Missing The Point

Catalog essay for 2006 exhibition [Pause] at the University of Delaware
by Lance Winn

To live is so startling it leaves little room for other occupations

- Emily Dickinson

I look outside and, Jesus, there’s this white moon hanging in the morning sky. I can’t think when I’ve ever seen anything so remarkable. But I’m afraid to comment on it. I don’t know what might happen. I might break into tears even. I might not understand a word I’d say. 
 - Raymond Carver from Intimacy

There is a story about the painter Brice Marden that I am almost sure I heard (that is to say this is not a complete fabrication) and, since we are talking about stories, I am going to claim that Brian Bishop, the artist we are actually discussing here, was there with me when it was told.  Marden supposedly attended the Manet retrospective where, in its particular time and place during the early buzz of visual theory, one was supposed to understand the importance of Olympia’s gaze.  You were supposed to go there and meet this gaze in person– experience the way this prostitute returned your look, did not let you passively objectify her, etcetera.  As the story went, Marden instead gets caught up in a patch of blue Manet produced that he thinks has a kind of infinite depth that he spends the next twenty years of his life trying to replicate.  

It is hard to know what creation stories to believe, or what type of work Brice Marden might have made had he focused his attention where he “should” have, but I think the point was that he found his work outside of where everyone else was looking and that this allows for new pictures in a time where that seems impossible.  There is another narrative suggested in the story, more abstract and difficult to describe, that hints at the intellect being overcome by the sensual, or the pure mind being subjected to the whims of the impure body.  This complex feeling, the unwilled entrance of desire, is at the core of Brian Bishop’s recent work, and it helps to explain how his distanced, cool and intentionally neutral pictures can create such an emotional tenor over time.

I am able to say, in this case with some clarity, that I was present at the conception of what I think of as Brian Bishop’s decade long commitment (and I do mean something like marriage here) to making paintings of pictures.  Of course there is a whole creative history leading up to the paintings he was making in 1995, but there are several important decisions that happen around the time that have always influenced the way I think about his work.  First Bishop moves from oil paint to encaustic (it should not be lost that Marden’s minimalist color-fields are done in encaustic or that Jasper John’s chooses encaustic for his first flags and targets).  There is also a dramatic increase in the scale of the work, where he gives himself room to replicate bits and pieces of master paintings, paying great attention to the effects of time on the look of paint.  

The early pieces were of clouds, largely appropriated from the Pastoral landscape painters. These first enigmatic, floating– literally detached from a ground– clouds are developed out of and pinned inside layers of wax.   The wax holds the gesture, retains the feel of a liquid becoming solid (a cloud being an oddly accurate physical model), but it reveals restraint, it will not drip like, say, Pollack’s enamel.  Wax might be the medium of the skeptic– Johns, following Abstract Expressionism, uses it to almost quote the idea of material preserving passion, and Bishop uses it to both create and then hide gesture in a slippery questioning of what it means to be “expressive.”  Color and form, in Bishop’s work, are literally created through the building of layers and yet you approach a surface that is as smooth as glass.  The surface suggests the lens, and, with the body-sized scale and severe edge of the image, specifically the magnifying lens; or the glass of a frame already imposed on the painting– but there are nicks and pocks, even some attempts at the look of crackling oil paint, that break the glossy surface and reveal the process.  It is as if the artist thinks he can paint the “aura” into the work; simply repeat the look of ageing to lend credence to these troublingly pretty pictures.  As we are drawn in to the surface we find that the meaning of the paintings might reside outside of the image all together, and we are confronted with the object, which, oddly, retains a real history of making that comes into conflict with the representation of time on the surface.  We are asked to think about the image as something constructed rather than something to be read or understood, and our relationship to the picture is changed when we back-up to see the whole again; which, of course, we must do because it is bigger than we are.

Some who have watched Bishop’s body of work develop might see a great leap between the early images of clouds and his more recent views of ungainly and cropped figures, barely namable objects blocking our view, or the uninspired corners of domestic spaces; but the line of thought only becomes clearer when one confronts the paintings in person.  Bishop’s work is about the gains and losses of technological reproduction so it comes as no wonder that the physicality of these pieces is central to their meaning.  And in the presence of his paintings a theme can emerge, a clear sense of the limit of what we are allowed to see, of looking at the sky and missing the ground, one’s “head in the clouds”, feeling like you are always glancing at the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Bishop speaks of his own work in the terms of the mundane, but I like to think (considering his complex relationship to painting) that he is setting you up. Making sure to talk-down the importance of the images he selects so that you do not try to grasp them like photographs; as something you will eventually understand.  “The images are randomly generated in our culture,” he might tell you– but there are another twenty-eight in the one second of video that he scavenged the image from, and he picked that one, knowing that he will be spending hundreds of hours with it alone.  His paintings are less about the mundane and more about a shift of attention, a deficit of attentiveness, or about the inability to focus properly even when we know we are being watched  (in the case of the web-cam) or responsible for watching (when we are recording).  The work is, in its own way, about being bored, but also about over-stimulation and how it de-differentiates everything– about so much to look at, or, closer yet, how it gets boring to look at so much with so little sensation.  

Bishop’s paintings also suggest a certain desire for distraction, and a technological world that will, with-out-question, answer this need.  The images have so many levels of distance, such a poor quality, that the artist seems to be scanning over them, inventing passages of paint, to fill in for what is missing.  Desire, in Bishop’s work, becomes complicated; it is not simply the body taking over the mind (something like “animal urges”) but the mind’s desire to be taken over.  We have all witnessed the person so involved with documenting an event that they cannot take part in it.  Distraction is a way to escape the social-self– the fear of having to feel– and Bishop seems to look for the times when he or others are not really looking at anything but just keeping the camera between oneself and human interaction (an argument that also could be made against the studio artist).

Heidegger uses T.S Eliot’s line from Four Quartets, “distracted from distraction by distraction,” to describe affects of technology; and in a time where technology forces us to contend with global rather than local tragedy, one is not always unjustified in the drive to escape.  Bishop’s paintings, in a quiet and private manner, contend with this “looking away,” or losing of concentration, especially when we are supposed to be thinking about and focusing ourself on something heavy, something important like a transitional event– love, sex, birth, death (something worthy of being videotaped).  In Bishop’s work we are left with the sense that we missed the event horizon, we slipped and, when the fireworks went off, we were looking at a hangnail, a piece of fabric, or the top line of a breast.  Bishop takes these moments and makes them specific. He over develops them, gives them too much attention.  Missed opportunities become image opportunities, and instead of the proper, poignant narratives becoming entombed in paint (something like the history of monumental painting), we have embedded in wax a moment from our particularly distracted time; from a time of the blur, of the content (granted fairly empty) being so much more important than form, of the web-cam and pictures that aren’t really about quality but information, of the picture as text, like pixelized porn.  Bishop forces us the look at this and to focus on the unfocused.  These images, in some way, are our contemporary story, but how can one “read” anything when it moves at the speed of light?  The paintings are not didactic, not really a quote on the history of painting or a theory of technology, and they are not tongue-in-cheek, but more like tongue against cheek– trying desperately to be responsive with a medium ill-equipped to deal with the velocity of contemporary life. Instead of fighting the reality of paint as a distinctly non-digital medium, Bishop uses it to ask us to closely examine a kind of excess created by the virtual, where there is no real expense or value and, so, no real need to make decisions about what is worth looking at.

When Carver mentions a “white moon hanging in the morning sky” in the short story “Intimacy,” it happens as the narrator is leaving his ex-wife’s house after a morning of angry discussion.  His ex has accused him of using their squalid past to fuel his increasing fame as an author.  He should be feeling the gravity of the moment.  He should be in his head, but instead he notices something in the sky (again the sky).  What else would you expect from an artist, but to notice things, to pay attention.  In this case, however, the gesture is two-fold and hardly the glorious tale of an enlightened creator.  The looking is also a looking away, an escape into beauty when there are questions that have not been answered.  “Intimacy” ends with the writer walking down the street noticing more things outside of himself, muttering, “There are these leaves everywhere, even in the gutters.  Piles of leaves wherever I look.  They’re falling off the limbs as I walk.  I can’t take a step without putting my shoes into leaves.  Somebody ought to make an effort here.  Somebody ought to get a rake and take care of this.”  Carver’s character transfers his abstract internal anxiety onto an external reality so that he can pretend that it is outside of his control.  Brian Bishop understands that no amount of raking will stop our now endless flow of information; instead of working to clean up the mess, he decides to move leaf by leaf in hopes that one might tell him/us something.  His images achieve what important paintings can sometimes do: stopping the flow for a moment to allow us to be attentive,  notice, and reflect on what our contemporary world looks like.