In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is a wise and clever King. He once put death in chains, escaped from the underworld, and he is said to have tricked the gods and stole their secrets. Sisyphus is punished by the gods for his chronic deceitfulness and condemned to roll a rock up a mountain each day. It was thought that there was nothing more dreadful than a repetitive and meaningless task. Once at the top, the rock rolls back down of its own weight to the bottom. At the end of each day Sisyphus returns down the mountain so that at dawn he can push the rock back up again.
With this painting, I was interested in using the grid as a way to embody a Sisyphean struggle – the grid requires perseverance, consistent effort, and an ability to engage thoughtfully with a monotonous and tedious task. The practice of painting the grid squares is comparable to Sisyphus’s absurd task.
The virtue of visual art, especially in this form, is that it holds many repetitions and returns in place to be seen, and felt all at once. What is transient and invisible in daily life, and in Sisyphus’s task, becomes able to be seen in the painting. The impact of a painting is instantaneous – a shock occurs when time and energy becomes visible. After the initial impact of a painting, one can then see how it unfolds or attaches to what one knows or thinks. There is a movement from instinct and emotion to intellect and memory. The goal with art is to make something that both has a profound initial impact and is also far-reaching and attaches in multiple directions, something that continues to unfold the more one thinks or reflects on it.
The grid itself is a meaningless form, but it is not a natural form – it is patently human, and functions as a form representative of human consciousness, or self-awareness. I tend to think of the grid as the base layer of consciousness. Once the grid begins to be filled, or dispersions occur, complexities arise, and systems and constellations can be recognized. What matters in the painterly form of the grid, is that it requires conscious effort to be filled and engaged with. The meaninglessness of the grid is important here, because it is used to mirror Sisyphus’s absurd task.
This painting is also in conversation with a few authors I admire. Kierkegaard, Kafka, Camus, Beckett, and David Foster Wallace.
For Kierkegaard, Faith can be reached only through passion. The paradox of faith is that one who has faith acts for the universal, but in acting for the universal must carry out particular tasks. The trial of an individual consists in his ability to act the universal in the particular, and not fall into the traps of the temporal systems of order. Because the universal must be achieved through the particular, the particular becomes higher than the universal. The movement from universal to particular and particular to universal must repeat itself; this is the return – to return to the particular from the universal. The individual isolates himself by re-entering the particular from the universal. In the case of the painting, the practice of painting is an embodiment of this movement – the particular is the brushstroke or grid-square, the movement is thus: the practice of painting reaches toward the universal concept of the return, and then returns to the particular as the object of the painting.
But, breaking free from a purely abstract meta-expression, there are recognizable objects of representation preserved. One can recognize the mountain, and the figure. Sisyphus is painted as a stick-figure or silhouette because he is a symbol, a synthesis of universal and particular, he is Sisyphus and everyman, depicted during his return. The figure of Sisyphus is the last thing I painted on the canvas, after the few swift brush strokes I backed away slowly and felt as though I was levitating.
For Camus, Sisyphus becomes greater than his burden and stronger than his rock in the moment he chooses to return back down the mountain. It is the ability to remain conscious and choose to act and create in an absurd world that man can find dignity in meaninglessness. Here’s a passage worth quoting at length: “The effort to dominate is considerable. But human intelligence is up to much more. It will merely indicate clearly the voluntary aspect of creation. Elsewhere I have brought out the fact that human will has no other purpose than to maintain awareness. But that could not do without discipline. Of all the schools of patience and lucidity, creation is the most effective. It is also the staggering evidence of man’s sole dignity: the dogged revolt against his condition, perseverance in an effort considered sterile. It calls for daily effort, self-mastery, a precise estimate of the limits of truth, measure, and strength. All that ‘for nothing’ in order to repeat and mark time. But perhaps the great work of art has less importance in itself than in the ordeal it demands of man and the opportunity it provides him of overcoming his phantoms and approaching a little closer to his naked reality.” (115)
Beckett takes another angle on the myth in his novel, Molloy. He writes, “I do not think even Sisyphus is required to scratch himself, or to groan, or to rejoice, as the fashion is now, always at the same appointed places. And it may even be they are not too particular about the route he takes provided it gets him to his destination safely and on time. And perhaps he thinks each journey is the first. This would keep hope alive, would it not, hellish hope. Whereas to see yourself doing the same thing endlessly over and over again fills you with satisfaction.” This sort of explodes any projection of values onto the unknown figure and mind of Sisyphus. For Beckett we can be sure of just about nothing when we try to imagine Sisyphus’ struggle, or daily task.
I took up the myth of Sisyphus because there was a certain alignment of thematic content that allowed the painting to become more far-reaching than if it were simply a mountain and sky, or just a vast grid. There is now more articulated by the image, and an entry into a process of thought. Sisyphus, I feel, gives a viewer an entry into the piece, and allows the painting to become an object of expression that enters into a conversation both with viewers, and artists and writers I admire.
So, one thing that’s useful about this myth is how open to interpretation it is. It works well in visual form, because the visual form is silent. It remains open to countless readings, and is capable of becoming useful to people in different ways. Beyond the intellect, this painting stands in for my passion and effort, my decision to engage in a pursuit, and continue returning to it.
Sisyphus is painted coming down the mountain because the figure is the last thing I painted. The painting is frozen as the object of the return from the universal, but the painting is abandoned by the transcendental subject, which is the artist. Therefore, the object and subject are completely isolated from one another. The figure on the painting is a placeholder for the position between the triad of particular artist, universal figure of Sisyphus, particular viewer. What the figure means or expresses is not limited to any one interpretation, but rather silent and open.
Although I have constructed a system of order to carry out this piece, the order is meaningless, and merely a way to allow a human virtue to become manifest. Each space of the small grid is like a stone I must push. There is finality to each space without end to a larger continuity.
This painting has been with me a long time, there must be 900 hours put in to it. It is a bit strange to see it finished, and to now have it behind me. It is a sensation that continues to baffle me. In any case, here it is, it exists. And now onward –
– Michael Burris Johnson