Painting and Palaeontology
Painting is warm blooded
painting is not slow and stupid
painting is fast and adaptable
paintings take care of their young and hunt in packs
Some paintings have feathers.
Painting is not dead but extinct and evolved into birds.
Paintings method is theory painting’s existence is fact
Painting did not get wiped out by a meteor in the mid 20th century
“Oh, I used to paint’, ‘Oh I liked Dinosaurs too”, I often hear people exclaim when a conversation is twisted to these topics, both painting and Dinosaurs are loved and explored by children universally, I find this curiously reassuring as I continue to paint and continue to be interested in Palaeontology. There is a freedom, open-mindedness and purity of thought in children’s passions that seems to suggest when we consider the study of both painting and Dinosaurs worth while, that we might be on to something. It is of course as a child when you first start to notice the inconstancy and hypocrisy of adult life, perhaps this is not a justification alone for everyone to grab a rock hammer and a paint brush but if you sit and watch Jurassic park, or doodle while on the phone does the creative spirit of youth not stir in you?
How can palaeontology the study of our most ancient past on earth be used to understand the state of a supposedly dead (not extinct) activity of painting today. From the earliest days I can recall I have had an interest in Dinosaurs, what I loved most about them was the idea of searching looking and the discovery of them, this took two forms. The first was being out on a beach in the North East Coast or a desert (Hell Creek Montana on a once in a life time family holiday), walking and looking, walking and looking, digging and hammering rocks. The Second form was drawing, using your imagination to turn just fossils and bones into actual pictures of once living creatures. It was these two concepts that informed my ideas of an artist/painter. It was these notions in a very particular science that I carried with me into art, a much more abstract search for understanding.
Perhaps the most obvious initial question relating to this development of the relationship between painting and palaeontology, is why look to relate art to anything non-human, at least in terms of analysis over subject matter, in response to this question I have selected this Giles Deleuze quote, he says
“I believe that the world not only exists independently of our minds, but the world has an expressivity that is non-human and that [it] is crucial for artists to resonate with that nonhuman expressivity, whether it’s a geological expressivity of the mountains, whether it is the dramatic, ever-changing skyscapes that out atmosphere offers [us] every day, . . . whether it’s the expressivity of animals, like birdsongs, or territorial animals with their
callers and their nests . . . .”1
Ok so how is this non-human expressivity important, why is it crucial as Deleuze explains for an artist to resonate with this. Writing about the link between animals and humans John Berger explains, that the first subject matter for a painting was animal, that this was painted with animal blood, and that the first metaphor was also animal, and even perhaps the first language was metaphor according to Rousseau. Berger says these similar and dissimilar lives allowed animals to provoke some of the first questions and answers about our world. This concept becomes even more pointed in arts relationship to Dinosaurs, as of course man and dinosaurs never coexisted. Therefore, even though these creatures form rich layers of metaphor in our language its is only through art, drawing painting, that we have any understanding of what they could have looked like alive. 2
The process of making a painting is all about hand, eye and brain co-ordination: no other art form links mind and body so completely. In a world of alienation and consumerism this is important. Painting is a way not just of seeing but also of making our world, just as for children making objects and paintings is a way of understanding the world. The physicality of paintings therefore matters, and experiencing that materiality matters a lot too. The evolution of our ancient ancestors and the study of Dinosaurs plays an important role in understanding that world, painting functions as the palaeontology of the moment, we combine our presence in the word to a understanding of it, it is materials embedded meaning, unique in the sense that it is not just expressivity which we share with the world and our non-human counter parts, but as its made clear with Dinosaurs it as a window to the what we can’t see or can no longer see.3
Predictably, art critics have often criticised and dismissed painting as an irrelevance. Critic Boris Groys explained that, Contemporary painting is no longer in a position to do what nineteenth century painting did, namely, to make statements about the world. All the self- reflexive, and self destructive, ( sound familiar?) avant garde movements have resulted in painting being obsessed with its own , ‘thingness, materiality, and structures to the extent that is can no longer depict the world’,4 Boris Groys is right that painting is no longer in this position, however a problem arises when this leads to the old argument that painting is dead. For him, the story and logic of the modernist painting being completed, panting today lacks purpose, it has no formal vitality: it has been replaced by photography, video and other new media. Groys says we take our camera to the zoo, not our paint brushes. But we need both and a lot more to understand the creatures of the past, and our own futures. What painting has lost in in its ability to express with speed and relevance the world now, only emphasises its importance for understanding the past and the future. This is because we weren’t there to photograph or video it in the past and we won’t be in the future either.