Essays & Posts

Pictures of Nothing

I paint pictures of nothing. What I mean is, I paint pictures of no "thing," In non-representional art, there's no subject, there's no landscape, there's no figure or still life or narrative. In a fragmented, materialistic world, where everything is everywhere all at once all the time, do pictures of nothing mean anything? Are they just surface and no substance? Or do they have the potential to mean more, to be felt deeper or on a different register, than images of any "thing” could?

I, of course, subscribe to the latter. Working non-representationally can open up an entirely new realm of possibilities that inherently asks difficult, even impossible questions: What is available to us outside of our symbols of representation? What exists between or beyond the stuff we buy, the appointments make, the relationships we cultivate, the thoughts that interrupt us? What is consciousness? What is reality? How is it all intertwined and entangled? Asking these questions alludes to a sort of cruel optimism—driven to find an answer yet knowing we will never really find one. What is clear is that non-representational art creates an open-ended platform that helps us pursue these kinds of questions by directly connecting us to a deeper sensibility.

Representational knowledge attempts to capture, fix, produce and re-present what we already know and experience. When ideas are fixed they are terminated and once we feel we’ve "gotten" it, we’re ready to move on. Non-representational art reflects the open-ended, generative process of the lived present, "in tune with the vitality of the world as it unfolds." It is open to the unpredictable, not logical, ambiguous nature of the everyday world that exists prior to reflexive and cognitive thought.

Non-representational (aka nonobjective) painting provides a clearer connection between the artist, the artwork and the viewer by leveraging the immediacy of the painting process without relying on the baggage inherent in the symbolism of objective reality. This connection may not be on the conscious level, or at least cognitive awareness isn’t necessary for this connection to happen. It’s not dependent on us knowing what’s happening behind the scenes. It is often just a vague, indescribable feeling that precedes emotion—what we refer to as affect. Affect is a pre-cognitive, pre-rational sense that, when consciously looked for, eludes our focus, like floaters in the eye. Affect is a precursor and undercurrent to awareness that is stronger and more pervasive than any mixed bag of fleeting emotions.

Working non-representationally means intentionally working outside of the illusion of representation. When painting a figure or a landscape or a still life, we are creating the illusion of reality. We are pointing to things we recognize in real life while adding an interpretive framework—creating a symbolic language that leads to a narrative. If painting representationally is at its core an illusion, working non-representationally must at its core be something much closer to reality.

But what is real? Is it possible that we're always making stuff up as we go? As in quantum mechanics, does everything we know only exist in our observation of that thing? As Donald Hoffman, cognitive psychologist and author of The Case Against Reality, asks could everything just be an icon on the desktop? Every thing would then be a symbol, an aspect of an interface that points to something else. The email icon on the desktop is not the email itself. It points to the content of the email. And the content of the email is a bunch of 1s and 0s stored inside a machine and delivered through a complicated choreography of software and hardware to a display via bits and phosphors. Non-representational art therefore incorporates ideas not based on illusion, as in representational art, but of what exists outside of the illusion we currently understand as reality. Alluding to the same idea behind dark energy, that which exists between everything we empirically know. (Turns out Hoffman has a mathematical formula he says proves this, or more accurately, it hasn’t been disproven so far.)

In this essay I intentionally created a higher contrast between the ideas of non-representational and representational art to make a point. Like most things, in reality these differences aren't binary but are along a continuum—not either-or but more-or-less. Art that is more non-representational, however, is still more open-ended (less fixed), more affective (a sensibility that is pre-rational and less dependent on cognition) and more real (less illusionary) than its more representational counterpart.

The next time you are standing in front of a painting (ie. not viewing it on your screen but in real life) try to approach it with an empty mind and an open heart. Pay attention to what the representational things and what the non-representational things are saying to you. Because in the end, you, the viewer, are the critical piece that completes the circuit and transforms the painting into a work of art.

*Pictures of Nothing is borrowed for the title of Kirk Varnedoe’s book based on his 2003 lectures at the National Gallery of Art.