Greg Drasler
Painting into a Corner: Representation as Shelter
Greg Drasler

The relationship between object and process is something I thought I knew about, being a painter; the work of making something in my studio, with intuition and anxiety, is familiar to me. But the making without knowing that Christopher Bollas explores introduced me to the ghost in my machine. Knowing a painting as an object and as a site, I can understand it as an environment, and Bollas’s concept of the Transformational Object (TO) transforms objects into the kind of environment that enables a self to be a subject. The TO represents a familiar unconscious place that prescribes agency in the world and reveals the power of self-identification. To me it suggests a threshold. The perception of an object as an environment or place, a familiar state of being with both its own inertia and its own drive, thrills and confronts me as a maker, a viewer, and a subject. The reconstitution of symbol, metaphor, and trope proposed by Bollas’s transformation of our understanding of the object urges me beyond a semiotic forest of signs into an allegorical poetic imagination.
My first paintings were based on images of workers, guys with jobs, culled from self-help publications such as the How-to-Do-It Encyclopedia and Popular Mechanics. The work evolved into allegorical images of the body as an accumulation of tools of the trade. Eventually I found a seemingly endless variety of objects and jobs with which to be self-identified. I was drawn to baggage, in the sense of luggage, the suitcase, as an evocative symbol for freedom of movement and the anxiety of homelessness, a place to put it all. The luxury of travel and the rootlessness of the dispossessed came to cohabit in scenes of baggage-claim areas and piles of luggage waiting to be collected. Next I began to focus on the interior of the suitcase, in images of a suitcase being packed, an allusion to the packing of a metaphor. The difference between the scuffed and scarred exterior and the plushly appointed interior seduced me into the work that has occupied me for the last ten years.
My paintings of the interiors of rooms are meditations on the empty suitcase, the same box being packed and repacked with different objects. What I call the “Cave Paintings” 1994 are concerned with a sense of shelter and with specific accommodations, rarely with where this place is. Rooms, corners, ceilings, and doors become places into which a subject can expand, places where defenses can be let down, where a subject can float into imaginative flight and unguarded repose. Like taking in a deep breath and letting it out, to internalize a place, a privacy, or a pause seems to allow consciousness, seems to allow a subject to exist. The place occupied by a subject, the place of collecting oneself, seems, like the process in an object, to embrace the material and to expand the implication of the imagination imbedded in the symbol.
I would begin these works with an elaborate ceiling, a place of dreaming, the vista when I was lying flat on my back. The appointments of the rooms dripped down from these ceilings: I was drawn to wall paintings of panoramic landscapes, tropes of nature, as if the sense of security in the painted rooms could be burnished by fixing an image of nature on the protective walls. These paintings on the room’s walls gave way to patterned wallpapers, which inscribed the space with a wide range of often conflicting iconography yet maintained a pattern of inward containment. My preoccupation with regular patterns allowed me to concentrate on an elemental place of privacy and protection, the corner of a room. A tension simultaneously claustrophobic and agoraphobic is encoded in these patterned corners.
In painting one corner, I removed the iconography in the wallpaper and replaced it with geometric stripes, finding a richly colored airless corner, but I could not get the painting to gel with the elements I had prescribed for it. It wasn’t working as a place; I couldn’t get into it. In a last-ditch effort to resolve it, I hung a toy truck from a rope in the center of the image. It worked, I didn’t know why or how. This was not a new device for me, but it felt different: it seemed to operate the way graffiti can on an advertisement, breaking the spell of the sell into its basic elements and making it readable.
A psychologist friend of mine asked me how my work was going. I must have assumed an odd expression; I tried to explain what had happened with the truck, and my confusion and pleasure with the new painting. My friend asked me if I had read Christopher Bollas. I hadn’t, but if he had thought of this writer in relation to what I had just told him, I needed to immediately. The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known became my companion for the next several days. I gorged myself on the first chapter, “The Transformational Object.” The implications of the concept made my head swim, giving me a way to reread my own work from a different place. I could now examine the intuition that had driven my work as an internal progression and process. I had a deeper and more accepting confidence and curiosity in the voice and choice of my intuition. Continuing to nibble at the text, I discovered new resonances with every rereading.
My work is finding the place to put myself in producing a subject. A place of work, a studio, houses the process of making an object, and the traffic of inside to outside and outside to inside informs the structure of my studio. This is how I had thought about a subject/object relationship (internal/external) before considering the intersubjective states suggested in Bollas’s practice.
“Symptom” strikes me as a club of a word in referring to my studio. In trying to ”enjoy my symptom,” as Slavoj Zizek recommends, I must admit that my symptom is my studio. It’s a place where I can do my work, where I can think about being. I am reminded of a remark by Philip Guston:

When you go into the studio to paint, everybody is in the studio, your friends, art writers, they’re all in the studio and you re just there painting. And one by one they leave until you’re really alone, and then that’s, that’s what painting is. They leave you where you’ve prepared yourself to be. To paint. There is nobody there. Then, ideally, you leave.

It is hard for me to find a grammar that would allow me to contain and expand these implications for myself. My habit is deliberately to lose myself in order to approach the familiar from a different angle. To think of images through semiotics seems clinical to me, an atomized attempt at diagrammatic relationships. I am drawn instead to allegory, with its assemblies of signs, symbols, metaphors, displacements, dramas, cycles, and authority problems. Opposites attract, however, and a polar relationship has reemerged that embodies my particular concern: I imagine myself comfortably between two extremes, agoraphobia and claustrophobia, the cardinal navigation points of my work. Being either thrown into the world or boxed up, feeling either exposed or homebound, frames my dilemma. The picture plane is the threshold on which teeter my various acts of action and delay. Whether to reveal or to obscure this place between, to illuminate it or shade it, these questions contain and hold me within the work. They define a place for me to be.

It’s a small world unless you have to clean it.
“Barbara Kruger”

Inventing a space, a world, is a vast undertaking, suggesting a desire for a long view, a mute identity, control. Inventing a room is different: I am seeking less a total makeover than a place for the night. After the work comes the occupation or inhabitation of the constructed place, for occupied space becomes a place. The transformation of the space of a world into a place allows the kind of subjective interplay between artist and viewer that is familiar to me. The place becomes an object of privacy that communicates subject-to-subject.
Bollas’s concept of the TO bolstered my confidence in my repeated painting of interiors. I intend to produce a subject, but the unconscious production of an environment as a means of communication is not apparent to me in the moment of painting. I invent rooms and interiors that give privacy and ease to a subject, rooms that offer accommodation, rooms that are occupied. Bollas’s writing helped me to see how these images express the dilemma of the self inside and the self outside, doing so through the familiar, the “unthought known.” It also helped me to recognize the interior as a place to contain consciousness, and the self as an object that is imaginatively portable.

Painting into a Corner
In trying to understand my painted places more elementally, I chose to eliminate the domesticating appointments of everyday comfort and the orientation provided by the whole room. Instead I began to paint myself into a corner. The corner gave me a protective structure and just enough room to breathe. Inventing disruptively designed wallpaper patterns for these protective corners, I inscribed them with inconsistencies. These were places I could imaginatively enter, in which I felt uncannily alone, yet that felt occupied. They emphasized privacy and even intimacy. In simplifying the architectural protection to a corner, I aimed to present an elemental space sealed within an image. The painted corner supplies the minimal perception of space necessary for the effect of crossing a threshold into the image. I have painted that place like the sheet music of a song, articulating it with the evocative touch and materiality of paint, as evidence of occupation and voice. Reduced form and inscribed pattern operate as texts, providing a surface for an occupant to read. The familiar is prompted by the depicted place, which one can imaginatively enter and occupy.
The symbolism of this subdued encoded form allows me to represent presence in absence. Image begins to give way to ambient texture, an accumulation of passages. It comes to feel like a record of random thoughts and notations. Lost in simplicity, an awareness surfaces of tendencies, distractions, and incorporations. Like a car alarm in the middle of the night, an anxious disruption is lulled and smoothed by a desire to dream. If I have been able to approach the unthought known, it is in these paintings.



The Familiar
The familiar that Bollas is speaking of, as I understand him, does not represent but is present. It is not easily recognized by the maker/subject. I believe that it is the familiarity of the unthought known that generates the dispersion of responses that accompanies a work of art. I view my paintings as sites in which interpretation and response are located. In this sense they are places in which subjects can interact, and they interact through the familiar. The idea of the unthought known adds a startling principle to the familiar and reveals a mute but fundamental underpinning of the subject in the artwork. I see my uses of the familiar as unreserved, and containing a dimension of alternative meaning with an opening for other significance. I find shelter in the symbolic and alternative references of painting, a place for less obvious personal thoughts.
Unconscious production, a response to existential states, can be fraught with emotion. What happens in a work of art is the production of a subject, or of a place for a subject. Through Bollas I understand my moods, the emotional environment that I wrap around myself, as a place that I try to objectify. The representation of a mood (attitude, criticality, disturbance) through a symbolically significant sign (a metaphor, a gesture, an object) or position (critical, imaginative, or supportive) needs shelter within a familiar location. Hiding in plain sight, accommodation serves both the viewer and myself. My painting suits the viewer’s unconscious need to understand, to get to the bottom of something. It conforms by allowing an unconscious fit to appear as a place, housed beneath or around explicit references. Logic and knowledge can become lost in these places. Covering as much as they reveal, my paintings contain places a subject can occupy and in which I can breathe.
The use of something familiar to unlock the place within a work forms a threshold. It is an introduction, an association that breaks the ice between the viewer and me, and between me and myself. In this sense Bollas’s Shadow of the Object changed my understanding of my own work. Beyond the recognition of everyday readability, the mechanism of insight opens a place of shelter. The same tendency that makes a mark into a gesture, or an image into a symbol, affirms the intuitive attraction between viewer and maker through the object’s conjuring of a subject. The insinuation of a sense of the familiar in representation is aimed not at comfort but at depth. Disruptions cannot occur without a framing sense of order, nor can a discordant image identifiably be woven into anything but accord. My uses of domestic environments lend my paintings the sense of familiar surroundings to be disrupted and known.
The place in the work, which is informed by both a reductive sensibility of essences and an additive scheme of baroque accumulation, offers the artist privacy amid public display. A corner is reductive in relation to an interior environment, and contains a privacy for me. It is simultaneously casual and omnipotent. The embrace of restraint as an esthetic introduces a barrier between the object and the person. Conversely, an overdetermination of meaning, through symbol, sign, and gesture, offers another kind of cover through its demand for interpretation and understanding. These strategies combine with tendencies of subversion, acting, and collecting, opening a chasm between the production and the produced. I begin to see these two intentions of expression as more related than I was able to imagine before my introduction to Christopher Bollas.

The Object
The subject, the individual, emerges out of a defensive posture into a sheltering place. (Four walls around me to hold me tight, roof over my head, in a lover’s arms, perhaps even in the heat of battle, or in the moment of the dance). The concept of the TO releases me from this interior. In linguistic terms the TO is more preposition than noun or verb, driving conditional applications to substantiate the idea of action or being within the object. Is this object a passage or vessel, a yardstick, or a fragrance? A will to categorize this shape-shifter object puts me through the paces. I am reminded of the golem and the rabbi, who conjured up unformed matter to lend him a hand. I like building places that do not require disclaimers, but I am reconciling myself to the idea that they are disclaimers.
Does the TO inspire its own interior coordinates? Does it contain a room of its own? The object seems to be a place. I construct subjectivities expressing my shifting needs for survival. Will I occupy this painting or will it occupy me? The shadow and its associations with Plato’s cave supply a conditional limit that at this point I find consoling. That limit seems to accommodate claustrophobia and agoraphobia, the squeeze and the tease, accumulation and essence, as material prescriptions for another character.

The investigation of a specific site is a matter of extracting concepts out of existing sense-data through direct perceptions. . . . One does not impose, but rather expose the site . . . the unknown areas of sites can best be explored by artists.
“Robert Smithson”

Representation as Shelter
Once that threshold has been crossed, the appointment of the place, its particular breathability, the height of the upholstery and the polish on the floor, facilitate particular qualities of occupation and habitation. The place has been outfitted. A tight space or a high and wide one will lead eventually to the prescribed and inscribed agency that the space allows an occupant. Sunlight cast on the wall becomes an object of the day. The corner, a joining line between the walls, describes integral strength, privacy, and isolation in the crease of a room. To speak of rooms and interior rather than space in a general sense gives specific determined character to a potential occupant.
In the same way that I have been able to use Bollas’s writings as texts for understanding my painting, I like to use painting as a place to understand the construction of self-accommodation. I hope I have described the effort of looking for a little cover within a public practice that leaves the maker room to move and breathe. Between what I paint and what I represent exists a gap that I define as an interior space. The “space between” is rarely public, and the appointments and accommodations contained there are various. That is where I mean to represent myself. In contrast to Buckminster Fuller’s dictum “I seem to be a verb,” I seem to be a preposition. Hiding in plain sight, agoraphobia, expressions of the void, and the making of aesthetic equivalents are common not only in my painting but in contemporary cultural production. Coded meanings and hermetic practices aim at the desubstantiation of the objective world in order to conduct a transcendent life above, below, outside, or inside the process. This happens by making an object transformational.
I use representation to contain a place that provides a subject with shelter and occupation. The navigational aspects of perspective provide entry to a picture allowing a sensory body access to a space. The unthought fit of the maker’s measurements on the made gives dimension to that place between representation and presence.
In the leap from the internally familiar to the externally discursive, the desire we express, as psychological beings, acknowledges and transforms the pain and struggle documented in the case studies with which Bollas gives dimension to his insights. With gratitude and respect for these accumulated efforts, I hope to have shared some of the revelations these insights have inspired in my practice of painting. It is a constant for me to try to translate whatever I am reading into its implications on and for my studio practice. Bollas’s writings are the first I have read that acknowledge the dynamic potential of interior space as a place with a life of its own, often separate from my obvious intentions. His sensitivity to the subtle articulation of the power of the interior life has allowed him to express these concepts in such a clear and fluid way as to need minimal translation.


1. Philip Guston,
speaking in Michael Blackwood’s film Philip Guston: A Life Lived, 1980