The moon and Venus greet me and follow me around as I walk. I’ve seen meteors streak across the sky and deer sprint across fairways, heard owls conversing across the tops of the trees, and startled a fox as our paths crossed unexpectedly.

In summer the carefully arranged shrubs are alive with crickets, and tiny birds sing their morning songs at the first sign of light on the horizon. In winter things are eerily quiet, except for the distant traffic and train whistles, and if I'm lucky the hooing of the owls. This morning I laughed when the owls seemed to purposely mimic the whistle of the train.

What I love about Mr. Berger’s observation is the idea of a haunting and mysterious where-ness of a painting and especially this idea of broken space. I can’t explain the allure of this recent painting included above. It started as something quite different, and everything I know about this landscape as I described it seems to be there, even if unseen or unheard in the painting itself.

Then there is the unintentional (but intentionally left) ghost of a window, which feels somehow integral. Maybe it is a hinge, as Berger calls it, between certitude and doubt. I recognize fully the landscape of the golf course from my daily pre-dawn walks, and yet I don’t know where I am. Even I, who painted it, don’t know where I am in this painting. Logic and space are blown apart. How interesting, enigmatic, and more beautiful than what I myself could have imagined.

Stacy CaldwellComment