For the exhibition Kenneth Dingwall: Paintings, Drawings and Constructions.
The Scottish Arts Council Gallery, Edinburgh.
Published by the Scottish Arts Council, 1977.
To be faced with a series of paintings mostly in monochrome, containing no recognisable images, does not immediately seem to be a life-enhancing experience. It would be too easy to walk quickly past, skim the surface with the eye and depart unsatisfied and maybe angry.
But these paintings repay careful looking. It is perhaps best to start with the drawings. The process that is to a large extent hidden, the process of their making, their life in the artist’s studio, their interaction with his life, can be seen more easily in the drawings where layer after layer of graphite from countless pencil strokes can be discerned without difficulty. In the paintings the building up of layers of paint is not so immediately apparent.
Neither the paintings nor the drawings are easy. They require an attention that can too easily wander off the surface of the canvas in search of something which isn’t there. In the drawings, the density, the layers of marks and the meanings the marks may suggest, are more easily perceived as duration. Duration is important. The paintings give little at first. Meanings seep out of them slowly.
The layers of paint are like thicknesses of skin built up at the points where the body chafes against life. At those places the body is most sensitive under its layers of skin. Walk on sharp pebbles without shoes.
The skin of the paintings is lived in. But it has a slight surface of stiffness. It has its formality. But the paintings as such are not formal. The skin of paint is a metaphor and not merely a surface which stops the eye.
Dingwall’s works are painted in a limited range of colours: blue, red, black and grey. Grey predominates. But it is not a neutral grey. It is wrinkled and alive, like the North Sea seen from the window of an aeroplane.
Grey is what you get if you mix all the colours of the spectrum together. Most contemporary painters who use grey a good deal give no sense of this. Grey for them is an avoidance of colour.
Dingwall’s grey contains and concentrates other colours. Many of his paintings consist of layers of red or blue which have been overpainted with grey so that the undercolour only occasionally shows through. Other paintings are not underpainted, but one could mistakenly believe they had been.
The grey in Dingwall’s paintings seems to be made from the blue and red he also uses. Mixed together those two colours make violet or mauve. This colour is not used, but one is constantly aware of it, as a kind of aura around the pictures.
Very loosely, and this is a gross simplification which may however be useful, red suggests the emotion of pain, blue of optimism. The emotional associations of colour are a complex problem, but these particular identifications, although clearly personal, also correspond to a certain extent with the conventional mythologies of colour theory.
Very often the skin of grey is a covering up. Both literally and in the sense that we ‘cover up’ emotions, hide our feelings, whether they are pain or joy or tender emotion towards another person.
Dingwall refers to his work as ‘literary.’ It does not look like that at first sight. But as soon as one realises that the process of making the pictures is one of constant layering, covering up, revealing chinks, one begins to see the relevance.
The preserving of a ‘face’ of grey, the covering, the control, the reticence, all suggest emotion, not suppressed, but held in check. Before his painting became entirely abstract Dingwall did a series of paintings in which the objects and events of the day were added up on the canvas like an inventory of the minutiae of life: children’s toys, everyday activities – washing, going to the lavatory, eating and so on.
One hesitates to bring in the private details of an artist’s life unless they are strictly relevant to the work. But Dingwall has hinted in conversation that the change in his work may have some connection with the changes in his own life. In that sense one can see them in the same way one can see a writer’s poems or a novel which contain an autobiographical element, which try to contain or make sense of private emotion.
In this way it is perhaps not reading too much into these, on the surface, very minimal and reticent paintings, to see in them the metaphors of absence, aloneness, self-sufficiency, dependence, coming-to-terms-with, hiding, putting on a face, revealing, concealing, suppressed violence, careful control, tension, relaxation, resolution. . .
The reiteration of the mark, the act of painting and drawing are of enormous importance. But not as gestures. Gestural painting is like acting on the stage. This act of painting is more like film-acting, where a twitch of the mouth, a drop of the eyelid can be imbued with significance. Dingwall has never had any interest in printmaking or reproductive process. There could not be in a print that tension between act and work, except perhaps in an etching, the only print medium he feels attracted to.
Dingwall’s drawings are made by constant reiteration of pencil marks, building up, cancelling, obliterating until obliteration itself builds up into something palpable, fat rather than lean. The actual process of working on a drawing – often done late at night – can be boring for long stretches, relaxing perhaps but boring – until suddenly a tension enters. The process of painting, long and laborious, must often be boring too. Originally Dingwall spent much time painting in what was later covered up. That process was important for him, like a writer doing all the research for a book, although he may not use a lot of it in the final manuscript. Now he often allows himself a few short cuts here. To have gone on painting in everything that was to be eventually covered up would, he feels, have been a quick road to insanity . . .
Although the physical process of producing these paintings and drawings is often boring, tedious, repetitious for the artist, they are not boring for the spectator who takes the trouble to look carefully at them and read them right. Here again it is like writing. Most painters throughout history have testified to some considerable enjoyment in the physical act of painting or drawing – even if that is mixed with a good deal of mental agony and frustration too. You will not, I think, find a single writer who enjoys the physical process of writing, whether longhand or at the typewriter. The act of writing is unhealthy, monotonous and often profoundly depressing. Writing is conceptual rather than physical.
Reading is, superficially, a linear activity but the images in writing build up cumulatively in the mind, each one overlaying what has gone before. Meaning also emerges cumulatively in the overlapping areas of images, becoming denser as we read on, each image modifying the earlier ones. (The process is more obvious in poetry than prose; but it is at least partially true of prose too.) To read one of Dingwall’s paintings you have to penetrate its layers. It is like typing over again and again on the same piece of paper; the final result seems impenetrable, but by looking hard one can rescue some of the meaning from the first of marks. Gide’s ‘Do not understand me too quickly’ has perhaps been quoted too often in reference to painting to be a great deal of use here. It suggests superficiality masking as profundity (the mark of most of Gide’s own literary work). But this is not the case with Dingwall’s paintings and drawings which depends not on obscurity, but reticence.
In discussing his own paintings Dingwall makes reference to houses found in England too, but perhaps more in Scotland now, where the window is hidden by the front garden, layers of muslin lie behind the window, then a protective forest of potted plants, behind this the front room, carefully cleaned but rarely used and then at the back the kitchen where life is lived. You have to penetrate through layers of defence which protect the inner life of the house and its inhabitants. Then there are people who place dressing tables with huge mirrors right against the window blocking it. To penetrate such defences needs time. So do Dingwall’s paintings. But they are worth that effort.
Dingwall is an isolated figure in contemporary Scottish painting. He has not worked in London, nor made close connections with current traditions of English painting which he feels have little relevance and are just badly digested American paintings. Dingwall has bypassed London and established direct links with the U.S.A. where he spent a year teaching and working. The aspects of American culture he responds to are those which embody and expand some of the best elements of European culture, particularly the Jewish intellectual tradition and the socialism, which lay behind the Wobbly movements of the left-wing refugees who arrived from Europe during the 19th century. This is a much more positive and thoughtful attitude towards American culture than the naïve enthusiasm of many British painters of the ‘60’s generation who either looked to the most superficial aspect of American commodity culture or absorbed unthinkingly the formal characteristics of recent American abstract painting.
Most of the paintings and drawings in the exhibition date from the time when Dingwall was in the U.S.A. or after. America did not change his work, but rather confirmed it in a direction which had already been decided upon and worked towards. The experience of American painting through the little that has been shown in Britain and through reproduction was no doubt important at an earlier stage. Recent American literature – contemporary American novels and poetry – perhaps played an almost equal part in Dingwall’s discovery of himself through what others had done before. Reading, the imaginative experience of literature, has always been important for him, more I would think than for most painters. But unlike many artists who read widely, it does not emerge jackdaw-fashion in his work, but is subsumed into the painting’s inner life.
Painting has become more personal. It can no longer be heroic or epic. The visual arts have fractured, as writing did much earlier, into many component parts: poetry, novel, drama, journalism, non-fiction and so on. We can perhaps see the fragmentation of the visual arts in the last two decades as a similar process which is unlikely to be reversed. The nearest analogy to painting would be, I think, poetry. It will not have a wide audience. But it will have a density of meaning, a seriousness, an allusiveness, (and also an illusiveness) which the best contemporary poetry has. It is in that kind of context that Ken Dingwall’s paintings ought to be seen and appreciated for what they are.