Painting's Primacy / by James Merrigan

Me, 2005. photo: Damien Flood.

Me, 2005. photo: Damien Flood.

 
 

Last month I stopped an art project in its tracks.

 

Calling it an ‘art project’ now sounds a little… lacking, as it was 7 years in the making.

The project in question emerged out of an uncontrollable urge to write art criticism while on a year-long art residency in Dublin, and in the run-up to an important group exhibition I was selected for at Dublin’s Royal Hibernian Academy called The Futures.

It probably was a case of what Mel Bochner diagnosed in friend and artist Donald Judd, that Judd “wrote [art criticism] in order to get out of his studio and into the trenches”.

I always knew it was tricky, messy and a little perverse writing criticism set within the local art scene while existing as an artist among artist-peers, but it was an urge that I couldn’t dispel or deny.

So I did it.

For 7 years.

The urge to stop, however, was just as great.

I refer to billionjournal.com as a ‘project’ because that’s what it started out as, a project among other art projects I was working on at the time. It was supplementary; a vitamin at first, then a drug. I didn’t foresee the addiction lasting 7 years, however, and I certainly didn’t see it replacing making art when, two years into +billion- I would stop making and thinking about making art… until now, 5 years on.

(Contrary to what other artists have shared with me personally about +billion– becoming my art practice, I have always felt that it never managed to attain that status, even though I probably sought art through criticism.)

Last month, immediately after writing my farewell post on +billion-, I started to think about the possibility of being a painter again. It wasn’t as out-of-the-blue as it sounds. I have been conducting filmed interviews with Irish painters over the course of the last two years with the filmmakers Saskia Vermeulen and Gareth Nolan. This research and content will go towards a future documentary/essay film/exploded biography on the deep-seated natures of painting.

From those filmed conversations I have been eager to distill why painters choose to paint, continue to paint, and sustain being painters when I found it so difficult to do so.

See. I started out as a painter like most artists. And it wasn’t a casual fling – I was obsessed. But like most artists I got side-tracked into other things. The fact was, back then I only knew what it was to be a painter yesterday, and knew nothing about what it was to be a painter today.

As a teenager painting became a kind of religion for me at the very moment I lost my Religion to tragic circumstance. Raphael, Rembrandt and Goya were my Holy Trinity during those days of disassociation. Ironically, these painters painted the religion that I had wilfully disavowed. It got me thinking that perhaps we never really give up our obsessions and addictions, we just transform them into something else.

My appreciation of painting and the painter’s life in my formative years was always once removed from reality. My art books were a provincial lens, in which bad reproductions and colourful biographical accounts were disconnected from the real contexts that shaped the painters’ lives and their paintings. Books were my only compass to become, in essence, like them.

The painter’s life – as told by the historian – became inextricable from the images they painted. The ebb and flow of the painter’s life, if you looked close enough, and read deep enough, could be uncovered in the actual paint.

But it wasn’t the images of sinners and saints I was drawn to, or comforted by, or whatever it was, it was the painter’s life told ever so convincingly by historians in books that suggested a painter’s life was a good life to live, a good life to take on.

(I remember talking to an art history professor in Trinity College Dublin about the prospect of undertaking a PhD in some aspect of painting history, Italian or Spanish, anywhere would do. He convinced me that theorising and fictionalising painting history will never measure up to doing the real thing.)

The painter in these fictionalised histories was portrayed as an ambitious outsider trying to discover the inside track to status and legacy. In hindsight, painting was a perfect route to immortality: we remember the painters but not the portrayed.

There was also a sense of rivalry among painters in the stories I held on to. At the beginnings of the pulped celebrity artist, most painters had access to Vasari’s Lives. Annabale Carracci wrote in the marginella of his copy that Vasari was a “fuck face” for some slight. That’s the stuff I related to, remembered, not the glossy sermons to the artist-genius on high.

You can imagine today what rivalry would be waged among painters if there was a chance to have their work displayed in a permanent architecture of worship for an audience of worshippers attuned to the representational symbolism of their art and their message.

On the face of it, however, there wasn’t really much separating what a painter painted and how a painter painted it in those days; after all, the painted stories were variations of the same theme, the same characters within the same religious or secular contexts, and generally, with the same painting techniques, give or take a flair for composition or with the paint brush. But it was those difficult to describe, painted idiosyncrasies, nuances if you will, that separated the forgotten from the remembered, those with a legacy and those without, those that made you want to paint and those that didn’t.

I also imagined as a teenager that painters who became directors of their own fate and the religious faith that they portrayed in paint had a god-given or Natural talent that went beyond the sustained practice of their craft. Parents – biased and blind towards anything their child achieves in life – refer to this little extra something as a ‘gift’. Whatever it is, the remembered few painters in the history books all seemed to possess it according to the authors of these histories, as if not possessing it meant you couldn’t possibly conquer history or time. Baudelaire called it ‘temperament’ – in his love for Delacroix.

But beyond outdated notions of immortality and legacy, I have come to learn through looking rather than doing that being a painter of worth is built on the responsibility and burden of going far beyond mere image-making to somehow tap into the pleasures and anxieties of humanity that are lost in other forms of image-making, but possible in painting. I believe there is something to painting and being a painter that cannot be imitated, or perhaps even shared.

Let’s see…