— Acknowledgments

First and foremost, I would like to express my gratitude to my supervisor, Leesa Streifler, for her dedication to, and support of, my project.  I will miss our long and often tangential conversations about the body, dance, painting, teaching, and life.  My esteem is due, also, to the Faculty in the Department of Visual Arts especially, Randal Rogers, David Garneau, Rachelle Viader Knowles, and Sean Whalley for their support, but more importantly for pressing me beyond my limits as an artist, intellectual, and individual.

My thanks to Jack Anderson, Jennifer McRorie, Timothy Long, Stuart Reid, Holly Fay, Jeff Nye, Corey Bryson, and Sylvia Ziemann for their expressed interest in my work; their feedback has been both inspiring and challenging.

I would also like to acknowledge my colleagues in the MFA program: Troy Coulterman, Amanda Damsma, April Fairbrother, Crystal Howie, Caitlyn Jean, Jenn Mapplebeck, Tamara Rusnak, Alyx Sparks, and Zane Wilcox.  It has been my pleasure to work amongst artists of such caliber and to be challenged by artwork of such quality.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada through the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship.  As well, the support of the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research, and the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Regina through the Graduate Teaching Assistantship, the Mr. Roland O. Dunlop and Mrs. Annie Dunlop Memorial Graduate Scholarship in Visual Arts, the Doris & W.A. Riddell Graduate Scholarship, the SSHRC Enhancement Award, the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research Graduate Scholarship, and the Centennial Merit Scholarship.

listening to time, (2011)

oil and mixed media on canvas

86 1/4" x 65 3/4"

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[1] ‘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.[2]  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[3] 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[4] 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.[5]

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.[6]

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.[7]  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.[8]  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.

[1] See: “On the Topology of Flesh,” 15-16.
[2] 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).
[3] A seemingly irresolvable puzzle that is undone only by ‘cutting’ it open.
[4]“[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).
[5] 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.
[6] 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).
[7] 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.
[8] 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.

A Comprehensive Support Paper for the Exhibition





Submitted to

the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research

In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements

for the Degree of

Master of Fine Arts in Painting

in Visual Arts

University of Regina


Regina, Saskatchewan, CANADA

August 2011

For Hilary: with you everything, it seems, is possible.

eye palm this supple carnal contour

an inky gaze writing haptic affections

on an exquisite pale vellum

scribing poetry with no verse

because you are not to be penned into odes

you are the silk and fragrance of night

             the delicate apparatus of dreams

you are the silk and fragrence of night | the delicate apparatuc of dreams, (2011)

oil and mixed media on canvas

96" x 78"



shhhh...             can you hear it?

                        skin whispering

                                                life and death

it is there in the quiet           just beneath

the surface        epidural layers

pulled back             reveal it

in time you will see              the sickly

putrefaction of the life unlived    of

flesh untended, ignored                   shhhh...

it is there in the quiet     deep in the groin

and chest                desire and angst

one continues life                one knows of death

an organ for each                            shhh...

listen you fool! for the skin does not            speak

loudly, too loudly, you’ll miss          it speaking





Ill. 3.

of the heart and the sound of its breaking, (2011)

oil and mixed media on canvas

35 3/4" x 32"

Ill. 4.

dissection video, (2011)

studio documentation

so gravity as something to work with, (2011)

oil and mixed media on canvas

83 3/4" x 73"

you are a masterpiece of naked music

soft C’s played on supple thighs

intimate E’s plucked from taunt nipples

hips that sooth long whole notes of delight

B flat’s on these awed curves caressed

broking only by ass cracking percussion

bright red cymbals splash ripples

and ooohs from the percussionist

it is now a pendulous dance

drunk on your exquisite melody

there are those moments
when containment is no longer an option
as if the spine could break free
from between the shoulder blades
if only to be a snake
because you have outgrown this skin
to be able to birth your Self anew

it spreads through the bones
pressing outward and
unfolding toward the skin
feeling it press fresh
all too human tentacles
on your heart’s cage
shed this chrysalis and
consume the carrion that falls away
sluff this dermis to dawn new furs
become genetically dewy
hang scaled wing to dry
then float on fragile air

yet, never without the husk
never without this semi-permeable
membrane that in these times
is only a cage

Gallery floor plan for let me remember you as you were before you existed

2. Concerning a History of Somatic Practice

I might trace the origins of my present endeavors to a kind of ‘schizophrenia’ developed in my youth.[1]  Now, rest assured, I do not suffer from any clinical diagnosis.  Rather, I seem to experience a shift between knowing and thinking as we typically understanding it—that is, with language—and a manner of ‘knowing’ and ‘thinking’ that is yet to be fully understood—with my body, prior to language.  To be sure, I do not think that I am unique in this ability, only that my history of somatic[2] practice, in contrast with my history in academia places me in, perhaps, a unique position to compare knowledge of the somatic and linguistic varieties.  Or, at the least, I have a peculiar and heightened sensitivity to the prior.  This sensitivity calls into question the emphasis on viewing our world as a discursive construct and, deeper still, the dualisms of the Cartesian Project.  My proposition here, in this section, is to show how my experiences have influenced my understanding of bodies and embodiment.

At the age of seventeen I left Calgary to study at Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet School where we began each day at the ungodly hour of eight o’clock in the morning.  Our first class of the day consisted of one and a half hours of solo training.  I was in a class of all men for solo work, which was a unique experience.  I had been dancing since the age of five or six and—as you can imagine—was not in the company of too many other boys interested in ballet.  We were a bit like soldiers, standing to attention when our instructor entered the studio.  On Mondays we were to expect new exercises, but the remainder of the week, upon our instructor’s entrance, we stood facing the bar prepared to begin, exercises committed to memory—supposedly.  He would call out, “Preparation, and!”  The music would begin.

I scarcely have the words to describe what came next because they fail to convey accurately what happened.  Words themselves ceased to run in coherent strings in my mind.  I did not usually count the music but instead felt it, and I also felt my way though exercises that I often could not remember upon command.  Especially in class, there was a constant scanning of my body that would go something like—though in not so many words: check the position of my head, scapula down, chest and back spread wide, long back, sacrum down, hip flexor long, patella pulled up, stomach in, feet pointed, ankle firm, and so on and so forth.  Now, I feel that I must stress, this was not what I was thinking.  I do not recall thinking really.  In fact, my memories are mostly in flashes of images and somatic sensations—the proverbial ‘muscle memory’—of what it felt like at that time in my life.

At nine thirty, usually later and often still barely mentally awake, our solo class would finish, leaving us with a short break before we would meet up with the ladies for pas de deux class.  Like our solo work, partnering commenced in the same manner: “Preparation, and!”  The music begins.  Only now, instead of just scanning my own body, I scan the body of my partner as well.  She would stand enpointe [3]in front of me; my hands clasping her waist—sometimes I would catch myself holding my breath, not wanting to breathe on her.  The exercise is simple: lean your partner forward off balance in four counts, then bring her back to center, balance her and release your grip on her waist, repeat to each side and backward.  [4]Gently I push her forward to the rhythm of the piano, she holds straight like a plank of wood, my grip shifts to the front of her hips as I step one foot in front of her; her weight is now in my hands, I am the only thing between her and the floor.  Hold, then I pull her back to center; I sense her weight shifting back to her feet, as I find that ‘sweet spot’ release my grip on her waist and she stands, perfectly balanced.  How easy this is!—here with words on the page.

I have spoken now at some length toward experiences that are not, in any proper sense, communicable in words.  It points to the manner in which we may, as Merleau-Ponty writes, “return to that world which precedes knowledge, of which knowledge always speaks” (Phenomenology of Perception, ix, as quoted in Shusterman 2008, 56).  However, I would like to suggest that this is a limited consideration of what knowledge constitutes.  Indeed, in preparation for a plier exercise I ‘knew’ my pelvis was properly aligned, but that did not require me to say so.  I ‘knew’ that my partner was back, balanced on her own two feet, yet neither she, nor I, needed to note it in so many words.  Knowledge and “meaning is not just a matter of concepts and propositions, but also reaches down into the images, sensorimotor schemas, feelings, qualities, and emotions that constitute our meaningful encounter with our world” (emphasis mine, Johnson 2008, xi).  Language, then, is not the sole storehouse of knowledge or conveyer of meaning.  We know what ‘balance’ means, but tell that to a pair of hands attempting to accomplish the task of ‘balancing.’

I see my formative years involved in ballet really as somatic practice and reflection that has shaped my sensitivity to ‘somatic knowledge’—an embodied, preconceptual and nonpropositional type of knowledge.  The activity developing this sensitivity, I think, could have been almost anything.  [5]However, ballet may have an advantage over other somatic disciplines—that advantage being the partnering work: the interaction with, and developed sensitivity to, other bodies.  Working with a partner, sensing her body, can be likened to making one’s self a seismometer that senses somatic vibrations.  Placing another body on balance is not something one can think—in the typical linguistic sense—one’s way though, it must be sensed, felt—a manner of ‘thinking’ through, or with one’s body.  In fact, the more that one thinks about it, the more difficult the task becomes.  My hands became sensitive to what my partner’s body was doing; I became instinctively aware, via proprioception, of how our bodies worked and looked together.

This embodied, preconceptual, and nonpropositional manner of ‘thinking’ and ‘knowing’ has undoubtedly also shaped my understanding of, and approach to, painting.  My vocation of painting bodies surely finds root here as well.  It seems painfully obvious to note now, as Merleau-Ponty does, that “[t]he painter ‘takes his body with him,’ says Valéry.  Indeed we cannot imagine how a mind could paint” (1964, 162).  And on that note, let us turn to explore more fully the philosophical considerations of this project.

[1] My thanks, again, to Dr. Randal Rogers for this consideration.
[2] Literally meaning ‘bodily’ or ‘of the body’, although I should note that “[t]he term ‘soma’ indicates a living, feeling, sentient body rather than a mere physical body that could be devoid of life and sensation” (Shusterman 2008, 1).
[3] The tips of her toes in point shoes.
[4] The exercise described is one given usually on the first day of a dancer’s first pas de deux class.I have seen one too many girls plummet to the floor after her partner brought her too far forward; or upon releasing the grip on her waist, fall off point because she was not placed back on balance.
[5] Richard Shusterman identifies yoga, t’ai chi, zazen meditation, and more contemporary techniques of somatic education: the Feldenkrais Method or Alexander Technique as specifically those that “promote heightened somatic consciousness and body-mind attunement.” See: Body Consciousness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 7.

Ill. 5.

E.O.W. Nude

Frank Auerbach


Oil on canvas

20” x 30 ¼”

As seen in Robert Hughes. Frank Auerbach. (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1990), 38.

7. Conclusion

(or: Concerning the Beginning of an Endless Task)

At this point, in a paper such as this, one is meant to discuss results, what progress has been made, how the world is now ever-so-slightly different, and draw the research to a satisfactory close.  Therefore, it will seem odd to note that this research and project is only a beginning.  Despite whatever conclusions and observations I am about to make, I am still keenly aware that “expressing what exists is an endless task” (Merleau-Ponty Cezanne’s Doubt, 66 as quoted in Hass 2008, 9).  When I began the MFA program, I maintained that the ‘human project’ of discovering who and what ‘we’ are is yet to be complete.  It is a project that I speculate began when we first recognized our reflection in a pool of water.  It is now well over twenty-three thousand years that humanity has been pondering itself and, as Gerald L. Bruns eloquently puts it, “who ‘we’ are, after all these years, remains to be seen” (2007, 716).

Now, to form some semblance of a conclusion, let us turn to ponder a question that I presented early on: how to think or speak the world prior to re-presentation?  Much of my discussion throughout this paper has hinged upon what I consider to be a limited understanding of what constitutes knowledge and meaning, founded upon my experiences as a ballet dancer.  My aim in the studio, and to a degree here as well, has been to explore an expanded sense of knowledge and meaning by attempting to tap into those preindividual moments of affect and convey only the ‘stuff’ of meaning—what I have called the subtleties of embodied experience—not necessarily meaning itself—the linguistic transformation of the corpo-phenomenal into discourse.  I have nothing to say and have made efforts to do so in an attempt to induce an aphasia in the spectators of my artworks.  But this has not meant, to follow in Didi-Huberman’s exaggerated formulation, “seeing without knowing”—of choosing sensation and abandoning knowledge (2005, 141).  It has simply meant to be present in the space “between knowing and seeing [....] of proceeding dialectically” (Didi-Huberman 2005, 143-144): of becoming aware and comfortable with the interlacing of meaning with ‘meaning.’  Thinking prior to re-representation is accepting the possibility that an encounter with an artwork may not mean anything or contribute to knowledge, but will, nonetheless, be ‘meaningful’ and enrich an immanent, preconceptual, and nonpropositional ‘knowledge’ of ourselves.

There is one final question which may still be begged: why?  What is the purpose of creating an art that attempts to produce a ‘knowledge’ that is—for all intents and purposes—unintelligible?  If, as Michel Foucault suggests, discourse is a form of power that seeks to shape individuals as “subjected and practiced bodies, ‘docile’ bodies” (1977, 138), then attempting to think the body prior to, or outside of, language opens the possibility “for recomposing [one’s] existential corporeality, to get out of [one’s] repetitive impasse and, in a certain way, to resingularize [oneself]” (Felix Guattari Chaosmosis 6-7, as quoted in O’Sullivan 2006, 27).  It enriches our interactions with, and deepens our connections to, the world around us in a manner that is not prescribed by the discursive constructs of re-presentations.

Affect, flesh, a body without organs: all concepts, all abstractions that cannot be perceptually grasped, we can only catch shadows or chimeras of them.  And yet, I have made attempts to give them material form in paint which I call flesh.  The alchemical, even metaphysical, slippage between paint and flesh makes paint not only “a mirror of the body’s gelatinous essence” but a substance possessing the power of “a kind of incarnation; [...] the secular ‘paint made flesh,’ as the artist transcribes humanity” (Scala 2009, 2).  I am attempting to transcribe those aspects of humanity that we do not—and really, cannot—have a full grasp upon, by embracing “the cloudiness of nonknowledge”, through dis-figurations that “are made to transit us from the visible to something beyond even the intelligible” (Didi-Huberman 1995, 53).  This is nothing if not allegorical: an elegiac mixture of paint with words, giving form to the formless, aimed at ‘speaking’ to one’s innards before one’s mind.  I paint to show us to our Selves, and it is certainly only the beginning of an endless task.  This is the poetics of flesh.

the face is nothing but a mask

concealing me from you

let me gnaw at that face

let me pluck out your eyes

eat them

pack them full with meat

a pork tenderloin for each socket

become pig

suckle piglets at your tits

birth them from your mouth

a canine

and a rawhide nose

suture the remaining skin

folds a hole

a fuck-hole

testicular mandible parasitic cum

i will fashion you a head

you will vomit

and cum

and shit

and digest

from the labia void

let me hammer your ears

nail them closed

listen with your maw absorb

your own body

eat yourself

chew it up and puke it out

shit it out

the body

become your gelatinous essence

to touch and be touched

to fuck and be fucked

to eat and be eaten

an animal unnamed

unidentifiable but unlike any other

with no face it is only a mask

be-head the face

devour the grey custard

pack your skull with entrails

become thinking meat

connect nothing

un-naming meaninglessness

only content

only flesh filled to overflowing

Ill. 2.

Möbius Strip

As seen at “Möbius Strip,” Wikipedia the Free Encyclopedia. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d9/M%C3%B6bius_strip.jpg

(accessed April 16, 2011).

6. Concerning Images and Their Viewing

Before turning to my closing remarks, I would like to examine briefly what I feel my situation within Contemporary Art is.  Then, I will discuss two significant elements of the exhibition Let Me Remember You as You Were Before You Existed that further my discussion on the encounter.  In many ways, what is to follow in this section is really an extension of my aesthetic and how I think paintings have the potential to operate.

If truth be told, I have a contentious relationship to the ‘contemporary’ and a skepticism of ‘progress,’ which really amounts to a nostalgia for the bygone eras of painting.  Hence, an assemblage of styles and techniques from artists that are not entirely drawn from the contemporary period.  I have looked to Rembrandt, Bacon, Auerbach, and Freud, as mentioned throughout this paper; though, never to quote or critique their artworks, but instead to pull together certain aspects and explore possibilities: Rembrandt’s space and figurative weight, Bacon’s figuration, Auerbach’s materiality, and Freud’s sense of flesh.  This amounts to something of a ‘Baroque Expressionism,’ if I may be so bold, conceivably a subdivision of Donald Kuspit’s New Old Masterism: “not another appropriation art—there is no manipulative quotation [...]—but rather an attempt to restore beauty lost to avant-garde innovation” (1999).  At the end of his article “Going, Going, Gone”, Kuspit quotes Francis Bacon (the philosopher), “there is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion” and then continues, “Avant-garde perversity, epitomizing the modern experience of the enfeeblement and disintegration of the self, [...] survives in the aura of strangeness that haunts the New Old Master beauty that is in the making” (1999).  By means of the strange quasi-violent perversity of visceral aesthetics, I seek the beautiful in the grotesque, and as a result, I endeavor to make my paintings hauntingly beautiful.

It is through this eccentric aesthetic that I endeavor to create a simultaneous attraction and repulsion within my artworks: that situation where one has been unsettled but cannot seem to look away.  I hope to carry this experience into the exhibition itself by aiming for a look of Old Master artworks—out of the corner of one’s eye, or at a glance—but then this first impression will be disturbed once a spectator takes a closer examination.  Beyond the stylistic and technical choices made while painting I will encourage this initial reading by lighting the exhibition with the low lumen strength often used for the conservation of classical artworks.  My choice of lighting is something of a double entendre, simultaneously pointing back to an era of painting that I admire, while also creating atmosphere.  The gallery space will be dim and this will steep the paintings in an aura of age, moodiness, or melancholy.  I think that this will also produce a palpable quiet in the room—a prediction from being in other exhibitions lit in this manner.

One last peculiarity of this exhibition to note is the low hanging height of my paintings.  Where scale permits, I will hang the paintings three inches below the standard gallery center, at fifty-three inches; for the larger paintings, I will hang them eight inches from the bottom to the floor.  This height gives an increased weightiness to the paintings, giving them a felt, and not just a visual, quality.  Because of this low height, the spectator is also in a better physical position to enter into a one-to-one relationship with the painted dis-figure, as I discussed above.  These final manipulations of the gallery space are, once more, efforts to create that zone in which an encounter may occur.

between eros and thanatos, (2011)

oil and mixed media on canvas

45" x 37"

how sleep is so much like death

how time consumes all that you are

how, in the end, you are just so much meat

simply a meal

for a worm

how sleep is so much like death, (2011)

oil and mixed media on canvas

81 1/4" x 67 3/4"

at certain times they do not touch the ground, (2011)

oil and mixed media on canvas

87" x 69 1/2"

as if the spine could break free, (2011)

oil and mixed media on canvas

72" x 56 3/4"

moon raked leaves pale venus blue, (2011)

oil and mixed media on canvas

41 1/2" x 35 3/4" 

interruption of the heart

and the sound of its breaking

the dead dream in the quiet

hollows of broken earth

they dream of the space

between Eros and Thanatos

and yet they are weary

of living laying to rest

loose these heavy bonds

to lay in forever’s bed

go dreaming into the night

awake no more to dawn’s light

speaking a cipher with no tongue, (2011)

oil and mixed media on canvas

48" x 42"

eye observe an absurd animal

balanced on hindquarters

and thinking—yes!

too much thinking

with grey pudding

vocal matter drops from mouth

as fecal matter tumbles from ass

sew up this gaping maw

be silent, long enough

to listen, to hear

these strange tales you must heed

with skin too taut over jagged bone

the flesh will speak

will say so much


speaking a cipher

with no tongue

Ill. 1.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp

Rembrandt van Rijn.


Oil on canvas

66 ¼” x 85 ½”

As seen at ARTstor. http://www.artstor.org/index.shtml. (accessed June 9, 2011).

4. Concerning Flesh

At this point, the reader might feel a little as though he or she has been chasing Alice’s White Rabbit. And to call flesh—that stuff of the corporeal—a ‘phenomenological substance’ certainly does not alleviate that sensation.  In regard to flesh we begin, as with affect, with the difficulty of its definition, to which I should note that there is no easy definition, nor any other term that could alleviate confusion.  Flesh is undeniably the meat of one’s corporeal body, and the medium through which we experience affect, that imminent autonomic sensation of life.  It is also, as I will show, the medium through which the technology of my paintings function.  Flesh is the stuff of one’s corporeal body, and simultaneously that invisible phenomenological substance that slips from the regard.  It is this situation of both|and, rather than either|or, that causes difficulty.  Like affect, one’s flesh is of a different topology and causal order.  Let us turn to explore this strange topology of flesh, which will aid in understanding its definition, then explore flesh in relation to a body without organs.

—On the Topology of Flesh

The topological figure that will be most useful to our understanding of flesh is the möbius strip (Ill. 2.).  In this figure we encounter a similar paradox as we encounter with flesh.  Produced by putting a half twist in a band of paper and joining the ends, the möbius strip is both a three-dimensional and two-dimensional figure at once.  Certainly, we can measure its overall height, depth, and width, but these measurements seem almost meaningless when we consider that the möbius strip has only one side and one edge.  One can transverse ‘both’ sides of the strip without ever crossing its edge; as well as trace ‘both’ edges without crossing the plane of its side.  Its interior twists to become exterior, while left reverses to become right, and all vice versa, simultaneously.

Flesh bears the twisted topology of the möbius strip in one’s corpo-phenomenal body.  Brian Massumi describes flesh as “the synesthetic sensibility” of “mesoperception” (2002, 62), where mesoperception is understood as the intertwining of proprioception and viscerality.  Proprioception designates sensations in the muscles and ligaments, and also “folds tactility into the body, enveloping the skin’s contact with the external world in a dimension of medium depth: between epidermis and viscera” (Massumi 2002, 58).  Viscerality—or interoception, the deep sensations of one’s viscera—“immediately registers excitations gathered by the five ‘exteroceptive’ senses even before they are fully processed by the brain” (Massumi2002, 60).  One’s flesh infolds the transcended world, while it concurrently unfolds one’s imminent interior world.  Flesh enmeshes these two worlds together, and does so synesthetically—without a distinction between the senses which are only cleaned and organ-ized later in consciousness.  It is an abundant void where all and nothing happens.  It cannot be experienced but is indubitably felt.  Flesh is that nothingness separating one’s self from the world, others, and one’s own body.

More accurately than Merleau-Ponty’s oft quoted ‘I am my body,’ we might say now, following Jean-Luc Marion: “I am my flesh and it coincides absolutely with me” (2007, 112).  It is, indeed, as flesh that we take a body in the world, yet as I have noted above, flesh is that phenomenological substance that slips from the regard:

by definition, no flesh can appear as a body; or, more radically, if one understands this appearing in the simple sense of offering itself naked to the gaze, it is only fitting for a body and never for a flesh, precisely because that which gives the flesh its privilege—the capacity of feel and feel itself feeling—cannot appear directly under any light. (Marion 2007, 116-117)

However, flesh lacks nothing: it twists and contorts, infolds and unfolds, forms and deforms precisely what it needs to.  Flesh is constantly becoming.  Flesh, if we must define it, can be understood as being “half way between a spatio-temporal individual and the idea, a sort of incarnate principle” (Lapointe 1975, 403).  It is, quite accurately, a body without organs.


—On a Body without Organs

As we turn now to the peculiar body without organs (BwO) we see how flesh and affect are intertwined, folded into one another.  Or, perhaps more accurately, how affect is the relative frequency at which flesh quivers, and as we have seen, they both occur at that medium depth that is not merely not body, but it is opposed to body.[1]  As a body without organs is composed of flesh, it too lacks nothing, “except the consent to be a proper organism” (Bruns 2007, 708).  If we recall the roots of the words ‘organ’ and ‘organism’—organon, Greek for ‘tool’—some light is shed upon the subtlety of the previous statement.  A body without organs is not the beautiful and, more importantly, useful Cartesian body-machine,but preferably, a grotesque and useless quivering lump of meat.  As Deleuze and Guattari describe, a body without organs

is made in such a way that it can be occupied, populated only by intensities.[....]Still, the BwO is not a scene, a place, or even a support upon which something comes to pass.[....]It is not space, nor is it in space; it is matter that occupies space to a given degree—to the degree corresponding to the intensities produced. (1987, 153)

And in order to make one’s self a body without organs, one must dismantle the body, which is to say, dismantle the “subject of stratification within a regime of signs” (Bruns 2007, 708).  It is to strip one’s self of body and become flesh: “passive and weak, torpid and shapeless, wet and fragrant, warm and luxurious”; and yet, its hunger is insatiable, flesh is for eating and being eaten (Bruns 2007, 707).  A body without organs is dis-organ-ized flesh, pathetically preindividual and amorphous—or perhaps only seemingly amorphous, but rather polymorphous: formless only because it possesses the potential of all forms.

While the program for becoming a body without organs is often described in violent, horrific, or pornographic terms, as “[f]lesh is the natural site of suffering, punishment, and sacrifice” (Bruns 2007, 707-708), Deleuze and Guattari caution that it “has never meant killing yourself, but rather opening the body to connections that presuppose an entire assemblage, circuits, conjunctions, levels and thresholds, passages and distributions of intensity, and territories and deterritorializations” (1987, 160).  Again, there is nothing absent or lacking, as Deleuze explains, “it is finally defined by the temporary and provisional presence of determinate organs” (2003, 42).  The capacity to reach and grasp unfolds my hand to me; yet, requires no need of the olfactory or auditory, whose organs can become deterritorialized and infolded back into my flesh, back into a body without organs.

Flesh quivers with the intensities of affect, resonating with a body without organs causing ‘matter to occupy space to a given degree’, and as the frequency alters so does a body without organs.  A constant territorializing and deterritorializing, forming and deforming, figuring and grounding.  In the polymorphous nature of a body without organs, there is a hint as to how to respond to my paradoxical task mentioned above: giving form to the formless.  I noted before, also, flesh is the meat of one’s corporeal body and that phenomenological substance that slips from the regard, but it is, furthermore, that medium through which the technology of my paintings operate.  We are now in a position to begin to examine the connection between flesh and paint.

[1] ‘Body’ here is taken as the Greek concept.  It is a body, and not flesh, that is “shaped into a thing of beauty and object of regard; it is self-possessed, which means under control and capable of struggle and achievement” (Bruns 2007, 707).

thick fat            blood run through

pink-yellow-white fat                greasy


warm and fragrant         pale without the sun

soft thick fat      on the bone that is like no other:


ilium                 into a broad thin wing

it supports the meat                   and the fat


glorious and gigglely                              fat

ripples              with the pounding


pubic tubercle:              a little pad of fat

a ribbon of flavor          salty


skin soft with the fat beneath                 squishy

when pawed                 opens a bestial desire


to bite and taste                        to flavor

with rosemary and oregano       OH to taste!


with the consuming gaze            with knife and fork

this wonderful               ill-appreciated substance!

1. Introduction

(or: Concerning the Blank Page & Canvas)

What lies before me now is an indefinite string of blank pages.  In some respects staring at this page, rather the digital version of a page, is not too unlike staring at a blank canvas.  The page or canvas may be bare, stark naked in fact, but it is far from empty.  It is already full.  The blank page is full to the brim with what will be written, what might be written, and what will be edited and removed; it simply needs to be revealed.  It is the same on the canvas.  The canvas is full of potential, an infinite variation of virtual paint and marks.  The whole world is there.  This artist only chooses what shall become visible.[1]  Conversely, this writer chooses what shall become legible amongst the myriad virtual words, sentences, and punctuation.  It is a process of expression—a topic I shall return to—and in expression there is always the possibility of discovery: aha!  So as I set to this task of elucidating my practice and project to the reader, know that I am writing as much to bring into light these things to myself.  I am writing and, as I will come to show, painting to discover what it is that I ‘know’ but do not yet know.[2]

As I am now on the verge of possibly making discoveries while writing, the reader too is on the verge of making discoveries in reading—or not.  There is a difference though, and it is more than obvious.  I face a void: the blank page and canvas.  The reader does not face a void, instead an abundance: of words, marks, smudges, passages of clarity, of confusion, moments of repulsion, of attraction.  But no less is the reader in a place of potential than this author.  It is potential expression through reading: meanings smudge in the viewing of them, notions can move from uncertainty to precision, words blur as do images, paragraphs and paint lose their coherency or perhaps gain some, notions can become lost in a sea of other thoughts, and life can sometimes, with a little good fortune, become moored on particularly insightful considerations.  What lies before the reader here and the spectator in the gallery, are potential meanings or confusions; obscurities or elucidations.

In this regard, I do not see this document as an explanatory text, or rather, not only this.  I intend this paper to potentially work toward the same ends as the paintings that I am presenting in the exhibition Let Me Remember You as You Were Before You Existed.  In few a words: I want to show the spectator in the gallery subtleties of embodied experience that are inadequately translated into words by encouraging an affective interaction with the paintings.  I hope to suture body back onto mind and begin to heal this falsely severed limb that has caused a disembodied engagement with the world.  I want my work to be an antidote for this erred amputation.  In lieu of describing this collection of fragmented, distorted, and reconfigured painted bodies set alone in empty spaces—in effect, transforming corporeal bodies into discourse—I would like the work being done here, with words on the page, to parallel what it is that I am attempting to accomplish in the gallery, with paint on canvas.

I hope to place an emphasis on embodied experience throughout this paper by first exploring how personal experiences have shaped my sensitivity to what I have come to call ‘somatic knowledge’.  This will move towards the philosophical framework that I have drawn on to inform my present body of paintings and finish with considerations of how these notions find their way onto the canvas.  So come, explore with me now, the abundance of these blank pages; let us make discoveries together: two bodies linked through space and time by the tactility of the paper and keyboard, the visibility of words as they slip in and out of focus, the pain in the small of our backs as we sit our way through passages of obscurity and clarity.

[1] See: Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Trans Daniel W. Smith (Minneapolis: TheUniversity ofMinnesota Press, 2003), 77.
[2] I hope the sense of this sentence will become clear as the reader progresses through what is to follow.

In this space leave mind behind and word to rest, for tongues know not what they say. Listen with stomach to digest this silence, and caress with eye to palpate the body’s murmur: the skin will say more than you can possibly know. Because ants comprehend the universe better than you do; because you are a whisper, a warm wind blowing dispassionate syllables out into the dark void that deafens the ear—no, a parasite of nominals and verbifications that transform comprehension into mind full phonemes: consuming brain, seeping into the spinal column, and expulsion from the throat. An excrement falling from mouth, a deafening venom of nausea floating in the ear, speaking a hunger that guts do not understand. Do not speak, do not name: who are you without your name? You are a myth of your own creation—ciphered meat, encoded bone—become flesh drenched in your skin. Evoke the instant before mind in heavy crepuscular air filled with warm and pungent pink fragrance.

And let me remember you

as you were

before you existed.

3. Concerning the Philosophical

My experiences in the dance studio have not only influenced my painting practice, but seem to have guided me toward schools of thought where the body, embodiment, and bodily experience play a central role.  I have gravitated to Phenomenology for this reason, to which the representational theory of perception established in the Cartesian Project forms an antithesis.  Here I will establish the conceptual frame work that informs the decisions I make in the studio, beginning with a look at the Cartesian Project, contrasted then with Phenomenology, and finally ending with a consideration of Affective Theory and how it both influences and supports my understanding of somatic knowledge.


—On the Cartesian Project

I do not want to dwell for too long on an explanation of the Cartesian Project, as it is well known.  Suffice it to say, with René Descartes’ formulation of ‘ego cogito, ergo sum’—I think, therefore I exist—in 1641, published in Meditations on First Philosophy, the Cartesian paradigm was ushered into Western thinking.  His philosophy was partially founded upon observations made in the anatomy theaters and butcher’s shops of the Netherlands in the seventeenth century.[1]  It would have been upon viewing dissections like we see in Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolas Tulp (Ill.1.) that Descartes[2] would have speculated:

just as a clock “constructed of wheels and weights observes all the laws of its nature,” so too we might “consider the body of a man as a kind of machine ... made up ... in such a way that, even if there were no mind in it, it would still perform all the same movements.” (Philosophical Writings II, 58, as quoted in Hass 2008, 21)

As Dr. Tulp manipulates the corps’ flexorum digitorum the metacarpals of the hand would have closed, making a ghastly fist.  A demonstration of how “[o]ne intellect (Tulp’s) has animated two bodies, one of which is living, and the other is dead.  In the dead body, the will [...] has been extinguished, but the mechanism [...] was still in operation” (Sawday 1995, 153).  In itself, this mechanistic view of the human body does not divorce mind from body.  Rather, it is how Descartes devises the body-machine to function in perception that cuts the tie:

perception is a mental representation, a re-presentation of those extended bodies that are in mechanistic, point-by-point causal relations.  It is a copy of that original presentation, a mimēsis, with color [sic], depth, texture, size, and shape added by the mind. (Hass 2008, 21)

No longer is the world presented to us directly via our senses, but only, and merely, re-presented.  Descartes reinforces this by writing, “But what was it about [the earth, sky, stars, and everything else I apprehended with the senses] that I perceived clearly?  Just that the ideas, or thoughts, of such things appeared before my mind” (Philosophical Writings II, 24, as quoted in Hass 2008, 15).  It is this representational conception of perception that thoroughly dissects mind from body.  It devastates our connection to others, our world, and our own bodies.

I hear echoes of this notion in more contemporary thinking when we begin to consider our world as a discursive construct.  I find it evident in Judith Butler’s statement that the “signifying act delimits and contours the body that it claims to find prior to any and all signification” (1993, 30).  Although Butler does not outright deny the material fact of bodies in the world, she does point out that “[t]o posit by way of language a materiality outside of language is still to posit that materiality, and the materiality so posited will retain that positing as its constitutive condition” (1993, 30).  Her action here, however, is first, one of linguistics alone, she is yet to grasp the materiality itself, in the flesh; and second, it is one that only re-presents the world through language, ‘the world of which knowledge speaks’ as Merleau-Ponty notes above.

Before moving on, I would like to clarify a couple of points.  First, I do not necessarily think the mechanical view of the body is entirely wrong.  Second, nor do I reject entirely the notion of discursive constructs of our world.  In the prior, of course, we know the body is composed of a variety of parts that work in causal relation and it is “our primordial instrument or ur-medium [... in fact] the basic somatic terms of ‘organ’ and ‘organism’ derive from the Greek word for tool, organon” (Shusterman 2008, 4).  In the latter, it is evident that much of how we conceive of our Selves is a product of linguistic constructions, as Steven Connor quotes Jean-François Lyotard: “It is not I who am born, who is given birth to.  I will be born afterwards, with language, precisely in leaving infancy” (2001, 40).  What I am suggesting is that this is a limited understanding of bodies, embodiment and knowledge.  That there is something more than simply a mechanical body mysteriously linked to a mind that constructs the world through linguistic re-presentations.  The question that lay before me now, as I turn to the counter point of Cartesian thinking: how to speak or think the world prior to re-presentation.


—On Phenomenology

In light of Descartes’ representational theory of perception, the “clarion cry of phenomenology, ‘back to the things themselves’ [...], first announced in Husserl’s Logical Investigations” (Moran 2000, 9) becomes abundantly clear.  Nonetheless, in this we are left with an aporia, and Michel Henry puts it plainly: “In its pathetic immediacy, absolute transcendental life [...] slips away from the regard and thus from every possible knowing, from everything that we call knowledge, speech, and logos” (2008, 92).  That what we typically call knowledge—as an operation of language—always falls short of presenting the ‘immediacy of life’.  Language is always, and only ever, a re-presentation.

In the bundled string of words and sentences on this page I cannot give the immediacy of this hot cup on my desk, filled with its thin dark fluid, wafting its warm and lively aroma.  The fluid’s thick, rich and nutty flavor, will not pass across your tongue, liven your senses, or make your belly warm.  These words are only pathetic attempts to re-present to the reader my cup of coffee.  However, this short description does point to a method of phenomenology that does not attempt to bypass the aforementioned aporia, but instead, accepts and uses it.  A phenomenological argument, “to borrow a phrase from Heidegger, [...] ‘says to show.’ [... It] uses language to direct our attention to something in our worldly experience, to show us something, to help us notice and see it” (emphasis mine, Hass 2008, 5).  Language is not used to represent, but instead, to direct and evoke.  It is, in the proper sense, a sign pointing to an experience in the world, saying—though not necessarily in so many words: look, touch, hear, taste, smell, feel: take notice, open yourself to this ‘something’ in your worldly experience.[3]

In this way, phenomenology attempts to illuminate—to shed light upon or bring into light—the phenomena of our experience with language.  It ‘says to show.’  However, I am not saying anything with my paintings.  I am choosing what shall become visible: making what is not properly visible seen.  I am illuminating phenomena with paint.  I am painting a world that I want the spectator to notice and open themselves to.  I see my practice as the process of making visible to show.

My phenomenological painting method—making visible to show—is not meant to operate as a deconstructing critique of past notions.  It, instead, follows in the footsteps of Merleau-Ponty’s late philosophy of expression, functioning to renew “our connections to the world, of embracing our very being as flesh and nature, of remaining alive to our being with each other” (Hass 2008, 9).  Expression is not a pulling apart, but rather a putting together, constructing, making connections.  Expression, Lawrence Hass writes, “is about the creative transformation of some previous data or experience so that it yields new knowledge or radiates a powerful, new sense without the original data disappearing or being covered up” (2008, 155).  Expression is a positive engagement with the world.

In my painting, expression might be seen in the adaptation of Baroque techniques or styles toward new ends.[4]  Though, not for the purpose of critiquing the rise of Cartesian thought, also born in the Baroque era, but instead, to ‘transform this previous data’, to make visible the abundance of the void between the causal relations of the mechanistic body and the linguistic constructions of our world.  Or, to put it plainly: my paintings make visible the affects that intertwine body with mind.  With this, I will now turn to a consideration of the theories of affect.


—On Affect

Our initial difficulty here, as we begin to look at affect, is the problem of its definition.  Often the notion of affect is simply reduced to be equivalent to emotion; and though what constitutes emotion can be exceptionally wide ranging, emotions themselves are only a re-presentation of affect—that is to say, emotions name affects.  I find the most suitable definition of affect imbedded in Michel Henry’s explanation of Material Phenomenology’s substance of inquiry:

Material phenomenology is able to designate this invisible phenomenological substance.  It is not a nothing but rather an affect, or put otherwise, it is what makes every affect, ultimately every affection, and thus every thing possible. The phenomenological substance that material phenomenology has in view is the pathetic immediacy in which life experiences itself.  Life is nothing other that this pathetic embrace [...]. (2008, 2-3)

To illuminate this further, I might expand this definition of affect by saying that the pathetic immediacy in which life experiences itself “constitutes a nonlinear complexity out of which the narration of conscious states such as emotion are subtracted, but always with ‘a never-to-be-conscious autonomic remainder’” (Clough 2007, 2).  Affect, then, is the imminent autonomic sensation of life: “a lived paradox [...] where what cannot be experienced cannot but be felt” (Massumi 2002, 30).  ‘Autonomic’, I should note, refers to the autonomic nervous system, which controls those bodily functions that are non-conscious: heart and respiratory rates, the smooth muscles of the bowel, as well as skin functions.

In further exploration of the autonomic, Brian Massumi describes an experiment that shows a half second lapse between physical stimulation and becoming conscious of that stimulation.  Of interest, in this time between stimulation and cognition, the experimenters noted significant activity on an EEG—an Electroencephalograph that measures brain waves—connected to the test subjects.[5]  This half second “is missed [in consciousness] not because it is empty, but because it is overfull”; it is out of this overfull half second that “[w]ill and consciousness are subtractive [... reducing] a complexity too rich to be functionally expressed” (Massumi 2002, 29).  Massumi goes on to note:

that during the mysterious half second, what we think of as “free,” “higher” functions, such as volition, are apparently being performed by autonomic, bodily reactions occurring in the brain but outside consciousness, and between brain and finger but prior to action and expression. (2002, 29)

Based on this, Massumi speculates that another set of experimenters who were looking for cognition failed to find it “because they were looking in the wrong place—in the ‘mind,’ rather than in the body they were monitoring” (2002, 29).[6]  Affect, we could say, is the overfull void between too rich bodily experience and a cleansed, organized consciousness of experience; “as Kant himself said profoundly, we can only think the world because we have already experienced it” (emphasis mine, Merleau-Ponty 1964, 17).  This evokes strongly the reflection that what we consider as ‘I’—the conscious subject—is epiphenomenal, that Lyotard was indeed correct, and further suggests that ‘I’ am reborn at each moment in naming experience.  For me, this also begins to beg the question: what do bodies ‘know?’  To which I think we must respond, ‘a great deal more than we give credit.’

It would appear that we have opened a Deleuzian fold onto a strange and mysterious world that cannot be spoken, since to do so would have it slip from grasp.  Like sunspots in one’s vision, affect can be kept in view provided it is not looked at directly.  Affect is available to us in the perceptual field—synesthetically—in its state of becoming; yet once perceived becomes something else.  It is ‘preindividual’ and “cannot be understood in terms of form, even if it infolds forms in a germinal state [...; it] has a different topology and causal order from the ‘individuals’ which arise from it and whose forms return to it” (Massumi 2002, 34).  In affect, we now have a deeper grasp of what I have outlined above as ‘somatic knowledge’.  And in this is my paradoxical task: in order to paint these subtleties of embodied experience, I must give form to the formless, to register ‘what cannot be experienced but cannot but be felt’ on the canvas in order to make visible to show.

Yet, affect, Patricia Ticineto Clough writes, “is also theorized in relation to the technologies that are allowing us to both ‘see’ affect and produce affective bodily capacities beyond the body’s organic-physiological constraints” (2007, 2).  Painting is just such a technology.[7]  Drawing on the work of Deleuze and Guattari, Simon O’Sullivan notes “that art operates on an intensive register; it involves affective capture,” where art can then produce “affects on and in the body that are irreducible to signification or representation” (2006, 19).  My paintings are certainly still signs of sorts; however, they attempt to infold and unfold sensual embodied experience, and in this way endeavor to be asignifying signs.  In short, I aim to fold affects into paint that can then unfold for the spectator.  This somatic type of ‘knowledge’ that I want to express through my paintings usurps the “need to ‘read’ the work to find [the] ideas that somehow are more real than its physicality” (Levine 2005, 20).  That the ideas—those simple statements potentially extracted from the artwork—are not “more important and incisive than [the] immediate encounter with the work” (Levine 2005, 20).  The supposed necessity of language to know or bare meaning is antagonistic to my personal experiences in the dance studio that show meaning and knowledge to be something embodied in experience.  Painting is that technology that deals in affective capture and transfer through immediate embodied encounters, first with this artist and then the spectators of his artworks.

The task now is to examine how or where affect—somatic knowledge—manifests itself, and as I close this section concerning my philosophical influences, it begins to come into light.  The theories of affect, coupled with phenomenological thought and my personal experiences indicate the object, or more to the point, the phenomenological substance of my inquiry.  The substance that I seek can be found at an “asubjective and nonobjective medium depth [that] is one of the strata proper to the corporeal” (Massumi 2002, 59): it is flesh.

[1] See: Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (London & New York: Routledge, 1995), 146-158.
[2] Interestingly, Jonathan Sawday conjectures that Rembrandt and Descartes may have crossed paths inAmsterdam orLeiden as both men frequented anatomy theaters and butcher’s shops.See: ibid.
[3] The reader is likely straining to see the faded text that reads: ‘something’.
[4] I have drawn influence specifically from the work of Rembrandt van Rijn because of his connections to the formation of the Cartesian project, as noted briefly above.
[5] See: Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham &London: Duke University Press, 2002.), 28-29.
[6] See: Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham &London: Duke University Press, 2002.), 23-29.
[7] My thanks to Timothy Long for the consideration of painting as a technology.  In subsequent conversations with Timothy, he has called painting “the Internet of its time,” pointing out that once paintings started to be produced on canvas, they were easily transported across Europe, aiding in the spread of information.


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with skin too taut over jagged bone, (2011)

oil and mixed media on canvas

53 3/4" x 39 1/2"