Jill Trappler – A way of Reading

This essay was commissioned by ASAI. It is the original, unedited copy. 


“There are things that seem like secrets that someone is keeping, but aren’t being kept by anyone.“ Cesar Aira, The Seamstress and the Wind[1]


To read a painting, I feel, one must gather some insight into its origins, look to the ground of the painting’s being. To read a painting is not to describe it, nor even to describe its effects and affects and mechanisms. To read a painting is to begin to understand the roots of its seriousness.


Jill Trappler is a serious painter, serious in a very particular sort of way. An ethical seriousness, I would suggest. In saying this I wish, early on, to cleave a clear line of distinction between such qualities as pleasing decoration and the trivial logics of design, on the one hand, and Jill’s view of the painting life, a rather more stern and exacting outlook, on the other. The struggle to articulate experience is not the same as manufacturing a product for the market. This short essay is an attempt to address the quality of Jill Trappler’s seriousness.


Emily Dickenson once remarked that “…. consciousness is the only home we know of.”[2] To take this a little further, consciousness is both the ground for and the consequence of experience, consciousness enables experience, experience enhances consciousness. The struggle to articulate experience is unavoidably, then, the struggle to lift the veil on consciousness, to open ‘it’ up for exposure.


The very best experiences I’ve had from looking, reading and listening can be ascribed to a privileged glimpse of intimacy.  “We read,” goes the famous line often credited to CS Lewis, “in order to know we’re not alone.”[3]  I know, from periods of estrangement and loneliness that comfort and community, antidotes to estrangement, came to me from reading, listening and, yes, also looking. There is a difference between collecting things and collecting experiences. Sometimes experiences can be embedded in things but not always.  And that is why some paintings remain mere pictures  – they don’t hold enough by way of experience. Art is about experience held, modified and transmitted. Art is not a thing. John Dewey argued this in his formative work published in 1934, Art as Experience.[4] In his last interview Jackson Pollock is recorded as saying “Every good artist paints what he is.”[5] One way of expressing this is to borrow a notion from the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. I probably read his book, I and Thou, nearly 50 years ago and my copy has long since vanished from my shelves so what I’m about to suggest should be understood to be only tenuously connected to Buber and no blame placed at his door.[6]


As I recall, his basic thesis had to do with relationships, for example the I/It and the I/Thou. The “It” would, I suspect, refer to the perceptual world, the world of  “things,’ broadly speaking. And the “Thou,” in turn, would refer to the world experienced as consciousness. Not thingness but consciousness. It is one thing to see a painting but quite another to see the consciousness that made it, to see the spirit animating matter, to see and sense presence.


“…. contact of the most intimate sort is what poetry can accomplish. Poems do not endure as objects but presences,” wrote American poet, Louise Gluck.[7]


This notion, presence, can helpfully be applied to painting in general. Though it applies especially well to what is most commonly referred to as abstraction, painting whose intention is to be rather than to say. Rather than ask of a painting “What is it?” “What does it mean?” and, even, “What does it intend?”  The better question is, “What does the painting hold?” Presence holds.  Presence has no case to make, it has no aim, no wish to persuade, no aim to subvert nor, even, to trumpet. Presence has but one goal and that is to establish itself.


Presence doesn’t easily lend itself to dissection, nor to unpacking. And it, especially, should never be subject to “interrogation.” This last is a hard and brutal word. It presupposes that something is defiantly withheld, a something that needs to be prised from its ground with force. The cultural habit of  ‘interrogating’ experiences amounts to a collective paranoia, a distrust of the unfamiliar and even of something that may be merely difficult to name.


Jill Trappler has named one of her paintings Emerald Calling. It’s oil on canvas and 80 x 141cm. and it holds, in presence, the phenomena of being and becoming. It does this by activating inert matter, the paint. Being equals its presence, becoming equals the history of its making, the surface.


“Emerald calling.” 80 x 140 cm oil on canvas April 2020

In a private correspondence with me Jill has described the primary quality of her studio work as being “a collaboration.” Let’s approach her seriousness with this in mind and recognise that the birth of presence is the outcome of a coupling, of sorts, a coupling of the qualities of Jill’s mind with the inert, yet malleable and receptive, qualities of paint. She is suggesting, I believe, that both she and the stuff in her hands are in this together, both sharing the gravity of the moment. This first thought places her will in a subservient yet respectful position. There is no forcing here, no argumentation, no sense of a manipulative, commanding author, but rather a gentle coaxing, and a nurturing engagement. This recognition is a first step in appreciating a larger more complex philosophical picture.


Here’s a puzzle, a real puzzle, one that has entertained and engaged thinkers of all stripes and convictions for many years. Science has, I believe, formulated some plausible ideas about how, on this planet, many years ago, mineral matter surprised itself into living matter. But, and this one of the very big ones, we have no particularly convincing idea about how living matter got ideas. How did we get from being substances to becoming substances with ideas. How did substance come to feel and experience and then come to know that it feels and has experienced? How does stuff have experience? The problem of  ‘sentient meat’ as Colin McGinn put it.[8]


But, in reverse, this what good painters do. Painters transmit mentality to inert matter. Stuff so matters to mind that mind seeps into matter. Matter then learns, as it were, to appear to think and to feel in return, or least to stand-in for a thinkingness and a feelingness. And thanks to the receptivity of paint this thinkingness and feelingness  would otherwise not find its way into the world but remained locked in the narrow, skull-bound space between the ears. In other words, qualities of consciousness can be said to embed in stuff and thereby transform this stuff into a simulacrum of mind. If the paint cannot be said to be sentient in itself, and of course it can’t, it can, nevertheless, be said to represent sentience. The sense of life in a painting is expressed in the paint and not in the picture. The paint registers and transmits a complex cluster of ‘feelings’ and values. It stands for a way of thinking. Brodsky brings a new perspective to this idea, “thinking.” Writing on Danilo Kis Brodsky says this, “It is not so much that the thought is felt but rather that the feeling is thought.”[9] Roberto Calasso offers a deeper gloss (sic) on this “thinking”, he says, “But we do not think in words. Or, rather we sometimes think in words. Words are scattered archipelagos, drifting, sporadic. The mind is the sea. To recognise this sea in the mind seems to have become something forbidden….”[10]


“When feelings associate a consciousness forms.”[11] The intimacy lies here. It lies in a privileged access to the complexities of another mind, to experience something not normally noticeable, not normally in evidence, not normally available. This most often hidden thing is a particular pulse of consciousness, a tide or confluence of tides in the astonishing accident of ourselves.


 “Consciousness is the raw sensation of whatever is awake and knows itself alive,” as Roberto Calasso puts it in his book on the Rig Vedas.[12] 


The experience of intimacy, the recognition of the animate sense of the thou in the image, is contingent upon exposure, an exposure of awakeness and aliveness. This is the painters’ calling. Pretence and disguise will not do.


I am not here speaking of confession nor am I meaning to speak of admissions of whatever sort. It is, rather, to suggest an exposure of the self, of what it is like to be conscious or, put better, what it is like be consciousness, or, as some might put it, what it is like to participate in consciousness. Good paintings reveal how a good mind works and this, an otherwise secret mind, is not accessible until embedded in paint. This is the compulsion and the commitment, to engage in authentic and honest exposure. The best paintings expose the painter – the face of the inner. The external stands for something internal.


“The surface of the wakeful mind trembles without cease, like the surface of the waters. And like the waters it assumes the shapes that press upon it.”[13]


In this zone everything is contingent and conditional, behaviours and outcomes provisional, until they’re not. And thus each painting of quality acquires its inwardness. Stephane Mallarme once said, “… every soul (or inwardness) is a rhythmical knot.”[14] Calasso suggests that the land of the “rhythmical knots (is) a place where forms are freed from obedience to authority and rest entirely upon themselves.”[15]


What is it that’s knotted or tangled? And, what are the constituents that make for that seriousness identified earlier? What kind of things or substances are these: exposure, silence, Eros, memory, surface, composition, energies, coherence, chance and happenstance, the unknown? Are these the things that make up the knots? Not things, of course, perhaps they can be better called ‘circumstances’ – conditions both internal and external, and from time to time in variable interactions (rhythms) with each other. As Jose Ortega y Gasset remarked, “Man reaches his full capacity when he acquires complete consciousness of his circumstances. Through them he communicates with the universe.”[16] But these ‘circumstances’ I’ve listed here are also, and appropriately, abstractions – suitable ‘substances’ from which abstract paintings can be made. If, and perhaps only if, rhythm and knot are honoured. If we don’t undo the entanglements, don’t betray the rhythms. “To seek an answer,” says Louis Gluck “is to yearn for the immobile.”[17] Seriousness is established in this zone, the zone where immobility is anathema.


‘The mind loves the unknown.” writes Charles Simic, “It loves images,” he continues, “whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown.”[18] Mary Jacobus in her book on Cy Twombly uses this image, “The painting’s dream-navel reaches down into the unknown.”[19]  Poet Jane Hirshfield has this to say, “… art makes encounter with the uncertain, a thing to be sought.”[20] Why should this be?  Well, one answer, somewhat prosaically if succinctly put, is given by the poet Robert Frost, “… no surprise for the poet no surprise for the reader.”[21] The imagery here is all to do with lifting the veil, a phrase used earlier, the stress is on discovery or uncovery, if you will allow such a term. Presence is searched for. The making is the search, the making is entertaining uncertainty and is not production. Jane Hirshfield again, “There is no place of true paradise, no place of true completion that does not include within its walls the unknown.”[22]


The ‘unknown’ makes its presence in the studio felt through the ongoing question “what if…?” “What if I change my plan, or this tone, or this gesture, what if I take this detour?” Without the “what if…?” a deceptively comfortable repetition, habit, creeps in, and as someone said somewhere, habit is a form of failure.


If Pollock is right in saying that “every good artist paints what he is,” then we might begin to see that the quest for honest exposure and the entertainment of the unknown would constitute a kind of learning. A quest for understandings about the parts of oneself that resonate and collaborate or behaviours that hamper and hinder. Louise Gluck has this to say “… learning (of) the sort I mean… has to do with license, absorption, momentum, and is unlike the repetitions of mimicry  which are mechanical and stationary and which lead nowhere…” And further on she continues “My definition of learning depends upon seeing a difference between that appetite for change and the process of anxious duplication.” [23]


So far we’ve tangled mind and matter with exposure and the unknown (an antidote to ‘anxious duplication’). What flavours, now, are added when we invite in some of the other circumstances I mentioned earlier, like, silence, Eros, surface and memory.


The old cliché that every picture tells a story is true, though not true in the way, I believe, it is commonly understood. Every picture tells a story, yes, but it tells the story of itself, the story of its becoming. Paint, especially oil paint, holds and retains in the sense of having absorbed. Rembrandt’s paint on Rembrandt’s painted nose is as alive to my eye today as it was to Rembrandt’s eye several hundred years ago. The moment of Rembrandt’s touch, his certainty and his hesitations, his subtleties of wrist, are as present for me, or for you, now as much as they were present for him as he painted it.


Brodsky has this to say, “Unlike prose, poetry doesn’t so much express an emotion as absorb it linguistically.”[24] So too, by my lights, does paint absorb and make available again and again a bouquet of feeling and sensation. The word surface better expresses this capacity than texture. Texture merely tickles the fingers, but surface has tension, it forces form, to use Jean Luc Nancy’s phrase, to touch itself.[25]  Surface also embodies time. It both reflects and lives in the aura of time, the surface of paint as a medium of recall.


In Mr Palomar, Italo Calvino has the eponymous Mr Palomar speculating amongst other things on what it might be like to see the roofs of Rome as though a bird.


“Looking out and down from his terrace in Rome he sees the complex of roofs, alleys, roads, domes, sculptures, mansions, hovels and thinks: Nothing of this can be seen by one who moves on his feet or on his wheels over the city pavements. And, inversely, from up here you have the impression that the true crust of the earth is this, uneven but compact, even if furrowed by gaps whose depth cannot be known, chasms or pits or craters whose edges seem in perspective to overlap like the scales of a pine cone, and it never even occurs to you to wonder what is hidden in their depth, because the panorama of the surface is already so vast and rich and various that it more than suffices to saturate the mind with information and meanings.


This is how birds think, or at least this is how Mr Palomar thinks, imagining himself a bird. “It is only after you have come to know the surface of things,” he concludes, “that you can venture to seek what is underneath. But the surface of things is inexhaustible.”[26]


The surface of things is inexhaustible and, indeed, may even in some circumstances be unsayable. Feeling is often thought in silence. “My hunch has always been,” says the poet Charles Simic, “that our deepest experiences are wordless.”[27] In Near the Wild Heart, Clarice Lispector, muses “How curious that I am unable to say who I am …The moment I try to speak, not only do I fail to express what I feel, but what I feel slowly transforms itself into what I am saying.”[28] She fears being misled by her own tongue. 


In the third of his letters to a young poet, Rilke offered this advice, “To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own intelligence … this alone is what it means to live as an artist.”[29]


 “When the heart listens to itself then poetry is born,” said Novalis.[30]


In various conversations and correspondences with me it became abundantly clear that Jill is stubbornly defensive of a zone of silence that surrounds her seriousness. The fear, I suspect, is that speech will betray the secret conspiracies and collaborations. That too many names and too many adjectives might fog the process, cause premature closure and betray the private rhythms that silence allows. Eros betrayed by Psyche’s need to identify, and thereby, corrupt the alchemy of desire. Mary Jacobus, while dealing with Twombly’s engagement with Keats’s Ode to Psyche, says this. “In Keats’s myth”, she writes, “Psyche (poetry) inhabits the border between conscious and unconscious, sleep and waking, instinct and language – the place where Eros and meaning come and go unseen.”[31]

Jill referenced these figures, “When I collaborate in making a painting,” she wrote, “I seek that third element. In Jungian language it is called the connecting principle, Eros and Psyche. When I am in collaboration with materials and this third element, the work holds purpose and we travel. The connection ends at some point and the work is finished or needs revisiting.”


The connection, or connecting principle, is embodied in the senses, and happens in the dark. Think here of the senses in love with themselves and the decisions they take. In love with each other, the senses fondle in the dark with faces that love to hide. In this mute conspiracy, a zone of touchings and penetrations, the senses delight in chance discoveries and the excitement for the painter is, “What just happened here?” “This is new!” These ‘wow’ moments can be quite visceral, mind and body then jump for joy, hand in metaphorical hand.  “The poem is the development of an exclamation,” said Paul Valery.[32] Rhythms of the body and the movements of the mind become, then, one of many registers of experience.  And, as Jane Hirshfield has said, “Our human attention has many ways of engaging.”[33]


Chance, accident, mistake are all part of the painters toolbox, so to speak. James Joyce famously wrote in Ulysses, “A man of genius makes no mistakes, his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”[34]


The implication here is that some agency might be at work, a helping hand, a guiding principle. That in the privacy of the studio chance may not be chance but destiny, that accident may not be accident but a willed collision of opportunity with intention, that error only an error if misread. In the studio ‘getting out of trouble’ might well be a vital skill. “Creativity,” says William Gass, “concerns correct choice.”[35]


Many metaphors have been deployed through the ages to characterise the various natures of these agencies, these helping hands. As Jill herself has said, “I talk to myself when I am working and I say, we need to do this. I have often wondered who ‘we’ is.”


I want here to consider two possible “visitors” to the studio, just two metaphysical communicants, the duende and the angel. In his book the demon and the angel, American poet Edward Hirsch examines the presence of these two ‘forces’, in various forms of art and through various times in history and how they have contributed to the continuous growth of the new in our inner world.[36]


Hirsch posits Lorca and Rilke as the primary models for the duende and the angel respectively, and he writes, “There are striking likenesses between the rising duende and the falling angel… yet there is also a key difference … Whereas Lorca’s figure bursts up from below, from the earth itself, Rilke’s figure descends from above – it drops down from a transcendental source.” And he continues, “The demon and the angel are two external figures for a power that dwells deep within us. They are the imagination’s liberating agents, who unleash their primal force into works of art.”  (xiv-xv) I know that Lorca’s evocations of the duende made a strong impression on Jill in her early years and still do.


This is not the place for an extensive examination of these two figures but some little elaboration might be enlightening. I’m going to rely heavily here on Hirsch’s short closing chapter. “Both the duende and the angel take us to the far limits of the human self.” He speaks of the duende animating the work of art, “with its breath, a dark fire. The angel illuminates the work of art with, “a fiery touch, a darkly luminous blessing.” They are, he says, “… figures crediting the imaginary realms that dwell deeply within us.”


Hirsch then goes on to ask where the angel and the duende might be found. By way of sampling here are some of his suggestions:


The angel: burning on roof tops, moving through secret passageways and winding staircases, corridors of light and red mountain ranges, country churches and abandoned cemeteries, like twenty thousand stars purpling at midnight. It flashes its sword in the gate and troubles your dreams.


The duende: It is flinging itself into the vast night. Look for it hiding under your boot soles. (It) is a wind that breathes through the empty arches over the heads of the dead, the wing of a wounded hawk, a dream that mocks the bloody mocking bird and flees through empty subway tunnels, it is a joy that burns and a suffering that scalds like hot ice. It annunciates (and here Hirsch uses a line from Lorca’s Deep Song) “the constant baptism of newly created things.”[37] 


To my ear the duende and the angel represent a dialectical pair, disruption and salvation. Two forces ever present in the ebb and flow of work.


Throughout this essay there has been both an explicit and an implied acknowledgement of the notion of the transmutation of energies. But transmutation per se is not enough. The last and great requirement is coherence, the magic of order and belonging. Or as Auden has put it “when we find ourselves in the presence of clear thinking about complex feelings.”[38]


Some may call this composition. Composition is never composure. Composure is stable and at rest. Composition is an arrangement of tensions, a choreography of parts, an alignment of energies speaking through continuity and discontinuity. Composition is the articulation of a grand oxymoron – a profound stasis bristling with nervous energies. All entrancing organisation is underpinned by precariousness.


The word nervous here is apposite. In the nineteenth century RAM Stevenson in his monograph on Velasquez spoke of the “nervous force of the brain working across a picture.”[39] And Calasso, in Literature and the Gods, talks of “… the hidden nerve structure of every composition …”[40]


“We are unknowing dancers by nature,” said philosopher Alva Noe, and a little further on, “we are organised by the things we do.”[41]




To my mind the fundamental organising principle that inhabits all the painters’ thinking, and at every level, is this, “How much is too much and how much is too little?” This might have to do with quantities of pigmentation for instance, but this is not the crucial area of concern. More importantly, it has to do with navigation, maintaining a viable course through the various weathers of one’s person to get to that special destination we all crave – a painterly Shangri-La. This consideration of too much or too little is not to evoke the Aristotelian notion of a golden mean, or the idea of moderation all things. It’s more like keeping the various inner horses of oneself in some productive alliance.


It is my view that the most frequent error made by painters in the abstract mode is to couple too much self-satisfaction with too little uncertainty. This is a fatal alliance, leading to the misguided notion that appearance is a convincing substitute for mind. It isn’t. This flawed idea is, in the grave sense of the word, anathema to good painting. It’s a capitulation to the temptations of cosmetic tones and the anodyne touch of timid brushwork. Poor painting reeks of recurrent betrayals of value.


The power may be in the appearance but the appearance is not the power. The power of the painting lies in the mind of the painting, which in turn is grounded in the gravity of the endeavour and the rigour with which each endeavour is pursued – how its terms are respected. It lies in how much the endeavour asks of the author and how the author, in turn, stays true to their rhythms and knots, stays true to the deeper questions of the possibilities for consciousness.


Jill Trappler is a serious painter and Emerald Calling is a serious painting. Makes you think doesn’t it?


[1] Cesar Aira, The Seamstress and the Wind (High Wycombe: And Other Stories, 2011, tans. Rosalie Knecht) 118.

[2] Emily Dickinson, quoted in Charles Simic, The Life of Images (New York: Harper Collins, 2017) 15.

[3] In his play Shadowlands, the playwright William Nicholson attributes this remark to CS Lewis. It is unclear whether he actually said it or not.

[4] For an extensive contemporary examination of this see Alva Noe, Strange Tools, Art and Human Nature (New York: Hill and Wang, 2015)

[5] For more on this google Maria Popova, Brain Pickings, discussion on Conversations with Artists by Selden Rodman.

[6] Martin Buber, I and Thou, first published in an English edition in 1937 by R & R Clarke, Edinburgh)

[7] Louise Gluck, Proof and Theories (New Jersey: The Echo Press, 1994) 128

[8] Colin McGinn, The Mysterious Flame (New York: Basic Books 1999)

[9] In the introduction by Joseph Brodsky to Danilo Kis, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1980) xvi.

[10] Robert Calasso, Literature and the Gods (New York: Vintage International, 2002) p116

[11] Richard Shiff, Powder in the Sea, in Rothko/Sugimoto (London: Pace Gallery 2012) 6

[12] Roberto Calasso, Ka (Vintage Books: New York, 1998) 259

[13] Calasso, Ka, 258

[14] Calasso, Literature and the Gods, 126

[15] Calasso, Literature and the Gods, 131

[16] Jose Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Quixote (New York: The Norton Library, 1963) 41

[17] Gluck, Proofs and Theories, 117

[18] Simic, The Lives of Images, 5

[19] Mary Jacobus, Reading Cy Twombly (Princeton University Press; New Jersey, 2016) 67

[20] Jane Hirshfield, Ten Windows, (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2017) 123

[21] Hirshfield, Ten Windows, 190

[22] Hirshfield, Ten Windows, 116

[23] Gluck, Proofs and Theories, 123

[24] Brodsky, intro. to A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, xvi.

[25] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Ground of the Image (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005) 9

[26] Italo Calvino, Mr Palomar (Orlando: Harcourt Inc., 1985) 55

[27] Simic, The Lives of Images, 23

[28] Clarice Lispector, in Nicholas Humphrey, Soul Dust (New York: New Directions Publishing 1990) 138

[29]  Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (New York: Norton & Company, 1962, trans. Herter Norton) 29

[30] Novalis , quoted in Octavio Paz, The Bow and the Lyre (Austen, University of Texas 1973) 125

[31] Jacobus, Reading Cy Twombly, 194

[32] Valery, quoted in Paz, The Bow and the Lyre 36

[33] Hirshfield, Ten Windows, 25

[34] James Joyce, Ulysses (London: The Bodley Head, 1960) 243

[35] William Gass, Reading Rilke, (New York: Knopf, 1999) 96

[36] see Hirshfield, Ten Windows, 26

[37] Edward Hirsch, the demon and the angel (Florida: Harcourt Inc., 2003) 230

[38] Hirshfield, Ten Windows, 109

[39] Ram Stevenson quoted in Michael Jacobs, Everything is Happening, coda by Ed Vulliamy (London: Granta, 2016) 188

[40] Calasso, Literature and the Gods, 130

[41] Noe, Strange Tools, 15 & 18