Sue BartfieldSue Bartfield
To the Exclusion of Nothing: The Paintings of Sue Bartfield
Eli S. Evans
Somewhere around halfway through his small masterpiece, The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes evokes what I have always imagined as an economy of pleasure: “One envisions,” he writes, “a vast, collective harvest: bring together all the texts which have given pleasure to someone.” The economy of pleasure, then, might be an economy like any other economy, except for one important difference: its unit of value—pleasure—can be neither supplied nor demanded, but rather perhaps only discovered, mutually, in the very moment or movement of its exchange. This is to say that the economy of pleasure might be an economy like any other economy, but it also might be precisely the economy that dismantles the very possibility of economy, for it is an economy that cannot, through the tug of supply against demand, economize. This inability is clear in the kind of textual utopia that Barthes envisions. If one were to bring together in this collective harvest all of the texts that have ever given pleasure to someone, one would, by necessity, have to include all of the texts that have ever been written, perhaps even all of the texts that have not yet but still might be written, for there is no text, there could be no text, that has not given or might not yet give pleasure to someone.
This crop, of course, could not be harvested: “In short,” Barthes writes of it, “such a labor could not be written.” What the critic—who stands between the text and world in which it might circulate—must do if he is to at once operate his criticality under the sign of pleasure and avoid this impossibility is to not write as one, as someone or anyone or everyone, but rather always only as himself, as Barthes always did; he must, as himself, cruise the body of the text, opening himself to seduction and accepting, by writing them, the always-unexpected or only half-expected or perhaps unexpectable moments of pleasure with which that body provides him. The result of such a work is the critical text that displays the contingent pleasures of an encounter, perhaps by simply being the lens that refracts those spots where, for he who passed through it or over it, the text glowed.
It is less clear, however, what it would mean for the writer—as opposed to the critic—to work under the sign of pleasure, or within this economy whose machinery cannot select and, therefore, cannot exclude. Such a writer could not escape from the imperative to write the infinite text, for there is nothing he might include in that text that might not give pleasure to someone, somewhere, at some point. To exclude anything, to leave anything unsaid, would constitute a violation of the economy of pleasure. What would such a writerly labor look like? Perhaps it would look something like the three thousand or so pages of Don Quixote. It would not last forever, of course, because no text, like no life, lasts forever, but if it ended it would, as is the case with life, be not because its own economy somehow determined that ending, to the exclusion of everything that might come after it, but only due to the within that economy of something simultaneously exterior to it. One gets the impression, for instance, that Don Quixote could certainly have gone on longer, perhaps forever, if Don Quixote hadn’t died, or that if he hadn’t died there would have been nothing in the book, nothing inherent to its structure, that would have prevented him going out on the road again in search of further adventures, at least until Cervantes himself died and indeed perhaps even beyond, if somebody else had had the courage or the arrogance to pick up where he’d left off.
But is there also a way, instead of simply saying that a book like the Quixote should have been infinite, we could say that it actually is infinite? In chapter eight of the first book of the Quixote, Don Quixote encounters a Vizcaino, a man from the province, Vizcaya, and the two have conflict, as tends to happen with Don Quixote and the people he meets, and soon come to the point of battle, and at a certain moment Don Quixote raises his sword high above his head as though to strike a blow. In just this moment the chapter ends, and the next begins, and although we will find out more about the battle between them and about nearly everything else that befalls Don Quixote in the time between that battle and his death, we never learn precisely what became of that raised sword. “In a way,” the Spanish novelist Javier Marías has said about this moment in the Quixote, “that sword has been up for four centuries, now, and it’s going to stay that way forever.” With something still pending, the end of the Quixote is in fact not an ending but only an endless deferral of ending, beyond the limits of life or fatigue.
Could one make a painting, as well, under the sign of pleasure, or within its infinite economy? Yes, the Milwaukee painter Sue Bartfield. Here, again, it cannot merely be a matter of extension in time or space, and it is not enough to say that although the painting is not infinite in practice, it is in spirit. It would, like Don Quixote, have to be a painting that somehow remained pending even in its completion, which would have to become, therefore, not a completion but a deferral.
They are enormous, to begin with, and they are exhausting, in the full sense of the word: to look at them is exhausting enough, and to paint them must be unimaginably exhausting, and in addition they are paintings that very much, like Don Quixote or any other three thousand page novel, seem to have exhausted their own potential, to have squeezed out every last ounce of themselves. They are paintings that are filled to bursting with painting. They are manic, or perhaps maniacal collections of forms within forms around forms behind forms and, finally, on top of and underneath forms. Because there is not enough room on a canvas for what she wants to paint—and not for any other reason, I would venture—her paintings have more painting behind them, painting which is revealed in the places where the painting on top of the painting that is underneath is carved away. They remind one of the exhausting and exhaustive lists of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. “They played the following games,” Rabelais will write, and then, following the colon, list, one imagines, all hundred and twenty-seven of the games he has ever heard of or imagined.
But, like a book that seems to have squeezed out every last possible word of itself—a novel, for instance, that is two or three thousand pages long—the volume a work contains might perhaps be a sign of its infinitude, but it isn’t the element that is infinite. If there is something in the work of Sue Bartfield, then, that remains as unfinished and pending as Don Quixote’s suspended sword, and therefore renders these paintings worthy of being read under the sign of pleasure, or within its infinite economy, it is their relation to perspective, which is precisely this: they have none. Like a lingering, medium range shot of the face in film—Deleuze’s affect image—or, perhaps, one of Beckett’s terrifying “Texts for Nothing,” these paintings afford their viewer no opportunity to situate himself in relation to them and, to precisely this extent, they are never finished, or one is never finished looking at them—he can never put them into their frame, bracket them, quite comprehend them, for he would at least have to know where they ended and he began in order to do such a thing. Perhaps one cannot find his perspective in relation to them because there is simply too much of them, or in them: too much form, too much movement; or perhaps it is that any piece of them could easily be mistaken for a whole. But perhaps we should consider why a lingering shot of the face—taken neither too close to be distorted nor so far that it is flattened—affords its viewer no opportunity to situate himself in relation to it: Because here, in the face, we are not just encountering an instance of life like any other, but also life itself, both the expression and what is expressed; when a single object, or a single work, simultaneously contains two dimensions that nonetheless cannot be perceived at once, how does one ever grasp it? Thinking of it this way, it might occur to us that if we can’t situate ourselves in relation to Sue Bartfield’s paintings, or never quite finish looking at them so that we have seen what there is to see in them and know what it is that we have seen, it is because, painted under the sign of pleasure, or within its incalculable and infinite economy, each painting is not just a painting but also painting itself, all of it, in its entirety, and to the exclusion of nothing.
Perhaps it is at just these times that it becomes the task of the critic, who stands between the economy within which a work is made and the economy within which it might one day circulate, to forsake his obligation to, dressed as himself, lustfully cruise the body of some text, any text, and instead step forward, as one possible someone or anyone, and say, “It gives me pleasure to introduce this work.”