|Painting Lesson, oil and enamel on panel, 120x96 cm, 1998|
It's a melancholy object looking at art some days. Galleries, especially in Chelsea, often resemble morgues. With their white walls, cement floors, and cold clinical light, the only thing missing are drains in the floor. In this environment it's no wonder that artists, curators, gallerists, and gallery goers seem like morticians sprucing up a corpse for another public viewing. It's a collaboration. Out on the street I can imagine myself pushing a wooden cart and yodelling, Bring out yer dead. On a good day you can almost smell the formaldehyde, it smells like art. As an antidote there is the work of Graham Gillmore. Standing, looking at Gillmore's recent paintings, this is no usual day of the dead.
Certain precursors are unavoidable consorts in experiencing and producing works of art. Experiencing art, the relationship is generally smooth sailing. When producing, it's usually more combative. Whereas most painters only wrestle with other painters, maybe a sculptor now and again, Gillmore has taken on the painter/writer tag team of Phillip Guston and Samuel Beckett. And he has pinned them both to the canvas. He has, in fact, accomplished the difficult and unusual task of seeming to reverse the order of precursor and follower. As consummate thief Gillmore has brought off a monumental heist; A good artist borrows, a great artist steals.
The distinction that Picasso's maxim makes is a worthwhile one that distinguishes Gillmore from many of his contemporaries. When the work of a precursor can be seen in the work of one who comes later some would call it influence, others appropriation, and still others plagiarism. Yet not all instances of influence are a series of plagiarisms, nor all plagiarism uninspired. This is something I happen to know something about. As an undergraduate in philosophy I was charged with plagiarism in both Philosophy of Religion, and Ethics. The difference in plagiarism in these two courses is the difference between borrowing and theft; between the flatness of appropriation, and the dynamism of influence. In philosophy of Religion the plagiarism was the dull sort where with very little energy I selected an essay and copied it. As is traditional I switched a few words around to make the borrowing less obvious. In Ethics, however, the plagiarism was complete; word for word. The essay was on Moral Egoism which states simply that whatever is done in one's own self-interest is justified. Clearly, this can include plagiarism.
On the one hand there's simply dipping into the time stream and pulling something out as the appropriator does. On the other is the real and dynamic relationship with a precursor that Paul Valery recognized as being of the greatest interest as the work of one modifies the mind of another. Because Gillmore's theft is so complete, it's almost as if on seeing Guston and reading Beckett in the future one would say...Gillmore. For my theft in Ethics I was given the option of either accepting a job at the university, or admitting to plagiarism. I took the plagiarism and was expelled. I should have said it was influence.
I understood it, I understand it, all wrong perhaps. That is not what matters.
S. Beckett, from Molloy.
Where to start in describing the work of Graham Gillmore? It seems immediately profound then absurd, then absurd then profound turn by turn about. Perhaps nothing describes it better than paradox. Duality and reversal are everywhere. Throughout the paintings, antitheses are established then somersault or vanish altogether. The complexity is enough to make your head spin. It begins with first principles, with a reflection of Descartes' fundamental dualism of mind and body in Gillmore's text and paint. Yet the moment this duality crests, it suddenly turns turtle and word is made flesh, collapsing into unity. The drooping, limpid forms that Gillmore lets stand independently or with which he encapsulates his texts become identical with the flaccid, skeptical texts themselves. Within the categories of text and paint, other paradoxes soon cartwheel into view. That's the thing with Gillmores, you never know. Imagine a Gillmore painting leading you down a garden path. Moving left, the painting suddenly turns right, or even worse, after beginning in front you suddenly realize that it is behind and following rather than leading. What to do? To continue leading will be not to see the painting. About face and you risk bumping into it and bringing everything to a standstill. Stand still is the only solution. As with Molloy, the only way to progress is to stop. Then one of two things will happen. Three if nothing happens at all. One, the painting will bump into you and push in the right direction. Two, the painting will pass and it will be possible to follow again until the positions are once again reversed.
In several of the texts and titles of the paintings Gillmore has swapped or reversed individual letters or word order of otherwise familiar titles or phrases to form his own: Greaves of Lass, Finishes I've Never Booked. Besides these instances where the reversals are more straight forward, his texts are full of educated literary references that are often confused or misspelled. Gillmore's no hillbilly, so what kind of willful misunderstanding is going on here? What's Gillmore opening up by his deliberate misspelling and misassigning?
Without having to look around much, what comes easily to hand is an engagement with one of the fundamental ideas of Modern art, that rearrangement releases the potential that exists in every arrangement. It's Cubism, though clearly Gillmore's no Cubist. After Cubism, this developed into the practice of juxtaposition, a crucial and defining characteristic of Modernism, but especially that of the avant-garde arts at the beginning of the Twentieth century. Yet Gillmore's not just painting another Cubist picture or adding another assisted Readymade or letting the principle of chance step close and have a roll. He's no demirep with a feather duster pulling an old trick out of the closet. At the same time, by turning the idea to his own as he does, Gillmore shows again the dynamism of influence and makes it interesting to place his work next to those that came before him to see what it says.
One of the things Gillmore brings up with his erroneous juxtapositions of authors and titles is the notion of buried texts. Let's use J.G. Ballard (spelled Ballad), The Drowned World (written by Ballard), and Eugene Ionesco (spelled Ugene Ionesc o) from Gillmore's Finishes I've Never Booked as an example. In the painting, Ionesco seems to be paired with The Drowned World, as Ballard seems paired with Sons and Lovers. Is Gillmore suggesting that Ionesco is buried within The Drowned World as perhaps Ballard is buried within Sons and Lovers and Rushdie buried in Bunny's Torrid Snatch, another of Gillmore's cockeyed matches? In more than a figurative sense, one text can be said to exist concretely within another. Imagine atomizing the text of The Drowned World, dissolving it back into its constitutive letters; so many "a"s, so many "b"'s, and so on. What you're left with is a heap of letters that contains all the potential energy that ever existed in The Drowned World. With these letters it may be possible to rewrite Ionesco's The Bald Soprano. In some sense, then, The Drowned World can be said to exist within The Bald Soprano, and vice versa. Even more than this, not only may The Drowned World be in there, but any number of other texts as well. What could it mean that The Drowned World is in The Bald Soprano, or that Genesis is in The Communist Manifesto? I don't know, but by suggesting that there is something beneath or beyond the surface, something which is perhaps forever unknowable, is to return to one of the primary and most profound questions of Epistemology and Metaphysics. Surface is something which seems especially redolent to Gillmore. What is above and below the surface? Of knowledge. Of the paint. That dividing line is frustratingly, expansively suggestive. Even the words used to describe Gillmore's paintings are evocative of themselves. Say the word puddle, and the mind begins to ebb and flood. Soon Pollock and Frankenthaler and Smithson bob into view. Once so reminded, possibilities eddy around the work and then hold fast or are cut loose. With the bedeviling question of surface, it's never a sure face.
Scratching the surface of Gillmore's paintings turns up burials not only figurative, but literal as well. There's a constant submerging as layer on layer sinks below the surface to murky depths. Liquidity prevails here. In Painting Lesson #1 and Untitled, (This Time I Am Definately Not Going To Fall Into The Same Old Trap), for instance, the text is routered below the surface of the wood support on which it's painted. Compared to I Think I Can, I Thought I Could and to texts in general, the thing on top has been reversed with the thing on bottom. The text has sunk below the surface, under the paint, behind the background. Buried text.
Gillmore's routing of the text does more than simply bury it though. As a technique it's completely tied to the central themes of duality and paradox. In paintings like I Think I Can, I Thought I Could, Painting Lesson #1, and Finishes I've Never Booked, the dualities are stacked top on bottom with an almost missionary ardor. In I Think I Can, I Thought I Could, on top of the financial and mercantile, the pages of an old ledger, Gillmore has layered the aesthetic and literary. On top of the body, Gillmore has imposed the mind. On top of the assurety and seductiveness of the paint itself and Gillmore's handling of it, he has placed the contingency of the text, a recapitulation of body and mind.
Yet on the paintings on wooden supports, Painting Lesson #1, and Untitled, (This Time I Am Definately Not Going To Fall Into The Same Old Trap) to name two, though the text remains self-conscious and equivocal in its expression, Gillmore has routered it into the support leaving no room for contingency or doubt. This reverses everything. The routing of the text makes it the more committed and the paint becomes more contingent. For the text, no changes are possible, no mistakes changeable, and no possibilities mistaken. It's absolute. By so committing himself, by making the text so concrete physically yet so self-conscious and contingent psychologically, Gillmore contradicts the spirit of the text, while at the same time revealing through the text what may be a more deeply engraved depression.
In Painting Lesson #1 and the earlier Fatal Flaw, there is the paradox of the relationship between the text and the painting itself. Taking the paintings at their word, we assume that the text, "This part (Lower R) seems to be coming right at you only to veer away at the last second" and "If I could have done this section over again I would have left it completely empty" from Painting Lesson #1, or "This section here will teach you everything you need to know about what doesn't work" from Fatal Flaw, is about the painting on which it is written. This, of course, turns out to be our fatal flaw as it soon becomes apparent, though not soon enough, that the part labeled "This part (Lower R)..." is not the lower right of the painting at all, but much closer to the upper right. More so than with the skewed authors and titles, we're thrown off balance and a radical skepticism invades the consciousness. A skeptical gap opens up that can only be crossed by a bridge of misunderstanding.
The realization that comes is that there is no paint before the text is routered into the wooden support so that in a painting like Painting Lesson #1 we have to understand the text as either preceding the paint and directing rather than commenting upon it, or as not being about this painting we're looking at, but as coming from some larger text about some other painting. The latter seems the more plausible. In this case, the alloying of unrelated elements is another form of juxtaposition that allows a third understanding to emerge. At the same time, it makes both the text of the painting and the paint of the painting absurd, pointing away from itself as a painting and towards the difficulty or maybe impossibility of communication, as in a segment of text from a play by Jurgen Becker:
- Yes I'm here.
- Then I'm coming over.
- But I'm leaving again.
- Well, wait for me.
- I'll be coming back.
- I won't be there then.
- Well, you wait.
- I'll come back.
- Then I'll be gone again.
- Well, I just won't come then.
- Yeah, I won't be here anyway.
What's left of the paintings once the text is removed? Why, duality and paradox. But with the paint, it's a paradox of a different color. The paint is lush and seductive in surface and color, but describes forms that are tuberous and alimentary. Though the forms are seemingly contingent, the execution is seductive and assured. The lumpish forms that Gillmore chooses to paint contradict his execution of them.
Not often mentioned in discussions of Gillmore's work are the squares and rectangles, but most often squares, that appear in almost every painting. Lots of ink has been spilled about his amorphous pools, his balloons or clouds or bladders or innards, but those regular geometries, not much. Granted they're not as prominent or evocative or hip as the blob, but Gillmore has thought enough to add them so they must be worth considering. By their addition, a duality is set up between the symmetry of the squares and its want in the bulbous eccentricities. They seem to be reminders of Modernism and a history of painting sometimes submerged, and sometimes holding the plane. Allying with the crystalline surface, these geometric forms support the impersonal and modernist and minimalist. But this is in tension with the writing and the routing and the flaccid forms which suggest the artist writ large. No brush strokes disturb the dense, hard, translucent surfaces of Gillmore's paintings. Any trace of the artist is eliminated in the painting by technique, but the artist is there completely in the text. The painting is depersonalized and yet entirely about the artist.
With both text and paint there's a similar operation underway, the what contradicts the how. The what of the text contradicts the how of the text. The what of the paint contradicts the how of the paint. The what of the text and the what of the paint are consistent. The how of the text and the how of the paint are consistent. The what of the text and paint contradict the how of the text and paint. It's the what that reveals the more deeply engraved depression. This contradiction of what and how makes the paintings more absurd, more humorous than they are otherwise. And Gillmore's works are absurd as they are profound. In The Absurd, A. Hinchliffe noted that Camus saw "a work of art as an absurd phenomenon, but one in which personal awareness is brought out for others to see in the hope of making them aware also, and indicating the common fate". Like Camus, Gillmore's art is also significantly concerned with the human condition. If there is a transcript of Sisyphus' infernal monologue as he pushes around his boulder, I Think I Can, I Thought I Could may be it. So it's not painting that's the problem for Gillmore. It's not how to apply paint. It's not what to paint. It must be why to paint. On this question there is unquestionably a Modern engagement with self-consciousness, futility, and the plodding effort to continue in spite of all. In the grip of this terrible splendor, Descartes' supreme expression of self-consciousness "I think, therefore I am" is ripened to "I think, therefore I cannot".
In an interview with Robin Laurence, Gillmore said he wanted to "debase the exalted and to exalt the debased". My hat's off to him, but taking Gillmore at his word, are we waking Gillmore at his turd? Is he crapping us? I'd say not. Without doubt a subversive cant runs from Dan to Beersheba in Gillmore's work and in his undermining of, well, of something exalted, or something debased.
In earlier work this included pornography and philosophy. Recently, Gillmore seems to be taking the piss out of literature. Or is it illiteracy? Or elitism? In several of the paintings there is the supposition of a necessary level of erudition to make the works pop, and come into focus. Not to know Leaves of Grass is to be cut short of appreciating Greaves of Lass. Not knowing that it was J.G. Ballard and not Eugene Ionesco that wrote The Drowned World leaves one high and dry in front of Finishes I've Never Booked for both its absurd, melancholy humor and its suggestive triangulation of authors and titles that may be intended to lend insight, or maybe not. Leading as it may be, there's no reason to make the connection. Pairing by proximity is nothing more than our compulsive need to make order where there is none. As Watt might instruct us, No order where none intended.
Whatever Gillmore is exalting or debasing, throughout his work there's a necessary degree of knowledge required to understand and appreciate it more extensively. Presuming and requiring a sophistication as he does and then subverting it with the conspiracy of Mrs. Malaprop, is Gillmore engaging in anti -elitism, satiric elitism, or, in fact, elitism? When the only way to get it is to know it and then to exalt the knowing of it seems elitist. When the only way to get it is to know it and then to debase the knowing of it seems a form of anti or satiric elitism, but falls into elitism in the having to know to get.
Here is where Gillmore really lays the axe to the root. By undressing the question of elitism by way of literature, Gillmore raises the horny matter in art. And nothing's more subversive than admitting the elitism of art. Why this should be is muddy and crabbed. If it's necessary to be literate to understand literature, it seems no more elitist to be expected to be able to see one's way in the subject of art and its history. No one argues that the expectation of literacy is a form of elitism. An author rightly expects that their audience can read. When did you ever hear a writer proudly announce "I write for the illiterate"? It doesn't happen. It would be absurd to say that an author is elitist because they write only for an audience that has been educated to read. Yet people, artists among them, bristle when it's suggested that the audience for art should be likewise educated. What is it about art that brings with it the expectation that it is for all regardless of education? What other discipline supports such a proposition? Religion may be the only one. And if the popular idea of some secular equivalence of art and religion is accurate, then god help us all.
Cruising at 31,000 feet on a flight from New York to Las Vegas over, of all places, Little Rock, Arkansas, I saw Gillmore's forms superimposed on a Suprematist background below. This wasn't the usual checkerboard of fields that is such a common sight on trans-continental flights, but random, isolated squares and rectangles of green on an otherwise undifferentiated ground. Primitive oxbows of a forgotten river connected by the thin lines of dried stream beds still marked the landscape encapsulating parcels of land. Sections filled with water, but dammed at both ends, created truncated segments of shimmering liquid. From this vantage point, I'm in a position not unlike Gillmore's as he looks down on his paintings while he's making them. On a clear day you can see for miles. When small clouds partially obscure the view, all you can see is Gillmore.