Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What I Like About (This) Painting

John Isiah Walton  (Center Panel) Brown Beat - Bounce Triptych
John Isiah Walton
The Front, New Orleans

I am sorry to say that this triptych, titled Brown Beat – Bounce Triptych is no longer on View at the Front. What do I like about this painting? This is what I was asking myself when I was standing there liking it. And then I would get distracted from the task of articulating what I liked about it by looking at the painting. I came to the conclusion that this is what I liked about it. Painting makes me forget about thinking.

Let me try again here. I liked the speed and confidence in the brushstrokes. When brushstrokes are visible to this degree and at this scale a painting takes on some of the artist’s physicality. In this case, because the painting holds it, the subject holds it. So these images of people are infused with this physicality, this life. I’m not being mystical here. This is just a barely conscious sense that comes from simultaneously looking at an image of a person and seeing the labors of a person. There is another correlation between the painting and the subject. When paint dries (from the outside in) we refer to the outside as skin. Paint as skin. In these portraits the skin colors are also the background colors (and recalled in the title). 

I spent most of my time looking at the middle panel of the triptych. There was so much information in this portrait despite the fact that the language was minimal. It is a mysterious thing to be regarded by a painting. Come to think of it, paintings have taken on some of the nonchalance we have taken on toward them. Let me think about that a second to figure out if it is true. I’m thinking there are not many paintings around that really look at us. This one does for sure. But just the middle panel. On the left a woman laughs. She makes a hazy eye contact but her attention is elsewhere. On the right is a figure who is only interested in being looked at (his expression, his hair, his glasses tell us this). The contrast of these three different engagements is really interesting to experience.

What is this triptych about? The title refers to a type of music, a culture I know little of. But the paintings hold up without background knowledge. They don’t rely on a concept. In this way they are open. Which is part of the power of paintings. 

I was just rereading an interview between Chris Ofili and Peter Doig that was published in BOMB magazine in 2007. This is one of the best conversations about painting I have ever almost witnessed. And they talk about foreknowledge and the openness of paintings.

Chris Ofili says: “There’s nothing like walking into someone’s studio and seeing a painting for the first time. You get that rush of information coming at you, unmediated. The less you know beforehand, the purer the read.”

Peter Doig responds: Yesterday I was talking about the way people look at paintings in public spaces or even in studios, which is very different from the way they look at just about anything else. It’s a kind of lost but scrutinizing gaze, focusing on a painting. It’s not fixed, like a still photograph is.”

I was recently thinking about how paintings are experiences before they are objects. This is true for the artist and in some cases for the viewer. As the viewer, this was one of those occasions for me. 

John Isiah Walton    Brown Beat - Bounce Triptych     The Front

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