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Piet Mondrian: Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930 This image is in the public domain


At some distant point in time, now lost to us in the mysteries of the past, painters began to make images on flat surfaces. I doubt they ever thought about why they felt compelled to do this. They took coloured earth and began making recognisable outlines of the animals they hunted. They filled their cave walls with a sense of wonderment, and it must have seemed to be a natural thing to do. Now, thousands upon thousands of years after this genesis of art we modern painters take our tubes of paint and, mixed with water or oil, we guide this material with a brush to paint a picture. It all seems unquestionable. As if the first artist knew what they were doing and all we need to do was to refine the procedure, but I have never understood why this dogma has remained unchallenged. It seems to me that something much more fundamental is going on in this need we humans display to want to picture objects and events on flat surfaces. We seem to be acting unconsciously to direct our minds away from the reality of what confronts us. We transform the paint into an illusion; an image of something we have seen in the real world, or wish we could see. We ignore the physical vulgarity of what you do in favour of turning the messy paint into a nice clean image. Like washing your dog so it does not foul the studio with its natural odours, and it is for this reason I prefer not to wash my dog. I want to sense the reality of what I see, or smell, rather than an artificial transformation of this experience into a false image. This is why I paint in the third dimension on torn-up or screwed-up paper. This stops you looking into an imaginary space and you are confronted by the concrete reality of a real world object, rather than, as traditional painters do, transform reality into a representational image.

Abstract painting began to move towards this need to be part of concrete reality but it was encumbered by the very word that was chosen to categorise it. To abstract is to 1. have no reference to material objects or specific examples; not concrete. 2. not applied or practical; theoretical. 3. hard to understand; recondite; abstruse. 4. donating art characterised by geometric, formalised, or otherwise non-representational qualities. And so on and so forth. The word fails to mention its demand that the painter shifts their vision from the representational image to concrete reality of the paint on a surface. The abstract shapes have to avid illusion if they are to be truly concrete but this was found difficult to achieve on the flat surface of the canvas. The plane still enticed an imaginary idea of space within the rectangle of stretched primed fabric, and this illusion stopped the reality of painting imposing its raw presence upon your mind. Piet Mondrian saw this reality of what he confronted, and said, “Abstract art is concrete and, by its determined means of expression, even more concrete than naturalistic art”. (Mondrian 1945, p17). And this prompted Rudolf Arnheim to asked “But what exactly is this 'determined means of expression”? Once the depiction of natural objects had been given up, something else had to take its place” (Arnheim 1992, p 16). Mondrian tried to model this “determined means of expression” as a concrete experience of the painting. That is to say that you have to look at the painting not into it, but classing it as abstract distracts from this idea. One would not class a tree or a mountain as an abstract, nor would one try to picture the concrete reality of these natural objects as representational of some other 'imagined' place. One does not look into a tree or a mountain to picture an image of something removed from the reality that confronts you as you do when you look into a painting of a landscape. The aim of abstract painting was to make an object you cannot look into and escape into a fantasy, but must look at. The idea being to create a paintings that stands in front of you like solid walls with no illusion of vast spaces full of landscapes, figures, portraits, or whatever, but it proved difficult to reach this end on a flat stretched canvas. The plane drives you away from sensing the reality of what you see, and your mind ignores the real experience and look to suppress it by imagining worlds inside picture frames that are full of illusions. Some abstract painters added dirt, sand and other solids to try to stop the picture plane calling to the imagination, but abstraction never achieved the reality of painted objects that it set out to explore. The movement was lost to pointless pretty patterns of colours and shapes that appealed to little more than decorative values.

I began to paint of screwed-up paper to remove the illusion of the picture plane and to try to bring a more concrete reality back into my work because I realised this need for painting to displace its reality with cleaver controlled images and intellectual story telling is a behavioural response that developed all those thousands of years ago as our ancestors struggled to survive in caves. Faced with blank walls they lived with no illusions as to the reality of what confronted them, and painting on walls helped them imagine other worlds. The direct intuitive awareness of the 'animal' mind began to be replaced by the indirect imaginative illusion of the awakening intelligent view we live with today, and art was born. It began a rapid journey – of little more than 40,000 years - that propelled us from from cave-dwelling primitives to the all-conquering city-living creatures we are today. All that learned technique over all those thousands of years has driven the reality of the painted object out of our experience of what we see, and so I search to rediscover the painting you cannot look into. The thick paint on an uneven shaped surface, and bold colours that direct your senses to recall of bestial origins.

Mondrain 1945. Piet Mondrian, Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art. New York: Wittenborn.

Arnheim 1992. Rudolf Arnheim, To the Rescue of Art; Twenty-Six Essays. University of California Press.