|PAINTING AS DOUBT AND THE
ARCHITECTURE OF IMPOSSIBILITY
The mountains where I live are old.
They have lost their peaks.
John Cage (1)
When looking at the work of the painter Martin Kobe one is reminded of another of Cage's aphorisms, 'if someone says can't, that shows you what to do'. For his paintings engage and contest many of the timeless-unresolved and dialectical issues of formal image reconciliation. And, as with all painting there is a consideration of fiction and fact, space and time, part and whole, and the painterly processes of their realisation. This is not to say, however, that Kobe is a formalist in the modernist sense of its usage. But his work does pursue aspects of phenomenological investigation of the architectonics of space, (im)-possible worlds, and the making of marks that pose provisional investigative conclusions. That is provisional to the extent that there is always another painting ahead of him: another painting to paint.
Three aspects clearly predominate pursuant on Kobe's painterly investigations. The first the architectural and/or graphic design elements he appropriates from magazines and other sources as a point of departure. Secondly, there are the impossible outcomes of the spaces as eventually realised, though this is not immediately apparent when first optically engaging with the image. Thirdly, there is a self-reflexive awareness of the tension between the process of mark-making and the three-dimensional illusion that is being generated. While such a description as this might sound somewhat clinical, in reality it is far from it, since his work is irradiated with colour and light creating an emotional dialectic between the primary and secondary qualities of the forms that are expressed. This is to say, that the allusion to unchanging mass and volume of the architectural form depicted, is mediated by the mutual interdependence of colour and light. And, further still by the process of surface facture that operate as eruptive textural puncta, breaking into and disrupting perspective depth reminding the viewer at all times that they are looking at a painting.
However, any suggestion that Kobe's paintings are pre-planned in a schematic way is completely wrong. They evolve whereby the vanishing point of his spatial composition is generated through an unpredictable congruence emerging in the process of making. This gives the effect of his paintings being formal in only a psychological-intuitive sense rather than as an ordered set of ideas or schematic. Thus it also becomes self-evident on closer inspection that there is deliberate rupture between part and whole, the different elements retaining the integrity of autonomous details. In this way they remain true to the sources whence they are appropriated. Kobe's use of an intuitive drawing process is echoed in the use of a flatness denying depth, and consequently contradicts the uses of perspective to stress visual recession. Indeed, the flatness, conversely, dissolves and turns towards passages of colour gradation, the light source for which is similarly obfuscated. This creates an intended multi-dimensional visual tension within the paintings.
The architectural forms themselves suggest modernist sources, any given element may allude to fragment of a stadium, or, the possible domestic or public interior of a modern building, but without a sense of definable recognition. For it is the painter's abstracting from a sense of recognition in the direction of image-making that is intentionally indicated. And, it is this angular abstraction, sometimes oblique and sometimes obtuse, that creates further ambiguities as to the inside and outside of what is being seen. This delight in an abstractive practice is most of all what makes Kobe's paintings phenomenological, 'between sense experience and knowing, common experience establishes a difference which is not that between the quality and the concept.'(2) Something operates between the content (quality) of the thing seen, and the idea of seeing it (concept). However, this does not mean it is a woolly notion or metaphysical idea, but as a phenomenal event experienced within the introspective processes of looking. The architectural elements reveal that we are meaningfully exposed to the complex mechanisms of perception, they remind us of the irresoluble problem that exists between line and space.
This alone does not account for the rich sensual surface experience of Kobe's paintings. His use of paint as both a textural facture and as a colour key takes matters further. Passages of paint function to disrupt a literal reading of the pictorial space, there are even at times scratchy and unfinished looking elements such as drips and bleeding with traces of an emergent ground. This gives the optical effect as if paint has been applied and then removed, less second thoughts and more eruptive moments that contrast with the flatness of the colour key that predominates in each painting. While the artist may use several colours they familiarly operate in a chromatic range, or, as a direct complimentary such as red to green. Martin Kobe's choice of colour, though specific, and driven by the surface size, and scale of motif, is unusual if only in the respect that the secondary and tertiary (say cream or brown) colours sometimes heighten the claustrophobic sense of the painting's surface. And, more than anything else, it is, perhaps, his intuitive sense of colour that brings a feeling of unity to the painting. Yet colours are sometimes transparent and elements of the architectural forms beneath emerge. Similarly lines from the drawing stage are left to appear as witness to the Plano-metric aspects of the composition that underpins them.
In leaving until last a reference to the self-evident planar concerns of the artist, I have wanted to stress that his paintings are not directed by constructivist principles, whereby 'construction is to be understood as a co-ordinating principle.'(3) For it is not the planes in his work that construct an intended unity of the space, which as has already been stated is pictorially impossible. And, it is this very dissonant feature that distinguishes his paintings from conventional tropes of modernism. The painter Martin Kobe, it might be said, has returned to that most insipient of post-modern principles, highlighting the condition of painting out of which the modern became a singular determinism or trajectory.(4) In this way he has been able to revivify the process of painting, less concerned with issues of problem resolution in favour question formation. He certainly does not believe he has come to some final aesthetic solution. Conversely, through the daily conundrum of doubt (a central concern of critical practice), he has been able to begin again to question what might be the meaning of a three-dimensional illusion when expressed on a two-dimensional surface. The final distinction being that through the viewing of his paintings one becomes a complicit participant in phenomenological concerns with which they are underpinned.
Tuesday, 27 April 2004
(1) John Cage, 'Sixty Answers to thirty three questions', in, For the Birds (conversations with Daniel Charles) London and Boston,  1995, p. 23
(2) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 'The Phenomenal Field', in, The Phenomenology of Perception, London, Routledge, 1989, p. 52
(3) Alexei Gan, Konstrukismus, Tver, 1922, (Eng. Trans) from, Camilla Gray, The Great Experiment, London, 1962; reproduced in, Charles Harrison & Paul Woods (eds.), Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Blackwell, Oxford, 1993, p. 319
(4) Jean Francois Lyotard, 'What is Postmodernism?', in, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, (Eng. Trans.) Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Manchester University Press (Theory and History of Literature, vol. 10), Manchester, 1986, p.79 'Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant.'