‘Paint Talk’ by Nicole Dufoe, 2022
“Painting, as such, is nothing more than language.”
John Ruskin, “A Definition of Greatness in Art”
Should I take a picture? Every day, we produce and consume countless images. With seductive speed and facility, we capture the over-saturated hues of every summer garden, the gradations of every sunset, and every open sky; every shadow from every building that falls just so across every piece of afternoon pavement becomes content. Faces are filtered, limbs posed and cropped. With a tap of the thumb we arrest bodies—our own alongside those of loved ones and strangers—at their most intimate and most banal, and then release them into circulation.
Circulation, but not conversation. We click and share but these pictures float as orphans. Time-stamped, but divorced from history: digested and discarded with disinterest and ease.
Walter Benjamin distinguishes between two forms of communication, each bound to a distinct modality of time. The relentless proliferation of data distributed in rapid simultaneity—exemplified for Benjamin by the newspaper, the analog precursor to the online experience—shapes the empty temporality of modernity. He contrasts this with the older form of the story, embedded with memory and repetition, but also with renewal, and continuously unfolding as narrative.[i]
Three male figures. A well-dressed duo in huddled dialogue set the foreground, while a third stands apart wearing cotton briefs of a whiteness—like his whiteness—which startles against the dark suits and the room’s almost garish palette. He turns his back in private pain, shame, or perhaps simply pleasure; their featureless faces become a motif of the show that invites transposition. Bits of a storm. Cut through by energy and light, spectral clouds reject abstraction’s geometric cage. Regardless of form or content, painting remains a medium of the story. Old fashioned, perhaps, but in no way dated. While holding material permanence, painting is not static. John Ruskin describes painting as nothing more (and I would add, nothing less) than language;[ii] it also, though, moves from expression to narration: the duration of creation tangible in each brushstroke. Painting does not function outside of time, but with and through it.
Reflecting on the ravages the industrial revolution wreaked on earth, body, and spirit in the nineteenth century, Ruskin looks back with reverence to the “savageness” evident in work (a word that for the author becomes synonymous with art) that bears the trace of human touch. He derides the modern impulse to worship the false god of machine-made precision, which heralds “smooth minuteness above shattered majesty.”[iii] The crack and the chip, the smudge and the drip, as Ruskin reminds us—and as these paintings, necessarily, remind us yet again— are not signs of failure, but rather the somatic track marks of life.
The precarious fragility of eggshells adorned with portraits of men (eyes closed, lips slightly open) suggest a vulnerability that flirts with self-destruction. The folds of commercial fabric, or the sales pitch of a patent-clad foot (whose foot, lifted with such enticing intention?) are harvested from the virtual abyss, slowed down by the paintbrush, and offered back for consumption. The saccharine lustre of a lemon cake recalls nostalgia’s sugar-coating of the past, while still tempting us to lick. Even when the painting removes the human figure altogether, our utter insignificance reverberates within the delicate mist of sky and cliff. These paintings provide only fragments of stories beyond the viewer’s command or understanding; this limitation becomes an invitation.
We may mistake our compulsively collected images for tokens of progress. Instead of moving us forward, however, they amass in our wake as digital refuse. “The replacement of the older narration by information,” continues Benjamin, “reflects the increasing atrophy of experience.” The tactility of painting, in contrast, pulls the viewer into a future interwoven with threads of the past. “To perceive the aura of an object … we invest it with the ability to look at us in return.” [iv] Painting not only carries the trace of the creator, but also of the observer; each encounter a potential for communion and regeneration. It may be produced in isolation yet the form never feels lonely. When we stop and bear witness, the painting always talks back.
[i] See, Walter Benjamin. “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt, Trans. Harry Zohn.
[ii] Ruskin, John. “A Definition of Greatness in Art.” Modern Painters, vol.1. chap.2.
[iii] Ruskin, John. “The Nature of Gothic.” The Stones of Venice, vol. 2. chap.6.
[iv] Benjamin, 159; 188.
Copyright: Nicole Dufoe (2022)
Nicole Dufoe is a writer, researcher, and editor, and a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of Toronto. Her current work explores aspects of sleep, labour, and perception in nineteenth-century literature and visual culture.