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Facts of the Matter: Reflecting on the work of Bernard Frize
I have been fortunate to live with one of Frize’s paintings for some many years now as, at Frize’s suggestion, we enacted a trade in 2008. He is living with one of my works, and I live with one of his — No. 2 from the “Suite à onze” series made in 2006 (Suite à onze No. 18 is included in the exhibition). Frize chose this painting for me, and whether or not the choice was calibrated to resonate with my own work, in the end it does. Much of what follows grows from my experience of that painting hung next to my dining room table for the past eighteen years. As I look through images of the work selected for this retrospective at the Center Pompidou, I feel a thread running through. Beginning with the work I know best — Suite à onze No. 2. It is remarkable that each series of Frize’s paintings are so different from one another and yet there is something that is continuous running between all. In what follows I am trying to put words to that thread.
I often dwell on the complicated overlapping of line and color that this painting — Suite à onze No. 2 – negotiates. I enjoy puzzling over how to read the index of movement it represents. I enjoy its scale; it’s not small or overly big. It’s not full of screaming color, but it is colorful. I enjoy how it is tasteful — the colors are tasteful, in sync with color charts in the paint store, and with colors that might flow from carpet to couch to a lampshade imaged in Architectural Digest. I’m drawn into the dramas that play out between the various parts of the single one-inch line that flows over itself as a giant snake like serpent coiled in a carefully orchestrated knot on what is now my canvas. (There is something about owning an art object that enables a different kind of access. The painting is both mine and not mine as it also belongs to Frize.) The layers of paint actually overlap physically; there is also an illusion of shallow space created by the overlapping lines. And I enjoy the immediacy of the paint within the one inch-line where I can see the obvious, matter-of-fact quality of the paint, pulled by the brush, and an almost awkwardness where two colors meet. Suite à onze No. 2 is both simple and complex.
There has been much written about Frize’s work and he has engaged many interviewers. As I make my way through some of these texts I find that his words are both generous and restrained. He is careful not to define the experience of the work; and perhaps, in part, in an effort to prevent his words from dominating, they often contradict each other. I appreciate this restraint. Meaning is derived from words as they flow sequentially over time, and as a result they imply, or struggle with the implication of hierarchies in relation to what comes first and last, as they evoke narrative. Most paintings in contrast present themselves all at once; therefore, the layered meanings that build in mind over time are not inherently narrative or hierarchal. In Frize’s words: “There is no equivalence between painting and language, otherwise it would have been verbalized. It’s about a whole bundle of things that are conveyed in the actual experience of the painting.”
Much of what Frize says, like paintings themselves, disallows resolution and insists on the subtlety and complication inherent to understanding:
“Controlling and letting go…
… letting things go, for example. Yes. Painting with the sides of the brush and with the tip. I always try to reach a point where there’s not just one thing on the canvas, a single thing being shown, but a paradox, an antagonism, a difficulty at work. I think it’s that, really.
I try to have a confrontation in play between the things.”
Frize does not shy away from talking about his work, generously describing the thought processes and physical procedures that give rise to the paintings. Having this insight into his process has piqued my awareness of the breadth between process and outcome; and I find that it is a mistake to assume that the systems and constraints that Frize imposes on himself should function as limits for my reception of the work. The finished works, in contrast to the processes that yield them, do engage aesthetics though Frize has stated repeatedly that the systems he employs to make the paintings are designed to eclipse the need for him to make aesthetic choices in the process of painting.
It strikes me that Frize’s paintings are like visual koans; their tightly controlled coherent form, unleashing a torrent of observations, chafing at one another creating a noisy unprovoked beauty.
Here follow a few koan poems that are satisfyingly resonant with Frize’s paintings:
A world of dew,
and within every dewdrop
a world of struggle
– Kobayashi Issa
The world is simple,
Perfect, and without complaint.
There’s only one thing
That puzzles it — a temple!
What on Earth could that be for?
– Master Chu-hun
Not believing in anything I just sit,
listening to my breathing
After thirty years
It still goes in and out.
– Albert Coelho
Nobly, the great priest
deposits his daily stool
in bleak winter fields
– Yosa Buson
What is this?
Look in this manner
And you won’t be fooled!
– Bassui Tokusho
Cast off what has been realized.
Turn back to the subject
To the root bottom
– Bassui Tokusho
I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect
contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
– Marianne Moore
The layers of content that a Frize painting generates arise as one becomes aware of how the painting is made, what it is made out of, how it acts on our biological perceptual apparatus, how our reception of the work is responsive to the light and scale of the circumstance we find the painting in, and the various points of reference outside of it that a viewer is able to coalesce in mind. And then this edifice built in mind rattles together with the ongoing sensual experience of standing in front of the painting.
This awkwardness, inherent to the relationship between paintings and language, is only part of the story. In addition, the paintings, all on their own, before language is brought to bear, embody layers of contradiction proposing that many things are true at once. They are invested, so to speak, in gray. They are not partisan. In this way my experience of Frize’s language is consistent with my experience of the paintings themselves.
Each painting presents a coherent, often object-like, very factual index of eventfulness. Some of the paintings are like knots; some like a scientific graph turned into a simultaneously thick and thin object floating on top of the prepared canvas. The clear factual gestures that accumulate on each painting embody layers of conflicting information and tensions between binaries: control / happenstance, predictability / unpredictability, emotion / asceticism, jewel / diagram, evidence of the author / absence of the author. As these contradictions seem to hover, just a few millimeters out from the ground of the painting, embodied in painted brushstrokes, coincident with one another, another subject seems to emerge — hierarchy is denied. Though that proposal too is contradicted in that the painting itself is bracketed by its elevated status as fine art, and that status can’t but accumulate to the painting.
Though Frize does not aim to make his paintings tasteful, or beautiful, and I know that he isn’t aiming for illusion, nevertheless I feel invited to privilege my own engagement. This fragment of an interview between Frize and Irmeline Lebeer opens the door:
“BF: The goal is to renew my pleasure. […]
IL: It is… […]
BF: when I’ve succeeded in creating a little mechanism, an engine that ticks over on its own. That no longer needs me.
IL: And once you have found it, you drop it?
BF: Well yes, because it can work on its own.
IL: Ah yes…
BF: Yes, it no longer needs me. Nor I it.
IL: And the ball is in the viewer’s court?
BF: They certainly have all the equipment they need to get it.”
Frize’s motivations for making his paintings surely differ from my desire to engage them. Each viewer comes to the paintings with a different set of equipment, and in all cases our viewing equipment differs from the set Frize used to generate the work. The systems and constraints that Frize employs as drivers do not need to be adopted by the viewer.
The ground of most of his paintings is white, smooth and nonporous. This slick hard surface holds the paint aloft disallowing the ground to participate in the magic of creating illusion. An ambition at odds with much of painting’s long history in which a perceptual trick arising from the fortuitous marriage between the biology of our perceptual apparatus, light and planner surfaces has been so happily capitalized. The illusion of space we are so easily tricked into perceiving on flat surfaces has apparently engaged us humans since the time of cave painting. Frize constructs his paintings in such a way as to relieve the ground of this task. Of course, Frize is not alone to insist that our awareness of the flatness of the picture plane is utterly important; he has joined force with many others in this endeavor to call attention to this form of understanding — insisting that we pay attention to the limits of our point of view. Nevertheless, though he denies illusionistic capacity to his grounds — the painted marks and gestures that the ground holds forth produce a variety of shallow spatial illusions both inside each brushstroke and between them. The brushstrokes are often transparent so that, as with watercolor paint, light moves through the actual surface of the paint to bounce off the flat ground of the support. The refusal of the ground to yield illusion, even whilst reveling in the pleasures of the illusions offered up within and between overlapping brushstrokes, creates simultaneously an illusion of a painted object hovering a few millimeters off the surface of the painting, together with an affirmation of the flat ground. Both the illusion of space and the experience of looking at an object that is composed of paint are captivating, entertaining, and seductive.
I think about some of the work of Jennifer Reeves, Jonathan Lasker, Frans Hals, John Singer Sargent and Eric Fischl, each of whom in their own way propose passages of paint that flutter back and forth between calling awareness to the object like quality of the brushstroke and the strokes’ service to illusion. Jonathan Lasker’s works are also like visual koans.
Color too is a major player in my experience of Frize’s paintings, even though he does what he can to dissociate himself from color choices. The color is seductive, it articulates the jewel-like hardness of the object-like forms sitting atop their obdurate white grounds, and the color, like the brushstrokes themselves, has a matter-of-fact quality — perhaps because Frize has tried to elide the process of choosing his colors, the colors coming out of the cans have more to do with choices made by paint companies. The definition of difference within the paintings relies on shifts in color and value. Black, white, and gray might do some of this work — they are colors too. Color contributes to drawing me in, inspiring delight, even as the deliberate backgrounding of subjective choosing, that Frize has devised to systematically produce the paintings, also has the effect of admonishing and insisting on the cool containment of that same emotion.
“Although natural selection can act only through and for the good of each being, yet characters and structures, which we are apt to consider as of very trifling importance, may thus be acted on. When we see leaf-eating insects green, and bark-feeders mottled-grey; the alpine ptarmigan white in winter, the red-grouse the colour of heather, and the black-grouse that of peaty earth, we must believe that these tints are of service to these birds and insects in preserving them from danger.”
Seeing color must also serve some purpose for us, for our survival. I imagine that it helps us to distinguish foods, and to navigate as we move through space and time. At least for some of us, it is also a great source of pleasure. Although Frize himself doesn’t control the interaction of colors, he may nevertheless enjoy the end result; he doesn’t say. The pleasure I, and others, take in his paintings contributes to their successful reception in the world — one could see this as parallel to “survival” in Darwinian terms. Their color contributes to the attraction I feel, and the pleasure that accumulates as the color works on me. In that pleasured state I linger and am receptive to a slower unfolding of other layers of thought and experience. I propose that aesthetics plays a part in the presentation of all information; we need for pleasure, coherence, order, or beauty to be laced together with ideas in order to apprehend them. In spite of Frize’s ascetic road map, he creates seductive paintings orchestrating circumstances for pleasure to arise unbidden; the pleasure rolls and rocks inside of the lines — one of many conflicts at the heart of the work.
The paint arrives on the canvas as a result of a gesture or a collection of gestures. The gestures are clearly formed by paint on brushes manipulated by a person, and sometimes by more than one, brushes and people, simultaneously. The paint captures, or marks, these gestures becoming in this way an index; but inside of this simple indexing of gesture, Frize sets the stage for complex and luscious interplay between colors as they mingle in what appears to be a less controlled set of events inside of the premeditated choreography of movement that yields the outline, scale, and motorway of the mark. The relationship between control and happenstance becomes part of the subject. Frize writes:
“Controlling the future, isn’t it the last great fantasy of humankind and ideologists? An artist should protect him- or herself from the future, and remain open to the present with no fear of discontinuity, because everything dries up when subjected to habit and control. You have to be in a state that is close to who you are, or almost indeterminate, evolve to the whims of forces within you, wait for signs from a thought that has no subject, and let things come but, crucially, without judging or criticizing them for fear of losing this openness; you have to allow the thought to do the constructing and to establish relationships so that things happen all by themselves.”
As I read this I see Bernard at his desk planning the next painting; I imagine him with a brush in his hand; him at his desk writing and thinking (or on his couch, laptop on knees!). At which junctures does he exert control and at where is he able to allow himself to be “evolving to the whims of forces within”. His paintings evidence forethought and control as his brushes follow preconceived pathways meandering over his very prepared surfaces, taking advantage of opportunity to give rise to the unpremeditated very thin objects that in this way too embody contradiction.
Thinking about how Frize himself, the artist, functions within our workaday world contributes another layer of conflicted meanings to the subject. Frize goes to work every day, as most of us are required to, and systematically arranges his time and resources to enable the production of one series of paintings after another. His is a small cottage industry in which he, the boss, has the privilege of deciding how to fill his time; and he has chosen to fill his time with producing paintings. The money he receives for the paintings was not a given at the outset, and there are certainly other kinds of value embedded. The paintings mean many things as I am here in this text trying to articulate. This is true in one way or another for all artists — our artworks embody many kinds of value. So Frize goes to work every day; and he values this way of spending his time. He produces series of paintings; the fact that he works in series is resonant with the output of an assembly line. But for the Frize assembly line no two paintings are identical. Frize invents workmanlike systems to produce the work. That is true of factory production too — but not necessarily true of an abstract expressionist painter. He employs many repetitive gestures, – the repetitive gesture again rhyming with factory work. The images that the painting’s gestures provoke also communicate indexically evidence of the work accomplished. So Frize’s paintings are about work, his own, the work of others, and also about the painting’s relation to a society in which people are defined by their labor. Though he goes to great lengths to erase his / the artist’s “expression” or emotions from the subject of the painting, nevertheless, his person, his biology, and the motion of his arm “at work”, all in the end become part of the energy and life that the painting carries and communicates. This is yet one more contradiction embodied by the motionless painted object held aloft over the ground that refuses illusion. And it needs to be said again: though Frize does all he can to disallow the inclusion of his biography, and his feelings, to be central to the paintings, he does not propose that the finished paintings don’t illicit feelings.
On October 9, 2018, evolutionary biologist Michael Wade gave a lecture at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin titled “Nature, Nurture, and the Nurturers: the Evolutionary Genetics of Interaction”. His talk was underlined with this thought: “Everything we know is in relation to covariance.” Covariance is a measure of how changes in one variable are associated with changes in a second variable. It measures the degree to which two variables are linearly associated. The principle asserts that all of our knowledge is gathered in relationship to association between things, events, or substances. This measure of how knowledge is gained resonates with Frize’s paintings as meaning shakes out between various pairs in tension with one another: color / no color, simple / complex, orchestrated / randomness, flatness / illusion, beauty / irrelevance, feeling / detachment, workmanlike / zen.
Thinking about Frize’s work in relation to a principle like covariance provides a useful model as it helps to understand the various values embedded in the work, running contrary to one another as if on a graph, sitting outside a world constrained by single point perspective. The work doesn’t propose any hierarchy amongst the warring truths it presents. It is not partisan.
He, like a scientist engages in experiments — experiments that yield unpredictable findings. We viewers receive an experience of the indexical product. We the audience and Frize the author share the painting as a point in our relative trajectories — the author’s end point and our beginning point.
In the end Frize presents us with simple physical / visual koans. These works rarely depart from a symmetrical engagement with the canvas, usually have limited engagement in compositional play, and present as complex simple unities; in these ways their form resonate with the long history of religious painting. The subject matter emerges as layers of human impulses in contradiction, separate but together, like toddlers engaging in parallel play, inside of what is generally, more or less, a symmetrical whole held a little aloft from the surface of the canvas, like a halo hovering around the head of an angel. When all is said and done the paintings are “believable”, perhaps optimistic, and certainly fraught.