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Care/full Looking: Some Notes towards a Posthuman Account of Painting

Maegan Harbridge, Entangled Terrain (cyborg series), acrylic on paper/ acrylic on canvas, 2023

A blue hat woven and textured, tangible to touch, momentarily matches an aquatic sky, both shine bright and shift to silver with a blink of an eye.

Colour is relational and these relationships in flux are primary sources for re-storying the world.[1] Formalist theory (seemingly esoteric, enigmatic, historically coded, disciplinary knowledge) is a toolkit for a posthumanist paradigm, an attentional prosthetics for critical perception, a sharpening of senses as the arming oneself against a brutally insensitive present.[2]

Formalism, which is “the critical position that the most important aspect of a work of art is its form – the way it is made and its purely visual aspects – rather than its narrative content or its relationship to the visible world”is reimagined for the critical posthumanities (Formalism). Posthuman formalism affirms the importance of formalism in visual art, though it does so through a methodology of care/full looking, which is attentive to the relational aspect of composition.

Care/full looking is learning to see, with care, the interrelationality between seemingly independent forms. A honing of one’s own critical perception, as an act of self-care, is in fact an act of radical care. To take note of the fluctuating line between figure and ground is a paradigmatic shift from a humanist lens of singular beings towards recognition of a relationally constituted world. Care/full looking, as a methodology for critical analysis, bears witnesses to the peculiarity of form as it erodes an idea of autonomous bodies and stimulates response/ability towards the given implication of inter-human and more-than-human entanglements. It adopts a diffractive methodology of observation, “a difference-attentive mode of consciousness and thought […] where single entities, diffractively crisscross, interfere, and co-establish one another” (Geerts and van der Tuin). To look with care is to see the relational quality of colour, line, texture, shapes and their shadows. It is to see figure and ground abut as differences that co-establish one another, as the simultaneity between profiles and vase, as differences that make differences. To see a companionship of form through care/full looking is to see connections between all animate and inanimate materiality. Abstract painting–once on the brink of extinction because it was assimilated as a tool for propaganda, is reimagined for the critical posthumanities as a non-conforming body against representation, identification, transparency, and surveillance. It is a formalism of opacity, that takes back abstract painting as a face of fugitivity; a picture of unresolved and indeterminate worlds iteratively manifesting. The non-linear approach of abstraction in painting is a practice of defamiliarization that’s inherently non-normative; a dis-identification “from familiar and hence comforting values and identities (Braidotti 2008, 31).” It is a posthuman creative counterpoint to the representational logic of humanist subjectivity that underlies western capitalism. A dis/coherent composition that butts against the edges of language as a conspiracy “that takes sides against any plot”(Harney and Desideri 2013, 125)– a collective practice of “dis-identification (Braidotti 2008, 32).” Posthuman formalism champions abstract painting as a “virtual potential” (Braidotti 2008, 31).” of a world without binaries, a world that is not fixed, a world that pulses with cosmologies of disparate personal narratives that do not resolve into truth but present a simultaneity of being. This autonomy of otherness iteratively effects through an interconnectivity of individuals affects. Colour, line, texture, and shape, elements of modernist form, reduced as the component parts of composition, emphasized the picture plane’s edges, borders, and flatness as an ultimate gesture of hu(Man) criticality. But what about the narrative of Man that underwrote this modernist stance? Through care/full looking, learning to see relationally, unmasks our storytelling predisposition so as to tell a new story of our hybridly human selves.“We presently live in a moment where the human is understood as a purely biological mechanism that is subordinated to a teleological economic script that governs our global well-being/ill-being” but what if myth, delinked from a secular conception of the human’s “macro-origin story” can be understood as a definitive formal aspect of human constitution (McKittrick and Wynter 2015, 10). “Humans are, […] a biomutationally evolved, hybrid species–storytellers who now storytellingly invent themselves as purely biological (McKittrick and Wynter 2015, 11).”

Maegan Harbridge, Entangled Terrain (cyborg series), acrylic on paper/ acrylic on canvas, 2023

Learning to see relationally, through care/full looking links the contours of bodies, spaces, and stories as sets of differences that matter through their interrelation not individuation. To reimagine humanness as a state of relation rather than exception is to consider the human a hybrid being that evolves through a set of relations between biology and narrative–form and substance (McKittrick and Wynter 2015, 31). A painting is a story of shared social, political, technological, and biological myths. A material-discursive force that maintains its significance by virtue of our “auto-instituting, bios/mythoi”[8] nature, and which substantiates itself through a relational loop of romantic, modern, and posthuman stories. A painting is a body, and a painting is a face.[3] Posthuman formalism co-opts abstract painting as a post representational practice to counter the story of Man, a technology of estrangement, a discombobulation of parts. Posthuman formalism is a cyborg, a junkspace, of disparate narratives and worlds, which are haphazardly contaminated through an entanglement of bodies and terrains. Through a care/full consideration of the contingency of form (to take note of how a line wavers from an edge, to a shadow, to a colour, to a shape), abstract painting tells a story that cannot be linearly understood; acting on bodies and social institutions as an epistemological disobedience against a self-replicating script of atomistic individualism (Braidotti 2008, 29).

Within a posthuman context abstract painting presents an opportunity for productive antagonism where a suspension of logic, through incoherent forms, precedes rationalization and enables an affective, embodied experience. To reimagine formalism as a posthuman practice of critical perception it to offer one aesthetic possibility in “how we might give humanness a different future.”

Notes: Some of these ideas were first explored in my previously published texts "A Shadow is a Colour, A Body is a Shape, An Edge is a Line: Towards a Posthuman Account of Painting. and “A Line is an Edge, is a Colour, is a Shadow: Towards a Posthuman Account of Painting” [1] McKittrick, Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human, 4. McKittrick suggests that what Sylvia Wynter’s most recent insights give us is the possibility of using narrative to reimagine humanness as a verb rather than a noun. [2]Weber, Interaction of Color, xi. Donald Judd suggests that the most crucial point of Josef Alber’s Interaction of Color was, was to establish that an increased sensitivity and awareness of colour gives us a “weapon against forces of insensitivity and brutalization.” [3] Hofmeyr, Benda, “Isn’t Art an Activity that Gives Things a Face?: Levinas on the Power of Art,” 2. Benda Hofmeyr connects Levinas’ notion of radical passivity to the way we experience art objects (2). The opaqueness of a face (be it human or the one of an expressive object) in its irreducible quality breaks up representation, destroys the possibility for a linear understanding, and triggers what Hofmeyr calls “pre-conscious awareness” (3). This primary experience exposes the fragmentary nature of a singular perspective and complicates the notion of a reliable objective experience.


Braidotti, Rosi. “The Politics of Radical Immanence: May 1968 as an Event.” New formations 65, no. 65 (2008): 19–33. “Formalism,” Art Term. Geerts, Evelien and Iris van der Tuin, “Diffraction and Reading Diffractively,” Harney, Stefano and Valentina Desideri. “A Conspiracy without a Plot” Martinon, Jean- Paul, ed. “The Curatorial: a Philosophy of Curating”, 125. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

Hofmeyr, Benda, “Isn’t Art an Activity that Gives Things a Face?: Levinas on the Power of Art,” 2. McKittrick, Katherine. 2015. “Yours in the Intellectual Struggle: Sylvia Wynter and the Realization of Living.” In Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, 1-8. Ed. Katherine McKittrick. North Carolina: Duke University Press.

McKittrick, Katherine, and Sylvia Wynter. 2015. “Unparalleled Catastrophe For Our Species? Or, to Give Humanness a Different Future: Conversations.” In Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, 9-89. Ed. Katherine McKittrick. North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Weber, Nicholas Fox. 2013. “Foreword.” In Interaction of Color, ix-xi. New Haven: Yale University Press /The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation.


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