5. Concerning Flesh and Paint
Thus far, I have been presenting the notions that have attempted to illuminate somatic knowledge, and in the previous section I began to show how flesh forms the sinewy connection between thought and hand. This section marks a significant turn, moving away from intensely abstract thinking toward how these notions become actualized. The undertaking before me now is to explore how thought becomes applied to the canvas—literally.
—On Equivalent Substances
Simply: paint is flesh. Now allow me to explain. The base substances of paint, as James Elkins observes, are simply “water and stone” (2000, 1)—oil, wax, and stone in my case. The corporeal body can be seen as merely an emulsion of water, oils, and minerals. Willem de Kooning might have seen this too when he “observed, [oil paint] was invented because of the need to depict flesh” (Scala 2009, 1). This haunting similarity begins the alchemic transformation of the base materia prima of oil and stone into flesh. The transformation becomes complete—the metaphysical shift from corporeal substance to phenomenological substance occurs—when we consider, as Elkins does, that paint is not merely oil and stone, but “it is also liquid thought” (2000, 5). Paint can, and does, reveal, or illuminate worlds that cannot be seen. Paint registers time, movement, touch. Paint inscribes the affections of a body that encounters it; and it bares those affections again later in other encounters with other bodies. (Notice how ‘flesh’ could be substituted for ‘paint’ in any of these few preceding sentences). This painter, as flesh—whose disjunctive manner of thinking might now be better understood as the mesoperceptive ‘thinking’ in and through substances—sees paint as flesh. I do not so much squeeze paint from a tube, as I see flesh oozing into squishy piles onto my palette: an equivalent substance to me, which I can ‘think’ with and through.
Painting, then, is the act of fleshing a surface, a skin of another sort. Painting—‘thinking’ in flesh—becomes a process of transcribing the polymorphous excitations of a body without organs into paint as flesh. The painting becomes the registration of an existential moment of fervent sensation—instantaneous affective reverberations of flesh given more time, frozen in time, and consequently made visible to show. Some moments might be poignant: a broken heart, the fear of death, the sensation of the curve of my wife’s hip in my hand; while others might be utterly mundane: the pain in the small of my back, standing and leaning into my hip, drinking a warm cup of tea. Paint is able to unfold—at least in part and to some degree—the affects that make up these named sensations and emotions. As flesh, paint holds them, suspends them, gives them a stable form, plucking them out of their polymorphous felt state, registering their degree of materiality in space.
However, from the first smear of liquid flesh on the canvas surface, intentionality gives way to negotiation. It is not uncommon to begin seeking the sensations of skin folded upon itself, only to end up painting the sound of a broken heart (Ill.3.). The process is really a combination of sources expressed together: observations of my own and other’s bodies, my mesoperceptions—which I should note, always includes not only my handling of paint, but all of what is going on in the studio: what I see and smell, the music I listen to, etcetera—as well as, what Massumi calls a “topological exercise of contingent reason (thought bending back to participate in its own emergence from sensation; imagination, or intuition [...]” (2002, 136). As paint builds on the surface it begins to take on its own singularity—a presence. This embryonic singularity unfolds new and different possibilities that I must reason with, which does not mean to say that I am thinking—in the usual sense: with words—through the various stages of a painting. Rather, I am ‘thinking’, in the sense of sussing a painting somatically; I begin to use myself as a seismometer registering somatic excitations emanating from paint as flesh. Indeed, I can not imagine how a mind could paint.
In my efforts to convey the subtleties of embodied experience there is no better medium than flesh ... I mean, paint. Its “tactile and fleshlike qualities enable it to be seen [and experienced] as a palpable presence” (Scala 2009, 4). Or, as Deleuze put it, “Everything is visual in painting, but vision has at least two senses”; and so “[o]ne might say that painters paint with their eyes, but only insofar as they touch with their eyes” (2003, 113 & 125). In this last point, we see once more how paint is flesh: paint, like flesh, is synesthetic, always, at the very least, a combination of both the visual and the tactile, in a word: haptic. And in regard to the haptic nature of my paint, it is pertinent to note the significant influence of the early work of Frank Auerbach and, of course, the work of Lucian Freud. Auerbach and Freud show clearly how “[i]n painting, touch and vision converge as acts of the hand extend vision into material, even physical embodiment” (Scala 2009, 3). In my own case this occurs quite literally, as I do not paint only with tools—brushes and palette knives—but with my hands as well.
Like Auerbach and Freud, I encourage the sense of embodied singularity in my painting by giving paint a physical presence on the canvas. In my work, painting is not merely the act of colouring a surface or picturing a scene, but a material process involving physical substances that mimic the structure of the body. Paint is built in heavy layers that can be carved or sculpted, and I have even begun reinforcing the layers of paint with burlap. Like epidermis, muscle and viscera, these dense and multiple layers of paint and fabric can be incised open and revealed, as well as sutured closed and hidden. My process has begun to resemble Rembrandt’s identification of “the painter with the role of one—butcher, hunter, surgeon—whose hand cuts and delves into the body” (Sawday 1995, 149) (Ill. 4.).
I have explored two substances that I call equivalent. They have similar, almost indistinguishable voices. In my work, paint and flesh speak with a comparable dialect, possessing a kindred kind of diction. For whatever their dissimilarities, the ‘knowledge’ they possess or have the potential to convey is, I think, the same. It is why this painter, as flesh, has found no better medium with which to ‘speak.’ However, there is something of a Gordian Knot to address, as Merleau-Ponty writes, “we are condemned to meaning” (Phenomenology of Perception, xix; xiv, as quoted in Moran 2000, 420). Put otherwise, humanity incessantly ‘reads’ the world and assigns meaning—in the typical sense of that word—to it. That thing over there is a ‘chair,’ it means: ‘I can sit without needing to get on the floor;’ this thing here is a ‘pen,’ it means: ‘I can make marks that are able to convey other meanings.’ The next subsection will explore tactics that attempt to thwart the spectator’s ability to read my paintings to find a simple statement that can be extracted and ascribed as the painting’s meaning.
—On the Poetics of Dis-figuration in an Indeterminable Space
As I have alluded to above, I seek to create an encounter where the possibility of extracting some simple statement from my paintings does not trump an embodied experience with the artworks themselves. Doubtlessly meaning will happen; we are very much condemned to ‘read’ our world and all things within it. However, it is in the encounter that the potential for something else resides. Below, I will explore the ways in which I hope to produce an encounter through what I call dis-figuration and an indeterminable space, which is then augmented by the use of poetic titling.
First, however, I would like to note what this ‘encounter’ is. It is, quite simply, the production of a zone where a spectator is in a one-to-one somatic relationship with a painted body. In this zone the distance that is often experienced while looking at a painted scene is removed or fractured. A scene constructs the painting as a window and the spectator as a voyeur. In figurative painting this usually means we are seeking what or whom is depicted, what story is being told, or simply the recognized world re-presented. The scene is an analogy: from the Latin analogia, “[w]here ana means ‘up,’ ‘upwards,’ and gives the idea of a passage or a surpassing, a transcendence [...] into a superior order. From the animal to the human, [...] from the human to the divine” (Zdebik et al 2008, 153): from flesh to body to mind. My paintings are not scenes in which the relationships between things and meanings are contained within the boundaries of the frame, where the learned observer might read and extract them, thereby transcending the base materiality of the artworks with knowledge. The encounter is a “katalogia, [....] a downward movement toward the flesh” (Zdebik et al 2008, 153), toward a ‘knowledge’ that is embodied within the one-to-one, spectator-to-painted body, relationship. The encounter extends beyond the frame—preferably fracturing the frame—because it implicates the spectator; it attempts to draw them into the artwork by upsetting the legibility of the painting, thereby discouraging a disembodied engagement and encouraging a somatic—which is to say affective—interaction. In the encounter “[o]ur typical ways of being in the world are challenged, our systems of knowledge disrupted” (O’Sullivan 2006, 1). I might go so far as to say that the encounter is an expression: a new assemblage perpetually being remade—or, potential constantly tweaked—with each new spectator.
To disrupt our systems of typical knowledge in order to convey somatic knowledge or embodied experience, I have had to face the necessity of finding a method of inducing an aphasia of sorts. Deleuze most accurately describes the balancing act that this method requires:
the same criticism can be made against both figurative painting and abstract painting: they pass through the brain, they do not act directly upon the nervous system, they do not attain the sensation, they do not liberate the Figure. (Deleuze 2003, 32)
On one end of the spectrum, figuration or the figurative is simply a re-presentation of the world. And yet, on the other end of the spectrum, abstraction is a cerebral activity and acts only on the mind. Both are a form of analogy, that upward movement from flesh to body to mind. The Figure—with a capital /f/—that Deleuze refers to above “is the sensible form related to a sensation; it acts immediately upon the nervous system, which is of the flesh” (2003, 31). Or, as we have already seen: intensity to a degree of materiality in space of a body without organs.
In spite of the accuracy of Deleuze’s thought presented above, his terminology is both confusing and rather imprecise regarding the operation of painting ‘the sensible form relating to sensation.’ Therefore, I propose the term ‘dis-figure’ as an alternative that more accurately denotes the results of my efforts on the canvas. Dis-figuration is the process of stripping body from flesh, of reversing the signification of body in an effort to present an asignifying flesh. A dis-figuration is the figure under topological pressure. It must start from the figurative in order to allow the spectator a point of reference to dismantle; yet, to destroy the figure entirely would be death, non-intensity, nothing would happen. Dis-figuration encourages an aphasia because it dissembles the figure, it hints at signification but unsettles the signified. It sends the spectator toward body but prevents the actual ‘reading’ of a body. The spectator gets caught in flesh and, as I have observed, leaves many spectators literally grasping the air with their hands, struggling to find the words to describe their encounter with my paintings.
Francis Bacon is, undeniably, the master of painting sensation and I have certainly taken queues from his artworks. However, in spite of Deleuze’s commentaries to the contrary, I feel that Bacon is still painting scenes, narrating stories, allowing us only voyeuristic involvement. I think that this is the case principally because of the space that Bacon paints: as Deleuze notes, “the painting is composed like a circus ring, a kind of amphitheater as ‘place’” (2003, 5). Bacon’s paintings are a stage and we, the audience, are never on it. We intellectually identify with the players, but we are still experiencing a scene from which we are removed. It is primarily upon this reasoning that I take my distance from Bacon. In opposition to the stage as ‘place,’ I have labored toward painting indeterminable spaces. Initially, these spaces were drawn particularly from Rembrandt’s portraits, but I later noticed that they also appear in many Expressionist portraits as well, for example, Frank Auerbach’s early portraits of E.O.W. (Ill. 5.).
Now, it may sound slightly peculiar that a former dancer turned painter would reject the place of the stage, but bear in mind, I was on the stage looking out. The glare of the stage lights blotted out the audience, making the house of the theater an indistinct space, almost a void; I had the immediacy of the music, my body and often the body of my partner, and that is all. If my paintings are a stage, then the spectator is on it looking out to the audience, and the painted body is his or her partner, so dance! As nice as this analogy might be, it is—perhaps, unfortunately—not the case.
My paintings are not of a place, and certainly not the stage. The space of my canvases are meant to be unascertainable. The indeterminable space further unsettles those easy linkages between signifier and signified because the dis-figure is not placed anywhere; it is, in fact, placed nowhere—not a void, but a palpable emptiness. Consider how the space around one’s body feels at any given moment; even when not touching anything we can sense the boundaries of our body. The space around our body envelops and holds us. The relationship between the dis-figuration and the indeterminable space is actualized in consideration of how perception operates: “everywhere we look, listen, and touch, perception involves a detailed focus on one part of the field while the rest of it recedes into a less determinate background” (Hass 2008, 58). Yet, when we shift our perceptual focus, what was once background is now figured, and what was figured becomes ground. The space of my canvases are formed with this shift in mind: allowing the dis-figure to be grounded and enveloped by a ‘figured’ space—operative in sensing the boundaries of the dis-figure—then, in the next moment, flesh is given again to the dis-figure—re-figuring it, consequently grounding the space—shifting to-and-fro until sensation is attained. One could conceive of the indeterminable space of my canvases as the relative stillness that surrounds and supports the affective reverberations of flesh.
The ambiguous space is meant to simultaneously press the dis-figure off the canvas, while concurrently enveloping and holding it. This tie between dis-figure and the indeterminable space is naturally influenced by the scale of the canvases, varying from 11 ½ x 9 ½ inches up to 96 x 78 inches. At its smallest, the encounter created is akin to a confrontation with an anatomical specimen: a fragment of the whole used to examine a particular aspect of the affects sought. At its largest—from about 48 inches and up—the dis-figure is closer to life-size encouraging the spectator to approach the canvas in the one-to-one relation mentioned earlier. The indeterminable space of the large paintings not only unsettles the sense of place, but because of their size, also works to envelop the spectator, narrowing the distance between him or her and the painted dis-figure. The distance is literally removed from the small canvases, in that they almost demand the spectator to move closer, within the range of touch, smell, or possibly taste. The viewing distance—no matter the size—is further disrupted by operating at a variety of ranges: farther away the paintings operate as an illegible image; close-up the image dissolves into the topography of fleshy paint on canvas. Engaging these various distances encourages a physical interaction between the spectator and the dis-figure: the movement between near and far, initiating a ‘meaningful’ encounter.
Through dis-figuration in an indeterminable space, I open the possibility for an encounter to occur. Yet, the Gordian Knot remains, we are condemned to meaning. However, we must recall the half-second lapse between sensation and cognition, that autonomous affect that must be felt in order to be thought. It is in this realm of somatic knowledge, the sphere of “immanent, preconceptual, and nonpropositional meaning,” that Mark Johnson claims, “is the basis for all forms of meaning” (2007, 34). My paintings may not always, or for extended periods, be able to induce an aphasia in the spectator, holding them in the prelinguistic space of affect where meaning is embodied and immanently felt. My canvases are, nonetheless, intended to work upon the spectator, affecting him or her, consciously or not, and those affections will lie at the heart of the simple statement he or she extracts from the work and consequently ascribes as the painting’s meaning.
In regard to the extracted meaning, I do not care to, nor can I really, speculate as to what it might be. I will echo Anish Kapoor on this point: “I’ve nothing to say” (as quoted in Tusa 2005, 152). Even my own simple statements for the paintings—the titles, as we will see—are meant to augment the affective, rather than merely describe what is seen. Whatever statement the spectator extracts from my paintings is his or her own expression. I may have brought words to mouths, but only by acting upon bodies, by providing the spectator the fodder to make meaning with ‘meaning.’
I hope to add to this ‘meaningful’ sustenance with the titles for my paintings. Throughout this paper it has been suggested that “linguistic meaning is parasitic to the primordial structures and processes of embodied interaction, quality, and feeling” (Johnson 2007, 218). Yet, rather than language being in simple opposition to embodied meaning, language that qualifies the affective content of an image can actually enhance the images’ intensity. Poetry immediately strikes me as the linguistic discipline that most obviously uses language in pursuit of affect. In this way, poetic titles can be used to resonate “with the level of intensity rather than [interfere] with it” (Massumi 2002, 25). This intuition is reinforced when we note that poems are not primarily “vehicles of propositional meaning and insight [...,] they use images, metaphors, image schemas, felt qualities,” etcetera; when we read poetry “we do not really think about what is transpiring [...] so much as we feel and experience the qualitative whole that pervades” the poetic passages (Johnson 2007, 221 & 224). Additionally, the creation of something like a feedback loop occurred as I began exploring poetics, writing whole poems in an effort to title my recent paintings. The poems themselves began to suggest new possibilities; new affective subject-matter emerged from these combinations of words—and then words with paintings—that I doubt I would have discovered pursuing this project in paint alone.
I endeavor to produce an encounter for the spectator by presenting only the asignifying affections of flesh in a space that is indeterminable, then further enhance the painting’s affects with poetic titles. The strategies presented are in an effort to upset the ‘legibility’ of my paintings, to induce an aphasia of sorts and encourage a katalogia, that downward movement into one’s own flesh. The results on the canvases, however, bare something of a brutality that I will address in turning from this question of meaning, toward a question of aesthetics.
—On Beauty in a Theater of Cruelty
Regardless of what I might say concerning the reading or meaning of my paintings, the traumatization performed on the body in an effort to dis-figure it—opening the body to its flesh—is brought to the fore, and read most readily. It is a quasi-violence that is perceived and is, in part, the product of the process of dis-figuration itself. I have, perhaps unwittingly, wandered into “Artaud’s ‘theater of cruelty,’ whose aim is not to stage cultural masterpieces but to make the audience experience its flesh in the form of fear, delirium, and extremes of sensation” (Bruns 2007, 710). In the same vein that my project has developed—my peculiar sensitivity to somatic knowledge—I find the lineage of my proclivity to those forms of—let us call them—‘art’ where the body cannot be denied. The other element of this traumatism can be found here, informed by my personal aesthetic.
Horror films and literature; heavy metal music and other such genres; anatomy, of both the gross and illustrative varieties; and even pornography, form something of a core to what I will call a ‘visceral aesthetic.’ Certainly, many painters, sculptors, and whole movements in Art’s history could be included as well. What they all have in common is, as Linda Williams acknowledges in her book Hard Core, “that despite pornography’s almost visceral appeal to the body [...] it is not the only genre to elicit such ‘automatic’ bodily reactions” (1989, 5). Horror films can cause one’s skin to crawl; heavy metal music agitates one’s body into motion; gross anatomy, particularly, can be nauseating; and pornography draws out voracity from deep within the groin. The commonality continues, as Williams, following Foucault, notes, that pornography is motivated not only by the desire “for pleasure but also the ‘knowledge of pleasure,’ the pleasure of knowing pleasure” (1989, 3), however misguided its methodologies and outcomes may be. Each of the aforementioned genres could be said to be in pursuit of its own branch of ‘knowledge.’ The visceral aesthetic could be characterized, then, by the pursuit of a ‘knowledge’ of bodies: a vivisection that attempts to show the intertwining of the ‘visceral truths’ of the corporeal body, with the ‘affective truths’ of the phenomenal body by breaking the frame, by implicating the spectator through autonomic excitations: tears, laughter, gasping, arousal, churning guts, goose bumps, the inability to sit still, etcetera. Perhaps this is simply traumatic in its nature: the páthos of life experiencing itself.
In a milieu of “[a]rt, politics, and philosophy [that] often sanitize bodily reactions” (Meagher 2003, 29), I have gravitated to, and sought out, those low forms of ‘art’ that do not undertake this sterilization. Like Michelle Meagher’s aesthetics of disgust, visceral aesthetics “offers an opportunity to pay attention to the body” (2003, 31). Attention, however, is just that: it is not a judgment. Visceral aesthetics is amoral, because flesh is amoral. Flesh does not judge; it only feels and this “level of intensity is characterized by a crossing of semantic wires: on it, sadness is pleasant” (Massumi 2002, 24). The moral implications of what we feel “is not a condition of an object, but an effect of a beholder’s intentional relationship with an object” (Meagher 2003, 32). Sadness is pleasant, horror is exhilarating, joy causes us to weep because they remind us that we are here, alive, immediately present in our corpo-phenomenal body, and this has nothing to do with moral judgment.
In this way, visceral aesthetics is not really a question of beauty or even anti-beauty—the grotesque. Beauty and grotesque are simply a set of thresholds of sensation. Like the acoustic scale, too high or too low renders the affect inaudible; but, the middle!—that is where the most reverberation happens. The betwixt space between the beautiful and the grotesque is visceral aesthetics par excellence. In a theater of cruelty, the beautiful is simply that which causes affect, and is where, if moral judgment is to be had, the lowest depravity is apathy.
 See: “On the Topology of Flesh,” 15-16.
 Massumi writes, “the artist’s activity joins the confound, through experienced zones of synesthetic and spatiotemporal indistinction [sic] [....] The artist can still act.But her action is more an experimental tweaking of an autonomous process than a molding of dumb matter [....] It brings a singular variation out into integral, unfolding expression [.... A] whole world captured at the moment of its emergence from the unform.”It is an event to which there is no duplicate: “There is only this event, and this one, and this other one—none of them exactly alike [....] The event retains a quality of “this-ness,” an unreproducible [sic] being-only-itself, that stands over and above its objective definition.” (2002, 173 & 222).
 A seemingly irresolvable puzzle that is undone only by ‘cutting’ it open.
“[T]o take one’s distance from the aspect, to displace it, to take a detour away from resemblance and designation: in short to enter into the paradoxical realm of equivocation and dissemblance” (Didi-Huberman 1995, 3).
 In January 2011 I presented Somatologia in the Fifth Parallel Gallery at theUniversity ofRegina.Spectators struggled to talk about my work, exhibiting an ‘aphasia.’Instead, they often expressed themselves somatically: palming the air, squeezing their hands into fists, making gestures toward their torso, or would squirm.
 Following the Buddhist notion of emptiness as the “womb [...] that gives birth to reality, [...] it is the silence that surrounds and supports every sound, the stillness that is the foundation of all movement, the pure consciousness that is the ground of all thought” (Ludwig 2001, 104-105).
 I should point out that I am not using a whole poem as a title for a painting, but simply extracting one or two lines from what I have written to be used as a title.
 Nicola Samori, Berlinde De Bruyckere, and Tommy White from the contemporary period; Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Jenny Saville, Frank Auerbach, Chaim Soutine, and Georg Baselitz from the more historical. Each of the fore mentioned artists has borne some influence on my studio practice and informed my visceral aesthetics.