Randall Steeves | Matter and Energy

and Why is Painting Important?

“Matter and energy” refers to “Wave Particle Duality” which is an observation postulated by scientists in the early 20th century and eventually confirmed as the study of particle physics progressed. It means that the classical concepts of “particle” and “wave” (popularly referred to as “matter” and “energy”) are inadequate to describe the universe at the quantum level. It suggests that our concept of what constitutes reality is wrong, that our experience of the world limits our capacity to understand the world. Put simply, things are not always what they seem to be. And we have to set aside our assumption that a thing has to be either one thing or another and accept the idea that context is everything, that a thing can be a different thing in a different physical setting.

John Cage tells us that art should imitate nature “in her manner of operations”. William Carlos Williams declaring the same idea in his dictum “no ideas but in things”, or more succinctly “not to copy nature but to imitate nature” leads you to Charles Olson’s assertion that an artist’s problem “is to give his work his seriousness, a seriousness sufficient to cause the thing he makes to try to take its place alongside the things of nature”, so that the artists act, “in the larger field of objects, leads to dimensions larger than the [artist].” I’ve compared this to Jackson Pollock’s famous declaration “I do not represent nature. I am nature.”

I interpret all of this to mean that art that depicts nature in its appearance is simply missing the point. In the technologically dependant society and the wide-open, pluralistic art environment we find ourselves in, it seems necessary to identify a reason to make a painting. Painting seems hopelessly archaic. Painting was useful for understanding the world we used to inhabit but it seems, at a glance, horribly inadequate as a means to make sense of the complexity of modern life or the confusing nature of the universe. So what exactly is the point of making paintings today?

Why is painting important? It’s common for artists to say things like “it operates outside of language” or to suggest that its immediacy or its “expressive potential” is what gives it its vitality. I believe strongly that painting’s value lies in its capacity to register an individual’s physical relationship to the essential features of reality. The paintings I make are primarily concerned with direct experience, with human physicality and with the body’s inescapable submission to time. I want them to elicit a kinesthetic response that connects us to the totality of objects and embeds us in the natural world.

The “Matter and Energy” paintings do this by “manifesting duality in their material presence”. They express duality by exhibiting the properties of the beeswax from which they are made in both its fluid molten state and its static solid state. The title suggests that the painting is describing something that is possible, with some difficulty, to imagine but impossible to depict. It’s clear that the painting is simply made at “human scale”, through the manipulation of the physical “stuff” of the world.