and a cauliflower

My aim in What Do Pictures Want? is thus not to project personhood onto pictures, but to engage with what I call “the lives and loves” of images. (W.J.T Mitchell)

That both  “projection of personhood” and “engagement with the image””  may co-exist is illustrated by a paradigmatic shift  introduced below.

A  memory of medieval jobing painters and sculptors  travelling throughout Europe

Veit Stwosz, ( 1477 – 1533) born in Germany worked in Krakow, Poland

or the Dutch still life painters of 17th C,

Still Life with Fruit, Glassware, and a Wan–li Bowl, 1659 Willem Kalf (Dutch, 1619–1693) Oil on canvas; 23 x 20 in. (58.4 x 50.8 cm) Maria DeWitt Jesup Fund, 1953 (53.111)


would  appear irrelevant for contemporary painting. Except that it is not.  


Instead of following the established stars of the current art world, at least three painters  I know of, seek  a distance from them  and  a connection to a different past: the duo of Elena Duff and Peter FitzGerald – and Duncan Ross on his own. They paint for identifiable viewers/ customers without mediation by gallery or art dealer. Duncan Ross revives the personal connection between artist, patron and site of viewing. Duff and FitzGerald use the online shopping model. On one hand they confirm G Kubler’s observation  “the idea of art can be expanded to embrace the whole range of man-made things”, on the other they narrow their own art practice down to a painting  as an agreement. It emancipates the people who do not respond to contemporary art as seen, say in Venice Biennale, driven by curators, or art fairs, driven by rich elite.


Elena lives in Co. Meath. Her work has been in numerous exhibitions in Ireland, the UK and Europe. View-of-Cavan-Town-2-med-Elena-Duff1-300×215

Elena Duff and Peter FitzGerald write:

We are trained artists, with degrees in Painting, who will create original oil paintings of your home. It couldn’t be easier to order a ‘house portrait’ or a ‘scene painting’. We work from a good-quality photo of the house or scene you want painted and we take out our paints and brushes and turn it into a work of art.
Peter  Grand canal, 25 x 30 cm 2015

Peter Grand canal, 25 x 30 cm 2015 Peter is based in Dublin. He is a painter who has shown in Ireland and other countries in Europe; he is also a website developer.

Once you are on the website you are directed how to proceed with your choices.

How do I commission a painting?

  • Visit the Pick an artist page.
  • Choose which artist you want to do the painting.
  • Choose your painting by the size you want, or by price.
  • Decide to pay for your painting on completion and e-mail the artist you’ve chosen, or…
  • Avail of a 10% discount price by paying a deposit up front.
  • Agree to our terms and conditions (found here).
  • E-mail one or more photos of the house or scene you want painted (you will be prompted to do this).
  • Add any notes about the painting you want (for example, you want your neighbour’s house to be excluded from your painting, or you may need delivery of the painting by a  specific date).

The above are instruction similar to those on any business website  – and intriguingly similar  to some performance artists , as well as to the compendium Do It  put together by Hans Ulrich Obrist since 1993. In Tokyo, in 1964, the 31-year-old conceptual artist Yoko Ono organized a happening in which she screened a Hollywood film and gave the audience a simple instruction: Do not look at Rock Hudson, look only at Doris Day. (“Pick an artist” is a similar  operation of choice as  ” look only at”.   While picking Elena or Peter is verifiable, whether a person does or does not look at Rock Hudson is not. The difference points to a shift of indeterminacy  deep under the visible.

Patronage places an obligation of the painter to satisfy the patron’s expectations.   Matching  the finished painting to verbal instructions and a jpeg   is plagued with slippery meanings in both realms, verbal and visual. is a professionally designed website to order and  pay  for a painting, which will be delivered for your approval, and may be “corrected”  according to your wishes, or returned to the painter for a refund.

Duncan Ross came with another variant: he  has painted a cauliflower on a wall of the  Golden Thread Gallery as part of an exhibition curated  by Sara  McAvera, titled 24.


Ross added  a note that the artist is accepting orders for  painting it in people’s homes in the size they prefer. He keeps the control over the clearly defined subject matter. Duff and FitzGerald separate the painting from the future site by preferring portable object.


Duncan Ross, Chou-Fleur, 2014



Ross, Duff and FitzGerald  share a concern voiced, inter alia, by Julia Kristeva  (What Good are Artists Today, 1995 ,  in Strategies for  Survival Now, 1996, ed. by Christian Chambert)

Things are different now. We can no longer rejoice in our foundations. Artists no longer have a base and art no longer the certainty of being the cornerstone…..A great artist very close to us in time, the writer Marcel Proust, celebrated the cornerstone through the image of the paving stones of St Mark’s in Venice. He saw in them a metaphor for art, which we must rebuild from the remains of our traditions.

The return to medieval jobbing painter model embraces two of the  ideas favoured by the more recent art world: conceptual art and participation of the viewer, with a paradigmatical difference.  Akin and opposite to the paradigm of “spiritual in art”  formulated by  W Kandinsky when he preached against “commercial painters” in Munich.

The  three painters  locate the interaction  near to a medieval or renaissance patron with a power to decide, to interfere. The future  viewer is entering a simple contract to keep a painting of his choice,  delivered for payment.  Whereas  performance art imposes a  hierarchy of the artist’s instructions ( explicit or implicit)  relegating the viewer into a bonded obedient subject.  and the cauliflower  both parties as equal.

Artist’s creativity has been habitually linked to some magic inspiration – even after Rembrandt placed portraits  in the Nightwatch (1642) according to payment he received,



or after Quido Reni reduced the number of figures  in the Massacre of the Innocents, 1611, because the patron refused to pay  for more than seven full length figures.

Quido Reni

FitzGerald  and Duff increase both the level and intensity of exchange between the consumer and the painter by  mimicking an established mode of  business exchange between a maker, who is a seller, and consumer who is also  a patron with a control over intention, subject matter, style, autorship and ownership.  The painters by giving up control over particular subject matter and particular intention obey the agreement : you send a photograph or jpeg of your house, you decide which of the two should paint it, and that’s what happens.

As mentioned above , giving instructions  to a viewer  is widespread both in conceptual and performance art see   Yoko Ono’s  Grapefruit book of instructions



or  from  Hans Ulrich Obrist compendium of instructions:

Do It


 Are the newer modes of instruction changing the concept of the artist?

Raymond Williams has pointed out that the words art and artist required the current meaning  during the late 18th C.  He locates the new definition  in the context of changes in commodity production with the reduction of use value to exchange value, while art  could not be  so defined.( Williams, Keywords, 1976)

Nicholas M Pearson and Andrew Brighton  saw the designation “artist” problematic, being tied  neither to particular media nor to particular forms of work, and opposing to the status of an ordinary commodity. ( The “Specialness” of Art  and Artists in Art Monthly 3/21:3 ff) The resulting rejection of art being valued in ordinary monetary terms  is not a rejection of sales as such – it is a rejection of input by the “conventional” public.  Success with any conventional public can lead to the art being seen as suspect.

Lawrence Alloway  noted an instance of this when the majority of New York critics rejected “The Responsive Eye”  (1965) . He quoted Thomas B Hess (then editor of Art News)  who proposed that  real painting “is difficult, serious, remote and aristocratic” not as the so popular Op-Art. TB Hess echoes the intoxication with artists as celebrities, seeing intention as untouchable by doubts.

I do not intend to do justice to the many arguments that support either of the following: interpretation of a work of art is better if the artist’s intention  is known or  wherever the artist’s intention is not known the appeal to context will do the job.

Monroe C. Beardsley (The Aesthetic Point of View, Cornell, 1982:188ff) came out against, what he termed, “intentionalism”, when he recognised that creating a work of art involves selective similarities, i.e. failure to  select some and refraining from selecting some in a process that has no intended end. If the intention of the artist is known, people still have to work out what the work of art is “saying” and how it is saying it.

He reasons thus:” The connections between saying and intending are, I think, often misunderstood: they are more complex than is generally realised. I disagree with those who have argued, along with Quentin Skinner, that “to know a writer’s motives and intentions is to know the relationship in which he stands to what has been written” (Beardsley, op cit :194)

In support I selected the Guernica.  

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, - 2105 x 953, 1937

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, – 2105 x 953, 1937

 On May 1, having read George Steer‘s eyewitness account (originally published in both The Times and The New York Times on April 28), Pablo Picasso abandoned his initial project and started sketching a series of preliminary drawings for the mural-size painting, and which he would finish in early June 1937. That is an intentional act. It is the power of the subject that inspires his intention  to do a mural related to bombing of Guernica.. but that intention  cannot determine  why it is painted  the way it is. It is the proverbial “je ne sais quoi” or  H. Bergson’s “unforeseeable nothing which is everything” that approximates the freedom  of choice. A context may be therefore a significant event, or just a fleeting consciousness of experience. Neither intention nor context, although necessary, are sufficient to determine  the painting as art.   The magic of painting happens in private between the first image and painted image, like in any other work of art referring to an existing image it is repossessing, quoting, appropriating. (all characteristics of contemporary art practices).

Henri  Focillon is read here:”The most attentive study of the most homogenous milieu, of the most closely woven concatenation of circumstances, will not serve to give us the design of the towers of Laon.”

( see Henri Focillon, Vie des formes (Paris: Quadrige/Presses Universitaires de France, 1988), 94. Translated by C.B. Hogan and George Kubler as The Life of Forms in Art (New York: Zone Books, 1989), 149.))

A context can not guarantee a work of art. Read Derrida:

“If there is a work, it is because, even when all the conditions that could become the object of analysis have been met, something still happens… If there is a work, it means that the analysis of all the conditions only served to, how shall I say, make room, in an absolutely undetermined place, for something that is at once useless, supplementary, and finally irreducible to those conditions.” (Peter Brunette and David Wills, “The Spatial Arts: An Interview with Jacques Derrida,” in Brunette and Wills, eds.Deconstruction and the Visual Arts: Art Media, Architecture (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 28.

I am indebted  to Andrei Molotiu: Focillon’s Bergsonian Rhetoric and the Possibility of Deconstruction  acessed on

In  Three mistakes about intention (in The Dynamics of Now, Tate/Wimbledon School of Art, 2000|: 150 -153) Richard Wollheim states that “it is wrong to think of intention as something rather like a decision, moreover an explicit decision, that could be put into words” (op cit151)

 The second mistake listed by Wohlheim concerns the tight causal link between artist’s  intention and meaning of the work of art. This bypasses the questions what is it that finds a visual equivalent to the intended meaning? What is it that facilitates a match between the visual and intention?

Rudi Mantofani


In Specters of Marx, of 1993, Derrida defined deconstruction as “an experience open to the absolute future of what is coming, that is to say, a necessarily indeterminate, abstract, desert-like experience that is confided, exposed, given up to its waiting for the other and the event.”

Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York & London: Routledge, 1994), 90. Derrida’s  “structure of expectation” stands as a sophisticated candidate to stay open to the absolute future – even if narrowed down to creating one commissioned  work of art.  In addition  “openness of the indeterminate” is  admirably  portraying the transparency of aesthetic function ( J.Mukarovsky, Aesthetic Function, Norm and Value as Social Facts ,1979, first publ 1936)

 The third mistake Wolheim calls “dangerous myths”: “ if we believe that intention, that psychological factors, are the crucial thing, or a crucial thing, in determining the meaning of a work of art, then this  has two  consequences. First of all, the assumption is that the artist knows best, and secondly, that others don’t know at all.”

Untitled Painting 1965 by Art & Language (Michael Baldwin; Mel Ramsden) born 1945, born 1944

Untitled Painting 1965 by Art & Language (Michael Baldwin; Mel Ramsden) 

Yet in the first period of creating a painting there is an opening for experiment, innovation, insecure questioning, intrinsic value. That stage is not caused by an earlier decision and it has no characteristics of a decision.

In a recent TV profile DAVID HOCKNEY (b.1937) introduced his idea of new perspective. Its vanishing point is now not in the depth of the image.

The Perspective Lesson 1984 by David Hockney born 1937

Instead, it is in the painter’s space, it may be the painter even, in a strong echo of  a  proposition by  Nicholas de Cusa (14th C)  that the centre of the universe is where you are.

Perspective referers size

In the image above, the linear perspective leads you to infer that the “big” woman is farther away than the “little” girl. If an object that’s farther away takes up as much space on your retina as an object that’s much closer, then the farther object must be larger. And that inferred size, which is itself a function of inferred distance, determines your experience of size.

When depth clues are removed…

Perspective removed


these illusions tell us something about how a beholder  gets closer to the world than our limited sensory input might otherwise allow.

An interesting coincidence came via Royal Mail.

IMMA sent me an invitation to the opening of “The Beholder’s Share, which  examines unrealised and existing projects from the IMMA Collection. The focus of the exhibition is the role which the viewer can play in imaginatively completing an unrealised work. It  is curated by students on the Art and Research Collaboration (ARC) MA programme at IADT in collaboration with the IMMA National Programme.”

The call for the viewer to construct a meaning of a work of art  has been used by artists throughout 20th C  intentionally  in defence of “the shock of the new”, placing the responsibility for the aesthetic experience and judgement onto the beholder.  Poets and painters alike hailed the openness of a work of art  as an offer of freedom for the  audience  to form their own opinion. And to construct a finish.  When the beholders rejected that responsibility, the art in question suffered dangerous levels of anxiety.( see Denis Donoghue, The Anxious Object in  The Arts without Mystery, Reith Lectures, 1982 access

The remarkable thing is, having so many different ways to say the same thing means that there are many more possible slips of the tongue. And with each slip of the tongue comes the possibility of saying something different. Just as the word GOLD emerges from a single letter change in MOLD, some neighbours of a text (e.g. fold) express new meanings. The pathways of similarities and differences express the ever shifting sequences of intended and invented, art mirroring the evolution via random mutation.

(Andreas Wagner  accessed on


What feels new, points to older art. Today, we speak of works of art, artists are working people…  The art commissioned online or by invitation of the painter into your home  is still being appreciated in terms of how well the painting  serves the purpose.



About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
This entry was posted in essay and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to and a cauliflower

  1. Pingback: Rob Hilken » and a cauliflower

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