Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway – Joseph Mallord William Turner
Have you noticed how things keep changing? I don’t mean the natural things like birth, death and the weather but all the things we have invented for ourselves like what it means to be a good person, what is true, when is it appropriate to lie and what should be the consequences? That sort of thing. Even what makes good art?
We seem to live in a time which has given up certainty itself, and is in the act of embracing a darker reality, that shifts and slithers, refusing to stay still; oh! brave new world.
In art, uncertainty can add an edge to the work, it can intrigue, it casts mystery or tension, it can cause the viewer to join up the dots for themselves and engage more deeply. It’s a handy device but for uncertainty to work it needs one or two points about which we can be sure.
Take a painting such as Rain, Steam and Speed by Turner, painted way before abstract expressionism: for the image to work it needs some identifiable notes, the smoke stack, the boat, the arches, these tethers allow us to enjoy the swirl of colours and textures. These days, freed from explicit narrative, abstract painters still tend to use specific shapes or colours to fix the image, even if just the edge of the canvas. Where nothing is certain, we are left with white noise.
The starting point for us humble observational painters has always been the simple act of looking. Of course, there is absolutely nothing simple about the act of looking but you catch my drift. Whilst looking we may draw and start transcribing some things that we see about which we can be certain. Shapes, colours, values, relationships. These certainties can be returned to and questioned but once they are broadly established they provide a permeable cage within which the freedoms may roam.
Whilst the world around us may spin and swirl like a demented Turner, these acts of observation provide the artist with the grounding anchors upon which to latch their whimsy. Like death and taxes these things are certain.
In wider life our need for certainty is so great that without it we suffer anxiety and lose judgement, panic buying any murky fix offered by the politicians of the day. They do know what they’re doing!