Posts Tagged ‘James Elkins’

Blackpaint 685 – Alchemy, Paint, Excrement and Locusts

February 12, 2021

Hot Moonlight

Blackpaint 2020

I’m reverting to the idea I had a few years ago, of putting one of my paintings in at the start of a blog: that way, you get to see at least one of my efforts, even if you’ve landed here by chance and head off again immediately…  The title is stolen from the Highwaymen track, “Born and Raised in Black and White” – “Welcome Home! said the hot moonlight, We were born and raised in black and white…”

“What Painting is” by James Elkins (Routledge, NY and London, 2019)

Originally published in 1999, this book is the most idiosyncratic and fascinating book on painting I’ve ever come across,  I was astonished to find it so, because the author is “Professor of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago” (back cover of the book).  I thought, therefore, it would be another discussion of the finished product in its various forms, historical probably, or philosophical, or both, like “What is Painting?” by Julian Bell, which I also got for Christmas.

How wrong I was.  This is about painting, not paintings – the actual process.  Elkins compares painting to alchemy, which he treats not as a pathetic and laughable attempt to “do” science before the proper subject was invented, but as a dedicated, almost heroic pursuit of the knowledge of things and properties and states – before we knew what the elements were.

It’s not wholly successful – too much alchemical detail.  But what he says about paint and painting (he painted before becoming an academic, but felt he had to give it up) rang bells for me.  Consider the following:

“…some paint is like the refuse of the studio, and some is like human waste.  In the studio, it can feel as if paint is not just reminiscent of shit, but it is shit.  The alchemists realised that excrement cannot be denied, that it has to be used.”  Hmm, yes, been there…  Or this, occasioned by a section of a painting by Francis Bacon: “A fixed element in a work, such as a dried passage where a painting is effectively finished, can be a cornerstone around which the work is constructed..”  [This can become a nuisance as the painting develops and “gathers” around it, however : ]”…The paint gathers around the one fixed spot like the nacre of a pearl around a piece of grit….The painting swirls around the fixed spot, protecting and enclosing it like a bandage.  But thought rubs against it , and it aches.”

My partner often says to me that you have to paint out the “best” bits in a painting, because they can hold you back, or force you to make the rest of the painting “fit” round them.  I suppose this is the same idea as hers.  This book is turning out to be something of a revelation to me.

The Day of the Locust, dir. John Schlesinger (1975)


I finally got round to seeing this, after a friend of mine spent an hour or so out  of the last forty years (not all at once, but in several bits), telling me how good it is.  I should have taken more notice.  It starts as a portrait of several “types” of struggling characters on the fringes of the Hollywood cinema industry in the 30s – and turns gradually into a surreal disaster film, almost a horror story.  It reminded me a little of Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished “The last Tycoon” – probably because that too had a Hollywood lot disaster (a flood).  I haven’t read the Nathanael West novel, but my friend says the film is pretty close to the book,  Karen Black, Donald Sutherland (whose character is called Homer Simpson) and William Atherton are all great.  Burgess Meredith is maybe a little exaggerated – but maybe not.  Artwork, some scenes from Goya, some hint of Marlene Dumas (but she’s later, of course, and might even have seen this) striking – but who did it?  Art Direction is by Richard Macdonald, but I guess he’s not the artist.  And I wonder why it’s called “Day of the Locust”.

I was going to write some more, but I want to publish and I’m well over my 500 words so I’ll leave it for now, with a few more of the old pictures I’ve been “revising” over the last few weeks:

Caught the Wave




Eco – Worrier



Until the next time.



Blackpaint 684 – Psychopaths, Severed Ears, Alchemists – and Art

January 21, 2021

Ice Lines, Blackpaint


Crazy, not Insane – Sky Documentary (dir. Alex Gibney)

Ted Bundy and Arthur Shawcross

Staggering programme about Dorothy Otnow Lewis, a psychiatrist who has interviewed and analysed a number of America’s worst serial killers – are there any that are not all that bad? – including Arthur Shawcross and Theodore “Ted” Bundy.  She seems prone to finding that these persons are often in the grip of “multiple personality disorder”; that is, when they kill, it is some malign other personality that takes them over (and is therefore responsible for the crimes).  The doc contains film of her with Shawcross, who is “taken over” during the interview; it appears to me that Lewis must be one of the most gullible people on the planet, to be fooled by Shawcross’s pathetic charade.  Reminds me of James Randi, the conjuror and illusionist, who died recently ;he said repeatedly that he loved doing his stunts before scientists because they were the easiest people to fool.

Journey into Darkness – John Douglas

Read this book as an antidote to the above.  Douglas,  one of the founders of criminal profiling, and author of “Mindhunter” has unequaled experience of these types of murderers – Kemper, Manson, Bundy, Wayne Williams, dozens more – and demolishes the “multiple personality” nonsense roundly (in the case of multiple killers who develop these traits AFTER arrest and sometimes trial, that is)..  He makes an unanswerable case for the reform of the US legal system to render justice to the victims’ families, specifically in the area of multiple and/or specious appeals against executions.

Blue Velvet  (David Lynch, 1986) 

I finally got round to seeing this;  I expected a dream-like atmosphere and some difficulty in comprehending the plot – and yes, both expectations fulfilled –  but not TOO baffling.   The violence – Isabella Rosselini gets hit by Dennis Hopper’s psychopath, Frank Booth, several times – is nasty, but nowhere near as horrifying as that in, say, “The Killer Inside Me”.  The dream thing is exemplified for me in the exchange between Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) and Laura Dern’s policeman father, when Jeffrey shows him what he has found in the meadows; “Why yes,” says the policeman, “you’re right – it IS a human ear”… as if it were an interesting fungus species.

Great ending shot of a clearly mechanical bird with a large (mechanical?) insect in its bill, against the saturated colours of a suburban American garden.

I was going to write, the only Lynch film I understood all the way through was “Eraserhead” – although that’s wrong, because he did “the Elephant Man” and “The Straight Story ” too.  And “Wild at Heart”…

What Painting Is, James Elkins (Routledge 2019)

Back to art.  I was bought two art books for Christmas with these pleasingly symmetrical titles:  “What is Painting?” by Julian Bell and “What Painting Is”, by James Elkins.  The first is a fascinating, but reasonably conventional work on art history – more next time.  The second, by a professor of art history from Chicago, is a real surprise, to say the least.  It gets right down into the paint on the canvas, the marks, the pigments, the process.  The comparison is with alchemy and he goes into the subject in great detail.  I thought “Oh no, this is going to be tedious” – but I was wrong.  Elkins loves to be down in the sludge with the alchemists, trying to extract and separate; but then he’s there with Jackson Pollock, with the domestic enamels, hairs, cigarette ends, describing Pollock’s characteristic marks in detail.  Highly recommended.

New Paintings (and one collage)

Finally, I’ve got round to doing some work again – mostly re-working old pictures, with oil over acrylic.  Some examples below and at the top:


Catch the Wave


Swe Dea (Collage)

Happy New Year – no irony intended


21st January 2021