Painting Betrayed: The Significance of Technique in the Art of Arnaldo Roche
This essay by Barry Schwabsky, author of The Perpetual Guest, first appeared in the 2015 exhibition catalogue Arnaldo Roche Rabell. En azul: señales después del tacto, published by Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno.
Give him wheels and he will run (2013), Oil on canvas. (Full Size)
Courtesy of Walter Otero Contemporary Art.
I don’t mind telling you that something Roche wrote to me gave me shivers: “I never want to be free or claim liberation.”[i] What, I wondered, could be mean? As for me, I can’t help repeating, maybe once too often, the famous story about Philip Guston’s opening at the Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1970, for his first exhibition after his return from abstract painting to making images: many of his old friends could not accept the change; seeing his new work for the first time, they stood there in embarrassed silence. Only Willem de Kooning went up to the artist and said, “It’s all about freedom.”[ii] Freedom in this sense means: following the inner directive, not taking orders from the temper of the times, and above all being able to question the commitments you think you’ve already made, but only in the interest of keeping faith with the deeper commitment that motivated the apparent ones. Guston’s friends felt he had betrayed their shared faith, the new abstract art they had made so many sacrifices to attain. He had to think that his love obliged him to this betrayal.
Edward Said, in his passionate reading of Jean Genet, emphasizes precisely this idea of betrayal as key to understanding the great writer, who once said, “As soon as I speak I am betrayed by the situation. I am betrayed by the person who is listening to me, quite simply because I am speaking. I am betrayed by my choice of words.”[iii] For Genet, according to Said, “Much more important than commitment to a cause, much more beautiful and true… is betraying it, which I read as another version of his unceasing search for the silence that reduces all language to empty posturing, all action to theatrics.”[iv] And again, Said quotes Genet, from his last, posthumously published book Le captif amoureux: “’Once we see in the need to ‘translate’ the obvious need to ‘betray,’ we shall see the temptation to betray as something desirable, comparable perhaps to erotic exaltation. Anyone who hasn’t experienced the ecstasy of betrayal knows nothing about ecstasy at all.”[v]
That last sentence of Genet’s—that’s another one that’s given me shivers. And again, that’s at least in part because I don’t think I understand it. Said’s essay, remarkable as it is, never succeeds to my satisfaction in conveying what it is that Genet understands by betrayal. Said’s essay is motivated in part by his perception that the Frenchman genuinely came to the cause of Palestinian liberation—the subject of Le captif amoureux—as “a lover of Arabs—something not many of us are accustomed to from Western writers and thinkers, who have found an adversarial relationship with us more congenial.”[vi] All well and good, but the question Said never faces is the most important one: In what way does Genet—despite or rather because of what Said recognizes as “an authentic submission to the political sweep of a passionate commitment”[vii]—also betray the Palestinian cause? For so he must have done, or at least felt that he was bound to do, if we take him at his word.
I have not recapitulated Said’s account of Genet in order to solve the riddle of whether and how he might have betrayed the Palestinians. I am not capable of doing so and if I could, this would not be the right place for it. It’s only that, ever since I first read this essay, the question of the meaning of betrayal has haunted me. And I now realize that while I may not be capable of plumbing its meaning in the political field, I have come to understand something of what it might mean for art. I have begun to understand how it was that Guston might have betrayed abstraction and therefore, perhaps—at least in the eyes of the abstract painters of his generation—betrayed art itself. And I think I understand, something, too, about how the subject of this essay, Arnaldo Roche Rabell, has betrayed painting, and in doing so, perhaps, betrayed the sense of sight. And why it is that, as Genet counseled, this betrayal is something exalted, ecstatic. “We all have secrets about how we succeed in surviving,” as Roche has said.[viii] That’s the crux of the matter. Survival is a desperate issue. Who or what would you betray in order to survive?
According to all common and reasonable opinion, painting is an art of the visible. Modernism asks us to “remember that a painting—before being a warhorse, a naked woman or some story or other—is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order."[ix] But whether the object of vision is supposed to be an array of colors or an image, the injunction to remember that is so cunningly concealed in plain view in this notorious dictum of Maurice Denis serves as a reminder that the visible is not everything, since the ineradicable role of memory in both the making and the appreciation of art means that there is always a slippage or discrepancy between what occupies the eye and what occupies the mind’s eye, or that one is always threatening to eclipse the other. Roche could have been directly responding to Denis—somehow at once both refuting and extending the Nabi painter’s thought—when he wrote, “I paint pain in as many colors as I can.”[x] That was just before the transition to his “blue period.” Now he needs only one color to paint in as many colors as he can. The prismatic scale of differences within a single color turns out to be just as vast as that within the whole spectrum.
To paint is always in some way to betray the visible. Yet for all that, painting can never give up its address to the sense of sight. Roche perseveres in putting every impediment in the way of that address. Consider: His primary technique in recent years has been that of frottage, rubbing, although many works additionally or mainly use scratching, grattage. Just as in the most traditional representational painting, therefore, every figure or object that he depicts has its actual model. But in contrast to this tradition, he does not look at the model. The model is not submitted to his visual scrutiny. Nor is the canvas on which the depiction takes place. Instead, the canvas covers and therefore hides the subject. By the same token, the role of touch, of the hand, is radically different in Roche’s work than in traditional representation.
Think of a representational painter painting a portrait: He forms the apex of a triangle of which one of the other vertices is the subject, the sitter, and the third is the canvas on its easel. The painter looks intently at the sitter, then turns to the canvas and fixes his gaze on its surface before making a mark on it with his brush. Then he turns back toward the sitter and recommences the cycle, and so on until the painter, observing his work with a judgmental eye, declares himself satisfied with his work. The brush, here, is emblematic of the fact that although a painting can never be conjured into existence through “eyesight alone”[xi] and always depends as well on the tactile sense when the paint is manually transferred to the canvas, the role of touch in the making of the painting should always only be indirect, mediated: The painter does not handle color directly like a child using his fingers to smear the paint but avails himself of a tool that allows him to keep the process under visual control at all times.
Roche at work
It is easy to imagine—and this can be verified by the various published photographs of Roche at work—that the scene in his studio looks nothing like what I have just described. The equipment is different: no brush; no easel; no stretcher to impose its strict geometric form on the canvas. The gestures, the actions that occur in this differently equipped studio are completely different as well. That judicious looking first here, then there, that well-controlled dabbing with an elegant brush, are nowhere to found, any more than one finds the respectful social distance between the painter standing or sitting over here and the sitter positioned over there. Instead, the canvas is draped directly onto the model’s body and the color rubbed onto and into its surface. It’s hard not to think about how the people who “pose” for Roche—although “pose” hardly seems the right word—must feel while this process is going on. It looks so intimate. And what if you’re ticklish? One imagines that a lot of trust is necessary in order for this seemingly uncomfortable process to work. Yes, the canvas allows for a last quantum of distance between artist and subject—but the remove it affords is so slender, so permeable. And then there is the interesting fact that in almost every photograph of Roche at work, we see him engaging the canvas with both hands—one to hold a part of it in place as he works the color with the other. This redoubled physical commitment to the activity of painting is rare among painters, for whom the distance between their own body and that of the canvas is usually crucial.
We are grateful to Lilliana Ramos Collado and Ivette Fred Rivera, authors of a thorough, richly exploratory essay on Roche for his 2009 exhibition “Azul” at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Puerto Rico, for pointing out in detail how a thematics of touch and blindness had long been present in Roche’s art, well before he had arrived at his present manner of working. It’s as though his imagery had anticipated his process. (By contrast, in what follows I will attend only the artist’s process, which has its content, while setting aside for another time the import of his imagery, which in any case has already been eloquently discussed in a number of important essays.) They point out how the hands represented in certain early works by the artist are those that might be “of blind men who courageously venture forward.”[xii] They cite as a source of Roche’s current “blue” paintings a large ink drawing whose title is precisely Once Again the Blind Man Asks Himself If There is Anybody Out There, 1987. However, we also have to point out that Ramos Collado and Fred Rivera also mislead themselves, for after brilliantly pointing out an analogy between Roche’s tactile explorations and the biblical tale of Jacob’s deception of the blind, elderly Isaac by using an animal skin to pass for his hairy brother Esau and thereby steal his birthright, they nonetheless contend that “painting created by the means of touch….is necessarily truthful” insofar as it “will tend to reproduce the object…at a natural scale.”[xiii] Aside from the fact that there is no special reason to give such importance to mere scale as a measure of truth in painting, it can also be pointed out that although the general scale of figures and objects depicted by Roche’s means is roughly accurate, in detail they are always distorted, thanks to the fact that the canvas—still less a sheet of paper, which Roche also sometimes uses, and which is that much stiffer and less tractable than canvas—can never precisely adhere to the contours of the body of a model who, as they say, “leaves us his shadow in painting.”[xiv] A shadow is an effect not just of the object but also of the angle at which the light meets it. The truth conveyed by these paintings, as by any other, are always imaginative or interior truths rather than empirical or objective ones.
In any case, despite the fact that the way these works are made so bluntly contradicts every aspect of what used to be called the act of painting, their appearance definitely demands that they be called paintings. On the other, the limitation of most of them to the use of a single color, blue, suggests they are at the same time close to drawing or even prints, which of course can employ any number of hues but in essence lend themselves to monochromy. In Roche’s work of the last decade, it is no longer a question of Denis’s “colors”—plural—“assembled in a certain order,” but rather of color—singular—amassed in a certain quantity. Or perhaps I should say, not of color, but of colored matter, for the material density of blue as a substance (rather than as a purely optical phenomenon) is what impresses the viewer so forcefully. This is where the technique complementary to that of frottage, which I have emphasized so far, shows its significance: Roche’s grattage shows us how the pictorial image must be, not only haptically molded against the form of its model but also effortfully carved out from the resistant skin of inchoate matter.
Roche’s pictorial technique thus avails itself of—and succeeds in synthesizing—the two fundamental techniques of sculpture, modeling and carving: As Michelangelo put it, in his well-known letter to Benedetto Varchi, the sculptor works either “per forza di levare” (that is, by removing matter, in other words by carving) or “per via di porre,” by adding matter, which is to say, by modeling.[xv] In the twentieth century, the English writer Adrian Stokes would borrow Michelangelo’s categories in his attempt to offer a comprehensive psychoanalytical account of artmaking in general; but other than by Stokes, these categories have never been seen as fundamental to painting. But to Roche’s art of the last decade, fundamental is exactly what they are.
In Stokes’s view, the carving attitude (whether in sculpture or any other art) means that “not the figure, but the stone through the medium of the figure, has come to life.”[xvi] In other words, carving gives precedence to the material, but not in a materialistic sense—it assumes that the material has a soul, is animate (or at least that it can be lent a soul, can become animate). What it reveals is always something felt to be already inherent in the material. The great bassist and composer Charles Mingus, though as far as I know he had nothing to do with sculpture, exhibited the typical attitude of the carver when (at least according to jazz legend) he exasperatedly told a musician who was having trouble playing his part as Mingus wanted it, “The notes are in the horn. You just have to find them.” Roche told me, “If we love paint we have to go and get as close as we can to its surface.”[xvii] Modeling, by contrast, implies what we are more likely to commonsensically assume: not that figure (the image) is the medium through which the material comes to life, but rather, than the material is indeed what we call raw material, lifeless until the artist forms it into a simulacrum of life, “no more than as so much suitable stuff for this creation.”[xviii] If Roche avails himself of both techniques, it is because he holds two opposing beliefs. One is that art is subservient to the life that it evokes (a sense of life that comes into art only by way of the artist’s contact, mediated as little as possible by his inert materials, with the living body); this is Roche the modeler, the painter who uses frottage and thereby maintains nearly direct touch with the things and people of his world, things and people veiled only the thickness of a sheet of canvas or paper. The other, divergent belief is in the artist as one who struggles with materials, not so much to overcome them as to unbind them. The life force that is already at the heart of his materials manifests itself through its resistance to his will; the Roche who holds this belief is the carver. At every turn, one Roche betrays the other—the carver betrays the modeler, the modeler betrays the carver, and so it must because their creeds are incompatible—but in this betrayal they collaborate, they work together to create something bigger than either one could produce single-handedly: a form of painting with two sources of life, the life of the image and the life of the material.
In Roche’s work, as a result, there seems to be an uncanny relation between the artwork and its subject matter. We could say that the material haunts the image, the image haunts the material. As I continue to try to comprehend his avowal that “I never want to be free or claim liberation,” it seems to me that this idea of haunting may be the crux. When we speak of haunting, we are speaking of ghosts. And what is a ghost but a spirit whose relation to material things is uncertain, unresolved? The ghost remains among the things of this world while no longer connected to them. In the world but not of the world, it does not depart for some purely immaterial realm but neither is it attached to the material. In that sense, it has not been liberated. Roche’s self-betraying art, in which a love for paint for its own sake can never be entirely reconciled with a love for the people and things that paint can humbly represent through direct contact, no more wants to be liberated from things any more than a ghost wants to give up lingering among the places it always frequented in life.
[i] Email to the author, June 25, 2014.
[ii] As reported among others by William Corbett, a close friend of Guston’s, in “Jon Imber: Younger Than That Now,” Painter’s Table (May 28, 2013), http://painters-table.com/blog/jon-imber-palaemon-queens-college#.U_apQSx0yZM.
[iii] Edward Said, “On Jean Genet,” On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain (New York: Pantheon Books, 2006), p. 79, quoting from “Une rencontre avec Jean Genet,” Revue d’études palestiniennes 21 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 3-25. I have slightly modified Said’s translation of Genet’s French.
[iv] Said, p. 79.
[v] Quoted by Said, p. 84.
[vi] Said, p. 80.
[vii] Said, p. 84.
[viii] Arnaldo Roche, “Pintura: Sobreviviendo la demencia/Painting: Surviving Insanity,” Atlántica. Revista de Arte y Pensamiento 38 (Summer 2004), p. 56.
[ix] Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Collection Online: Springtime, Maurice Denis, http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/490750.
[x] Roche, “Painting: Surviving Insanity,” p. 52.
[xi] Clement Greenberg, “Sculpture in Our Time,” The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. by John O’Brian, vol. IV (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 59.
[xii] Arnaldo Roche Rabell: Azul (San Juan: Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Puerto Rico, 2009), p. 14.
[xiii] Azul, pp. 16-17. The two authors, as if inadvertently to signal that truthfulness is not always where it seems, themselves like Isaac confuse the two brothers; in their text they mix up the names of Esau and Jacob.
[xiv] Azul, p. 17.
[xv] G. Baldwin Brown, “Notes on ‘Introduction’ to Sculpture,” in Vasari on Technique: Being the Introduction to the Three Arts of Design, Architecture, Sculpture and Painting, Prefixed to the Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, translated by Louisa S. Maclehose (London: J.M. Dent & Co., 1907), p. 179.
[xvi] Adrian Stokes, “Stones of Rimini,” The Critical Writings of Adrian Stokes, ed. by Lawrence Gowing, vol. I (London: Thames & Hudson, 1978), p. 230.
[xvii] Email, June 25, 2014.