My mind was at the tip of my pen, acting before I could think... my pencil slipped across the paper, like a boy sledding in the snow.
Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories and the City
The experience of an artwork’s creation can probably be known only to its artist, but by all accounts it is a trip. "The object of painting a picture is not to make a picture—however unreasonable that may sound...The object, which is back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being, a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence," wrote American artist Robert Henri in his 1923 book, The Art Spirit.
This elusive moment seems broadly relatable to what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identifies as a "flow state," or, "a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter." People who have experienced flow often remark on a transformation of their sense of time, becoming subsumed by the present moment. This is so innately enjoyable that the purpose of the original activity is often forgotten. Csikszentmihalyi writes that people will continue whatever they are doing in a flow state "even at a great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it." Believed to be remarkably productive (which seems slightly beside the point), positive psychologists make a great deal of this flow state, and how best to unlock it.
The making of marks, including drawing, can offer a point of departure into a state of flow. Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, a seminal text for anyone embarking on the craft, is arguably devoted to helping students tap into a similar space of consciousness. Edwards compares this process to demonstrating how to ride a bicycle - "very difficult to explain in words." Drawing, one of the first skills acquired, or intuited, in art making, is so fundamental to the practice of art that many artists never forget or relinquish it, continually returning to it even after years of working in other forms. Drawing may also be one way for an artist to reassess a primordial desire to make art. As instinctive as when a child makes lines with their finger in window condensation, or wet sand, to draw in the purest sense is to interact with materials for the simple merit - even delight - of doing so. Incidentally, the ‘inherent satisfaction of experiencing materials’ could be a fancier way of saying ‘being’, a state we spend our entire lives in without quite precisely ever knowing how. (Or we may pay yoga teachers to instruct us how).
Part of the appeal of drawing lies in its immediacy. Joseph Nerney has drawn these works in oil pastel, a medium renowned for its quick, available application, highly suited to drawing. The vivid, unblended colours give the impression the artist was eager to engage with the process of making without delay. David Hockney, whom Nerney directly references in the work Redrawing Untitled 516, once noted: "Drawing takes time. A line has time in it.” The background in several pieces (Fries in a Field and Still Life in a Radius Window) consists of one long, looping continuous line, conceivably made without lifting a hand or eye from the page. It is possible to think of these lines as an extended, drawn-out instant, in which the artist was utterly absorbed. Nerney’s drawings summon the viewer toward the engrossing moment of their creation. Adding to this, one quality of oil pastels is that they never fully dry, a quality that leaves the marks they make hovering in perpetuity. The ‘instant’ of mark making operates in a specious present, an eternal-now that seems to touch on that of the state of flow.
This temporality risks being altered when applied to the still life, a genre that carries with it an accumulated weight of artistic tradition and a sense of the past. A pervasive format, the still life is one of the first approaches taught to art students in the process of, as Betsy Edwards might say ‘learning how to see’, a skill she holds as intimately entwined with that of drawing. It is rare to meet someone who has formally studied art, in any novice or professional capacity, who has not attempted a still life. Repeated and reiterated so many times, the still life could be considered less of a genre of art and more like something of a mantra, a ubiquitous phrase an artist might utter to call up a different state of being.
However, as a study of commonplace objects that elevates them to new importance and consideration, it becomes all too easy to look into a still life rather than at one. Little is required for a still life - a broken branch and a takeaway wrapper can more than suffice - and every object brings with it attendant references, allusions, and therefore possible distractions. A picture of a single apple is a temptation for a symbologist, much as an image of a container of fries could send one straight through the door of a nearby McDonald’s, if one were so hungry enough. Sustaining the act of looking at art, rather than thinking about it, can be as challenging as remaining in a space of meditation.
In his still lifes, Nerney’s objects are less than solid, and he positions them close to the surface of the picture plane, effectively reminding us we are looking at a drawing. Fruits are scattered across a flat tablescape in Untitled (Smoothie), and the grapes and lemon are curiously detached from their bowl in Still Life in a Radius Window. In Spilt Chips, the chips float in an ethereal realm - are they spilling or in an eternal state of being spilt? Space in these images calls yet more attention to time - the works ask us to stay, as best we can, in the present.
When we look at an artwork, we cannot know whether the artist experienced a state of flow during its making, but can we experience one during its viewing? Robert Henri wrote that all artwork is a mere remnant of the artist’s ecstasy in its creation: "[The picture] is but a by-product of the state, a trace, the footprint of the state." Nerney’s works, suspended in their lingering moment, may constitute something closer to a postcard from the present, or even a ticket to it.
P. HOWELLS is a content writer and editor, most days.