The Actuality of Light (on Lesley Vance)

June 2012

Lesley Vance: Paintings & Watercolours
Brussels: Xavier Hufkens

I. An attempt to describe one of these paintings, but where to begin, exactly? Perhaps in an accumulation of white and pale gray swipes and swabs—at once shapes that are also adamantly brushstrokes, a mass that is simultaneously legible as a sequence of discrete gestures: I couldn’t help but think of a pile of feathers, yet no individual mark actually resembles a feather. The order of accumulation is nearly impossible to determine; the mass, anchored at the bottom left of the small canvas consumes much of the given space, demands attention. Still, this white-gray mass nearly runs into other things—passages, events—in red oxide and pale yellow, against an apparently deep backdrop of blacks, blues. How deep? It’s hard to say. The space in this painting hints at infinity glimpsed from a carved gash. Just above the bottom edge of the image stands a stonelike oblong shape, grassy green and mineral, along with the shape of its apparent reflection, like a dropped shadow but in the same verdant tones.

II. Or, another: the painting with two egg-like orbs, the one above, round and soft gray, the other elongated to a point, swathed in blue. A diagonal line, barely touching this point, dividing a salmon area from sienna. Is that space or an object, it’s difficult to say. Elsewhere, a darker graphite gray giving way to pitch black and silvery gray—I’m imagining a just-caught salmon splayed, with insides becoming exterior surfaces, a split second before beginning to rot. But what to make of the gold, and dove white, and yellow flurry I have yet to mention? A banana peel flurry—another emblem of slipperiness, an assurance of the viewer, this viewer, slipping up?

III. Untitled”—has there ever been a stronger means of defense in the painter’s toolkit against the totalizing force of language? If not stronger, then certainly more deferential, coy. You used to name things: “Conch.” “Mussels, Coral Frond.” “Fawn’s Horn.” Of course these things could be seen, identified without these tags; the titles were redundant. Even earlier, you alluded to specific phenomena: “The Greening.” “The Colors of the Day Wore On.” Now, we are left to reconcile these images to a place where language treads perilously, then dangles from a cliff before plummeting into a void. There are other metaphors, equally imperfect.

IV. The word “essay” means “an attempt,” I’d like you to know.

V. I want to say that the old language of abstraction is completely useless here, in describing your paintings. By “old” of course I mean the modernist language, because I don’t know if there was a language of abstraction before modernity. In 1936, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. produced a diagram—an unruly account of cause and effect—for the cover of the catalogue for his Cubism and Abstract Art, his first major exhibition at the Modern. The diagram (it’s a timeline really) culminates in two distinct possibilities for painting as he pictured it: “Geometrical Abstraction” and “Non-Geometrical Abstraction.” It’s not difficult to understand that the art he had in mind was the stuff of the present—his present, 1935, 1936; the future was, for better or worse, unimaginable. There was not a language for abstraction that dealt with its inherent uncertainty. There is still not.

VI. And of course I’m also thinking of the overbearing certainty of Greenberg, et al. But one thing Greenberg gave us that remains useful, is the idea of the “all-over” painting. In fact, I want to go out on a limb and suggest the all-over has become the dominant approach to painting—certainly since Pollock, but really since Manet, and probably since the invention of photography. (Photography, too, is an “all-over” technology.) I’m looking at thumbnail images for an exhibition you’ll soon be in that surveys the field of contemporary painting, and it strikes me that all of the painters in the show, all of these painters except you, are working through a legacy of the all-over: They are inheritors of Pointillism, the monochrome, the objecthood of Stella and Johns, Richter’s reification of the photograph’s logic, and so on. Not a bad thing at all, really, for one to be part of this lineage, but I want to argue that space works in an entirely different way in your paintings. You’re doing something that, even for just a moment, in the face of all this, I’m tempted to call the un-all-over.

VII. Yet, I wouldn’t want to get entangled in what your paintings are not doing, even if it would be far easier to explain. “Abstraction” is messy business, as I already mentioned.

VIII. In short, you remain invested in the legacy of the pictorial. You picture things—complex phenomena, things that exist outside of language. In confronting these paintings, I am constantly scrambling to imagine nameable subjects, whether animal, mineral, or vegetal. Perhaps this is owing to your earlier still life paintings of mussels, poppies, seashells. A few years ago, shortly after seeing your first abstractions in your studio, I noted to myself that these paintings were, in fact, “no different than her Chardin-like still lives of shells or vegetables, really, except the new ‘abstracts’ are basically essays on how one paints a thing in the world—how things gather light and how paint, in layers, strokes, smears, juxtapositions, reconstructs that sense of light.”

IX. Paint: always such an oddly physical, tangible substance to apprehend the elusive actuality of light.

X. I want to point out that the events in your paintings one might hope to identify through comparison to nameable things—“stone-like oblong shape, grassy green and mineral,” “banana peel flurry,” etc.—indeed represent the way light is apprehended via certain objects, such as the prismatic facets of a gemstone or the silvery iridescence of salmon skin, yet the way in which these unidentifiable objects or events coexist in your paintings suggests a kind of space that is not identifiable and perhaps not even possible.

XI. Not possible, perhaps, except in the spatial logic of painting.

XII. I have a suspicion that when one refers to surrealism, what first comes to mind for most people is a constellation of objects, things—fried eggs, clocks, the moon—rather than the (“empty”) spaces these inhabit. But for me what’s most radical in surrealism is the defiance of spatial logic. I’m thinking less of someone like Tanguy, whose sense of space is relatively conventional—eerie, and maybe even sublime, but in the final analysis it’s still a kind of distended version of classical perspective. (Maybe this was truly unconventional when De Chirico did it a decade or so earlier—the “metaphysical interior.” I’m sure it was.) I’m really thinking about the space in a Magritte painting, which is a paradoxical space, and most likely informed by the revolutionary potential of collage before it. It’s reliant upon the viewer’s recognition of specific, nameable things that coexist in a way that utterly defies logic. Or liberates it.

XIII. I don’t want to say what you’re doing is “surrealism,” but it’s genetically linked, reliant on that liberating potential of paradoxical space. For example, there’s your painting with a field of dark teal (if that’s the right name for it), and a blade-like shape that seems to be cutting through this field along the left side of the image with a long angled slice, peeling the picture plane back to reveal black space beneath—or is it a shadow? (Are we looking down at this field? I have the feeling of being suspended above it, somehow.) Another shape, of sky blue giving way to rusty orange, slides between the top plane and what I imagine to be a knife—calling attention to your own use of one, perhaps—and into this newly opened slice. Atop the teal plane lay several shapes including a lemony wedge or “petal” and a squiggle that seems to partially lift off the plane, yellowing in the process. (It seems clear these are “atop” because they cast shadows.) Above the squiggle are two circular shapes that are more likely to be holes than objects. Near this is a dense gathering of S-shapes, interlocking like an infinity sign in a state of becoming. What to make of this, spatially—this sign of time?

XIV. You’ve moved well beyond the still life, spatially, but I’m certain you’ve maintained an abiding interest in that genre’s paradoxical notion of temporality—typically expressed as a coexistence of living (or liveliness) and dying (or dead). The still life is an impossible stabilization of ceaseless processes—entropy, rot, decay—and multiple temporalities. Well, impossible except in painting or, perhaps, photomontage. I cannot describe your paintings without imagining the physical processes they insinuate—peeling, cutting, folding, curling, undulating, hovering, puncturing, eclipsing—captured in stride and frozen in time.

XV. The paradox you’ve activated—and, if it’s one owing to surrealism, it’s been newly reinvigorated—is that you’ve staked out a place for illusion, but it’s the illusion of phenomena hitherto unknown and still unnamable. And despite of this unsettling of language, or perhaps because of it, these dazzling orchestrations of brushstrokes and smears appear to articulate new possibilities for reconstructing space and time in the knowable world, out of time and precisely in the present.