Karl Pilato

Cultivating Absence
I shift between doubt and faith in my artwork. Recently I doubted my palette of browns, muted grays, and greens and suspected a need for bolder color. Having grown up on the East Coast, I deeply identify with bare branches lit by low winter light, but now that I live in San Diego, my eyes are drawn to fantastically saturated colors. Blue Jacarandas are a hue I had never seen on a tree; ice plants blast electric pink from hillsides. In an effort to contend with new color, I introduced some bits of fuchsia and orange to my canvas, but it was a losing battle. After two or three days of putting paint on, wiping it off, and throwing rags in frustration, I began to calm down and I came to a realization: My paintings are never really about choices of colors and marks, though they are central to my process; my paintings are about absence.
The word that came to mind could have been either absence or emptiness. These words have loaded meanings in writings on Eastern philosophy. In the book Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, the classical Chinese poetry translator, David Hinton writes that a “generative absence” is at the core of all things. Chinese landscape painting embodies this philosophy. Hinton writes, “There, mountain landscape is dramatically suffused with Absence: the emptiness of sky and water, mist and haze. It seems landscape is emerging out of this emptiness, each form seething with the energy of transformation as it hovers on the verge of vanishing back into emptiness,”
1 In Chinese landscape paintings, the white of the paper is not background. The white is woven through lines and washes of black ink that suggest rocks, flowing water, and trees. Even as the white space comes forward, it is also immeasurable and uncontained. The empty spaces in a Chinese landscape feel full, while the strokes of ink depicting forms, by not completely resolving into solidly enclosed things, retain emptiness.
The Buddhist scripture, The Heart Sutra says, “Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.”
2 I have read that this should be interpreted to mean that all things, including self-identity, are empty of separate existences. The statement is endlessly resonate and instructive for my artistic practice.

My realization about absence was partly a reminder to myself that the color I first cover the canvas with—usually an off-white or other light, neutral color like a beige or warm gray—must continue to reassert itself as the painting develops. I call this color the ground, and it is the equivalent of the white of the paper in Chinese ink paintings. As I build the painting I usually wipe paint away to reveal the ground or apply the ground color over other colors. When using other colors, I have to paint with awareness of the negative space, the shapes created in the ground. With every positive gesture, or statement of presence, absence breathes through. When my paintings fail it is often because they lack this breathing quality.
In addition to my difficulty maintaining the energy of the open spaces as I struggled with new colors, my canvas was too small. I have noticed that, no matter what size I work on, the canvas needs to feel big. In the right state of mind (and with the right-sized brushes), a 6 x 6 inch sheet of paper can feel big. Put another way, I need to feel that I am inside the painting. Lately I’ve had more success with moderately large canvases, because my body actually fits inside the painting. In a 6 x 5 foot canvas, there is a sense of space continuing out beyond reach. When the end of a brushed line flutters out at the edge of vision on a large canvas, my peripheral vision partially guides the gesture. With my peripheral vision involved I seem to move more intuitively with less conscious deliberation. Consistently my intuitive painting decisions are more interesting and lead to more possibilities than my over-thought-out decisions.
While I literally connect my experience of peripheral vision in painting to greater spontaneity, the popular and influential writer on Eastern philosophy, Alan Watts, made the same connection metaphorically. In explaining the emphasis on spontaneity in Taoism, Watts distinguished between central vision, which he compared to “conscious, one-at-a-time thinking,” and peripheral vision, which he compared to “the rather mysterious process which enables us to regulate the incredible complexity of our bodies without thinking at all.”
3 This latter process, the “peripheral aspect of mind,” is intuition, and “it works best when we do not try to interfere with it, when we trust it to work by itself.”4 The contemporary novelist Siri Hustvedt similarly emphasizes intuition in her essay, Playing, Wild Thoughts, and a Novel’s Underground, though she calls it “unconscious processes”:  “The truth about unconscious processes is that the book can know more than the writer knows, a knowing that comes in part from the body, rising up from a preverbal, rhythmic, motor place in the self.”5 Both writers represent intuition as involving the whole body. When I feel inside a painting, my “preverbal, rhythmic, motor self” knows the right marks and colors while my intellect does not.
It is clear that my struggle with new colors interfered with finding the right kind of awareness, but brighter colors themselves were not the problem. Color and form are the language, but my work is not about these formal elements. I understand why Mark Rothko was troubled by people who were seduced into regarding his majestic combinations of color as the content of his work. He felt that viewers reduced his paintings to decoration instead of recognizing the paintings’ deeper emotive force.
6 Color was only the vehicle, and to get stuck on it was to miss the point. My struggle with color on this particular occasion interfered with my own intention.
Working on a larger canvas and reinserting the ground color as the painting develops are concrete tips to myself. The task seems easy enough, but what I’m really asking of myself is to be aware of absence. It’s easy when it happens and not at all easy the rest of the time. When I’ve lost my way with a painting, it’s all presence, and the sense of absence is gone. Patches of paint remain only patches of paint—they don’t point the mind to what can’t be seen. I feel like I can’t see anymore when this happens.
David Hinton cautions his reader to not conceive of absence as something existing in space. One can be misled to think of the emptiness that things emerge from and return to as somehow a substance itself. After all, Hinton says, “there is only presence.” Things actually emerge from other things, “not out of some ineffable emptiness.” “Any knowledge of Absence is impossible.” But, he adds, “It does nevertheless remain available to us.”
7 How it remains available to us, in my understanding, is through our intuitive, peripheral minds. The reasoning, central mind can only know presence. Only in the peripheral aspect of mind can we hold emptiness and form together as one-in-the-same.
In my experience, moments of awareness in which presence is enlivened with the mystery of absence come unexpectedly. A landscape can be dully defined as tree, grass, and sky, and the next minute with some unintended shift in perception the same landscape is ablaze with mystery, and the words to identify its parts mean nothing anymore. I had such an experience recently taking a walk while the evening sky was lavender and pink. In theory I knew that the landscape I inhabited was beautiful, but I was emotionally unaffected by it until a person wearing a pink shirt the exact same color as the sky appeared in the distance. Suddenly, maybe because of the shift in scale and startling sameness of big and small, the world opened up to include absence, and I could see the beauty I’d been missing. Despite the unexpected timing of such awareness-expanding moments, making art can be a practice of responding to, and coaxing into being, for oneself and others, experiences that momentarily transform the world into something unnamable and new.
The sometimes clumsy dance I enact, searching for the right color, wiping away paint, weaving lines through one another, making an edge soft and another hard, hunting for balance and continual motion is shaped by my effort to be aware of absence. I never know what my painting will be when I start, but gradually, if everything goes well and I don’t force things, my marks will find rightness in relation to one another and to the edges of the canvas. Underlying that rightness is both a feeling of familiarity—the colors and forms evoke nature—and a feeling of mystery—the colors and forms defy fixity and weave through one another like absence breathes through the world. Occasionally my rightness rises to exhilarating clarity, and though certain to return to a state of doubt, I reaffirm my faith in painting.


1 David Hinton, Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape (Boston, Shambhala Publications, 2012), 69.
2 Red Pine (translator), The Heart Sutra (Berkeley, Counterpoint, 2005).
3 Alan Watts, The Way of Zen (New York, Pantheon, 1957), 28.
4 Alan Watts, The Way of Zen (New York, Pantheon, 1957), 35.
5 Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking: Essays (New York, Picador, 2012), 39.
6 Mark Rothko in interview with Selden Rodman, 1956.
7  David Hinton, Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape (Boston, Shambhala Publications, 2012), 70.