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Painting, Smoking, Eating (Philip Guston)


I am in the Tate Modern, even though I hate the Tate Modern. I am standing here with my feet shoulder width apart on the weirdly warm floorboards and I am in front of Philip Guston’s painting: Painting Smoking Eating.

I am thinking about chewing gum. Chewed and sticky and plastic and wet. Molar imprint on its tiny crescent curl shape. They have that crispy shell, don’t they? Before they’re chewed. I don’t want to know what that’s made of. Sugar crust. Anemic flavour.

I am thinking about mouth linings. The wet inside of your cheek. Gross. Why’s it kinda silvery? You know, where it catches the light. I chew the inside of mine, so it’s always red and bloody and because I’ve bitten it raw, the cheek lining grows back all white and webby. That’s fucking sick. I’m even chewing it now! Disgusting. If I think about mouths too much it makes me feel woozy anyway. Because my mouth is in my mouth all the time. My tongue TOUCHES it. Cells. Mouth lining cells. Accustomed to the moist environment.

I am thinking about sliced ham in supermarket packets. Under white neon lights in the Big Tesco. Terrazzo tile floors, chemical cold, pure brilliant white. Mince and chicken breasts and sausages —- meat stuffed into see through plastic, pressed up and bursting at the limits of itself. I don’t eat meat, so I never see it raw, so this doesn’t have the feeling of food to me. It just feels like stuff. A product, an object, a substance. Walking through the cold meats aisle feels the same as walking through an Apple Store: I am only ever window shopping. Amongst this bizarre stuff that doesn’t mean what it’s meant to mean to me.

I am thinking about strawberry Yazoo milkshake. It’s weird that the Yazoo packaging isn’t see through, don’t you think? It feels unappetisingly secret. I am thinking about those Drumstick lollies. You know, the pink and white ones? What the fuck is that, as a substance? Like, what’s a Starburst made of and how do they make it? On American TV shows, sometimes there’s a passing reference to saltwater taffy. What is taffy? Is it actually salty? It sounds fictional, like Krabby Patties and Soma. What colour is sinew? Floam — fluffy foam slime. I am thinking about how marshmallows should be illegal.

I am thinking about chewing gum. I am thinking about muscle tissue. I am thinking about worms. I am thinking about the Original Source creamy vanilla and raspberry shower gel. I am thinking about Chewits.

The Painter lies in bed. He is smoking a stubby cigarette and he is eating stubby chips. There’s a plate of them, chips like jenga blocks, resting on his chest and these chips have corners. He is completely flat in bed with the covers pulled up to his chin. We see his head side on and it is the shape of a baked bean. He has no nose and no mouth, only one enormous cyclops eye that stares up at the ceiling. He smokes anyway. He dreams awake and with his eyes open. Above him, red lines and murky white pink smudges. The jumbled up shape of a pile of shoes, undersides facing us. Sole and block heel. A can of paint and some brushes.

Apparently Philip Guston had a thing for piles of junk. An intense fascination. He called it crapola. Crapola is just object clutter. It clutters and litters and jumbles its way across his paintings. Piles of shoes, the daydream vision in painting smoking eating. But also objects become strange alien versions of themselves. A book becomes a lozenge slab. A clock is always 4PM ish. An easel is too big for the tiny canvas. A city. A brick wall. A hood. A back of someone’s head. Even the word CRAPOLA, all longed out, cluttered and busy and bizarre. But in this painting, the human body becomes a solid and weird alien object: a head becomes a baked bean with a Cyclops eye. A stranger to itself. Like when you say the word orange over and over — do it too many times and eventually it just becomes a collection of weird sounds that’ve been randomly strung together. It starts to not make sense. It starts to feel new. It starts to make you feel queasy. Apparently Philip Guston once declared he really only loved strangeness. I like to think of him in the studio, taking a break from painting to say orangeorangeorangeorangeorangeorange to himself, getting sweaty thinking about how language is just clusters of weird sounds.

The painting is pink and red and white. There are black outlines and grey smudges. Only the chips are yellow. The painting is PINK. And Philip Guston’s pinks are not that solid, as colours go. They’re flat but they’re also streaky. They’re also so opaque that they must be solid and they must be real. They make me question the world around me. They make me feel genuine love and emotion, but I think the main emotion is queasiness and the love is dizzy. Did he paint wet on wet? Or wet on tacky dry? On gooey dry that’s actually only dry at the surface? What’s the equivalent textural state to parboiled for oil paints? How do you make oil paint look like melted, stretched out, overchewed and anemic chewing gum? Liquid plastic.

Is chewing gum a kind of plastic? (Yes, it is.) Ew. What do cigarettes symbolise in a painting? (Desire fulfillment, dead time.) Satisfaction? (Yeah.) Hmmm… What do dreams about oven chips mean? (No one dreams of oven chips, and if they do it is an omen of death, like chewing on your own teeth.) I once had a dream I was scrolling through a never-ending pdf on my phone. I once had a dream I was rolling cigarette after cigarette and once they were rolled they just disappeared into thin air. (You dream of labour?) All the time! Have you ever heard of bad painting? —-

Bad painting isn’t a coherent or unified art historical movement. It’s more like a category, a label you can slap on when it applies. Back in the 70s artists started making paintings that ran counter to good taste, received wisdoms, conventions and rules. On purpose, of course. Good taste is all powerful, all encompassing, irrefutable. It flattens everything else around it. It denies the possibility of anything outside of itself. It insists on itself and its own supremacy. I think good taste is a kind of fascism. So it’s very cheeky and fun to make something that denies the undeniable. Something that runs against it. Something that resists. Something completely obtuse. Something that’s purposefully clunky or crass or crude or coarse or cack-handed. Something that makes the wrong choice every time it’s presented with a decision. Flipping two fingers at the Establishment of Good Taste(TM), he he he. That is so cheeky! A little raspberry! So cute. So chic.

At a certain point in Philip Guston’s life, something popped. All of his paintings and all of his objects started to feel WEIRD. His objects became Objects, weird artefacts that are alienated and strange and clunky and chunky and not quite themselves. They feel heavy, weighty, meaty, they have mass and they are lumbering. They reoccur through time, like weird symbols, looming. It’s a dream but not in an ominous Surrealist way. The objects are cartoonish, but not really properly cartoons — I think it’s that they cartoon themselves. Like the imagery is being cartooned, it’s a verb because they pick themselves up and transform right in front of you. They’re halfway over by the time Philip Guston fixes them down in paint. Not quite resolved, always a mid-point in the soup of it all. The wrong choice. Medium rare. Anxious? Not really. They’re just cluttery bits, c-r-a-p-o-l-a-! And they float up out of the fog. All wonky. All hamfisted and queasy and charming! Unembarrassed by their own alien vulgarity.

I am alone in the room and I don’t want to touch this painting but my hand is moving with a mind of its own. In slow motion. Like in the Matrix. My fingers are straight and slightly apart. My hand is travelling up towards the painting. It’s trembling. It’s outstretched and I’m just staring at it in horror. I’ll touch it in slo-mo but the alarms will go off in real time and then I will be arrested. They’re going to send me to art jail along with all the Just Stop Oil people — I’m sure they’re lovely but — I’d like to Just Stop My Hand. It’s not listening to the signals from my brain. My hand is sweating, it’s hot, it’s wet, it’s going to make contact. Oh. Oh no. Oh?

I thought this would feel like cake batter. Like expanding foam while it’s still expanding. I thought I’d be floating in a milkshake-thick jelly substance but actually this is snowglobe water. This is like fairy liquid foam, not dense and actually definitely not even solid.

Philip Guston is lying in bed. The covers pulled up to his chin, his big bulbous baked bean head and cyclops eye looking at me side on.

I say, Ey how’s it going Phil, this is weird isn’t it? I gesture around me, stiff and awkward. His boggly eye blinks at me and I swear I hear the blinks squeak like a dog toy, like boinkboink. His cigarette is attached to his face. It glows orange, it casts a black shadow, the grey smoke chugs through the air like a towering worm. I continue. I am yapping to fill space because Phil doesn’t have a mouth, so he can’t speak.

Yeah the painting is really pink. It’s funny. I actually have a theory about colours. Some colours are wet and some colours are dry. Maybe it’s a categorisation system or a Venn diagram for some synesthetic quirk that only makes sense to me. Cyan blue is wet and gloopy, a syrupy thick viscous wetness. Salmon pink is dry, specifically powdery and matte. Forest green is velvet matte — which is a different kind of dry to powdery matte. Pale mint green is wet and watery. All reds are wet and glossy, but orange is dusty and dry. I’m aware this is a descriptive system that’s completely made up — but aren’t they all? Colour is so unverifiable. You know, there’s no way to tell that the colour I think is pink is the same colour that you call pink. We could be seeing completely different colours, we’d have no way of knowing, we just have the shared word: PINK. So somewhere in this Wild Wild Subjective West, there’s probably an element of truth to this made-up-stuff. Colours might not mean anything directly, but they definitely evoke things and they definitely invoke shared common responses. And if you accept my theory about dry and wet colours, you’ll be ready to agree that dry/wet are actually two ends of a sliding scale. There’s a middle ground. There’s colour LIMBO. Parboiled! Your colours— Phil mate, your colours are parboiled. Chewing gum and muscle tissue. I don’t know how you do it. I don’t know if you know you’re doing it. I suppose you wouldn’t tell me either way.

But Phil, I can think of two scenarios here. Scenario one. The painter freezes in the squalor of his garret. Surrounded by shit and crud and like, fucking rubbish. The starving artist — he just paints and sleeps and eats and shits. Bare routine. Bare life. Bare lightbulb above him, blinking. Scenario two. The painter is possessed, obsessed. He dreams only of painting! Of images! To live an artistic life is to be suspended in limbo, parboiled but happily because the only thing that’s real to you is the work! The thing you’ve made with your own two hands! Unalienated labour! I don’t know about you Phil, but I think that’s a kind of salvation. I dream of it too. We live under a system, in a society et cetera et cetera. Smoking is dead time! I’m so glad to be here in this painting with you because it’s luxurious and beautiful in a very particular way. Painting smoking and eating — the only things that could ever bring satisfaction.