How Painting Can Help Save the World, Actually

Jordan Wolfson, Still Life with Flowers (In Memory of Tamar B.), 2014, oil on li
Jordan Wolfson, Still Life with Flowers (In Memory of Tamar B.), 2014, oil on linen, 18 x 16 inches (courtesy of the artist)

Jordan Wolfson considers what it means to paint in a time when "painting has no real context... no larger story and meaningful myth within which to hold and nurture the activity of painting."

He argues that: "Painting offers two contradictory experiences. On the one hand, a painting is a flat two-dimensional object, with its surface texture and color shapes. On the other hand, a painting offers the possibility of a three-dimensional experience, the illusion of moving into space and discovering form. Stability and instability. Fact and imagination. Actual and fictive. It is this twin role, and its simultaneity, that gives painting such power. Real and unreal. Real and more real. Painting, through the coexistence of two seemingly opposite experiences, interwoven into an actual unity, may provide the receptive adult the possibility of moving from an experience of fragmentation into an experience of wholeness and integration, not only within oneself but with the world at large. Boundaries between me and other, between inside and outside, prove to be not quite as firm as previously thought. This occurs not only because our minds are teased into non-discursive awareness by the shimmering interchange between the two-dimensional and three-dimensional experience; 'I see a flat colored surface, no wait, I see a sky and valley below, no wait—will you look at those marks!' The experience of wholeness also occurs because the respective completeness of the two-dimensional and three-dimensional is each dependent on the other. That is, in order for a painting to maintain a consistent three-dimensional arena for the viewer to inhabit, in order for me to visually remain looking at and in the painting as a spatial situation, its two-dimensional composition must be complete—it must hold me visually, and then figuratively. Conversely, in order for the two-dimensional composition to be complete the marks and design, transitions and edges, must appropriately accommodate the parameters of the given three-dimensional experience, whether that is deep and far-reaching space like a Turner or more shallow as in a Braque, whether full bodied as in a Titian or subtly expansive as in a Matisse. Clement Greenberg got painting’s essence exactly wrong. It isn’t the stability of painting’s flatness—its 'ineluctable flatness'; it is the inextricable unity of painting’s impossible flatness/fullness, stability/instability, stillness/movement. This is life. And this is why painting carries such an extraordinary metaphoric force."