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Interrogating Abstract Expressionism using Photography

Updated: Aug 6, 2021

the image should be based on something, not just chance

but there should be chance involved

the recognisable should be almost unrecognisable

and the unrecognisable should be familiar

an uncanny resemblance to nothingness

as well as everyone you’ve known at one point

the face means that each picture is not mute

as pictures of places and objects and nothing are

don’t paint likenesses but what the photograph looks like

in its light and dark, grain, blow-outs, stipple and circles of confusion

can you tell if it was shot on colour neg

or lit with a flash

is that the bright light of the morning sun on the side of the subject's face?

you should be able to tell

the drips and splashes must be held to account

interrogate photography with Abstract Expressionism

grain is not ink or paint

brushhair-strokes, spills and drips are not pixels

but photography loves analogue detail, loves what it can't achieve by itself

let paint and ink be paint and ink

and in doing so render the photographic

see the photograph appear on the surface of your painting before you

start with the whites on a non-white ground

no tracing or gridlines

wait a bit

go back in with the darks and the midtones

very soon it will be finished but you might not be sure

until you go too far then you'll see in hindsight that it was finished

and now it's not

it pays to abandon the work just before you think it’s finished

on the up like the Bends not at the zenith like OK Computer

leave space for the Lord to enter the room as Quincy Jones would say

let paint and ink be paint and ink

overwork it and you'll be back on the merry-go-round

until you can smash it new again

should you varnish? canvas?

good questions

oil paint just slows everything down and dulls the edges

these are history paintings

but they are also concerned with ahistorical concepts

like impermanence


history is trying to make sense of the events that shape us

what's going on

tell me brother, what's happening

reincarnation means history is not important

imagine no countries

I am multitudes

I wasn't ready for the psychological impact of these faces

and how they talk back

when we finish a painting that's successful

we look at the painting through the filter of the initial

creation experience and what it meant at that moment

this is the sole preserve of the artist to have this insight into the work

but later, that experience fades and we only see

the artwork as others do

based purely on what it is

not where it came from

this is why the crash after the initial high

the problem

is to use the calligraphic mark

and create an ideogram

but to keep the subtlety of the face

and its expression

to use the brushtroke

the layers of brushstrokes sometimes

to create a sense of the moving, living face

and all its changeability

not an olympic sport logo stick figure of a face

but one that seems about to speak

or perhaps not

any song can sound good pumped through big PA

with loads of effects and a computerised light show

but what does it sound like on an acoustic guitar with just one voice?

I understand now the way those Chinese painters

who are forever entering the Archibald and never, ever win


how they see paint and the mark and realism


like me

the beauty of reincarnation

is that everyone is your family

and every land is your homeland

blood is pretty much in fact water

but say this to someone who has been dispossessed of their land

and taken from their family

beauty is not what they will see

still I am not close to anyone

I should be close to

and I enthuse over people far removed from me

why not these faces as family?

why not kanji as friends?

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