“I have always tried to realize visual and emotional energies simultaneously from the medium. My paintings are, of course, concerned with generating visual sensations, but certainly not to the exclusion of emotions. One of my aims is that these two responses shall be experienced as one and the same.” — Bridget Riley, Statement ca. 1968
The sides of the paintings are commonly seen as trivial and frivolous. Painting them could be considered unsophisticated; they simply are not an important part of the work. Sides are usually covered with a frame or left bare, with the remnants of the artist’s process still visible. Some artists cover them with neutral colors or incorporate them as a decorative addition to the painting. The trouble lies in the fact that they are always undeniably a part of the painting as an object, but somehow, they are also another dimension separate from the surface. Long before I started to paint the sides of my paintings, I was fascinated by the ineffective attempts to ignore them. I was curious about the discomfort they seem to create because of their unresolved position.
Over the years I realized how hard it is to have discourse around the sides of the painting. Michael Fried’s famous essay “Art and Objecthood” (1967) touches upon the subject but even then, the reader has to look hard to find answers when considering the relationship between the surface and the sides of the painting. Other than making complex arguments of the challenging relationship between the modernist art and what he calls literalist art (Minimalism), objecthood and theatricality, Fried still leaves us hanging. He gives us very few examples of what it all means literally in the world of physical objects and especially how the painting as a whole comes together; with the sides and all. Fried suggests that if painting becomes too much of an object, then it may also emerge as a hollow vessel of theatricality: antithetical to art. But, without acknowledging the sides, panting is only a flat, 2D surface. That is a repudiation of its innate nature because painting is inescapably an object existing in the 3D world. I pondered, was there a way to make a painting more powerful if I incorporated the sides to the whole; would that make any difference, and what would that look like?
While in graduate school I had a studio visit with artist, writer, and curator Michelle Grabner. At the time I had started to paint the sides of my paintings with monochrome colors, trying to counteract and create tension in relation to the surface. Before my visit with Grabner, I had had an epiphany at the Art Institute of Chicago while encountering the paintings De la nada vida a la nada muerte (1965) by Frank Stella and Red Yellow Blue White and Black II (1953) by Ellsworth Kelly. I had considered them previously just examples of masculine behemoths of 20th-century art and found them boring. However, closer examination of the sides of the Stella painting divulged how the panting is constructed using staples. The canvas is unevenly stretched, revealing the stretcher bars. Kelly’s painting, on the other hand, is elevated from the wall with two-by-fours that are attached crudely to the back. Looking at both of these works, and especially the sides, quite miraculously changed my experience of the pieces overall! Once I became aware of the dichotomy between the very rigid, unemotional, almost detached quality of the surfaces and the expressive, humanly quality of the sides, the paintings gained surprising energy. What I love especially is the strain between personal and impersonal. Without the tension, or energy, Stella and Kelly’s paintings would have left me apathetic.
When I was back in my studio speaking with Grabner, she suggested that the surface and the sides are actually two paintings. That, to me, echoed some of the ideas of Josef Albers, among others, of how tangible differences between individual paintings influence and change each other. I hadn’t made that connection before, but I was intrigued. I realized that the influence and change doesn’t only happen between paintings but can be within one painting as a whole.
I am not suggesting that the surface alone cannot convey powerful visual and emotional sensations. No one would. To be a great painting it certainly should. I propose that perhaps the sides just don’t need to be secondary to the superiority of the surface. I have come to believe that considering the whole of the painting as an object powerfully coalesces the visual and emotional energies needed from a great painting.