A painting hangs on a wall. For a long time, more often than not, its surface has been rectangular in shape. The marks made on that surface represent something else, something as concrete as any other object in the world or as abstract as the mark itself.
Take a painting off the wall and set it on the floor. It becomes an object in the world. Give a shape to its surface quite different from a rectangle, a shape so irregular the only name for it is “polygon,” a many-sided figure. Are you still sure you know exactly what you are looking at?
Or, instead, pick up an object from the floor or shelf and hang it on a wall. Better yet, take the floor or shelf itself and hang it on the wall. Take a box and unfold it, lay it flat and hang it on the wall. What happened to the inside of the box? What happened to the space above the floor or shelf?
Or, instead, use paint on a surface to copy your visual impression of the floor, the shelf, or the flattened box, and hang that on the wall. Copy every scratch, every smear of dirt. The craft appears painstaking, possibly absurd. All that effort to make something look like a useful object, to make an object that cannot be used. All that effort wasted on trash, on something that has been used-up, retired, broken down, shelved.
For a long time, abstract painting seemed like an approach to the end of a road. Streamline your visual impressions of the objects in the world and limit them just to what is essential. Form them into an image that is ever more basic, more fundamental. Primary colors, black and white, monochrome. Horizontals and verticals, plane, flat.
But when you thought you reached the end of the road, you saw it was a beginning. Abstract painting is not something to be sought and discovered, but a given, like an empty shoebox or a linoleum tile. It is something that can be rearranged, put somewhere else. It can be taken off the wall and put on the floor. Or it can be taken off the shelf and put up on the wall. It was not used-up.
Someone heeding the empty call to “Just Do It” evacuated a cardboard box of the expensive shoes that once gave it purpose. Broken down, flattened, this box now loses even the cubic space it once contained, displaced. The logo branded on its glossy surface ironically recalls that loss. All the air has been sucked from this object, leaving an image that is literally flat.
At the same time this flattening reveals white areas that were once hidden from view. Three-dimensional space is sacrificed to create a different kind of space, an abstract space between a figure and a ground. You cannot guess how deep that space is between those black contours and that white area. You cannot see it or measure it, for you cannot inhabit it. This flat image could be infinitely deep.
You could shunt yourself between these two extremes forever. Here, a relic exhausted of its space and function. There, an image whose space is expanding, whose boundaries feel arbitrary and provisional. Both positions belong to an outsider. Here, you are excluded from a history no longer unfolding. There, you imagine a space that affords you no entry.
How do you get inside? The shape of the flat box is not rectangular. Fit it into a rectangle and it becomes more a painting and less a box. The used-up box sets the limits of the surface, but that surface exceeds the shape. The space of the flat box creates the image that you see. Or perhaps the space of painting creates the image that you see. Do you start looking from the inside-out or the outside-in? You have a choice of how to see. But you can’t see everything all of the time.
Your feet may be on the ground, but you have a bird’s eye view. You are looking straight ahead, at a wall, but what you see is a tile of linoleum flooring. You also see a red surface with the word “counter” written on it in white. Does this word name that surface? If only you could stand on that tile, you might know how high that counter was, if it lived up to the name. But you are standing on a different floor, and so you have to take its word that there is a space between these two surfaces. How much, you do not know.
The word orients you in space. You are coming at things from the wrong direction. Turn 180-degrees and you are still wrong. You are wrong because you are not really sure where you are turning from. You are wrong twice. One, two. And instead of two paintings depicting the same two surfaces, you realize they show you more. Three, four.
Someone dismantled a set of five grey utility shelves and hung them on the wall, side by side and in a sequence. Now you face them, lining yourself up with their short sides. Before you stood by their long sides, peering over or under their surfaces. Now you see the stains left behind by objects that once occupied their space. Before they gave your tools and work a ground on which to rest.
Five monochrome paintings, side by side. Projection screens for the accidents of light and dust. Five grey images, not monochromes, not rectangles. Flattening the space of painting. But the space of painting is your space. You could touch the distance separating each grey image from each brown ground on which they rest. Five painted grey shelves and five paintings of grey shelves. The static marks of rust stains frozen in representation as you stand, looking at the images and the paintings. The changes in the glare across their surfaces as you move down the row, your feet shifting along the floor.
A painting hangs on the wall and asks: what is your position?
© 2011 Megan R. Luke/Matthew Metzger