Virtues of Patience : The Opening Within the Grid
by Zachary Ritter
Patience is a tense and restless painting, one whose formal and conceptual dynamics call for mapping and subsequent navigation. Such a task provides us with a point of departure, with a way forward. Visually, the tension of the painting is manifested through the manner in which the formal characteristics of the grid interact with the expressivity of the paint, which is to say that, structurally speaking, the painting seems to resist what Johnson’s brush ultimately liberates and sets loose. On a conceptual level, the grid operates as a point of connection between the world of the painting and that of the viewer: the structural control that the grid exerts over the painted space is analogous to the structural control that social institutions and their accompanying ideologies exert over our lives. Similar to the immature flowers in Patience, those in which the suppressive power of the grid is made visible, our lives are fundamentally conditioned by the social structures that we are born into and that inform our operational ideology, that set of ideas and assumptions that coalesce into a functioning worldview.
We are, as a result, and to varying degrees, mere embodiments of the social grid in which we are placed and in which we place ourselves. This does not mean, however, that as products of a social order, of material conditions beyond our control, that we are unable to give our lives a singular form, or contour, or that we are unable to carry out the life-project of self-shaping. The grid does not have a monopoly over the form of our lives, and it is in Johnson’s Patience that we can see a model for how to resist the homogenization of the grid, for how to pursue our own form of life.
As an organizational framework the grid simplifies that which it is imposed upon; it attempts to set the limits of possibility for whatever lives or operates within its confines. In Patience we can see this logic at work when standing in close proximity to the painting, so that the painted space begins to atomize, revealing square after square of color in precise circumscription from those surrounding it. At this distance the ability of the grid to unify the entirety of the space is suspended, and instead the relative singularity of each square becomes observable. Nuances of color inscribed by the brush are made visible, as are the sensual and textural qualities produced by the meeting of paint and canvas. However, despite these traces of the hand, of formal singularity, the structure does not entirely disappear; although subtlety is evident, the essential form of each unit of the painting is dictated by the single organizational logic of the grid, of which there is no exterior. The effect becomes nearly schizophrenic: while combing the surface of the painting and relishing its painterly qualities, one is directed back to the larger totality of the painting, to its single organizing principle; to see the atom is to be reminded of its structured existence, of its place within.
There is another schizophrenic, or perhaps dialectical, quality within the painting, this one between the expressivity of Johnson’s brush and the seemingly cold and rigid demands of the grid. One can look to the work of Piet Mondrian and Agnes Martin, two painters that utilized a gridded structure for their compositions, to see examples of the grid being implemented in a way that embraces and reflects its reductive and simplifying qualities. Mondrian and Martin were predominantly abstract painters, and as such their uses of the grid reflect such an orientation. Patience, along with many other of Johnson’s grid paintings, documents a different orientation, one still committed to the expression of the natural world.
Indeed, Johnson’s use of the grid is one that seems less conducive to its formulaic properties, which we can see as the foliage, and many of the flowers, remain fixed within the pixilated contours that the grid imposes upon them, whereas others, those lucky few to reach maturity, to achieve a relative singularity of form, have overcome their geometric beginnings. These flowers in bloom stand in sharp contrast to those that have had their development halted, those still undergoing a transformation of form and which Johnson’s brush has abstained from liberating from the grid, and herein lies the dialectical movement within Patience: those areas that have successfully matured, that have been given the space to develop their own contour and form, these exist side by side the areas that have had their growth stunted, restricted to the allowances of the grid. Perhaps more significant in this relationship is that both areas issue forth from the same totality, that their point of genesis is one and the same.
The external significance of the grid, its deeper relevance for us as viewers, goes beyond its role as a formal conceit in Johnson’s work and extends into its capacity to mirror the ways in which our lives are shaped by the social grid in which we exist. In this context the grid serves as an abstraction from what is material, as an image of what exists both around and within us but which nonetheless remains difficult to adequately conceptualize and, at times, even to feel. Our grid, the one that structures our material conditions of existence, and which attempts to instill in us our operational ideology, is capitalism. To live within a capitalist society is to live within a socio-economic system in which the field of possibilities has been set, and what’s left to the individual is what to choose within this predetermined spectrum of choices. Here it becomes crucial to speak of the society that is capitalist and not simply the economy which is so, because to structure the means and relations of production in a manner that facilitates class divisions, is to also instill in people the concomitant ideology about said means and relations of production, and to do so in a way that effectively reproduces the conditions for the production of the system itself, which ensures its continuance.
Such choices have now, more than ever before, become saturated with a global resonance: because capitalism is a global system that shapes both the material conditions and productive relations around the world, our material existence depends upon those populations that capitalism has demanded to produce it, regardless of the human cost. This is treated as merely an unpleasant circumstance of a fully realized and fully integrated global capitalist economy; to seek out even a modest material existence is to be implicated in this cycle. And so there is a city beneath ours, one that never stops churning, producing, suffering, and which we deliberately banish from consciousness for fear of confronting the true ethical dimensions of our acts.
Fredric Jameson argues that the internal dynamics of capitalism – with the profit motive and the logic of capital accumulation chief among them – are the fundamental laws of this world, and that as a result, they set “absolute barriers and limits to social changes and transformations.” The barriers and limits that Jameson speaks of do not only apply to collective attempts at political and economic change; their first extension passes through the individual, who is to be molded and formed in such a way that they do not see these barriers and limits for what they are, and instead see them as “natural” developments of the system, those beyond human intervention. The individual is taught to respect these barriers as safeguards against anarchy, as limits in place that ultimately benefit him or her. We are told to join the game in progress, to value and seek out wealth along with a modicum of happiness, to accept the system for all its flaws and downplay its homogenization of life. The grid embeds these desires deep within us so that, even after carrying out a sustained conceptual insurrection against our inherited ideology, we come to find the system creeping back up to the surface, rearing its myopic worldview and value system back into a place of functionality. What purpose can art, and Patience more specifically, serve in this context beyond mere distraction and escapism?
Gilles Deleuze characterized philosophy as a tool with which one can negotiate with the Powers that permeate all of us, powers such as capitalism, the state, religion, science, laws, and so on, the very system of values and beliefs that the grid instills within us to the best of its ability. For Deleuze, these are Powers because they attempt to shape who we are and how we live, they seek to mold us in the form best suited to their purposes. Philosophy is a means of interrogating the presence of these powers within us, of challenging their claims to rationality and progress. It is in this context, viewed as a tool for negotiation, that art can serve a purpose beyond the trappings of aestheticism. What becomes necessary, then, is an art that is oriented towards the confrontation of the presence of the grid, of its Powers, in all of us. It must generate an opening in which we can think, and feel, in a manner that facilitates awareness of our place within the grid, and which will compel us to go beyond reflection.
Johnson’s Patience offers us an example of how to exist within the grid, of how to step into the opening that the work itself creates, and ultimately, of how to resist. Like the flowers that bloom in Patience, we too must pursue our own form of life, one predicated upon the creative act as a resistance to the pecuniary bottom line of a truly capitalist culture. We must also avoid the ease of slipping into despair when confronted with the reality of the grid, with its constant presence within us; despair offers us nothing, it only serves to pacify us and push us closer to resignation. Rather than project despair, our place within the grid should serve as an affront to its intent to irrevocably shape how we position ourselves in relation to the world. To capitulate to the grid, to wilt before its Powers, is to renounce our right to a different form of life then it would have us believe is attainable. The task at hand, the one that Patience aids us in, is to continually undermine, critique, and ultimately dismantle the ideological framework that capitalism and its social grid have put in place both before us and within us.
The grid is the first target of negation; it is the ground on which we sever our ideological dependence. In its place we affirm new values, new forms, new processes for the development of a life.
The Fredric Jameson quote is cited from the following source:
Jameson, Fredric. “Cognitive Mapping.” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed. CaryNelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. 284.
Zachary Ritter blogs at http://separationintheevening.tumblr.com
This essay was written for the solo exhibition of Michael Burris Johnson’s work at the Monmouth Museum in Lincroft, NJ during their NJ Emerging Artists Series, with his show lasting from May 29 to June 28 of 2015.