In a storm. By Ashraf Jamal
‘The view disintegrates, painting happens’ Simon Schama
InHang-Ups, Simon Schama’s collected essays on painting, he reminds us that life is not art. While these realms are certainly linked, if not indissoluble, what matters most is the realisation that art possesses its own animus – Its own spirit, mind, and feeling. Latin in derivation, animus also suggests a certain malevolence or animosity. It is therefore because of the animus that possesses painting as a condition and an action that Schama bluntly declares: ‘Never confuse life with art’, even though ‘the temptation is strong’. In the case of Andrew Salgado, a painter whose very life seems to drench and consume his canvases, Schama’s caution becomes all the more pressing. For while the artist’s lived experience has certainly played a profound role in a given painting’s incarnation, we must remember that this folding of life and art – life as art – fails to satisfactorily address the singularity of the artist’s mark-making, or the aesthetic force of his painterly signature. Hence Schama’s pithy summation – the view disintegrates,painting happens. In looking at a Salgado painting something similar occurs. One sees a human figure, often reduced to a bust, and imagines who and what that person may be feeling or thinking. This occurs, becomes possible, because of the artist’s empathic strength. However, this sensation of connectedness masks a more ominous realisation that a void exists between the artist and his figure, between the viewer and the seen. This is not because the artist consciously refuses the sublimity of a human connection, but because he intimates – in his everyday life and in the act of painting – that such a connection is not quite possible. This disconnect will be elaborated upon, for now, however, it is not only the psychological void, or rift, that concerns me, but, in-and-through painting, the artist’s visceral and material expression of that rift. For it is in the very pathos factored into the act of painting itself that the artist most profoundly conveys his personal story, and, more significantly, the story of paint. Schama captures the fraught nature of the artist’s quest, through paint, thus:
… art, like memory, is never truly solid … and seldom free of melancholy ambiguity, for it presupposes the elusiveness, if not the outright disappearance, of its subject. Its deepest urge is to trap fugitive vision and passing sensation – elation, horror, meditative calm, desire, pathos – the feelings we have when we experience life most intensely, before routine, time and distance dull the shock, and veil the memory. This craving to nail down transient experience is an unassuageable craving, as basic to us as the self-pitying sorrow for our own mortality, and just as invariably doomed to disappointment.
Schama’s probing reflection cannily mirrors Salgado’s understanding not only of life, but of art. Both realms, while connected, are also torn apart. Art is and is not life. Both realms are haunted by the realisation that nothing can be fixed and rendered immutable. Rather, the very desire for intensity – the desire to desire– is an act which will not, finally, be fulfilled, except in the fleeting moment. Salgado’s paintings, for me, are the magnetic traces of this inconsolable and unassuageable desire. For there is nothing passive, or quiet, or resolved in these works. Indeed, a tumult seems to consume the canvases, a tempest, that is not only the sum of the artist’s insatiable-yet-fraught desire, but the very sum of the painting’s visceral material. For Salgado seeks not only to express the deep structure of his mind and heart, but the deep structure of paint itself.
‘The strongest art is the work that is frankest about its artifice, its failure, finally to duplicate the world’, notes Schama. This remark may seem paradoxical, but this is only the case if one assumes the role of art to be mimetic – that is, consciously and morally desirous to mimic what we imagine to be objectively perceptible. But what if there can be no objective insight? No truly verifiable lens? What if it is precisely one’s subjectivity that scuppers any attempt to construct an Absolute? If this is so –and I believe it is – then what we are left with, what we cannot escape, is the fragile partiality of our vision. Therein – in our ceaselessly compromised singularity – lies our strength. In Salgado’s case, however, it is not only the fact that the artist refuses to conceal the materiality of his paintings that matters, but the existential core that underpins this refusal. For Salgado, I’d venture, profoundly recognises the fallacy of mimicry and the fugitive nature of human understanding and feeling. His paintings are a dramatization of this failed-yet-strong realisation.
All the more significantly, however, the genius of the artist resides in the painterly execution of this realisation, for Salgado’s paintings are not only ciphers for some existential exegesis but passionately declamatory expressions, in the heat of the moment, on the impossibility of being a human being and the impossibility of being an artist. The Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett, famously summarised this existential tension that haunts the best among our artists – Ever tried. Everfailed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. The best art, therefore, excoriatingly reveals the inescapability of failure; it is art which, in the failing, reveals the truth of our unceasingly compromised and fragile being. It is this failure – as the very truth of great art – which Salgado presents us with. What follows is an attempt to come to grips with the artist’s ‘craving to nail down’ the transient nature of perception and experience in-and-through painting. In so doing I seek not only to present a psychological portrait of the artist but to understand the workings of that psychology in the very act of painting itself. For if the best artists are not merely technicians it is because they are ableto conjure that life through the passionate embrace and exercise of their craft.
Disintegration, I argue, is at the root of the experience and drive that compels Salgado. It is the breaking moment when painting happens that this disintegration – psychological, moral, and aesthetic – assumes its greatest yet mostfallible strength.
‘I’m a prairie boy. Northern lights and pink sunsets, that kind of thing. I’ve hung on to that’. – Andrew Salgado in conversation with Tony Godfrey.
To my knowledge no one has grasped the profound connection of a particular geography – the Canadian prairie – to Salgado’s vision and practice. This is understandable, given that Salgado is a painter of human beings, of the human condition, and not a painter of landscapes. And yet it is the very particularity of the prairie with its vast unending plain and infinitely daunting sky which has shaped the way in which Salgado puts a painting together then blows it apart. For the prairie, as a world and a trope, refuses any closure, any point from which one can control or mediate the world. Quite literally, it is the vastness of this great plain that makes it impossible to hone any intact and substantive sense of self and place in the world. Rather, psychologically-emotionally-physically the prairie amplifies precisely the ‘fugitive vision and passing sensation’ which Schama sees as critical not only to the best art, but to life itself – an art and a life in which nothing is ever ‘truly solid’.
The novelist, Willa Cather, has provided one of the most archetypal depictions of the prairie in My Antonia:
As I looked about me, I felt that the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine stains, or of certain seaweeds, when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.
After Cather, we can no longer think of the vast wine-stained plain without also thinking of a storm-tossed ocean, or a tumultuous engulfing sky, for in this world sea and sky and land are aquiver with motion. It is this very restlessness – a restlessness of plain and sky – which psychologically and aesthetically informs the paintings by Salgado, ‘a prairie boy’ born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan. Just as one cannot separate the writing of Emily Bronte from the blasted storm-tossed English moor, similarly one cannot separate Salgado from defining Canadian geography. To understand Salgado’s paintings, therefore, one must see the boy in the man, for the prairie’s wine-drenched land and sky – which for Cather also evokes the boundless ocean – is not only a matter of unbounded space but a matter of mind, heart, and soul. The tempest lies within the artist.
Splatters and drips. Wild brushstrokes, contrasting colour scraped, sprayed and flung: Andrew Salgado’s work is a celebration of paint. The images are built up in a flurry of mark-making. Salgado works to the point of defining shapes and then stops. His subjects materialise in a blur of energy. They are men, similar to Salgado in age. Their eyes and the curving shadows that define their faces and fingers are visual resting points in a storm of paint.
Margaret Bessai’s canny reading returns us to the excoriated core of Salgado’s art, for his canvases are not so much layered as flayed; a skin at once precariously intact yet stripped, the better to reach a gnashing rawness of soul. His figures are not self-possessed, contained, or resolved; they hover between worlds, as though caught in some purgatorial limbo. This is because the artist’s vision of humankind is abridged and compromised at every turn. And it is the rawness of a painting’s execution which proves the surest cipher for the artist’s unsettlement. If his figures emerge ‘in a blur of energy’, if they are caught in a flurry-splatter-drip-scrape, this is because cognitively-existentially-viscerally his figures evoke our anguished mortality. It is not surprising, therefore, that it is to Francis Bacon to whom Salgado defers. It is Bacon who, for Salgado, has harnessed our greatest human truth; a truth which traditional portraiture had largely failed to capture. As Sebastian Smee notes in The Art of Rivalry, what Bacon realised was that ‘it was precisely the inability to know, to truly pin down character, motive, feeling, or social status … that soon became’ Bacon’s defining premise. ‘Through a combination of chance and high emotion – fury, frustration, despair – [Bacon] saw himself unlocking “valves of sensation”. But he also described feelings of hopelessness as he painted’. Here we find ourselves returning to the intractability of failure at the root of art-making. The influence of Bacon on Salgado is psychological and technical. As Bacon desperately and passionately bemoans, he would ‘just take paint and just do almost anything to get out of the formula of making a kind of illustrative image’. He further states that his flight from any ‘illustrative image’ impelled him to rub and scratch out any discernible yet reductive form, ‘to try to break the willed articulation of the image, so that the image will grow, as it were, spontaneously and within its own structure’. Salgado, after Bacon, must therefore refuse the notion of a being defined by a caste, creed, or type. Unhomed, orphaned, cast adrift, Salgado’s figures – primarily young men – operate as ‘doppelgangers’ for the artist’s own exiled state. However, a key difference between Bacon and Salgado turns on their respective temperaments, for while Bacon’s vision is unerringly bleak, Salgado’s hovers between some founding abyss and a yearning to recover some engendering beauty. It is telling, therefore, that when reflecting upon the prairie, that the artist turns not to Bacon but to Doig, in whose paintings he finds a ‘magic realism’. For Salgado, therefore, it is not enough simply to deconstruct, or peel, or strip the human figure of its perceptible social, cultural, or political qualities. Rather, this negation also requires the artist to recover something inscrutable, inviolably pure, magically real. If mimicry is a failed enterprise, it does not follow that art must merely negate that aspiration. The greater quest, for Salgado, is to find within the fleeting structure of a given painting some magical glue. For it is not only the daunting vastness of the prairie which inspires and compels the artist, but its mystery. The vividness of Salgado’s palette owes much to the impenetrable mystique of the Northern lights which he remembers from his boyhood.
‘The focus is not only on the depiction of psychological states. But also on the extreme rapidity with which the states can sometimes alter, like the shadows of clouds passing over a summer cornfield’– Edward Lucie-Smith
It may seem that Lucie-Smith is speaking of John Constable whose ‘onrushing clouds’, as Schama describes it, ‘will exit from his pictures as swiftly as they enter but for the instant the cloudcatcher has bagged them’. But it is in fact Salgado’s paintings which he is addressing. Lucie-Smith therefore underscores my view that for Salgado the indefinable human figure – the psychogeography of that figure – is indissolubly linked to the artist’s place of birth. In Salgado’s case, however, the landscape is anything but temperate. We are not dealing with ‘the shadows of clouds passing over a summer cornfield’ but with a tempest on the run, a ravenous tornado. In splicing psychology, geography, and paint, David Liss captures the prevailing mood in Salgado’s work more accurately, stating that the ‘surfaces’ of Salgado’s paintings are ‘alive and theatrical. Vigorous painterly gestures, enlivened compositions, and buoyant flourishes of colour only barely cloak a darker psychic dissonance as he grapples with the brutal realities of our mortal existence’. So, while Salgado, like Bacon, might seek some organising structure, the works are fundamentally fallible and anarchic. Their impact stems from the artist’s fusion of psychology and paint – and, the wrenching of that fusion. The ‘psychic dissonance’ which Liss recognises in a Salgado painting resides not only in its inscrutable depth but in its ‘surfaces’, in the grit and viscera of paint. If Salgado, like Bacon, refuses the ‘illustrative image’, it is because that which engages him far more is the spectre rather than the substance, the ghost rather than the man. His figures conjure a rogue personhood that eludes understanding. The jury is certainly out as to just how dark or how illumined Salgado’s paintings are. Is the artist truly as misanthropic as he, on occasion, claims to be? ‘While his work is not entirely pessimistic, it certainly presents a view of life and memory as more dystopian than utopian’, Liss declares. Psychologically perhaps. Stylistically, however, I’m not so certain, for I would argue that the artist’s ‘psychic dissonance’ is fundamentally enabling. Salgado’s darkness is a spur. His refusal to close down a painting is his grace. His recognition of a founding void – a recognition first intuited upon a great prairie plain – is the root of his truth.
In conversation Salgado describes himself as ‘a romantic and a nihilist’. In truth these states or orientations are not mutually exclusive, though many may suppose them so. Passion can be triumphal andapocalyptic. If Salgado regards himself as ‘a misanthrope’, then, in a Wildean fashion, he is a ‘tongue-in-cheek misanthrope’. If he is ‘sincere’, he also enjoys ‘poking fun’. Indeed, as Salgado tells me, he elects, always, ‘to believe in both sides’ rather than reside in ‘the gutter between’. If so, it is because of the artist’s fear of ambivalence and equivocation. Instead, like the geography and sky that birthed him, Salgado elects a more capacious and starker vision. His is an encompassing world. His is a life embraced un all its complexity and unfinishedness.
The artist’s description of why and how he paints further emphasises this inclusiveness. His recent painting, under the heading Dirty Linen, wills this raw exposure. The works are ‘candy coloured’, he says, but they are also ‘crude and gritty’, ‘dark and moody’. After all, ‘bubblegum is sinister’. This darkly saccharine vision differs markedly from Bacon. It would seem, therefore, that in this cycle of paintings at least, Salgado has refused the claw of night that has consistently stalked him. One matter, however, remains moot – one cannot shirk the screech-drip-scratch-flood and plosive that is paint.
‘Not self-satisfied understanding but a consciousness astonished at itself at the core of human existence’ – Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
A painting while framed, is never bound. An object, while seen, slips the bonds of sight. A man, gazing upon another, in love, is never wholly certain of love’s return. At the root of apprehension lies fallibility. At the heart of desire there is madness. A painting begins as the world disintegrates. If Salgado’s paintings of people – first photographed, largely known in passing – are love songs, then they are love songs consumed by an unwavering and inconsolable yearning. For the beauty of Salgado’s paintings – a beauty fractured in an electrified passing moment – never segues fluently into some final becalming truth. To understand this root psychic discord is to understand a man inescapably caught in flux. The root of this discord, as I’ve argued, resides in the artist’s inherited weather and place. However, it is a discord that also stems from a particular painterly genre or tradition – the baroque. Edward Lucie-Smith recognises this core influence when he declares Frans Hals and the later Rembrandt as precursors. My point, however, is that this baroque sensibility is one which Salgado inherited at the very outset of his life, for it is this very sensibility which the artist absorbed on confronting a boundless prairie, a world consumed by infinitudes, impossible to cordon off, or bind to oneself, a world that shatters all resolve, all resolution. In Hals and the later Rembrandt, Lucie-Smith finds a ‘virtuosi … use of paint’, a ‘life and movement’ caught ‘through often very loose handling of their material’. It is this very looseness, which allows Salgado, after Margaret Bessai, to ‘materialise in a blur of energy … a storm of paint’. For his paintings are electrified, as though ripped through by lightning. Therein lies their baroque quality, therein a style damned by lovers of the Renaissance – precisely because Salgado refuses to assert a defining core at the heart of a painting. Today it is precisely this style of art, devoid of an abiding core, a centrifuge, which is once again resuming ascendance. This is because the baroque – a style exaggerated and frantically urgent – best mirrors the psychology of our age. For the baroque resists ballast and proportion; it hurtles outward into a nameless void – unafraid. Daring, risk-filled, what drives the baroque is not only a painterly virtuosity but a realisation that meaning, or rather Meaning, does not exist. There is no final arbiter, no final point of mediation. Rather, meaning now finds itself scattered, like space-junk, in a void. From the very outset, it is this void which Salgado intimated. The rapidly growing interest in his paintings derives from this root realisation that we are all floundering, untethered, adrift.
InBeyond Good and EvilFriedrich Nietzsche, ever prophetic, warned us of the inescapable lure of the void. As a famous aphorism reads,
He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into a abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.
It is this abyss which defined the baroque, and why it was scorned. Its return as a shaping aesthetic and psychology is telling. However, if Andrew Salgado’s paintings exemplify this condition it is not solely because of the abiding pessimism which fuels it. For shot through Salgado’s abyssal psychic realm is a light that comes from a distant north; a light mercurial, magical, drawn from a great distance and a great depth, a light – astonished at itself at the core of human existence.
Salgado, Andrew, Ten, London: BEERS, 2016.
Schama, Simon, Hang-Ups: Essays on painting (mostly), London: Random House, 2004.
Smee, Sebastian, The Art of Rivalry, London: Profile Books, 2017.
Ashraf Jamalis a teacher in the Media Studies Programme at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and a research associate in the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre, University of Johannesburg. He is the co-author of Art in South Africa: The Future Present, the co-editor of Indian Ocean Studies, and the author of Predicaments of culture in South Africa, Lovethemes for the wilderness, and the award winning short fiction, The Shades. In 2017 he published In the World with Skira.
Andrew Salgado (b. 1982, Canada) has had 12 consecutive sold-out international exhibitions, including London, New York, Zagreb, Miami, Cape Town, and Basel, and his status as a leading figurative painter is reflected by a growing international collector-base. In 2017, Salgado was the youngest artist to ever receive a survey-exhibition at The Canadian High Commission in London, accompanied by a 300-page monograph, both entitled TEN.
He is the subject of a 2015 documentary, Storytelling, and was featured in 100 Painters of Tomorrow (Thames & Hudson, 2014). He frequently donates to various international charities including Terrence Higgins Trust, Pride London, Stonewall, and Diversity Role Models, for which he is a patron. He has received extensive press both online and in print, including GQ, The Evening Standard, The Independent, Artsy, and METRO, as well as Canada’s top two leading news-resources: The Globe and Mail and Macleans.
In 2015, Salgado curated The Fantasy of Representation at Beers London, including work by Francis Bacon, Gary Hume, and Hurvin Anderson, along with an impassioned manifesto for representational painting.
Forthcoming solo exhibitons include Dirty Linen (& The Nihilist’s Alphabet), Christopher Moller Cape Town, (Feb-Mar 2018); and How to Build a Boat, Angell Gallery, Toronto (Oct-Nov 2018); and a fourth solo at Beers London (autumn 2019).