INTERVIEW WITH 255 CANAL
255: Matt, thanks for joining us. We really love the paintings. They’re beautiful. But the first thing I want to ask is whether that’s enough, their being beautiful, and also, related to that, why you choose to work this way, using paint and canvas. What is your reason for painting in particular?
MD: I need a reason?
255: Well, some might say it’s a funny thing to be doing these days, putting paint on canvas, since artists have so many options now. How did you settle on painting?
MD: You’re saying it’s obsolete.
225: No one could say that. But I suppose painting’s not what it used to be, you know, the cardinal art, the obvious choice.
MD: Well, I suppose you could arrange all the media used for making art in any kind of hierarchy you like, and put painting at the top, where it used to be, or down at the bottom, where it seems to be now, depending on your taste. But to do that you have to be thinking about art, consciously or not, as a kind of alchemy. You have to fall for the idea that an artist can achieve a perfect form and by doing so transmute it into life, or effect its arrival in life without an audience’s metabolizing it. That’s how a lot of artists actually think, you know, even if they aren’t aware of it, and for them trying to make that happen is the whole reason for making art. But the effort always fails, not that some great work hasn’t been produced this way, and when that happens, the artist lapses into a kind of half-resignation coalescing in fantasy that as a model for some future life it might succeed. Joseph Beuys was the worst, but the delusion in which he lost himself is actually quite common among artists, although usually not as potent as it was in him. Anyone living now can recognize this curse, the madness of Pygmalion, with respect to painting, because painting as alchemical enterprise, as illusion-making, was superseded a long time ago. Less easy to see, simply because newness invites credulity, is that in terms of this pseudoscience new mediums don’t change anything. I understand that other media are more thrilling. But anyone who goes around thrilling to newer media while categorically disdaining older ones is only playing the part of victim in a seduction. Being seduced is a thrill, of course.
255: Don’t you want your paintings to seduce us?
MD: No, I want you to deal with the unvarnished fact of them. These days you’d have to be totally primitive or hopelessly romantic to look at a painting and think you were looking at reality or even an accurate representation of it. That wasn’t always the case, however. And it’s not the case now, not with film or photography, not with performance and happenings or installation, which titillate the public by flirting with that edge between art and life. If the question you find yourself asking about an artwork is whether it’s real or art, the answer is that it’s pornography. But that dyad, the art/life dyad, is a just a riddle, you know, not an actual, solvable problem. And it exists in various, equivalent iterations: form and content, ideal and material, mind and body. But all these pairs are nothing but instruments of intellectual torture. Obsessed with them, we go wandering in the desert like conquistadores in search of the Cities of Cibola, trying to know what an artwork “means” or what the “idea” behind it is, only to lose our way on the featureless plain of relativism or find ourselves marooned on some barren peak of ideology.
255: Sounds like you’re quarreling with certain pillars of Western philosophy.
MD: I imagine you think that’s passé too. But I’ll try answer your question about why I paint. I say painting recommends itself now as an art-making technique exactly because it has been stripped, by photography and other media, of all mimetic pretense. Having been stripped of that pretense, it’s free now from the riddle, the falsehood, the solipsism of mimesis! But during its long captivity and subsequent half-century wandering in the desert, painting produced an extensive, sophisticated vocabulary that today’s painters can use. The bulk of that vocabulary was developed in the course of earnest attempts at mimicry of ocular perception, which is the rich, wonderful irony at the heart of painting. But I’ll tell you what I think is unbearably stupid: all these contemporary painters so desperate to get back into captivity they start ripping holes in their canvases or gluing 3-D shit to them or coming up with random “meanings” for their pictures or concocting a “meaning” to start with, a political statement or something like that, then making a painting supposed to express it. If you have “something to say,” why not just say it, in words, write a blog like everyone else? That way other people might even understand you, which is what you’d want, I imagine, assuming you think what you have to say is worth being understood. But paintings should not communicate. They should not have meaning. Paintings are meaning. Paintings want nothing more and nothing less than to be seen for what they are. To cram painting back into “having meaning,” like the pictures of the saints on chapel walls, always looks absurd these days, and that’s because it is absurd, like a woman who walks and talks like a little girl. A painter who paints like that is the one you have to ask why he is painting instead of making a movie. The only good defense for painting that a painter like that can offer is “Oh, you know, I'm being ironical,” or “I'm using this Renaissance method self-consciously to cleverly say something miniscule and highly specific about my chosen topic.” But that’s pretty small-minded and depressing.
255: OK. Let’s talk about your paintings. Some of these remind me of Pollock. Was he an influence?
MD: Sure, they look like Pollock. They look like Motherwell too, and Twombly, or even Rothko, if you use your imagination. All those guys are post-photography. But I also like Titian and Velasquez. I used to paint like Rembrandt, you know. In painting, the camera, whether we like it or not, was the big divide, and now that we’ve crossed it, there’s never going to be another revolution in painting. Anyone waiting to see the next huge thing in painting, or hoping to be the next huge thing in painting, huge on the scale of what happened from near the end of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, whoever is expecting that is just a fantasist with a painting fetish. Would-be art revolutionaries should get into movie-making, I guess, and hope someone invents whatever art form will displace it as the world’s favorite form of alternative reality. What I am trying to say is that anything anyone does in painting will look, to any well-educated viewer, distinctly like paintings that someone did before, not only because painting develops from a certain history, but also, and especially, because the invention of the camera laid painting open to be explored to its outermost limits, which is what painters did, quickly, over the course of about fifty years. Lots of art historians and theorists, who’ve gotten into the heads of lots of painters, like to pretend that thinking about art and its development in linear terms is wrong. But those guys are just upset because they love the magic that painting had in the past, and love, despite everything they say, that painting was the art that had it, and hate to see the curtain parted on poor painting. So they comfort themselves by imagining, on one hand, that to debunk traditional histories of art is to obliterate the inexorable march of time, and, on the other, that painting never was magical to begin with. But their refusal to call an end to all this wandering in the desert is only costing them their arrival in the promised land.
255: I get the impression this is isn’t the first time you’ve considered this question of whether painting is still viable as an art form.
MD: No, it isn’t, because I haven’t wanted to be labeled a fuddy-duddy or some kind of reactionary and there are some people who say that painters are that, by definition. Lucio Fontana said painting is finished. So did Robert Smithson. A gallerist showing Inka Essenhigh once said the question is no longer how to paint but why paint at all. The Brooklyn Museum did a retrospective of Basquiat praising him as a rescuer of pictorial representation, which was, apparently, in danger of extinction. Speaking at the New School, John Currin triggered a massive ovation by saying what a shame it would have been if Raphael had wasted his time making video installations. Why do you suppose that audience, most of them so-called Neo-Realist painters, because that’s who loves John Currin, were feeling so insecure about painting, so insecure they interpreted his comment as a cut on video and erupted in applause? Because painting has been expelled by certain theorists, and even some painters, from the category of authentic art practice.
255: So what is painting today then, in your opinion?
MD: Painting today is Neo-Anything-You-Like: Neo-Abstract, Neo-Baroque, Neo-Expressionist, Neo-Figurative, Neo-Geo, Neo-Impressionist, Neo-Realist, Neo-Surrealist. You might say these paintings that I’ve made are Neo-Gestural or Neo-Abstract, and that would be fine with me. But the big question, the question everyone is asking, is whether or not there is any actual, real, serious work left for painting to do, and the answer to that question depends on what you mean by it. Are you asking if there is still room for major, formal innovation in painting? The answer to that question is No. But the closing down of that possibility, the calcification of the formal aspects of painting, means that really we’re just getting started. And the real beauty, the rainbow, is that now there’ll never be another flood.
255: But what is a painter supposed to do then? I mean, you say that formal innovation in painting is dead.
255: But you also say that paintings today should have no content, that paintings are their own content.
MD: That’s right.
255: So doesn’t that mean that all that’s possible now in painting is repetition?
MD: Yes. Otherwise known as ritual practice.
255: Aha. Painting is religion.
MD: Yes, that’s a good way of putting it. The camera liberated Western painting from Christianity, after which painting became a kind of Christianity itself, a religion like the Christianity practiced now in Western Europe, for example, or on the East and West coasts in the US, a liberal, enlightened, non-believing religion, a hypocritical religion, the kind of religion whose tenets no one subscribes to but that somehow moves us and that we can use to manage in a denatured sort of way the things that we can’t really talk about. That’s what I have been trying to say about the stupidity of so-called “meanings.” What is the “meaning” of the Holy Trinity? Well, Jesus Christ! If we could say what the meaning of the Trinity is, we wouldn't need the Trinity anymore. It would simply vanish from our minds. Now there are some Christians out there who can tell you the meaning of the Trinity, at least to their own satisfaction, and they will tell you, by the way, until you run away screaming. That’s because for them the meaning of Christ is scientific. True believers are the least spiritual people you’ll meet, and contemporary paintings with specific intent, the least artistic images you’ll see.
As unwittingly as a mosquito transmits disease, we all inject meaning into the images we see. When at last, if ever, we recognize the deed, worse for us than being confronted by the idiosyncrasy of our so-called interpretation, worse than our being forced to concede, as at this stage we would like, in the hope that we might stop the rope’s unraveling there, that our content and the form we infected, although bearing no essential connection, in any case have coalesced, we are humbled further still by the sudden knowledge that the time gap itself is fraught: the moment of transmission, just now being codified as the past, falls prey to a secondary infection, this one perpetrated by our recognition, which necessarily carries its own disrupting virus. In effect, as long as we remain intent on locating content in the forms we view, we are destined not merely to suffer the pangs of profound relativism, but worse, never in that terrible condition to encounter even undistorted versions of ourselves. Like anyone who looks at my paintings, I might infect them with meaning, saying for example that both as reflections on the terrible discomfort, described so precisely by Proust, from whom their titles are borrowed, of our feeling alternately shut out and overwhelmed by others and by our own thoughts, as well as monuments to the difficulty of navigating a survivable course between that Scylla and Charybdis, these paintings, representing several of an infinite number of comparative states of integration or conflation of foreground and background, subject and field, seek to depict our experience as porous, fluxing, mere quasi-entities no more than semi-distinct from our memory, conscious, unconscious, cellular, or persisting, as memory often does, in hazy physio-psychic amalgams, or from our social reticulations, hidden, perceived, or more often than not, teasing to the point of tormenting us from mysterious points between, but to be perfectly honest, all I recall from the time I spent making these paintings is some feelings, albeit ranging from agony to ecstasy, and a handful of what to others could only seem pedestrian process-related thoughts. An etiology of those feelings, or a catalogue, supposing such a thing were possible, of the decisions I made about applying my paint, would at least make no pretense of being interpretation, but nonetheless would amount to entirely new inventions, separate works. So it is not my paintings, but me, and only a particular version of me who arrived long after the paint had dried, who might express a balky resentment of narrative, both the ugly trace of reality’s insolence and the opiate that makes it bearable, marking the passage of time in mostly obliterated layers, capturing and obscuring the history of their production, insisting on that history, for which credit is wanted, while seeking to maintain a connection to the unscathed ground, nostalgic for the time when anything else might yet have been. But what has any abstract painter, action painter, any authentically process-oriented painter, from any time, of any school, ever been about if not the attempt to eradicate the terrible schism between form and content? And what means is there of doing this except with every application of paint to render it null? In the act of painting these pictures, questions of content, of meaning, never once occurred to me. In my experience, without exception, pictures conceived in terms of meaning simply fail, and pictures unfinished which become infected with meaning, barring radical treatment, a period of convalescence, or both, are at that moment finished, usually for the worse. Icarus serves as an example not so much of the exception as the rule in human endeavor. Keeping our feet on the ground, however, perhaps dragging our noses through the dirt, too, for good measure, spares us his fate. Or to consider the problem in terms of that mythology which is even more our inheritance, we might say that to have eaten from the tree of life was to be drunk on our repression, which only the unearthing of fossils could dislodge, of being descended from some near relative of the tempter serpent that slithered out of the sea, of our base materiality, of our being composed, body and mind, of chemicals, of the impassable bedrock onto which the last trap door opens, our immitigable mortality. To disclaim pretension to godliness, to repudiate the callow notion that we have been created in the image of the creator, is to release ourselves, at least in principle, from enslavement to false dyads, man's creation being the mother of all mimetic acts, mimesis being the application of that false science that is form and content set in binary arrangement. To turn away from this pretense is to release ourselves from the preposterous expectation, inscribed as it were on our souls, that we live up to the godly form that we inhabit. How glorious our form! How vile our content! How absurd that construction. In actuality, our form and content have been not even in dialectical relationship, but always one and the same. We are not only in the world, but also of the world, to invert the familiar affirmation. Is not the reason for being and the movement of at least modern art to be more and more simply seen, to absolutely repel interpretation, to refuse all commentary?