This article considers a series of constraints active in the abrasive interface between picture and painting. The term constraint is used in reference to Margaret Boden’s research into the computational mechanisms underlying creativity, constraints understood as productive limits that test a given field or convention. The space between picture and painting is full of strongly defended divisions, and inevitable overlaps, and it can be a cluttered and contentious field for a practitioner to negotiate. The aim is in part to bypass an oppositional mindset that cuts off descriptive and imitative impulses for painting and picture from abstract positions and to access the constructed forms of pictorial convention by a different route. In order to avoid a dead-end opposition, a distance from painting and picture is established through a close examination of an early artefact of mark making and counting in the form of a small clay ball called a bulla. Dating from around 3500 bce, the bulla reference depends on the archaeological research of Denise Schmandt-Besserat and on a description by Georges Ifrah as a key example in the development of numeration. The bulla is identified as a point where distinctions between number, word, object and picture are not fixed and their interdependencies are clear and productive. In this article the particular qualities of the bulla facilitates thoughts about three interlocking terms: likeness, representation and depiction. Each term is addressed in turn, framed as ‘testing likeness’, ‘retaining representation’ and ‘the material conditions of depiction’, and each is considered through processes of recognition and resemblance. This is informed by writing on painting’s mimetic and materially specific art history and the interchange between word and picture, including James Elkins, Michael Podro, Georges Didi-Huberman, W. J. T. Mitchell, Michael Baxandall and Jacques Ranciere. Likeness is rephrased by a consideration of analogy, and the conceptual testing involved, opening a space between the notion of likeness and visual resemblance. Representation is thought through the processes of correspondence and reiteration, and the associations of both presence and displacement that provides. Depiction is embedded into its material conditions and the circumstances of recognition that evokes. All three terms are considered as key to the constraints between painting and picture, even when functioning as exclusions.
Journal of Contemporary Painting JCP2.2. 2016
Image: X ray of unopened Bulla (credit: Denise Schmandt-Besserat)