The rational critic of art cannot risk this abandonment into “oceanic” undifferentiation, he[she] can only deal with the limits that come after this plunge into such a world of non-containment. Robert Smithson[1] 

There is the argument that Robert Smithson was a better writer than artist; but there is an alternative argument that his writing bridged the gap between his art and the viewer. In his essay ‘A Sedimentation of the Mind’ (1968) Smithson wrote that “Critics, by focusing on the ‘art object,’ deprive the artist of any existence in the world of both mind and matter.”[2] What he was getting at, from what was an idealistically artist-centre position, was the critic robs the artist of time/temporality when he/she fences-off the art object in their analysis. Smithson positively termed the art object’s existence in the world as “Oceanic,” encompassing mind, matter and everything in between.

Fast-forward to now and temporality is not feared by the art critic/writer, it is embraced. As writers on art we can wander limitlessly in its boundless space of self-reflection; ignoring the art object altogether in the process. Smithson wrote that “Most critics cannot endure the suspension of boundaries between what [Anton] Ehrenzweig calls the ‘self and non-self’.“[3]  Today the art writer’s poetry is a psychoanalytical ramble on an imaginary chaise longue, where the artist is therapist, announcing every now and then; ‘Stop there! So what do you think that means?’ Back in the day of the Victorian art critic,  John Ruskin,  ‘art and truth’ were tied together in an impossible knot. Although these so-called truths were more often than not ridiculous pronouncements, when the art object was merited for its technique rather than for what the artist was trying to say, you have to admit they were at least passionate about their positions, whether right or wrong. Our contemporary mistrust of Truth is why we find our selves in this landscape of ill-defined concepts and art objects that don’t say what is ambiguously written on the tin. The myth that is banded around today is that we as viewers, tinkers, humans, have outgrown such limiting precepts of Truth, Right, Wrong, Good, Bad.  You can understand Smithson's position on  his Spiral Jetty, looking judgmentally on the art object caged in the white walled gallery space, without windows to offer a panoramic view of the limitless world. Back on the psychoanalytical couch Smithson contends that:

At low levels of consciousness the artist experiences undifferentiated or unbounded methods of procedure that break with the focused limits of rational technique. [4] 

In this era of irrationality, boundless postmodernity and self-reflection, painting is the perfect pivot to argue the verbal limits of the critic against notions of expansive appreciation regarding the oceanic art object. A question was posed by an audience member at a conversation between Damien Flood, Mary Conlon and yours truly at the Green on Red Gallery, Dublin, that inspired the above preamble regarding the relationship – if any – between the critic and artist.  The conversation was based on Flood’s current solo show ‘The History of the Visitation’,  which includes a printed publication of three essays by myself, Mary Conlon and Saskia Vermeulen, entitled Spectral Gallery. The question was offset by – what I perceived  from a ‘toned’ delivery  – my traditional or historical viewpoint of painting in the progressive frame of contemporary art, and more specifically, the contemporary viewer’s growth in how we have moved on from that contained viewpoint.  

Aside from this provocation, throughout the conversation I was questioning the lack of writing that confronts painting in contemporary contexts, along with my own reluctance or avoidance of the medium when it comes to writing on art. I also commented on the reluctance of curators to use painting in their projects, and when they do it is more a form of obligation  – one context mentioned was Mary Conlon’s recent curatorial at Ormston House Limerick, ‘Monkey Wrench’, which featured painting, to which I will return to later. 

Back to the provocation at the Green on Red Gallery,  which was premised by a statement to the effect of  ‘I can’t believe what I am hearing regarding how painting is being discussed here’, which was followed by the opinion that painting expands beyond the frame/wall into the central space while gesturing to the plinth bound texts that Flood had placed on the floor of Green on Red Gallery. The final comment that still rings in my ears is that painting was not the only medium that had “baggage”. 

After being part of the process of writing a text that was directly on Flood’s paintings rather than coming from his paintings (what I describe as momentary blackouts of fictional hiatus away from the art object), I began to question my reasons for writing directly on Flood’s work, what is a traditional method of writing on painting, usually found in the promotional form of the accompanying catalogue/monograph. Furthermore, did the texts positioned on the plinths at the Green on Red Gallery expand our preconceived notions as to how painting is negotiated? Were they digested by the viewer as supplementary artefacts? I will leave these questions hanging for reasons concerned with lack of objectivity...

My response to this expansive notion of painting, drawn from the opinion that painting is more than a framed object, was that this is more of a philosophical ideal/mindset for anyone who contends that anything can be a painting or drawing – like Smithson's “Oceanic” perspective – but for the critic to confront the art object there needs to be some handle to grasp hold of or the object will float away with the critic dangling in tow. 

It has been said that painting drifted away from the wall years ago, in what has been termed expansive painting; Jessica Stockholder being the epitome of the trend. Stockholder came to international recognition via Adrian Searle and Greg Hilty’s ‘Unbound: Possibilities in Painting’ at the Hayward Gallery in 1994. Never has a title of an exhibition been so fraught with contradiction; it reads like it is arguing with itself. The subtitle ‘Possibilities in Painting’ limits the meaning of the overly ambitious ‘Unbound’.  The title is a paraphrase of Smithson’s limiting critic and oceanic artist.  Searle admitted himself that Stockholder’s colourful scatter-installations was not painting, but the memory of painting. This suggests that Stockholder’s work is a memento mori, and that her method is an evolution/rebirth of the frame-bound limitations of painting. But using memory as a scapegoat for art that is non-contained is just plain lazy. We could also argue that all painting is about the memory of painting. Andrew Graham-Dixon, the conservative art critic for the Independent, wrote at the time:

This is an ingenious defense of a show which turns out, indeed, to be more or less structureless: a way of saying that nothing makes sense and that the exhibition reflects this, that it has the courage of its own lack of convictions. But maybe it is really just another way of saying: “Here is a load of modern pictures which don't have that much in common but which we like and hope you will come and look at“; of admitting that the show is, after all, just a hotch-potch.[5]

This is not a surprising response from a critic whose fictional ad-libs offset by historical fact exist within the limits of the frame. Graham-Dixon’s rant has the tone of someone who was more threatened by Searle being the new voice of what was NEW in painting rather than what painting was failing/succeeding to do. As an art critic himself Searle should have known that oceanic statements in the publication that accompanied the exhibition (by the way one of the better painting publications to be written since the ’90s) was asking for trouble: 

Instead of technique, we have techniques, instead of absolutes and essences, discontinuities, multiformity, differences . . . instead of new movements or revivals, a more heterodox way of thinking, a greater diversity . . . We wanted to show that there is no fixed viewpoint from which to look.[6]

So, we are back at an undetermined crossroads without a sign post in sight; but there is hope for the art critic. By ignoring the conceptual reasons why Mary Conlon chose to put Kevin Cosgrove, Sonia Shiel and Keith Winter together in the group show ‘Monkey Wrench’ at Ormston House, Limerick, I am using the default position of the art critic in how we commandeer contexts for our own selfish arguments. The practice follows the trend of conceptual recycling and recontextualisation by curator/viewer/critic, that the art object endures in its short lifespan, starting when it first leaves the artist’s studio, the moment when it no longer conceptually belongs to the artist. The fundamental reasons why I direct your attention to Conlon’s curatorial in particular is the fact that painting was not just an add-on, but it featured; well, only just, if you label Shiel’s work as 'painting' – which I wouldn't usually – but the artist’s The Incongruity of Learning offered a loophole for the rigid critic to maneuver. 

With conceptual recontextualisation in mind we could view Conlon’s curatorial ‘Monkey Wrench’ as based on a hierarchical structure of tradition vs progress. From the perspective that traditional technique wins over so-called contemporary conceptual progress, Kevin Cosgrove’s focus on good, representational painting technique would be last on the score card; followed by Shiel's stilted pair of sporting paintings; and in the lead is Keith Winter’s out/in-house stage for potentially private/made public acts of  sexual activity. Flipping the hierarchical structure to acknowledge technique/craft as key to progress we would obviously flip the score card, but there is another viewpoint that may take Shiel beyond ‘deuce’. 

Shiel's ’stilted‘ paintings stand away from the wall but are attached by the imagined potential of a volleyed ball, between twin tennis players on one big/one small canvas. The former description is a personal conceptual leap that defies the physically restricted framing of this work. Physically, although the two paintings are separated from the wall – the lager painting of the two, seemingly holds on to the wall for dear life by outstretched timber batons. So in the first instance this specific work by Shiel offers a loophole for expansive notions, but it is necessary and critically rewarding to illustrate its limitations in the second instance.  But this is exactly what Smithson dislikes about the critic’s verbal frame. Jacques Derrida, a philosopher that you don't associate with the image, has more than enough to say in sheer volume in his exhaustive analysis of painting/language in The Truth in Painting:

No ‘theory’, no ‘practice’, no ‘theoretical practice’ can intervene effectively in this field if it does not weigh up and bear on the frame, which is the decisive structure of what is at stake, at the invisible limit to (between) the interiority of meaning.[7]

We have to take on board that Derrida has a bias for the ‘frame’, or what he refers to as the paragonal frame:  “neither work (ergon) nor outside the work [horsd'oeuvre], neither inside or outside, neither above nor below, it disconcerts any opposition but does not remain indeterminate and it gives rise to the work...’[8] I have underlined indeterminate because although Derrida does not commit to a real or visible frame, his paragon (invisible frame) determines the existence of the work between inside/outside. Why is it assumed that progress in art is defined by indeterminate assertions and by deconstructing the traditional/historical frame into “poetic debris”? (Smithson’s terminology). Why does historical baggage suggest the loss of one’s legs? Painting’s strengths and weaknesses are doubly contained within the frame, physically and historically. The frame may place painting outside the contemporary discourse and methods of disarticulation and non-containment, this is not a bad thing! Terms like ‘anything goes’ have been wrongly pronounced in regard to painting’s encyclopedic aesthetic, but for the time being, painting!, not scatter-installations!, are better off tightly squeezed into the frame, while the critic will hold onto the limitations that language offers in front of the art object, otherwise, the verbal scutters will ensue, or maybe they already have...

Conclusions for the promotion of a future of traditional Truth: Scatter Installations are not paintings; a sculpture is not a drawing: END!


[1]    Robert Smithson, ‘A Sedimentation if the Mind’ (1968); from Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, University of California Press, 1996, p. 102.

[2]    Ibid.

[3]    Ibid.

[4]    Ibid.

[5]    Andrew Graham-Dixon, ‘Sort of, almost, in a way, nearly’, The Independent, 15-04-1994.

[6]    Adrian Searle, Unbound: Possibilities in Painting, Hayward Gallery Publishing, 1994.

[7]    Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting,  (Trans.) G. Bennington and I. McLeod, University of Chicago Press, 1978.

[8]    Ibid.


The Critic  and/or/vs  the Artist



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