MASTERS PROJECT 2018/2019
Currently I’m investigating landscape, materiality and process in painting, as I undertake a Master of Arts (painting). Specifically I’m looking at changes in thinking that underpin contemporary practice with regard to these things, via analysis of work by Julie Mehretu, Ingrid Calame, and Peter Doig, while drawing on aspects of critical theory.
I'll use this page to discuss conceptual and theoretical issues, as well as modes of practice relating to my project that shape the experience of painting, and to show my methodology and flow of ideas.
I’m working directly in sites in the natural environment, limiting myself to working with the land, the conditions of site, and the materials I bring, in order to respond to what occurs there.
For a link to my current work click here
ENTRY SEVEN: VIBRANT MATTER
I have put together some response to Jane Bennett’s theory of vibrant matter, from the chapter titled ‘The Force of Things’ found in the book Vibrant Matter: A political ecology of things. (pp 1-19). Durham & London: Duke University Press (2010)
In this article Bennett explores the ‘resistant force’ that things have to the meanings we interpret about them and place on them, and suggests that they not only deflect these meanings but exert their own self-generated energy or messages. She describes this energy as being between things rather than inherent in the things on their own, it’s as if assemblages or networks of things together have resonances or vitality through their connection to each other. She also suggests that both human and nonhuman material operate in this same manner. Through her theory she hopes to generate more a considered and harmonious relationship between people and things and how we all exist together in the world, through an awareness of the connected relationship between all materiality, and to challenge thinking that has come from the industrial age where people think they can exploit non-human resources in an unsustainable way to their liking.
Bennett says that ‘stuff’ carries its own life-force, even when its context is changed, for example when something is thrown away. ‘Stuff’ or ‘matter’ not only resists our constructed meanings, but carries their own energy – Bennett calls it ‘thing-power’ – that can act upon other stuff and matter. Stephen Jay Gould and Thomas Dumm both support this idea of looking at things in new and different ways to discover their actant energy. In this way, ‘things’ can act upon us too, and we can be part of finding out new meanings of things. Bennett asserts that things’ vital materiality continues even when the object is thrown away as junk – this is the power of things to produce effects.
Nonorganic life has this autonomous energy (thing-power) too, and can self-organise. Russian scientist Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky says there is no difference between life and matter, that they are all made of the same stuff. Manuel De Landa also talks about how inorganic matter can self-organise. Using the example of Odrakek, a nonorganic character in a literary piece, Bennett illustrates how nonhuman material can have life or thing-power. ‘Life’: the capacity for growth, reproduction, functionality and change before death.
Bennett is saying that vitality is more than a living person’s consciousness, but that it is their matter that then gets ingested into the world around them – when a person dies or a tree dies their physical matter decomposes, for example. She is drawing a parallel between all things here, both organic and human-made things, that it is in their physical-ness that the vitality is stored.
This power exists in both organic and nonorganic life, and so people and things are equal. Agents and operators (people who decide to do things with things) need to be thought of as on the same level next to all other matter they manipulate. Bruno Latour extends this idea with the term ‘actant’ to mean the source of an action, and the source can be human or not. John Frow, a contemporary Australian writer supports this equalising and thinks it will make for a better world, and I think one of Bennett’s main reasons for writing this is a deep desire for a more harmonious world.
Bennett then illustrates how nonhuman things and people have no distinction between them in terms of materiality; we are the same in our ‘thing-hood’. Bennett asserts that vitality is intrinsic to matter itself whether organic or inorganic, and doesn’t need human spirit or soul to compel response. She suggests that perhaps her brain/body/blood/bones, have their own thing-power going on, generating self-organising and not passive response to other matter. She does cross examine and wonders if it’s the things that have their own thing-power, or if it’s her own response imagining the vibrant energy of the objects. Although she argues that to say that humans have created or constructed and projected meanings for things is to exaggerate the power of humans, but that we are in fact the result of both human and non-human influences.
This theory leaves no room for the concept of a soul or spirit of living things, or rather it re-invents this idea of an on-going eternal spirit of a person that generates life as an idea that all matter has this quality. The idea that people possess a spirit, soul, or intellect is challenged by many philosophers (Kafta, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Richard Rorty), including De Landa, Vernadsky who support the self-organising nature of beings, that we are an extension of the matter that makes up earth. And Bennett suggests we consider the materialist state of which we are composed as being the main force of vitality in things, rather coming only if at all from our intellect, intention, or spirit. I’m not convinced about this part of her theory as there is evidence for the existence of created intelligence and a loving intelligent creator.
Bennett introduces the idea of ‘nonidentity’ - things have a power that is beyond our reach and control. Bennett and Theodore Adorno share the view that things have a nonidentity or vital materialism that holds a spiritual absolute or a power outside of themselves. Things cannot be caged by a concept about it. Bennett suggests it’s more than just accepting Adorno’s view of this life-force that objects have, but it’s putting people and things on the same level of this life-force they carry. The idea of non-identity reminds me of conscience. An arbitrary force coming from outside of ourselves – that if we become still and listen to it, we could notice their independent thoughts.
Bennett has lost faith in morality and our ability to create a healthy and safe place to live, because of our tendency to exploit and oppress. She hopes that if people think more about their relationship to all matter, that it might create more respect between people and things and bring about a better world.
Her main drive is a call for people to act more responsibly or ethically or holistically, by harnessing ourselves, being more open, naïve, and vacant from our preconceived thoughts. That way, if people acknowledge all materials’ autonomy, and if we all (both human and inanimate matter) can live more harmoniously, the world will be a better place. Is she assuming that by listening to each other more, things will be better? That could imply that the nature of all matter is intrinsically neutral. what might the implications be if the nature of some matter is destructive?
How this might relate to my work
The relationship between me, the land, and the materials that I bring into site, and the resulting paintings.
Not trying to impose my view of the land/site in a painting, not like a ‘landscape’ genre painting, but to work in the site/environment to make paintings, in conjunction with the land/materials/ weather conditions etc.
Being sensitive to what is happening or occurring as I paint on site, and not needing to control them, but working with them, incorporating them, responding to them.
The way the environment acts upon me and my materials.
Being in the environment, rather painting a view of the environment.
David Hockney and what he has to say on the conventional use of ‘realism’ and the use of perspective. He talks about how linear perspective is a convention used to remove the ‘person’ from the ‘picture world’, and it objectifies and separates the viewer/artist from the painting, it’s kind’ve voyeuristic.
This theory interrupts existential ideas regarding subjective experience of the artist, and intentionality of the artist’s expression. and with regards to my work lends itself to a more intergrative approach with me, the site and materials.
Practically the implication for my paintings are that they may carry vitality in relation to other things like viewers, the space they are viewed in, etc. This extends Rosenberg’s ideas about the action of painting – a series of acts toward forming a new identity.
ENTRY FIVE: GESTURE
I’ve been looking at Judy Millar’s beautiful paintings and enjoying their scale, the way the interact with their surroundings, the tonal qualities, and use of gesture. Because my project focuses on materiality, process and landscape, I’ve also been looking at her work with this in mind.
Millar’s work draws from abstract expressionism in the way it examines and deconstructs ‘gesture’. Instead of using gesture to signify an artist’s subjective expression, as it was used during the 1950s when abstract expressionism was becoming a thing, here Millar looks at gesture in an objective and constructive manner. She pulls apart ‘gesture’ and makes it the main thing, not just a convention used in the process of painting. She also makes gestural marks into large three-dimensional structures that weave around interior spaces, for example in ‘Giraffe-Bottle-Gun’ in La Maddalena, 53rd Venice Biennale, 2009, or in paintings where lively gestural marks do the same on a two dimensional surface.
In the 1950s, abstraction, gesture and artistic expression became central pictorial themes, as gesture broke away from the constraints of its relationship to representation. Jackson Pollock’s work exemplified the two main factors of abstract painting of this period - the artist’s expression, and activity of production.
Artists have been using gestural abstraction in an analytical way since the 1980s - “the immediate, emotional effect of gestural painting has been superseded by an intellectual concept. The gesture is no longer an ‘indexical sign’ but signifies only the idea, the concept of spontaneity”. How has Millar’s use of gesture developed these ideas generated in the 1980s? Who are the other artists using gesture in generative ways?
Not only does Millar use gesture in an analytical way for it to become more reductive, she also sees gesture in painting as being generative. “From this perspective, painting has the potential to bring about singular, unforeseeable ways of configuring the visible. It makes it possible to ‘generate’ images that can’t come about any other way”
Another artist who uses gesture in her work is Julie Mehretu. She uses gesture as tool to isolate marks in her painting, and in making these marks has found a generative process that she calls ‘disembodied thinking’. She says this process is foundational in her work because it opens up a whole new way of thinking about painting that was intuitive and instinctual.
Gestural marks ‘pierced, invaded, devoured, consumed and spit out of the structures’ in her paintings, and as they unfolded on the canvas they created new structural forms - ‘the whole painting composition felt like this explosive image, teeming with activity, but suspended in entropy’. These gestures then became a lexicon that she has used throughout her painting practice.
I’ve been reading books on abstract painting to get a historical perspective on what was happening in this area twenty years ago. It was an interesting exercise because in 1993-1996 I was doing my Bachelor of Fine Arts at Elam in Auckland, and back then it was contemporary for me. The work I made back then was dealing with this stuff – gesture and the concept of spontaneity, the materiality of it all.
I remembered why I was drawn to abstraction – a painting relatively free from prescribed visual cues that distract us as viewers from seeing what a painting may be conveying through paint. - ‘Abstract painting dispenses with the relatively unambiguous analogy of signifier and signified’. And the physical nature of painting where gesture takes front of stage, and where gestural painting implies physical action “a gesture on a large scale in which the artist transfers the movement of their whole body or at least their arm to the picture”.
How can I contextualise my project in 2019 in the developed framework of abstract painting? I’m using gesture in the wrappings and rubbings, it’s evident there that I use my whole body, but it is not my spontaneous personalised marks that are being left on the canvas, but the marks from the texture of the surfaces, and the interplay with the ink and water and drips, and my body/arm as I apply the paint. Is this gesture? Is gesture acting as a generative tool in my work?
I do wonder, after reading about Julie Mehretu’s use of gesture, if perhaps the wrappings and surface texture I’m making on site in the landscape could somehow be viewed in the same way she talks about her marks as ‘disembodied thinking’. Because I’m there in volatile conditions, vulnerable to environmental elements and changes, and constrained my my physical limitations in applying paint to the canvases on the spot, are the marks I pick up on the canvas somehow also residue of this intuitive and instinctual process? Can I then take these marks and use them in my painting to further cement my experience of these landscapes?
 Peter Fischer, Abstraction, Gesture, Ecriture: An Introduction, 1999, p19
 Judy Millar: Catastrophic pictures for the 21st century, by Morgan Thomas, in Art and Australia, Spring 2009, vol 47, no1, pp126-131
 Biswas, A. (2019). Julie Mehretu in conversation with Allie Biswas. In The Brooklyn Rail, Feb 2019
 Biswas, A. (2019). Julie Mehretu in conversation with Allie Biswas. In The Brooklyn Rail, Feb 2019
 Peter Fischer, Abstraction, Gesture, Ecriture: An Introduction, 1999
 Peter Fischer, Abstraction, Gesture, Ecriture: An Introduction, 1999, p13
 Peter Fischer, Abstraction, Gesture, Ecriture: An Introduction, 1999, p19
ENTRY ONE: THE IN-BETWEEN
Some paintings are described as representing a space that is in between what we can see in the real world and what might be more hidden. Some paintings are also described as having something about them that makes us feel like we are looking at a place or a landscape or an imagined space. I’m interested in exploring paintings that that have these things going on. I’ll do this here by looking at work by Julie Mehretu, and Jane Bennett’s theory of ‘vibrant matter’, and Lyotard’s idea of encountering the landscape that he talks about in ‘Scapeland’
In a video titled ‘Julie Mehretu: The in-between place’ Julie talks about her work as representing an ambiguous and other-worldly space . Her work layers references to recognisable places with her own mark making language, by combining this array of drawing into one painting she offers a painting that is “making sense of a place from a very different place”, providing a sense of space that the viewer can move into, where they can experience a new geography . Ingrid Calame also does this by layering tracings of different aspects of her sites.
Mehretu’s work has different levels of reading - as a whole the work has a beautiful and imposing and organic impact, and up close it has a totally new reading as the depth and layers of imagery emerge. There is not a clear view but a multi-layering of architectural drawings and plans of buildings overlaid with intuitive gestural drawing, which becomes apparent as you take a closer look. A new image emerges from the intermingling of these images as the levels of imagery become fused, and this occurs during the making of the painting. This is somewhat true for the work of Claude Monet, the forerunner of Abstract Expressionism, Calame, and various other artists.
Other artists whose work I’ve looked at have a sense of the in-between going on in their work. The superimposing of images used by Alain Huck, David Ratcliff and Julie Mehretu; the materiality of the painting disrupting recognisable imagery by Cecily Brown, Peter Doig, and Marina Rheingantz, and the use of reflection, mirroring or repetition to distort imagery are effective ways to do this. All these methods distort or disrupt recognisable imagery, which invite the engagement of your imagination while looking at them, while still providing some links to the original source material.
If I relate Jane Bennett’s theory on vibrant matter to this idea of an ‘in-between’ place, it might describe the sense as coming from the landscape matter itself. Bennett explores the ‘resistant force’ that things have to the meanings we interpret about them and place on them, and suggests that they not only deflect these meanings but exert their own self-generated energy or messages. She suggests that there is a kind of autonomous energy that can be encountered which could explain the sense of an in-between. Mehretu says in her video “these marks couldn’t exist with just rational thinking”, but they needed a bit of arranging. It’s almost like the process an artist can undertake is to observe a site from many different aspects, and then collate imagery in a painting for this in-between thing to occur.
Jean-François Lyotard and Bennett share the view that it is in an encounter or an interaction between things where understanding occurs. In Scapeland  Lyotard says that there is more to a landscape than its physical description, but that it is an encounter. I’m suggesting that the encounter between people and landscape is where the in-between can be experienced. He goes on to say that landscape is more than what we can know or describe about a place, landscape is unknowable in its fullness. And that in a landscape we are unsettled and have a sense of displacement.
Linked to this idea of the in-between is the idea of the sublime which has been talked about for at least a couple of hundred years. In an article titled ‘Contemporary Art and the Sublime’ Julian Bell describes the ‘sublime’ as ‘a controlled encounter with power that is beyond our control’. Bell’s article talked about the terrifyingly delightful reactions we have to the untamed power of the natural world, almost like an adrenalin rush, and although my practice is not about this, I can utilise this history of the sublime to represent the wonder and fascination with representing the imagined about a landscape.
 Julie Mehretu: the in-between place, Video on the Lousiana Channel https://vimeo.com/72331885
 Bennett, J. (2010). The Force of Things. In Vibrant Matter: A political ecology of things. (pp 1-19). Durham & London: Duke University Press
 In J., & Benjamin, A. (1989). Scapeland. The Lyotard reader. Oxford : Basil Blackwell, 1989
 note Immanual Kant’s ‘Critique of Judgement’ 1790, and Edmund Burke’s ‘Philosophical Enquiry’ 1957)
 Bell, J. (2013). Contemporary Art and the Sublime. In Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013. Retrieved from https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/julian-bell-contemporary-art-and-the-sublime-r1108499, accessed 06 June 2018
ENTRY TWO: PARIS, AMERICA, AND PAINTING
What the work of Claude Monet and some American Abstract painters working in the 1950s have in common
18th August 2018
It was a really sunny morning in Paris, the day Maryanne and I walked from our hotel to the art gallery where Monet’s big paintings were. It only took about half an hour and was so good to get out and walk to get my bearings in this huge city – a bit of a change of scenery for a couple of kiwi girls. We went to three museums on our weekend in Paris, and this museum was one of my favourites because it was smaller and not so crammed with people queuing and walking around in the galleries.
We used our museum pass (I loved it that we didn’t need to queue) and wound our way around to the main gallery.
And here we were, right in front of Monet’s huge water lily paintings. I’d heard so much about them, and kind’ve of idolised them in a way, like they were sophisticated French celebrities. Once I got over the excitement of actually being here, I found them to be calming and quiet kind of paintings, even though their 12m long scale is imposing. I could walk alongside them back and forth and really get to know them. And after a while of enjoying the beautiful aesthetic and scrutinising the brushwork, they lost some of their celebrity status and settled into a place that was more normal and familiar.
I walked up close and the surface was a muddle of murky colour and the texture was a bit like exterior house bobbly plaster. Up close it didn’t look anything like landscape, but as I walked back and took in the whole painting it all made sense. He painted reflections of vegetation and sky in water, and noted how different the light was from morning to evening.
The custom design of the galleries added to the order and calm I experienced with the work, and the many people engaging with the work seemed to be part of the hum about the work. Each room was the shape of an oval and had four of the paintings hung on their walls, so you could stand in the center and spin around and see all four continuously, through all the crowds of people mingling in the room. Monet wanted to make an immersive experience for people to view the paintings, and so he designed the rooms to have a lot of natural light by which to see the paintings, and the oval shape of the rooms. I was fascinated that he had so much vision and follow through to plan and execute the paintings and the physical space to house and present them for years to come.
Then we went downstairs to the exhibition Waterlilies: American Abstraction and last Monet. I was so excited about this one – Claude Monets’ work alongside the work of some of artists who have been the most influential in my painting practice right from when I was at art school at Elam twenty years ago.
And here I was with one of Helen Frankenthaler’s huge and lovely paintings, looking like all my Christmases had come at once. It was more impressive than I imagined. The colour was delicate and yet strong, I think it was because the colour values were rich even though they were transparent. And the sheer size of it allowed the colour to soak into me, it filled my line of sight and imposed it’s voice and authority in a gentle manner.
And around the corner I came face to face with a painting by Joan Mitchell, then Philip Guston, Jackson Pollock, Sam Francis – I could hardly contain myself! As a child, growing up and living in New Zealand, and even doing my study as an art student, I only ever saw these paintings in books (yes books not the internet). And in books they take on a whole other identity – small and in print on a thin glossy page. All the paintings become unified and simplified and codified somehow.
So seeing them in the flesh was a new experience of them, and I understood them in a new way.
I was mesmerised by Helen Frankenthaler’s use of colour and scale, and the dry and absorbing nature of it all on unprimed canvas – it had an organic thing going on. The paint work of Mark Rothko and Joan Mitchell, although poles apart in technique were also so beautiful to see. The paint’s physical presence was something else and satisfying to look closely at.
From an article written by Philip Barcio in Ideel Art, May 14th 2018, retrieved from https://www.ideelart.com/magazine/monet-and-american-abstract-expressionists on 6th November 2018:
American artists had the opportunity to sit with Monet’s Water Lilies when exhibited at MoMA in New York in 1955, and Clement Greenberg wrote an essay ‘American-Type Painting’ where he drew connections between the work of Monet and some of the American abstract painters.
Then in 1956 art critic Louis Finkelstein compared the work of Monet and a select group of artists including Joan Mitchell, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Sam Francis and Philip Guston and distinguished them from abstract expressionism by calling it ‘abstract impressionism’.
I need to find out if paintings like these came to New Zealand in the 1950s (or any other time), to see what artists here had the opportunity to see in the flesh.
How all this relates to my work
Being with these paintings made me consider how their physicality impacted me. Not only the large scale, but the way paint was used made me want to run my hands over them, they engaged me. This is what I want my paintings to do, to engage people in an experience of them.
I also saw how my work has been tangibly influenced by this history of painting, and how it has given my practice legs. in particular, colour, scale, and the materiality of paint. Seeing how decades later, American abstract painters were re-imagining some of the ideas that Monet had been interested in, has shown that painters across the generations influence each other.
There was so much more that impacted me here in this exhibition, and I am so grateful for the experience. This was my favourite exhibition of my time in Europe this year, it was like meeting old friends, and I can’t wait to get back into the studio to make some more paintings.
ENTRY THREE: STORIES FROM THE SLADE
Slade School of Fine Art, UCL, London, Expanded Field of Drawing, 13th-31st August 2018
I arrived in London after 27 hours travelling, and was a bit spaced out and sleep deprived. I’m so excited to be here in London to study at the Slade, see old friends, make new ones, see lots of art, go to Paris and Italy to see art, eat food, and do some hiking. After being so welcomed by Rachel, Callum, Gabriel, Alba, and Nell, I was all refreshed to start at the Slade. There are 18 of us from all over the world on the course, and the first morning was a lot of introductions and getting familiar with what was in store for us. We became a bit like a big family, and it became an enriching time for me to connect with and make art alongside these people for three weeks. Here’s a bit of a rundown of what I did on the course
Ours tutors were Jim Hobbs (moving image), Flore Nove-Josserand (painting),Max Holdaway (sculpture),Visiting artist Tracey Whitehead (previous EFD student),and people who are masters students and artists in residence at the Slade.
Blind drawings with Jim. On the first day we sat in a room blindfolded and passed each other random objects, then drew them for one minute each. We did this for an hour and I filled up a workbook with drawings. Then we made self portraits, with eyes closed we used one hand to feel our faces/heads, and the other to draw for about 45 minutes. The results were beautiful studies.
16mm film with optical sound with Jim. We worked with black and clear film as well as found footage, and spliced, scratched, cut, stuck detritus to, to disrupt the optical sound. The marks produced the sound. We thought about the chronology of images at 24 frames per second, projection and scale, use still images through OHP, and how images make sound. My first film loop had some nice sounds that had a beat going, so I made a second film that focused on a repeating musical beat. Immediacy, repetition and rhythm.
Digital drawing with Flore. We found our way through the rabbit warren of the dungeons of the Slade to the scanner room, and I worked with Maria to experiment with moving found objects like a chux cloth, sponge, screwed up paper to test out the capabilities of the scanner. I moved things across the surface with the lid up, lid down, changed the pace of the movement, brought objects up close and far away. I liked the process of not knowing what the image would turn out like, and not having control over that, I think it produced fresh images.
Journey drawings with Jim. On the second day we had an assignment to make five drawings about journey. I walked around the surrounding streets and photographed intersections in the pavement or road, then digitally altered them and printed as small square photographs and arranged them overlapping on the wall; took paper pressings of architecture on a walk around the UCL campus; walking drawing on a large consatina book when walking around a park close to the Slade.
Sculptural workshop with Max Holdaway. He prepared a table full of everyday materials – A4 computer paper, corrugated card, all types of paper, packaging… and he demonstrated all kinds of ways to manipulate them to change their character. I loved doing this workshop, it was fascinating to see everyday materials be changed to something completely different. I took corrugated card and peeled it until it took on a fluffy airy kind of form, others wet card or paper and re-moulded it. Then we took a material and made a sculpture in our studio spaces, I used newsprint to make a floating sculpture using two walls and the floor.
We used a Flatbed camera to make a publication which the Slade now has in its archives. We had a group exhibition at the end of the course. It was good to see all our work together in one space. I worked on a lot of layered paintings for the last few days, and Max and Jim helped me to arrange them on the wall. We visited some dealer galleries (Sadie Cole, Blain Southern, Spreuth Magers, White Cube) to see what was on.
I had made an appointment with the Tate to view some of JMW Turner’s workbooks, so when the afternoon came I made my way there and sat in a room where the books were brought out to me, and leafed over by the assistant who worked there. I wanted to see what his sketchbooks were like, they are about 200 years old, so it was fascinating to see books that old, and I was interested by the volume of watercolour sketches he made. I also saw some of Peter Doig’s small etchings – they were beautiful, and small. They worked well small, really well. I’d like to see some of his paintings because they are really large – and to see how both scales work so well.
Another geographical adventure I had was when I took a trip to Atlantis in South Hackney to get some art supplies. It was harrowing not only because it was complicated to get there, but also my phone was running out of battery and I was worried that I wouldn’t find my way home! Google maps and the TFL website were helpful to navigate the underground, overground and walking the streets to get there at 5pm rush hour! When I arrived there was 20 minutes to closing so I power shopped to my heart’s content (but not my wallet’s).
How I will feed learnings from this experience into my masters project
Experimenting with expanded approaches to drawing will enhance my painting I think. I’ve learned to broaden my thinking around the function of drawing as an immediate method to capture thought. Pushing myself to work with other mediums and process has been good for me, and I want to continue to do this back in my painting practice. I feel like a rubber band that has been stretched so wide, and now my capacity has grown.
I also enjoyed working alongside others who are also pushing their artistic boundaries, it creates an environment of trying and failing, learning and frustration, and overall it is fun and there is a sense of community.
What I may bring into my methodology:
I’d like to practice more walking drawings on the sites I’m working with; use of projecting images to generate new imagery; push wider with painting methods, techniques, and materials to find new results.
ENTRY FOUR: THE ROOTS OF ‘MATERIALITY’ AND ‘PROCESS’ IN PAINTING
Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) and Harold Rosenbery (1906-1978) were two people who contributed significantly to the discussion of abstract painting as it was unfolding during the 1950s and the next few decades. I wanted to look at their main ideas to understand the background of abstract painting, and in particular abstract expressionism, and ‘material nature’ and ‘process’ in painting.
I’ve always heard their names in the context of American painting of this time, but never really understood their positions clearly, so I set out to read a few pieces of what they had written to find out why they were so opposed to each other’s views.
Greenberg valued the formal aspects of painting, for example line, colour, composition, texture, etc, and used this to evaluate a painting. For him the quality of a painting was in its form, and he wasn’t interested so much about the self-expression of the artist or the kind of subject matter, but he was interested in what the painting was and how it worked formally. He was more interested in what a painting looked like, not the content of it.
‘Abstract expressionism’ was a term used to describe a type of painting that began in America in the 1940s, and continued to become a dominant art movement in the western cultural context. Greenberg understood abstract expressionism to have emerged from the chronological development of previous painting traditions. They were a natural reaction or response to the form-based art movements around the turn of the 20th century.
In contrast to this, Harold Rosenbery (1906-1978), Greenberg’s contemporary, was interested in the subjective, mythical and existential ideas in painting, and in the process that underpins the making of them. He saw abstract expressionism as having broken away from all that had gone before. He coined the term ‘action painting’, where the canvas was like an arena that recorded the act of painting, and the formal aspects of the painting were not important as this process. This view about ‘process’ is the part of his writing that seems to look forward to subsequent art movements, where process has become the subject of the painting. Most obviously in performance art but also in the artists I’m looking at for my project. Ingrid Calame traces the markings found in places or landscape sites and these marks, and we can retrieve them, form an important aspect of how we read her work. Also Julie Mehretu’s process of layering architectural drawings, and photographic images of places with her own personal gestural ecriture marks, bring connotations and registers time and histories of a place.
For Greenberg, painting can justify itself by looking at the history of painting in a self-referential way. Any element that is not essential to painting is discarded, and what is left is modern painting. For example, if perspective can be portrayed in sculpture and photography, then it is not necessary in . When everything that is not unique to painting is discarded, then what is left is paint on a flat two-dimensional surface, and this was the best way to look at a painting, he thought.
“Flatness, two-dimensionality, was the only condition painting shared with no other art, and so Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else”
Where as for Rosenberg, the act of painting is where an ‘encounter’ or ‘revelation’ could occur, and aesthetic formalist concerns were subordinate to that. In this way Rosenberg is advocating the artist’s departure from formalist concerns, he is saying there is no longer any pressure to stick to them, and more than that, he is encouraging artists to leave that behind. I think of Jane Bennett’s ideas on the encounter between things and what is generated as a result of that. Rosenberg thinks of this encounter as revealing something of the artist’s inner self, where as Bennett would see this new thing revealed as produced from the encounter between artist and materials.
Action painting came about as an act of liberation from existing moral and social values. Artists wanted their paintings to be freed from the history of the tradition of painting and the rules used to evaluate and read paintings. I think of Julie Mehretu and her endeavour to re-frame the histories of the cities and buildings she paints, by challenging ideas of ownership or possession embodied in the western tradition of landscape painting.
Clement Greenberg, “American-type” Painting, 1955
Harold Rosenberg, “The American Abstract Painters”, 1957
 Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting”, 1965
How this might relate to my work
My work is about the materiality of paint and the painted surface, and what happens in the process of painting is important, and in this way my work reflects and goes beyond some of Greenberg’s ideas.
There is also an aspect to my work that is about recording the act of painting - where I paint on-site on the rocks and land to pick up textures and the character of the place. In this process I’m not thinking so much about the application of paint or formal painting conventions, I’m more thinking about just picking up the surface of the land, and the painting I end up with is almost a product of that.  I’d like to see how this combination of approaches to abstraction unfolds.
A consideration of the formal aspects and the ‘process’ in my work – how can I bring together these things, what role do these things have in my practice, in this project?
‘process’ is a significant part of my project – tracings, mappings, indexical made on site/plein-air; as are the formal aspects of mediating the imagery in my work in the studio. What painting conventions would support my work? Why?
An encounter of the land, between me, materials and the site – where discoveries occur and are evident and residual or retrievable in my work.
The history of art has been a male dominated history, and the formalist values of painting tradition were created and sustained by a predominantly western white male group of people and their world views. I’m aware of this, and that I’m entering this history as a woman, painting in the 2000s in New Zealand. How will I be heard or taken seriously, to help reinvent or contribute to this dialogue with my different view?
ENTRY SIX: COLOUR AND PAINT
Some thoughts on an exhibition of recent paintings by Gretchen Albrecht that I saw today at Two Rooms, and a RNZ interview with Gretchen, Luke Smythe, and Kim Hill
between gesture and geometry, at Two Rooms, 12 April - 25 May 2019
Some of the work are diptychs with two panels that connect. In this painting (left) a skinny panel runs along the bottom edge to divide the painting into two pieces that read as one. The marks do run across the two panels somewhat in places, but along most of it the marks run off edges and create this wonderful tension, and acts like depth of space with foreground and background, and perhaps indicate rolling hills or waves.
In the radio interview Gretchen talks about the panels – the edges between are an extension of the geometric form idea, bringing structure to the gestural marks. The title of the exhibition is ‘between gesture and geometry’ which is also the title of the book that has just been published – a survey of her work, written by Luke Smyth. I can see how this synergy between the panel edges and the gestural marks are working in that way, like full stops or other punctuation to what is happening on the support surface.
The pithy materiality of the paintings grabbed my attention. There are beautiful painterly washes and drips and scrapes of acrylic paint. At one stage, when no one was looking, I leaned forward to smell the surface of a painting. They had a turps or medium smell to them. I love that smell, it reminds me of studio, art making, art school, it smells warmly familiar and like home. Perhaps it was an acrylic binder medium or something to thin out the paint.
Dilutions and washes infuse paint into the weave of the linen in places, and in other places there are thicker paint marks where the colour sits on top of the weave more. Linen has this soft natural brown colour, and the paint took on some of that quality – the colour is almost muted but also rich in colour. There were places where diluted paint colour was washed over the top of white paint, and this gave more luminosity and vibrancy to the colour, as in the orange centre part of this painting:
In the interview Gretchen talked about going to Europe and seeing renaissance paintings in churches and chapels – in the places they were made for. And how the gallery is a relatively new thing – to have white walled places in which to show paintings. She then talked about a mural she had done somewhere – site specific, and liked that idea. This made me think about the idea I’ve had about how I want to show my work outside in the landscape where I made them.
This painting (above) was amazingly dark and velvety. Rich black purple, powdery looking sat beneath a more flat black/silver – I couldn’t tell. The darkness pulled your eye in, sucked out light, it was a powerful and mesmerising painting.
I love how the black right hand half of the ‘hemisphere’ bleeds across into the left side, in the painting pictured below. This image looks like a landscape to me, like heavy rain clouds coming in and landing above ocean or ground. It has movement and momentum and weight.
The large size of the paintings, the colour, the luscious application of paint, the combination of geometric shapes and gesture, are all aspects of Gretchen Albrecht’s work that I love and that I want to learn more about. I’d like to apply some of this learning to my work in the coming months.