The Painter's studio (2004)

Imagine that, instead of looking at a painting you are a painter. Morning light fills the studio, a space of paint covered floorboards measuring six by six metres, a silent container of possibilities. Some days there is nothing there, because nothing is seen.  Postcards,drawings, maps, and books lie all around in dormant heaps.  A few are bleached, torn, paint spattered, suggestive still  of momentary meaning.  They are the scattered references of a strange and familiar journey. You stand in this space, looking and waiting.  Not for something new, but rather for what is newly seen.  Somewhere in that drift of paper, with its fragments of thought and grains of suggestion, is the starting point for a painting.  The thing seen out of the corner of the eye that may be briefly held and made known. What absorbs you entirely  is the curious process by which the visible first becomes visible, before the thing seen has been given a name. It’s a silent game, this waiting for the moment when a painting comes to a painter.  Tom Stoppard  articulates this feeling in a passage from “The Coast of Utopia” :  A poem can’t be written by an act of will. When the rest of us are trying our hardest to be present a real poet goes absent.  Every work of art is the breath of a single idea breathed by God into the inner life of the artist.

What is this space,the studio, but the mind at work?  A place in which to search but not escape, a purgatory at worst, a threshold at best.  Maybe today it will be possible to look up and out through its walls, make of the space a vehicle for navigating the stars.  Or maybe not, as in the long work of dreamless sleep.  Either way, the painting will be have to be worked, sometimes rapidly, at other times with great patience, but usually to the point of exhaustion.  In its unresolved condition it will have to be left to rest, to return to darkness. In a new light and on another day you will return, and hope to be taken by surprise, like a witness to authorless action.  Gradually the studio secretes those simple means for  transformation, whereby a painting may start to breath on its own. You look quickly, without judgment, sensing the uncertainty that begins to stain your way of looking and which will then impel you to act once more.  And in acting, the odds begin to shorten, the surface loosing its vitality as it is stripped back and remade, the paint travelling down deeper and narrower passages, closing down possibilities as it goes. You may be lost once more, searching in a dark wood for the path you once knew.  This has to be accepted  because the studio is also, in Anish kapoor’s phrase,  ‘a laboratory of failure’.  The tools allow for experiment but not for its undoing.  However intractable and unyielding the material may seem, the chance always remains of finding a way through. To get lost in a painting and never know for sure what it is about is how William de Kooning described it.

If we  keep looking at paintings, it is not least because the handling of paint itself is always unique - it is after all done by hand.  Painters continue to show us how we don’t look, or at least not enough.  When they are good, they reveal the very thing we have forgotten to see.  About the Spanish painter Miguel Barcelo, John Berger  was moved to write that the process of painting is highly tactile. Yet what he is hoping to touch is not normally tangible.  This is the only real mystery. And later on, about not looking he says, what any true painting touches is an absence - an absence of which, without the painting, we might be unaware. Curious indeed, but an essential part of what makes being a painter worthwhile.

Luke Elwes (from a talk given at Art First Contemporary, London, September 2004)