Dana Saulnier -Artist Statement – Restless Measures: October 2017
In these works, embodied forms grow and decay; the forms are tentative and are often undone. The nominal subject is ‘the figure in landscape’, but these figured and disfigured forms are more haptic events. Boundaries between figure and ground are open and permeable evoking transience and uncertainty. These ‘bodies’ are under pressure, they dwell within forces that exceed any temporary integrity they possess. Still, these fleeting beings achieve a circumspect vitality –- a place cycling condition and contingency.
My paintings evolve from sets of drawings and studies in oil or collage. I experience a lot of ‘not seeing’ as I work out my seeing. Often, I have some subtle intuition. I sense multiple potentials in a configuration. Something ‘takes me’, and my seeing is a kind of ‘leap’. I see only enough to sense that there is something more to see. This gets built into the work and structures how the viewer receives the image. I want the work to ‘speak’ to the viewer’s perception before they habitually constrain their visual experience with categories that name visual experience. The inherent tension of perception and category is generative. I want both modes of reception to be incommensurate and ‘fragile’.
Painting is frequently thought historically and contextualized by its continuities and revolutions. Viewers of my work almost always comment upon the dialogue with historical paintings. This is both understandable and troublesome. I know that I am making some kind of ‘history painting’ — but it is inadequate to think of it narrowly: as appropriation, or memorial, or documentary project. All three are relevant ways to think about ‘history painting’. But, for me, achieving an image that captures an emotional sense of our being within history is important. We are historical beings and living emotionally is a condition of our being. We know that those who lived before us also lived this condition. And, we hope that our emotional lives will somehow connect with the lives of those who will follow us. Finding this condition, we center and de-center ourselves. We share and are enlarged. In the arts, themes of tragedy and comedy are repeating historical projects. I find the subject of the figure in landscape fertile ground for realizing such themes. My dialogue with painting locates both my connection to the past and my distance from the past. The distance is crucial to my work. I want to paint this differential as forward momentum. I endeavor to make a new image that dwells within history.
Painting lives best when it devours our attempts to theorize. I seek to make works that are absolutely specific while being productively resistant to analysis.
Dana Saulnier: Artist Statement- 2016
Trying to explain my painting practice is difficult. Any explanations I advance rapidly become too small and inadequate. If I say that my painting has concentrated my sensations and thoughts, or that I have had concepts, ideas, and plans, this may all be true and accurate, but it leaves the experienced dimensions of the art projected by aspect and is inadequate as a description of the work as a generative continuing event that both produces and devours sense. Rather than assert how I have made art, it may be more accurate to describe how art has happened to me. As I age, the processes of making art and the specific presence of images becoming before me, have positioned me more as a witness to the work than as a controlling agent. My life has become entwined with a proliferation of specific visual facts. My life has become ‘round’ and dense with sense and thought. The work gathers me, extends me, exceeds me, and I see this happening. I never could of anticipated these dimensions when I began. This has led me to think a lot about the nature of mediums. Painting is the medium that has best expanded my potentials.
Nonetheless I can identify consistent concerns that have been decisive over time. Here I stress three perspectives.
First, I am compelled by paintings that invite active perceptual responses, including much realist painting. My aesthetic grounding in the analysis of perception contrasts with a more exclusive focus on what I think of as textual processes in the work of many of my generation. When I make ‘painterly paintings’ it is because of how such works complicate and move perception. Painterly painting presents what it shows as evolving event.
Yet, all of the work is a search for specific form; an accretion of plan, error, impulse, and seemingly endless revisions until the work goes beyond my capacities to travel with it. Each touch cycles vision. The states of specificity in the image must act as movements of sensation. Rather than a stable thing one perceives potentials always open to becoming different. With the continual mutability of making one learns to see before categorical habits impose efficiency upon perception. Indeed one becomes highly attuned to the fragility of perception and the thinking that variably parallels perception.
Secondly, my paintings proliferate body-ness. It seems that I continually find the body vulnerable and fragmented even as I find body alongside body, so that even the perception of open atmospheric spaces must some how have body. The images have long resonated with the subject of the figure in landscape. We live between our individual being and our permeable relations to the spaces that surround and exceed us. I find it productive to think that all form is relation, arriving ‘in-between’ supposedly stable things. This is to think of all form as becoming in relation to what it is not: an interface that structures both connection and difference.
Permeable contours, membranes, temporary edges, fleeting light, and the play of internal and external relations have been a constant project of my art. This has also been continually re-conceived. What I once understood as tensions inherent in the experience of landscape has also become a conception of technique itself. Paradoxically in an age saturated with technology we seldom see technique. Standing before painting, temporarily centered in one’s bodily being, facing the distance and otherness of painting, one finds oneself in an emphatically practical – technical space. Technique remains visible and open; it does not collapse into habit or utility. We experience technological potency differently when we see, rather than use, media.
Third, I have chosen to paint while also recognizing postmodern critiques of painting. I have had to continually re-think the relation of painting to the historical self consciousness of art making. My generation of painters has persisted through the multiple ‘deaths’ prescribed for painting, through diffusions of ‘French Theory’, and more generally through a plethora of pluralist strategies. In much of this, the negotiation of ‘historical relevance’ in the theory and writing that surrounds art has been especially foregrounded. Artist’s of my generation have found their historical self consciousness somewhat differently than other generations precisely because historical testimony itself has often become something understood first as being deeply constructed and ideological, and only secondly as something becoming in participation (something built up through events and processes). Broadly speaking the first perspective could be termed ‘critical’ and the second ‘procedural’, ‘materialist’ or even ‘technical’. There are many ways to think ‘history’.
My manner of color and drawing, as well as distant appropriations from iconographical traditions evidence my making paintings about painting. I believe that my images are ‘history paintings’, not in a documentary sense, but rather because they inhabit rifts, gaps, and paradoxical conceptions of historical understanding. I think my paintings participate with painting as an historical tradition, but do so as an activity distant from any totalizing conception of historical understanding. I think of this as a contrast between ritual time and a projective ordering of time. My hope is that the paintings enact a kind of generous refusal of a ruling or projective conception of historical consciousness and insist rather that we be present to our contingency, our complex situation, and its creative potentials. This generosity is born of the inherent participatory experience of seeing the painting, while confronting its poverty as an image. These images are always becoming, never categorical, never declarative, in a sense they are ‘no’ images. The balance between perceptual sense (the works presence), and a tenuously familiar image (the work’s complex genealogy), cycle across a range of interpretive horizons.
Dana Saulnier: Statement on the Night Paintings, June 2011
The ‘night paintings’ began with my attempts to structure within painting the personal loss experienced as one that I love slipped away into an illness that erases memory, thereby collapsing the relation that we had into darkness. Though my emotional orientation to this lost relationship is central to much of this work, this account is too simple. In art, explanations need not be inaccurate to be inadequate. Rationales rapidly become too small, too focused on some supposed cause and effect way of thinking that is wholly inadequate to thinking about painting. First of all, even as these works structure loss and decay they also largely contradict the idea that this loss should be presented as the slow retreat of memory. Rather, the work impels presence. This is because the paintings are so insistently carnal; flesh bears weight and pressure, flesh becomes muscular, growing, falling, tipping, spilling, collapsing, and decaying. Secondly, this painting mediates a complex nullified relationship to the history of painting, specifically to the image of the figure in landscape with its dynamic poles of encompassing nature and now lost relationships to spiritual traditions. The work structures diverse genealogies as the paintings are fragmented across multiple frames of reference.
Standing before the work, the claustrophobic environment in the paintings limit any supposed individual agency imagined for a particular form. Forces rule. All is constantly transforming. The forms exist only in tension with forces beyond themselves. I think it most accurate to say that the paintings make dimensional conditions and forces within the works themselves as a differential to our prior experience of such conditions and forces. To make this distinction is to recognize that making paintings is a practical matter and contrasts with the idea that paintings reduce to assertions about loss or carnal becoming. It is my goal that the work be a site for experience before being a statement about experience.
The subject of loss that set me into these works has become structured within the practice of my painting and I now think that I have been making ‘night’ paintings for some time without calling them such. I think this is because of something more fundamental to the work, to its specific carnal pulse aligned with its reticence. This becomes clearer if we think ‘night’ as a plenum wherein we find ourselves differently. We experience darkness distinctly from how we experience light. Our fundamental and cyclical becoming between the two perceptual environments differentiates and disperses our potentials and capacities. In this rhythm our senses become fluid and we open to difference. We live the night as beings permeated with its intimacy. We feel our way through the dark where touch is the active mode of sense, and where we inherently understand that the sense of touch is profoundly personal and therefore limited and provisional to any understanding of what is beyond ourselves. This intimacy becomes as a beginning. In light we situate ourselves over against some ‘otherness’, we are immediately relational, opening and closing upon distances. In light we are present to what is beyond ourselves as a different order of distance and relation than our presence to darkness. My painting has always structured tactile experience; cycling between tactile and optical modes as I seek a space where sense opens thinking. In my painting practice, figure and ground must be found, and the analogue with differentiated perception resonates with that process. I find myself embedded in the insistent, dense, materiality of painting, awaiting what painting will make visible, a witness to the night.