THE NEW FIGURATIVE PAINTING
AN ESSAY ON METANOETIC ART

by Jan Esmann. © Jan Esmann 1996,

Metanoetic figuration

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 metanous.
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 experimentalistic aestheticism.

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 That".

Beyond Mimesis

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 silly.
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 situations.
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.



Jan Esmann. Copenhagen, January 1998

Jan Esmann Website

Copyright 1998, Jan Esmann. All text and images on this site are protected by Danish, U.S. and international copyright laws. Unauthorized use is prohibited.

20th Century Art History | Forums | Art Words Definitions | Photo Ezine | Art News | Previous Page