Guston, Philip: The Studio (1969)

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But it's not only the action of Punch and Judy that could interest an artist. The mechanics of the show are interesting too, its very transparent illusions. There's the booth, upright and human-sized, almost a costume, overtly concealing the puppeteer inside it. There are the puppets that poke out above the booth's ledge, clearly a pair of human hands: glove puppets. And the odd thing about glove puppets is, they only ever poke out. They cannot stand free. You can never see all of them. There isn't really an 'all' to see.

The practical reason, obviously, is that glove puppets don't have whole bodies, as marionettes do. They're an extension of the operators' arms. But the audience mustn't see those arms, so the puppets, when they appear, are always in part off-stage. They put their heads and torsos above the parapet, but their lower body must disappear " and it's a body that doesn't have a definite lower end, it just trails off into the unseen space below.

Glove puppets are inherently emergers. Their illusion of life is dependent not only the hands that manipulate them, but on the stage window that frames them. To live, a glove puppet must stay cut off, partly out of view. In fact, the only time you see the whole puppet is when it comes off the operator's hand and is flung out of the booth, empty, skirts flying. (This happens to Mr Punch's serial victims.) In other words, when it's dead.

There's a similar situation in pictures. Things are always emerging. They poke in from outside the frame. They poke out from behind other things. A part of them stays out of view, and it isn't always clear what this unseen part is up to, or whether it even really exists. In dozens of Renaissance portraits, for instance, you just get a head-and-shoulders, and as for the rest of the body below the frame, well, you assume it continues somehow but this continuation isn't the picture's business. As with a glove puppet, you can believe in what appears in the picture, even though it seems to appear out of nowhere.

Or there's Philip Guston's The Studio. You might call it 'A Portrait of the Artist as Mr Punch'. It's partly because of the subject. It's partly because the whole image works like a Punch and Judy show.

OK, not a direct inspiration. Strictly speaking, it's 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Ku-Klux-Klansman'. But this pointy-hooded character, who appears in other Guston paintings, is never quite a white supremacist terrorist. He's more a faceless shape, a figure of dumb comic menace, a malevolent skirted puppet. (But then the Klan itself has a ridiculous side, with its absurd monster-hero nomenclature " Imperial Wizard, Grand Dragon, Exalted Cyclops, etc.)

The painting is deadpan comic. It is a lumpen cartoon variation on a great theme of Western painting: the image of the artist in his studio, the manifesto picture that exalts the artist and his art. Vermeer did one, and Velazquez, and Courbet. Guston's late 20th century version shows the modern painter amid a messy collection of his essential props " paintbrush and cigarette, naked light bulb and studio clock. Unlike traditional versions, The Studio doesn't proclaim the social standing or the social importance of the artist. It offers a less dignified kind of heroism, tough, manly, dirty, smokey. There's a backfire joke in having the artist paint his self-portrait with his head in a bag.

But notice too how the whole scene is an overt construction, a put-together. Everything is poking in. Nothing has any foundation within the picture. Every item emerges (like a glove puppet) from behind something else. The central hooded figure arises from off frame. His big red painting hand enters from behind him. The light bulb dangles in from the top. The window peeps from behind his head. The clock comes out from behind the easel. The easel and canvas arrive from behind the red palette and the artist and ultimately from off-frame too.

Paint pots are set on the bottom edge of the picture, which becomes a ledge, as in a Renaissance portrait: some solid ground there, at least, but also another bit of tricksiness, as if the things in a picture could 'sit' on the picture's frame. Meanwhile, at the top, more framing devices, this time borrowed from Vermeer, the two swathes of red curtain that just hang in from somewhere or other. The painting may have a rough, heavy manner, but it's canny, and full of nods to the history of art.

Visual echoes all over knit the packed scene together. Above all, there's an insistent linkage between the activities of smoking and painting. The cigarette sticks out from the two upright fingers, as the brushes stick out from the paint pot. The cigarette and the held brush are horizontal and parallel. As the brush paints, the cigarette puffs. The rising plume of grey smoke, which lies absolutely in the centre of the picture, is made of paint and looks like a bit of raw paint swirled around. Oddly enough, this isolated puff of smoke is the only thing in the scene that unequivocally doesn't appear from behind something else. That's the way to do it.

THE ARTIST

Philip Guston (1913-80) was a New York painter who changed course twice. He started figurative, with a blend of surrealism and social satire. After the war he went into what some called 'Abstract Impressionism', multicoloured patches of paint huddling together in the middle of the canvas. Around 1970, cartoonish shapes emerged as the most vigorous example of late-20th-century figurative painting " body-parts, eyeballs, hairy bollocks, fag-ends, hob-nail boots, dustbin lids, piled up, raw, thick, clumpy, fatty, wrecked; hang-over pictures, heart-attack pictures, a savage farce with solid presence, and a delicate wit articulating it.

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