Posted on 23. May 2012
As part of the statement on the Sol-Space home page it is said that ‘the artist’s search for integrity, and the connection between inner perceptions and outer forms, which are of both individual and universal significance, lies at the heart of the gallery’s ethos’. What does integrity mean to each of us, in relation to our practice?
For myself, initially, when I start to think about it, I go blank or it’s as if something baulks at it. Perhaps I’m used to coming across the idea of it only indirectly or unawares. I also assume, on some level, that I know what it means. When I try to confront it, it suddenly flies away. But then it’s like that sometimes if I think I have a good idea for a painting. I may have even mentioned it to someone, but then sense afterwards that something was lost in that process. There was something of a lie there – it wasn’t quite true. Where was integrity at that moment? If I begin a new piece of work with an idea, it tends only to be useful as a ruse to get started. It is exposed for what it is by the first few moves in which the material situation poses a question. It seems to me though that the practicalities of painting aren’t so difficult – I have a working relationship with them, and the visual language that I have established over time. It’s the seeing that’s difficult. To stand back and really see the situation before me – the whole of it, not just this or that; that seems to me to be the greatest difficulty. It’s easy to con myself, to believe the physicality of it, or a fantasy about it, or feeling that it’s great, or that it’s crap. It’s difficult to see it in a sufficiently honest or detached way. I need integrity, and somehow it’s as if the integrity of the painting can only come from that. Being detached or objective in this seeing can be viewed as withdrawing from the visceral activity, but I think it’s a co-existing with it. Peter Brook the theatre director described it as being like a hand in a glove – intimately connected with the glove yet at the same time remaining separate from it. I don’t think that state comes automatically; it has to be searched for.
Integrity is a word I probably overuse. According to the Oxford English dictionary it means moral excellence and honesty yet I can’t claim to ever make these things a priority in painting. The untruths reveal themselves just as frequently. There they are ugly nuisances that I often attempt to obliterate while they shout at me. Who decided that ugly and crude has greater ‘honesty’ than beauty? I remember that being the dominant school of thought in my art school days and wonder if it’s still the case.
Still, it is how one responds to these untruths or uncertainties as a painter that brings integrity to the work. Allowing what could be temporary and transient to either settle into the work or disappear if it is too much of the moment and lacking depth. I find the time spent away from a painting is useful in sorting this out. Who could ever claim to know ‘the truth’ anyway? There’s a conversation with any painting that I am working on where I am establishing the language and what I think I want to say but am constantly interrupted by what could be little white lies trying to sabotage the process. But they could just as easily be truths.
When I think about integrity, I sense that it is always there in the background, something that raises the consciousness – the internal struggle, the recognition of what is false or misleading. For me upon entering the studio, I try not to look at the work directly - I try to catch it out of the corner of my eye – a ‘fleeting glance’ . It is this glimpse (I hope) that enables the image to reveal itself and enter a dialogue which informs the deception that I suspect will be waiting. It is often the deception that is integral to the process of making – for me these falsehoods open a dialogue with integrity and are implicit within the transient nature of the work. Paintings are never predetermined, planned or worked out – quite the reverse; however I have to start somewhere, with something to disrupt the order, to begin the process of searching for the point where integrity becomes paramount. This discourse is formed through decisions that are often automatic, random, yet based upon a knowledge that one is searching for something that is unknown and unexpected - new territory. I try, often failing, to mistrust what I feel secure with, even when logic suggests otherwise. Integrity is something which one strives for, yet it can be misleading; it is a kind of paradox, where the recognition of deception in some way opens the path to a kind of truth.
The search for integrity implies many things at the same time, and its meaning is never precise or clear; I am in agreement with Stephen Buckeridge in that. I also find that integrity in art, particularly abstract painting is a spiritual or ethical thing and it may not be directly connected with the actual process of making, unless of course, the art is conceptual and inspired by the specific agenda to reflect the idea based on an acknowledged set of values. As artists, we may have a strong sense of it in relation to our practice, but the actual process of making can be completely clear of any thoughts associated with the paradox of integrity. In my painting process, the decisions are simply based on what works or doesn’t work. Decisions are inspired by the discovery of something I connect to, sometimes in ways that I may not understand at first, logically, but it arouses intrigue, curiosity and imagination. So integrity can be seen as the direct understanding of what it is that I create when I am creating it.
I most frequently use the term ‘integrity’ in the context of value based systems. In this sense, integrity is manifest in the alignment of the ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ to a coherent whole. The business world offers a useful model to illustrate this concept: a company’s declared values (the ‘why’) give shape to its policies. Policy articulates ‘what’ is required to realise, achieve or “be true to” the stated aim, i.e. company values. How to actually do it, by which processes, will be documented in procedures, based on experience and best practise. As an artist I have a personal set of values relating directly to my own work and, more generally, to art, its surrounding concepts and philosophies, and the art world as a social and professional environment. The values relating directly to my own work are my ‘why’, my motivation to make paintings. ‘What’ I create and ‘how’ I go about it – my aesthetic sensitivity and preferences, personal style and method, my chosen medium and technique – are guided by and reflect these values consciously and subconsciously (intuition). This value system is not static; over time it changes with the accumulation of varied sensual and intellectual engagement and experience. While my values may not alter easily or significantly, the more I see and reflect the more articulate my expression (method, style etc.) becomes. In this way, by the development and fine tuning of this value based system and maintaining integrity towards it, I feel I mature as an artist and over time my work becomes stronger. So when I say of an artist’s work that it has integrity, what I mean is that the work is coherent, that the underpinning values can be seen in the execution and appearance of the work. Similarly one might speak of a person’s integrity if their actions and way of life reflect their personal values. Authenticity is also a useful term in this context. Continuing in this vein, it might be interesting to look at an artist’s integrity as well as the artwork’s. I am sure not to be the first artist to have experienced certain conflicts between my own value system and others which might make demands of me, specifically social value systems inherent in different parts of society – family, work environment, the art world etc. Two specific examples:
1. An issue many of us face, and which has been with us for a while now, is the question of audience – who is our work for? This might be an easy one to answer for many visual artists – those closely engaged and concerned with political or societal issues for instance. But if our work presumes a certain level of prior experience of art, aesthetic sensitivity and an active interest on the part of the viewer, how much does that narrow down our potential audience (and number of buyers…)? Especially for artists making non-figurative paintings like myself this can become a bit of a conundrum: do I want to retain integrity with certain social value systems to avoid being accused of the “ivory-tower” attitude by making my work more accessible? And do I want to serve a market? It seems to me that the danger inherent in any sort of compromise is that it could de facto force a sabotage of my own artistic value system…
2. The question of resourcing: most of us do need to earn an income; most of us cannot support ourselves (and perhaps families) through our work as an artist alone (or at all). The balancing of art-related work (teaching, gallery work etc.), other work, marketing oneself, the whole organisation and administrative underbelly, and the actual making of art can for many of us lead to spending rather little time on the latter. And to what extent are some of us downgrading the importance of our own artistic development in attempts to “integrate” with the value system of the art market or institutions funding the arts?
Is it more important to be a professional artist or to make art with integrity? I think this is a worthwhile consideration for those of us who do not belong to the number of artists who manage both without breaking the bank. In the quest to achieve the magical realm of “living of one’s art” one might be in danger of forgetting our original motivations for doing it all in the first place.
I would think that every artist believes in, or tries to believe in, integrity, whether or not they exercise that belief or go about it in the wrong ways.
Having had the chance to read through everyone else’s response, has given me a broader perspective on integrity, as, to be honest, I was not quite sure what it really meant, aside from the standard definition of the word.
I agree with Dragica’s comment about decisions being based on what works and what doesn’t work in her process. For me, it is likely something that has been learned over time, but through my own creative process, there is often this sense that something just isn’t right, or something is perfect the way it is. I also feel that there is a moment when you have absolutely no idea what is going on, how, or if, anything should be changed, and this is the point where I find integrity to be at the base of struggle.
Though it might be a contradictory statement, I would like to think that I put integrity first and foremost, but in an indirect (subconscious?) manner (intuitive, as Katrin pointed out). I think if a painter (or any artist for that matter) goes into making work with integrity as their main goal, they have lost it from the start. I feel that it is something that comes naturally, and defines the struggle that artists face when creating.
I hope that the work I create is done so: honestly and with out any other intention than to express my surroundings and my feelings. Of course I have had ‘training’ in the past, but training is just another tool that helps one to express oneself better. I don’t have any specific rituals I perform in order to make my work, with the exception of stretching and priming a canvas, but I am constantly aware of my surroundings, taking photos of my own, ‘borrowing’ them from others, and so on, and then I get a sense of what might work in a painting, or what I would like to see become part of my work.
Integrity in this context could be discussed in relation to an approach to practice and also in relation to individual works. In terms of an approach to practice, this is something I have kept in mind in terms of making work which sits with my own values and follows lines of enquiry relevant to my own experience, interests and culture. Integrity is something that may be used to determine a measure of authenticity in a practice, though the notion of authenticity is problematic to classify and identify. Authenticity, honesty and integrity are often bound up in notions of tradition, a singular voice, the hand-made etc. For these reasons, painting perhaps more than some other artistic outputs is seen as having inbuilt integrity but an individual’s choice of a specific medium is no guarantee of honesty or integrity. Perhaps integrity and authenticity are seen to be lacking in those things which are pursued primarily for financial gain, notoriety or power, but intentions and objectives may not be cohesive, are complex and hard to pin down. Determining the existence of integrity and authenticity is subjective, but it seems that each individual recognises it when they see it.
There can also be potential pitfalls if integrity is positioned as being paramount within a practice. Critical engagement and the relevance of a practice may get lost in a blind quest for an honest method of working. Someone may have all the integrity in the world but this is certainly no guarantee of successful work.
In my own practice, the notion of a kind of truth in relation to processes and their formal outcomes has been at times fairly clear. I have made large panel paintings onto which I fitted casters to aid manoeuvrability in the studio, these casters were then retained during exhibition in order to establish an honesty between the process of making and the display. More recently I produced a series of paintings entitled ‘Regular Work’ which were made to a set of predetermined rules, one of which was that no erasure or overpainting was permitted. This meant that of 30 or so that were made, only 10 were deemed worthy of exhibition. In this case, some could have been salvaged through reworking but in order to retain a formal freshness and an integrity to the working process laid out, they were discarded.
Painting in itself could be seen as a kind of untruth. Pigmented liquids applied to a surface to create an illusion and evoke a response. I have always been mindful of painting as a construct and am always aware of the physical nature of a painting as an object as well as a window into a world. These paradoxes permeate my practice and play out in formal conceits – a faux sense of depth, skewed perspectives, the framing of images in relation to the edges of the canvas, forms that suggest representation and forms that try not to. This approach is a reminder to myself, and perhaps to an audience, that we live in a world of constructs, and that though we are drawn to seek out truths, they constantly seem to evade us.
Of course, as engaged, thinking artists, our work will always bridge both critical and visceral terrains; but I would suggest that integrity must indeed stand as a crucial, if not leading strand of any creative life. It may very well be critical engagement that can give our work a position with regards contemporary thinking and discussion, and ultimately the market. But it must surely be the integrity within a practice which will allow our work to move beyond fashion, to shake off the irrelevance of truths and untruths, to give the work longevity beyond the zeitgeist. My ambition as an artist is to make new meanings, to forge new territories. I do not believe this to be a dusty, romantic ideal, rather a vital and urgent direction that is hopefully the goal of many other artists. Via integrity we will learn that painting can exist without props. Integrity can allow the freedom for openness, for bravery. With integrity we are able to embrace fear, to partner with the unknown, and to be willing to fail / to succeed.
To have a unified pictorial purpose and produce a painting, which carries engagement, joy or poignancy is a dimension of humanity. What may be good for the artist may also be good for the viewer. When Mondrian was asked by a journalist of a populist New York newspaper “Who are these paintings for?”, he replied “They are for no one and at the same time I hope for everyone.” Perhaps this highlights the philanthropic nature of producing work for a public viewer, rather than emphasizing the therapeutic experience of the individual maker.
The process of making work is important in establishing a generous framework of permission; to research, experiment and feel ones way towards quality. The process also brings about the emergence of identity; idiosyncrasies and methods are part of the package, needing scrutiny but more importantly – and this takes time – recognition of repeated concerns.
Perhaps the goals of unity and integrity emerge long-term, through studio time and almost instantaneously in the individual moment of making. Arthur Danto in his book “The Abuse of Beauty”, makes a wonderful and insightful analysis of recent contemporary traditions in fine art, which I feel, promotes a sense of aesthetic and human purpose. Likewise, Elizabeth Prettijohn makes the case for a historical emergence of the need for beauty, in her book, “Beauty and Art”.
Perhaps in these times we need to keep such possibilities open.
Reading again the contributions above, it seems to me that there are broadly speaking two dimensions to this idea of integrity. One operates in the studio, during the act of painting. One might say that this is purely personal, and therefore subjective, yet I think this is to underestimate its significance. When we allow a deeper level of seeing to take place, the dynamics, not only of the painting but also of the wider physical, emotional and intellectual processes taking place in ourselves, are exposed. All aspects of the process become integral to our enquiry. This can be difficult to entertain or stomach, because we then see things more objectively – as they are – and, usually, a lack of one form or another, which demands a deepening of the search, where we might desire an easier resolution. This reflection takes place through the personal, but I think in fact it is an opening to a higher level of observation – an objectivity that acts through the specific conditions before us. Diebenkorn said something to the effect that “the most highly prized part of painting is intuitive – when it is operative”. We don’t have access to it all the time, but we could say that the rest is a preparation (‘laying the ground’) for such moments.
The other dimension exists outside the studio – the complex of considerations related to the art market, trends in painting, ones level of success, and so on – the stuff that Katrin and Ben talk about. Here, our work is represented or misrepresented (maybe as much by myself as anyone else), but in any case it is distinct from ‘the real thing’ that takes place in the studio. It is interesting how the term ‘integrity’ is being used a great deal at the moment in the media, in relation to banking for example, where it seems it can become simply something that is promoted as part of a mission statement, but in the market place it is payed lip service to, or disregarded as business dictates. Outside of the studio we are subject to many forces. How do we position ourselves? What compromises do we make? What goes on is so complex that it would be perhaps foolish to claim any all encompassing grasp of its ramifications. But in the studio, we create controlled conditions in order to explore the nature of things, rather like a scientist in a laboratory. These conditions are in a way sacrosanct, and the most important aspect of them is the space within which reflection (through the medium of painting) may take place. Because that is the most important requisite we will put up with adversities such as insufficient space or lack of materials. Where the waters are muddied and external factors influence disproportionately the integrity of our practice (beyond the inescapable and necessary contexts we are naturally a part of) we are on a slippery slope. The special nature of the studio space is also reflected in the ‘pictorial’ space of an abstract work, where there is a focussing in on, and a questioning of, the language itself. It asks ‘who and what am I?’.
Starting a new series of paintings the problem solving process begins, all clumsy and careless before the urgency increases. It is daunting and unsettling as I have some ideas and expectations about the journey ahead but not enough clarity. Where is integrity at this moment? It wants to keep a low profile just because it invariably adds weight and increases the conflict. It knows it will be required soon enough so gives me a carefree hour or so, pushing and pulling paint, pouring and blotting. I suppose the materials own integrity is at play and I allow that, enjoy it even. That’s until the manipulation and control start interfering (quite necessarily).
As I catch glimpses of evolving forms, half realized and uncertain, I attempt to trap some of the elements that are about to disappear and fall into the past. Others will reappear in a new guise, often as trouble makers, occasionally as peace keepers. Will they fit together this time? What has to be removed?
More recently I have wanted to engage fully with the landscape, with an intensity and a curiosity that would remove the more obvious generalization that can creep in when there is distance from the actual source. Investigating landscape close up allows it to becomes something else. It would be a challenge to confront the unknown and perhaps more melancholic aspects yet I am terrified of too many direct references.
Gerhard Richter, in a recent interview, talked about ‘timelessness’ in painting and about maintaining an artistic quality that moves us and goes beyond who we are. He then goes on to say ‘The unknown in painting, that is what they used to call it. But actually the ‘known’ that we see and experience, which effects us and we have to react to, actually that is the most important thing. And as long as we don’t understand that, and are unable to deal with it, it turns into the unknown, into what it was. That has an excitement all of it’s own.’ Thinking about this and my relationship with abstraction as a restless moving state rather than a systematic way of working I am considering how much of the outside world, the ‘known’ can be incorporated in the struggle to ‘find the painting.’ Alongside this lies the inevitable landscape paradox: it has an absolute and insistent presence yet is never quite removed from subjective experience and interpretation.
The idea of ‘integrity’ in relation to painting has something almost unfashionable about it. It is reminiscent of the absoluteness of modernism, singular, unphased and unconcerned with what surrounds it – a thing for itself. One can feel the cool smooth straight edge that runs parallel to the ground, the close line of the perpendicular book ends that hold the ground and ceiling apart, but nothing can be seen, there is no distance through vision, just a seeing through the close perception of touch.
With the relative and contradictory state of post modernism, when the floppy canvas lid is ripped away and the once close, two dimensional square is flooded with sensory information, other entities of fast colour and duplicitous shapes overwhelm and overload. Post modernism fashions the certainty of ‘integrity’ as idealist, unrealistic even, and with absolute uncertainty, obsolete. It is, in its uncertainty, certainly past. Perhaps the only shape of integrity here is a blurred outline of a shadow, the remembering of the smooth hard edge, felt but invisible, a ghost and a presence experienced but unshaped, morphing so as to avoid sighting.
But it is there.
Less proud, humble even, and stronger for it. Integrity has gained knowledge from its banishment. Soft and inspired, it has brought symbols of its new wisdom, the gentle jangle of travel beads can be heard, distinct from the full and constant clatter.
The painting, in its singular, human sized endeavour shows now the kind of strength, not wavered by popular belief but grown through the grip of its knowledge. Understanding of the edges of its morphing frame, the start and finish of both the areas that meet to form its boundary constantly reshaping, not to obscure but in order to build complexity. In its forward form, it sees the leaky outlines, the blurry contours and is now aware of what is around it, where it is placed. It can meet the enquirers gaze, seeing itself in both depth and reflection. It exists on its own, not unknowingly despite the other but a thing in itself and because of the other.