Artist Talk on “Grid Paintings”

These are the written notes prepared before giving the talk:


When I began, I was on winter break during my last year at Rutgers University, a semester away from graduating with an English degree. Questions that felt important to me at the time were things like, how can a life be used? Or, how can one engage in a life-pursuit?

I noticed how if one made choices consistently in a particular direction, suddenly and at long last a change occurs. I was interested in deliberately composing a system of values that will and propel a life-pursuit against a more general current. Enacting a resistance requires choosing to embody values one believes in. The values that were important to me at the time – that I thought could create a productive shift through active embodiment – were Patience, Endurance, Consistency.

I had an inspiration for a painting as a way to guide a test of repetition. I wanted to test myself with a tedious task of duration and concentration and see it through to an end.

I decided I would get a very big canvas and grid the surface into tiny spaces and paint each one, square by square, with a one-hair brush. So one day I drove to Jerry’s Artarama in Princeton and bought the biggest canvas they had and the smallest brush and that’s it, walked out and went home and gridded the canvas with a T-square and a pen.

The idea with the painting was that this type of practice would simultaneously require me to embody the values that I was hoping would become manifest in the painting. The only way the painting succeeds is if the process becomes visible.

I had no idea how long the painting would take to be painted, the simple thought that guided the whole thing was just that if I continued to put paint on the canvas, it would eventually be filled. This has been the continued lesson of the grid; one can only paint one space at a time.

Time passes, I graduate, I dive full time into work at the restaurant, cooking on an open fire, and I maintain the commitment to painting every day. During long nights at work I remember just thinking about the painting, the coolness of it, the isolated space in the basement, the thought of painting saved me during many days. The practice of painting became a spiritual practice comparable to prayer. It became embodying the concept of a Return.

At the time, I have the painting set up in my parents basement, in a tiny room next to the laundry room, the painting is as big as the wall and I can take maybe two steps in any direction. I’m commuting back and forth from school and working in a restaurant some nights and weekends, but my commitment is to put paint on the canvas everyday. It doesn’t matter how much or how little, just something.

The painting became a process of emptying – the canvas was originally designed to have two mountain landscapes receding into disappearance, the horizon line was considerable higher and more complex in design. The further into the process I got, the more I took out of the painting. Much of the texture accounts for how many times the painting was painted over while I worked out the color relations and composition. In the points of contraction, this texture began to resemble a sort of breaking or point of rupture, which I noticed and liked, but didn’t exactly plan.

Through consistent engagement, things begin to just happen. Similar to the way how one who prays will receive a sign from God, the one who meditates will receive signs from the universe – the one who paints will notice occurrences in paint. These types of occurrences lead a reflection toward the idea that there may be a secret coherence that expresses itself without the one who expresses it being conscious or aware of it.

The painting became a spiritual pursuit in the practice of focusing energy outward and becoming an empty vessel for the guidance of forces beyond the self. How else can we account for things like intuition and inspiration if we don’t consider a spiritual plane, or a secret coherence that goes unnoticed by the one who expresses it.

In retrospect it seems clear that much of the tension of the painting exists in the difference between the size of the brush and the canvas – the great distance between the largeness of the canvas and the smallness of the brush is the demon to be conquered, the trial to be enacted, the repetitions to be repeated. It is only in comprehending this relation that the process becomes visible.

There is no real idea on display in this painting. The painting does not display talent or skill. The grid has become a time piece, capable of holding many repetitions and returns in place to be seen and felt in an instant. The painting expresses dedication, commitment, perseverance. The particular object of the painting reaches toward universal concepts of repetition and return that can be applied to the particulars of any life.

In the Fall of 2012 I reached a place where an ending to the painting was in sight. My attachment to the process had become so strong that I decided to leave my job to dedicate all of my time to the painting. In retrospect it feels as though there were ghosts in the studio with me during this interval of faith. Christmas eve 2012 the painting was complete. A change had occurred within me. I felt simultaneously empty, and deeply committed to painting. This pursuit was something I could no longer turn away from.



If Pale Composition is a painting about a pursuit through the experience of art – Deep Sea continues and develops this thread.

It was while painting Pale Composition that I began to think of the process of painting as “deep sea diving”. What the grid required to be painted was that I got close to the canvas and held my breath while I made small brush marks to fill in spaces with color. Stepping back from the painting was coming up for air. This idea about the process as diving corresponded to a certain emotional pitch of feeling that seemed to be shared by many, the feeling of being underwater.

I painted this painting in two different locations, I began in the room of Pale Composition, and then my family moved, and of course the painting is too big to fit in a car, so on the very last night of moving, we put the canvas in the bed of a truck, my brother drove, and I laid down in the truck bed holding the back of the canvas frame so that the painting didn’t fly off like a sail.

The way this painting went, process-wise, is that it took many months, 4 or 5 months of slowly chipping away, putting paint on the canvas, developing relations and positioning, until finally the painting caught, the relations started to buzz and everything happened very quickly. It took another two weeks of intense painting to rotate out from the axis of light and fill the canvas with a swirl of energy.

The painting was designed to allow for an immersion.The size of the canvas becomes capable of engulfing the painter or a viewer. The vision is a subjective vision of being immersed in the sea, looking up at the sun. This subjective vision becomes a shared vision, an external intensity capable of being entered by different viewers. The externalization of a certain feeling that can become shared and recognized, there is an overlap of experience.

The sea takes on a dual function. On one hand we can think of this as an external body of water than one can dive into, and on the other we can consider the depths within each of us. Deep Sea diving is a poetic notion of introspection.

If we hold these two notions together at once, the grid is capable of serving several different thought processes. On the one hand we can think of the grid in terms of the stratification of smooth space, the mapping of the sea, longitudinal and latitudinal lines, or even simply, a fishing net moving through the sea.

On the other hand we can think of the grid as the gateway or wall between consciousness and the unconscious. The grid is a system of understanding and communication. Here again we feel this desire to find passage, to be capable of searching and sorting out the depths and unknowable things about ourselves.

Where in Pale Comp. the painting is looking for passage to a spirit plane, in Deep Sea it is the attempt to find passage between consciousness and the unconscious. The grid is the cage that we go diving in, it is the limit of our ability to reason or communicate what we can intuit or feel in the depths of our beings.


Once there were now 2 grid paintings, a true repetition had occurred beneath the micro-repetitions of each painting – now a case was being made – there are two. Then there were quickly 3 and then it becomes a body of work and decisions get reframed, paintings are considered in relation to the body of work; are they necessary to the expression of the body of work, etc



In Utero was intended to be a sort of companion to Deep Sea – it immediately continued the idea of immersion and the engulfing experience of art – and I began it right away after the excitement of finishing Deep Sea.

In Utero was designed to be a protective hollow of healing, I’d found the process of painting the grids to be a healing sort of practice, and I could only hope that the productions of this practice would create an opening for others to engage with healing through the experience of art.

Again with this painting there is the simultaneous internal and external quality of Deep Sea. The painting is a subjective vision of being in the womb made into an external intensity that can be inhabited and shared by a viewer. The painting becomes a womb.

Instead of the gateway between the unconscious and consciousness, I would instead describe this painting to be situated at the boundary between memory and oblivion. The experience in the womb is one we all share, and yet are incapable of remembering. The question becomes whether or not we can reactivate memory through artwork. Both individual and collective memory – whether or not we can recognize something that’s been forgotten. The question is whether or not artwork can become a space to work through past traumas.

The grid takes on a multitude of functions here again, and can serve many different interpretations. On one hand we can view it as the necessary scientific understanding of the womb, on another we can consider the ways in which an identity is already being formed for a child before it enters the world. We can read this painting as a representation of the Powers that both permeate us, and pre-exist our entry into them. We fill pre-existing forms of social and political realities, when we fill them we change them, and are changed.

In both cases the grid becomes something that must be passed through, entrance into the world, the formation of memory, engaging with past trauma, the understanding of the body – all must first engage with a system of differences that allow for understanding.

But again, beyond any intellectualization of the forms and content of this work, without an emotional, intuitive, and healing process of connection and recognition that occurs beneath the surface level interactions here – without something shared beneath this very system of the grid and understanding –  none of these paintings would exist.


Sisyphus emerges at this time, as a painting that feels entirely necessary to the body of work with the grid. Deep Sea and In Utero seemed to explore an avenue of the grid, but Sisyphus seemed to be a return to  Pale Composition, and a separate branching –  refocusing on some of the original driving forces of a test of endurance and consistency in repetition.

But before I get too far, I should probably give a quick retelling of the Myth. So, Sisyphus, in Greek Mythology, was a King, who was punished for chronic deceitfulness toward both the gods and his people. As punishment for his deceitfulness, he was condemned to push a rock up a mountain each day – at the end of each day the rock would roll back down. Sisyphus would return down the mountain to begin again the next day, and so on for eternity. The punishment was thought to be both dreadful and severe for its unending monotony, tedium and repetition.

The painting of the grid becomes a Sisyphean task of repetition – the order of the grid becomes arbitrary, the intrinsic meaninglessness of the grid becomes an essential part of the expression, or non-expression. The grid means nothing, rather, it displays a process. Filling the grid becomes pushing the rocks – each grid space is a stone.

Because the myth already lays claim to universal concepts of repetition, endurance, and the return – the painting engages with the claims of the myth and attempts to make them visible and able to be felt. The painting is an embodiment of the myth as much as it also attempts to represent the myth.

One reason why myths continue to remain relevant, or are able to rewrite themselves, is that their particular actions reach toward universal concepts. Sisyphus’ singular task of Repetition and the Return can be abstracted and then be applied to a multitude of different particulars –

the repetitive work-week, returning home after a days work, the micro-repetitions of a vocation, cycles of existence etc – we can understand other particular repetitive tasks as becoming universal and then making the movement back to the particular of pushing a rock eternally.

To articulate this synthesis of the universal and the singular – the figure of Sisyphus is painted as a tiny stick figure, he is simultaneously Sisyphus and Everyman – simultaneously particular and universal.

Camus, in his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, focuses on the moment of Choice for Sisyphus. Camus draws our attention to the moment at the end of the day, after Sisyphus has pushed the rock up the mountain, and the rock rolls back down, there is a moment at which he is at the top of the mountain without his rock, and he must make the choice to return, to repeat, to engage another day. At this moment of choice, Sisyphus becomes greater than his absurd task – he becomes a champion of dignity in the face of meaninglessness.

Samuel Beckett responds to this in his novel Molloy,

“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.”

So Beckett makes us question our assumptions and attributions of meaning onto a repetition that has no intrinsic meaning.

The idea is that the myth is an opening, capable of serving a multitude of different inspirations.

Likewise, each of these paintings are intended to be questions, they remain open to new thought, creativity and interpretation – it is perhaps our duty as contemporary thinkers, to maintain openings in closed avenues of thought – both our stories, and our productions only succeed if they remain open and able to be rewritten. The virtue of visual art is that it remains silent, it never imposes a singular reading.


Shift of tactics to engage with questions – abandonment of previous value system


How can we engage with our choices to live with dignity despite existing in boundaries of limitation?

How can we escape or pass through the grid?

At this point, I begin looking for examples of one passing through or escaping the grid and it’s homogenizing force of arbitrary order. In the story of Joan of Arc, I locate two things that resound on a deep level.

  1. The way in which Joan carried out a passionate pursuit fueled by a belief and a faith in the voices of the Saints that guided her.
  2. The ways in which Joan transcended pre-existing forms.

a.) the pre-existing limitations of the feminine

b.) the transcendence of capture by a system of order

Joan is tested and put on trial, but maintains her faith and dignity. She finds passage, but only in death, she transcends by fire. So, there is no escape, or only an escape made by death –  but there is an ability to find passage with her spirit intact – an ability to remain a question, a mystery.

Joan posed a problem for Order, she was a problem without an Answer. She was informed by unverifiable occurrences, her life remains a question – an opening – transcendent of a temporal system.

I make the choice to embody a different set of values, based on passion and explosive energy, thinking of ideas of transcendence and escape.  The painting practice becomes more about speed and rhythm, more paint, faster pace.

this was the fastest of the grid paintings – painted in one week of consecutive, intense days, tons of paint on the brush – I felt it was necessary to make a certain short-duration energy output visible in the movement of flame.


Madness can only exist within Reason, as Unreason. The grid here is used to represent Reason. Because reason is negative and reactionary, it can only express the concept of madness as a shadow. The concept itself is perpetually displaced, and can only be identified in the isolated figure of a madman.

Without Reason dominating the structure of thinking and being, madness would be just one of many possibilities of consciousness. Which is why we can call reason negative and reactionary – it is a necessarily limiting force – it imposes limits on what we can do, what we are capable of.

Because a madman cannot contribute to the order of a society, he is kept in a space of confinement – removed from the social sphere. However, if we understand that we must all first enter or pass through reason in order to interact and become a part of society, it is conceivable that we each maintain a ghostly madness within us, kept in confinement within our system of understanding both ourselves and the world around us.

The pure force of madness can only be communicated after it is dispersed through reason and order – the raw,scratched, bird energy becomes sterile gridded birds, reaching toward a beyond, cut short by a certain violence – the red line.


In order to have any thought at all one must first pass through a grid of language, a preexisting system of differences that can be repeated. One can understand the limitations of language to be like a web – in order to communicate or think, one must spin a web, or situate one’s thought on the threads of a web. The black spaces between the threads are spaces of metaphysics, unverifiable and uncommunicable.


The constellations are used to illustrate the way Order is imposed on an otherwise vast continuity or chaos. The constellations are only one of many or combinations or possible relations between stars. But once they are mapped and recorded, they can become repeatedly recognized, they become capable of entering history and knowledge.

The constellations are instances of selectively making a case, choosing what to compose or use in the making of a case, creating a system capable of reference and repeated recognition.  Similarly, the information I am sharing here in this talk has been selected and picked out of a much larger possibility of information – what I am sharing here is particular angles of thought and communication that have been chosen to the exclusion of all others. Or we can draw a parallel to the way we build an identity through the selection of traits and behaviors that can enter the social world.

There is, therefore, always a duality of being to the constellations – each star could become part of a coherent identity, or slip back into an unidentified & unprivileged part of a continuity or unity.

Further, the constellations can be used to show the way concepts such as madness function within knowledge and power – the concept is held in place by a constellation of institutions and sources that validate discourse. So long as the relations between sources and institutions remain, they maintain the existence of the identity of a concept, such as madness.

All that can be seen in the painting is the selection of the case, they are seen through the eyes of order – what combination of relations is capable of being recognized by history and knowledge – all else is passed over in silence.


Practice no longer an embodiment of value system, but rather engagement in the process of creation. Remaining open and empty to a secret coherence, becoming a vessel for inspiration and threads of beauty.

(story of despair – inspiration, process – color, vincent – roses, line of beauty)

(Each painting as a process of discovery – the movement from feeling to coherence – gradual formulation of thoughts through process of engagement. The importance of this opening and uncertainty in the process of making art – the retrospective analysis that occurs in our efforts to make sense of the world – it is only after a delirious process of action or creation that we can stop, look back, reflect and pull out meaning, attribute meaning, make a case)

How the artistic practice in the studio became about embodying a process rather than values. The artistic practice is most successful when one maintains an opening for unexpected occurrences – when one follows a flow that never becomes certain, or only becomes fixed at the moment the painting is complete, or abandoned. The process takes on far-reaching implication about how we make sense of our worlds.

Intellectually, at this point in our retrospective analysis, we can begin to think of the grid as a limiting, reactionary, homogenizing force. The purpose in putting such a form on display up to this point, has been to demonstrate the way a reactive force can be carried to a limit where it becomes active. A resistance becomes apparent in opposition to the form itself.

A grid painting, painted in such tedium, makes the attempt at folding the power of a homogenizing force against itself, carrying negation to a limit where it becomes a force of resistance and affirmation. To use the form to express it’s opposite – a folding, a mirroring.

Once this affirmative ground buzzes instances of expression occur.

The textured and expressive blooms cause an opposition with the affirmative ground. They are the emergence of singularities that lay claim to a concept from beyond the ground, or grid, and in turn create a tension with the grid.

It is the only after the blooms find passage that the grid reveals itself as a fold. It becomes once again the negative, homogenizing force to be resisted. The grid as the affirmative ground at once maintains its stage of affirmation, and reveals itself as a homogenizing force to be resisted and passed through.

Patience, endurance, consistency – looking back now, they sound like the very same values that would contribute to a totalitarian smoothing of experience, an even society of patient and consistent people. Or, the consistency of concepts held in place by a constellation of institutions in an effort to maintain and homogenize a system of Knowledge. Any and all value systems can be corrupted.

It is only after the reactive force is carried to a limit and folded against itself that it becomes active and resistant. Once the fold becomes a ground of affirmation, instances of expression can unfold on and through that ground.

Because the intrinsic value of forms is absent, art becomes about the spirit that is transmitted through these forms. The choices made about how to fill the grid with dispersions determines the value of what is exchanged.

A spiritual recognition occurs beneath our ability to articulate things. During an encounter with an object, or the objects encounter with a viewer – a recognition occurs. There is no escape from limitation, but there is a reaching-toward, a vision of a beyond, the imagination of an impossible bridge or branch. A  murmur is awoken during an encounter with beauty – it is in recognizing a spiritual transmission that one’s own spirit becomes transmissible – or perhaps, it is in recognizing a spiritual transmission that one’s body becomes a vessel for the continuation of that spirit. From this perspective we can imagine that there are singular spirits moving through many different bodies, many different vessels. Perhaps the simple word for this phenomenon is inspiration.

What I’d like to believe is that there are intangible spiritual exchanges that transcend boundaries of time – that art is a way to engage with a love of people one will never meet.

(secret coherence, invisible threads of beauty, threads and unknowable coherence running through us)


departure –

The line of flight of a pursuit.

The transient clouds moving over an apparatus of capture.

Two planes: The plane of transience, and the plane of capture.

the shadows of what is beyond capture, the plane of differences can only understand the shadow of what is transient.


Where order meets untamable force repeating.

About Michael Johnson

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