• Texts
  • A renewable opacity

A renewable opacity

Cuauhtémoc Medina | 2014

A Renewable Opacity

Cuauhtémoc Medina


            That Jorge Macchi, one of the main points of reference of neo-Conceptual practice in the Americas, has in recent years directed his efforts to painting (the discipline in which he was trained) in no way sustains the illusion of a return to order, nor any of the discourses circularly regurgitated by those who suppose a sort of restoration of modernism or traditional genres.  Anyone who approaches these paintings with the expectation that they be a defense of the eternity or sanctity of painting, or even its superiority because of any expressive, historicist, or technical motive, will necessarily be left entirely disappointed.

            Macchi is a painter without a halo.  The relative frugality of these paintings, their strangeness, their more or less aniconic character, simultaneously rejecting the assumptions and visual habits of so-called abstract painting along with the importance involved in the ambivalence of their materiality, color, and form, should be sufficient clues to understanding that Macchi has approached painting with passion and at the same time without illusions.  It is clear, furthermore, that like many other practitioners, he is a painter who unabashedly enjoys the sensation of painting, and in fact finds himself compelled by this sensation as an experience, insofar as it is inhabited by an intuitive, cumulative, and characteristically individual knowledge of the behavior of the substances on the canvas, the panel, or the wall.[1]  Nevertheless, to the spectator, these marks and signs of enjoying his vocation do not reveal him to be the personified origin of a series of definitive images, lustrous or expressionistic qualities of surface, or a supposed "vision of the world."  Quite the contrary: Macchi's paintings propose a meticulous elaboration of an indefinite object, a sort of scene without definitive values, but capable, in each of its nooks, crannies, cuts and surfaces, of holding our gaze with a ceaseless activity.  As a prestidigitator, the painter dexterously absconds both object and meaning.[2]

            These are, indeed, paintings that require that they be given the time needed for their development.  Their dignity as paintings is, precisely, to be bits of canvas that devour time.  It could be said that their principal offer is such a consumption of time: to capture our eyes with elements that, consciously or unconsciously, refer to the modes of seeing that we are able to inherit from the history of painting, but presented without any concrete tie to any of those referents.

            If these anti-iconic and technically frugal paintings contain something, it is precisely because they are offered above all as "painting," that is, as a receptacle of a demand for visual reflection.  In other words: they are paintings that stealthily proclaim their difficulty.  Because they do not deliver themselves as things to be identified and seen and warehoused in memory as part of the catalog of the seen, they are bound to the history of painting as the reflexive, self-critical art of modernity.  They side with painting as a production of enigmatic qualities: the experience of a visuality despoiled of innocence.

            Macchi does not make apparent whether his paintings have any programmatic, methodological or visual continuity with regard to the interventions into objects, texts, images and videos that he has been producing since the mid-1990s.  To be sure, it would be feasible to suggest that Macchi's painting, like his clipped up newspapers, installations and visual paradoxes, insists on what Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro designated as "the difference between our logical comprehension of the world and our sensible experience of it,"[3] which stems from the basis of many of his works' behavior.  Nevertheless, this difference does not stem from the tension between the behavior of Macchi's works and the code of communicative and/or sociological operation of his objects and references, as often happens in his objects, videos and installations.  The locus of that battle is found, rather, in the contradiction between the sensible experience offered by his paintings and the expectations contained by pictorial culture.  Macchi's works constantly put painting's pretension as culture into question, with the aim of bringing about a salvaging of the experience of painting as such.

            To be sure, at the level of procedures and methods there would perhaps be a way to tie some of these canvases to the logic of subtraction, clipping, or editing that Macchi has used in many of his other productions.  With some effort, it is possible to see in some works an analogy with the way in which Macchi extracts content in order to leave present the continent of maps, newspapers or films, confronting us with both the narrative produced by the frame per se of those informational objects, and new, invisible, poetic patterns in the whole that preexists the work.  It could also be argued that in retrospect the interest in the conventionality of time and the arbitrariness of the sensation of duration reappear as the negotiation that Macchi's paintings offer us between the insignificance of his images and the time that they require of us for reflection and contemplation.  There is certainly an application of principles of editing and duration in the production of his painting but the procedures involved in all that appear to a certain degree to be underlying and hidden, rather than proclaimed as his objects' and constructions' moment of surprise and skill.  This is a clandestine familiarity.

            Above all, in Macchi's paintings there is an elaborate system of obstacles and detours.  One observes fragments of a pattern of triangles, circles and rectangles cutting through what seems to be a Picassoesque image of the artist's studio in rubbish, or a pattern of circles in various proportions, like a latticework interrupting the supposed window of a possible painting of figures.  What this latticework offers us is an image that interposes a Cubist effect within a post-Cubist historical citation: the clipping or pattern, taken from a drafting ruler, produces a simultaneist painting, continually unstable to contemplation.  These are images that have been interrupted, in which the surface of industrial geometric figures competes constantly with a ground that remains ever fragmented and indecipherable: childlike silhouettes in stained colors that, instead of declaring themselves as figures, seduce us with the dirtiness of garbage; out-of-focus strokes that don't succeed in removing the grime from the visual window; graphic gestures that refuse the fetishism of a personalized graphism.  The educated spectator will tend to employ the multiplicity of resources that the experience of painting has granted him or her in the appreciation of the subtle degrees of shade drowned by a ground of ochers, the search for colors brightened by refraction from within the pigment, the signifying trace of the body transmitted to the canvas by the brush or the spatula, the suggestion of transparency and space.  The making apparent of this work and ambivalence ends up taking the form of pleasure within the observer's range of expectations.

            Indeed, what Macchi's painting offers up for enjoyment is only complexity: the paintings systematically refuse to offer a continuous iconographic or technical content, the definition of a style, the hair-splitting of some precise cultural value.  These are not presentations of an object, nor imaginations of a space, nor do they offer a showy technical procedure.  Painted with more or less dry, dirty colors and finishes, they hardly appear inclined to offer themselves as the bearers of a signature or an individualized gesture.  They might very well be conceived, rather, as a sort of visual residue.  What Macchi paints here is a labyrinth of negations that our eye receives as the pleasure of their being seen with something that could only be put forth as a painting.

            What is proposed here is a contemplation of contemplation itself: a salvaging of painting via the side of its contemplative experience.  In relation to a conventionally fetishized medium, whose possession and creation are surrounded by a mythology and a valorization replete with privileges and extravagance, Macchi's paintings are offered as a curious corrective.  Their value does not lie so much in what the painter has localized and brought about in the object itself.  Rather, their meaning is situated entirely in the space of an interactivity, in relation to their relation to thoughtful contemplation.

            If the reader could see… It is no longer a matter of writing about the ineffability of that which has been painted, which through the detour of a supposed transcendental language ends up producing a 'prestigious' contradiction: that of a writing that declares its impossibility while at the same time carrying it out.  What the expression brings into play is the very possibility of a contemplation that would not be purely interpretive, identifying, and/or a procession of signifying associations.  In the territory of what used to be called the visual arts, it is certain that the contemplation of artworks begins to become a regulating ideal, a hypothesis, mere ideology.  The semiotics of the luxury object is not validated in formalist contemplation.  Today, to put forward a difficult and to some degree inappropriable painting, one that demands that the spectator make use of a delicate sense of frustration, is a form of resistance.  What a painter like Jorge Macchi offers is the opposite of the assurances that accompany the discourse of painting: a hard-to-classify visual motif that suspends representation in order to demand a new contract with its recipient.

            This should not strike us as odd.  The experience of contemporary art consists in a fabulous expansion of the interpretive capacities of the spectator.  In the incorporation of a whole class of objects and gestures to the field of a certain legibility and implication, to occasion a moment of non-legibility would seem a lost cause.  The aestheticization of the banal, the taken-for-granted, the everyday, and even the semantic values that have been acquired by the repertoire of what Western art in the twentieth century attempted to capture under the term "abstraction," bedevils this displacement from legibility to reflexive contemplation even further.  Despite the monumental evidence of complex, non-figurative visual culture in all sorts of societies, eras, and geographic locales, the modernist narrative and its institutions perseverate in speaking of "the invention of abstraction" when referring to the abandonment of the Renaissance regime of representation in European painting on the part of various European artists around 1912.[4]  That denial also results in reprising a theoretical falsehood, essentializing the semiotic neutrality of abstraction and perpetuating the discourse that aims for abstract languages not to mean anything.  A century later, European-descended abstraction can no longer be seen as synonymous with non-representation.  Abstract works of all sorts have ended up taking on an iconographic value: their value as representative of the ideologies of industrial society is, today, just as important as the erosion of all visuality in modernist high culture with regard to its appropriation by the design industry, commercial propaganda, and spectacle.

            In these conditions, the ideal of a pure artistic language, with neither connotations nor extra-pictorial implications, makes no sense.  To produce an object that would require a self-reflexive gaze must proceed by a much more complicated route, taking a path through a field mined with a visuality overpopulated with connotations.  To insist on thinking of painting as a depository of difficulty that is not resolved by the interpretation or production of signs requires a series of detours that, by way of specific negations, makes apparent to the observer his or her condition as agent.

            This signification, opposed to the whole range of simplified, commercial and populist discourses that frequently surround the supposed defenders of painting, lies precisely in the strangeness of its critical and argumentative function.  It would be senseless to assert that "painting is dead."  That argument, with its anachronistic avant-gardism, is often more than a projection: it is the interested assumption made by the philistine doxa of the supposed defenders of painting about their adversaries, the enemies of painting.  The notion that "painting is dead" emerges as a paranoid discourse ascribed to those of us who think about and reflect on the context of contemporary art.  Such a simplification tends to obscure a disagreement.

            On one hand, painting no doubt appears and reappears in the context of contemporary art as just one among many media, restored to its communicative function, as the vehicle of specific social associations and implications.  Ironically, it has acquired the role of its former adversary, photography, as one of the malleable media of a visual communication that, at best, harbors a capacity to evoke a multitude of historical conditions and references.  At worst, it is the exchange currency of a series of conventional 'prestiges.'  Painting survives as a commodity that reproduces images, even in terms of serving as a referent of the stereotypes of its producers and receivers.  Independently of whatever painted canvases present, the latter tend to incorporate two caricature-like images: that of the supposedly misunderstood painter, and that of his or her interested counterpart, the hoarder of sumptuary objects hung on walls.

            Indeed, in most cases painting has been converted into the signifier of that double regression: the artist's totally inexplicable affirmation of absolute signification, and the privatization of experience on the part of the collector.  Why perseverate in challenging that reactionary function?  Firstly, because of the referential weight that painting possesses in our artistic reflection and theorization.  In Helmut Draxler's words: "The act of painting, as an historical form of production, can indeed be obsolete in a culture overflowing with media images, but painting as such continues to play a central role in determining how we experience and think about art in general, regardless of whether we reject or admire contemporary painting."[5]  That a painter like Macchi would from time to time validate the assumption that painting consists in creating a visual demand, that he place before our eyes an apparatus of phenomenological questions and activity, serves to sustain the whole art-criticism relationship.  Precisely because of its opacity, it allows the other artistic operations to refuse to appear as a mere play of signifiers.

            But one could also argue that it ends up being necessary to demarcate the paradoxical place – both impossible and necessary – implied by the practice of painting.  Painting has to be convened and created, to cite Samuel Beckett, "because there is nothing to paint and nothing to paint with."[6]

            It was with that laconic and exact phrase that Samuel Beckett, at the end of the 1940s, tried to summarize the simultaneously obligatory and aporetic situation in which the practice of painting in the West had already found itself.  Painting appeared to Beckett to be outlined by "its insuperable indigence," and constituted as a task that appeared as impossible to carry out as it was to abandon: "The situation is that of him who is helpless, cannot act, in the event cannot paint, since he is obliged to paint."[7]  That analysis was characteristic of the double bind that makes his dramaturgy so radical: painting appeared as a moment of agony derived precisely from postponing the end.  It is in that waiting without destination, with neither promise nor objective, that it is possible to posit the idea of renewing our relationship with the painted.  That was, precisely, what Beckett suggested to his friend, the critic Georges Duthuit, in a letter from June 9, 1949:


Does there exist, can there exist, or not, a painting that is poor, undisguisedly useless, incapable of any image whatever, a painting whose necessity does not seek to justify itself?  The fact that I should have seen it where there is really no more than an unprecedented renewal of the relationship, of the banquet, is of no importance.  Never again can I admit anything but the act without hope, calm in its damnedness.[8]


Works such as Macchi's would appear as a means of contrast where, without pretending to the exclusivity of the modernist pictorial project, there resides the possibility of a reflection whose necessity furthermore does not seek to be justified.  And this is perhaps what painting could contribute to the ethos of contemporary art: the serenity of having neither an orientation nor an assured e


[1] In this regard, it is worth consulting James Elkins's suggestive interpretation of painting as an alchemical art of knowing and manipulating substances: James Elkins, What Painting Is: How To Think About Oil Painting, Using the Language of Alchemy, New York and London, Routledge, 2000, p. 22.

[2] It is curious that in Romance languages and their kin the word "prestidigitator" itself hides its affinity with the word "prestige" – in the original sense of "illusion" and "phantasmagoria" – behind a Gallicism that would make it appear to be related to speedy fingers.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "prestige" from post-classical Latin praestigium, comes from the classical Latin praestigiae, "phantasmagoria," "illusions," "deceits."  Toward the end of the sixteenth century, the English language registers the word "prestigiator," "a person who practices deceit, juggler," derived from the Latin praestigiator.  It came to be understood as referring to speediness of the fingers by way of a false etymology through French; the word "prestidigitator" was eventually coined at the end of the nineteenth century.  (See Juan Corominas and José A. Pascual, Diccionario crítico etimológico castellano e hispánico, vol. IV, Madrid, Ed. Gredos, 1993, p. 647 for the parallel etymology in Spanish.)

[3] Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, “A anatomia da melancolia”, en: Jorge Macchi: exposição monográfica, Porto Alegre, Fundação Bienal de Artes Visuais do Mercosul, 2007, p. 176.

[4] For a critique of the Eurocentrism in the recent exhibition at the MoMA in New York, Inventing Abstraction, see among others G. Roger Denson, "Colonizing Abstraction: MoMA's Inventing Abstraction Show Denies Its Ancient Global Origins," Huffington Post, February 14, 2013, online at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/g-roger-denson/colonizing-abstraction-mo_b....

[5] Helmut Draxler, "Painting as Apparatus: Twelve Theses," Texte zur Kunst 77, March 2010, p. 109.

[6] Samuel Beckett, Proust and Three Dialogues, London, John Calder Publishers, 1965, p. 120.

[7] Ibid., p. 112, 119.

[8] The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume II: 1941-1956, George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dann Gun, Lois More Overbeck, eds., Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 166.