My undergraduate painting teacher often repeated this quote by Degas: “painting is the ability to surround a Venetian red so that it looks like vermillion.” Venetian is a dull brick red while vermillion is a brilliant bright red. The quote stuck in my mind because it seemed to be about two very incompatible things: restraint and trickery. There was restraint because the painter doesn’t necessarily go straight for the loud vermillion. Rather, she takes a circuitous and slower path to get there: to transform venetian red into a vermillion.
Painters don’t make one to one comparisons between the colors in a painting to those in the world: we compare the colors within a painting to each other. Or as Wittgenstein put it more succinctly: “There is gold paint, but Rembrandt didn’t use it to paint a golden helmet.” In terms of manipulating the relativity of color and value and drama, painters create a set of contexts within the frame. The confine of a rectangle is central to this optical game: it’s the perfect place to slow down and focus attention, to heighten perception free from other distraction. So I (hereby!) accept the frame of the canvas in the same way that I accept words and language as a place to make meaning.
A painting’s frame is a pretty definite place to draw a line between art and life. In his writing, the sculptor Tony Smith observed the New Jersey Turnpike as it was being built and wondered about his sculptures’ and Art’s ability to compete with the immensity and presence of the Turnpike. At the very least, a painting can’t be confused with the New Jersey Turnpike. So part of every good painting for me is an impossible desire to be free from the wall it hangs on and the world outside. Paintings absurdly want to be worlds onto themselves. But of course we know that paintings are not autonomous. Even the acceptance of the rectangle is a convention. This convention may have been born as much out of commerce and ownership than out of any other desire. So paintings are simultaneously confine, signaling autonomy, and construct, signaling contingency.
Paintings are also human, in scale and gesture and desire: they are intentional. Even the slickest paintings always expose a process, both in thought and physicality. Painting ideas are embodied and negotiated through process. The philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell named two types of knowledge: knowledge by description (knowing the rules of mathematics or grammar, for example) and knowledge by acquaintance (knowing how to perform the rules via experience). Painting ideas are created by acquaintance with material. I’m interested in an active use of material not a passive acceptance of dogma or quotation. For example, I make my gestures in the shape of six pointed asterisks or three pointed tripods. They derive from Islamic tile geometry. Many people ask about the role of Islamic patterns in my work, expecting a kind of cultural posturing. Yes, I am second generation BangladeshiAmerican with an Islamic heritage. Yes, I grew up around patterns in embroidery, rugs, and saris. My interest in Pattern painting came from looking at Persian and Moghul miniatures, although I came to those via Matisse. So why is the use of Islamic geometry in my work almost invisible? Why isn’t it more obvious or iconic? Because Islamic geometry is in itself willfully anti-iconic, whether developed in antithesis to Christian icons, in adherence to the historical ban on images, or as mathematical perfection describing weightless, infinite space. Where else would one turn to for such highly evolved and distilled tessellations? I turned to them because of their ability to yield geometry through painterly and calligraphic mark making. Because someone centuries ago spent a good amount of time playing with a ruler and a compass, I can lift from that tradition a kind of readymade handmade pixel. Those experiments were indeed the mathematical forerunners of current digital technology. I’m not interested in merely quoting or “describing” these forms, forever suspending them in their historical moment. I use them in the present tense for what they are and what they can become.
Thus paintings exist in culture as commentary: an act of interpretation. But what is the value of such an activity? Some argue that literature teaches empathy for other individuals, surely a core value of cultural progress. But what does a painting teach, if anything? This answer is much harder to put my finger on. It lies in a kind of respect for material processes and accidental discoveries: a reminder to balance untested strategies with physical conditions on the ground.
Anoka Faruqee, June 2010
Published in ON PTG, Poor Farm Press, 2012 and Field Notes, Artist’s Book, 2010