Painting and Paradox by Matt Metzger

“Irony is the punishment for unawareness of paradox.” James Dines

Following essay submitted by Matt Metzger:

Paradox abounds in painting, and a new generation of painters seem to be embracing that potential. To start with, creating a painting or writing about painting or art in general is a paradox in itself. Why try to describe a painting in words when the artist presumably created the work in the first place because words were inadequate? And why make a painting if words, photography or another medium will do?

This paradox, the first paradox of many when it comes to painting, can be extrapolated beyond talking about an individual piece to talking about the state of painting as a whole. The resolution to the paradox (and it is a resolution, not a solution) lies in the recognition of the paradox itself, and answering it with another paradox. It is the answer many contemporary artists give when thinking about the reason for undertaking a work, and the contemporary critic gives when thinking about whether to try to describe a painting in particular, or the state of painting in general. The humbling resolution is best summed up by the late artist, who was quite literally lost at sea, Bas Jan Ader when he said: “I know I will fail, but that is the point: to try in spite of.”

Sunset in Yellow and Purple, oil on canvas, 24 x 18 in. 

Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker have recognized this tendency to cast aside postmodernist nihilism and to “try in spite of” in their article Notes on Metamodernism.1 In it, they lay the groundwork for the era they feel is replacing postmodernism, a “discourse, oscillating between modern enthusiasm and postmodern irony” they call metamodernism. Metamodern art “attempts in spite of its inevitable failure; it seeks forever a truth that it never expects to find.” It is expressed in a turn toward romanticism (gasp, possibly a landscape). This evokes the tendency to present what is common and ordinary with an aura of mystery, in finding the infinite in a finite subject, in evoking an ethereal quality to something as simple as pigment suspended in a binder. In my terms, with respect to painting, it is expressed in the recognition and quiet embracement of two contradictory ideas; that is, of paradox.

The paradoxes go beyond the central paradox of making or writing about painting in a quest for a truth that can never be found. The paradoxes exist within the confines of the paintings themselves. For instance, many contemporary paintings best described as neo-romantic have a certain intransient, timeless quality, but at the same time capture a fleeting moment, a moment of transcendence that is transient. This paradox relating to time is expanded upon, and more poetically stated, by the philosopher Giorgio Agamben when he suggests that the present can be discovered on the shores of remembrance and recovered at the frontiers of future dreams.2

Gentle Drama, oil on panel, 48 x 24 in.

This is all undoubtedly romantic. So are the contradictory, paradoxical ideas of mystery in the mundane, infiniteness in the finite, beauty in the ordinary. But while romanticism is in part about perfection – perfection of man in relation to nature, perfection of the spirit in relation to reason – what distinguishes this neo-romantic turn is recognition of the overriding and limiting paradox discussed above. Namely, that the quest for perfection typical of the romantic spirit is tempered by the recognition that, while the quest is necessary, it must ultimately fail. This brings us to the last paradox – that this inevitable cycle of failure in search for perfection is precisely what allows painting, over time, to evolve and become closer to perfection.

1 Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker. Notes on Metamodernism. Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol. 2, 2010.

2 Giorgio Agamben, The Signature of all Things: On Method, Zone Books, September 11, 2009.


For me, the landscape and its sublimity is the ideal genre to capture human emotion at its most profound. It is here, amidst the overwhelming landscape, that in our smallness we are reduced to feeling most human. When we are most human our feelings are, paradoxically, often the most incomprehensible. I paint the landscape from memory and emotion and seek to invoke those incomprehensible qualities in my paintings. Always being unable to express what is incomprehensible, my art is left vulnerable to interpretation. Thus, not by design but by necessity, this vulnerability allows the viewer to take what he or she wants (and in some cases needs) to take from each painting. Through this process and interaction with the viewer I hope to create a meaningful dialogue. Matthew Metzger’s Website and on Escape Into life.


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