:: Article

The Logos: An Introduction, Part II

By Mark de Silva.

What follows is the conclusion of the first chapter of de Silva’s recently completed novel, The Logos. The chapter’s first half was published in the magazine earlier in the month.

 

From where did this belief, this faith in me, stem? This is what I think secretly infuriated Claire, though she herself believed just the same as they did about me. Perhaps it came down to the sheer confidence of my line, which was irrefutable; or else the speed with which I’d absorbed my lessons in methods and materials, in draftsmanship especially, and later in painting. Actually, these kinds of measures were useless in gauging an artist’s deeper gifts, but then, these were academic artists surrounding me. What could you expect of them?

There were other things they might have been reacting to that were genuinely telling: for instance, the uncommon shape, and depth, of my reading. In the years before and through college I might have read as much as I painted, owing to my father’s deep library (a lawyer of rank should have one, and preferably spend half his life in it, he liked to say) and my mother’s notions about the developing artist. Whenever I’d start to talk about art or criticism in school, I would carefully draw the discussion down paths that led beyond French and German art theory, beyond art history, toward matters the others seemed only to having a passing acquaintance with: the logical form of agency, say, or the metaphysics of qualia, or else slightly unpredictable historical matters—the Commercial rather than the Industrial Revolution, or going a bit further back, the slow diffusion of hominids over the Earth’s surface, millions of years ago, rather than the European colonization of the New World.

The assurance of my thinking was wedded to just the same when it came to my hands and eyes, the swift visual problem-solving in the creation of shadow, say, or of raking light, or of the projection of mass without line, or shine without source; the way I could, quite quickly and without fuss, make a brass lamp’s glow, that of the metal, overtake the brightness of its flame, as if this were routine.

Ultimately, I hadn’t learned to think seriously only after I’d learned to draw and paint. With so many artists, including some quite brilliant ones, the intellection, even when it grew quite sophisticated, was retrofitted, so it retained a trace of ornament. I, though, was relatively late to pick up a brush. My mother, herself a curator in Los Angeles at several museums, and more recently an arts administrator in San Francisco, was a bit of an aesthetician, and had her own theories of development. She thought it would be better to hold off on any intensive focus on art until my high school years, that it was more valuable for an artist, or just a child, to split his time between books and brushes or bows. She would cite various psychologists and philosophers of art when my father, an intellectual property lawyer, made gentle inquiries, but I never really followed up on the matter.

I don’t know what I think of her theories now. Even if they all turned out to be just-so stories, it wouldn’t matter in the least. It saved me from training in art before I was equally in a position to train my mind, so that I learned the two languages, of sense and thought, more or less simultaneously. I took my lessons in history and languages (German and Spanish) and natural science as seriously as any practical courses in art, so that my competence in both grew at about the same rate and I experienced them from the first as seamlessly bound. (I had at one point even considered becoming a physicist or a linguist, which pleased my mother especially to no end.)

This is why my work, and even more, my measured hesitations, the diffidence I would evince toward not merely my own ideas but my cohorts as well, could be rattling. Others seemed to lose confidence in the usual language surrounding art around me, even professors, who would take the bombast out of their voices and talk to me in short little Anglo-Saxon words, without the cloak of high theory and its Latinisms. By sophomore year, I was addressed with a certain generalized wariness, or else a pronounced irony that anticipated the unlikelihood of convincing me of very much. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy their apprehension. It earned me the unusual privilege of never actually having to use gratuitous terms of art like practice, or nod eagerly, knowingly, at the first mention of Lyotard or Rancière, or worse, draw up artist statements studded with their terminology.

Let me not paint the picture too brightly. There was a clear weariness in them too, whenever I began to unspool my own thoughts, as if I were willfully causing trouble, flouting the ground rules of art-school discourse, the ones we were all, professors and students alike, in some way aware of but had decided not to fiddle with, for fear of collapsing the structure and impairing the very possibility of instruction.

So I can’t say I was liked, exactly. But by the time of graduation, my teachers seemed to consider dealing with me salutary in its way. At the least, it would have given them the idea that my almost violent insistence on independence in picture making would have to bear fruit eventually. Although I didn’t pursue graduate studies or even seek grants (perhaps, thinking back, I should have; it might have saved me from the course of events to follow), I had the feeling that they would have made special efforts to place me themselves.

I doubt, though, they could have predicted what I would turn to after graduation, even if I never actually moved away from figures and worldly forms. I began to make a subterraneous reputation in New York through what Sandy would eventually call, not inaptly, my longitudinal studies: paintings of the same subject, with varying degrees of transparency (whether of the Dutch or Italian varieties), in various settings spread across ordinary time. The series were developed over years, and it would take at least several months to render even mild transformations, the kind a single image, or a single moment, can never quite contain. So it was really only after three years, not long after I’d begun work on the “Claire series,” that a fuller awareness (my own included) of what I was doing seemed to take hold in the city’s art scene. What was it exactly? You could call it the composition of visual biographies, mostly of unknowns: my previous superintendent, begun really only to win favor; the man, probably a procurer, who spent an inordinate amount of time in the street behind my house, taking up various positions on the stoop; another of my great friend from childhood, Immo; the eight year old child of a rising Bushwick gallerist, and so on. The individual paintings would sometimes appear in magazines, notably Cosquer, or be seen in people’s homes, the friends I would give pictures to sometimes, or sometimes even several pictures from various series would turn up together in a group show. But really these projects could only be grasped or experienced in aggregate, in shows where the entire series to date might be laid out, of which there were increasing numbers as I brought further pictures into being.

It wasn’t my handling of paint per se, or almost anything formal, in fact, that struck people first about the images in these shows. I’d made it a point not to draw the eye to the surface, where attention had for too long lingered in painting. It was rather what I was able to tease out of my subjects, good and bad, the flickering modulations I registered, the apparent identities I could show to be subtly non-identical. Formal and subjectual revelation emerged together always, and usually only across pictures, over time: in the particular patterning of my violation of power centers, the rule of thirds, say, or my diversion of eye pathways, or my management of pictorial distance, for instance, how I would sometimes depict the central subject as slightly too far away, making you want to view certain paintings, quite large format ones, from just inches away, however foolish you looked doing so, as if this might help you approach the person herself.

At first, my close friends had wondered exactly what I was doing, painting such apparently unambitious works; there was even the thought that I’d somehow given up, that all my doubts had led to an implosion. Four years later, I think I could safely say I’d vindicated the sort of complicated confidence I’d had from my professors and peers, even if they’d nearly lost it halfway through. (Although my falling out with Sandy a year ago had made some of them begin to lose it again, I’m sure.)

***

 

One thing certain was that the success of my project was predicated absolutely on my picture-making’s being carried out non-mechanically, given how close you could say, in other respects, the results of my work, the collections of images over time, were akin to personal photo albums, the modern variants being a matter of social media. What was mentioned, again and again, though, was just how unphotographic even my most scrupulously realistic pictures were. What was it that they were reacting to, if not to the fact that moment-to-moment, compositionally, these paintings were channeled through my hand in a way mechanical media like film, video, and photography were not? Whatever you did to them, either on the input or output side, using fisheye lenses or chemically burning the prints, photographic objects had a profoundly automatic dimension, the dull, thudding reality of that passage precisely between input and output, when the image was truly set. Stamps, im-press-ions of a kind—which you can tinker with in all sorts of ways, of course. But this brute, mindless imprinting was at the center of it all, everything led up to it and away from it.

Painting, though—at its center lay nothing like this. There was in fact no center. It simply went on, permanently malleable, every revision being of the same nature as the first brush stroke, not something fundamentally auxiliary, as with photographs, which you could doctor, yes, but not reshoot in anything like the manner one may repaint or redraw.

Every stroke was mediated, formed by hand, which is also to say, by the mind—seismographically. You didn’t simply set something in motion, the way you clicked a camera or (if you ever have) fired a pistol, you were present through the bullet’s entire flight, nudging it this way and that until it hit (or missed) its target. So many of my colleagues, I hesitate to call them friends, that’s just what they did: clicked, arranged, shot, collaged. My hand, by contrast, was always in the mix—yet not in any expressionistic way, dripping with subjectivity or affect. No, these pictures were two-way mirrors, poised between the world and me, integrating both terms.

What I’m keen to say is that there was no going back to basics, to some simpler, predigital time. This is why I can’t be lumped in with many of those who spearheaded the resurgence of drawing and narrative, which felt reactionary; iterations of this this sort of movement came around metronomically, every few decades, this pang for the past—often a past that only a few generations earlier was rued for its forsaking of some more distant past. Far from longing to turn the clock back, I was interested in analogue techniques precisely to make good on some of the promises of machine utopianism dreamed up by Marinetti and the rest, dreamed up but not delivered on, despite all the vast mechanical and digital innovations since, probably far exceeding many of those dreams. The dream, at its core, was to push us right to the heart of electric life—and I mean that quite literally, life since electricity’s advent, this was roughly the moment that the modern artist had ultimately been concerned to penetrate. But it was, in my view, the one-wayness of mechanical reproduction that was its irremediable limitation.

Photographic processes, cinema, television, have their charms, that can’t sensibly be doubted. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t have the world we have, and those avant-garde manifestos would never have been written in the first place. Photographs are, in the bluntest sense, spectacular, it would be obstinacy to think otherwise. Something about the mechanical capture of surfaces, and this goes back to the camera obscura, whose upside-down images were oohed and aahed for centuries before the camera proper came on the scene, even though so many of these photo-esque images that made such fine paintings seem but distant echoes of the world, given that strange liquid luster and peculiar lack of scaling we associate closely with the Dutch masters, like Steen and Van Eyck, and even by genuinely brilliant, forward-looking men like Christian Huygens, who observed in those images a peculiar sort of magic, the magical sheen of reality itself, such that you could almost forget which was which.

But actually, looked at long enough, longer perhaps than Huygens lived, it took a generational memory to uncover this, it might have been what also blinded one to the more telling features of life itself. You discovered that however spectacular, photographs were also (and probably consequently) the least incisive images; they told you least about what counted. Painting, even highly realistic work—take those Dutch pictures themselves, View of Delft, say—couldn’t help but exist right at the nexus of mind and world. And that was true even when it dazzled—indeed, even when painterly properties were being denied, in the manner of Close and other photo-realists who used modular analysis to mathematize the construction of the picture plane. Painting, with the possible exception of flawless trompe l’oeil (did such really exist, though?), interfered with immediate, unself-conscious interpretation, in a way that most photography, its brutely causal cousin, did not, could not. You had to confront a painting’s slight irregularities, and through them, the irregularities of its maker, just as much as you confronted the world depicted by it. And these traces of the maker affected your sense of the image’s significance, provided a kind of subjective map. You were forced to see that the world depicted before you issued from another world: two worlds side by side, or at least one as seen through the other, and you, perhaps, the viewer, also became aware of your forming a third world.

Drawing, though, which I’d until recently shorted in the usual way of painters, as a medium for preparatory work, was even more incisive still, more meditative, and, of course, even more closely tied to the movements of the hand, and to writing as well (as the Chinese had long known), and through this channel to thought too. It would be too simple to say drawing carves things at the joints, cleaves form. But even if it didn’t represent form itself, it certainly was a way to see the form.

This was all won by trading in some amount of spectacle for in-sight—though more recently I’d found that pastels, with the purity of their pigments, especially the soft, crumbly kind, which had hardly been mixed with a binder, these pigments with their concentrated brilliance could dazzle as well as anything, even outclassing oil. For proof, there is of course Degas’s pastel work, a medium that after the age of forty dominated his production, mostly of bathers and prostitutes and danseuses. Something as simple and startling as his representation of gaslight proves the point. I always think of this light when I think of him, this light and the ballets and café-concerts it united in its ghastly glow.

***

 

It was in fact just this quality of drawing, the way it could x-ray what it touched, along with my gradual transition toward it, that Claire began to loathe. What was wrong with the paintings? she must have thought. Within two years of graduating, Sandy took me on and commemorated the occasion with a solo exhibition at one of his satellite galleries—lately among the most charmed on Bogart Street, in Bushwick, an area of town I’d found oppressive, the transplanted arts community (from the art schools of America) being uncomfortably ubiquitous. I left soon after, but not before long write-ups in Artforum and ARTnews.

A solo exhibit at the Serpentine followed, and I’d been given to understand a place in the Whitney biennale was forthcoming. It never materialized. I was told I’d run down the wrong person with someone serving on the committee. Apparently, after a few too many drinks, I’d told her that her notions were simply “of no account.” That sounded possible to me, when I was reminded of the person. None of it mattered. It cost me nothing among people, the small number of them, who had judgment, who in fact only valued me more.

At the time I’d been composing the charcoal piece, though, this must have been a few months ago, Claire had become open in her dislike of my switch to drawing and dry media.  Once, not about this drawing, but another done shortly after, she’d declared with an exasperation I rarely heard in her genteel voice: Sometimes I just hate the way you see. It was said without a trace of rhetorical snap, quite tentatively, as if she’d only just found the words for the feeling she had. And even then the words weren’t quite right. Really, I knew, she meant “more and more,” not “sometimes.” But I had to wonder, did I see any differently lately? Was it a change of attitude, or just a change of medium, that was behind this change of heart?

She’d conveyed this same thing to me many times before with the looks she would give me, perhaps she didn’t know this, after I’d first started tilting away from painting. There was an ongoing, low-grade panic in her, as if I were only now closing in on something that painting alone wouldn’t allow me to discover. Drawing was ruled by the line, it was fundamentally the geometer’s business, a rationalist art, a reconstruction of volumes in space, whereas painting, with its colors and secondary use of line, emphasized the surface of things, the dazzle of consciousness, at some expense to structure. This was true even of painters who were great draftsmen, whether Raphael or Rubens or Delacroix. That is why one would have to say many of Rubens’s most forceful pieces were actually drawings; the same for Rembrandt, in fact.

Painting, I came to think, was almost an apology for the nakedness of drawing, a way of glossing over its conceptual blading of the world. It was a way of seeing blindly, so to speak, or passively, without the analytical powers of the mind. Photography only heightened this tendency, it was why so many painters have been entranced by the lens, optics, the camera obscura, and then the photograph. Whereas drawing was without doubt an analytical art, the mind’s contribution was obvious, there was no attempt at representing a sensory given, as if such were even possible. What one sensed was as informed by what one believed as the reverse. Drawing simply owned up to this conceptuality, that is, the mindedness of seeing, rather than vainly questing after pure experience.

To me, it was actually the intellectual height of the two-dimensional arts, its essence, its philosophy: not some rough-and-ready starting point toward rendering surfaces, as the pervasive notion of the sketch would suggest, but the ultimate product, fully distilled. This is why, for me, photography posed at least a prima facie problem for painting, in its competition for surfaces, whereas it offered no difficulty at all to drawing, properly understood.

The more I realized painting shared in some of the empirical poverty of photography, the more tense my images seemed to grow. Fault lines glossed over in paint were now unmissable in charcoal or pastel. And the trouble in Claire, the mistake in her face I began with, which might have been not a pure fact about her, but a relational one concerning us, her-to-me, began to surface. My seeing had become less blind. It was beginning to penetrate, and even in my early sketches and studies, the problems fully manifest in the final drawings all seemed to be latent. That is the way I would come to think about it. Considering them all—those gesture drawings; the mass studies; the contour pieces made with one continuous stroke of the pen, circling for many minutes; the modular analyses, heir to Alberti’s window; and the tonal studies in the same mold—I could see now (and felt then, inchoately), the tension in them, usually inhering in the face, or the face beneath the face, or in its interaction with her body, or space itself.

In fact, many of her expressions, even when I was not painting her, didn’t leave me fully at peace. I had to consider that something in me may have been chafing at her, ruining her even, inducing those appearances. That was what it meant to think there was a mistake somewhere in her face, or not exactly a mistake, but a problem, and not in the rendering—how could I have got it wrong so many times, with so many chances?—but living in the face itself, protean, resistant to isolation or extraction, constantly requiring a fresh rendering to trace its state, but never disappearing.

Perhaps, then, it was best she was gone.

By the time of this drawing, this incomplete charcoal portrait, I think Claire was already sensing the end, even if she didn’t believe it just yet, wouldn’t endorse the thought if presented to her, I imagine. And perhaps that distracted look I’d drawn her with in the image, that errant gaze that missed my own, was my way of registering this too, though the thought had only just entered my head.

Whatever it was, the solid fact was that her body had been left unformed; it was more of a ghost, only hinting at a potential mass, and not, I think, in a way that created much interest. But at the time I’d refused to work from photographs and finish it without her standing just so in front of me. The entire thing had been composed by sight; to rely of facsimiles then, or to advert to memory, would have been to corrupt it, I felt. So, I’d exacto-ed the support at her neck and kept the head, which was more or less done. I’d left enough of the neck to give it a sense of life, yet little enough of everything else that there was no suggestion that this wasn’t the original idea, that in fact there had been more, much more, imagined below, images that never reached the paper. The face, after the severe cropping, was far off to one side of the picture, beyond the natural focal centers of the rectangular field. I could have clipped the space on the other end to shift it toward a more classical spot, but I liked the scale it seemed to add just as it was, completely blank, and the tension the imbalance created, which perfectly suited that trepid state of hers, late in our relationship. The proportions of her face itself were convincingly rendered, not in the rigorous manner of linear perspective—something I’d become quite good at eyeballing, making an actual gridded sketch unnecessary—no, it was more convincing and elastic than that, as experience actually is; here I had indeed turned to that northern tradition of what is sometimes called optical perspective. In the right hands, it could admit a trace of the original wildness of sight without losing touch with forms and meanings that lay beyond sense alone, that were mind-involving, cognitive. This was, to go by what others said, one of my primary talents. Rendering space, in a manner that would satisfy neither a representational nor formal approach. It was a kind of deep sight, I liked to say, the only kind worth cultivating—it cut through the surface to the objects themselves, yet it remained drenched in experience. I could mention Kant here. Or you could simply look at a Rembrandt.

***

 

Staring into Claire’s charcoal face, I couldn’t help but think better of the third picture, the pastel one estranged from life only by the generosity it showed the inanimate. I’d done it months afterward (though the image recalled an even earlier time), in buttery ombré hues, almost impasto in their density, though soft pastel, not paint, was the medium, applied in heavy strokes to a bone-white vellum ground that had been brushed so that it would take pigment more easily. I’d forgotten the fixative and it had been shedding color ever since. Along the way I’d shored things up with gooey oil sticks.

The piece was a few months old now, and it dated to a time at which I’d already discarded my photographs of her and began to draw by another instrument: memory. She’d been gone for at least a few months by the time I’d started it. In the weeks after she’d left, I didn’t paint or draw anything of significance, didn’t really even attempt to. There were a few sketches I’d begun without much feeling and soon aborted, mostly they were in rollerball, while I was doing practical, essential things, like drawing up a list of bills that needed paying, and in what order, now that I wasn’t selling paintings anymore. The drawings would bloom and die before I could ever regret beginning them in the margin of a piece of recycled spiral notebook paper that bled heavily at the first touch of ink. They were done from phone snaps, which I used to bring her back to me, as if, remarkably, I couldn’t quite conjure the woman who’d only just been there. These days I could bring her to mind so much more easily and richly, like seeing her in the reflection of a frozen pond, with a degree of tranquility that had been out of the question at the time.

But even then, when I couldn’t find the energy or momentum to finish any of those sketches, the photographic cues seem to steer me wrong. I would have done better to imagine a random woman than to try to use any of them as spurs. They seemed almost always to remember the wrong things. And it was only after turning away from the photos that the calm finally came and I could return to her properly, in memory.

If I were to do this piece again, I’d go for something even less painterly, something fully planar, materially, no impasto, no topography. I’d also expand the space, front to back, through greater contrast, or else by depicting some object, it didn’t really matter what it was, looming right up close on one side of the canvas, forcing the rest of it back. And perhaps, yes, I’d be a little more careful not to let what was in her, or what she was made of, bleed out into her surroundings, the prime shortcoming of the picture. Although that was, in her best moments—like this one, I remembered—what it could be like to be around her. What am I saying by this? She bent space. Without her around to exert that pull, life certainly couldn’t be like this anymore. But what about life then? Memory let me hew as closely as possible to this fact, to the essence of those encounters with her in the three dimensions of space, something my photos of her seemed always to fail at. And not just photos. The eye itself, I realized, could fail in this. Painting from life, via plumb lines and the like, visually tracking proportions and curves and planes, could blind you to whatever it was that grounded, or better, gathered, all of that. Sight could present too many things indifferently, fracturing the world into a series of almost autonomous shards, leading you toward an inchoate literalness that defeated the prime function of the organ of vision, which was to track the consistency, or the character, of objects through time and space. To track whole scenes, in fact.

There was, actually, a touch of these problems in Claire’s charcoal face, which I’d drawn from sight. The picture, my lines, failed to find the thing-ness of her, not in a subject-denying derogatory sense of thing, but in the good sense, what it was that made her something more than a sweep of color upon the retina. My picture failed to see this unity, and in turn, since it could locate no object, could hardly find room for its subjectivity.

In my defense, at the moment this was composed, perhaps she might have also been starting to falter subjectively, so that the flaw of this work was not a failure of representation, but rather something that lived in her. What made this drawing unsatisfying might have been precisely what made her unsatisfying then, even aggravating, though I couldn’t name this in any more precise way. The drawing was the flaw’s name, I suppose, or it showed the flaw, the fragmentation, in the manner of a demonstrative. This.

The pastel face, though, the one I’d built only from memory—here I’d fared much better in finding that ground, the unseen presences, the subject in the object, or perhaps more precisely, the subject of the object. Whatever my misgivings about it, I reveled in what the pastel managed to corral, that is, in what memory managed to see that my eyes could not—the way space had been remade.

But memory no less than sight revealed a flaw in her subjectivity: an intensity that collapsed the world around her (which had, to be sure, been beautiful at first). Still, I felt it easier to live with this flaw than the other. I suppose this means I prefer unshaped sense to formed emptiness. Tellingly, the memory I’d drawn on for this one predated the charcoal moment by many months, tracing back to a time when the problem with her had actually been too much subjectivity rather than not enough. That was to be preferred, I thought, at least conceptually, or maybe just romantically, a surfeit of human being, even if it was also a terrible portent of what had now already come to pass, the bursting of seams, I mean, the unraveling, and finally, the disappearance. How metaphysically clingy she had been back then. I’d felt a tremendous responsibility for guarding her being, preserving her feelings, which were so easily bruised, particularly around the matter of our work, the way she was being punished by the world of art, at least relative to me, for her good behavior, essentially, her politesse, everything her childhood had inculcated in her. And I was being rewarded by that same world for my truculence.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark de Silva
is the magazine’s fiction editor and the author of the novel Square Wave (Two Dollar Radio, 2016). For 2019, he is in residence with the Tulsa Artist Fellowship.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 16th, 2019.