Halfway by Tofu St. John is a meta-painting because it is a painting about painting. The picture is a self-portrait of the painter doing what a painter does. However, the figure is not holding an artist’s brush, as you might expect, but a decorator’s roller. Painting a wall with a solid color — in this case sky blue — is not usually considered artistic, so this piece creates a tension between painting as art and painting as decoration.
The artist (or decorator) in the picture, with one hand casually tucked into his pocket, has covered up about half of a white stucco wall from the bottom up, reminding us of the title of the piece: Halfway. The work also marks the halfway point in Tofu’s project, whose aim is to produce one 4″ by 4″ painting everyday in 2011. Many of the pictures in the series refer to historical events that happened on that day, current events, personal events, or holidays; in this case, the work was painted on July 2nd, the 183rd day, the middle of the year.
The project is called A Map of the Year in 365 Pieces, and a map appears under the broken stucco in the upper left-hand corner. The symbolic meaning of the map is revealed in the title: “A Map of the Year.” A map, like a painting, is a symbolic record of a larger world. Instead of recording space, Tofu’s project is a map of time, a record of a year.
Tofu often uses images from maps in his artwork. Maps, which normally help people find their way, are often sliced up and rearranged in his work, so the map’s usefulness as a physical guide to the planet is destroyed, although the new map, the artwork, may still guide us in an artistic sense. In this painting, the map will be twice hidden: once under stucco and again under blue paint.
The map in the painting should be completely covered over once the year-long project is completed. Thus, following the symbolism of Tofu’s metapainting, Tofu erases the map of the year as the project continues. Perhaps he is saying that we can never find our way back to the day each piece represents; that day disappears as it is painted. Art cannot lead us back to a day in our past — art remakes time, symbolizes it, defines it, and freezes it.
If we flip Tofu’s painting upside down, the map becomes ground, the stucco turns into clouds, and the blue changes into sky. God-like, Tofu casually reaches down from heaven (one hand tucked in his pocket), painting over the map of the year as he creates it, thereby unmapping time.
(For more about metapainting, see my posts “Abstract Paintings are Meta-Paintings,” “Las Meninas: A Meta-Painting, “If Not a Pipe, Then What?,” and The Lack of Blank Spaces: John Cage’s 4’33” and Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings.)