Essay: “Remaking/Unmaking” in Garageland 20: ‘Remake/remodel’.

In ‘What Painting Is’ James Elkins draws convincing parallels between painting and alchemy. However he refers only briefly to the alchemical process called nigredo, the negative phase in which matter is dissolved before it can be transformed into a higher substance. This plunge into negation, this dissolving and wiping away of unwanted paint, is all too familiar to many artists but another kind of undoing, a dismantling of form and order, can be pursued and preserved as an important element in a painting. The nigredo can be part of the end result.

Remaking in painting, whether remaking life or remaking another work of art, may mean the rejection of clarity in favour of the ambiguous and inchoate. Legible forms are made obscure, for example, in the tangled figures in Brueghel’s ‘Fall of the Rebel Angels’ or in Delacroix’s crowds in ‘The Battle of Taillebourg’ or in the shadowy shapes in Vuillard’s domestic interiors. And the influence of abstraction and expressionism in work of twentieth-century figurative artists increasingly attacks explicit images in favour of the enigmatic. This applies to the work of Francis Bacon, to the damaged figures in Michael Andrews’s ‘The Deer Park’, the obliterations in Richard Hamilton’s ‘My Marilyn’, the violent superimpositions in the paintings of Gérard Fromanger, the early ‘graffiti’ works of David Hockney or the obscure shapes in R.B. Kitaj’s ‘Reflections on Violence’ or ‘The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg’. Such indistinctness, erasure and mess open up possibilities in painting by fostering allusiveness and mystery and, as Kitaj’s titles suggest, a possible sense of threat.

Another kind of cancellation, or at least modification, is used by some of these artists when a painting becomes a melting pot of competing styles and perspectives. A single image, a single style and one kind of pictorial space are qualified and interrupted by an entirely different approach and this is then intruded upon, overturned and melts into something new. In Kitaj’s ‘The Ohio Gang’, for example, a composite of a monochrome woman and a yellow ribbon overlaps a flat blue square which is foregrounded by a figure in a pram which morphs into a face evaporating into tangled marks beneath geometric shapes in which a hybrid figure is cut off by a vertical line. And so on. A similar method of contrasting styles and contradictory kinds of space applies to Fromanger’s ‘La Mort de Caïus Gracchus’, Hockney’s ‘Flight into Italy’, Hamilton’s ‘Interior II’ and the works of many later artists including David Salle, Richard Patterson and Ged Quinn.

Unmaking, the undoing of coherent images or a single style or viewpoint, means endless possibility. It makes painting centrifugal. It is like texts that, according to Roland Barthes, produce not closure but infinite opening out. It is an aesthetic of the unfinished as explored by philosopher Jacques Maritain who writes that “achieved art always has ‘that kind of imperfection through which infinity wounds the finite”. For Maritan according to Rowan Williams in his book on art, ‘Grace and Necessity’, “finishedness in the work (is) always incomplete at some level, ‘limping’ like the biblical Jacob, from the encounter with what cannot be named”.