The Thick Stuff

Attention is the beginning of devotion.

— Mary Oliver

Oil paint was made for depicting flesh.

— Willem DeKooning

Compared to, say, watching a fireworks display, painting is a decidedly jumbled way of perceiving.

Watching fireworks is just that—watching. Eyeballing a show, a spectacle, a rebus (from the Latin non verbis sed rebus, a presentation “not by words, but by things”).

Painting, on the other hand, is a carnal affair. Painting palpably immerses the artist in what French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty called “the flesh of the visible.”

Unlike merely spectating, painting touches “the very pulp of the sensible.” Painting is up-to-your-elbows a mess, plunging the painter into what I’d call the “thick stuff.”

Many artists I know like to paint from observation (as opposed to photographs); but there’s really no such thing, once you get going. Once you get going, you become too immersed in the very pulp of the sensible to call what you’re doing “observation.” It’s closer to painting from fascination.

Merleau-Ponty called the sensible a “stabilized explosion.” In perceiving the sensible, he said, the “flesh” of the perceiver butts into the “flesh” of the perceived—and the fireworks begin. The explosion represents the communion of self and world—the encounter Merleau-Ponty called the “intertwining” [entrelacs] of perceiver and perceived.

He described the intertwining as “the thickness of flesh between the seer and the thing.”

“It is the thickness of flesh between the seer and the thing that constitutes the thing (its visibility) and the seer (his corporeity),” Merleau-Ponty said.

“The thickness of flesh is not an obstacle between them; it is their means of communication.”

To paint is to become imbued with the thickness of flesh; imbued with the thick stuff. The thick stuff is the painter’s means of communication.

To paint means painter, paint, and thing painted all become hopelessly ensnarled and enmeshed—all “balled up.”

To paint is like grabbing hold of the Tar-Baby.

Pilgrims and tourists like to talk about visiting “thin places,” those ethereal, all-too Celtic spots where the painted veil is paper-thin and little separates the visible and invisible, the physical and metaphysical.

Thin places are holy sites, prime and prophetic real estate for devout people.

But as a painter, I’ll take the thick stuff.

Any day.

Note: Have a safe and happy July 4th!

Above: Two Tomatoes. Oil on canvas. 10 x 8 inches. PB&J. Oil on fiberboard. 10 x 9 inches.