Empiric or Picturesque?

Joan Key

‘Why is the ground more important in a juridical system, whereas in painting, the paint is more important than the canvas?

It is only then that the problem of the association of ideas discovers its meaning. What is called the theory of association finds its direction and its truth in a casuistry of relations, a practice of law, of politics, of economics, that completely changes the nature of philosophical reflections’ (1)

The opening of Gilles Deleuze’s essay Hume compares the Eighteenth Century philosopher David Hume’s view of the world to a visual experience imagined in the future, or at least a science fiction account of the future. Hume’s ‘vision’, he says, resembles that of an ‘alien being’ travelling through space; it is as though the philosopher is looking at a site which stands in relation to himself as one of pure exteriority. This creates a ‘peculiar’ impression for Deleuze, as if Hume sees ‘a fictive, foreign world seen by others but with the presentiment of strangeness also one of familiarity, that this world is already ours and those creatures ourselves’.

Making sense of this world, as alien being, entails a dual process of attending to specific evidential incidents and attempting to establish their relations. The registrations of this enquiring gaze are, involuntarily, accompanied by associations, a ‘delirium’ of complex thoughts, the ‘casuistry’ of relations bringing into question the very structures which might have offered explanations: the Self, the World and God. Enquiry and the effort to legitimate its outcomes bring more questions and associations which in turn bring not only disappointment at loss of trust in stable reference points, but also a question of the point of replacing one structure with another in order to come to an understanding of the feeling of intimacy that mixes with Hume’s strangely blank account of experience.

Acceptance of the limit of explanation brings a sceptical discretion, especially to diagnoses of relation that engage sequential incidents in observation as casual links. Deleuze characterizes Hume’s logic: ‘causality requires that I go from something that is given to me to the idea of something that has never been given to me, that isn’t even giveable in experience’. Inferences, extrapolations, expectations ‘the principle of habit of fusion of similar cases in the imagination’, such considerations merge into beliefs. Deleuze gives some instances, ‘for example, based on some signs in a book, I believe that Caesar lived’. Beliefs become ungovernable, moving with fluidity, from one though to the next, but in this process of elaboration laws, politics and economics encounter shifting grounds: qualities that might have been considered to be based in specific, verifiable experience assume cosmic and fantastic qualities.

‘Empirical account’ and ‘picturesque view’ are phrases connoting different descriptive traditions in narrating visual impressions at the time of formulation of modern concepts of subjectivity of which Hume’s work forms a part. The first term supposes a human capacity to witness, come what may; a ‘bundle of sensations’ to which the subject brings an immediacy of disinterested response as basis for more regulated judgements. The second term, the ‘picturesque’, implies an image ‘set up’ for the subject’s interested gaze, something already pictured and framed, recognized from an optimum viewpoint. This subject includes in visual judgement a desiring research of a familiar choice, one that fits a pre-conceived form whatever pleasures or terrors it may contain.

Enlightened civil society expected its subjects to act as moral and critical witnesses aware of the potential for illusion in the impression of whatever was seen, taking into account questions of viewpoint, optic capacity, and the imaginative and rational bases which subtend the testing and judgement of appearances of reality. The accountancy of ‘seeing’ and ‘believing’ produces an association of ideas in which the question of ground is crucial. At the same period there is enormous popular interest in idealized or fantastical constructions,, panoramic spectacles of picturesque character, in which disbelief is willingly suspended. The use of lenses for both scientific and phantasmagoric purposes raises in a most immediate way the question of ‘ground’: at once emphasizing factual possibilities of distance and proximity in telescopic and microscopic visual experience, but at the same time providing ever greater scope for projections, of Magic Lantern, Fantascope imagery, that feel paradoxically magical but real.

Painting illustrates the problem of ‘ground’ in a most literal sense because, within its structure, it contains a ground as invisible substrate to the ‘picture’. Within painting the juridical idea of ground as evidential resource takes on a more elusive relation to the illusion of the surface it supports, with the resulting ‘casuistry’ Hume then describes. Caspar David Friedrich provides a concise analysis of this effect in his painting of figures, seen from behind, looking out over fabulous painted illusions of sea, light, ships. We see what the figures see in paint, but they, within their black forms, flattened to the ground, contain small lit optical chambers where the image is not painted illusion but interior sensation (2). Between dark figure and light ground there is an encounter, for the viewer ‘of the painting’, with a scene that has always already been seen, and which plays out ethical differences in witnessing and picturing.

Hume’s understanding of the importance of politics to our resolution of this difference finds echoes in the practice of Amikam Toren, whose paintings often seems to deal discretely with a reflexive relation between the sensible observation of empirical experiment and the ‘picturing’ processes that may result. Toren’s investigatory working processes suggest that he does not feel free in any self-expressive way to commit to painting, but constrained by responsibilities placed on the citizen of civil society to act as moral witness, forming rational judgements in a disinterested manner based impeccably on empirical observations. Although Toren makes the rules of process by which his works are formed, those rules in themselves suggest the science of empiric enquiry: a proposal, an experiment, and a method to record discovery. This deliberated framework in turn suggests that because of the transparency of means, made evident in the work, the result can be offered to the sceptic observer as having already fulfilled certain tests of verification. However, when considering the outcomes factually positioned in Toren’s work, painting itself creates doubts on the level of ‘grounds’.
Torens’s principle suggests that, if the painting is to represent objects, the essence of objecthood may exist literally in underlying substance that bodies forth the apparent surface of the object.

It should then be possible, by investigatory process of reduction, to find the ‘ground’ of the object. The object choices Toren makes for his reductions tend to be carriers of illusion in themselves, as if illusion may also be reduced to essence, for example a newspaper, the canvas used in painting, the glove that takes on the movement of the hand, or a printed cardboard box. These familiar things may be reduced to pulp, suspended in transparent emulsion, and coated onto the blank surface of a series of canvases or ‘grounds’, as if to provide specimens. The painting’s ground would, without recourse to illusion, simply convey to view the essence of the object destroyed in the process of its own investigation.

In these experiments, surfaces, such as varnish, polish, print, glaze and their intimate grounds of wood, leather, paper, porcelain are first combined or pulverized, and then spread out as if for research. Residues become evidence, such as the mask of facial hair, shaved off and collected daily. Labels and dates, certifications and counterparts offer to reason some kind of guarantee, that this was once that, and the transformation in state was not a question of taste but the result of a necessary enquiry – what does this thing look like if its appearance is freed from known patters of association formed in the ‘casuistry of relations’? This research of ‘ground’ could be a philosophical end in itself. Something of Karl Marx’s understanding of the ‘enigmatical character of equivalent form’, rehearsed as dialogue of coat-value to linen-value, could be relevant to the close relation Toren proposes: the relative value, for instance, of a teapot-ground to a painting-ground makes comparative reference to different commodity forms and their associated production values. But, if the result failed to represent, was disappointing, became an abject form, lost its former powers to signify, what enigmatic equivalence could explain or contain the logic of Toren’s experimental terms? (3)

Knowing Toren’s processual approach to picturing, ‘picturesque’ would be an unlikely description of his work. The idea to explore the   on a visit to Anthony Reynolds’ Gallery in Dering Street, I found a small video monitor playing repetitively a clip from John Ford’s film Stage Coach. Behind the monitor was a blank white panel, arranged as if to stage the presence of the monitor, and extend its illusionist screening into the space of the gallery which also contained Narrative Painting Number 2 made of painted letters cut from paintings. Strangely, the richly modelled black and white image on the miniature screen made me think not so much of the Wild West, but of something older, more romantic: Cinderella off to the ball. Perhaps Cinders in her coach was equally desperate, but there were blonde curls to be enjoyed along with flying bullets. There could be no doubt that illusion was important to this work: the doubled image of the inside of the ancient coach (cushioned, erotic) associating with the interior of the modern plastic monitor (brittle, pragmatic); the boxing of the epic film on the small screen re-iterating the Camera Obscura’s boxing of the miniature image of the external world, now reflects on that internal world that Freidrich’s painting refers to. The danger of the gunshot sounds becomes reminiscent of the on/off play of the shutter or the shutter’s finalising effect, its somantic relation to terrors of different kinds of guillotine.

The gallery experience of this set-up was far from cinematic, but cinema remained a point of reference. Cinema is an architecture set-up for projections, offered impersonally, as already ‘pictured’, for any paying spectator to see the film and experience an anticipated mixture of pleasure and fear. It was difficult to relate this work to Toren’s more material researches, most specifically in paintings such as the Of the Times series of 1983 whose distortions of typographic styles would often refer to Modernist research of relations between figure and ground. This video work suggested intrigues about the picturesque which are less concerned with the determination of ‘ground’ but with maintaining an indeterminate screen, a functioning interim surface allowing projections of light and mind to coalesce. Toren’s use of film raised a question: could the methodical relation of image and ground of Toren’s paintings have ‘picturesque’ intention, when ‘picturing’ had appeared to be so critically disturbed within his painterly practice?

The picturesque motif does not foreclose on curiosity by verifying what it purports to represent in any immediate way. The technicalities of verification belong to the artist; the viewer’s needs for verification must have already been supplied (after all, something took place and was filmed by Ford). Instead the picturesque proposes questions: what must it have been like, how did it feel, what could have happened there?

‘Picturesque’ is a term applied to painting and Toren’s testing of the essence of the picturesque quality in the long series known as Armchair Paintings, begins in 1989 and continues to the present day.  In the process of making these works, the picture is not rendered down but cut through as if to compress its space by return to the tension of the primed canvas ground. How much shaved hair, pulped newspaper, liquidised gloves do you need to expose the illusory aspect of ground when there are many examples of grounds whose narratives in supporting images could be exposed? There is reference in some of Toren’s works, for example, Booba one of a series of paintings of 1987, to the ‘Support Surface’ movement. In these paintings cutting the canvas reveals the stretcher and the tension of the cloth symbolising through the juxtaposition of labour and materials an ideological comment on the duplicitous kitschy messages of late capitalism’s spectacular society. But equality of emphasis, on image and cut, in the Armchair Paintings, raise inconsistencies in association which further question whether Toren’s formally modern, minimal or conceptual references really do engage the intentions of those critical historical models?

The answer could be ‘yes’ in the sense that they do echo changing materialist critiques within contemporary practice, but ‘no’ in the sense that their processing allows, through sensuous engagement of labour with material, a less ideal narrative to emerge. In the series of paintings Of the Times Toren directly suggests this unpredictable interpenetration of material and narrative by relating news-print pulp to stories from Times newspapers specified by date. The paintings of the Clouds in Trousers series, take a different approach:  as the painter-worker in the boiler suit makes stains of paint-work on their cloth, it is as though the paint itself effloresces into picturesque motifs in fantastic colours. It could be imagined that Toren wore the boiler suits, which now remain as symptomatic residues of the associations of his own painterly activity; but maybe the Clouds in Trousers more readily belong to the practice of all the unknown painter/workers whose picturesque works Toren has appropriated as ‘material’ in the Armchair Paintings.

This interface, artist and worker, was explored further in 16 Evelyn House, Toren’s 2009 film of workers engaged in converting an ageing block of flats. This film provides a series of shots of building work, overlaid by a fragmented sequence of readings of letters sent to him over a period of some twenty years. The letters too are work, of the original writer, the postal service, the actor who reads them and the technician who records the voice, as represented in the film by images of machines and computer screens. They refer to actual work through bills, contracts, appointments, but also to Toren’s own work. The practical efforts of the artist to create and exchange his work are read with equal emphasis to the letters demanding emotional work, the absence of a son, or lover. The suturing of historic readings and worker-images creates fragmented patterns of associations: resemblance, sequence, cause, and chance. Toren’s lack of direction as to continuities through the permutations of these possibilities constitutes a delirium for the viewer/alien, but one whose dramas and traumas are full of prosaic familiarity.

In the ‘picturesque’ mode finality and displacement are motifs, in themselves sources of narrative. Finishing the work of making the armchair painting allows the displacement of exchange to take place: now including the mysterious story of its previous exchange, how the painting came to be owned by Toren. The work’s completion signals a remove. This  inevitability functions as an imaginary of loss in picturesque elaboration; if Toren departs from the picturesque effect for reasons of ‘ground’, it is in the way he brings finality and concomitant loss into question by replaying exchange through the token use of the Armchair Paintings. The completed labour of the first artist is exemplified in the transactional fact of exchange, how the paintings come to be in Toren’s possession, but Toren re-opens the pictorial finish by actually cutting open their surface to re-engage in precisely the same labour of making a picture to be exchanged.

In a much earlier example of work with canvas ground, Untitled, 1973, the labour of mechanical weaving is ‘unwoven’ by Toren to provide a different ground for speculation (4). In this intervention painting itself is pre-empted, stilled by a craftwork of ‘drawn thread’. The inspiration that might lead paint to be applied to ground is disrupted by a preliminary question of the work of painting and of weaving. The woven canvas is not blank but a surface in which ideas of work become ‘deliriously’ speculative. A similar displacement is played out in Toren’s more recent video work, The Bag of Carrots, where the frustrating stasis of the filmed image creates a tension with the development of the text, not only as a storyline that is failed by the film’s title, but as a radical differentiation between the labour of making the soundtrack and the labour of making the film, given emphasis by any speculative expectation of filmic movement being so radially denied satisfaction in the duration of the projection of the still photograph that is the content of the film.

The inference in much contemporary radical practice, that the revelatory value of such stasis is an unreal or impossible expectation to place upon the artwork, defeats the conjuring trick of what it is to be an artist in Toren’s terms. But ‘conjuring’ has other senses: a desire for something felt as absent to become co-present. The series of ten panels and a chair of 1979-80, Neither a Painting nor a Chair, plays with such absence. The title’s negative formulation suggests a possible alternative equivalence: ‘both’ a painting ‘and’ a chair. It would be impossible to say how this reversal could be explained except to point to another image, a photograph of Toren contorting himself to sit on one of the paintings in the series as if it could support the weight of his co-presence with the flatness of its being. From the look on Toren’s face this could be a sceptical comment on picturing a chair or using a picture. His eyes glare at the viewer through the lenses of his spectacles as if to deny either personal folly or the power of illusion. Yet even if he saw a chair quite clearly, he took the precaution of using a support. But what is that sturdy support: the wanderer’s walking stick, the magic wand, the stick that ritually sounds three times to mark the beginning of theatre/start of play, or a mystic extra chair leg, or… given the multiplicity of real and imagined legs in the picture… something else again?

The play of ‘strange and familiar’ in Deleuze’s account of Hume’s alien gaze suggests the combination of such qualities in Freud’s essay The Uncanny. Freud recounts sensation of an uncanny affect, using Hoffman’s example of the child’s fear of the alien view, as he describes another instance of belief in optical mobility through space as their eyes go to the moon with the Sandman but also remain firmly in their place (5). Toren’s contorted figure poised in illusionistic space, as if on the chair, has, in its prosthetic combination of lenses and stick, something of the Sandman’s conjuring tricks. This image relies on what Deleuze refers to as a ‘strange battle’ in the empiricist world between fiction and nature: ‘If it is true that the principles of association shape the mind, by imposing on it a nature that disciplines the delirium or the fiction of the imagination, conversely the imagination uses these same principles to make it’s fictions or its fantasies acceptable and to give them a warrant they would not have on their own’. Therefore the painting can, if Toren wishes, act as painting and chair, both flat illusion and substantial object that will support his weight. Viewers may want to distinguish between Toren’s legitimate and the illegitimate claim, but Deleuze cautions that in coming to conclusions we are not cursed by error, or falsehood, but by an inability to verify convictions our passions have lead us to believe we legitimately hold.

Toren’s practice plays out the suggestion of empirical methodology enshrined in enlightened institutions of civil society, but the implication of the frailty of that methodology in its association with the picturesque is also a responsible concern. The exchanges of politics and fantasy occurring in processes of verification and the practical ways in which the problems of society are posed within the disciplines of law, politics or economics is difficult – at issue is the question of what could possibly constitute the rule of a more humane society if unreason is included in the formulation of its rules. Deleuze offers suggestions on a Humean basis: that it is understood that civil law is not just a matter of ‘limiting egoisms’ by establishing contractual obligations, but an invention in itself, at once institutionalized but artificial.

If the unpredictable play of passions that emerges from ‘the delirium of associations’ can be dealt with as a matter ‘the complex relation’ between human nature and the objects of its choices, Deleuze proposes that the judicial and cultural needs of members of civil society can be dealt with on the basis of a ‘reflection of the passions’. One that teaches about the sentiments of others: the superficial fluctuations of resemblance, taste, contiguity, casuistry, and the serious ‘calculus’ of desire, possession, power they produce:

‘Does the throw of a javelin against a door ensure the ownership of an abandoned city, or must a finger touch the door in order to establish a sufficient relation? Why, according to civil law, does the ground win out over the surface, but paint over the canvas, whereas paper wins out over writing? The principles of association find their true sense in a casuistry of relations that works out the details of culture and law’.
Gilles Deleuze, Hume.


  1. Deleuze, Gilles: ‘Hume’ in Pure Immanence, Essays on a Life, trans. Anne Boyman, Zone Books, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts and London England, 2001.

  2. Friedrich, Caspar David: For examples of this motif see Woman at the Window (1822) and Moonrise over the Sea (1820-26). On the on/off play of vision and darkness Friedrich writes, around 1830: ‘close your bodily eye, so that you may see your picture first with the spiritual eye. Then bring to the light of day that which you have seen in the darkness so that it may react on others from the outside inside’.

  3. Marx, Karl: ‘The Form of Value or Exchange-Value’ in Capital, Volume 1, ed. Frederick Engels, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1970.

  4. See ‘Craft’ catalogue exhibition at Richard Salmon Gallery 27th September – 8th November 1997 and Kettles Yard, Cambridge 15th November – 4th January 1998 published by Richard Salmon, London, 1997

  5. Freud, Sigmund: ‘The Uncanny’ in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, Volume XVII (1917-1919) Trans. Alix Strachey, Vintage, London 2001.

Joan Key, Turps Banana Painting Magazine, issue 12, 2013

︎︎︎ Appendix