Seeing and Feeling
Telling it like it is
Let me start with an anecdote. In 1993 I went to a talk by American artist Kiki Smith. I had been both excited and disturbed by her work at the time paper mache body casts that often depicted women in positions of bondage or pain. At the talk I asked her how she felt about exhibiting such images of women and whether she felt some responsibility for a viewer’s pleasure in the spectacle of their suffering. Very clearly she stated that her responsibility as an artist was to make work from her experience – she was just telling it like it is. Now, not all artists make, or want to make work, that reflects their subjectivity so graphically, but Smith’s statement does represent something of a dilemma, particularly for a woman artist. How can one make work that represents or originates in experience whilst attempting to be responsible for an audience’s engagement with the work, planning how it might communicate and whom it may address? Recent years have seen the term ‘audience’ become an important part of the artist’s vocabulary, and not just on grant application forms. Of course the work of the ‘new art history’, to examine and dismantle the political beliefs and ideological values inherent in cultural works, affects all artists working today. But for women the stakes appear somewhat higher, absent as they are in all but image from art history until very recently. Depicting female subjectivity then becomes both imperative and extremely problematic. What if, as in the case of Smith, this expression can provide misogynistic interpretations? Must ‘self expression’ be in ‘quarantine’ for women artists (as feminist critic Griselda Pollock has said)? (*1) As an artist, is it either possible or desirable to police one’s own experience? Should work by women artists only offer pure interpretations either critical or celebratory? As artists must we take on more responsibility than we truly want, secretly sympathising with the art student’s plea when first called to account for their work – ‘You can read anything into it you like, I just made it’?
This essay examines how artists deal with the politics of their work. It looks at the work of three women artists, all members of a generation inheriting a Feminist art movement that claimed the ‘personal’ as ‘political’, to consider how their experience relates to their artwork. Whilst Feminism or Feminist Art may have had varying degrees of influence on these practices I feel it is important that its presence is acknowledged, for it provided a pathway where experience was not only valid as subject matter but also offered the possibility of opening out beyond the self, of having wider political implications. I have chosen to explore the work of two British women artists; Jane Harris and Sam Taylor- Wood alongside my own to draw out concerns that are similar but articulated very differently. Jane Harris (b.1956) is a painter who has been at the forefront of discussion about the viability of painting in the UK. Sam Taylor-Wood (b.1967) is an artist with an international reputation who principally uses photography, video and film. For Sam Taylor-Wood and myself this investigation of subjectivity explores the ‘truthfulness’ of human emotion. For Jane Harris the study is more oblique, ascertaining the limits of formalism as a vehicle for expression of many types of sensory and intellectual experience. With both practices I look at how their response to this notion of subjectivity collides with issues of artistic responsibility in relation to audience. I examine how the viewer becomes the site of activity, where dilemmas (ways of seeing & understanding) are played out. I have deliberately chosen to place an artist using lens-based media alongside those using paint. Too often art works are defined by media rather than content and in making connections between supposed ‘new’ and ‘traditional’ media, which in these practices at least, undoubtedly influence each other, I hope to challenge this perception. Indeed it is interesting to investigate how different media can be used to explore similar areas of enquiry. It seems to me that ‘denunciations of painting as a corrupt bourgeois commodity’ (*1A) still linger uncomfortably at the margins of any discussion regarding the viability of painting as well as unsubstantiated notions that time based work is in itself radical. It seems to me all mediums have the potential to be critical.
Incidentally, I would argue that what Kiki Smith was doing in the works described was indeed radical. As a woman artist she was occupying the position of both subject and object simultaneously, something largely unrepresented in our history of art. Although interpretations of her work may be many and varied her figures are significantly different from male sculptors of the contorted female body such as Reg Butler or Allen Jones. For example the body type depicted, the materials the work is made from, the context of it within her oeuvre all lead away from these depictions of women as ‘the scenery on to which men project their narcissistic fantasies’ and towards ‘exhibiting [women’s] own fears and desires’ (*2). Smith may indeed feel rage against women, even against her own body, and should those feelings be censored?
Getting ‘into’ the work
What is the relationship between an artist and their work? This is fraught ground for the art historian or critic for whom the ‘death of the author’ has meant resorting to biography only to contextualise historically or socially. Difficult for the artist too, who often talks in terms of ‘giving away’ or ‘covering up’ information and explanation as if this were a possibility. Sometimes an artist may be aware of autobiographical readings of a work, at other times they may be oblivious to any ‘personal’ connotations. I see no point in trying to investigate the notion of subjectivity by attempting to clumsily psychoanalyse these artists via their work, tempting though it sometimes is. A more fruitful approach might be to examine how the artists under scrutiny subvert accepted forms in a way that includes the personal, the idiosyncratic and the particular. What interests me is the way these artists set about injecting ‘known’ genres with unexpected moments; moments of pleasure and pain, recognition and rupture.
These artists do not make work purely for their own gratification or catharsis. For them the emphasis is on how the viewer assimilates and understands the work. To return briefly to the art students’ plea for multiple interpretations of their work one must recognise it is based on certain assumptions, namely i) an audience exists for the work and ii) that this audience will invest time and energy constructing an interpretation. However for these artists the relationship between artist, artwork and audience is a considered one as they recognise that ‘meaning’ is something constructed by both artist and viewer in the collaborative venture of making and looking. There is an understanding that whilst an artist’s intention is not necessarily the same as its meaning, the viewer/ critic does not have absolute autonomy in dictating what something might be reasonably said to ‘mean’. Rather in these practices the artist seeks to set in place a number of possible viewing experiences, through which the viewer will not passively uncover meaning but will actively construct interpretations. Indeed these artists set out to court, if not control, the viewer, placing her at the ‘centre’ of the work, attempting to enact meaning through her experience of the work. Lets look at the ways this happens.
The choreography of the viewer
I should now like to look at the choreography of the viewer, that is the journey or movement of the viewer’s body around the artwork as they look at it, their physical and perceptual relationship with the work. What becomes apparent during any reflection on this subject is that this ‘choreography’ operates on both temporal and spatial dimensions and, further, that these two aspects are complexly interwoven. The viewer examines the art-work over time (however short our contemporary viewing experience!) and in space as their investigations draw them to, from and around the works. These thoughts began as a reflection on my own position as a viewer and have been substantially helped by Norman Bryson’s writings on ‘The glance and the gaze’, a discussion of the different types of looking Western painting has employed. Although his work deals specifically with representational painting his reflections on the physicality of both the reception and making of painting are extremely pertinent to the medium’s more recent past. For Bryson the thrust of the history of Western paintings has been from what he terms ‘the gaze’ to the ‘the glance’. To simplify, ‘the gaze’ as demonstrated in early renaissance work, such as that by Alberti, organises its image around a fixed ‘founding perception’ in which the laws of perspective are obeyed and the viewer occupies the same position as the painter, sharing their fixed view point of the proceedings. Bryson describes it thus, “the gaze of the painter arrest the flux of phenomena….in an eternal moment of disclosed presence….in the moment of viewing the viewing subject unites the gaze [with the founding perception of the painter] in a perfect recreation of that first epiphany” (*3). The gaze is “prolonged, contemplative, aloof and disengaged” (*4). Interestingly it relies on the viewer’s bodily engagement with the work, it positions her if you like, even if its intention is to focus on the nature of the spiritual. Bryson again, ”the vanishing point is the anchor of a system which incarnates the viewer, renders him tangible and corporeal”. (My emphasis) (*5)
The physical nature of the artist’s activity, their own movement around the canvas, also becomes concealed as Western painting develops. Traces and reworkings of brush marks overpainted so that the palimpsistic nature of the process is rendered invisible and the body of the artist becomes further removed from the artwork. The subsequent developments in painting lead Bryson to outline his notion of the glance that he demonstrates in the work of Vermeer. In work that employs the glance ‘the bond with the viewers physique is broken” for “there is no single distance [where] the spectator discover[s] [the image’s] global intelligibility”.(*6) Throughout the work different parts of the painting are rendered with different levels of focus and are subject to differing treatments, some meticulously detailed, other areas rendered with sketchier broader brush strokes. The labour of the artist, his body as an extension of his brush is implied, yet the viewer’s body is now not placed so tangibly. In the case of the glance ‘the spectator is an unexpected presence” rather than a “theatrical audience”. (*7) The viewer’s gaze is intermittent, broken, hence the word “glance”, her body is not placed so concretely in space. Because the painting “is conceived…as a plurality of local transcriptions” “the viewer can try any number of points and distances away from the canvas, but the image will never cohere, singly or serially around them”.(*8)
These distinctions are pertinent to the works of Jane Harris. In the UK the work of Jane Harris has been at the forefront of discussion about the viability of contemporary painting prompting the painter and writer Nick de Ville to write an “appreciation of Jane Harris’ painting (which is also a dispute with Douglas Crimp’s The End of Painting in which he asserts the codes of painting are bankrupt…..”. Harris makes deceptively simple paintings, within strict parameters, of ellipse(s) with fluted edges using two colours and consistent brush strokes. However what is exciting about these paintings is that on examination their ostensible simplicity gives way to an unfolding complexity. The paintings carefully balance an interest in process and surface with an investigation on the spatial possibilities of the image of the ellipse. They may initially appear to offer spatial recession and yet the insistence of the material nature of the work, for example the carefully repeated brush strokes that almost ‘knit’ a surface, often contradicts the possibility of illusionism. In printed image the paintings become static, singular, but standing in front of them, walking around them, these are works in a constant sate of flux. As the viewer changes positions the light shifts and the paintings move through a series of subtle optical transformations. Charting the position of the spectator of her work one not only realises how well it demonstrates the characteristics of ’the glance’ but interestingly, that it also tempts us with the possibilities of ‘the gaze’. Indeed it initially proposes the straightforwardness of ‘the gaze’ with its simple shape and evenly rendered surface that gives no hint of the layers of other colour beneath the surface. The paintings might at first be understood as meditative, perhaps to be viewed with the same static relationship that say, a Rothko proposes (hence the gallery seating often arranged in front of his paintings). However, as I have pointed out, a sustained viewing offers us instead of the uncertainties ‘the glance’ at its most extreme. They require a moving spectator, as Harris herself has said, “you have to physically respond to them, they demand that you do that”. (*9) However this movement means we simply cannot pin the image down, in Bryson’s words it ‘will never cohere’. In conversation Jane Harris reflects on the original inspiration for her work, which gives us insight into her deliberate exploration of this mobile viewer. On completion of her postgraduate studies Harris took up a scholarship to Japan to study formal gardens. She said, “I learnt that there are two main types of gardens. In one you sit statically and contemplate and in the other you are guided around in a specific way coming across viewing points. I think that is something that is really connected to my work, that you can sit in front of it and you can walk around it. I wanted those two things to combine, gel.” (*10)
The mechanisms in Harris’ painting that ensures this mobility are several, most importantly there is the ellipse itself. The ellipse is the circle as sphere, rotating through space, hovering between two and three dimensions in a state of ‘becoming’. It proposes a spatial possibility away from the flatness of the painted surface and thus becomes extremely problematic when subjected to the gaze. Martin Henschel explains when writing of Harris’ most recent work ”Because the ellipse has two focal points we are prevented from fixing our gaze on a certain spot”.(*11) The viewer’s eye is constantly drawn to and from between these points or axis from which the ellipse appears to pivot, searching for a privileged vantage point where the image can be seen as a whole. This refusal to provide a resting place for the spectator’s vision continues to be explored within the paintings, both inside and outside the ellipse itself. In some works this means a repetition of up to four ellipses and in all works it means that the ellipse is given a fluted edge, each ‘petal’ of which is part of a much smaller ellipse. The repercussions of the repeated larger shape are interesting as it often draws on this sense of more than one focal points, that the ellipse has already brought into play. This is particularly evident when two ellipses are employed side by side either vertically or horizontally. Geoffrey Worsdale has written (in relation to Harris’ drawings) of their inability ‘to function as a plausible, singular and unified composition” and for the viewer this rings true – there is a strong sense of the bi-ocular, almost as if viewing one ellipse with one eye while simultaneously viewing the other with the second eye and then trying to compare notes! Harris herself says of these works, “They are ostensibly the same, the same repeated, but they occupy different spaces on the canvas, so however much one tries to look at them as the same, they never are”. (*12)
As with the ellipse itself one is aware of an almost physical to-ing and fro-ing between the images, adding to the paintings’ sense of movement and inability to be viewed as a whole. In addition the fluted edges, which often appear outside the ellipse on one side and inside on the other, enforces this sense of movement. The edging is no ‘decorative’(* 13) flourish but intrinsic in forming the ellipse itself. It provides the edge between figure and ground. Often because of the shift in the size of these smaller ellipses and the way they are made with the brush, some positively, some negatively, from one side of the ellipse to the other, what appears to be a stable figure/ ground relationship can be optically reversed i.e. the ellipse ‘sitting’ on the coloured ground becomes a ‘hole’ in that surface. The way the surfaces are built with small uniform brush strokes, also allows this to happen. As the light hits the brush marks, particularly in the works where both ground and ellipse are close in hue and tone, the figure ground relationship can alter. As the body moves around the canvas the eye is constantly moving between shapes, between sides of the ellipse, judging symmetry and spatial placing. One is made supremely aware of the activity of looking, of making visual distinctions. On a more subjective level, this sense is further enhanced by a figurative reading of the ellipse as an ornate mirror. Its reflection disturbs, a non-reflective pool it erases the viewer who stares into its blank surface vainly. It appears to offers the possibility of recession, escape, a meditative confirmation of the viewer yet its mutable materiality both denies and insists on the viewer’s physical presence, caught between the gaze and the glance.
In this work one is made aware of looking as a serial activity. These pieces unfold over time rather than being simultaneously exposed as we may expect from works on canvas. Here painting is a material object existing in the same material space as the body of the viewer. We are made aware that the spectator’s transaction with the work is active as well as passive and more, that the work operates on a finely tuned balance between the two. What is remarkable is that Harris achieves this fundamental questioning (which perhaps might amount to iconoclasm in certain Greenbergian quarters?) with such precise concision. Although the paintings initially propose a notion of formal purity they cannot be contained by it and instead reflect on Harris’ empirical knowledge. Her work is fed by exchanges with the world, both visual and verbal, as her interest in formal gardens demonstrates. Harris mentally catalogues colours she sees and words read and heard for future reference in the making and titling of her paintings. By refusing the standard categories available to her Harris makes works that constitute radical rather than pragmatic statements. In the same way that the ellipse fluctuates between being perceived as figure or ground and the paintings alternate between abstract and figurative categories, they are also neither purely formal nor only conceptual. The painted canvas is not a stable object, rather it forces the audience into an interpretative act and and thus acquires a political dimension. The work aims to ensure the audience exercises their viewing responsibility.
The body of the artist
Sam Taylor-Wood’s work also deliberates around engaging the body as well as the eye. Her photographic and video work’s debt to painting is obvious, from her use of the narrative device of the pradella and her photographic transcriptions of Old Master paintings to the painterly eye employed to compose her sitters, which appear with the sense of stillness required by an observational painter rather than a documentary photographer. I’d like to begin by examining a very early work, Gestures Towards Action Painting, that tackles this relationship to painting directly and in doing so explores notions of time, the body and performance that she returns to in greater depth in subsequent works. The series of colour photographs were made in 1992 when Taylor-Wood was an emerging artist, and recreate the famous Hans Namuth photographs/ film (1950/1) of the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock making huge dripped canvasses, with herself in the title role. In doing this Taylor-Wood recognises the significance of Pollock, not only his position of influence on succeeding generations of artists, but his image as an icon of ‘modern’ genius. Perhaps the most obvious interpretation of this work revolves around issues of gender. As has been discussed else where these images attribute Pollock strength, virility, masculinity (*14). To reposition the body of a female artist at the heart of this creative production implicitly refers to this reading of the image. The work is both piss take and homage, a cheeky bold statement of ambition, the artist assumes the place of the modern master whilst undoubtedly questioning his authority. What is also interesting here is the use of the artist’s own image in this and other early works which suggests a personal engagement or sense of disclosure that never fully materialises. Although Taylor-Wood has said of the early ‘self portraits’ -“I wanted to expose myself in all my ugliness and discomfort” (*15) – for her, like Cindy Sherman before her, the self-image becomes a way of questioning, rather than revealing, identity. This excitingly ambivalent stance is surely made possible by early Feminism’s investigation of gender roles and stereotypes. But this interesting set of photographs goes further in its critique of painting and its history whilst examining the roles of artist and audience.
One of the exciting aspects of Pollock was his break with the thrust of Western painting towards (to use Bryson’s useful terms again) ‘the glance’ in favour of returning to ‘the gaze’. Indeed this painting, as a self-revealing tracing of the movements of the artist’s body, demonstrate Bryson’s definition with startling accuracy. He describes it thus, “it addresses vision in the durational temporality of the viewing subject; it does not seek to bracket out the process of viewing, nor in its own technique does it exclude the traces of the body of labour”. (*16) The viewer tends to step back to allow a large canvas into her sight, to view the work as a whole and although she may step forward to examine areas more closely the paint drips and marks gain no great clarity on closer scrutiny, there is no ‘plurality of transcriptions’ or sense of detail, in this self explanatory process, where all marks require the same focus. Standing in front of these paintings, walking along them, the viewer yearns for the same epiphany the artist undoubtedly experienced during their making.
There is little doubt that knowledge of Pollock is framed by the Hans Namuth film (even if that knowledge comes via Tony Hancock!). The vision of energetic (male) bodily engagement with abstraction is perhaps one of modernism’s most enduring images. The film/photographs naturally propose themselves as secondary to the experience of being there, watching genius unfold over a blank canvas. Even the painting itself appears as a relic of the performance, a recording of the moment when creativity happened. The ‘real’ artwork is the theatre of Pollock’s movements and marks, the primary event and any debate around the works is usually eclipsed by discussion of this process. But this event is elusive. Just as Pollock himself found it difficult to perform for the camera, history intervenes and we move further and further away from the moment we hope to capture. The photographs then give us a hint of the immediacy and directness of the activity. The paintings engage us physically as we stand or walk in front of them we re- live their making, whilst the photographs hang suspended in time, forcing the works outside ‘the somatic time of their construction’ (*17). This dilemma seems to be what Taylor-Wood responds to. Her set of photographs reinforce the predicament Namuth places us in. They acknowledge Namuth’s tantalising hint at the genuine, albeit transitory, physical engagement they appear to document yet accept that the artist and his work are subsumed in the re-creation, ultimately the fiction. Taylor-Wood’s interest is in what the works have come to mean rather than in what they may have been at the moment of production. She accepts that the photographs withdraw from the ‘physical continuum’ (*18) of painting and embraces that sense of loss as an emotional truth. All Taylor-Wood’s work pivots on such a dilemma between the physical and fictional showing us how fiction can sometimes feel more authentic than reality. As Michael Archer has written, “[the early works are] the laying bare of herself and her desires in front of art’s and the world’s operational dynamics prompted by the need to investigate the limits of such concepts as intention, responsibility and effectivity.” (Art Monthly 93/4)
In later works she investigates these ideas more dramatically. Often the pieces have an overt emotional content depicting human interaction at moments of extreme experience. For example a recent exhibition (Mute, White Cube gallery, 2002) contained a projection of a girl crying and another of a contemporary Pieta scene. This highly charged content allows Taylor-Wood to directly address her audience, questioning how they relate to such material. Do we engage with the emotions of others with compassion, empathy or sympathy or do these emotions slide into a compelling voyeurism for others’ pain and distress? Indeed is the notion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ viewing an irrelevant concept, as ‘looking’ is an amoral activity? These are timely questions for a society that currently indulges extensively in ‘reality’ TV’s confessional, “Oprah” and “Big Brother” type programmes. Taylor-Wood uses a number of strategies to draw her audience’s attention to their part in the viewing process. For example the status of her ‘characters’ is unsettling. The use of trained and untrained ‘actors’ in her video works blur the line between fiction and reality. This is also seen in the film Method in Madness, where a method actor emotionally breaks down for the camera. These strategies create a similar sense of disturbance a viewer might feel if, on switching on the TV, they were unable to distinguish between a documentary and a drama (a nicety becoming harder to perform). Taylor-Wood capitalises on the moral confusion this engenders – should we watch differently, feel more, if we are watching real, rather than acted, trauma? She appears doubtful of our ability to make such distinctions with our emotions, of making a responsible response.
Another strategy is the use of celebrities to pose in both video and photographic works, for example the ‘Christ’ figure in Pieta is the actor Robert Downey Jr (Taylor-Wood is ‘Mary’) and other works have included well known singers and actors such as Kylie Minogue, Ray Winstone and Elton John. In these works there is none of the obvious moral dilemmas that accompany looking at the images of ‘ordinary/ extraordinary’ people such as those taken by Diane Arbus, or more recently Richard Billingham. These are people whose job it is to be looked at and we are encouraged to do so with the same moral impunity, or at least distance, as a reader of OK magazine. But what is interesting here, as tabloid exclusives continually remind us, is the desire to find the ‘real’ person within the celebrity public or ‘fictional’ persona. Indeed Robert Downey Jr is a good example of this dramatic slip between the glittering ‘public’ acting career and the catalogue of gossip column inches picturing a ‘private’ life of despair and addiction. This perception of a truthful, ‘inner’ self is useful to Taylor-Wood as it is deliberately unclear which of their identities is being performed in her work. Are these celebrities acting or being themselves or is it futile to attempt such a distinction – perhaps they can only act at ‘being themselves’? These strategies of disruption allow Taylor-Wood to draw her audience’s attention to their part in the contract – the act of looking and the responsibilities it may or may not carry.
Taylor-Wood, like Harris, ‘choreographs her viewer’, making her physical placement vital to the experience of the work. She opens up the space of photography and film to the possibilities of painting, most specifically the gaze, which, as the Gestures…. photographs show, is simultaneously longed for and debunked. The video projection installation Travesty of a Mockery quite literally places the viewer ‘in’ the drama as the viewing space becomes the distance between the warring couple who occupy two separate projections. In Pent Up the viewer must walk from character to character in order to hear their speech and thus physically make sense of their dialogue. Different ambulations will result in different experiences of this dialogue and it is unlikely that any two people will experience the work in the same way. Like other types of performance, most particularly dance, the audience has to make choices about where to look resulting in endless permutations to the audience’s experience. Similarly her panoramic photographs require the viewer to walk the length of the image, experiencing it sequentially. Although it is difficult to register the work from a single vantage point – at twenty-five feet in length one is forced to move to examine it – the image itself very precisely situates the viewer as the central point from where the activity depicted occurs in a 360 degree revolution. In this sense the audience is embodied, occupying the position of the ‘founding perception’ where the artist’s body (her ‘I’) and camera’s ‘eye’ converge. Now Taylor-Wood disrupts the notion of photography as outside the ‘physical continuum’, and expands it to function ‘in the somatic time of [its] construction’ as the title Five Revolutionary Seconds demonstrates. Indeed a clue the importance of the artist’s body is to be found in the many photographs that document her physically making her work, directing or behind the camera (*19). Her published iconography shows her as active, ‘in’ the work, rather than directing from the sidelines. It is through this reinstatement of the body, both the artist’s and the viewers’, that the theatre of performance can be punctured, however slightly. Pieta occupies the place of a painting - a silent, two dimensional wall based image. The audience is positioned in the scene at the foot of the stairs, gazing up towards the figures as one might with the Alberti altar piece. Yet its muteness, the inscrutability of the passion depicted, is challenged by the smallest of slippages, the breathing and slight bodily adjustments of the artist and her ‘model’. I believe it is in these slight physical awkwardnesses, where the ‘performance’ breaks down, that we find the longed for intimate, yet elusive, authentic experience.
Seeing and Being
Lastly I would like to write about my own work with reference to the ideas explored above. When writing about my own work many anxieties present themselves. Foremost of these is a sense of ‘talking for’ the work, rather than allowing it to ‘speak’ for itself. My fear is that intention will conflate with meaning and the art’s possible autonomy will be lost. For me there is always a sense not being able to write ‘enough’ as it were; for every aspect ‘pinned down’ another floats away, unarticulated. However, I have found it useful to site my own work amongst other practices as a way of engaging in a dialogue with the concerns of other artists, creating an exchange which I feel allows the work a certain currency for me as a practitioner. But I am in no way a disinterested critic and imagine that my prejudices will become most apparent in this last section. I write from within the practice about the works in the order they were made, explaining developments as they occurred and I noted them.
Born in 1963, I am placed between them chronologically and the work shares concerns with both practices. As a student I became interested in how an art-work might bridge a cultural producer’s politics and experience, that is the conflict between what an artist wants and knows to be. Drawn to Feminism I soon realised that the making of a coherent polemical work required a far more analytical approach than I was interested in developing. I used my art as a way of reflecting and understanding my place in the world. I for feited its didactic possibilities for what it could teach me. That is not to say that I don’t have a clear intention for the work, its just that I enjoy the fact that art has the ability to surprise even its maker. Making is a curious process, the idea and its physical realisation are in constant dialogue, often shaping each other in a mutual interrogation.
Early interest in women’s writing and contemporary dance led to imaging the corporeal, close up and subjective. Paint was worked to form a ‘skin’, colours, most particularly ‘blood’ red, referenced an internal body. Later works lost these overt references and substituted a muted palette of grey, white and black yet retained an interest in the materiality of both the painting and the body. Now the body of the viewer became important. These were large-scale painting (between seven & eight feet in height) and the viewer came to physically orientate themselves in front of them. Grid-like structures echoed the gallery space, forming spaces, door ways and columns whilst the impastoed paint surface required the viewer to walk in close and examine the sense of detail. John Gillet writing in the catalogue for Contra Diction, a show at The Winchester Gallery , described them thus, “Apertures appear, suggest opportunities for entry, exit, illumination, enlightenment, escape; hair lies cross, locking the scanning inner eye on its target, and simultaneously barring the way forward or out of here. For this is what and where we are. ” Here was a sense of bodily engulfment, where it seemed language was muffled to the point of silence. “Black is perhaps the most difficult colour to articulate… Here it suggests both depth and silence with a richness of underlying colour which spills through in cracks or lines that open up the painted surface” (Rosemary Betterton, WAM, Jan/Feb 94).
In 1996 I exhibited a number of works under the title Third Person (Kapil Jariwala Gallery, London). In these works hand-written texts were inscribed into the columns of impastoed paint. These texts were edited versions of diary entries, unwanted or unconsidered writings that sprung from joy and despair, representing several male and female voices of different ages and social positions. They were placed alongside fields of colour, ‘dyed’ into the surface of the canvas that contained minimal perspective lines. Of these ‘s paces’ Greg Hilty wrote, “They forcefully convey psychological space as a counterfoil to the activity implicit in the texts: a space that is naked, sketchily rendered, flat and uninflected, contradictory, semi-rational, mysterious, banal, infinite in its implications and totally restricted in fact.” (Third Person, NSAD Press, 1996) These works anticipate how a spectator might receive them. I imagine how at first glance the viewer will see the work as a whole yet be enticed to walk in to examine the surface, being rewarded with the detail of their making and the text that becomes readable. Viewing the painting up close fills all peripheral vision, this nearness creates a sense of intimacy, enhanced by the reading of ‘private’ words. The act of looking has been superseded by the act of reading, both of them quite different experiences. The viewer would then draw out, balancing what she has read with what she has seen, which will be different for each viewer. As with both Harris and Taylor-Wood, the spectator is the site where the work happens, in which the different elements coalesce or are held in balance as discreet entities. The moving to and fro, in and out, in front of the canvas is important; the text can’t be read from far away nor can the whole text be read close to. This means a mobile and engaged viewer. The slowness of the text’s making (they are built up with layers of paint and washes) contrasts with the immediacy of the text’s tone and calls into question their ‘truthfulness’ – they seem written from the heart but perhaps they are fictions? They share with Taylor-Wood the problem of depicting ‘genuine’ emotion. These ‘spaces’ often shift vanishing points from one side of the canvas to the other and thus draw “the viewer’s space into the equation, as if they must consciously reorientate themselves” (*19) as they walk around the work. Like Harris’ paintings the relationship with the work changes as the viewer moves. The theorist Diane Hill argues this further, when she talks of the viewer’s experience of the textual content leading her to re-orientate herself, ” ‘within’ each work – that is, within the duration of experience of that work… Thus, the experience of art becomes plural and emphatically durational – shifting but emphatically situated – both physically and conceptually. Here we have a situation where we seem both to be beyond time, drawn into a contemplation of visual particularity and specificity in an engagement reminiscent of modernist, indeed Kantian, notion of contemplation beyond time yet simultaneously drawn back into temporality… These works could be said to re-embed the act of visual contemplation, which is traditionally conceived as transcending time and place, into the complex matrix of lived raw experience.” (Diane Hill, The Real Realm: Value and Values in Recent Feminist Art, Interpreting Visual Culture, Routledge 1998).
The most recent body of work, Solipsist (Angel Row Gallery, 2000) is more explicit in the investigation the earlier works sets up. In this series of large works on canvas lyrics from Indie band songs are inscribed in the columns. The ‘spaces’ are also retained are now more obviously rooms; the home, studio, gallery. These hugely popular bands, Radiohead, Manic Street Preachers, Everything but the Girl, The Charlatans and The Verve, perhaps write more considered lyrics than the average pop group. They are both meaningful, to those that listen to and love the music and meaningless being played incessantly in shopping malls and radio stations throughout the country. They allude to emotions, perhaps even provoke memories of heightened experience yet, when written down, stripped of the melody, diminish to bad poetry. The poverty of the experience, or at least its lack of uniqueness is also increased as we are aware how quickly such songs ‘date’. Often they are associated with certain memories, set in the particular time of the recording’s release. Because of the physical effort of looking at a large painting it had become clear to me the earlier paintings were usually only partially ‘read’. The use of lyrics thus seemed appropriate as we often only hear or remember snatches of words when listening to songs, yet they still evoke memories and feelings. The song’ s emotional content, coupled with the emotion the song produces in the listener hovers between private and public worlds. As with Taylor-Wood the performative nature of feeling is alluded to – do emotions exist if we don’t ‘perform’ them to another?
The rooms are drawn on a scale that encourages the notion of walking into the works, testing the body against them. The fields of colour that in earlier works offered escapist possibilities, are now ‘real’ places, although the marks of the painted surface still contradict this spatial depiction. In the two largest paintings (“It’s a bitter sweet symphony….” and “Just when you’re thinking things over…..”) it is the gallery that is reflected in the work. Like Harris’ ellipse the painting becomes a mirror that fails to reflect. As the lyrics evoke an absent melody so the viewer is implicated but fails to materialise. The rooms are free from habitation. In the catalogue Kirsty Ogg describes them thus, “The sense of absence is a significant aspect of these works. The paintings show practically empty rooms. There are no people represented, but there are traces of human occupation… Sometimes they show the corners of rooms, places to take refuge and wallow in your misery. Some are domestic settings, where you can still feel the re verberations of angry voices and slamming doors. Some are the Angel Row Gallery itself. These works were devised to be hung opposite the spaces they represent, mirroring the venue. The image continues across the panels of the painting, broken up by the text, with slight jumps and discrepancies in continuity. These paintings become re presentations of a memory of a space – that never quite accurately remembers a flow of details – rather than an accurate record. The human presence is again absent, in this case the viewer.” (Solipsist, Angel Row Gallery, 2000) .
These paintings propose a gaze, where the viewer searches for the right spot – i.e. the ‘founding perception’ where the perspective mirrors what she sees behind her. But the perspectives shift and so the viewer moves too, perhaps becoming agitated as she tries to make sense of what she sees. Walking to and from, shifting focus between reading and looking, trying to see, as it were, ‘round’ these textual columns, it is now the glance that is implicated. The title Solipsist is a challenge to the notion of the artist, or indeed anyone, living an internalised life. The painter in particular exemplifies this existence, alone in her studio, perhaps listening to music and experiencing emotion which is then transmitted to her canvas (as Pollock). Yet the paintings reach out to a common experience that the audience can relate to – surely everyone has had these feelings, sitting in rooms, indulging certain emotions? The viewer may substitute her experience as a way of putting herself ‘in’ the picture. Ogg concludes her essay, “The joy of these works is that they prompt your own connections between memory, images and music, creating your own personal back catalogue of songs.” (ibid) Like Harris and Taylor-Wood, in their very different ways, these works set out to involve the viewer in the making of their ‘meaning’.
For all these artists then their work exists in deictic time, at the moment when and wherever it is viewed, engaging the viewer directly, both physically and emotionally. This reinvestment in the here and now, this ‘interactive’ viewing experience, revitalises the idea of the personal, removing it from any notion of the confessional. In these works ‘self expression’ allows space for others to enter, and acknowledges that this is a dynamic relationship; the artists are the first spectators of their work and the spectator is creative, involved in ‘making’ the work’s meaning. And in telling it like it is, or at least how we see and feel it, we begin the important job of communication and so connect with the world.
1. See Rebecca Fortnum, Sindy the artist, Artists Newsletter, April 1991
1A. Katy Deepwell, In defence of the indefensible: Feminism, Painting and Postmodernism, Feminist Art News, Vol 2 No 4, 1987
2. Laura Mulvey, ‘You don’t know what is happening, do you, Mr Jones?’ in Framing Feminism, Art and the Women’s Movement 1970-1985 Ed Parker & Pollock, Pandora Press 1987
3. Norman Bryson, Vision and painting: the logic of the gaze,Macmillan,1983
9. Jane Harris, unpublished interview with Rebecca Fortnum, 12 September 2001
11. Martin Henschel, Transforming geometry and ornament – on the paintings of Jane Harris, Southampton City Art Gallery, 2001
12. Geoffrey Worsdale, Jane Harris, Southampton City Art Gallery, 2001
13. “I prefer the word ornamentation to decoration; the work is ornamental I think, but it is there for an intrinsic purpose, not as an afterthought”. Jane Harris, unpublished interview with Rebecca Fortnum, 12 September 2001
14. see Shirley Kaneda, Painting and the Feminine, Arts Magazine 199? and Jill Morgan paper given at Hysteria Conference, Tate Gallery Liverpool, 199?
15. Sam Taylor-Wood interview with Germano Celant, Sam Taylor-Wood, published Fondazione Prada, 1999