The What is Painting? Project: Featuring James Deeb

What is Painting? Norbert Marszalek

I thought it would be intriguing to ask painters this simple yet complex question. This query comes with no ground rules—it’s up to each individual artist to find their own approach and direction.

This project will be an ongoing exploration … let’s see where it takes us.

What is Painting?
Featuring James Deeb

“What is painting?” Three simple words ending with a squiggly bit of punctuation. When I accepted the challenge to answer the question, I thought, “How hard could this be?” I did a little brainstorming and quickly wrote down several one- and two-sentence ideas, each a viable springboard for a longer essay. The problem wasn’t too few ideas, but too many. To further complicate things, none of my ideas answered the question to my satisfaction. Instead, what follows are a few micro-essays that, taken together, represent my best attempt to describe my experience as a painter. (How hard indeed…)

Painting is a ritual. I doubt I could count how many times I’ve laid paint out on a palette. The colors I use have evolved over time, but the overall grouping and arrangement hasn’t. Mineral colors on the left, earth tones along the top, and healthy amounts of gray, black and white along the bottom. It’s a necessary ritual, like a musician warming up by playing scales. But unlike the musician, my practice is silent. All the while I’m aware of the blank space at the palette’s center with all of its unshaped potential. It’s the same every time and different every time.

Painting is a visceral addiction. I may not remember how many times I’ve laid out paint, but I certainly remember the first. I received a basic oil painting set as a Christmas gift when I was nine or ten years old, and my most vivid memories are of the smell of the linseed oil and the texture of the paint. The color was intoxicating. It was visceral. I’d like to say that I was hooked then and there, but I was young, painting was difficult, and my attention span was short. I didn’t return to painting until almost ten years later. When I walked into that college painting class, however, all those memories flooded back to me. I had a professor in those early days who would say, “Get addicted to painting, get addicted to art.” I realize now I was already half in the bag.

Painting is mindfulness. In the past, I have described a state of being ‘lost’ in a painting, but I always knew it was a poor analogy. It suggested diminished awareness, like sleepwalking. Now I would describe it not as being lost, but rather walking many paths at the same time. There are many considerations at play simultaneously when making any painting: shape, color and, in my case especially, texture, to name just a few. When I’m at my most engaged, I make moment-by-moment decisions that are neither “right” nor “wrong,” but just “are.” The outcome of each successive action is allowed to dramatically affect the next, and my ideas are always mediated not only by my manipulation of the paint, but my reaction to it in the moment. I think this is in large part what Francis Bacon meant when he said he wanted “to make images as accurately as possible off my nervous system as I can.”

Painting is theory. I sometimes think about Albert Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2, and imagine that the proof for that deceptively simple theory would fill a hefty book or two. I also imagine that a person with the right background in physics could take the theory and work backwards to recreate the proof. Painting is capable of something similar. A painting can encapsulate an entire experience within a language that, instead of using numbers or letters, uses much more amorphous and sometimes ambivalent qualities. This language is open to those with the sensitivity to unwrap it. But instead of an exact recreation of the artist’s experience, it unfolds in the viewer’s mind as a related but different experience.


James Deeb, Dutch Angle, oil on board, 15″ x 12″

I was born behind the wall in West Berlin in the mid-1960’s. I remember drawing a lot as a child and making animated movies with lumpy clay dinosaurs. Although I had always been interested in art, I did not seriously study it until I went to college. I graduated from Indiana University at South Bend in 1988 and received an MFA from Western Michigan University in 1994. My work is part of a continuum that has its philosophical roots in texts like Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. This current is prevalent in the works of artists like James Ensor and Philip Guston and the writings of authors like J.G Ballard. I refer to it as art in a minor key.

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