Transformation: More Than Meets The Eye*

Painting is better the more it’s like sculpture; sculpture is worse the more it’s like painting.

A painting can be:

A. A picture that references something, an object or event
B. The materials, paint, canvas, paper, wood, etc., self-referencing
C. A new, self-sufficient object, without reference to the material or thing it portrays, an ecosystem.

napoleon coronationwhatever!

The descriptions of A, B, and C could be related to sentence structure; speech, the most basic form of expression. A would be an object of some kind, since the object or event portrayed is the subject of the expression. The Battle of Sebastopol is portrayed in the painting (object of preposition). It would still be an object even if you said, This painting portrays the Battle of Sebastopol. In B, the painting would be the subject of the sentence. The paper and paint is on the wall. It is C, the verb, in which both the object and the materials are transformed into something new. It reveals, so that we may see lies. It conceals or lies, so that we may see truth. And all of the above vice versa.

Let’s not deceive ourselves. Ruses abound. Conventions that elevate. A canon of props. Presentation that distorts through lenses, reflections of the original, like a periscope. Implementations of frames, white walls, pedestals, white walls, bright lights, polished floors. Reproductions in the form of mass-produced prints, whitespace of pixels on the Web, photography. Things that, seen in real life, might still fit the B definition can define an entire lifestyle in reproduction. Interior décor of living spaces, with the right wall paint color and furniture, particularly art photographed “properly” for lifestyle magazines and websites. Finally, there is the question of Authority. Who is Authority? In our ever-fragmented society, Authority can be found in the collection at the city museum, the director of the trendiest gallery, the framed art section at Target, the local watercolor society, art history college textbooks, photography in décor/architecture/lifestyle media. This is where things get tricky, as we all know. Depending on one’s sensitivity to these things, you can see through the BS to the work itself and determine whether or not the materials/subject are indeed transformed.


But must art be transformed all the time? Do the materials/subject need to be transformed in order to be considered art? My favorite paintings in the museums are the portraits and still lifes. Things that don’t claim to be anymore than what they are. Exercises in capturing reality, air shows of a mastery of technique… and perhaps the wealthy patron’s self-interest in portraying themselves a certain way or promoting a non-art-related agenda. Perhaps these genres are transformed to me because they represent the lifestyle and psychology of bygone eras I cannot begin to fathom.**


stil life

So is this requirement, rather, request for transformation a 20th century/contemporary invention? At first, I would think yes. We work largely to extract meaning from detritus. But no, that’s not really true. In the previous question, I mentioned the patron’s agenda. Was the painting a transformation to him? A transformation of self reflected in the pool of religion, possessions, wealth, intellect? It must’ve been.

Characteristically though, anything I aim to critique in the work of others, I am hyper-conscious and critical of in my own work. I fully admit my own vulnerablilty and insecurity here. Everything I do, I ask, am I really transforming these materials? Am I pushing this beyond paint and/or fabric? I cup my hands around my mouth and gently breathe onto the materials and ideas. I water them. I make outlines. I attempt bestow life and conjure magic into them. Softly. The insights are big bangs, whole worlds of thought, but their actual growth is slow, it must be done gently. Mainly this happens when I’m not actually working on something. It happens at the gym, in my dreams, on a walk, going down youtube or wikipedia rabbit holes. I psych myself up for days, work through the next steps, then go back look at the results objectively, as if I happened across it in a gallery, café — anywhere you can see an actual painting, not a print. I’m a perfectionist; most of the time I fall short of my own assessments. Did I succeed in the transformative aspects? But you can’t do that forever. Eventually you have to go with your first instincts and make your only goal to finish the damn thing. Because really, in this questioning, you’re drifting further and further ashore from the original  idea. That’s the journey I often take; the transformation is due to an certain amount of extensive study/research and Socratic-type questioning  on the intellectual level, and equally deep emotion and gut-driven determination. Both exercises involve the spirit, the soul, and I can’t help but feel that if one is lacking, the transformation is not complete. So if your painting is just paint and paper, or your painting is just a picture of something, don’t be ashamed to admit that, to admit that it needs props. It is not necessarily an insignificant thing. But please don’t assume that is is art.


**I wish that I was born a thousand years ago

Leave a Comment