Occlude, Penetrate, Resolve: Paint in Relation to the Body.

Blair Vaughn-Gruler

Roland Barthes describes milk in his essay Wine and Milk, giving milk many of the qualities I ascribe to paint by saying that “milk is the opposite of fire by all the denseness of its molecules, by the creamy, and therefore soothing, nature of its spreading,”[1] and he goes on to describe wine with more qualities of paint: “mutilating, surgical, it transmutes and delivers…while milk is cosmetic, it joins, covers, restores.”[2] Milk and wine, who would want to mix the two? Yet paint, for me, embodies the qualities of both substances. Instead of looking at paint as a vehicle for authenticity or interiority, I see its meaning in its use: the soothing, the spreading, the restoring, the transmuting – the way I experience it with my body.

Paint is an ointment, with the occlusive and penetrative qualities of both milk and wine. The physical act of spreading paint, regardless of subject or pictorial image, leaves traces of the making suspended in congealed linseed ointment and pigment. Like skin, a painted surface remains vulnerable to the new layers of penetrant, and a new skin can be formed which binds to the old one. In my painting process, new layers encase previous traces of ointment and artist, literally enveloping the past in the present, replicating and making visible the process of thought and memory. First, I layer sets of marks within the paint by drawing, incising, erasing and repeating images of geometric forms. Next I submerge these images into another layer of paint. Sometimes this process is soothing, like milk, and sometimes it transmutes, or mutilates, more like wine. Later, I’ll excavate the edges of the previous actions by scraping or sanding, revealing a line or indentation.  And, from here, I repeat the procedure, and then repeat it again.

At the center of this experience is an ongoing comprehension of the materiality of paint: an understanding of its texture, sensory experience and visceral affect. This understanding is different from a belief in the broad strokes of expressionism – where meaning is embedded in brushstroke or gesture, the artist is considered a privileged visionary, and “authentic” is an important signifier of esoteric meaning and value. This other understanding is that that paint carries meaning of its own, without the overlay of imposed and contrived ideas, philosophies or beliefs.

The accumulation of paint has meaning associated with materiality and function, which coincides with the similarities between the action of spreading and the act of thinking. The process of applying (and removing) paint replicates memory function. Manipulating paint is the thinking, erasing or covering over is a form of forgetting, and making a new image is remembering. Instead of trying to imbue paint with intention and personal expression, imported from outside the physical realities of paint itself, I see this conversation between medium and process as having meaning on its own.

Paint, and particularly oil paint, compels me with its close association to skin, medicinal preparations, cosmetics, and food items like frosting and butter, milk and wine. The body movements I use to manipulate paint, the repetitive acts of stirring, mixing, scraping and spreading, connect me to the muscle memory of other activities, like stirring batter, buttering bread, or slathering body lotion. Paint, as an ointment, is a catalyst of transformation: of mending, of satiation, of a careful reconstitution.

But if ointment is the treatment, what then is the wound?

The wound is, for me, the wound of modernity. I can finally step back from the over-arching milieu of the 20th century, where I plucked meaning out of context, arbitrarily assigned relevance, and painted with the broad brush that seeks to homogenize ideas and experience, applying them to everybody. Post modernity, I peer into the chasm that separates this big thinking from the lives of real people, marginalized and struggling, and see real data- the situation on the ground, juxtaposed against the spin, the news, the commoditization.

And then I want to spread, to slather, to salve, to join, to find a way to traverse the chasm, and heal the disjuncture between belief and reality, both in the world, and in myself.

So I paint, layering information in the creamy balm, and then drawing fragments up through the layers. This places the past next to the present, creating a new context. My thoughts gain a physical manifestation and presence. Not just a head-trip now, they come into relationship with the body through the ointment and the act of spreading. The relationship between ideas and formal elements merge in the materiality of the paint.  Process and material mark presence and thought because the paint as ointment occludes or penetrates, remembers and forgets, and glues together the past and the present.

I, myself, am transient, like the moment, like my body, whether I like it or not.  But while I am here, I feel a compulsion to make meaning. The repetitive movements of manipulating paint, with body motions that are personal and meaningful, manifest an encounter with the present in which I feel relevant and lucid. In paint I situate myself, and my experience of the world. In paint, I exist.

Published in International Painting Annual 1, by Manifest Press, Cincinnati OH, 2011

[1] Barthes, Roland. “Wine and Milk.” Mythologies, 58 – 61. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1972, pp. 60.

[2] ibid