Issue 1: Research Festival

Painting as a returning object

This article discusses the history of object returns, and how painting, as an object both shaped and participating in the shaping of the creator’s actions, becomes a visual representation of the tension between subject and object.


In art history, the boundary between painting and object has been broken down many times, but often with a tendency to de-formalize and de-image.

The most interesting paintings in Europe in the early 1950s were derived from ideas related to formlessness. It was a major influence on Tapiés and Lucio Fontana, for example. The materials allowed them more direct contact with reality (instead of merely representing it). Emphasizing the canvas as a material object without preconceived notions.

By drawing an equation between the painting and the object in Donald Jade’s Specific Object, he attempts to lift painting off its rectangular pedestal. In the exhibition, the viewer is unsure of what is a painting and what is part of the space. In the Minimalist movement, simple objects that reinforce visual memory replace complex ones. Using geometric, sharp, cold lines, the artist reduces painting to a phenomenological state. Instead of revealing the painting, the artist hides behind it.

Rauschenberg directly adds the ready-made and found object to the painting, creating an intermediate, ambiguous object. Although works like the Specific Object also use flattened metal as a medium to produce paintings. However, Rauschenberg does not emphasise the use of the found object as a painting medium but rather the conflict between the objects and the painting. We cannot paraphrase the object and meaning in his work. But together, they constitute an alternative narrative compared to the reading of the image.

Rauschenberg denies that there is a fixed core of artistic creation and advocates the eternal reconstruction of oneself in adapting to the encountered world. He explores what else painting can be. This inquiry continues to this day.

Breaking boundaries is no longer the aim of contemporary paintings. However,  the resistance is still there. The opposite of resistance is no longer the history of art as a whole but the history of each artist. It is the artist’s resistance to the perception of himself as a human being facing the dilemmas of life, the changing state of affairs, and being required to retain the inherent notion of a homogeneous personality.

In this paper, I will discuss how painting, as an object both shaped and participating in the shaping of the creator’s actions, becomes a visual representation of the tension between subject and object. And present several ways of enhancing the materiality of painting.

Painting has long been a returning object but an unfamiliar identity to us.

Background: The return of the object

“I’m sitting at my computer and there’s no landscape around me. It’s all those objects that surround me. These things, old belongings, fill the space. I look at the curlers next to each other, and the soft spikes on them give me a sense of strangeness. How can there be such odd things? I recalled that this room was a huge object, and I was inside it, squeezed and deformed” (2022.7.20)

Objects define us.

‘The world of objects, however ‘ordinary’, is a trove of disguises, concealments, subterfuges, provocations and triggers that no singular, embodied and knowledgeable subject can exhaust.’

Antony Hudek,2014, p14

I remember the experience of visiting the mid-term exhibition at Slade. There are nails on the wall; water keeps dripping down to the floor while someone is drawing huge pastel marks on the wall. Many things were happening simultaneously, and all those things became part of the exhibition with or without the artist’s intention. What are those things around me? Are they paintings? Sculptures? Installations? Buildings? All and none. After taking a fresh look at the exhibits, I was surrounded by a great deal of uncertainty. This unknown and uncertain situation excites me. We cannot paraphrase objects just like we cannot paraphrase poems.

Objects are no longer recognisable, perceivable, consumable objects as we know them. Objects can have no entity, images can be objects, language can be objects, and people can be objectified.

“By releasing the energy stored in them, things become co-workers, potentially friends, even lovers.”

Hito Steyerl, 2011

Kira Freije, has made a non-figurative installation assembled from everyday objects, which she called a portrait of her dog’. The artwork is a prime example of the object’s capacity to evade the knowledge gap. Artists can elucidate the complexities of objects and things in general.

Kira Freije, in the way of the wind,

But in the earliest times, human beings did not perceive objects in the same way as they do now. The idea that objects are the measure of objectivity is clearly expressed in Aquinas’s argument, for example, that truth can be verified by the consistency of things with reason. The greater the consistency between the two, the closer the subject’s thinking is to the truth. Objects that are not perceived or that are considered to be impossible, virtual, or imaginary are distant from reality and are, therefore untrue. This view laid the foundation for an object-object-centred epistemology throughout the ancient philosophical period.

According to art history, it is the period of human imitation and reproduction of nature. Early still life painting is the visual embodiment of the process of man’s (the subject’s) constant correction of his conceptual perception of the object. Human beings are constantly studying volumetric light and shadow, and attempting to synthesize their rationale.

Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit, 1596-1601

But sometimes, this can lead to confusion. Take for example the painters Zeuxis and Paracius. The curtains of Parasius deceive the eyes of Zeus. By painting as an ‘object’, Palatius tries to make people think that the curtains are real. At this point, he is painting more than a phenomenon that nature presents directly to man. He intends to create the object by painting it. The subject, the viewer, unconsciously specifies the painting as the curtain. The traditional philosophical perspective of the subject surrounding the object is inverted. ‘It exposes the subject’s unconscious gaze to the light’ For Lacan, Pararhasiu’s theatrical device proved not a mastery of technical means (a trap for the gaze) but rather a successful Trompe-l’œil, an eye-trick, which brought the subject’s unconscious gaze to light. (Antony Hudek, 2014, p14)

Venus rising from the sea, Raphaelle Peale,

Kant’s Copernican revolution changed the position of subject and object. In discussions of metaphysics in the past, philosophers always saw the object of knowledge as an unchanging object. They argued that the subject’s knowledge (concept) must conform to the object. Kant maintains, however, that what we know intrinsically about an item is nothing more than what we put into it.

Human reason requires that we gain knowledge of objects through experience, but this does not imply that the concepts we derive from experience must conform to the objects themselves. In contrast, according to reason, all experience objects must be known in accordance with our innate notions and must be consistent with these concepts. This idea can be seen in Kossuth’s One and Three Chairs. The dictionary definition of a chair (an object constructed by humans) is derived from the basic nature of a chair. However, the dictionary definition of a chair does not necessarily correspond to the chair in the picture next to it; it can refer to any chair. Kant emphasizes the individual’s consciousness while creating a distance from the object.

One and Three Chairs
Joseph Kosuth

In the 20th century. Edmund Husserl argued that humans could only perceive objects through phenomena. And Heidegger was grappling with something like an autonomous thing in itself. In Lacan, things are getting closer and closer to what the subject cannot perceive and further from the perceptual mastery of the subject.

‘We have now entered, with speculative realism (or ‘speculative materialism’ for Meillassoux), a world where the object, whether thing, tool, thought, phenomenon or living creature, has regained its rights, freed from the subject’s determining mind, body and gaze.’

Antony Hudek, 2014, p14

In 2019, Graham Harman published a paper based on Heidegger’s ideas. ‘Object-oriented Ontology’ suggests no ontological distinction in the form of subject-object; instead, there is an equivalent object-to-object relationship. The dichotomy between subject and object disappears, leaving behind a form of contact between two participants. The “quasi-object” is articulated in M. Serres’s Metaphysique Souche, the Quasi-Object. M. Serres compares this ‘quasi-object’ to a football in a game, a medium that both influences and is influenced by the participant’s behaviour in the relations between the two sides of the game.

Quasi-Object reminds me of my painting practice. The painting gives me feedback whenever I leave a mark on the canvas. The feedback process is more like the painting holding me in check. I responded to this feedback and proceeded to the next step. Therefore, the painting process deviates frequently in the absence of a sketch. From my point of view, this is the portion of the process where I interact with the painting outside of my own subjective control.

Is the painting capable of becoming the Quasi Object, as M. Serres suggests? Painting is both a medium and an objective object. In the process of painting, the painting itself acts as a medium. The Painter corresponds to another participant (the other side of the football game stated above); possibly, this participant is already present on the canvas as a trace, mark or moment. All acts of painting are contained within this interlocking relational tension. The painting thus becomes a visual representation of this dynamic relationship. Compared to sculpture, installation, and video works, the painting depicts this dynamic process the quickest, most directly and most visually.

‘Painting promises the existence of an imaginary place where labour (also in its form of nonlabor) actually remains private and concrete, detectable in the concrete materiality of its surface and the gestures it displays.’

Isabelle Graw, 2016, p10

In the passage, Isabelle Graw draws on this one assumption that painting can be regarded as a trace of activity, that it evokes subjectivity. ‘I believe that painting is particularly well positioned in such an economy since it gives the impression of being saturated with the life of its author’ ( Isabelle Graw,2015, p3). That’s why painting, as a product, an object, still exists in an era where many contemporary art forms are prevalent.

The use of words and illusions in paintings emphasises the objectivity of the painting

Unlike the de-formalised approach of Specific Objects and Minimalism, contemporary painting does not exclude the use of images. Contemporary painting adds words, ‘digs’ holes, creates illusions, rather than overemphasizing materiality through thick paint and coarse mechanics.

In ancient China, painters would mention poetry in their paintings, but the purpose was to enhance the image’s visual effect on an aesthetic level. Text also appears in contemporary paintings, but it does not enhance the impact. Instead, they are intended to rob the image in the picture of its presence. By interfering with the painting, the text alters the image, thus highlighting the objective quality of the painting.

Su Shi

The words carry a meaning that, for the viewer, can point directly to new imagery. With this association, the viewer can withdraw from the picture and enter an imagined world. There is a paradoxical tension between the imagined image and the actual image, which enhances the painting’s presence. Similarly to Luc Godard’s films, he constantly reminds you that you are watching a movie. Besides, the sharp edges of the text tend to break the original harmony of the image.

Most graphics in contemporary media communication serve a purpose nowadays, such as advertisements, news, and games. Many pop-ups and captions are floating at the top of the screen. We are used to being guided by language, and words are already subconsciously present in the visuals we perceive. Painting, however, is typically viewed as a realm of purity in most people’s minds. It is pure, unsullied. When a painter incorporates words into a painting, especially ones with powerful propaganda, the observer is actively provoked.

Moreover, digging holes in the painting can have the same effect as applying words. Fontana once scratched the canvas, but he did not kill the painting. Rather, he brought the painting back to life. In Vivien Zhang’s work, she plays an obvious trick on the viewer’s vision by simulating the paper’s hollowness and texture. In this process of deception, she breaks the viewer’s habitual way of looking at the image. The artist plays a visual game with the audience.

Vivien Zhang
Okinawa Lions, 2014
Oil and ink on canvas
46 x 51 cm

Such illusions give the viewer a sense of the uncanny that is contrary to their everyday experiences. The work of David Musgrave has a similar intention. His work always features a texture distinct from the material itself. Such a pictorial practice negates the one-to-one correspondence of Panofsky’s iconography with the image’s content. Panofsky’s iconography divides the work into three levels, providing the viewer with a clear path to explore the art objects. However, based on this approach, viewers consume images at an ever-increasing rate, undermining such a singular form of consuming and viewing.

David Musgrave

The artists mentioned above create images not to tell a story but to make paintings visible. They developed the idea with the intention to kill, break, and destroy it. This aims to raise viewers’ awareness about how unreal the image is; only the painting is the actual object. So destroying an image instead of trying to recreate it is a way of evoking the existence of painting. Gremlin In The Studio is a painting by Martin Johnson Heade in which the artist has intentionally drawn a line at the bottom of the canvas. At the top of the line is a conventional landscape painting with a detailed and nuanced depiction of the subject. Below the line is the easel in the artist’s studio. The viewer sees a picture within a painting, which is a Trompe-l’oeil. Additionally, Martin appears to emphasize the objectivity of the painting within the frame by destroying the normal landscape painting.

Martin Johnson Heade
Gremlin In The Studio
The repetitive movements of the artist in the working process as a means of enhancing the objectivity of the painting

In my previous reflection, I discussed the technique of continually sketching outlines to create a richer figure. I appreciated the recurrence of a process that appeared to diverge but was bringing me closer. The repetition can be explained by the fact that as I become more experienced with the approach, my engagement with the drawing becomes increasingly fixed. Repetition provides me with a sense of security and command. This is a break from the traditional state of painting, where leaving traces on the canvas is considered a movement full of the artist‘s agency. Through this differential repetition, I am objectified, and the subjectivity of painting is heightened. My engagement with the picture evolves into a dialogue with the performer.

I visited Cezanne’s exhibition at Tate Modern. His painting contains numerous repeated contour lines. These contour lines appear disorganised and haphazard. He gradually rounded off the shape of things by repeating them repeatedly. ‘

Cézanne did not impose an innate framework on the phenomenon through a mechanical process. Instead, he extracted an ‘interpretation of the phenomenon, extracted gradually from the object through a long period of silent observation.’

Roger Fry,1927,p89

Cezanne paints tactilely. 

Still life with Water Jug

Unlike Cézanne’s repetition, in Vivien Zhang’s work, there are repetitive high-resolution images. She believes that the repetition of drawing small three-centimetre grids releases her from the satisfaction of recurrence, the discomfort of controlling the psyche, and the pain of stagnation. The images contrast with other natural and random brushstrokes. Gradually, drawing the grid becomes an unconscious endeavour, and the colours and directions become conditioned. The mind is then freed of intense concentration. The recurrence is not only reflected in the repetition of an object. But also evident throughout the painting process, where destruction and construction alternate. There is no definitive final state.

The attempt to undermine the authority of the artist-subject with the help of various anti-subjective procedures, nevertheless, allowed the artist-subject to enter through the back door. In Andrew Grassie’s lecture, he talks about reproduction and repetition in painting. Painting, as we know, is a constant reminder of the ghost of the artist’s presence. However, he makes his work transparent by reproducing other artists’ works in the gallery.  Moreover, in the process, the painting seems to have painted itself-the agency shifts from the artist to the painting. He dissolves the meaning of the image. This emphasises the act of looking to show us what we cannot otherwise perceive. In his lecture, he talked about the act of duplication in painting as an act that adds layers of reality. However, how do we view painting as an object with subjectivity?

Andrew Grassie
Art store
Tempera on paper on board
Using visual relations and space awareness to improve painting’s objectivity

In Wittgenstein’s theory, the understanding of objects is always embedded in their context.

‘Everything is, as it were, in the space of possible atomic facts.’

Wittgenstein, 1974, p26

By knowing an object, we also know its atomic fact and all possible circumstances. Moreover, we cannot think of any object apart from the possibility of its connection with other things. When I see water, I know how it flows. Even if the cup falls over, I can predict where the water will flow and where the drops will fall. The way we anticipate various things in life comes from this narrative.

“That is why we read the world narratively all the time” 

Richard Wentworth,1984,p9

There is no vacuum of gaze for the viewer in an exhibition. Our eyes wander through multiple works, making connections. We no longer read the painting as a mere extraction of the image but as a relationship between its shape, texture, size and gallery space. Just as in the church, the fine carvings emerge from the architecture. We cannot separate art objects from space. The artist considers the inescapable spatiality of painting in his work, using it to direct the viewer’s attention. It becomes another way of enhancing the materiality of the painting.


Dick Higgins in Intermedia referred to

The readymade or found object as having the significance of an “intermediate medium”.

Dick Higgins, 1966

Since it is not intended to follow a pure medium, it suggests a position between the realm of the artistic medium and that of the everyday medium.

Before Picasso’s reputation began to fade and Duchamp’s work still captivated us, painting had ceased to be considered a traditional medium in art. With the emergence of installation and video, a painting lost its place as a solid artistic medium in art. Painting became provisional and ambiguous; It began to survive between art and everyday items. Graffiti could be seen almost anywhere in the city, even in mobile phone memos. Anyone who owns a paintbrush can paint. Painting becomes a ghost-like action. Images from the internet, historical paradigms of painting, and embarrassments from the subject’s life are all mixed into the painting. It is no longer a lifeless, flat object but becomes a model of action, reaction, and tension. An interlocking process in which the boundaries between subject and object are blurred, allowing the relationship between the artist as a person and the painting medium to be released. Painting has long been a returning object but an unfamiliar identity to us. It’s time to have a new perception of it.


Kira Freije at The Approach. 2022 [Online]
Available at:

Dan Scott, 2022. A Closer Look at Basket of Fruit by Michelangelo Caravaggio. [Online]
Available at:

Raphaelle Peale, 1822. Venus Rising From the Sea – A Deception.jpg[Online]

Joseph Kosuth, One and three Chair,1965 Photo by phone.

Sushi, 1037-1101. Christie‘s. [Online]
Available at:

Students/Vivien Zhang. 2014. Royal College of Art. [Online]

Daily Art Fair: David Musgrave. 2015. [Online]

Martin Johnson Heade, 2017. Fine Art America – Buy Art Online. [Online]


Antony Hudel, 2014. The Object: Induction. London: Whitechapel Gallery.

Hito Steyerl, 2012. The Object. A Thing Like You and Me, p. 45-51.

きょうひ, 2018. Post-post-modern thought: discursive materialism – the ontological turn from anthropology. [Online]Available at:

Houyi Zhou, 2022. Anti-“corporeal formula” –Deleuze on the reconstruction of “sensation” in Cézanne’s painting. The Contemporary Artist(5)

Roger Fry, The Painting Style of Cézanne and its Development, translated by Shen Yubing, Guilin: Guangxi Normal University Press, 2009, p. 89.

Isabelle Graw, 2015. The Value of Liveliness: Painting as an Index of Agency in the New Economy.

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. (C. K. Ogden, m.a., Ed.) London: KEGAN PAUL, TRENCH, TRUBNER & CO., LTD.

About the author

Ruohan Yu is a London/China-based artist working with painting, writing and installations. She studied MA Fine Art: Painting at Camberwell from 2021 to 2022. Find out more about her research at