Fugitive Theses on Thérèse Oulton’s The Passions No.6 and the Metals Paintings (1984)

Peter Gidal’s catalogue essay on Therese Oulton’s Fool’s Gold, exhibited at Gimpel Fils, 1984.

“My politics”, said I, in a glorious burst of idiot demonhood “and that of every other woman in this room, is waiting to see what you men are going to inflict on us next. That’s my politics…”
Joanna Russ, On Strike Against God (p.30)

It is obvious that for the artist obsessed with his (sic) expressive vocation, anything and everything is doomed to become occasion (…) But if the occasion appears as an unstable term of relation, the artist, who is the other term, is hardly less so (…) All that should concern us is the acute and increasing anxiety of the relation itself, as though shadowed more and more darkly by a sense of invalidity, of inadequacy, of existence at the expense of all that it excludes, all that it blinds to. The history of painting, here we go again, is the history of its attempts to escape from this sense of failure, by means more authentic, more ample, less exclusive relations between representer and representee (…)
Samuel Beckett, Three Dialogues (1949), p.124-5.

Painting which however stylistically “differently” needs to represent (rather than present) is painting which relies on the opportune, on pregiven meanings, and codes within which those meanings already exist, the way you are born into an ideologically predetermined history before being born. What is then necessary is a break: resistence and struggle. Otherwise there is a denial of the productive possibilities and the transformations of meaning that painting as a practice can inculate. Such a denial would make of painting illustration; Oulton’s painting at its best does not. In their attempt to break with the natural, any naturalism, her works (to varying degrees) engage with it. For example, The Passions no.6 dialectically distances ones passions… the histrionics of the earlier paintings, their flamboyant melodramatics, overabundance, Turner-Delacroixes-queness, overabundance of style, contrast and sheer paint, as if they were attempts at excess, in The Passions no.6 is handled with a Wagnerian intimacy.

In other words, what could crudely have been seen as a Wagnerism1 of excess is problematized via, and against, the possibility of spectacle (the stage-set likeness of some of her previous works). The spectacle passions of The Passions no.6, its “intentionality” i.e. what it does with paint, is an operation and process at each moment and in each gesture against the coming-into-being of excess. Thus this painting cannot be consumed as spectacle: it is (a) painting which disallows any easy position of recognition (recognition by definition naturalizing the recognized.)

In identification, recognition of the other takes the place of the (material) other, assimilating the other to the self (introjection) by producing the “satisfactions” of various consumptions. That would be a reestablishment of the viewer’s “sensitivity” and narcissism, via the artist’s commodity (the aesthetic object) and the artist (the human object). Such recognition is thus of a prismatic self. in The Passions no.6 the constructed impossibility of apprehending the painting’s “contents” as spectacle disallows the viewer that conscious and unconscious position.

If identity is disallowed through such painting’s process, the material work becomes the interrogation of the viewer by the attempted representation as much as the interrogation of the painting’s meanings through the viewer’s conscious and unconscious processes. This is not to anthropomorphize the painting, but rather to see as material practices both paint/canvas and the viewer’s historically constituted objective and subjective positions, politics.

Naming The Passions no. 6‘s intimacy “Wagnerian” refers to physical and verbal exchange, for example in dialogue-scenes in The Walkyre. In the Zubin Mehta/Filippo Sanjust (Vienna, 1981) production, translucent screens were utilized to distance and isolate monologue and gesture. Additionally, the long dialogues were foregrounded, with the “music” as separate interference rather than complement. It came close to a kind of distanciated objectification of theatrical convention that Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls (1967) produces, with the “framing” process dynamically iterated as construct, unnaturalistic, arbitrary, as is all human exchange (which nevertheless desperately attempts to deny this). Politics is the necessary positioning against the arbitrary. Oulton’s The Passions no. 6 is intimate in that sense, though (and this is important) through and via the paint process the expansive “theatrical” space is unframed, uncentred, out of “focus”, fugitive. Unapprehendable. Through such a process the painting problematizes both its specific representation and the current styles of various contemporary anti-modernists’ hysterical grandiose-gestural brushwork and content.

For painting to possibly be radically materialist, it must be a denial of the academicism and bourgeoisification of capitalist modernism (and post and anti-modernism), and must produce politico-aesthetic positions (& critiques) determinately against any retrogression to decadence, excess, the body, individualism, and the commodity fetish.

The historically dominant avant garde painting codes are problematized by Oulton in The Passions no. 6, Copper Glance, Mortal Coil, in each’s very moment of assertion. Thus there is no retreat in these works from the (art) historically/politically necessary engagements for (and in) large and medium scale painting in the 1980’s. That struggle. No retreat from oil, scale or subject. (By ‘subject’ I mean to include her construction of the unapprehendable through the layers of endlessly processed precise brushwork.) This can go either way. Like mid-period Jasper Johns or late Guston, representation/metaphor/(even straightforward) symbolism, could go either way: a stylistic for (and subsumed by) the represented “objects” (or spaces, depths, sites, mysteries) or a “problematizing of the signifier”, shunning stylistic masquerade, a process against naturalism (however defined).

If the former is the case, metaphorical elements (steps, bow, water, foliage) disinterred from the painterly struggle function to psychologically “flatten out” complexities which could dialecticize the material. This straight metaphorizing, dispensed with by 1984, is retained in Oulton’s works of 1981-1983, although the other “flattening out” (the simplified modernism of overall flatness) had always been avoided.

I do not like the early works (1981-1983), monumental 3-dimensional spaces, mythical (mystical) “archeological” sites, symbolic scenic fixations.

What does it mean to say “I do not like the early works”? It means the others, The Passions no. 6, Copper Glance, and Rue (all 1984) have the impetus, passion, style, paintwork to wrench away from solidified “focus” any perspectival depth of illusionist space, and simultaneously cause unfocussing re any desire for an apprehendable plane. (There is less 3-dimensionality in Cranach, less flatness in Pollock). What was also to be done was to make subtle and complex, and not final ly static and cliched, nor humanistic, the painterly gesture. Thus paint work rather than expression(ism). So, Oulton is neither a (New) Romantic nor a (“New”) Expressionist, though the traces of Sturm und Drang are the traces of a romantic impetus. Oulton’s reinsertion of this problematic refuses to deny the necessity of certain (mythological!) poetic (Rilkean?) dichotomies as basic to the practice of oil painting in the 20th century as much as in the 16th (we disagree). In the most extreme and sophisticated works, what is “romantic”, what is “myth” is fugitive, not assimilable to a norm which would allow it any rightness of place. In that, the work is not a representation but, at its best, a search for the elements of a possible exhumation of sustainable imagery as an endless impossibility.

There is no synchronicity between “the artist’s search” and a painting’s material “findings”, its processes and productions.

Hopefully Oulton’s paintings become more and more difficult to like, for those who do.

What is the complex and contradictory power of The Passions no. 6, Rue, Copper Glance, and Cardinal, other than materialities already explicated? It is a power which does not allow the viewer the reproduction of her/his sexuality-based positions (for men, those of oppressor, for women those of the oppressed).

A painting can produce its subject-matters and processes in such a manner as to reproduce for example (socially-constructed) male positions. The latter we know are inseparable from the social power of having a hold over the “object”, possessing (the illusion of) knowledge of and control over the seen (and perpetual untrammelled access to it). Illusionary or not voyeuristic satisfaction via “control” over the painting’s process and content reproduces unquestioned stabilization of the ego as patriarchally defined all-embracing consciousness. Such a structure reproduces the oppression of that sexual category defined as object of spectacle, women. Other positions are possible; lack of spectacle is resistence. When “perception equals knowledge” (what we see is what we know) then that ideological system reinforces the power of the sex-class which proceeds by such assumptions. Under patriarchy men benefit from that regime, as their (our) structures of knowledge are based on it (with women as object, object of specular gaze, a-and-de-historicized).

To paint against that, questioning and subverting securely placed male identified viewing, is to question and subvert the maintaining-structures of such power2 The viewer must oppose perception to knowledge, can be positioned to oppose the reproduction of dominant ideology vis a vis the seen.

In experimental film and painting (experimental referring to an attack on what preexists) certain theorists and practitioners are defining radical materialist work in terms hinted at in this essay, rather than in the reactionary ones of simply documenting “left-wing” or “feminist” content. The struggle is in the production process. Another struggle is in the streets. Nothing prevents anyone from engaging in, and with, both; the structures and forms of “recognition” of the world must be smashed, overthrown, not simply interpreted differently. These structures and forms include the world of representation, the cultural place in and against which radical practice (which, as Christine Delphy has articulated, is always theoretical and polemical3 must operate. Otherwise “statements” within culture, i.e. painting, film, music, etc, become mere illustration (or stories) of (i.e. of something else, not historical but “about” this history or that), outside of production and transformation, struggle and contradiction. The latter the motor of every history. It is not stories but material (production) processes, whether of language, images, or objects, that are the social practices which can subvert, and change, the state of things. Some of these problematics some of these paintings engage.

Such work is contrary to the hysterical male anti-feminist backlash of the nouveau fascists Clemente, Chia, Salle, Fischl, etc. The antiphallocentric, anti-sexist feminist struggles in form and content scare the main enemy’s avant garde of the Right, as well as those on the Left who maintain that one group is allowed to resist oppression but only if those in power (men, in patriarchy) lose nothing, thus a selfserving “political logic” of the oppressor.

Is there a “truth”, “rightness”, “quality” for a painting such as Copper Glance? Is the series of conventions utilized for this painting-practice within imaginable and apprehendable codes that are self-defined by that grouping of Oulton’s works that you see? A definition of the acceptable, based on that, or even on that plus aspects of other contemporary painters’ products? Certain paintings here refuse this, disrupt the possibilities of coherent codes of understanding and apprehending “what is”. Thus no immediate placing (naturalization) takes place for the most worked-through paintings. Using criteria condensed from some of the above arguments one can say The Passions no. 6 and Copper Glance oppose The Passions no. 7 and Quicksilver. Rue and Mortal Coil oppose Galena, differently.

The body of work does not have an automatic relation to the body of the painter, or to the body of the painter’s ideas about painting. A materialist practice would not allow for such identitites. However nonexistent, an idealist critique would nevertheless demand such identitites! None of this is to deny that ideological (sexual/political) constructions between painter and painting must be constituted not least by painters as an attempted defence against the retrogressions of “inspired spontaneity”. The attempt must be made to theorize positions, to construct links (and however contradictory relations) between practices (the practice of the painter’s thoughts, the practice of painting, the practice of various ideologies and politics, etc). Dialectical Materialism: The theory of reality affirming the continuous transformation of matter and dynamic interconnectedness of things and concepts according to Webster’s. The painting process’s meanings don’t have to rely on a metaphysic!

The Quatrocento sought, here and there, a stimulus in moving the disappearance-point of lines sideways, without ulterior rationale; not outside of the picture but towards the edge. For the Classic consciousness such dispersals are uncomfortable.
Wölfflin, Classic Art (1893, 3rd ed 1904 p.262, footnote 1)

In Oulton’s Fountain (1983), Galena (1984), and Quicksilver (1984), there is a disturbing search for the singular perspective point, even if not centralized. It is a point slightly askew where the spectator is “ideally” held to be. In such a definition the spectator’s position mirrors out from the canvas the perspectival disappearance point within the representation’s deep space. What is disturbing is the desire and ideology to position the viewer in that way, as such a positioning of the ideal point-for-view assumes the stable consumption of a spatial wholism. Such viewing presumes the (political) colonization of the viewed. Askew this position may be re the paintings referred to; yet it is still a singular, even if not central, perspective point from and through which this viewing operation takes place. The shift “askew” still assumes the implied centrality off of which shifts (may) occur whilst the norm, and its function as norm, is maintained, and reproduced. Reproducing this illusion insures a stable order of things. Yet The Passions no. 6, Rue, Copper Glance, and Cardinal obstinately refuse such scenarios.4

The danger is of perspective depth remaining unproblematic, with the painting-work (hand plus brush plus paint on canvas) a veil or curtain, rather than an irrefutable process insisting that there can be no revelation. Revelation/exhumation is neither desired nor possible; the aesthetic object is the painting, not (un)necessary pretences.

The quest (i.e. to paint) is, finally, one of passion and disappointment. The question for some is whether such desire ought to produce objects infused by the illusion of fulfillment. Also: is the craft “element” or the art “element” art’s a priori? Is to even momentarily “distinguish” these “elements” to imagine the unimaginable? The process of painting, the ineluctable act of painting, is a matter of the muchness or lessness of both, terms in which when we look at Therese Oulton’s work painting exists qua painting.

In philosophy one does not only have to in each case learn what is to be said about an object but also how one must talk about it. First one must always again learn a method with which to approach it.
Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour, p.52

What is crucial is the recognition of the differentiation between A and B. A: The use of brush-strokes in an “expressionist” manner towards achieving an effect of (the artist’s, and by identification, the viewer’s) ego-projection, the symbolic metaphorization of a frenzied psyche, narcissistic ego-spectacularization (male thuggery, in short. Oulton’s apt phrase). B: the attenuated material(ist) processes of oil paint(ing)’s presentation, through an endless procedure brought to arbitrary “closure” (the specific painting, stopped, ended) without an exteriorization of some quasi-religious, transcendental, or “truth”-seeking motive or rationale. No more the old humanist phantasy, romance of “the natural”. Romance without Finance is a Nuisance. (Charlie Parker).

Yet a phantasized transcendental natural subject (viewer as implicit subject of the work) and object (the painting, its marks and significations) still is in some of Oulton’s works an unsolved problem rather than a dynamic problematic. The light/dark dramatics of Fountain, Galena, and Quicksilver betray antinomies yet in each simultaneously a compositional completion which harmonizes rather than exploding them, as if any object, literary meanings, or the artist’s personal investments/obsessions which pre-exist the painting’s production could be naturalized and contained. This closure is illusionary, yet ideologically real, as if some representation of a subject exterior to the painting process were somehow then communicable, and communicated.

Against this, Mortal Coil places its “bow” or “coil” uneasily within, through, and against the paint surfaces and depths, so that a resolution, a “proper” (or adequate) harmony is neither established nor establishable. Precisely thereby no adequacy is given either to perspective or to other pictorial conventions engaged: frame, depth, painted shapes, etc. Because of this what grey surface-luminosity (for example) there is in this painting paradoxically determines a deep surface, all the more disallowing a frame-filling overall image surface; the very structuring of image is dialecticized.

There is in the new works the refusal to make (what could handled badly result dangerously close to) landscape or any scape at all.

Unfortunately, the prevailing ideology of reading an image means much of all this gets missed at first viewing, or altogether, in an ideological(ly understandable) operation which “reads” all cultural work within dominant forms and formulations, attempting to deny (through conscious suppression or unconscious regression) any radical process, any determined difficulty or struggle produced by the works’ dialectic processes.

This is all in all painting which persists with the danger of ambiguity; also with the danger of falling to one side, or the other, of the symbolic (Lacanian or not). The Passions no. 6, Copper Glance, Rue and Cardinal (all works of 1984) produce (from that problematic) works of rare and difficult beauty in their complex and contradictory power.

London, Aug/Sept. 1984 © Peter Gidal

  1. Lunacharsky (Lenin’s cultural commissar) on Wagner: “However, Wagner’s music is not simply organized sound. Nietzsche reproached Wagner for being in all actuality not a musician but a mime, a man of the theatre (the use of histrionics). Yet we must delve deeper. An understanding of Wagner from a socialist point of view is a very intricate affair… the positive and negative are closely intertwined…”
    Always again the necessary death of art, the nihlism of the late 20th century dis-illusion, and the passion and texture of productive intensity… those are the contradictory modes of which none alone will produce the necessary struggles for change. Yet without hopelessness at its base nothing but illusion upon illusion.
    “Wagner’s abstraction that encompasses the concrete…”, that would enable “revolutionary passions…”
    Lunarcharsky, “Richard Wagner” (1933) in On Literature and Art, p.283, Moscow 1973 

  2. Oulton’s love for Titian and her interpretation of his attempted presentation of identified male self-loathing, an anti-male polemic by a male painter, formulated largely by the handling, Titian’s paint-use, can be theoretically disinterred
    and connected to some of the “formal” questions that relate to her work. We know the impetus of much culture is a deeply negative and positive imbrication in (and possible radical break from) history, precursors. (!)  

  3. “It is absurd to oppose polemic to theory for one very simple reason: no new idea appears in a void”. Christine Delphy, “A Materialist Feminism is Possible” (1980) in Feminist Review nr. 4, and in Delphy’s, Close to Home, A Materialist Analysis of Women’s Oppression, (Hutchinson, 1984, paperback).  

  4. These (Oulton’s) refusals, it must be stressed, take place importantly without a reversion to a reductive and simplistic capitalist modernism which I would define as unquestioned perspectival centrality in relation to the “towards flatness” paintings of Noland, Morris, Olitski, mid-period Stella, or to the (frequent) wholistics of Rothko, Newman, much Pollock, etc: objects of endless imaginary narrativization. These are distinguishable from the Soviet-based modernism of Rozanova, Popova, Stepanova, Delaunay, Malevich, Lissitsky, Kandinsky. Though each painting must be taken as a separate, specific, material process, not covered by some overall authorial or intentional “truth” (fallacy), I am for the sake of polemic here adumbrating certain artists’ “names” to in fact signify a multitude of paintings whose differences are falsely homogenized by bourgeois criticism. A materialist critique has to take each work as separate function, use, position, meaning. The muddled concepts of “flatness” and “modernism” misapprehended much work including early Stella and Warhol, not to mention Cezanne and Mondrian, in an antimaterialist, undialectical form.