Tag Archives: Kant

Ivan Seal at Carl Freedman Gallery

IS529Depicted on the canvas is a thing. The painterly language of a still-life tells us that it is an object: it is placed on some kind of rectilinear plinth, presenting a sharply defined corner to us. There is nothing in the background but colour – a depthless black or white, perhaps a queasy green or brown, an elegant purple. There, however, our certainties begin to fail us. What this thing ‘is’ is not certain. Ivan Seal paints many of them. He has referred to them in the past as ‘hand-eye parasites’: should we assume that by this he means things that assume control of his ‘hand-eye’ co-ordination to make themselves exist

Such an object might be a bit like a distorted mass of skulls on spikes, a model of a ballerina, a fan of sectioned wood, a lump of agate, a box, a giant fabric balloon, a woodwork block with a chisel resting on it, a lump of clay sectioned with wire. It may be a vase of blooms, overdaubed, overflowing their container. It may be a branch adorned with hanging objects. It may be some kind of watch, but not a watch that has surely ever been worn, its wrist-strap is stretched, strange, somehow snakelike, perhaps reverting to the animal that gave up its skin. The strangeness of the objects, the fact that they don’t quite correlate with anything in the real world, is what they are about. They speak to us stylistically of classical painting – and their technical composition is, to this untrained eye, seriously impressive – but their content speaks of something altogether different.

I first encountered Ivan Seal’s paintings on the album covers of Leyland Kirby and The Caretaker records, three of which have just been re-released on vinyl. I chased down the tail-end of his first show at the Carl Freedman Gallery on Charlotte Road a couple of years back. I’ve just been to see the new show at the same gallery and spoke to Ivan in situ. His work has expanded, in all dimensions – the thickly impastoed oils now emerge yet further from the surfaces of the canvas, giving objects that were once sculptural again a sculptural feel.

IS519Like his friend Jim Kirby, also from Stockport, Seal now lives in Berlin (although Seal reports that Kirby is moving to Poland) and like his friend he has worked with sound: before returning to painting five or so years ago, in fact, sound art was the form his practice typically took. There is a kinship between Seal’s painting and Kirby’s sound work that makes sense of their coupling in Leyland Kirby and Caretaker releases. The objects Seal paints are remembered from his childhood. He has not seen them for decades but they are dredged up from memory and return distorted, mutated, accreted. He does these memories great service to remake them as vivid, lurid things, but they can never be what they were. They have been changed in his head, changed by time. We realise that mental deposits are not eroded like environmental forms, or degraded like discarded metal; the cerebral equivalents of frost-shattering and rust do not destroy so much as translate. Colours are shifted, edges are blurred, shadows are cast at impossible angles and lines are drawn into thin air. References have been accrued: Bacon directly referenced in one piece. The objects have become steeped in the solution of the unconscious mind, doused in the fluid of dream.IS514

Seal’s painting seems particularly timely to me. Philosophy is very interested in Kant right now, even if that interest is in stealing his fire, in revolving the Copernican revolution a quarter-turn again, taking the subject away from the centre of the picture. I’m not a philosopher, so I’m not going to begin to attempt to engage in that particular discourse, but what I would say is that Seal’s things seem to work in similar territory, to work at the difference between gedachtnis and erinnerung, between, very broadly, active and passive remembering. I’m going to go to Howard Caygill’s admirable A Kant Dictionary as my first port of call for all things Kant (admirable, because he guides you through the massive volume of extremely difficult work by single word themes – simply and effectively – thereby making it unnecessary to dredge through the Critique of Pure Reason first-hand – hey, this is a blog-post, right?)

Here is Caygill’s entry on Kant’s take on the memory:

Memory is defined as the ‘faculty of visualising the past intentionally’ which, along with the ‘faculty of visualising something as future’, serves to associate ‘ideas of the past and future condition of the subject with the present’ (A §34). Together, both memory and prevision are important for ‘linking together perceptions in time’ and connecting ‘in a coherent experience what is no more with what does not yet exist, by means of what is present’ (ibid.). It can thus be seen to play a significant role in the problem of identity, and more particularly, in the character of synthesis. Memory is implied in two of the three syntheses of the ‘transcendental faculty of imagination’ presented in the deduction of CPR: in the ‘synthesis of apprehension’ where it informs the consistency of appearances, and in the ‘synthesis of recognition’ where it is implied in the continuity of the consciousness of appearances. (Bloomsbury, 1995, 290-291)

IS528Clearly, temporality is crucial to the experience of memory for Kant, and memory to the imagination, which in Kant’s thought was more literally a process of making mental images. Seal’s work seems to disrupt some of the assumptions about the temporalities of memory and to insert assorted spanners into the idea of a consistency of appearances. The things that emerge on the canvas are not recognisable in any sensible sense. In a perhaps slightly tangential way, Seal’s work perhaps has a kinship with Richard Long’s, about whom we talked briefly: there is evidently a very different approach to practice, but there is the same attention to the experience of time, the same ability to condense that sticky stuff onto a canvas.

Seal’s painting also seems to shift some of the agency onto the things he paints, to distance the composing subjectivity from the finished work. He gives his painting titles using a random text generator, a next generation Bourroughsian cut-up machine. This is more coherent than it might seem at first glance – there is also a disturbance of temporality in the text that we discern more clearly if we call it linearity, the way in which one word – or letter – follows another in a line of text.IS525 It also makes each thing more sui generis – the act of titling has been delegated to a machine and each thing on each canvas has become more independent of the subjectivity that put it there when it gains a name like ‘triltry konte’ or ‘pervaalfet deatpetchsplobasmag (drunk in a car no. 678 )’. A press release was also produced in the cut-up style.

I could happily spraff on about this painting for pages because I love it but if I did I might miss the chance to recommend the show while it’s still on. It was was recently given a seal of approval (please don’t even think of that as a pun) by the Contemporary Art Society’s Paul Hobson who has this week been appointed director of Modern Art Oxford.

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Mieville and the monstrous

I’m tinkering with my paper for this weekend’s China Miéville conference. I’m compiling a primer of terms coined by Miéville to describe the non-mundane spaces encountered in his novels and was planning on a smash and grab raid of spatial theory through which we might think these spaces but have instead found myself concentrating on Kant.

China Miéville

China Miéville

Isobel Armstrong’s essay Spaces of the nineteenth-century novel’ argues compellingly that Kantian space was foundational for the nineteenth century novel in recreating a sense of lived space in the mind of the reader. The emergence of n-dimensional and non-Euclidean geometries in the second half of the nineteenth century created problems for the Kantian idea of space, not least because Kant aligned geometry so closely with his a priori space. Discussions in Britain over the new geometries invariably orbited Kant; indeed, Helmholtz’s popular essays on the subject were sustained attacks on the idea of space as a priori, arguing that because we can conceive non-Euclidean spaces, Euclidean lived space must therefore be learned rather than innate.

The biggest obstacle for Kantian space was produced through projective geometry, which suggested that Kant’s incongruous counterparts – objects that could not be made to coincide with their mirror images, say left-handed gloves or spiral snail shells – could be made congruent in higher dimensional spatial manifolds. The rug was therefore pulled from underneath the very peculiarity of three-dimensional space that tied it to the body of the thinking subject.

Miéville’s work is a very long way from the nineteenth century novel, but part of what I want to say in my paper is that it exists in a tradition – specifically what both Mieville and Lovecraft define as ‘the weird’ – that deployed these non-mundane spaces to change the shape, and space, of the novel after the nineteenth century. Miéville is, in many ways, a post-Kantian writer, and given the currency of Object Oriented Philosophy whose project is to overturn the Kantian doctrine of correlationism (and Miéville’s loose fraternity with some of these bods), this is a good fit with the moment of philosophical thought.

I’ll post the text of that paper here after I’ve given it, but in the meantime I want to suggest a non-spatial way in which Miéville is a post-Kantian writer. I read this fantastic essay on contemporary art by “money-laundering knowledge pimp” Simon Critchley last week, and lingered on the following passage:

In Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment, he makes a passing, but suggestive set of distinctions between the beautiful, the sublime, and the monstrous. The beautiful is the free play of the imagination and understanding, when everything seems to hang together, rather like driving a humming-engined expensive German car through the California desert. The sublime is what is refractory to the formal harmony of the experience of beauty, something formless, indefinite, and mighty, but still containable within the realm of the aesthetic. For Kant, the sublime is “the almost-too-much,” and is distinguished from the monstrous understood as “the absolutely-too-much.” That which is monstrous defeats our capacity for conceptual comprehension. Kant simply asserts that the monstrous has no place in the realm of aesthetics. The great aesthetic danger is the moment when the tamed terror of sublimity—the Alps or Mount Snowden for the English Romantics—might tip over into the monstrous. Indeed, in the founding text of philosophical aesthetics, Poetics, Aristotle makes an analogous gesture when he makes a distinction between the fearful (to phoberon), which has a legitimate place within tragedy, and the monstrous (to teratodes), which has no place at all.

To put this in other terms, we might say that a certain dominant strain in the history of philosophical aesthetics might be seen as trying to contain a dimension of experience that we might call the uncontainable. This is the dimension of experience that Nietzsche names the Dionysian, Hölderlin calls the monstrous, Bataille calls the formless, and Lacan calls the real.

Skulltopus

Skulltopus

This rang across to what I was writing about Mieville. Not only is he surely the finest creative teratologist since Lovecraft – I give you the Ariekei as exhibit A, The Weaver as B, Slake Moths etc. – a writer whose stock-in-trade is the imaginative heft of producing the monstrous, he also works extensively with the post-Kantian space of the n-dimensional, which likewise – largely – ‘defeats our capacity for conceptual comprehension’ – many examples to follow in the paper. In this reading, the non-Euclidean and the n-dimensional are, in Kantian aesthetic terms, as monstrous as Miéville’s monsters.

If you’ve a Miéville fan you could do worse than signing up for Weird Council – he’ll be doing a Q&A and reading on Saturday evening. If you haven’t read the text of his brilliant address to the Edinburgh Literary Festival on the future of the novel, it’s definitely worth a look. Likewise, his hybrid state-of-the-nation photo essay, ‘London’s Overthrow’. Hope to see you there, cephalopod lovers.

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