Notes on Painting, 2013

Notes, 2013

I have become deeply engaged in a pursuit in painting. I am pursuing the creation of art.

Art seems to me the best example of our ability to come closer to what lies just beyond life: the eternal, the whiteness, the place of travel for wraiths and recognitions. My general intention is to create a body of work that stands in relation to what I am capable of feeling while alive, an oeuvre in relation to an otherwise silenced position of conformity, proof of a heart beating against its cage. The hope is that eventually I can create something that will function as a point of contact for those who will search for recognition outside of themselves, to gain confidence in their own murmur, the way I’ve gained confidence in my own pursuit from writers, artists and teachers. To do this, I believe art must show us something that is true, or able to be recognized, known, or identified with. The goal of art is both to communicate, and to alter one’s thought process.

I’ve spent a lot of introspective energy evaluating myself and my choices, what bonds I must acknowledge, and which I have the choice to deny, and I think the decision to pursue painting has come down to a personal belief that painting brings me closer to an honesty than anything else I am capable of doing. In evaluating what I’ve been given, what I’ve inherited, and viewing myself objectively in my current circumstances and position in the world, painting is an action that I feel capable of carrying on with, and it is an action that I think is necessary, and can become meaningful in serious ways. I understand that this decision is only available to me because of a certain privilege to even have a choice about how to live, and yet it still seems to take a great balance to continue taking steps in a direction that is not the general tide. It is very difficult to refuse the forms of life that pre-exist my entry in to them, especially with financial debt from college education and the social pressures of every-day life. What’s made it easier for me, is reminding myself how quickly this life will pass; the power relations that attempt to guide my actions seem imaginary once I can look at my life as transient. Shifting the perspective of life in this way has the potential to change the way we look at something like success, or rather, the notions of success in our current culture. There is an undeniable draw that I feel to the action of painting. And I truly believe that art is essential and transformative, essential to human life and our ability to communicate on important levels, transformative to our ability to maintain faith in something that is not money or power.

As an artist one must claim one’s body for use toward what murmurs within, and what passes through. The work of art becomes a point of contact for those who will search for recognition outside of themselves. To create is to create for another, those you can feel without ever having to meet, those of the future, those unreachable in any other form.

The work of art becomes and external intensity abstracted from the human body. Because of this, the intentions of the painter are nothing compared to the object that is created and the interpretations the painting is open to. The strength of an image is determined not by what the painter thought about before he painted it, but by how open and far-reaching the image is, and remains through time.

I suppose even though I find this idea above to be true, it is still important for a living artist to evaluate the approach to making art, which is what I’m attempting to do here. I find it requires a certain balance to maintain an approach on a register that does not take the self into account, but that attempts to locate entryways and exits in a labyrinth of discursive possibilities in painting that are not over-trodden, stale, or no longer of use to a culture.

Painting is an exercise of existence. One thing that I have found is that painting requires a strange sort of energy. I think that one can create art in relation to what one can feel in life, the ability to feel fills up an energy reserve that gets let out in painting. But perhaps contrary to this, I’ve found that the energy required to paint is capable of being trained, similar to the way an athlete trains for endurance, or game-play. Similar to the competitive game, there is no way to get in to “game-shape” other than by playing. Meaning, I could do all the reading and thinking and talking I want about painting, but it is the action painting itself that will improve art, and increase my ability to sustain focus consistently. Perhaps, feeling is the same way though, the more one allows oneself to feel things, the more they become able to feel.

Something I have learned is that when one consistently engages in a medium, things will just start to happen. Meaning, unpredictable occurrences that suddenly allow one to understand the medium in a new way will happen, or an expression in the medium that simply could not have been pre-meditated will simply happen or occur at random one day. What is necessary for this sort of occurrence is consistent attention, or the ability to listen. Inspiration seems to work this way as well. The more seriously I engage with painting, the more ideas for paintings come to me. I have such a backlog of paintings I want to do, that the most important ones, or the paintings that nag me the most are the ones that I end up actually getting to.

Engaging with art is very much like religious faith in the sense that, things happening in a medium after practice and dedication can be compared to the way someone who prays every day will then receive a “sign from god”, or something to that effect. The idea here is a universal that demands a particular, to rephrase the concept; the emergence of a moment of intensity arises only after a duration of attention, but the “break” or “sign” is only significant to the single subject, and occurs only in the way that the subject uses her/his attention. The new understanding of a medium is unique to the painter, just as an occurrence becoming divine is unique to the religiously faithful. The uniting principle, is that there is no way to predict when these moments happen, but that the practicing person will receive them.

As the year comes to a close, I’d like to take a moment and put into words some thoughts, and reflections on my explorations in painting thus far. I’ve found that posting a blog after I’ve finished a painting, and doing a write-up on the pieces has become hugely productive for my approach to art. The process of articulation allows me to gain a deeper understanding of my goals and pursuits, as well as how to escape patterns and continue to cover new ground. This year was a year that my interest in painting became a commitment to painting in a serious way. I feel as though I have now reached a place that I cannot turn away from.  Reflecting on this year as a cycle is a way to learn from it, and commit to living, and painting, this next cycle better.

Although I completed a variety of paintings this year, both representational and abstract, there were two main points of focus that seem most significant in retrospect. Retrospect is important here, of course, because while I was working I was simply working, many of the ideas I’ve established in relation to my own work have come about in reflection, after the creation of the object. Something that I think may be unique to painting, though I can’t be sure, is that thinking or theorizing about painting is something that happens before and after the process of creation. Often the process of creation is a period of almost non-thought, or at least an immersion in a different field of thought, consumed with color relation, brushstroke, application of medium onto canvas; the process of painting is unreflective in itself, there is not much thinking that happens in words. So perhaps, in condensed form; painting is a process of non-thought inasmuch as thought is related to language.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that it is almost necessary that one’s thoughts do not come in-between the body that paints and the canvas that is painted on. This is one reason I think that art has the potential of being a form of therapy, one has a chance to escape the non-stop inner discussion with one’s self. Agnes Martin speaks about how she paints only when she receives an inspiration, and does her best not to let any ideas get in between the moment of inspiration and the manifestation of that inspiration in the form of a painting. For Agnes, Ideas will ruin Inspiration, as many painters who have an inspiration will then have 100 ideas about the inspiration before they get to the canvas, and the authenticity of the original inspiration has been lost. In a related way, David Foster Wallace in an interview once said, one should create with the part of themselves that can love, and not the part that wants to be loved. I feel as though all of this ties together in a certain way. The important thing maybe is to avoid thought of the self when creating art. It’s probably important to remain very open and capable of channeling something greater, or at least something beyond the self; perhaps there are forces we have no way of consciously recognizing, but that we have the ability to become open to. I certainly have found my best periods of painting to be largely unreflective, a sort of giving myself over to the work unconditionally. I’ve stumbled into a few periods of almost manic production in which thoughts and questions seem to disappear for a period and I become immersed in work, the tangible and physical process and immersion in the medium.

Among the many styles of painting I experimented with this year, two seem most significant to me. The first, and of primary importance in my mind, has been the grid paintings. The second is the cloud paintings. I think I will have less to say about the cloud paintings, so I will begin by discussing them.


What interests me with painting clouds, is that to paint clouds is to engage with a point in between what is considered representational painting, and abstract painting. For this reason, I am interested in painting clouds detached from any sort of landscape. This allows the perspective to function without gravity or reference point. Detaching the clouds from the landscape also allows for experimentation with distance and framing of the clouds, it allows me to get closer or farther from the object, or non-object, of the cloud. To engage with the point in-between abstract and representation was a bit of an experiment to see how far I could push in either direction. This is something that I have not done nearly enough of, I’ve completed 4 cloud paintings, but this is an engagement I plan on carrying on with. I’ve got one now that I’m working on, plans for many more.

Painting clouds I think is good for my spirit because it is a form open to more free type of movements, the brushstrokes don’t have to necessarily be as controlled as say, painting a portrait, or painting the grid. Since painting the clouds, I’ve become very sensitive to the sky. I’m more in tune with light changes, especially the certain slant of light at the end of the day, the colors that appear in the sky, and the way the clouds will go through a process of color change as the light changes angle on the earth. Studying the clouds has been a gift to my perception, often saving my mind on long car drives. Clouds encompass the earth; they effect our moods, express different seasons, different times of day, different climates, so their capabilities of expression are wide. Learning how to read the sky is a skill I have not yet mastered, but have become very interested in.

I am also very aware, as an artist, of the idea that the body of work becomes an external intensity abstracted from the human body. Long after I am no longer living, the objects of painting will survive. And what a beautiful thing to become after life: clouds –


The grid to me represents a foundation of human understanding from a universal perspective.  Human life is built upon a grid-like system of understanding based on knowledge and the sciences. Our understanding of ourselves as individuals is a process that we learn through pre-existing forms and human sciences: biology, psychology, economics, language. We do not seek the possibilities of what we are capable of, but learn the conditions by which we may succeed.

It will be difficult to articulate all that the Grid has come to mean to me without mentioning Michel Foucault, whose work has been massively influential on me this year. This year I’ve read History of Madness, The Order of Things, and The Archaeology of Knowledge, all published by Routeledge press. These books have permanently changed the way I think. Foucault has helped me in a very serious way.

Though I must say, The Grid and what it has come to mean to me is quite different from what it was to me when I first used the form, with Pale Composition. Perhaps the only way to articulate my discoveries are to begin at the point of Pale Composition.

 The grid is a form I was attracted to for conceptual reasons. Truthfully, I feel as though the only reason I am still painting, or at least the only reason I have become so committed to painting is because I completed Pale Composition. Looking back, it feels as though there were ghosts down in the studio with me while I painted that picture. There is something very special that happened to me while working on that piece. It took me over a year to paint. I think deciding to finish it – that it was worth finishing – and then seeing it through to completion and feeling the effect of the finished piece, solidified a certain belief inside of me, and has carried me through an exploration of creating art.

I remember clearly my inspiration with that painting. There were three books I read in a condensed period; The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace, The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus, and The Castle, by Franz Kafka. Literature informs my work to an intense degree. I studied and earned an English Degree at Rutgers University before I ever decided to be a painter, I used to want to be a writer. This process of discovery has become something I’m grateful for.

I’ll quickly attempt to supply the link I found between these works and that led to Pale Composition. Wallace addresses confronting boredom with consistent and sustained energy and focus through characters working for the IRS in The Pale King. In Camus it was the concept of the return – Sisyphus coming down the mountain in order to push the rock again, Sisyphus becomes stronger than the rock when he makes the decision to return to it. In Kafka, the endless search for the Castle, and the dregs of repetition, not to mention some of the direct links to The Pale King with stacks of paperwork and endless repetitions of bureaucratic actions.

Some of my early sketches for Pale Composition even had a tiny castle barely perceptible on the horizon. Ultimately, though, my goal was to create something that touched a limit of what a painting is capable of expressing. I wanted to find a way to make manifest concepts like patience, faith, sustained focus, and the return, and to find a way to express them that wasn’t representational or direct. I didn’t want to paint a man at a desk with stacks of papers, I wanted to embody the action, to make the painting a performance art as much as an object that expresses concepts. The individual squares became a particular manifestation of Sisyphus’ universal concept of return. The act of painting a grid, was the confrontation of boredom and sustained focus that I came to admire in The Pale King. And the endless quest to finish the piece (or to create art) mirrored K.’s quest to reach The Castle. There was a point in the middle where I had to decide whether or not to go on. I can’t go on, I’ll go on, as Beckett would word it.

While painting Pale Composition, I had never seen a grid painting before. I started it when I was 22, and had spent my college days reading, I knew more about literature than I did about painting. I thought surely no one would be crazy enough to ever do something like this. I thought what I had going for me was that any established artist wouldn’t take the risk of dedicating so much time to such a simple painting, that at the time, I wasn’t even sure would pay off or have the effect that I was attempting to achieve. Since then, I’ve of course discovered many painters that have found use in the grid. It seems, that there is a wide opening right now in the discourse of painting for the grid.

Pale Composition was also a counter-cultural practice, standing in stark opposition to the immediate and fleeting satisfaction of our current technological culture, a way to confront boredom in the midst of an entertaining-ourselves-to-death mentality.

Madness and its relation to these grid paintings became a focus point for me. Especially with the way the grid seemed to demand such rigorous order, which perhaps, is just another form of Madness. Foucault will explain that Madness can only exist within reason, as unreason; without the larger encompassing form of reason, consciousness is open to multitudes of possibilities, it is only through reason and order that we become critical of madness as error, and attempt to isolate it from civilization in an attempt to maintain order.

Though, after Pale Composition I didn’t immediately continue with the Grid. I took a rather long break actually, and went through some months were I felt completely lost on how to approach painting. In reflecting, and searching, and gathering bits of reassurance and confidence in the work of others, I began to reformulate how to use the grid.

Although View From a Burrow uses the grid on portions, I don’t really consider this a grid painting at this point. The Burrow painting was more a conversation with Kafka, and his story “The Burrow”.

One thing I was amused by is how when I would return to Pale Composition, I would often say, I’m going “deep sea diving”. I noticed that when I get close to the canvas to fill in the squares of the grid with color, I hold my breath. I also happen to paint in the basement. Painting these grids is very much like deep sea diving in the sense that I have to immerse myself in the work, and paint in bursts of intensity before stepping back to exhale, and begin breathing again. But there is also a sort of inner probing that takes place. I need to bring myself to a point where I am ready to break, or give up, and then push on. I reach the point where it becomes a matter of will, or not, to continue, and it becomes necessary to evaluate what I let control my body: whether or not I choose to respond to pain or discomfort, whether or not I can reach a goal I set, etc. It becomes a true test of whether or not I will let “myself” or my notion of a “self” that has desires come between my body and the action of painting. Of course there is the point of exhaustion where the body simply stops working properly or being able to paint the squares neatly, and at this point it becomes necessary to stop.

In another way, it becomes amazing to witness what reveals itself in the grid as I work on it. The movement is pretty slow, so even though I begin with an intention, it’s almost impossible to know how it’s going to look until its filled in. Deep Sea was like watching an immune system interact with bacteria at incredibly slow motion.

Deep Sea was ultimately the next real Grid painting that I completed. The idea came from many different directions at once. It is, I think, ultimately an image of despair. The act of creating the object was a way for me, in retrospect, to transcend despair.

But I was interested in the painting for a number of reasons. The first was simply the image: subjectivity engulfed, being many miles underwater looking up at the sun, or at a light in the distance. Another was the act of painting: I mentioned earlier that while painting Pale Composition I referred to working on the grid as “deep sea diving”. And then still another was what the grid had come to represent to me, and how our human world was invading the deep sea, upsetting a balance of nature: the sea right now is under siege by biological investigation, military testing, garbage dumping, fracking, you name it. The way we are building our world, or the way that humans are taking over the earth, is now extending to the deep sea. This year two sea serpents washed up on the shores of California, a sperm whale washed up with a stomach packed full of plastic garbage from Trader Joe’s. The grid of our human civilization is beginning to reach the Deep Sea.

In Utero was created immediately after Deep Sea. I had worked myself into an inertia that carried me straight through In Utero, at rather incredible speed I think for the size of the grid. Both of these paintings are 60”x60”. With In Utero, I was interested in bringing the grid to the origin of human formation, the view from within the protective hollow of the womb. Both paintings were to be a subjectivity engulfed, or immersed.

What happened with In Utero, has again changed my perception of what the grid is capable of. Because I believe that the grid is a sort of zero-point symbol of the way we build and understand, it is a form that is open to a multitude of inspirations. I think one thing I’m interested in is taking the form of the grid, and passing through it, in order to once again reach the place that is human.

What In Utreo offered though, was really a breakthrough in the understanding of paint as a medium. This piece I feel is a clear step in my maturity as a painter, it is something that maybe has to be seen in person, but this grid is layered with different application techniques and has interesting and intense brushwork, as well as color relations throughout. It is certainly a piece I am proud of.

While painting this I couldn’t help but think of cycles of life, concepts like rebirth and reincarnation, cycles of the body, the seasons – the lasting effect of this engagement is probably yet to be realized. The color gradient within the circle I think becomes far-reaching; it is also composed of the primary colors, yellow, red, blue. It is the circle of life captured by the grid.

A possible entrance or exit:

Because I have been immersed in grid-thinking for quite a while now, and discovered so many artists who are also using the form, I have begun to try to find ways to escape the grid. This is difficult, because I think that the grid is a form that is powerful and still has something to show us. The escape from the grid will have to be a careful one, and perhaps necessarily demonstrate failure before achieving success.

Currently I am almost done with the first of a series of Icarus paintings. It is the subjective view of Icarus flying above the clouds, looking down at the gridded earth. Icarus as we know, is a flight that is doomed. Though, Icarus will search for the sea in order to end his flight without once again being recaptured by the grid. So although the flight is failed, there is not a recapture.

A Joan of Arc painting is another thing I am working toward. Joan of Arc as we may know, was put on trial for her faith, captured by the order of the day, and burned at the stake for insubordination within the church’s orders. She was 19 years old at the time. Again though, Joan ultimate escape of the grid is martyrdom, so although there is an escape of the grid, or a passing through the grid, like Icarus it is in death.

I am also currently finishing a Sisyphus grid painting, which was a painting that was abandoned before Deep Sea, but which I’ve now felt is a necessary component to the expression of the oeuvre.

Another painting I have begun working on is Madness and Civilization, which is an attempt to create a formal, and silent, snapshot of some of the ideas in Foucault’s great book, History of Madness.

These I’ve mentioned above will carry me through the first few months of the year, after them, there is no way for me to predict really, what I will become engaged with, or what entrance or exits I will find in the labyrinth of art.

Much more to come, I’m looking forward to the new year. Deep Sea was just accepted to the 35th annual juried competition at Monmouth Museum. I hope to meet a few like-minded artists and attempt to build a network. Perhaps the biggest thing I am lacking is a network of artists, this perhaps is a condition of our current point in history, or a particular problem of my own. Regardless, this year I hope to get out a bit, and form connections that will strengthen the pursuit.

It’s taken me this long, about a year and a half since I’ve graduated college and begun taking painting seriously, to even gather a few paintings that I feel confident enough in to show anyone else. This year I hope will be a year of excellent production, as well as connecting to other artists and community members.

Onward –

Michael Burris Johnson, 2013

October 2013 - after finishing Deep Sea

October 2013 – after finishing Deep Sea

About Michael Johnson

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