Over the last two decades, Tony Scherman has produced an expansive body of work that has given evocative form to the fables and fictions of human transaction. Formally seductive, his paintings signify the artist's concern with the exploration of representational issues within the context of a late modernist climate. His early education in London, England, first at the Byam Shaw School of Painting and Drawing, and then at the Royal College of Art, provided a grounding for his later investigations into figuration within a contemporary pictorial discourse. While his practice has been informed by traditional modes of painting, his pursuit of the medium of encaustic remains relatively unique in Canada. When fused with the artist's strategic use of vested textual narratives and his carefully authored compositions, it reveals a visual syntax of unusual individuality whose persuasive power is intrinsically attached to the sensuous handling of image and paint.
In the series Banquo's Funeral, the artist has set out to espy the critical moments of interaction between the cast of characters in Macbeth as they might have unfolded during the funeral ceremony for the murdered Banquo had such an event ever taken place in Shakespeare's play. By choosing to portray a fiction within another fiction, Scherman suspends the Elizabethan poet's narrative frame and proceeds to invent his own meta-text and to plot its wayward course. The banquet scene has ended and the guests are returned to a second ceremony. In attendance is an arresting group of dramatis personae, including Hecate and the three witches, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Lady Banquo, and Banquo himself. Also present is an assemblage of unfamed protagonists who further the sense of intrigue and collusion.
For Scherman, this may be the ultimate lure: the fathoming of an untold story. Potentially superior to a given narrative, it manifests eccentrically, beyond the centrified emphasis of traditional representation, and therefore delivers a framework for questioning the extended possibilities of figuration today. The artist forfeits a linear, sequential story line for a process that is divergent and indefinite. Located at the margins of the given story, his fiction aims not at self-completion but rather at the proposition of tangential truths. Thus, while the artist's textual sources determine a measure of his imagistic content, his renditions are perpetually changing or being transformed. A parallel exists with Adorno's thoughts on art as "constitutively enigmatic, in the sense of being a riddle or a puzzle...which, while it has no explicit or objective solution, none the less contains potential solutions, the endless search for which provides the rationale of the object."1
Prior to sourcing the texts of English literature (in this case Macbeth), Scherman turned to the classics for thematic inspiration. Earlier cycles of paintings, such as "The Rape of Callisto," "Leda," and "Io," were drawn from Ovid's Metamorphoses. This tome was a wellspring for the artist as he searched for the epic moments that defined human experience as they were played out by gods, demi gods, and mortals. The artist seized these passages in order to capture and illuminate the points of transition that unalterably changed the characters' destinies. These cyclic paintings are eloquent revelations of fated events that still maintain a certain remove by virtue of the players' implied associations with immortality. In Macbeth, and more specifically, Banquo's Funeral, the illustration of a moral drama is brought nearer to the real fictions of contemporary culture. The semi-historical subject, despite the essential artifice of Scherman's interpretations, possesses a greater affinity with present-day crises of consciousness and identity, signifying a certain rapprochementthat the artist strategically incorporates into his thematic motivations. Centring on the dualities of the human condition – good and evil, innocence and guilt – the works are in constant mutiny with the viewer's presumptions about, and rapport with, the personas portrayed and, finally, the narrative proper. The main focus is articulated both formally and perceptually as an increasingly taut exchange between the known and the unfamiliar. Here, having arrived at the seventeenth century, Scherman may be said to be approaching real time and, with it, an angst that is more closely connected to present experience.
The development of Scherman's work proceeds from a period of major transition within the practice of painting. The debates surrounding Formalism in the late sixties and early seventies gave rise to a period in which the very significance of painting was brought into question, with artists and theorists endeavouring to find alternatives to both its definition and methodologies. Considered to have become irrelevant by virtue of its inherent and assumed autonomy, the status of the medium called for redefinition. The transformations that ensued included a shift in emphasis from pictorial issues, such as those relating to structure and form, to concerns surrounding the materiality of the art object, mimesis and the changing course of representation. While many artists exhibited a tendency to appropriate a conceptually based, linguistic model, for others, such as Scherman, the challenge was not to find an alternative to the category of painting, but rather to enlarge its range to include those issues most pertinent to the ongoing debate. He therefore set out to incorporate the very critique of the practice into the work itself, inserting a terminology of dislocation and ambiguity into his praxis.
During his early career (in the middle-and late-seventies), the artist focused primarily on producing pictorial vignettes of real and fictional events, which nonetheless referred rather directly to contemporary urban life. Questions relative to the objecthood of the subject and to self-referentiality were a concern that was shared by the so-called third generation of Toronto painters, who at the same time maintained important links with the traditions of their chosen medium. His subject matter during this period consisted mainly of familiar domestic objects, including a repertoire of quotidian commodities such as furnishings and foodstuffs that were offered up as icons of cultural effect. By the mid-eighties, Scherman began to resolutely explore issues related to the relationship between culture and representation and, more importantly, to issues attached to visuality and perception.
It is perhaps this interest in visual cognition and mimesis that acts as a catalyst for the drama of painting that has remained a constant in the artist's oeuvre. His choice of the ancient medium of encaustic – the technique of mixing pigment with hot wax and applying it rapidly onto a dry surface in consecutive layers – sets the perceptual wheel in motion and marks the beginning of the artist's painted fictions. By its very nature – the building up of stratum of thick wax – encaustic painting proposes a displacement, a separation from the original surface of the painted fabrication. Scherman's penchant for describing shallow, flat, pictorial space reinforces a staged sense of theatricality, while the allusion to temporality is suggested by the building up and burning away of the encaustic. Beyond the surface affirming, then denying, dynamic of his production, there is an artifice and illusive dimension at play that is intensified by the brilliant richness of the artist's palette and his evocative chromatic combinations. Scherman's surfaces are unremittingly compelling by virtue of their material sensuality and tactility. The radiance of his images is revealed here in the flower paintings that adorn the funereal space. Set against the blackness of a tenebrous ground, the arrangements maintain a semblance of the exotic, having an exaggerated feel that is inconsistent with the latent solemnity of the scene.
It is from these atmospheric surfaces, at once slick and painterly, that images alternately emerge and vanish, their material existence articulated in flux, as consistent with the contextual and narrative essence of the subject. The balance between paint and subject is in constant peril, the imminence of disequilibrium ever present. Contingent upon the spectator's movements, the focused definition of the visual field deteriorates and breaks down as the viewer approaches the picture. In a reversal of painting's prescriptives, the images coalesce and rise towards us only as we step away from them, and conversely, recede into temporary abstraction as we attempt an approach. Set loose from the schematics of actual space, the images are made to participate in the conceptual underpinnings of the artist's work, particularly in his interpretation of the aberrant conditions of experience.
Scherman's careful scripting of scenes and the pictorial constructions he utilizes - favouring asymmetrical croppings and framings–reinforce this movement, which centres on continuous dissolution and recreation. To drive the momentum of critical tension, the artist paints biographical episodes that, by their very subjectivity, are susceptible to mutation as they fade into memory. The artist's characters, then, exist in a state of continuous transition; first, by virtue of being constitutively incomplete, and second, as a result of the tangled relationships in which they manoeuvre. His persons have an equivocal presence, a distortion that is both intrinsic to their state of being and in evidence extrinsically (that is, formally) as fragmented representation.
In the portraits of Lady Banquo, Witch No. 1, and Witch No. 3, Scherman's interest is engaging the visual dialectics of figure and ground, as well as his proclivity for producing 'facescapes' that act as stand-ins for the subject-image's totality, are illustrated. These faces engulf the entire surface of the canvas and become the ground itself. Despite their fragmented form, they describe essential elements of both the personages and their circumstances within a compressed site of maximal expression. Witch No. 1 is a beauty lifted from the pages of Vogue magazine, a "Weird Sister" disguised for the funeral as a "Goddess of Desintie."2 The youthful witch's appearance is articulated formally in fluid sweeps of colour, suggesting a lyricism and grace that is consistent with her charm and 'virtue.' By contrast, Witch No. 3 represents an aging witch, a "creature of an elder world," who bears a mildly sinister expression. The stillness of both images further establishes that in these portraits, movement is played out on the "psychological surface of the flesh."3 Thus, the erased and scarified planes are, metaphorically, a rendering of inner psychic activity. They stand as visual signs of the nature and intentionality of the beings portrayed.
Scherman sacrifices describing the witches' "strange and wild apparel," focusing instead on their basic nature and appearance within the context of his enactments. It is noteworthy that in his production, the lack of props and accoutrements, as well as the emphasis placed on portraying characters in isolation within the separate frames of each work, suggest a parallel to the original Shakespearean stage, the Globe Playhouse, which was frequently representative of no particular scene. With Shakespeare, the staged environs had serious dramatic significance or conversely, had none. "His drama is attached solely to its actors and their acting;...They carry place and time with them as they move."4
A further facet of Scherman's magnified visages is mimesis, which connects one work to another and, on a separate level, refers to the seriality of historical portraiture. Yet, for the artist, such visual mirroring exists as a given, a point of entry into the work. Ultimately, it is through the trompe l'oeil of the source text (essentially a mimetic doubling) that his works attain the greatest complexity and critical dimension.
In the case of Banquo, for example, who is represented here in the paintings Banquo's Last Shave and The Ghost of Banquo, we are simultaneously introduced to a hero/victim and to a potential traitor, a flawed fallen character. Thus the picture of Banquo's Last Shave, with its scraped, scarified appearance and particles of paint that bead the surface of the canvas, is not only a visually prophetic work that represents the invisible (the phantom Banquo), it also foretells metaphorically of the deterioration ahead, the erosion and chaos soon to be let loose. Here, the painted image itself disperses into molten cavities, creating a possible analogy to the waxen images of sorcery. Holinshed describes how witches practised upon the life of King Duff by placing a wax image of the King before the fire and "as the image did waste afore the fire, so did the bodie of the king breake foorth in sweat...as the wax melted, so did the king's flesh."5 In this series, therefore, metaphors exist in the dissolution of the image and the symbolic usage of the technique of encaustic.
With The Ghost of Banquo, Scherman demonstrates the carefully constructed, yet intrusive views that frequently attach to his portraits and are manifest here through the espying of the deeply private experience of death. Perhaps the most evidently voyeuristic scene in this assemblage is the depiction in Lady Macbeth. We see a pair of black ballet slippers, the only evidence of Lady Macbeth's presence at the funeral. For all purposes she is invisible and unseen, present only by virtue of the shoes' suggestive symbolic references. When combined with the legendary enigma of Lady Macbeth, the pictured image furthers a sense of the clandestine. She is an elusive, tragic figure, paradoxically presented here in the guise of party attire.
As pseudo-stills, these works share a contemporary tone that bespeaks the cinematic. In point of fact, the artist's pictorial references are found not only in painting but also in film, resembling posed shots in the way the views are cropped and annotated. Scherman has commented that his interest in narrative is based on "the idea of painting a moment that would be seen from different angles."6 Hence, his use of pictorial space strays from the canons of the history of painting, as evidenced in his telephotographic treatment of shots and the compression of the visual field, while nevertheless preserving the artist's emphasis on multiperspectival views of human actions and motivations.
This concern is extended in the numerous paintings depicting animals in both his production at large and this series in particular. An anthropomorphism is existent in Hecate as Stag, for example, and in his paintings of dogs, including Hamish, The Search for Banquo, and Witch No. 2. As stated by the artist, esoteric knowledge proposes that dogs, when in the company of people (in this case as they appear at the funeral), believe themselves to be human and act accordingly. This metamorphic dimension provides the ideal disguise for entering into Macbeth, and into Scherman's scripts. It is also an allusion to the fact that James I was unusually drawn to these animals and, as Fergusson suggests, that Shakespeare "put into Macbeth's mouth a professional catalogue of the different kinds of dogs...to catch the appreciation of the King in the audience."7
In this series, Witch No. 2 is incarnated as a poodle and set within a grass-green ground. As middle witch, and therefore in Scherman's particular schemata a witch of childbearing age, associations can be made with a canine bitch, a well as with attendant connotations to life and procreation. The naturalism of the artist's palette and the lyrical fluidity of the application of his medium parallel and enrich the trustful expression of the canine. A sense of naive involution is evoked that belies the raison d'être of the witches, who know the instruments of fate; they are "Weird Sisters" with whom Macbeth deals in the powers of darkness.
The culmination of the series, but not necessarily the story, ensues in The Fleance Problem II, the single portrait of Macbeth in the exhibition, which pictures a ringed hand holding a lighted cigar. The gesture, one of deep contemplation, is reminiscent of a scene from The Godfather of cinematic renown. The moment depicted occurs after the murder of Banquo, when the problem of his bloodline, that is, the succession of his son, Fleance, to the throne, is yet to be resolved. Fleance still lives. It is a critical moment that will determine the course of (fictive) history. But an alternate reading is also available as we consider Macbeth's arrogance and confidence of gesture, a reading that is consistent with the faceted motivations of Scherman's textual thematic and serves to suspend closure. Tradition holds that Fleance fled into Wales, and there married a daughter of the Prince of Wales. His son, Walter, would become High Steward of Scotland, adopting the name of Stewart (Stuart). Although we have been told that "from this marriage, by direct line, the Stuart Kings were descended,"8, we are not asked to believe that this is the outcome of the artist's story. On the other hand, it could be, and therefore the prophesy that Banquo's children would rule may ultimately be fulfilled. The query "...shall Banquo's issue ever reign in this kingdom?" (Act IV, Scene I) may be under contemplation in this picture, and given the fictive dimension of Scherman's paintings, it may be the genesis of the altering of historical mythology.
In the final analysis, it is the potentially persuasive transformations of given fictions that inform Tony Scherman's production. His practice centres on the presentation of intriguing plots and paintings that seek out the greater ambiguity in dramas dealing with desire and erosion, all the while retaining a vocabulary that is visually irresistible. His motive is to unchain those random associations that mimic the perceptual illusions of laden moments. In so doing, the artist proffers a body of work that provides a seductive site for both the real and the imaginary.
1 Peter Osborne, "Adorno and the Metaphysics of Modernism: The Problem of a 'Postmodern' Art', in Andrew Benjamin, ed., The Problems of Modernity. Adorno and Benjamin, (Warwick Studies in Philosophy and Literature, London and New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 32
2 For a discussion of Shakespeare's Witches see Ronald Watkins and Jeremy Lemmon eds., The Tragedy of Macbeth, (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), Notes p. 22
3 This has been elaborated upon by David Moos in Portraits & Gods, Ihor Holubizky and David Moos authors, (Vancouver: Heffel Gallery, 1994.)
4 H. Granville-Barker. Prefaces to Shakespeare. First Series, (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1940), p. 19.
5 Watkins and Lemmon, Notes p. 221
6 The artist as quoted by Robert Enright in "Fabulator, An Interview with Tony Scherman", Border Crossings, Volume 14, no. 3, August 1995, p. 15.
7 Watkins and Lemmon, Notes p. 261.
8 Watkins and Lemmon, Notes p. 265.
The funeral of Banquo, murdered by Macbeth, is an occurrence that will have to have taken place even though it does not feature in Shakespeare’s play. And yet positing the necessity of an event that cannot be situated in that from which it arises complicates the hold of fiction by demanding that it generate its own fiction; a fiction giving a different sense of reality to the place of generation. Such must be the case with Banquo’s funeral. What type of occurrence would it be? While this question may have general applicability, in this instance it is quite precise; a series of paintings portray elements surrounding the funeral. Consequently with any questioning of the nature of this occurrence the problematic presence of representation will be central to it. Moreover, what compounds the problem is the recognition that these paintings are ostensibly figurative and hence already implicated in representation. However, can they be taken to narrate Banquo’s funeral? At this stage there is a need for caution in so far as these works–Tony Scherman’s group of paintings entitled Banquo’s Funeral–are partial since they only show elements of the subject matter 1(and yet is an element always part of a whole?). As a beginning, however, it is perhaps expedient to start with the more general question: how do figurative paintings narrate? While this latter question will need to be pursued, it harbours the possibility that cojoining the terms narrative and painting will be to have made a type of category mistake. Why is it that paintings should be thought to narrate?
What marks out the work of narrative is time. To follow a narrative is to allow for the sequential continuity within which it unfolds. Narrative does not repeat the work of chronological time but allows it to be presented and thus allows events to be acted out. Within any narrative, what becomes important is not the relationship to chronology but the relationship to sequence; even the use of an interrupted sequence or the presentation of disrupted moments still unfold sequentially. Narrative becomes the way of tracing the determining effect of time within the self-realisation of literature and film. The relationship between time and that which is narrated has neither a generalisable nor an ideal form. In broad terms, the nature of the relationship between time and the narrated–and here the contrast will need to be as great as that between, for example, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Zola’s La fortune des Rougon–would become a way of identifying the presence of one generic form or style rather than another. While it is possible to provide a structural description of a literary work, part of what marks out the process of reading is the place of time; not just the time of reading, but the way what is read is temporalised. The relationship between reading and narrative is only explicable in terms of a series of complex temporal relationships.
With a painting, the nature of the relationship between the viewer and the viewed is going to be obviously, though nonetheless importantly, different. Paintings are not read. The self-realisation of the novel–a realisation that in every sense of the term comes to be read–is not present within painting. Paintings are temporalised differently. This point can be pursued by examining the narrative force of Poussin’s The Nurture of Jupiter. In order to save the infant Jupiter from the fate of his siblings he was taken to Crete and raised by two nymphs. For food he had milk and honey. Poussin’s painting shows the infant suckling, and one of the nymphs gathering honey; furthermore he is positioned–abandoned in the act of nourishing himself–under the calm and secure gaze of a shepherd and another nymph. Safety is reinforced by the way in which the suckling infant is placed in relation to his guardians. While they are attentive, he is only attending to himself. Nor only is the serenity of the location–Mount Ida–staged by the work’s own internal ordering, there is also the order and calm benevolence of the setting in which the infant Jupiter is present. While it is possible to provide a more elaborate description of the painting, the question that must be taken up concerns what can be provisionally described as its narrative content.
The painting provides a moment from the story of Jupiter’s survival. The story is not complete. Hesiod is needed in order that the detail and consequence of that survival be known. Here, there is a moment, a part. And yet even an element of a longer and more detailed narrative may still have narrative content. What may be missing, however, is the narrative time appropriate to literature and film. The reality and practicality of Jupiter’s survival are demonstrated. The fruits of Rhea’s cunning can be seen. And yet describing what is seen, even locating it within the myth’s larger frame necessitates effacing–to a greater or lesser degree–the work’s material presence. Materiality is not the simple reduction of the work to that which has a painted presence. Paint’s presence can be held apart from materiality in so far as the former is straightforwardly concerned with the way in which content is ordered and presented; in other words, it is explicable in terms of how time figures within a work whose own work is determined by the presence of figures. In contrast, materiality can be understood within painting as the insistence of the medium within the generation of the work’s meaning. With ostensibly figurative painting, what becomes of interest are the possible points of overlap between paint’s presence and materiality. The effect of allowing for a contingent rather than necessary connection between these two determinations is that it will allow for a reworking of the figurative. The figurative will no longer be reducible to the mere presence of figures within the frame.
The shepherd and the nymph hold the goat while Jupiter suckles. They do not need to keep watch. Jupiter is safe from external threat. Spatial positioning narrates the emotional and psychological dimension of the work. That positioning is given to the viewer. The detail of what is given comes to be reinforced, while simultaneously emerging as more nuanced and subtle, as the work is viewed. The capacity for more to emerge is not just a claim about the work’s detail, it has to do with the continuity of the work being given. Painting will in general eschew the possibility of "at-onceness" precisely because of the way it is present.2 And yet the contrast should not be taken as between a type of simultaneity on the one hand, and the process of sequential continuity on the other. Words have, after all, a type of immediacy. The frame does not order time in terms of sequence. It is rather that establishing the relations between moments within the frame involves a process of seeing that is neither continuous nor discontinuous. What takes place is the gradual emergence of a network of viewed relations which allow for the attribution to the work of a certain narrative quality. Any attempt to describe what is taking place becomes a description of the elements of narration rather than of the process of narrating. This process is almost exclusively confined to the relationship between the viewer and the viewed. It is as though the temporality of the narrative of literature or film was necessarily absent. Accounting for that absence necessitates recourse to time. The medium is necessarily different but each medium has its own temporality. Time will plot the real differences. Paint’s presence is already a complex interplay of spatial determinations and temporal considerations. In sum, with this form of presence space–though more exactly spacing–will itself have already acquired an inherent temporality that cannot be eliminated. Taking up these considerations demands the introduction of a further element.
It is not just that Poussin’s The Nurture of Jupiter is a painting, it is constrained to work as a painting. Evidence of that constraint is clear from its necessary differentiation from film and literature. Time does not unfold sequentially within a painting. And yet the question that returns concerns the work’s own relation to the operation of painting. How is it that this work works as painting? There are two elements involved in answering this question. They will need to draw upon the distinction between paint’s presence and materiality. Indeed, in terms of that distinction it will become possible to reintroduce the concerns and thus the interpretive demands of Tony Scherman’s Banquo’s Funeral; a site that is already demanding since it is already located off centre. The first point touches on what has already been raised concerning time; the temporality that determines paint’s presence. While the second introduces the complex problem of the nature of "what" it is that is present. Here the question of the "what" cannot be answered by recourse to a simple description unless the description brings with it the determining effect of time; time within painting. As has already been suggested the depiction of the scene is a depiction of a moment. The moment in question, however, will differ significantly from a film still in so far as the still has been excised from a medium of which it is a part. For the still to be analysed cinematically, it would need to be returned to the film of which it forms a constitutive part. Here, the painting–while a moment–is not part of a whole which has the same medium. To that extent, the painting brings with it a type of interiority; an interiority that will differ with different types of painting. This interiority is already subjected, therefore, to the differing temporalities that will mark out paint’s presence. While the more exacting problem is the extent to which this presence and the temporality in question are mediated by the work’s material presence, it remains the case that here, interiority will always be traversed or worked on by external elements. Interiority will never be sustained absolutely.
In the case of Poussin’s painting, its material presence works to effect the staged order. Paint work provides no more than the intricate positioning of bodies that are themselves–in the productive nature of their staged relation–the construction of security and safety. Paint’s work does not intrude into the construction and realisation of this order. Moreover, once there is the staging of order then there is both a position from which it is to be viewed and thus a surface that while resisting the possibility of a simple giving, since it will allow for the depth of time demanded by paint’s presence, nonetheless forms itself into a self-defined moment. What is provided is a type of nunc stans–though now one with depth–to be viewed. While this is a position integral to Poussin’s own aesthetic, what it marks out is the necessary distancing of materiality.3 The importance of recognising this limit is not to construct a series of restrictive limits for Poussin, but to allow for a development within painting in which paint’s presence will come to be mediated by materiality. With this mediation, as shall be argued, meaning or representation will give way to a more pronounced sense of work and signification. While the propriety of painting is maintained by the attribution of paint’s presence, what is proper to painting will have opened up once the intrusion of materiality is taken into consideration.
While this argument repeats those themes within the development of modernist aesthetics that focused upon the centrality of the medium, this identification was usually equated with either a generic form–one in which the actual determination of the genre went unexamined–or the presence of the medium was conflated with the presence of its effect. An example of this last point would be the claim that the work of paint generated a surface that could be experienced in its totality at one time. After all, this is the basis of Greenberg’s interpretation of Abstract Expressionism. Holding to this position works to create a surface whose projection, because it was thought to be simultaneous with its being experienced, would in some sense also be timeless. Not only would this efface the effect of paint’s presence, it would in addition preclude the possibility of any integration of materiality into the work’s work. What will need to be allowed for is the productive presence of time and the work of the medium that precludes the twofold reduction to genre or unified object that otherwise would have been given by the interarticulation of paint’s presence and materiality. As has already been intimated, the affirmation of their relation will preclude the absolute, and thus all encompassing, hold of generic divisions and in doing so allow for openings in which both the genre and, in this instance, the activity of painting are able to be given within an inaugurating repetition. In being reworked, the genre will be retained.
Weaving the thread of narrative back through these concerns–remembering that in part the question to be addressed was how appropriate the term narrative might in fact be in regards to painting–is best undertaken in relation to Scherman’s actual paintings. As a group, what marks these works out is the staged relation to an occurrence within a play that is itself not staged within the play. However, rather than presenting this other moment within the same conventions–ie, another play staging that which was not itself staged within the original play–here there is a shift to painting.4 Already, the work of painting has been singled out. Despite its having been identified in this way, there mere location of painting cannot form the basis of any attribution to these works of an insistent singularity. The singular will need to be sought elsewhere; not by deferring painting but by making the question of painting far more precise. As a beginning, addressing the singular will need to take place in terms of narrative.
It is already clear that what has been identified thus far as paint’s presence will begin to account for the specific content of particular paintings. For example, with regard to the presentation of Lady Macbeth in Banquo’s Funeral: Lady Macbeth, the shoe–the high-heeled shoe on a leg crossed over another, the shoe of the latter muted by the work’s own inscription on to the canvas–introduces a staged nonchalance bringing with it its own provocation; a created mood jarring with the intended solemnity of the title. Already the picture of Lady Macbeth is cast. Inscribed within the work is a staging of the relationship between death and sexuality that necessitates a metonymic connection between the shoe and Lady Macbeth herself. She is eroticised. The shoe, in terms of its determining the space of a type of fetishism, in addition to its seemingly inappropriate place within the solemnity of the rituals accompanying death, works to eroticise the name Lady Macbeth. Furthermore the eroticisation of the site demands, because of the specificity of the relationship between sexuality and death, another possibility for that complex relation. Here, paint’s presence creates a site that is already overdetermined. Part of what sanctions this description is the inability of that which is present within the frame to hold and control the scene that has been created. It is not a question either of figure or representation, were they to be taken as ends in themselves: what is presented can be described. However, how does what is described, or has been described, work within the overall work? Once this question is asked of a painting that operates almost exclusively on the level of paint’s presence, then the answer is already constrained by the nature of the relationship between work and the specificity of what has been described. In the case of the Poussin painting cited above, the relationship could be characterised in terms of an approximating coextensivity. What necessitates the qualification of "approximating" is the temporality proper to paint’s work. It is the sheer impossibility of the simultaneity of giving and receiving that demands the introduction of this restriction. While this restriction is fundamental, in order for the painting’s own work to be presented accurately, the significant correlation to this approximation is the elimination of materiality. In other words, part of this coextensivity is the elimination of the inscribed presence of the work’s production from forming an integral part of the way it works. Once there is the centrality of the paint’s presence, then the meaning of the work becomes the relationship between the elements that have been presented; remembering that this presentation takes place in terms of the temporality of painting’s presence. In the case of the emerging centrality of materiality–the continual effectuation of the work as work–it will still be the case that paint’s presence forms an indelible part of the way the object is to be attributed meaning. However, rather than establishing a semantic range incorporating a variety of meanings, meaning will be allowed to yield its place to signification once materiality takes over from the domination of painting’s presence.5 Clearly, one of the consequences of this position is that the hold of the genre of the figurative–or of representation within painting–in becoming reworked, marks out the presence of an already inscribed complexity. In other words, rather than assuming that the specificity of the given is already established, the identity of the given will become the site in which what endures as a question is the determination of the genre. A fixed identity gives way to the incorporation of a conception of identity as the continuity of the question of identity. More will be in play with the figure than the mere presence of figures. It is with Tony Scherman’s paintings–with their particularity–that there is another opening; a different form of being present. Here, what defines the alterity in question is the emergent dominance of materiality. At the outset what characterises the difference has already been mentioned. The hold of the framed is no longer absolute. And yet this should not be understood as the claim that the frame, in presenting only part of the body, gestures to an outside that has not been contained. Indeed, the necessity to describe the relationship between the foot and Lady Macbeth as metonymic is intended to indicate that her presence has been inscribed within the whole. Moreover, part of what determines her inscription–that which gives it its actual quality–is the eroticisation stemming from the presence of the shoe. Prior to taking up the material detail of this painting, it is important to situate it in relation to a number of others which in the first place provides details of Lady Macbeth’s face, and in the second purport to present the witches.
The works presenting Lady Macbeth show incomplete faces. In one instance the face is incomplete because it is literally a detail and in another its being incomplete stems from the way in which the actual production of the work allows the face to emerge. In this latter instance, what is remarkable is that what is present does not emerge from a background. It is as though the face is crafted. Two issues occur that will have to be taken up. The first can be described as the disruption of the figure/ground relation, while the second arises from the necessity of having to clarify the description of the face as crafted. In a sense, however, these two points will intersect. The disruption of the figure/ground relation is effected by the way the faces are present. Their presence is explicable not in terms of the sheer presentation of a face, but from the way they are held by the work’s matter, which is such that the face begins to work its way out of the matter. The faces arise, but not from a ground. They occur within the work. Whatever force this emergence has, it has it in relation to the traditional presence of the attribution of the figure/ground relation. After all, this relationship has been taken to permeate all genres of painting. As such it can be viewed as the traditional method by which spatial presence is introduced into the work of painting; even though it may be an introduction given by the act of interpretation.
The figure/ground relation would characterise painting to the extent that depiction was thought in terms of either representation of the mere presentation of the figures. Even in the case of paint’s presence, there is the introduction of an economy–a timing of space and the spacing of time–that defers the possible introduction of the figure/ground relation. Again, insisting on this economy is to insist on the propriety of painting. The difference occurs here because of the centrality of resistance to representation. (In sum the figure/ground relation is only thinkable in terms of the centrality of representation. The figures provide the representation and the ground is paint’s provision of its condition of possibility.) Moreover, with the introduction of materiality, another element will come to inform the frame. In this instance, non-acceptance of the twofold distinction in which the figure is given in relation to an already given ground arises because the work of matter will have transformed that relation. However, the transformation will not be simply an interpretive act that repositions the opposition. It is rather that the work’s own work imposes itself. What insists is a particular type of work. The specific use of encaustic produces a framed presence that no longer enables an easy distinction to be drawn between the setting and that which is set within it. What is at work within these paintings is another possibility. It is not just that on one level there is an overall surface that seems to contain the work; a surface refusing differentiation because this is the wax’s effect. There is, in addition, a disruption of the surface, as an effect of the surface. It occurs because the nature of what has been applied, encaustic, breaks the surface and in so doing causes both head and surround–and there is not simply a head and its given surround but rather there is both head and surround given within and as painting–to show a copresence; an incorporation into the process of painting, that positions both elements to be worked and to work equally. Their copresence breaks the traditional interdependency and, moreover, the possibility of any staged relation. The relation could not be reintroduced. There is, therefore, neither figure nor ground. What is occurring demands a different description. Responding to this demand means accepting the constraint of the work’s material presence. Matter causes the disruption of the traditional categories of interpretation. Matter insists. In the specific instance of the paintings of Lady Macbeth, not only is there the fraying of the hold of portraiture–even of a fictional portrait–by the presence of faces that are not the same, the difference can be taken as portraying a particular conception both of subjectivity and the subject of Lady Macbeth. Her disseminated presence in these works is both her presence at the funeral–it should not be forgotten that the series of paintings has the general title Banquo’s Funeral–an event staged outside the fictional site, as well as her charged and complex presence within the play.
With these paintings there is neither just the head of a woman, nor is there the attempt to represent the interplay of ambition and power. The heads, once understood as the work of painting, entail that the staged presence within theatre has not been given another theatrical setting. In the move to painting, the question of her identity and thus her motives become linked to her mode of being present. Any attempt to provide further detail of the actual heads becomes the attempt to describe paint’s work. What is meant by crafted, therefore, is the creation of the head as within and as part of the work. It neither presents nor represents a character for the precise reason that the space of representation is no longer productively present within frame. In addition, rather than viewing the heads as either there in part or as incomplete–as though both these states of affairs gestured towards a set up in which completion was to be enacted tout court–completion turns into a dissembling presence. In the first place, it would gesture towards the subject position construed as present to self and secondly, it would have to efface the way materiality is at work within these paintings. The crafted presence of the head is the affirmation of matter, and as part of that affirmation matter’s presence signifies by holding a presentation of the face that is never one.
While it is tempting to situate the presence of the witches only in relation to the role they have within the play–particularly in regard to their prophetic quality–in this instance such an opening would merely contextualise the characters but with the consequence of denying the specificity of painting. What is involved here is the painted presence of that which must be defined in relation to Macbeth, but as painting’s work. The extraordinary moment in the play–Act IV Scene 1, in which Macbeth encounters the witches, Hecate, the different Apparitions and Banquo’s ghost–introduces within the structure of the theatrical development a moment that seems to elude the possibility of naming but not of theatrical presentation. When, on encountering the witches, Macbeth asks what they are doing, he receives the reply, "A deed without a name". Macbeth then appeals to their prophetic powers. What is left to one side is the "deed". The direct referent is the cauldron and the creation of magic. The activity was seen by the audience, though not necessarily by Macbeth. The witches cannot name the "deed". Here, a certain theatrical convention is maintained. Preparation and transformation are enacted through time; not only the transformation of the cauldron’s contents, but equally the Apparitions. Here, mystery is created by the procession of Apparitions. The magical effect of the witches is reinforced by the predictions that will have taken on the form of riddles by the play’s end. The question for painting concerns the possibility of a "deed without a name".
Within theatre, the deed the witches refused to name was still present. It still had been experienced and the impossibility of naming–though equally the refusal to name–neither restricted presence nor experience. Indeed, the theatrical effect was heightened by holding to the lack of necessity. The activity within the cauldron maintained its evocative power–a power mediating what takes place throughout the rest of the scene and on into the play–precisely because it is not named. Theatre allows for a temporality in which the power of a refusal, or the force of an unspoken gesture will continue to mediate and to recast earlier occurrences. The transformation of the witches in Scherman’s painting cannot be understood in the same way. While theatre can use its own resources, these resources are absent from the way the contents of a painting are staged. What then does it mean to paint a witch? How is their presence made precise within painting as painting?
Scherman uses two different approaches to the Witches. If no one else was, they must have been at Banquo’s funeral. The question is, how would they have been present? What form would their presence have taken? All of these questions concerning either the presence of witches or the way they are made present address a similar issue once painting–the activity of painting–is taken as central. After all, once theatrical conventions are left to one side, one of the problems that endures is recognising the witch. With the series of paintings Banquo’s Funeral, a problem arises for this very reason. On one level the paintings of Lady Macbeth cannot be readily distinguished from the paintings of the Witches. There is, however, a painting of Hecate in the form of a stag. The stag, as with all of the figures in this series, emerges as if from the painting; not from the background but from the paint itself. It is transformed by a movement in which a stag starts to become and then is present. The figure’s identity therefore has to be, though as the process of becoming-present. It is thus that there is no ground; no stage on which it appears. It is in its appearing. Paint works by staging that appearance. The work’s work is the appearance’s becoming-present. Appearance will be the work’s truth content in so far as appearance is materiality. Here, matter’s insistence is the work’s presence. In sum, it is precisely because the stag does enter from out of the mist, or from the fog, and yet it is entering, coming to presence, that paint will have been at work in a significantly different way. While this description of the work Hecate as Stagaddresses certain elements of the work, what has yet to be taken up is the transformation of Hecate; Hecate as stag. It is with the question of this transformation, coupled to the problem of distinguishing between the Witches and Lady Macbeth, that it will be possible to return to the problem of the relationship between narrative and painting and thus to conclude. Here, however, concluding will mean plotting the limit of Scherman’s own work. It should be added, of course, that it is inevitable that, at some point, all work will encounter its own limit.
The difficulty that occurs concerns the problematic relationship between materiality and narrative. Another way of formulating the issue is whether or not a distinction can be drawn between Lady Macbeth and the Witches–a distinction other than one given by the title–in terms of materiality? Or does the distinction depend upon the reintroduction of content other than matter in order to establish and thus hold the distinction in place? Equally, the problem with Hecate as Stag is the extent to which this transformation and thus the magical nature of the act could be given content by the work’s material presence? Or does such a transformation necessitate the incorporation of an outside in order to determine the work’s meaning? The extent to which this latter possibility becomes real is the extent to which materiality would come to be effaced. The force of these questions derives from the fact that they arise out of a consideration of the work’s effective presence. They occur, in other words, as part of a response to the work’s work.
These questions hinge on narrative. Poussin’s The Nurture of Jupiter can be given a narrative quality since independently of the work’s material presence–its presence as a painting, as painting’s work–it stages an occurrence. Describing it, utilising the resources of mythology, become ways of attributing a meaning to the work. Part of the process of attribution will involve the meaning or interpretation of the myth itself and then the subsequent attempt to trace the connection between the already existent narrative and the actual formulation or presentation of an element of the myth within the work. While at no stage wishing to diminish the effect of the work as proper to painting, it can still be argued that the question of its meaning cannot be given in relation to the work as pure interiority. Only by allowing for a relationship between the exterior and the interior does it become possible to detail what is occurring. This is the case not because the painting is figurative, nor because it is the representation of a particular moment within the more general mythological story, but because the work of paint–materiality–does not intrude into the work such that it contributes to the generation of the work’s meaning. Painting’s presence entails that the work’s meaning is maintained because of painting but as indifferent to its material presence.
In contrast to the work of paint’s presence within Poussin, Scherman’s paintings can initially be viewed as opening up the space of materiality. With regard to the paintings of Lady Macbeth’s shoes, the crossed legs, the relationship between the legs, the contrast of shoes, the presence of one and the dissipation of the other and thus the insistent quality of the presented shoe, are staged by the operation of the medium. It is there in the work’s work. This ordering needs to incorporate the presence of the shoe and thus the effective eroticisation of the site that the shoe sets in motion. Nonetheless, the extent to which it is at work is because of the operation of the medium: it is sustained by materiality. It is thus that the work signifies. The problem that inheres in Scherman’s work, however, is the possibility of it having to depend upon a relationship between exteriority and interiority in order to account for the work’s own effectuation. It can be described as a problem due to the fact that once this relation becomes dominant in accounting for the operation of the work’s work then this occurs at the expense of materiality.
With regard to the painting Hecate as Stag, the interpretive difficulty concerns having to account for Hecate’s transformation within the framework of materiality. Even though it may involve exaggerating the significance of the title, the central problem is accounting for the "as"–Hecate as Stag–that sets the context for the work. Can this transformation occur within the work’s work? The painting itself presents the stag such that, as has been suggested, its presence is set by the way in which it presents itself within the work. Its being there is to be accounted for in terms of materiality. While a figure–perhaps in the most trivial sense also a representation–its figuring is a direct result of the way in which the medium allows for its presence. Thus far, the work maintains its materiality. However, once it is also claimed that the stag is Hecate as a stag, such a transformation may be allowed in mythological or literary terms but not a transformation effected by the work’s work. It has been brought about for it, prior to it and therefore exterior to it. Therefore, the force of the "as" remains indifferent to the painting’s material presence. This point can, of course, be extended to account for the problem of differentiating between Lady Macbeth and the Witches. In sum, what is involved is the refusal to allow painting to set the measure of its own work.
Reformulating this position in terms of narrative, results in the necessity for painting to retain its position as painting; ie, holding to painting’s mode of narration. In the case of Poussin this occurs because of paint’s presence, and yet at the same time depends upon a narrative form that is dissimilar to painting. While Poussin’s The Nurture of Jupiter inscribed a complex temporality within it, in part because it remained indifferent to materiality, Scherman’s Hecate as Stag is absolutely attentive to materiality and thus eschews what has been described as paint’s presence, even though the project of the painting–the presence of Hecate as a stag–would be better executed in terms of paint’s presence than it would in terms of materiality. Materiality becomes an almost unnecessary element despite the fact that its power as a painting–the sedulous hold exercised over the viewer–is derived almost completely from its materiality and not from its being the appearance of Hecate as a stag. Signification failed to provide Hecate as a stag. The transformation was only present on the level of meaning. It is precisely the presence of this limit within Scherman’s work–a limit that divides the work as well as traversing it–that attests to its importance. The response made by his paintings to the question of the relationship between narrative and painting works to define with greater precision the contours of that relationship, even though part of his work is unable to work within them. It is the limit, after all, that yields painting’s insistence.
Andrew Benjamin is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor of Architectural Theory, Columbia University, New York. He has published widely in various areas of philosophy.
Andrew Benjamin’s article was first published in Painting in the Age of Artificial Intelligence (guest-edited by David Moos), Art & Design, Vol. 11, No. 5/6, May-June 1996, and is reproduced courtesy of Academy Editions, London, U.K.
1 I will refer to these works as paintings, and in addition refer to what will be developed as paint’s work, throughout this paper. The material used in their creation is "encaustic on canvas". Paint’s work need not refer to paint as such, but rather it designates ways in which the work’s material presence intrudes into the object. As will be suggested, this intrusion opens up the space of signification.
2 I have developed a critique of Greenberg’s formulation of "at-onceness" in What is Abstraction?, Academy Editions, London, 1996. In sum, what is involved is a distinction between an ontological or temporal simplicity, a simplicity that in the end is putative, and a form of complexity. This conception of complexity has been treated in Andrew Benjamin, The Plural Event, Routledge, London, 1993.
3 The detail of this position could be pursued via a close reading of the report of Poussin’s letter to de Noyes, 1642. What would need to be studied is the relationship between "eye" and "object" developed as part of what Poussin identifies as "le Prospect". See Correspondence de Nicholas Poussin, Archives de l’Art Français, Nouvelle Période, Tome V, 1968, pp. 139-47.
4 The most celebrated example of this convention within theatre would be Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
5 All that can be done here is sketch the nature of the distinction between meaning and signification. Meaning is, in sum, the hold over the object of elements that generically exterior to it but which play a fundamental role in its being understood. Signification, on the other hand, allows for allusion to an exterior but only to the extent that the allusion does not restrict the centrality of materiality and thus materiality being the basis of any understanding of the object. Meaning and signification are not to be taken as an absolute either/or. Nonetheless, they frame different activities within painting.