Pocaro: How do the night paintings differ from previous bodies of work?
Saulnier: It now seems to me that I have been making night paintings awhile, but the new work is different in a number of ways. First I was approaching tragedy differently, in one sense more personally and in another sense more generally. Someone I care about is ill and has lost her memory. She is now more absent than present and our relationship is not at all what it was. I was making some sketches relating to this situation and one seemed particularly promising so I pursued its potentials. This in itself is different, because though I draw a lot, it is unusual that a single sketch be this productive. In the sketch there is a force that pushes over forms. There is a collapse. After many drawings and variations an image made sense. This work led to “M. in Flight”. So, in this work I took up a specific goal, to work out the drama of this loss. But I also recognized the more general potentials present in the multiple variations developed in drawing. There was a kind of life force and a ‘devouring’ force at the same time. This force both generates and devours life. It is cyclical. Displacements of energy, or cycles of energy, as ways to think movement both make sense for how I conceive composition. In this body of work it happened differently than previously. I have been working this out, thinking of a cyclical force while witnessing someone I care about being consumed.
Pocaro: You often talk about the interaction of forces when discussing your forms. I wonder what antecedents are in your work for the forms in the night paintings?
Saulnier: I am always trying to construct spaces that are participatory. I became interested in works where one becomes bodily invested while viewing. Carravagio, for example, requires you to ‘leap’ into perception. I wanted that ‘leap’. It had a kind of perceptual energy, a kind of speed that was appropriate. This meant I needed to have forceful figures that were still going to be inherently mysterious, or perhaps it would better to say ‘provisional’, to display their absence along with their presence. They must open the painting up. The potentials for these forms continually evolves as I work. In the painting, “Hut”, from 2008, I found that the color began to have greater capacities. The color not only revealed volume and light, but started to move and transform. This happens in the night paintings when the forms are de-stabilized through color. They seem to be subject to different lighting conditions and light is not mapped consistently throughout the space. I think this structures their decay as some other order overtakes them.
Another development was finding that I could expand the tensions between the interior and exterior of the forms. The forms have long had gestural interiority; a gestural potency. Torso like forms would retain a kind of muscular interiority. In the painting “With Solitaries”, the large dark form on the right seemed to me to have a different set of potentials for its interior/exterior logic. In a sense it revealed itself as having multiple logics, because its interior was not inferred but made visible. It could potentially spill inside- out. This is a very different gestural potential. In the night paintings there are forms that I describe as ‘generation channels’ or, conversely, as digestive tracks. They have there own logics and energy. Sometimes their exterior shells are able to contain their energy, sometimes not. This tension structures a sense of vulnerability in the forms between exterior and interior. I think this returns to the content of illness and our vulnerability. In illness the fundamental logic between what one understands to be ones external orderliness compared to ones internal bodily being is destabilized. I hasten to add that this is a limited reading for the dynamics of interior and exterior. Though it is a reading appropriate for these works, it is also a variation on my frequent experimentation with ideas of interior and exterior. In this reading I am saying that we live in tension of knowing that something is changing within us, something we locate as being ‘me’, but ‘not me’, or ‘me’ removed from ‘me’. The relation is unstable; we are different to ourselves. The night paintings opened up alternative ways to think about the forms, and the forces that condition the forms. This was distinctive from earlier bodies of work. I wanted the forms to gain different capacities, to have varying speeds and durations within their shared situation.
Pocaro: I always think of night as being the absence of light rather than thinking of it as a force unto itself. Are you thinking of the night as a force?
Saulnier: I have always invested my work in our experience as embodied beings. Phenomenological perspectives that describe our embodiment have been important. When I make body-like forms they are always conceived as being participatory with the environment, they are receptive- projective zones. I think this potential arises for the viewer from their categorical ambiguity. The philosopher Merleau-Ponty’s ideas of the night offered themselves as a confirmation of my thinking. He described the way that an embodied being is present to the night as a being that is co-extensive with it. Rather than be shut off by the night we feel we are in it. We belong to it. We sense its weight and pressure around us even as we orient to its vast extension. We can sense tremendous space that is pregnant with potentials that exceed us. This is different from our experience of the day. In the light of day we are relational in the sense that we are always measuring our position, our relationships to this thing and that thing, which now becomes some otherness, over there. We bounce back and forth between us and them and this and that. In my work, where I use descriptions like, ambiguous perception, claustrophobia, and pressure to characterize the space in the work, Merleau-Ponty’s description of night makes sense. I think it is of a piece with the perceptual, participatory space that I have long pursued in my paintings.
Pocaro: Instability seems to me to be very true statement about your work. Often forces destabilize the whole composition. I recall this in “Night Tide” in particular, because the energy moving to the upper left opened a void in the lower left and the whole composition reacts. Can you talk more about this instability and maybe how this comes with the idea of structuring loss?
Saulnier: In producing a ‘memory image,’ something known becomes obscured, covered over, or fossilized. These are all logical ways to proceed with the subject of loss. To some degree this make sense for this work, but I don’t think it accounts for the violence and claustrophobia in the paintings. There is often an overwhelming quality. Forces sweep over forms and may dissolve them aggressively. I can think of this violence in terms of weather, or personal experience, or more metaphorically, as a tragedy that knocks one over. I don’t deny that the violence is there. Nor do I deny that there is often a carnal tension, limbs and bodies in an intimate space. But, ultimately, I think that the violence and tensions disclose vulnerability, and an emotional relationship to our vulnerability that I feel. I find this tension compelling in painting. The truth is I am trying to paint a participatory, but de-stabilized and pressured situation. That is the way the world seems to me. It is boiling with potential at all times, and there is a vulnerability that comes along with that. I think this aggressiveness is in the night paintings. It seems to me to be a kind of unsettledness in the paintings that is different from the weight and density that is there also. And I know that because it is a painting that the instability is present with some distance and offers a way of contemplating these forces. I try to let the painting allow these feelings, and I trust when I am feeling tense about a painting.
Pocaro: Thinking of the ambiguity in the space of your paintings in general, maybe in the night paintings in particular, the viewer is not sure how deeply they can travel– is the space receding into an infinite space, or is it that if you moved past these forms, you hit up against some kind of edge– so there seems to be some sort of oscillation between deep space and shallow space.
Saulnier: There is richness to the shallow space. There is a dense and heavy atmosphere where you cannot quite be sure how far you can move. And I don’t often try to open it up, though in some works I will. In the night paintings I think of it as a space where atmosphere will limit vision rapidly. The compressed space complicates the experience of sensing. I want the visual experience to move between modes of sensing. I think of this perceptual potency as tension between our tactile and optical senses.
I have thought about this spatial configuration in terms of early renaissance painting, which begins in part out of relief sculpture. The shallow tactile space is inset into an expansive landscape. I think that I am working with something similar. There is middle ground relief, a tactile and muscular density of forms, contained within a plenum where forces arrive from a larger environment. I open and close that space to varying degrees, but it is never thought of as a kind of Euclidean extension, but rather is always something that is enveloping. It has a role to play. I think of the ‘sky’ in these works as a dramatic space where events are occurring. The sky is always already there, waiting for events to occur. It is an analog of consciousness, a place where temporal and spatial events will occur.
Pocaro: This makes me want to question the viewer’s relationship to the painting. Can you talk about how you think about the viewer’s relationship to the physical nature of the work and the kind of fictional space it has?
Saulnier: Well, though I do recognize that distinction, I find that in making the painting I am searching for my capacity to believe in the space of the painting. That is the primary motivation. I think this is where the hard work is. The space keeps changing. The whole situation is fraught and volatile with change and mutating sense. I am always thinking of how its physical nature is relating to its optical nature. This is important because one of the things I am trying to do is complicate a viewer’s experience of sensing within the space. I want them to have to move between modes of sensing. So when I talk about a tactile – optical tension I am describing that potency. I am trying to structure a leap of perception. Because this perceptual movement arises from tension I find it really difficult to separate the works physical nature from its perceptual becoming.
Pocaro: I am still thinking about the experience of the viewer. Recently I read Dennis Dutton’s “The Art Instinct”, he asserts that visual art is distinctive because it is intentionally designed for the contemplation of others; that this is built into its creation. So when you locate your motivation by saying that you want to see the space, how are you understanding that this is also a space that another is going to have to navigate?
Saulnier: The question becomes how do I account for my responsibility to the viewer. Perhaps the simplest way to explain this is to recognize that the artist is a viewer too. In fact, each of us as individuals lives within a shared world. Though our individuality must always cycle the fact of our individual bodily presence, our being is always also a being with others. As environmental beings we are never alone.
I count on the fact that I am engaging embodied sensations. I think of this as largely universal. We are spatial. We live conditioned by things like weight and orientation. We engage an environment that both opens and closes to our potentials. So I find it most sensible as a visual artist to count on a shared world of embodied sensation as the fundamental basis of communicative potency for spatial forms.
Yet, the work is historically self-conscious. My work makes sense to a sophisticated audience as a species of contemporary history painting. The color palette is a clear indicator. It seems that one can then ask if these are parodies of art historical works. This both does and doesn’t make sense to me. Though the work remains aligned with traditions of the figure in landscape, my forms are particularly ambiguous, they refuse identity, and I then proceed by painting the impossibility of a congruent relationship with that history. I believe I’m painting our distance from it.
It is difficult to describe. Working through the legacy of appropriation art my practice connects to historical models of painting, producing a contemporary variant of history painting. Yet it is not history painting in the sense of producing a commemorative, purportedly documentary image. Rather I am presenting a distant, nullified, but still potent situation. By painting nearness and distance to historical models I can make room for that potency. I can engage the complexity of how we think of ourselves enmeshed in history. It’s an impossible situation for painting. So I end up walking a line between affirmation and futility that I think of as a mode of contemporary history painting. I think it is possible that futility has a positive creative potential, even as it is also tragic. The complexity includes having to think both the expansive momentum of time, along with our repetitive, cyclical, gathering in — where our lives, miniscule as they are, are nonetheless a plenum of awareness with distinct potentials that exceeds what is necessary. This difference is the gift of our incongruence with our factual being. I know that this involves a collision of categories. My views are tied up with an alternative way of thinking about history — that what is unsettled in history persists and lives.
As a painter who is making visceral and participatory paintings I am insisting on presence. I am insisting on a present need to realize living sense, rather than an inert past or a deferred future. This is my job, and what I have to do even if I’m only able to do so in a compromised and limited manner. It may just be simpler to stress that my attitude to art history positions questions about history in general.
Pocaro: When you talk about making parodies it really brings up a whole series of questions for me. Donald Kuspit wrote that making parodies of other works of art was a kind of bad faith attempt to garner authenticity to ones own work. That if one is making appropriations one can only be taken seriously if the work is accompanied by a kind of ‘wink and a nod’ sense of complicity. The formal dimensions of the work don’t change but rather the extra aesthetic supplements that accompany the work all change, and only then does the work gain some other legitimacy.
Saulnier: Yes one can understand that there is some sort of agreement that is made about how appropriation should be interpreted, that its perceptual nature is subjected to its contextual presentation. In a limited sense I think one can say this is true of the self-consciousness of my work, but it seems wholly inadequate to account for the transformation between a distant source it may have some relation to, and my job of giving the specific painting I am making have the presence that it needs. I do not use historical sources as references. I am not looking at such images while working. More often I discover some resonance after I have been working with an image for some time, sometimes months after beginning it. I do not mean this to be a defensive statement, but rather an indication that perhaps art moves and cycles what needs to be moved and cycled. I am thinking of hermeneutics.
I can also think of this as being akin to musical performances where each performance must be the becoming of the work anew. Its status as a work already performed includes its potency for becoming again. And, following this logic one could say that the work repeatedly creates its audience. So, while I may recognize some potential that resonates with earlier art, I see my task as following out the differentiation of the specific work that I am making. It must reveal itself as a specific thing. I feel good about this response. I see it as my recognition of an involvement in something much larger than myself. It is as if each generation has to come along and give dimension to our complexity. When I say that I am historically self conscious I see this as a kind of depth of dimension that is more than an account of some present theoretical context, but is rather a task, a responsibility even, to give dimension to experience.
Pocaro: One could say that the flip side of an accusation of bad faith would be to think that your work would be a sincere good faith attempt to reconcile yourself to works that have come before. Maybe talking about parody and authenticity boils down to the question of how one can make good faith paintings now.
Saulnier: I can say that my drive to make art is a desperate issue for me. If I was motivated narrowly by my desire to place myself in some kind of professional situation, where I was primarily concerned with the work’s status within a narrow set of theoretical discourses, then I am not sure that I could proceed with the faith and doubt necessary to the work. I want the work to make sense to people whether they are educated in art theory or not. Like good music I hope good art takes you in. It is hard work to make art and I want to think that it matters to people. That it enlarges our capacity for living.
This does not mean that I am not interested in complex readings, but that I see such readings as a kind of harvest of the sense of the work and not the work. I know this is arguable, but I think that it is fine to be an informed person who chooses to believe in certain potentials for art making if that belief engenders creative becoming.
Pocaro: Well one of the things that excites me about your work is that though it is clear that there is an acknowledgement of the tensions we have discussed: your painting is not directed by this. Perhaps another way to speak to tensions between parody, bad faith and good faith painting involves your frequent use of concepts of ‘difference’. This comes up again and again, including in your statements on the night paintings. Are you talking about how Derrida would use the term — that the forms in your paintings are signifiers whose meaning is constantly deferred, moving from signifier to signifier, on and on? Or is this difference meant to talk about the distance between a physical object and a representation?
Saulnier: Actually both are relevant to ways of thinking that interest me a great deal. Our discussion earlier about whether the works are parodies in some way aligned with appropriation art leads me to think that it would be more accurate to say the work is structuring difference. That to describe them as presenting difference is not as restrictive a meaning as saying that they are parodies.
I began by thinking that concepts of difference counter theories of art that follow from critiques of representation. Or at least it could counter over simplified readings of such theories. I am thinking here of the lasting influence of semiotic theory on how visual artists were educated to consider images in culture. Thinking of an image as a representation is a deeply embedded habit that positions the image as a peculiar variant on a statement. The habit of beginning from a critique of representation is really a methodological program. Nobody believes that a representation and what it refers to could be identical. The early works of Johns notwithstanding. So a critique of representation issues most often as a methodological ploy meant to open onto other purposes. In recent theory it is a ploy to ‘do theory’, to utilize images as evidence for the construction of contextual frames chosen ahead of the experience of any particular image. The image is subordinated ahead of time to its function within a theoretical method. The concrete specificity of the image is filtered out of consideration. Such filtering very often excludes all of the thinking that attends to making an image as a specific thing. One can understand how this theory can be insightful, but it comes at a high cost. The art is reduced to the status of data. Many times the methodological baggage of theory reduces all of the thinking that accompanies making to invisibility. For the painter of paintings or the writer of fiction, all of their efforts to structure the specificity of the work are inconsequential. In my view this reduces formal and communicative potential. I prefer to think that the creative work of making something specific constitutes an enlargement of formal and communicative potential. Too often, theory reduces that formal and communicative potential to gain its (often utilitarian) project.
A shift that sees images as differencing, where each image is understood immediately to be a differenced form of experience is a compelling alternative. If we can think of making images as making differentials through process I believe it to be a superior description of creative practices. Rather than think that the controlling agent is a consciousness or subject position in language that utilizes or is utilized by a representation, thinking difference recognizes the priority of sensual experience. To make an image is to witness sensual experience as it is differentiated when moved across the distance inherent in consciousness and a medium. Perhaps one could say that to represent is to control while to difference is to enlarge.
Thinking this way begins to account for the distance, the creative potential of a ‘gap’ that is held open in both making and viewing art. Art makes differences active. It is a point of contrast and comparison. In a further sense this characterizes a ‘differential’ between thinking and environment, between perception and what is perceived. Creating an image that is understood as creating a differential marks an opening or ‘gap’ and is therefore becomes a place to think expansively. So this goes to your first point about moving significations, if I create a contrast, a place of differential, I set in motion thought processes that now allow the relations I have experienced to be thought differently because I have created some alternative point of contact, or point of contrast to my normal efficient categories of understanding experience. The gap, the non-identity or difference opens imaginative potential, including new ways of sensing and thinking. The art as event dwells in the gap born of a cycle of difference.
The core philosophical tension between identity and difference, and between substance and process, is a kind of base line for my thinking recently. Derrida’s idea of slipping and proliferating frames of reference makes sense to me, as well as I can understand it. Derrida’s moving signification does point to this gap, this place where nothing will ever fuse into identity. There is always this gap that opens up, this interpretive space. I must admit that I am more of a tourist with Derrida, but to the degree that I can grasp his thinking I think this incongruence or gap is fundamental for him. I am trying to avoid thinking of this gap as a negation, as, perhaps an existential void. I am rather trying to think of it as productive opening; as an opportunity for expansion. The larger influence is Deleuze. His thinking of ‘the real’ as the density of beings becoming different; each being understood as an intensive – extensive project, being present while simultaneously overlapping each other in a dense field of potential relationships. Thinking this way starts to productively leverage questions about the potentials of the ‘real’ and the virtual. We can start to think the real as a potent network of differential relationships.
Pocaro: Then how do you reconcile both your interest in moving significations, or constant differentiation with your practical concerns in making art, that is, with your concerns for clarifying the specifics of visual experience in your art?
Saulnier: Our discussion of Derrida is a symptom of how we have become accustomed to thinking about visual form in terms of language. There was a shift in theory, a shift that privileged language as the dominant frame for thinking form. I think this shift has mostly been reductive, but there are compelling ways that thinking language opens up thinking about visual art. I believe some perspectives have greater potential to provoke creativity than others. I have a distaste for theories of language that disassociate the signifier from visceral sense, where the system of signification is understood as wholly encapsulating lived experience. This seems to me to preclude the depth, difficulty, and fecundity of lived experience. I believe a shallow reading of theory has too often led to a conception of language as restricted to the operation of ideological systems.
I find the conception of the ‘speech act’, where language is a specific becoming within living conversation, as a productive way to think about how art making processes are akin to a ‘conversation’. In speech we test statements. Our statements build sense by arising in a conversation that is as much about differencing as it is about identity. In a sense speech becomes while incompletely inhabiting the gap that we open between our concerns and environment. It discloses its being as provisional and is therefore participatory. If I use clichéd, ready-made, language with you I am collapsing language for the sake of efficiency, but, if we seek to illuminate a specific situation where such efficient language is no longer adequate, there is a sudden expansiveness to the operation of language. If I am to talk with you about anything that really matters, like love, disappointment, illness, etc. I can begin to avoid clichéd and efficient shorthand language. If I am really to make myself understood I must use language that discloses its limitations along with its descriptive potentials.
For example, if you and I were to talk about my love and concern for my teenage son, that is if we were going to invest our conversation with care, we will have to search, qualify, and nuance our speech. Our use of language will be provisional and self critical, it will open onto this gap where you and I are trying to understand my son. We could talk about the precariousness of his hopes and dreams. We could talk about his dilemmas, his abilities, and the way they may or may not open his potentials within our current societal situation. This conversation will constitute a new or renewed understanding. This conversation will constitute our relationship as speakers and listeners and change our relationship to my son. This operation of language is highly specific, it is an account of understanding shared in the speech act: a particular instance of speech and listening. Every statement made in this act is a statement that is understood to be a testable and provisional. It opens upon our living situation. Communication here is not a kind of efficient checklist of agreed upon references to be read off. To the degree that the speech act does construct an argument that structures our understanding of my son, myself, and you, it is an argument that illuminates difference, that opens onto our not knowing along with our provisional knowing. In this sense it is an argument as event, rather than an argument that desires to be a set of controlling definitions. This open sharing is expansively differencing: it is an enlargement of our relationships.
Here language remains perceptible as language, it does not disappear by collapsing into efficient utility. The technique of the language shows itself as differencing. This speech act dwells in the specificity of language understood as a fecund potential. In the experience of art we remain cognizant of technique. When speech opens onto anything consequential we also experience the technique of the language explicitly.
I find this conception of language to be a more compelling account; one that aligns more with my responsibility as an artist to attend to the specifics of making art. I work out forms that are differenced through process. I am not exactly equating my art making with the operation of language, but rather describing a conception of language that is better able to describe the processes of thinking and making I encounter in my art practice. And, in this, I believe I am accepting that the operation of language has potency for how we can think about visual forms while also suggesting that our sensate experience is fundamental. Our sensate experience calls to both language and formal fecundity.
Pocaro: Yes, that helps, that makes sense. I understand that a movement between generality and specificity must be at the core of the work. Still, what specificity are you referring to? Are you saying that the illness of ‘M’, in the work “‘M’ in Flight” was the specific content, or are you saying that the specific formal relations, the shapes and colors comprise what you mean by specificity?
Saulnier: You and I know it has to be both, of course. I have a general vocabulary of forms, though to call them this is misleading. It may be better to think of them as configurations that live for me. Configurations that provoke thinking through sensing. This must be worked out in each specific painting. This mark, this color, etc. My work is atmospheric, there is almost always water, there are body-like forms, the color range in the night paintings present darkness… all these things point to limitations in perception and the differentials that build the space I have forged for thinking in painting.
If I say that the forms live for me I indicate that I am intensely involved. My ongoing perception of this illness was taken up consciously as an issue in my practice. My life experience with her recently, the time we spent together entered my artistic practice and changed it. She put pressure on my painting and I responded. She entered into my process and I sought her out within it. I am not trying to produce an objective account of her illness, but we are living with it and this now includes our living with it within my painting practice.
Alan Pocaro is an artist who writes about art.