Artist’s Statement on “Grid Paintings”
These paintings sustain a faith in the transformative capability of art. The artistic pursuit through this work is about embodying principles and values that demand a concentration of will: patience, endurance, consistency. The practice of painting both demonstrates these values, and makes manifest these values in the work that is created. This pursuit, and body of work, stands in opposition to certain cultural impulses that have become hollowing and isolating: creation of profiteering imagery, commoditization of intimacy, cultivation of immediate forms of fleeting stimulation and entertainment. Art is a way to resist these traps, and communicate with honesty.
Because the grids are painted square by square, they demand intense commitments of time and energy; they demand the ability to sustain focus through durations of tedium until suddenly, at long last, something beautiful becomes apparent. The practice of painting becomes embedded in the product of painting and allows for an expression that oscillates between an endurance of suffering and an intensity of transcendence. The goal is to achieve grace not through an instantaneous occurrence or gesture, but through persistence, repetition and perseverance. The grid serves this pursuit in part because the grid itself has no intrinsic meaning; the form is patently human in its unnaturalness. The grid is a creation of consciousness, an illusion, and therefore, when made finite by the shape of a canvas, it becomes capable of expressing the human virtues and multiform inspirations.
From a theoretical point of view, the grid is a formal representation of the foundation of human understanding. Human life is structured by a grid-like system of order based on knowledge and the sciences. Our understanding of the world, and ourselves as individuals, is a process we learn through pre-existing forms of discourse. The grid is the zero-point of human consciousness; it is what is left when the particulars of one’s world are removed. Before there is identity, before there is expression, there is an unfilled grid, an undispersed intensity. Art remains related to, yet apart from, forms of acquisitive understanding; art opens a realm for the imagination. The grid paintings take place at the limits and thresholds of human order and comprehension: the deep sea, the womb, madness, faith, the spirit plane. The paintings display attempts to escape, to pass through, and to transcend being captured by systems of order: Joan of Arc, Icarus, Sisyphus.
Each painting is an attempt to conjure an image from the deep silent regions of existence, rising from somewhere under the heart. These paintings are made in direct relation to what the artist is capable of feeling. Through this work, there is an attempt to overcome the self, to give the self over unconditionally to painting. Art becomes an external intensity abstracted from the human body, capable of going where the artist cannot. There is an effort to create something that will become meaningful to someone else, that will allow something true to be shown, that will channel something greater, and shared. The pursuit is to make art that becomes a point of connection, recognition, and communication that is impossible in any other form. Painting is an exercise of existence, an expression of faith, a return from the universal – it is a way in which we come closer to what lies just beyond life.
Michael Burris Johnson, March 2014
Passages on the Grid
3 modes of thought
This writing is an exercise of reflection on the grid as a form of expression in painting. The distinctions that are created in this writing are distinctions that have occurred retrospectively, or, through a painting process that is itself continuous. The paintings, as they unfold, more or less grow out of each other, communicate to each other, inform one another. Through the process of producing these works, there is a gradual formulation of thoughts in relation to the work. Only now, looking back and analyzing the small body of grid work that’s been created, do I find myself in a position to sort through the motions and impulses and begin a classifying act that will aid the future pursuit, even if it only supplies a definition or concept to avoid or destroy, or to synchronize and combine. The distinctions and concepts created here can be considered characters in a novel, at once distinct, communicating with each other, and part of a larger unity. The three modes of thought function as different lens through which to view paintings from the larger body of work:
III. Through the Eyes of Order
I am aware of the dangers involved in supplying an interpretation for one’s own artwork – but I also believe there is a need for an entryway, an invitation into thinking about art, especially in an abstract field. The writings that accompany the artwork are a way to engage with people from afar – to expand the experience of art. My intention with this writing is not that it becomes a final stamp of a correct interpretation, but rather a limited representation of what I am capable of putting in to words in relation to my own pursuit. Much of what happens in the pursuit is beyond my own awareness and understanding, much of what occurs can only be understood afterwards.
Further, before there is any thought, the paintings should emanate on an emotional, instinctive, pre-verbal level – this is perhaps the most lasting part of the experience of art – and also what occurs in the inspiration to make any of them. The writing is, however, a different sort of engagement, and one that I think is very important in the effort to create art that resounds for many layers. My hope is that the paintings are open to more thought and reflection than what I am capable of providing. Others may see something, or understand something that escapes me or never becomes fully conscious in its occurrence. I continue to return to the grids because of what they continue to teach me. All of these paintings sustain a faith in the transformative capability of art.
In this mode of interaction with the grid, expression is forever intertwined with the practice of painting. The artistic pursuit through this work is about embodying principles and values that demand a concentration of will: patience, endurance, consistency. The practice of painting both demonstrates these values, and makes manifest these values in the work that is created. Because the grids are painted square by square, they demand intense commitments of time and energy; they demand the ability to sustain focus through durations of tedium until suddenly, at long last, something beautiful becomes apparent. The practice of painting becomes embedded in the product of painting and allows for an expression that oscillates between an endurance of suffering and an intensity of transcendence. The goal is to achieve grace not through an instantaneous occurrence or gesture, but through persistence, repetition and perseverance.
The aspiration is to pass through the stratification and organization of the form itself and take view of what lies beyond: a plane without identity, where a prayer is sent, past the senses’ horizon. The grid is displayed only so that it may tremor – the order is fabricated so that it may be opposed. There is an attempt to achieve a vision of unity through difference. The goal of the pursuit is to find passage – to pass through the grid, paint through the grid. The process is an abstraction of passing though the institutions and structures of society – forming an identity and attempting to hold in tact what is honest, pure, and holy within us.
The practice situates itself in the tension between intuitive senses and ordered behavior – between a mystical sense of unity, a vast intangible connectedness, and a world that functions based on identities and differences, a world that satisfies instincts through institutions. Theses paintings demonstrate a willingness to confront the sacrifice necessary to carry a tedious and demanding task to completion. A choice is made to engage with the grid in an attempt to reconfigure it, allow it to express something that reaches the core feelings of another human being, the sense of being just beyond the grid, the place were we can experience deep connection to others.
This pursuit sets paintings in motion that will take great durations before coming to fruition – they are an engagement with a belief that important things are achieved by slow incremental steps and a will to continue. There is a choice made to do the work that engages with actions that reach toward something higher, further than self-satisfaction – the choice to worship something external, outside and beyond the inner kingdom.
A goal of art is to create an eddy in an otherwise great sweeping tide – an alternative axis on which parts of a current may momentarily spin before rejoining the stream or being recaptured in a stratifying system. The grid paintings attempt to create an axis that leads a reflection on sustained attention, belief, patience, passion – passion in a form it is not usually imagined in – not as immediate, gestural intensity, but rather as a deep belief sustained for duration, almost quietly. These paintings are in opposition to certain cultural impulses that have become hollowing and isolating: creation of profiteering imagery, commoditization of intimacy, cultivation of immediate forms of fleeting stimulation and entertainment. Art is a way to resist these traps, and communicate with honesty.
The tedious longevity and endurance of what the grid requires allows the painting to be carried to an imaginative horizon where time and persistence is linked to the expressive space of the canvas. The grid becomes a time-field that expresses duration. Time on earth is converted into an external intensity. The spirit can be imagined once time can be seen. The brushstroke becomes a marker of time – the unity of brushstrokes makes the spirit comprehensible. Space and time become essentially the same thing– the smaller the grid-space the more time – the dimensions of the canvas and the size of the grid is in correlation to how much time the painting is capable of holding, harnessing, showing. There is also the issue of layers, which occurs in texture. The time warp of progress while painting the grid is both a burden and a relief – the painting is not going to go away, it will continue to provide work until it is abandoned.
The grid is used to catalyze a movement from universal to particular, from particular to universal – the artist becomes laborer – the artistic act becomes an embodiment of the return. The universals are concepts of repetition, the return, daily practice, faith, prayer. The universal concepts become rooted in the particular action of the painting – returning to the painting and filling in grid squares is a particular action that is an abstraction of universal concepts.
The myth of Sisyphus works so well in the grid because there is an overlap and alignment of thematic content in the myth and the labor the grid requires to be painted – pushing the rock up the mountain day after day is comparable to filling in the square spaces of the grid, continuing to push the painting toward a sense of completeness, the endless task, the expression of faith in the return. There is an overlap in how the painting was made and what the painting is of in Sisyphus - it is a meta-expression that also breaks free of it’s own loop – there are multiple entryways and exits to the painting - it simultaneously represents an image, expresses concepts, and demonstrates a practice. Returning is a choice, an expression of a belief, of passion.
The return is the ability to create a daily routine in which the laborer returns to his work or his duty, making the decision that the repetition of an action will allow for a transcendence of self. Being capable of sustaining the repetition with consistency allows the decision to make manifest something beautiful. Repetition is an expression of faith. The laborer becomes the faithful.
Faith, the divine madness, can be reached only through passion. The paradox of faith is that one who has faith acts for the universal, but in acting for the universal must carry out particular tasks. The trial of an individual consists in his ability to act the particular in the universal, and not fall into the traps of the temporal systems of order. Because the universal must be achieved through the particular, the particular becomes higher than the universal. The movement from universal to particular and particular to universal must repeat itself; this is the return – to return to the particular from the universal. The individual isolates himself by re-entering the particular from the universal.
Sisyphus on the mountain as silhouette is at once Sisyphus and Everyman – the figure simultaneously particular and universal, in constant movement between the two planes. In the case of the grids the movement is thus: the particular is the painting, the practice of painting reaches toward the universal concepts of the return and practice/repetition/faith, and then returns to the particular as the object of the painting.
The grid is the organizational plane that allows the movements of faith to become manifest. The painting is an abstraction of the movements that in ordinary life are imperceptible – what cannot be perceived in the movements of the individual who acts the universal in the particular, becomes visible, perceivable, in the painting. The painting is an intensity abstracted from the body, made intense through repetition of the movement. It is a composition of faith – faith becoming a composition. There is a moment of catharsis frozen, a backward glance perceptible, many returns suddenly held in place to be seen. A sense of finality without end – finality to the painting without end to the continuous movements of faith – finality to each grid space without end to the larger continuity of the painting. It is because the canvas space is finite that infinity can be glimpsed – it is because the grid is ordered by difference that unity can be imagined. The form itself is meaningless, an arbitrary system of composition and order – it is this very meaninglessness that allows the grid to be filled and express human virtues. Each repetition of the infinite movement of faith is not identical, and yet the painting as external intensity becomes a great equalizer – a sense of oneness apart from the many different repetitions – a fully abstract, external intensity, capable of recognitions in myriad particulars and multiform situations, a permanent exhale, an admiration, an understanding beyond articulation, making what is dreaded suddenly beautiful.
The immersion paintings are about the experience of art. The spaces of the immersion paintings are simultaneously internal and external. They are the subjective viewpoint of an engulfment – in the deep sea, in the womb. Each space is unknowable as authentic experience, and yet somehow capable of being imagined, related to, shared. They are spaces at the limit of human understanding, and also at the beginning of self-formation – at the threshold of the unconscious – at the boundary between what can be felt or imagined and what becomes conscious or experienced. The sea is a space the body or ship can occupy, it is also an imagined internal sea – the depths of the self, or an abstracted sense of being in the world – the feeling of being deep underwater, looking up for the sun from a great depth. Similarly, our time in the protective hollow of the womb is an experience we all share and yet cannot remember. It is a finite space now capable of infinite imaginings – it is where we become – there is a universe inside the small sphere. The womb of the paintings corresponds to both the physical body, and to the abstracted body of the artwork – the externalized intensity now capable of becoming a container for a shared experience.
The grid is the last layer of conscious understanding, the last layer of our conceptions of ourselves as human; we peer through it to imagine the deep unconscious, the forgotten memory. The grid is the representation of the threshold of consciousness, our existential cage, the ends of identity, the origins of the self. Because of outside forces, we are already in a process of becoming human before we enter the world. Further, the womb can only be imagined retrospectively – to search for the experience within one must move backward through all becoming-human, one must reach the grid and attempt to pass through it.
Deep Sea can be understood as an internal space: the threshold between the unconscious and consciousness – or as external space: the far-reaches of our human world, just beyond order and comprehension.
The immersion paintings are the views of subjectivities engulfed. The experience of the immersion is to make the self become tidal. This is true for both the painting and the viewing – the paintings are immense so that they can encompass and make possible an experience in which there is an overtaking of the visual field, an overlap of subjectivity. To stand before the painting is to no longer be where one is, but rather in-between the two spaces of occupation: the physical reality and the imagined reality, the occupation of space where the body stands, and the occupation in an abstract intensity and experience of art – to enter the vision of the externalized subjectivity – to create the overlap that occurs in occupation, to become the body that has the vision. The externalized subjectivity becomes a vision to be shared, a space to inhabit, to be “with” in constant overlapping. This sense of being-in the experience of art multiplies outward from the painting, to the room, to the gallery, etc. To be before the painting is to enter a space of intimacy.
The experience is to occupy the tidal interval in which one wave of being is receding and another is rolling forth, unfurling toward and rolling away in synchronicity – occupying a perspective between two movements, to become the white noise between things, the invisible space of flows, dark matter, the spirit as expanding sphere - to listen as the outside world goes quiet and the static sound of the waves begins to whisper – a heart beating underwater. It is a motion of tides, moving in to the painting (immersion) and then stepping back from the painting (emergence) – abandoning the painting – the painting remains to be occupied, to become a space to co-occupy, to share. The painting is a spell that lies in wait to alter the subject that stands before it, to tear the subject out of herself and allow her to enter the space of intensity. The subject is constantly disappearing in the immersion paintings – the figure never appears, it enters, it leaves, it is incapable of remaining. The figure must occupy the subjectivity of the painting, but it is incapable of becoming represented – the painting is for the figure, but not of the figure. The externalized subjective viewpoint becomes a superposition of perspectives – offering a doubled vision – the one is always already more than one in relation to the painting – one is never who one is in relation to the spell.
To step in to the painting and paint requires a dive, a holding of the breath, a sustaining of intensity before stepping back, emerging, breathing. Painting is an immersion in a different field of thought – thinking does not occur in words. Immersion is giving the self over to instincts and tangible immediacy – thought becomes brushstroke, color, speed, rhythm. There are two types of thought: immersion is unity, overlap, instinct, non-thought, a speed without words, complete experience of formless intensity – emergence is form becoming static, a revealing, a flickering of consciousness, thought, stepping away from the painting, looking-at and not being-in.
The overcoming the self, or the “I” becoming imperceptible occurs in a different way in the immersions than in the practice/repetition/faith paintings described in part I. Where in the p/r/f paintings there is a transcendence of self through perseverance and the appearance of unity because of order, in the immersions there is a disembodied vision – vision abstracted from the self/figure/”I”. The self becomes interchangeable; stepping in front of the painting is a becoming “I” of the vision. A pure perception is maintained by the external intensity of the painting. The grid is a necessary form because it is what has to be passed through in order to disappear – it is the form that is shared – the grid is the threshold between the self and non-self, the conscious and unconscious, memory and oblivion.
Another reason the grid is necessary: while painting, something happens outside of control in an immersion – one could call it channeling - form occurs beyond intention. One has to believe that they are being guided by a force beyond reason – to paint with a sense of being “with” by allowing the self to become empty of intent – to allow form to emerge without actively controlling it. Because the experience of painting the immersions takes place inches away from the canvas, the immediacy of the grid creates a situation in which it is humanly impossibly to know exactly how the form is evolving without stepping back, leaving the experience, emerging. In my experience with these paintings, there is a very long duration of engagement - painting for weeks, months, waiting for the painting to make sense - and then suddenly the painting breaks open, reveals itself – the form emerges, and then the painting goes quite quickly. It feels like deep sea diving in this way - long stretches of searching, mapping, fishing with a net, navigating an abstract space until suddenly, at long last, a coherence occurs, something catches. Something is always realized or revealed in the process that could not have been premeditated – an intensity is revealed beyond intention – there is a tension between ordered behavior / mechanized movement and the free emergence of form beyond control. The immersion is holding one’s breath and waiting for form to emerge.
The immersion paintings are in abeyance waiting for a subject to lend its vision to, in suspension until the recurrence of co-compositional figure. They are an interactive recognition of a shared reality. Like the book, or the poem, the immersions are an externalized subjective viewpoint that establishes a space for shared experience, unleashing itself in the space of pure vision.
III. Through the Eyes of Order
These paintings are interested in the way Order is imposed on an otherwise vast continuity: of the sky, of the land, of states of consciousness. The grid becomes a representation of systems of order, stratification, and reason. Order and Reason fabricate coherence. A thought is only considered valid once it is structured in the form we have been taught to think and communicate. Thinking is entering an arena of representation. Life on earth can be understood only when it becomes represented in a domain of order. The vast continuity of life becomes fragmented and distinguished through intricate systems of difference – all is passed through a grid of arbitrary distinctions. The construction of identity only holds up while it is in play in the field of order. The being of things is an illusion held in place by a system of relations and selective associations – if the veil is torn aside, there is a dark chaos and continuity, silence, an endless murmuring of shadows – all coherence can slip away and dissolve in a great Return.
The constellations of stars are an example of the way a smooth space can become striated; a vast continuity or visual chaos can become mapped, captured by order, repeatable, recognized. Depth becomes two-dimensional. Globalized systems of stratification are forever overhead; we live in a dome of surveillance. The existence of the constellations is contingent on being filtered through human consciousness from the vantage point of earth. The constellations are one of infinite combinations of stars, but once the lines are drawn and segments recorded, they are capable of narrative, they gain an identity, they develop a history and a place in the system of knowledge.
The constellations are representative of larger systems of thought in relation to knowledge; each star is sustained by its relation to other stars in the same way that a form of discourse is sustained by its productive relation to other forms of discourse, together forming a system of knowledge/truth/history. The constellations are representative of the way in which we form our identities – selectively attributing pieces that build what appears to be a coherent whole.
There is a duplicated state of being to the constellations that speaks to a larger sense of identity and systems of thought – each star runs the risk of slipping back into chaos and nebulous space, each constellation risks becoming incoherent if it cannot be recognized, there is always a looming chance of the Return. To paint the stars in the grid is to look at the sky selectively, through the eyes of order. The sky is not painted as it appears; it is painted as it is understood visually in an ordered system. What becomes just as important as what is shown is what is not shown, what cannot enter the arena, what has no place on the dome of stratification. The theme and tension is chaos vs. order, light vs. dark. The constellations illuminate the human history of creating narratives on earth – they are representative of the process of selective association and formation of knowledge and identity in systems of thought.
In ordered society, we do not think of the possibilities of existence but rather the conditions by which we may succeed. Madness is perhaps only one of many possibilities of consciousness, but because it is incapable of becoming reasonable or sustaining order in society, it is isolated as Unreason, kept in a space of confinement. Madness can only exist within Reason, as Unreason. Madness can only be identified in the madman, and yet the concept is held in place by its relation to other forms of discourse in the field of Knowledge. Madness is a constellation. Or perhaps, medical institutions form a constellation with institutions of science, education, and government that sustain the concept of Madness as a recognizable state of being.
The grid is representative of order, human consciousness, and selective association. If consciousness is a large sphere, reason is a sphere within that sphere, and madness is a sphere within reason. The sphere of reason is a stratified dome with an oculus only the madman is aware of. The madman is studied in spaces of confinement within reason. What can be perceived emanating from the madman enters the discourse of reason on madness; the madman’s observed behavior is converted to bits of knowledge – the raw irrational energy becomes sterile rational fact. But what flows through the madman cannot be wholly understood or contained by reason, there is always something that escapes being captured by the grid.
Through the lens of order, the earth has been captured by the grid. The aerial view paintings depict a line of flight over the stratified earth. The line of flight is one away from capture by a segmenting system. In the language of Deleuze & Guattari – the line of flight is a deterritorializtion that’s great fear is becoming recaptured by the system that it is in flight from. The line of flight is the declaration of a sort of war waged against the stratification and capture. The line of flight contains a great despair as it is the uprooting of a relation to the self – the line of flight is a great risk – one risks defeat, destruction – the line of flight can become a flight of destruction, a suicidal line of flight. The aerial view paintings began with a rethinking of Icarus, who flees the labyrinth with crafted wings in a suicidal line of flight that ends in the only place he will not once again be recaptured: the sea. Leaving the crowd and engaging with art is a line of flight. The line of flight is moving through the oculus of the dome of reason, taking view from a position outside and above.
The perspective of the aerial view paintings is an ambiguous perspective – it is both the subjective vision of despair in a line of flight – or it is the view through the eyes of order: surveillance, land surveying, stratification, and mapping. With current issues of surveillance and the dominance of humans over the earth - it has become easy to imagine the earth as a spherical grid in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to escape – it requires a hidden madness, an act of faith, to take flight and attempt to pass through the grid, to find a outside, an other side.
The important thing to note with the aerial view paintings, is not that there is a belief being expressed about an absolute or total takeover of the earth by striation and the grid – but that through the eyes of order or despair, all space becomes capable of being gridded, mapped, striated. Gridded or striated space can always become smooth, just as the constellations can always return to chaos. In Ordered structure, there is always the looming possibility of a return. The Sea is an archetype of smooth space, which is also why it becomes an archetype of the striation of smooth space. We’ve seen the latitudinal and longitudinal striation of the earth since elementary school – the image of the World Wide Web is a gridded sphere. Deep Sea can be looked at through the eyes of order as well as through the lens of the immersion. The Deep Sea is invaded by outside forces of stratification and order – it is the far reaches of human civilization, the way we build our world has begun to reach the ocean’s depths – garbage dumping, fracking, military testing and warfare – it is also a space of myth and folklore and captivating space of human imagination. The grid serves to represent this space as a limit of the human.
The paintings that are Through the Eyes of Order make visible the ways in which spaces and people become captured. These paintings are just as interested in ways to see beyond order, ways to create smooth space. By putting on display systems of stratification, confinement, and selective association one can then start to imagine oppositions, hidden spaces, forms of escape and transcendence. Some of the paintings attempt to display resistance to capture: the line of flight in the aerial views, but also Joan of Arc, the knight of faith who was captured by order and transcended by fire. She is seen through the eyes of order, escaping the grid by fire. In both the aerial views and Joan of Arc, the escape is one that ultimately ends in death – the madman never escapes confinement, even if he channels forces beyond reason and communicates with the spirit plane - perhaps it is necessary to first demonstrate failure, before achieving success – I have not personally been able to create an ending to the line of flight, but I am still working.
I have put forth three concepts that function as entryways into thinking through the grids. In many cases the concepts overlap, or the paintings fit into more than one group, but I think there has been enough distinction created to allow for an engaging thought process with the paintings and elsewhere.
There is still much ambiguity. Joan of Arc could just as easily fit into the Immersions, or Through the Eyes of Order – Deep Sea is mostly an Immersion but can also be looked at Through the Eyes of Order, or as a form of Practice/Repetition/Faith. Pale Composition, although primarily belonging to P/R/F, could also be imagined as an immersion in the spirit plane. It was while painting Pale Composition that I began to think of the grid work as deep sea diving – I found that I held my breath when I was focusing on painting the tiny squares. Each of the paintings speak to each other, each of the concepts are connected.
I mention this just to reopen pathways between what have been presented as distinctions – the boundaries are very porous. I hope that the work continues to expand outwards, and that what have been created, as distinctions here, do not become final. This has primarily been an exercise of reflection – an assessment of what has been done in an effort to move forward with focused energy.
- Michael Burris Johnson, June 2014