THE NEW FIGURATIVE PAINTING
AN ESSAY ON METANOETIC ART
by Jan Esmann. © Jan Esmann 1996,
Metanous means beyond the mind.
Metanoesis means to go beyond the mind.
Beyond the mind is the field of mysticism proper.
No figuration, actually no art, can go beyond the mind but it can undercut the
selfreferential cognitive faculties of the mind that keep our awareness trapped
in the mind like air in a baloon.
The paradox of nonnarrative figuration can stop the mind.
The painters brush can work as a needle.
The New Figuration is metanoetic
To understand the new figurative
trend in painting, one has to understand the concept of metanous thoroughly. In
this context it might seem appropriate to dicuss the meaning of metanous and
metanoetic in the light of late modernist developments in art.
The end of modernism
Art after Rothko found itself in a situation of perpetual plagiarism with no
other escape but to abstract itself out of its own object. The work of art
emptied itself of its own raison d'etre: art. Several courses developed and
florished: the work of art with art abstracted out of it, went through pop-art
and has has after 20 years found its utmost expression in kitsch-ism. On the
other hand art as an idea, that is: abstracted out of the object, went through
conceptual art and installations and gradually turned in on its own source in
bodyart in a display of the fragile source of both art as idea and art as
object. Both are completely noetic, indeed glorify nous, but a selfreferential
and thus self-mirroring, not a non-selfreferential and thus free, nous.
Many still talk about abstract art
as modern and forget that modernism is very unmodern, actually close to 100
years old: a very high age for a painting style. No wonder this senile
selfreproducing corpus today is mostly kept alive for the sake of prestige and
is usually found on the walls of banks as a proof of their credibility: The
banks and furniture shops say, by decorating their walls with abstract
paintings: "Look how reliable we are: the traditions we are founded upon
are very old, very established and timehonoured: we have great symbols of this
on our walls, look: abstract art!" These same people often denigrade
figurative art as unmodern but in that statement stumble over their own
ignorance: they criticise it for being unmodern, thus intending to say it is
old fashioned, but actually the figurative art of today is not modern in that
it supercedes modernism.
Nor is it just another postmodernist scramble of pick-as-you-please and
say-whatever. Postmodernism is not a new beginning, only the aftermath of
modernism. The New Figuration is post-postmodern because it strives to realize
an entirely non-modernist and non-postmodernist paradigm: that of metanoesis.
The postmodern aspect of Metanoetic Figuration
Metanoetic Figuration respects
tradition and has its feet firmly planted in the now outdated postmodernism -
it integrates styles and manners of painting, that were developed and refined in
the centuries preceding modernism (not caring if they are Venetian mannerism,
Dutch baroque, or French classicism - what ever). Thus Metatoetic Figuration
has its feet firmly planted in tradition too, but (admitedly) in the postmodern
way of direspecting the idea of history as a linear progression. However, our
disrespect for linearity does not spring from a postmodernist ideology, but
from mysticism: the realization that transcendental beingness has more validity
as a state from wich art can spring, than a causal relationship between
inspiration and expression - however chaotic that causality may be.
In our metanoetic view, history is neither linear nor non-linear: it is simply
a conglomerate of events that happen, the moment simply is and so is the succession
of moments called history. Later momentary events are comprehended as a
narrative, but this narrativizing is only a projection of temporality on to
atemporal moments by ordering them in a teleological succession. Thus history
is a postulate and can never be anything else.
We are tired of postulates, thus we are tired of nous. Nous can never
comprehend anything but its own ordering of things, and it fools itself by
calling its narrativizing "understanding" og "cognizing".
Nous is nothing but a construct, and its comprehension nothing but projection.
Alas: we can scarecely live without it, but we should indeed understand the
fact, that there is a possible life beyond nous, and understand that a life
lived only in nous, the noetic life, is indeed less that a half life. Thus our
new paradigm is metanoesis.
We don't call it mysticism, for tha notion of mysticism is, today, a cliché and
thus also a noeotic construct: religions attemt to grasp metanous.
Unfortunately with such a poor translation of the term "metanoueite"
as "repent". Metanoueite actually means to go beyong the mind; thats
what we are trying to do.
Such an attempt, when transposed to a work of art, is of course doomed to fail,
and as history shows: mysticism has failed gravely exept for the few in which
it spontaneaously happened - like St. Symeon, Meister Eckhart or Richard Rolle.
So history happens just as the moments of which it is made up simply happen. It
is like a man (to illustrate the point with a motif some of us happen to paint)
may wrap himself up in a sheet and roll about on the floor. He isn't doing
anything particular, for his actions have no purpose (just like history has no
purpose since it is constructed of moments of timelessness). The man is there
in time and space (just as history is) but in the moment there is no time nor
space, there is just being; secondarily being is wrapped in doing. And, please
note: this doing, in wich being is wrapped, is bound in time and space and thus
IS history. We are not against history, we only profess to explain that history
can never go beyond nous - and this we must point out in order to explain our
metanoetic approach to arthistory and the tradition we want to continue in our
doing (our art) yet ignore utterly in our being.
So to point towards the timeless spaceless being in time and space we paint
seemingly mimetic pictures of doing devoid of story.
Paradox has always been the language of mysticsm - obviously since language is
a noetic construct and a projection of meaning onto the world, talking about
metanoesis must deconstruct the projected meaning inherent in the language in
order to just faintly convey the idea of metanoesis.
We dont profess to solve this paradox of time as a seccession of no-time and
being as a spaceless precesence, but we insist on an art that employs it in
order to help the viewer transcend it. Thus we have come to the conclusion,
that metanoesis can best be developed in figurative art at this point in the
history of western art since western culture, and its aesthetics, are totally
preoccupied with nous.
Beyond The Transcendentalist Fallacy
Metanoetic Figuration has its feet
firmly planted in modernism since it thinks the work of art should be an
aesthetically integrated, coloristical and compositional self-contained unit.
However we are not as naive as the early modernists as to think the work of art
can exist as art if its devoid of any social context. Thus we don't fall into
what we like to call the "transcendentalist fallacy" of Malevitch,
Kandinsky, Mondrian and the rest of the early modernist cum theosophical
artists. This fallacy made them believe that the only context real art was
placed in was a metafysical context of spiritual energies wich their art
somehow had to chanel into this word of ours, that art really isn't part of.
Thus in trying to create a pure art, they actually seperated the work of art
from art as such, thus reducing the work of art to a medium for occult
inspirations or "ressonance" (to quote Kandinsky). This nonsense we
denounce. The work of art is here and thats that: there is no such matter as
art, since art is a nouetic construct and nous only exist because of ots
selfreferential upholding of its own ego, its own notions of true and false,
etc. So art does not exist, there is only a more or less competent work of art.
Competent in the sense that it can be more or less selfcontained
coloristically, compositionally, etc.
Also we dont think external contributions are needed to comprehend our art,
since comprehension is a noetic function its a projection and contrary to our
project of shortcucuiting cognition and transcending nous.
Thus an uncanny incomprehensibility is part of a proper appreciation af a
metanoetic work of art - figurative or nonfigurative.
Old figuration had comprehensibility as an ideal; thats one of the reasons it
can be so easily grasped, and brushed away, as mimetic. New figuration does not
have mimesis as a goal. It more likely has mythos as a partial goal and in
order to evoke mythos employs mimesis. In order to go beyond nous, the mind,
metanoetic figuration employs illusionistic representation to trick the mind to
believe that appreciating the picture is a matter of comprehending a narrative,
but at the same time the metanoetic figuration deconstructs comprehensibility
by hinting at either mutually incompatible narrations or simply not hinting at
any narrative at all: there is only depicted action devoid of any obvious
narrative or allegorical meaning.
Post-postmodernist painting must be figurative. It must continue tradition. Not
in the narrow-viewed late modernist sense that tradition only reaches a few
generations back and that art was first invented in 1912. It continues it in
the sense that art is nonmanifest and transcends the work of art, thus any form
of art can be a suitable vehicle, and since metanoesis is timeless and
spaceless, it is present in all cultures and times. Thus tradition must be
tangible in metanoetic art, yet by denying narrative (narrative needs
chronology) metanoetic art also deconstructs the tradition it integrates in
itself. This paradox can only be fully realized in figurative art.
Metanoetic Figuration, however, can not fall into the intellectually conceited
simplemindedness of concept art, nor the aestetically confused roomdecorations
of installation art. The reason for this is simple: we are trying to express
metanous: that which transcends concepts. Thus concept art is the epitome of
what we want to transcend. It also transcends installation art since metanous,
obviously, transcends time and space: the very media of the installation.
Metanoetic art must for these reasons, as i shall soon elaborate further, be
figurative, but figurative in a way, and for reasons, that figurative art has
never been before.
If Metanoetic Figuration is an -ism, it is antiismism, thus it seems to be of
paradoxical nature, though in reality (or rather ideally, since also in our art
movement bad works are created) it searches for a state beyond paradoxes, even
as it searched beyond aestetics, concepts and narrative.
A new, post-postmodern, figuration must be anti-narrative and anti-discursive.
In short: metanoetic.
This frase, metanoetic, is biblical. Jesus K., preceder of all the Pauline
cults, insisted on metanoesis by imploring: "metanoeite!" and the
reason? because there, beyond nous, "the kingdom of heaven is at
hand" (Math. 4:17. "Repent" is a dubious translation af the
greek "metanoeite"). In its deepest, mystical sense, Jesus K.'s
insistence on meta-nous means that the kingdom of heaven is at hand beyond
(meta) the mind and its cognitive faculties (nous).
Metanoetic figuration can never be identified, or categorised, with figurative
painting before modernism, since pre-modernist (and even modernist) figuration
allways served as illustration and thereby served narrativity; both, obviously,
are noetic and a waste of time.
Non-narrative figuration appears mimetic, of course, but only on a superficial
level. In reality it does not mime f.eks. a body entangled in a sheet anymore
than the black color in a picture by Ad Reinhardt mimics a piece of black
cloth. A mimetically well painted foot in a metanoetic painting is nothing but
a mimetically well painted foot, it does not carry a story that the picture, or
the foots part in the picture, may seem to imply. It implies a story simply by
being mimetic, but there is no story provided, nothing we want to tell. There
is no story, no meaning, no allegory; only metanous. If you think metanous is
the meaning, you have misunderstood the point. Please read "The Cloud of
Unknowing" - a medieval english mystical prosework by an unknown mystic;
it will, hopefully, make this point clearer - i have no space for more now.
Please note that by saying a well
painted foot is nothing but a well painted foot, i am not propagating some
aesteticism of pure craftsmanship - on the contrary: the point is:
craftsmanship is nothing in itself. Actually nothing is nothing in itself,
including art. If the picture depicts a foot, thats all there is to it. There
is no "See how good a painter I am" (no art as egotrip), "see
how this foot represents this or that story" (no realism, no surrealism),
neither is there any "see how its like to be in my mind" (no
confessionalism) and none of all the usual hype artists or arthistorians
project onto art - justifiably, since thats what art has been about; but not
any more; that's the whole point of metanoetic art.
There is only the moment of looking at the picture, and any moment is
incomprehensible to nous, nous only comprehends its own projections as
deconstruction has so painfully proven. We insist, with the mystics, that the
only true comprehension of the moment is metanoetic. Since looking at a piece
of art is an activity anchored in the moment of spectation, we find we must try
to use that moments momentariness to point awareness beyond nous and towards
Now some contemporary figurative painters may think they are metanoetic
painters because they paint ridiculous or magical scenes. But by doing so, they
are only ridiculous painters or at the best magic realists (and magic realism
has many fine qualities, however it only borders on metanoesis).
Surrealism is not metanoetic, it is subnoetic: the exact opposite of what we
are trying to achieve.
To reach metanous, you have to have an extremely clear nous. A sufficient
clarity of nous can only be reached by employing the noetic practices of
mysticism, like the traditional christian approach of infused contemplation or
by the traditional hindu approach of awakening kundalini (probably they are the
same, as Gopi Krishna has argued from his own experiences).
Metanous is not a state that is generated since it is before noetic generation,
it can only be discovered. But to discover it one needs a clear nous (mind you:
not an untroubled heart, as the new age spokesmen imagine). You can't search
for metanoesis, only discover it - in that sense Picasso was probably one of
the first to stumble over the metanoetic quality of art: he claimed he never
searched, only discovered. Sadly he didn't realize the metanoetic truth of that
statement blinded as he apparently was by modernism's infatuation with
Beyond The Reductionist Fallacy
Art can help the discovery of metanoesis. Rothko tried and almost succeeded
with his late maroon non-pictures. They are very metanoetic. He and Ad
Reinhardt transformed abstraction to metanoetic art, however they failed in
that they never transcended the concept of metanoesis, end thus never really
got beyond nous. Now we are showing that figurative art can, with greater success,
be metanoetic. Figuration can integrate the nescessary paradox. Rothko and
Reinhardt never understood that; they talked about this paradox a lot in most
paradoxical terms, but their works of art are so anti-paradoxical, its amazing
they couldent see this incongruity between what they thought they did and what
they actually did. We call this error of reducing art beyond paradox the
"reductionist fallacy". Mind you: its not a paradox that minimalist
works of art are generally huge, because the two, size and complexity, are not
mutually excluding. Actually: the reduced means of expression need large works
for the minimal means to become apparent; theres no paradox there.
Our rationale is that by employing
a mimetic imagery, but depriving the work of art of narrativity or allegory,
then nous, our conceptual cognitive mind, will either run on endlessly in its
search for meaning, or it will stop and just look. In this perceptive stop one
will have a chance to realize the time and spaceless metanous that is always
present, but hidden under the noetic interpretations of the moments actions.
When the picture has a high intensity of implied meaning, but no actual meaning
is present or to be found, then the only options are to either reject the
picture as meaningless or to sense the metanoetic.
If you think metanoesis is the pictures meaning, you are projecting a meaning
into the picture, which is a noetic function and a misunderstanding of the
whole matter. Again: please study mysticism for further elaboration of the validity
of non-conceptual awareness-knowledge of being. Try a modern Indian this time
instead of a medieval brit.: Nisargadatta Maharaj's book: "I Am
One might (naively) think that abstract metanoetic pictures express the
metanoetic better than figurative metanoetic pictures, but not so: the error is
that they try to express the unexpresible, wich of cause can not be done since
the very expression negates the unexpressible. Because of that, Rothko and
Reinhardt never succeeded in anything but reducing the paradox of expressing
the unexpresible to a pictorial style that negated any paradoxes what so ever
in a pre-minimalist style and in the spectator only created a trancelike state
of mind (nous) in wich (at the best) associations to the transcendental would
pop up either spontaneously or because the spectator was lucky enough to have
read the same books on zen-buddhism as Ad Reinhardt had. Trying to express
metenoesis can only fail. So making an aestetics out of expressing it is rather
We can only conclude that metanoetic painting must be figurative. This is
underlined by the very fact that metanoetic being is not transcendental, but
in, not of or beyond, time and space. You dont have to transcend anything to
reach metanous: its here, now, not there or beyond. It needs no negation (as
Rothko and Reinhardt thought; Reinhardt negated color and composition, Rothko
negated pictures), it only has to direct the mind to metanous and at the same
time show the insufficiency of noetic understanding of concrete reality. In
order to show this, we paint figuratively but devoid figuration of meaning,
thus the mind has to look in the empty space between objects, and there it will
only find silence. Silence permeates noise, therefore the scenes we depict are
often noisy, mentally or emotionally, but the silence must, MUST, always be
present (otherwise its not a metanoetic work of art), so the mind shifts from
the noise (the pictures meaningless meaning) to the silence.
When resting in the silence, the noise and the figurative "story"
becomes uncanny (as i stated earlier, this uncanniness is a nescessary
ingredient of metanoetic painting), and if one can solve this paradox, then
one, as spectator, can have a peek at metanous. That peek is the sole object of
metanoetic painting, its "raison d'etre" all though it does not need
any reason since it simply is.
Or goal is neither meaning, nor no-meaning, nor meaningslessness. It is
metanoesis. To this end we use figurative painting. Rothko and Reinhardt tried
with abstraction, but only succeeded to convince the initiate few (mind you:
their aesthetics convinced a lot, but few saw beyond the revolution they caused
in arthistory and the history of aesthetics and saw that their real goal was
not to make pictures, but to point at metanous).
Everyone can relate to mimesis and
everyone will try to order mimesis into a story, myth or allegory. So by
frustrating the mimesis by frustrating the noetic operations of narrativising,
mythifying or allegorising, then we hope to stop the mind and thus point the
spectators attention to the spectators metanoetic state of being. This is the
first step. Second step is to make the spectator aware of silence permeating
emotional or mental (noetic) noise. This silence contains a unity of no-drama
and no-no-drama in that it is present in, yet not dependent on, lifes
Wether the spectator experiences metanoesis or not is entirely beyond a
pictures ability to guarantee or an artist to warrant, but by being
anti-noetic, the picture can hope to block the selfreferential cognitive
operations of the mind, nous, and by thus cutting through that
selfreferentiality prepare the way to at least a sense of metanous. By
integrating the non-noetic (silence permeating existetial noise) it might
perhaps even give the spectator an experience of metanous.
Anyway: we have a foundation for a movement in art that might prove worthwhile
to explore deeper since it transcends both modernism and postmodernism and
borders on mysticism. By denying the mimetic quality any meaning (in the
traditional sense that figurative pictures have had meaning), our pictures will
at the least prove to renew figurative painting; a step worthwile in itself.
Copenhagen, January 1998
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