By Rhys Edwards
The work of artist Gordon Payne is not abstract. It is not representational either. Instead, Payne has an incredible ability to tread finely between both maxims, creating compositions that are not even really compositions in the true sense of the term. In effect, the only objective quality that can truly be attributed to Payne’s images is the pure reification of painting itself.
Gordon Payne: New Works, the current exhibition at Satellite, is accompanied by an essay written by curator Scott Watson. It briefly notes that Payne’s painting method reflects the influence awareness of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s The Man Without Content, a critical text intended to disseminate the problems of contemporary aesthetic theory, how they pertain to art, and how, according to Agamben, they should be resolved.
Though understanding Agamben’s theory certainly isn’t crucial to the appreciation of this monumental exhibition, it does provide a basis from which to surmise how Payne’s work fits into the broader fabric of contemporary art making, and particularly, why this work is so important.
In The Man Without Content, first published during the upsurge of postmodernism and structural theory in 1970, Agamben argues that due to the advent of rationalistic aesthetic theory (first propounded by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgement) artists have been subjected to social alienation and split from a common bond with their culture. Artists, and by extension, works of art, were once elements of a common social space and were considered direct instruments of cultural expression; however, thanks to the dry analysis of aesthetic theory, the work of art has been torn from its source. It is no longer asocial phenomenon—instead, the work of art has been estranged from its social function, isolated, and objectified, left to be examined through a discriminatory lens. Such dissection undermines the potentiality of art to produce meaning, and shape the way in which societies are purportedly formed.
The artist, meanwhile, is left in the lurch. He can no longer rely on his cultural heritage to contextualize his art production, nor can he himself be identified with his work. This has left him to resort to extreme measures (the archetypal angst and malaise with which so many artists within recent centuries have been diagnosed) to retain any sense of attachment to his art. The form of the artwork has been separated from the content of the artwork. Art theorists only concern themselves with the form, leaving the content to the wind. Thus, the artist is the proverbial ‘man without content.’
Agamben proposes an extreme solution to the problem. In order for the work of art to regain its ability to connect with and engage in the cultural-historical context of society, it must abstain from the depiction of content—the work of art must be about the process of art making itself. In essence, this means the artist must sacrifice his content to the very act of transmission. By emphasizing the act of transmission, rather than any specific content, the work of art is freed from the constraints of aesthetic theory and can once again inform cultural production. As Watson states in his essay, this work of art can point to something ‘beyond itself.’
It is in this capacity—to point to something beyond itself—that Gordon Payne’s work proves most profound. It is remarkable in that it essentially proposes nothing about the world.
One might argue that many works of art over the past century have not proposed anything either. I would respond that, on the contrary, most of them have done so in one way or another. Abstract painting, for instance, is certainly devoid of representative motifs, but this absence is only significant in the sense that it comes after many millennia of objective painting. The very word ‘abstraction’ implies a sort of otherness, of differentiation, as if the predicate is not normative.
How does Payne manage to pull off such a feat? He does it through the very careful layering and manipulation of paint. One feature that may strike you in any of Payne’s paintings is that there is no obvious focal point within its visual patterning. Try as you may, it is almost impossible to identify a compositional path, rhythm, or outline. There is no apparent design. There are few, if any, predominant shapes or motifs; and, there is absolutely no negative space. As Watson puts it, Payne’s gestures are arrayed in a ‘figure on figure’ rather than ‘figure on ground’ scheme. Precisely because there is no real sense of ground, Payne’s motifs evade any sense of positioning, and therefore, any notion of space and time.Yet there is a palpable sense of intentionality in these works as well. Though they do not directly represent anything, Payne clearly organized his brushstrokes with an intricate conscientiousness—these images are not the result of an entirely automatic process. No disparate objects draw the attention of the eye, for every element interlocks with another. Colours sync harmoniously with each other. The gestures themselves are clearly inspired by objects and images from reality—from biometric drawings, to eyes, to Futurist landscapes—and, as such, are painted with coherency and form. In fact, they are so detailed that magnifying glasses have been included in the exhibition, so that visitors can peruse and appreciate the exact organization of these minute features. But because they ultimately avoid representation, Payne does not actually suggest any content in his work.
The result of this dichotomy between control and improvisation is a body of work that is autonomous in nature—it makes no outside references, abstract or otherwise. This being said, it is apparent that Payne derives much of his artistic insight from the work of the Modernists, particularly the Cubists; the commonplace oriented strand board he uses as a painting surface provides an organized Cubist composition from which he can develop the final image. Furthermore, the autonomy of the images is reminiscent of the Cubist response to representation itself: the Cubists advocated the transformation of painting into an autonomous social venture, concerned not with the discreet content of imagery, but with the structure of reality and how it could be potentially encapsulated within the painting medium. Nevertheless, Payne distinguishes himself through his insistence on the fundamental act of painting itself, rather than its possibilities to engage in other issues (such as the popular cubist themes of feminism and colonialism).
Indeed, ‘painting’ may not even be the correct word to describe Payne’s work—it is certainly evocative of painting, but given its escapism, it negates any functional definition which we may ascribe painting. The more appropriate word, perhaps, would be ‘illustration’—for Payne’s images do engage in an illustrative discourse about painting, and its potentialities. This aspect of the works has been further emphasized at Satellite by their slanted arrangement throughout the gallery space, and with the availability of the magnifying glasses. Glancing over the images, one is reminded of early illuminated religious manuscripts or of the illustrated prints of William Blake—such connotations (though not intrinsic to the work itself) accentuate the aesthetically transcendent weight of Payne’s work.
I’m not certain if Payne has effectively ‘resolved’ the problem identified by Agamben (or even if there is such a problem) but it is obvious that, at the height of his career, Payne has created a body of work that is rigorous, intelligent, and (perhaps controversially) beautiful in its equilibrium. One could soak in these images for hours.
The following email correspondence between Rhys Edwards and Gordon Payne will give you an idea of what the artist think about the article you just read and his view on painting.
Date: 28-Sep-2011, at 9:40 PM
Karen from Satellite Gallery told me that you were having some trouble emailing me, so she thought it would be a good idea if I were to email you instead. So here I am! I understand you wanted to add a bit more to the responses you gave me on the opening night?
Date: 4-Oct-2011, at 12:01PM
Hello again: I promise this won’t go on forever. Forgot to mention SURFACE (did I mention it at the opening?) The magnifiers are supplied for he express purpose of examining the surface…..this has a didactic side as well as an aesthetic. I believe that in the age of screens and the ubiquity of reproduction of the art work, people have forgotten the difference between a reproduction and an actual work….. a serious consequence is that artworks become merely conceptual…..you get the IDEA of the work, but not the “content”. , the AURA. The aura is a kind of energy transmitted by the mark, the physical trace. This energy, the physical embodiment of the process of the work, is the”content”, the aura. An enigma. Can you let me know how you are coming on with your article?
Date: 4-Oct-11, at 12:14 PM
I just wanted to let you know that I have been getting your emails, and I have indeed attempted to incorporate the information you’ve given me into the article. Attached you will find the first draft, though it has not been published yet; there is a lot of editing to do. Please also ignore the first page of the document, as it only contains some notes I took when I was reading over the Agamben essay.
Let me know what you think of it!
Date: 5-Oct-2011, at 5:26PM
Hi Rhys: Thanks for sending your draft; I think it is very good so far , however i would like to make a few comments. Regarding the relationship between theory and practise: theory exists beside the work rather than before. The work is not “influenced” by theory, it is PARALLEL to it….To use a Marxian trope, theory is SUPERSTRUCTURE, work is BASE structure, “life” (quotidian life”) is INFASTRUCTURE. These elements live together interdependantly, symbiotically. The precession of theory has constituted a problem in art (“official” art) in the past 30 years. Result: an ANAESTHETIC ART ( to use Duchamps word). I hope I am addressing that problem. Agamben is a FRIEND, a supporter, not an influence. Same for Adorno, Nietzsche, Heiddeger, Debord, Bryson, Saussure, Pierce, Barthes and many more. A “thought world”. As for the split between art and culture, surely that has been the case for the entire 20th Century. The “history of nihilism” accelerated. Agamben situates the artist in this context, Heiddegers “abgrund”, the abyss. However,there is a culture of PAINTING. A history of painting. Painting as a form of KNOWLEDGE. The separation of forms of knowledge is the reality of modernism. The history of painting seems to have ended about 30 years ago with minimalism…….painting ever since seems to be just more of the same. How to address that stasis is i think a big problem today. My solution has been to use the history of painting as a vast archive (now completely accessible) to be exploited, but as a PALIMPSEST. Each layer is instantly available…..in modernist practice only the top layer was considered. The actual form of the current work reflects that layering. Another point: the dialectic between synchronic and diachronic (art) history is now I believe transformed from (20th century) modernism. I think that the synchronic (how things stay the same) as opposed to the diachronic (how things change)…..the synchronic now weighs the balance, but not just as pastiche in the Frederick Jameson sense. Actually, in writing, Agamben could be seen as a model…..the ability to synthesize, say, traditional metaphysics, Medieval Scholasticism, linguistics, psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, Marxism, existentialism/phenomenology etc, etc to say something new about the world.. Re: “illustration”, “illumination”, etymologically related, LIGHT. Originally meant brightening the page of course, but now I like to relate illumination to AURA, connected in my mind to ABSORPTION (see Michael Fried—-Art And Objecthood—- enough for now