In recent months, guests have come to my studio to sit for portraits with increasing frequency. Direct portraiture like this is a habit I picked up in my teenage years, almost from the beginning of my studio practice, and it still yields some of my most interesting work.
Michael In the Studio, 2010. Courtesy of Brady McGarry.
There are many social forces that bring the artist and the model together in the ritual of portraiture, but the idea of relationship, in its purest sense, is what intrigues me most. I've come to believe that painting is a relational act. This is true even when rendering the subject from memory or imagination. Relationship seems to be the goal of portraiture, and arguably, of all perceptual art.
The Concrete Touch
Whenever I think about my work, or any work of art, my touchstone is the medium. The artist’s medium is precisely that: a mediator between one entity and another; the skin between you and me. When I paint your portrait, I touch you through the paint. I draw you to myself, or at least I try. I touch you into being by touching the work.
When I paint you, it is more than the conveyance of ideas or the expression of feeling or even social identity. Painting constitutes a relationship; an encounter with the subject itself; the subject which lies beyond painting. And what's more, through the medium of paint or dry pigment, this relationship becomes physical. It is rendered in concrete terms.
When I paint you, I summon you like the bison in the cave of my studio. I bow to you like the icon that stands in for the reality of the beloved saint.
Two Bison, Cave Paintings at Lascaux, bc. 20,000. www.bradshawfoundation.com/lascaux/index.php
Whether cherished bison or saint, an invented character, the memory of a deceased family member, an important client or simply the friend I've schedule to come by for a sitting this afternoon, art says to the subject:
You are the holy one whose presence I call forth in the activity of art.
Art is the act that reaches out in yearning, hoping somehow to transcend the limitations of time and space, even the grave, to make this kind of physical relationship possible.
We Are Not One
The act of portraiture is unitive in the sense that we, artist and subject, come together for its consummation. The object of art, the 'uncanny object' (a concept which I promise I'll get to in a future post), is the fruit of this collaboration. Yet, contrary to what the eastern mystics describe in their conscious turning-away from form, this relationship is not an illusory separateness that gives way to total undifferentiated being. Rather, the artist is seeking a union through form. A union which depends upon a hearty objectivity; a continuous and willing differentiation between distinct entities.
This skin of the paint separates us; we are “I and thou.” The difference between us is the very thing that gives us relationship. In the process of drawing the portrait we find the perfect analogy for this union. In art, we are brought together in relationship by virtue of our separateness. To say: I am you, like the lone mystic on the mountaintop, is insufficient. Rather, the artist says: I am with you. I know that I am with you because we are not the same.
The Sweater, Michael Shelby Edwards, oil on board, 9x12", 2012.
Mediated on one level by the paint-skin; on another level by the schematic of the drawing, the artist and the subject come together through the act of art; inspired by a love of distinctions. As the poet, Rilke, remarks, it is “the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.” It is the truthful perception of the otherness of the subject that brings relationship into being.
Hitting the Target
The truth of this paradox arises out of the nature of perception itself: in separating one part from another within the field of vision, I am able to see. In dividing up the singular, undifferentiated field of the ground, I come to discover the figure.
Film from 'Visit to Picasso', a documentary by Paul Haesaert, 1949.
The more closely these divisions correlate to the reality of the subject itself, the more faithful the ‘likeness’ to the subject. This doesn’t mean advocating for a 'new objectivism' in painting or promoting a conformist ideal of beauty. It doesn't mean that faithfulness to reality, ‘likeness’, is the sole domain of so-called representational art. It should go without saying that all art, insofar as it is excellent, is representational of truth.
Indeed, any movement towards excellence in art, requires a willingness to affirm that likeness, that is, likeness to truth, is of universal value for both the artist and the public. Excellence in both the production and appreciation of art requires sensitivity to this value which is so fundamental to human happiness. It falls to the artist to hit the perceptual target, even if that target is an object observed only within the imagination. Only then can the real, physical encounter between artist and subject achieve consummation.
The French Trapper (detail), Michael Shelby Edwards, charcoal and ink-pen, 9x12", 2012.
Seeing is Relating
In nature, heterogeneity gives way to relationship. In painting and drawing, the negotiation of the figure-ground relationship yields up the fruit of the image; the image ultimately encountered, first by the artist, and then by the world - the public - of which the subject is a part. It is the negotiation and interrelationship of distinctions that makes it possible to perceive reality. It is in reaching out to the subject continuously, through the medium that simultaneously separates and unites, that I am able to know and to be known.
In this way, the paint-skin is analogous to the skin of the body. The act of painting itself can be likened to a conjugal act. The fruit of painting is the art-object, the object destined to be encountered by the world, and through which the world can, if it is willing to look, come to know something of the nature of its original cause: the interrelationship between distinctive, complimentary entities, in a unitive, fruitful act of encounter.