Between Nail and Snail (on Caitlin Lonegan)July 2018
To begin with a confession: The second time I was in your studio I took a picture of the sink. It was in the bathroom, and I couldn’t resist. It was a white porcelain sink, like the ordinary kind in my bathroom at home, but here it was serving beyond its capacity as a painter’s sink. After spending time looking at the paintings in your studio, I was suddenly privy to the remainder, the by-product, the waste attendant to the discrete objects that were the subject of my visit: an accumulation of paint (and, I suspect, thinners and other adjuncts) that didn’t make it onto the canvas—and, in fact, didn’t quite get down the drain. It was a startling image, one that readily evidenced the labor and the mess and perhaps even the folly of the task, just as a table covered with tubes of paint and brushes standing in pert attention signify readiness.
There was something real about that sink, to use some historical terminology, just as there was something real about the old man and the young man Courbet spotted breaking rocks in the countryside before dragging them into his studio to transpose them to oil on canvas—presumably on their day off.
And speaking of waste, I am also reminded of Agnes Martin hurling canvases off the cliff, a demonstration that for her painting was not about perfection, but about the idea of perfection.
The studio is (of course) a space of labor, whether the toil is physical or otherwise. One artist everyone knows about even called his studio the Factory, emphasizing the point into hyperbole. His Factory was also a site of lassitude—work’s shadow, with a red velvet couch often serving as a prop for films and photos if not an actual place to collapse.
The studio is (of course) also a space of ideation—a space for scheming or dreaming up an image of perfection or at least the idea of it.
Perhaps no painter more fully made an existential drama of the studio than Philip Guston. In 1969, just as he was making his break from Ab-Ex and returning to the land of representation, Guston painted The Studio, with the painter depicted in it dressed in a Klansman robe. The robe, with its heavy stitching, has always seemed to me a stand-in for the canvas itself, the red stains serving as blood, but also the ability of the brush mark to be both blood and paint at the same time. The painter paints a self-portrait, and inevitably that is intended as a doubling, too: Guston, inadequately disguised, is painting himself painting himself.
The Studio is filled with the archetypal stuff of drama—nearly theatrical, almost comically so, with rosy red-pink curtains draped in the upper corners bracketing the picture like a stage. (Again I am reminded of Courbet—here, The Painter’s Studio: A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life from 1855. Some title!) In the Guston there’s a bare light bulb dangling, a numberless clock ticking, and a billowing cigar or cigarette held deftly between the fat fingers of the left hand while the right hand tends to the brush. These icons would appear again and again in his paintings of that decade, in the fragmented Story (1978), or in Courtroom (1970), with the Klansman even bloodier, which may well be a report from the trial Guston faced upon making his representational turn: With his new paintings he lost friends and received scalding reviews; Hilton Kramer infamously accused him of being “a mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum” in a nasty takedown of his 1970 show for The New York Times. The coming out party turned into a pity party.
Pantheon, the title of a 1973 picture, neatly says it all: Amid the ubiquitous dangling light blub and the blank canvas, puny atop its nauseatingly fat orange and green easel, are the names of five painters who came before him, rendered—appropriately enough—gigantic:
Piero . . . .
The little blank canvas inside the painting, stretched and primed, hovers in uncertain space, acknowledges the past, the canon, the foundation. Then it waits. And waits. And waits… Facing the unknown, inert, and full of dread.
There is also the case of Bruce Nauman, who a year before Guston began painting the angst of the studio, made several videotapes of himself in the studio, Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square or Playing a Note on the Violin While I Walk Around the Studio. Both of these are really dumb, and of course by now they are important and influential. Why, exactly? Because Nauman is demonstrating that the studio is a space of productivity, even when the activity looks an awful lot like a kind of squandering. Of course, he needed to turn the camera on to prove this point. You have described your paintings as a kind of recording or self-recording. Not exactly Courbet’s realism, but perhaps something adjacent to Nauman’s self-surveillance, one that in his case anxiously mapped the boundaries of the studio but also charted his own relationship to and against those boundaries. Your version of self-recording is less “about” that contested relationship between artist and studio than an inevitable product of it. Nauman’s Portapak video is, by its very design, a recording instrument. But paint on canvas can be—and certainly has been—that as well. But in your case, the device is not necessarily representing the world, or some tiny slice of it, but is in some sense rendering data: the sense data of an artist observing the world, and processed through the filter of the studio, using weird old technologies like pigment suspended in oil applied to a stretched piece of fabric with animal bristles. And: in this sense, that gloriously messy sink is likewise a receptacle for data—at least the data that didn’t make it down the drain.
In 1978, Daniel Buren wrote “The Function of the Studio,” the third of his related essays describing the signifying spaces of the art world. Here he delivers—surely no surprise to those who had read his earlier missives—a damning verdict.
Expelled from the ivory tower of its production, the work ends up in another, which, while foreign, only reinforces the sense of comfort the work acquires by taking shelter in a citadel which insures that it will survive its passage. The work thus passes—and it can only exist in this way, predestined as it is by the imprint of its place of origin—from one enclosed place/frame, the world of the artist, to another, even more closely confined: the world of art. The alignment of works on museum walls gives the impression of a cemetery: whatever they say, wherever they come from, whatever their meanings may be, this is where they all arrive in the end, where they are lost. This loss is relative, however, compared to the total oblivion of the work that never emerges from the studio!
Thus, the unspeakable compromise of the portable work.
In these three essays (the others are “The Function of the Museum” and “The Function of an Exhibition”) Buren was also diagramming his own transition from painter of unspeakably compromised portable works to artist working in situ. Which is to say an artist working conditionally, in response to a set of givens such as time and place and, well, budget. Buren was hardly alone in working this way, though surely his analysis is among the most cogent—and alarming: Unspeakable, he says!
Some four decades later, it strikes me that Buren, like so many of his comrades that emerged in the late 60s, was trying to shake off the brooding, emotionally wrought maelstrom of feeling of the previous generation of artists—most of whom proudly claimed the title “painter.”
Today, one might argue that Buren and his peers ushered in some art world version of the “gig economy.” (Buren might even agree, though needless to say the gig economy has treated him pretty well.) Many of the studios I visit, including those of my students, function as a kind of office. Much of the work that gets done in a studio is on the laptop or on a smartphone. But let’s not overlook that the office is, for many who have worked in one, just as likely to be a space of dread.
Which leads me to Frances Stark, who created a series of 16 drawings and collages on delicate paper that arrived with a set of instructions for their eventual presentation. She titled each of these works The Unspeakable Compromise of the Portable Work of Art, after Buren, giving each a number and a subtitle—with Parakeet, for example, or in lieu of my couch. Interest accrues is my favorite. Around the time Frances made these unspeakably compromised works (complete with a lot of speaking!), she was sorting through doubts about the function of the studio (a frequent subject for her, at least in the earlier years) but also the gendering of the spaces of work and domesticity. This manifested most fully in her gut-spilling book of essays The Architect and the Housewife.
The dilemma of having a couch in my studio is perhaps an interesting one. If I can’t get sufficiently engaged in a book, or making a drawing I might end up staring into space. You can’t stare into space forever, so I might start to look around and begin thinking to myself, this house is too messy or not nice looking enough or those drawers should be cleaned out or perhaps if I got a different piece of furniture for over there I could rearrange this here and my life would run more smoothly. I am sparing you the details of my toil which aspires to productivity, suffice it to say it is not hard to experience, on a regular basis, the loneliness, the anxiety, the constant urge to redecorate I imagined a housewife might feel.
Perhaps I’ve gotten a little far from where we started: your studio. Which of course is not The Studio, per se, but a version of it. In 2014, in preparing to discuss your work, I wrote
If […] I have insinuated that the studio is a compelling environment to view art (and the artist at work), I should also acknowledge that one (meaning “I”) should not idealize the studio as a site of reception. Nor should one idealize the museum (or gallery) either . . . Yet, despite a significant tradition of “poststudio” practice, the vast majority of artists I have encountered in Los Angeles continue to maintain studios of some kind, and the studio remains a significant site of encounter—surely just as anxious as ideal—for a small but enthusiastic audience of one’s peers (not to mention curators, teachers, and other viewers). When there is a dearth of formal exhibition opportunities, the studio might also operate as the only venue for the work in question. As varied as they may look or operate, such privatized and intensely localized spaces can provide important insights.
And they do! As much as Buren was eager to reduce studios to a few archetypes—namely the Paris atelier versus the New York loft, each representing different modes of working, different historical and economic contexts—I am always fascinated by the incredible specificity of an artist’s studio, despite the generic characteristics. (The age or experience of the artist adds immeasurably to this sense of fascination—the older the artist, the more “lived in” the studio, the better.) Here I am privy to the books with which an artist keeps company and the images they pin (or tape or staple) to the wall as taunts or incitements to themselves. I get to see if they are messy or neat. I even get to inspect their sink.
What I like about the studio is the sense that things remain unfixed, that there is still space held open for possibility. This uncertainty is also what positions the studio as a space of dread, like Guston standing on the glorious ruins of history and facing the future, blankly. As a writer, I share this existential uncertainty. Each shiny new Word doc is my Pantheon.
One of the privileges of my position as a writer and critic is that I get to see a lot of work where it is made—which is also to say I am often invited into a vulnerable space. (Sometimes, though more rarely, it can also be a space of brazen confidence!) For me, there is no better place to see the artist’s work than the place where it is being made. (Buren is saying this too, hence the unspeakable compromise of putting the work into the world, even if it’s the world for which the work is surely intended.) And I think you think so, too.
In your studio I delighted at the ease with which you moved paintings from one wall to another, or removed them entirely from view in favor of new candidates. And in such abundance! (“My studio is in a state of perceptual overload—there is more,” you’ve noted.) Each maneuver produced something unexpected, bringin new information to light. I mean literally, given your frequent incorporation of metallic paints that nudge and shoulder for attention amid earthy siennas and umbers or sooty black or cloudy sometimes chalky white or baby blue. These colors play with light in very specific and surprising ways, just as they play with, or perhaps against, the scale of the canvas.
I’ve often wondered about the variety of sizes of canvases you employ—all vertical or sometimes squarish, and never, at least to my recollection, horizontal. Sometimes you work very small, meaning a canvas about the size of a face, and sometimes you evoke the dimensions of a body—your body, which must move the paint around and cover the terrain. If—to return to my earlier conceit—your paint is a kind of (sense) data, it’s curious to think about that relation of that data to the scale of a canvas. Even a small canvas can be packed with information. One can stare at a painting, even the smallest painting in your studio, for hours, though too few have or will. Size is fixed, but scale is relative, and each painting seems to emphasize its differences—even its relative oddity—in relation to a whole that is instantly recognizable as a whole. Which is why each move in the studio—every switch, every substitution—feels so crucial. Especially when done before an audience. In this sense they are all of a piece, and one with the studio in which they came to be. Or, as you put it:
I care just as much
about the relationship between
paintings as I do the [painting itself].
And then we repeated this ritual once the paintings arrived at the museum. So many moves, so many possibilities. Unspeakably many.
There is a line attributed to Valéry, and actually there are many versions—I like this pithy one attributed to Auden—but in essence they all mean about the same thing:
A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned.
For some reason I noted this in my daily log on the day I first visited your studio.
When you shared the draft of your publication I was particularly surprised by a series of drawings of your studio. (Or is it a suite of drawings? Do you work serially? I don’t know if I’ve asked you. Perhaps it is all one series, continuing in perpetuity.) I suppose I was surprised because these are the only works of yours that depict readily legible subject matter—and even here I’m immediately rethinking my words because these drawings are in fact only partly legible. For example, I can make out a folding chair, and then a butterfly chair; I take assemblies of rectangles variously as windows or canvases on the wall (whether in progress or not yet started is not really clear), calling to mind the crude rectangles in Guston’s paintings that immediately read as blank canvases (some conjured with just a few fat brushstrokes). There is also what I can identify as a stack of books, books with titles that are also the names of artists you know from a distance or in close proximity: Welling, Palermo, Lee Krasner. (Such a stack of books is also a Pantheon, no doubt.) There is a Webster’s dictionary, which appears in (at least) two of these drawings.
What is also surprising is how similar these drawings are to all of your other drawings, which are also accumulations of colored lines, often scraggly, often dense like fields. Accumulations of data, these too are a recording process, you’ve told me—a way of recording other developments happening in the studio. Legibility is perhaps beside the point.
The first time I visited your studio you told me you had been reading Virginia Woolf’s The Mark on the Wall. Reading it recently, I was taken with the journey that story’s narrator takes without ever leaving the room—really, without getting up from the chair, all while trying to identify the title’s mark on the wall above the fireplace. What was imagined as a nail (or a hole made by one), among many other things, is, in the end, a snail. Woolf resolves the story, but of course in this case the trip is more important than the destination. But I like this slippage between two words in close proximity—a snail posing as a nail—and the vast reaches of the imagination that one falls into through such a tiny gap. (And I found myself drifting away from Woolf and around my own room while reading.) Is that what you mean by “using the canvas as a page?” That is, allowing what might appear stubbornly illegible if highly specific to generously offer a space for projection—a space for sorting through the possibilities? The space of uncertainty need not be dreadful: It could in fact be the opposite of that.
A longer version of the Valéry quote goes like this:
A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations.
That one is definitely a lot chewier than the Auden. Darker too, at least in its summoning of death. I’m thinking: Even as a poem gets abandoned, a new one is getting started. In your work, the blankness of beginning always remains in the painting, if eventually buried beneath restless activity—even when the thing leaves the studio. And when it finally goes out into the world, the snail can simply return to being a mark again.
In Caitlin Lonegan: For Dorothea: Paintings, Drawings & Notes, October 2012 – September 2014 (Verlag für moderne Kunst, 2018)