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Rock and Roll

Posted: 03/27/2012 2:48 pm

Back in the day -- and by the day, I mean the two years between college and real life when I lived on burritos and ganja -- I hung around Chapel Hill. This means that most of my friends were DJ's, musicians, and rock critics. Coming from a classical music background, I had a lot of catching up to do.

One time, my DJ friend Ehren was playing a soundtrack album called Dutch Harbor: Where the Sea Breaks Its Back. I said, "Ehren, what's interesting to me about this is that you have a melody, a structure, struggling to come out, and it is nearly overwhelmed with noise and chaos, and the drama of the music is not the evolution of the structure, as it is in classical music, but the struggle between structure and chaos." Ehren managed to make an expression combining sincere excitement for me, and eye-rolling, and replied, "Daniel, this struggle you are describing is the basis for much of the concept of rock and roll."

I ran my observation about rock by my rock critic friend RC, and he commented, "Yeah, plus dicksweat."

I think you can see what he meant without my having to get into a discursus on gender. Suffice it to say that the dicksweat parameter is chosen for pungency and does not exclude girls.

So let's summarize what our visit to the spring of 1998, when even poor felt rich, teaches us about rock:

1. struggle between structure and chaos
2. dicksweat

This is a very idiosyncratic definition of rock, and it's probably wrong, but it's the one I'll use here.

Now we leap to 2011. I'd like to discuss three artists with you, whom I see as displaying these qualities of rock and roll: Alexandra Pacula, Alyssa Monks, and Stephen Wright. Many artists display rock and roll, but for reasons I'll explain, it's tough to see if you don't study the work in person -- and I've had the good fortune to study the work of all three of these painters in person.

Let's begin:

Alexandra Pacula: The Samurai Brushstroke

Economy, Alexandra Pacula, oil on panel, 12"x18", 2010

This is a small painting, but she tends to work big:

Alexandra Pacula in her studio

What's interesting about this work in terms of our purpose here? Pacula's current idiom primarily involves nighttime cityscapes, represented as if seen through a jostled camera:

Enigmatic Symphony, Alexandra Pacula, oil on canvas, 28"x36", 2010

When a camera jostles during an exposure, every point source of light streaks in the same path, recording the motion of the camera. In choosing this idiom, Pacula translates the light-streak into the brushstroke. This mechanism strongly foregrounds the brushstroke itself:

detail, Ardent Phenomenon, Alexandra Pacula, oil on canvas, 90"x108"

These brushstrokes are all visible -- remember, the paintings are enormous. Pacula has described using an entire tube of paint on a single brushstroke, and one time she thought about buying a broom to use instead of a paintbrush.

The brushstrokes are so big and distinct, in fact, that they inevitably bring to mind the act of their creation. These are bold brushstrokes, slashing across the canvas. Each one records a motion of the hand and arm. Moreover, each one records the same motion of the hand and arm. A single misshapen brushstroke destroys the composition. So Pacula constructs her paintings as a kind of high-stakes competition with herself: one false move, and the painting dies. Each move is a samurai brushstroke, a record of an intense physical discipline which allows her to replicate spontaneity again and again. And yet, each brushstroke is individually sincere and fully expressed: the spontaneity isn't mimed, it is real. How do you repeat spontaneity? I have no idea, but Pacula has done it.

detail, Explosive Implosion, Alexandra Pacula, oil on canvas, 45"x42"

Let's zoom back for a second from the details:

Explosive Implosion, Alexandra Pacula, oil on canvas, 45"x42"

Notice another thing about this painting: the perspective works. The Z's of the light sources not only decrease in size with distance according to the ordinary rules of perspective, but they also distort, spreading as they approach the viewer, according to the rules of perspective specific to the wide angle lens. When I first studied this work, I asked Pacula how the hell she manages her complex perspectives -- underdrawings or what -- and she said, "You know, I put down a few marks when I start, and then I just eyeball it."

The samurai brushstroke, the life-or-death brushstroke, repeats at the level of draughtsmanship. She can neither misshape, nor misplace, a single brushstroke without ruining the painting.

So what we have in Pacula's paintings is a testimony of physicality, of the athletic application of paint to surface. This high-impact paint and its history remain visible throughout her paint surfaces. And yet, the paintings all cohere into complex images when you stand back. This is very important -- the paint both presents, as paint, and represents, as component of image.

You might argue that this is true of all paintings, but much of the history of painting until the Impressionists is a history of suppressing paint as paint, of forcing paint to ever more perfectly represent, and ever less visibly present.

Then the Impressionists and their eccentric ami Van Gogh come along, and there is a brief period of fluctuating relationships between representation and presentation. Then the post-war period rolls around, and Abstract Expressionism rears its ugly head. This is very important -- AbEx foregrounds paint as paint and eliminates paint as representation.

AbEx is not rock and roll. Rock and roll, as we've defined it, is the struggle between structure and chaos. In our translation of this idea into painting, the structure is representation, and the chaos is presentation -- paint as paint. Without the struggle, there is no rock. AbEx is noise, not rock. If Jacques-Louis David, say, is as close to pure structure as we can come -- if you need a magnifying glass to see the paint-as-paint -- then Jackson Pollock is pure chaos. Neither one rocks.

There is no one formula for rock. There is only a terrain -- a zone in which representation and presentation grapple with one another, and both remain visible in the final painting. Oh, and dicksweat: the artist has to walk the razor's edge, the path must crumble behind the artist, allowing no turning back.

In this sense, Pacula rocks.

Alyssa Monks: The Thousandfold Path

Now we consider Alyssa Monks. For some time now, Monks has focused on the female figure in showers, bathtubs, swimming pools, and undefined bodies of water. Here's an earlier piece from her more strictly shower-door/curtain-oriented period:

Press, Alyssa Monks, 50"x42", oil on linen, 2008

Note, first of all, the size -- at 4 feet 2 inches, her figure is significantly larger than life size. Like Pacula, Monks works large. Note also the loving rendering of the condensation and runnels of water on the shower door. It's nearly photographic -- and as she practiced, it got more so:

Window, Alyssa Monks, 48"x36", oil on linen, 2009

Here the figure is even larger -- that face is about 2 feet 6 inches -- and the representation of condensation is more confident and bracing.

This work looks photorealist when you see it online, but in a fundamental way, it isn't. Let me show you what I saw when I saw the paintings in person. Here's another 2009 piece, Smirk:

Smirk, Alyssa Monks, 48"x64", oil/linen, 2009

Now here's how that piece looks when you stand anywhere near it:

detail, Smirk
, Alyssa Monks

You can only see the photorealism from across the room (or online). If you get any closer than that, the painting explodes into a cacaphony of brushstrokes. As Monks has worked on this technique, she has figured out how to unblend her brushstrokes further, how to retain more savagery in the application, while still accomplishing the mirage of photorealism from a distance. Here she is in 2011:

Squid, Alyssa Monks, 48"x32", oil/linen, 2011

Now here's what you see when you stand a normal distance from the painting:

detail, Squid
, Alyssa Monks

This is pretty badass. She's eliminated much of the blending of adjacent colors, letting fractured parts of the surface retain the character of the brushstrokes that created them. She's evoking the patches of oil on the surface of the water by painting light strokes, wet into wet.

The light strokes, wet into wet, represent a deep leap of faith, faith in skill. When you load a brush with paint and drag it across a wet surface, the brush transfers the paint to the surface at a rate determined by the speed, angle, and pressure of the brush and the relative viscosities of the paint on the brush and the surface. There tend to be irregular hitches to the rate of dispersal as the bodies of paint, meeting one another, stick and unstick. The stroke becomes dimmer as the brushload depletes. These little circles of oil remind me of nothing so much as the ensō, the classic zen calligraphic gesture:


Like the ensō, Monks's little circles are statements of conviction, of union between mind, brush, and paint. Like the ensō, they are uncorrectable. They record the moment of the painting and present it clearly to the viewer, and each one bears witness to whether or not Monks was the painter she sought to be at the moment she painted it (and generally speaking, as Eric Fischl has noted, she was).

Now, you could argue that it doesn't take any great leap of faith to make a little circle of paint, and you would be right. It's not the circle in and of itself in which most of the faith lies. The faith lies in the contention that each of these brutal little gestures will contribute, when they are all added together, to an image that is absolutely correct, photographically correct. Go back to the entire painting, and you will see that the color seems to vary smoothly and continuously over the surface. It does this, even though passage by passage, the paint is riotous and distinct.

Let's look at one last painting:

detail, Think, Alyssa Monks, 24"x36", oil/panel, 2011

Look at how crude, how simple the paint appears. It is virtually bashed onto the canvas. Now zoom back to the entire painting:


Think, Alyssa Monks

Again, the image coheres just so.

In Pacula's paintings, there is a necessity of each brushstroke -- the image can only become the image you see if each brushstroke is placed just as and where it is. This is Pacula's solution to the confrontation of presentation and representation by the paint. In Monks's case, any of a thousand combinations of brushstrokes would do. Her blank canvas is the thousandfold path, and she navigates through it as she paints. The only constraint on her road is that it reach the destination -- that pristine final wide-view image.

So we see in Alyssa Monks's work the qualities of rock and roll which I am raising here: the paint presents itself, yet represents an image. These two dimensions of the paint remain at war with each other in the final painting. On the dicksweat front: In a way completely different from that of Alexandra Pacula, Monks divides her circle of possibilities between a narrow slice of success and a thick wedge of failure, with no intermediate region. She aims for the narrow slice, and strikes it.

Stephen Wright: The Inside-Out World

Stephen Wright's and Alyssa Monks's paintings resemble each other, in a superficial way, far more than either one resembles Pacula's. Both of them paint oversized figures, employ high-key flat photographic lighting, and apply their paint thickly. But there the resemblance ends.

Chair, Figure, and Lamp, Stephen Wright, 66"x30", oil on canvas

At this size, all you can see is the intense clarity of the image - the contrasts of light and dark, the vivid fleshiness not only of the woman, but of the chair, the cloth, and above all that gorgeous paper lantern, with its every ridge distinct and individual, its rip faithfully explored. This is the active physical landscape of the hungry eye, the eye that digs into every thing that can be seen, and concludes by throwing up its hands and saying, "It is not enough." We, looking at it, say, "How can this not be enough? This territory is so rich, so complex, its many parts so elegantly integrated -- what is missing?" And the burning eye says, "I don't know -- it is not enough -- I'll try again."

In Wright's paintings, there is always a combination of the plenty that is presented, and the wracking hunger for more.

Let's look at another painting of the same model:

Figure in Foreground, Stephen Wright, size unknown, but big

I happen to know this model, Jennifer. She is a popular artist's model in Los Angeles. I can fairly report that she is a good-looking individual. Here, she looks puffy, with uneven skin, sagging flesh, irregular pockets of fat. What has happened to her in Wright's representation?

Rock and roll, my friend, that is what has happened.

Let's look at the transformation on a microscopic level:


We return to one of our motifs here -- the visible brushstroke. The paint is brushed on thickly, and neighboring brushstrokes are largely unblended. Wright's sense of color is very subtle - look at the range of pinks, reds, yellows, and greys on her chest -- but he feels no need to make his color continuous. Consider this painting:

Portrait of Adrianne #2, Stephen Wright, Oil on Canvas, 66" x 44"

I have had a chance to study this one in person at length. There are veins in her breasts. They are done in a light grey nearly the same value as the surrounding flesh. They were executed by dragging a brush with a little grey through the otherwise-complete flesh while it was wet, digging furrows into the paint; because the other astonishing thing about this painting is how incredibly thick the paint is. It rises out of the canvas, presenting an insistent tactile presence. Wright has explained that he has to use the heaviest canvas he can find, so it will be able to support the mass of paint he gloms onto it.

So we've answered part of our question -- how did Jennifer get to look so blotchy? Because Wright made her that way. But why did he do that?

It is the ongoing hunger of sight. Wright's violent brushwork isn't an end in itself. It's a record of his radically personal hierarchy of the process of sight.

Generally speaking, we are taught to consider the value and detail of each part of an image in relation to the whole. This is why Monks's work looks photographic from a distance: because she has mastered relative value and detail. This is the hierarchy of natural visual cognition.

Wright has chosen a different hierarchy. He throws out verisimilitude of draughtsmanship and naturalism of local values. Instead, he follows where his eye finds the most interest, and he goes on painting the area he has focused on until he loses interest and moves on. So, finding the lines in Jennifer's forehead and cheeks interesting, he plays them up, much more than the scanning eye ordinarily would, until they stand out with grotesque specificity.

His hierarchy is a hierarchy of interest. His surfaces are densely detailed because he finds most things interesting. His compositions tend to look as if they were seen through a fish-eye lens because he leans in toward his subjects to squint more closely at them.

This is the sort of procedure which makes most people say, "Well, maybe he doesn't know how to do it the normal way, which, after all, is pretty tough."

Consider this then:

Karen Jean 3, Stephen Wright, dimensions unknown, but, as usual, ridiculously large

Wright sometimes works in a more realist idiom. He just chooses not to most of the time.

John, Stephen Wright, dimensions unknown, blah blah blah

As with Pacula and Monks, we have a situation in which the paint presents itself point-blank as paint, and simultaneously and intensely represents an image. Unlike the first two cases, though, Wright's technique leaves him free to paint and repaint parts of his surface. He often seriously revises finished paintings. So if he can fix his mistakes, where's the dicksweat?

I'll tell you where. It ends in the physicality of the paint, but it doesn't originate there. Wright's visual distortions result from the nature of what he's doing: he's trying to objectify the subjective. His paintings, much more than is ordinary in figurative painting, are records not of the objects in front of him, but of his own state of sight, which is to say, of his state of mind and emotion.

American Goth, Stephen Wright, oil on canvas

This is a painting of another beloved Los Angeles model, Kem, who is strikingly beautiful in person. So beautiful that when my wife Charlotte was reading Proust, she pictured Kem as Odette (this should not be construed to mean that Charlotte gave up after Swann's Way, although she sorely wanted to). If you carefully read this painting, you will see that all of the outward structures which we take for beauty are intact: the fineness of bone, the definition in the features, the fragile grace. But they are animated by something different, something simian and heaving. There is an animalistic quality to this picture.

This subhuman intensity does not inhere in Kem. It does not inhere in Wright. It is a subjective state that flared into being in the moment of their interaction as they created this painting together. The dicksweat parameter of Wright's work was his synthesis of the material -- the light and color and flesh -- and the immaterial subjectivity which occurred in her and, more prominently, in him, as he painted this painting. This is a realm of acidic truth: difficult to spot, humiliating to enter, frightening to explore, and nearly impossible to communicate. Wright sets himself a hard challenge, and will not rest until he has met it, until he has turned the world inside out. His eye is constantly hungry because what he is seeking is invisible.


Rock and roll is not uncommon. I have chosen these three artists because I like their work and because I've seen it in person. That was necessary for me, because the paint qualities involved in rock and roll are essentially impossible to photograph. But I could have written about Rembrandt or Tintoretto, Van Gogh or Manet, Fischl or Diebenkorn, Kiefer or Freud. Many painters show rock and roll.

What is the broader meaning of this peculiar quality? What is its significance?

I have a theory. My theory is that, as with almost every project human beings set themselves to, the project takes on human qualities. The created is the homunculus of the creator.

In the clash of paint as image, and paint as paint, we see a retelling of the mind-matter problem. We know for sure that matter is itself, is meat, muck, mud, dust. We also know for sure that matter is a vessel in which something immaterial is housed -- the mind, seat of reason, of comprehension, of meaning. What we don't know is how these two qualities reconcile. There is a weak suture between them, a suture which has not stopped cascading sparks from the very beginning until now.

The rock and roll quality of painting replicates this strange duality of matter and mind. There are unlimited modes of rock and roll painting because the rock and roll quality is located in the artist's individual revelation of the suture between mind and matter. The dicksweat arises because the stakes in the painting record the stakes in life: which is to say, if you seriously try to rock, then you have taken the vow not to bear false witness. So you're playing for your soul.


I didn't really live on ganja. The stuff makes me paranoid. However, it sounds cooler than "Mountain Dew and Lucky Strikes."

All images courtesy of the respective artists.


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