Truth and Lies in Painting

‘The relationship between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.’ (John Berger)

The artist can only know the here and now. Here he tries to document, moment after moment, but as soon as the moment is gone his creation fails. An instant expression of his experience is impossible. Like trying to keep water cupped in ones hands, the possibility of freezing this ‘now’, slips away from him. Looking further back, trying to recreate what he can no longer see. Looking forward trying to imagine what could be.  The artefact from his journey is presented to the world when it is decided it is done, where it is immediately engulfed by everything, consumed and assimilated. It throws him further forward, desperately trying to see beyond the now.  Trying to piece these moments together to create an object or an idea, the result is a hybrid of moments. Like a Mule these hybrids are infertile and merely demonstrate power over the physical world. Sometimes a hybrid works and like the Chimera is greater than the sum of its parts.

Coming out of this moment back to ‘reality’ he brings back everything he can. Desperately trying to relay what he can piece together. Art comes from past memories or staring blankly at the emptiness of the future. The artwork produced is but a memory of that moment of truth, where the artist came so close to reality.

One of the main issues facing scientists today is the question of reality. Scientists inhabit the same place as the artist, at the forefront of society, pioneering ideas. The further we progress the more questions are raised. We have always looked for certainty, an answer; really the only answer is uncertainty. The nature of reality hasn’t changed, though our perception of it has. Our beliefs, even when false have driven us forward, and truths, are now near impossible to find. One day the idea of a truth may be condemned to myth and legend as the chimera and other beasts have.  What use do we have for truths? We have come this far without knowing truth. The force of falsity is extreme. Belief in a flat earth led Christopher Columbus to discover America.

Painting is one of the oldest, enduring lies. All painting is pretence; painted lines pretend to fit together to form a space, a figure. The experience of an image of an empty whisky bottle is not the same experience as drinking the whisky.

Painting makes use of similar illusory tricks that reality does, just more obviously. Our visual experience of reality is flawed, seeing only a narrow range of things, never even encountering all but a fraction of existence, caught within a small bubble of complexity that is our everyday experience of reality. Painting mirrors these illusions and complexities of existence.

Sigmar Polke’s work 'The Three Lies of Painting' exposes painting’s trickery. Painted images dress themselves up as printed images in the form of a tree and a mountain that appear as signifiers of truth, as if the images were taken from an Encyclopaedia. The painted hands, usually a sign of authorship, of personal touch are printed. To speak of lies where they are obvious becomes an act of truth. The lies of reality are much more difficult to expose, though they number far greater than three. What exactly is space and time? Where is the edge of existence? Which parts of our personal experience of reality are real? How can we ever have any certainty when answering these questions?

Painting has the same problems. Though we are far more aware of them. We know and accept that a painted figure is not a figure. It is an illusion, one that can only exist on the surface of a painting. We need to take this critical eye that deconstructs so easily the lies of paintings and apply it to all things. Paintings are obvious lies, which we can use to expose all the lies of the realities we have built up around us in order to try and find some truth in the reality we inhabit. Or perhaps, like the Chimera, truths are myths born in our imagination.

Mike Thebridge