Starting a new project always entails making bottom-line choices that will carry through from one work to the next. One of these initial choices, for the work that I’m doing now, had to do with ground. When I conceived the earliest of these paintings, my first priority was to achieve the ultimate in austerity. I would have to be rigorous in my choices in order to ensure that nothing made it into the works that was not absolutely necessary. As Robert Bresson commands in his Notes on the Cinematograph, “Cut what would deflect attention elsewhere.” I wanted nothing that would take away from the symbolic relationships of the figures. Starting with photographs of current events, usually from press sources, I was already cutting enormous amounts of information in the form of objects and people surrounding the principal figures. It seemed logical, even obligatory, to do the same with the elements of setting. I was also thinking a lot at the time about the de-contextualized existence of traditional sculpture, about how the figures, on the one hand, were sufficient in themselves, but on the other implied a setting simply with the fullness of their presence. That’s the kind of presence that I wanted for the figures in my paintings. And if sculpture exists in a de-contextualized space, then my figures should inhabit the same kind of space, but in a form that was proper to painting. Bresson again: “It is in its pure form that an art hits hard.”
Black was the way to go. Any of the chromatic colors seemed to be an addition to the work. I wanted subtraction, and a color implies too much. In an early version of one of the pieces—“Touch,” for those keeping score—I used a soupy green to imply the institutional setting that the figure, who is being placed under arrest, is or would soon be inhabiting. This green made perfect sense, but it was also superfluous. The hand that is resting on the back of the detainee is gloved in black, and the sleeve is blue—police-officer blue. What more needs to be said? I haven’t been able to find this Bresson quote again, but I know I read it somewhere: “If one violin is enough, don’t use two.”
Still, part of me worried about the possibly facile nature of this choice. Black was almost too closely associated with the dark impulses of human nature, exactly the sorts of impulses about which I was painting. From The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black” to the Netflix series Black Mirror, the absence of color has signified, perhaps too neatly after all, the absence of hope or redemption. It has signified death, the final destination for many of the figures I was depicting. I could hear Ian, the manager of Spinal Tap, justifying the black cover of Smell the Glove to a suspicious David St. Hubbins: “David, every movie in every cinema is about death. Death sells.” Maybe the black grounds weren’t so much an absence as a presence that was too on-point after all, or worse than on-point: tacky.
But when I started to hang multiple paintings together, my initial feeling seemed to bear out. By letting the figures hover in a deep black space that bore no trace of any existing, real place, the figures created their own setting, a setting that could not be fixed but that somehow encompassed the disparate activity in the different paintings, as if it all was taking place in some indistinct but coherent zone. One version of an indistinct, place-less zone where all things happen is, of course, the aforementioned black mirror that all of us carry around these days. It must have been Baudrillard who wrote that television is the place where all things happen. Now, of course, it’s cyberspace, which we “enter” on our phones. Can a color depict what we have come to know as a place that we visit but never inhabit? If so, it must be black, the color that is no color, the color of ultimate absence. “How much more black could this be?” asks Nigel, looking into the album cover that is a black mirror avant la lettre. “And the answer is, ‘None. None more black.’”
But another version of this indistinct zone is perhaps more relevant to what I’m trying to accomplish. It has to do with the difference between reality and the Real: between the place where things actually happen, and the space where they give way to a deeper truth. In his book Violence, in which he endeavors the task of “looking at violence awry,” Zizek expands on an idea from Wallace Stevens of “description without place”:
This is not a description which locates its content in a historical space and time, but a description which creates, as the background of the phenomena it describes, an inexistent (virtual) space of its own, so that what appears in it is not an appearance sustained by the depth of reality behind it, but a decontextualised appearance, an appearance which fully coincides with real being. . . . it extracts from the confused reality its own inner form.
This describes perfectly what I’m seeking to do by using the deep black spaces. I’m removing the figures from their “historical space and time,” from the “depth of reality behind” them, and creating “an inexistent (virtual) space” that “coincides with real being.” It brings us back to the difference between reality and the Real. Removing the figures from “reality” means only that they have been excised from their immediate context, the particular field, street corner, or building in which they were photographed. In "Touch" this means fashioning, out of the absence of the black ground, a setting for the figure that is more than the institution, for his Real is the nightmare of the state's obscene power. Taking away the trappings of place means that we can now re-contextualize the figures in a space that is identified with the Real, in order to highlight the deeper relationships between them, and the underlying, truer state of things. From the “confused reality” of the photographic models, I’m trying to discover reality’s “inner form.”
It’s what you do when you need that extra push over the cliff. Maybe all the Real really means is turning reality up to eleven.
John Rosewall, Touch, 2016