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Some words on process and mentors

Samuel Beckett: “to find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.”

Much of my work is the result of thinking about the intersection of psychodynamic processes and the processes of artmaking. I’ve been interested in using ideas from psychoanalysis as ways to approach materials. I come at the work from two interrelated tracks—the material and the theoretical.

I claim an alliance with artists of the arte povera movement and the neo-avant garde of the 1950s such as Lee Bontecue and Alberto Burri. Their work essentially created a different genre, what some have called a poly-materialism.

English art historian Briony Fer wrote: “There is a type of artwork that hangs on the wall like a picture but acts more like an object. Conventions of pictorial composition, even abstract composition, are ignored in favor of the literal materiality of a thing that refuses to behave as a picture even though it is attached to a wall.”

I am interested how things are put together, how they fall apart, and how they can be reconstructed. How the debris and detritus of everyday life can be recycled and salvaged.

It’s been argued that this focus on materiality occupies another space: neither painting nor sculpture, but a third genre, fundamentally at odds with traditional norms. For me, this way of working has been the way in which I can incorporate reality into my work without imitating it.

I often ask my students to collect artists and ideas who will become their support network while they work on their projects. I ask them to imagine who they would like to have as mentors, who they would like to have sitting on their shoulders.

Alberto Burri, one of my ‘mentors’, makes remarkably intricate material and tactual worlds inside his works. Tiny spirals of machine stitching may cover over a crater or hole in the fabric; elsewhere a tear gently opens the surface to another layer that can be glimpsed behind it.

Burri said that whatever he found to work with ‘must function as surface, material and idea.’ This has been critical to me as well. Every time I choose a material- it has to work on these very same levels—it has to be evocative (have associative histories, contexts and meanings) and it has to also be a material that I can manipulate and explore the qualities of. Often the work is just that, a discovery of the material, what it is, the life it has lived, and what it might want to be now.

The artist Lee Bontecue also sits on my shoulder, or at least hangs out in my studio with me on occasion. In her work the effect is one of suturing, a poor woman’s sewing, a rudimentary form of attachment, devoid of inherent skill but diligently achieved nonetheless. Her constructions offer voids through which one enters or is expelled. Where language pauses, tactility fills the void.

Like these artists, I attempt to poetically recycle the debris of my world, and in doing this, discover something about both myself and the world that generated the material. In doing this, I commit to open-endedness, indeterminacy and irresolution. The work often flounders in its own failure, failure to resolve, to become whole. I make those failures visible, and appreciate the awkward futility of the process itself.

A few words on Repetition: the use of repetition as a process of making has a rich history in both the world of craft as well as postwar shifts of understanding means of production. In the artwork that followed the industrial revolution, there was a continual play with various forms of reproduction, replication and repetition that created a field of aesthetic play, one that also reflects the emotional, psychological and physical effects of shattering. Repetition serves as a vehicle for sorting out the human condition. Much of the work that developed in response to a world in crisis sat in an uneasy place between art and something else, between language and its failures. That’s a space where I like to be.

There is a certain amount of psychological catharsis associated with these ways of working. The artist Fautrier, who developed texturologie, where thick encrustations of paint acted as repositories of psychic trauma in the aftermath of the war. Burri’s work has also been seen as traumatic, his surfaces have been read as wounds, cut and torn, then stitched and sutured. The fact that Burri had trained as a doctor has fueled this dynamic of wounding and repair.

I too attempt to enact psycho dramas in the work—thinking about ideas such as insecure attachments, displacement, condensation, object relations, the death drive, the abject, the void, anxiety, rupture and repair, repetition compulsion. All of these concepts can be explored on a material level.

Like Burri and the other Italian artists of the neo avant garde, I am not interested in representing these ideas, but using the materials to make them visible. So instead of representational tactics, I use methods of layering, scratching, covering, uncovering, rending, mending, undoing, redoing, breaking, fixing, obscuring, gouging, etc.

In his article ‘Painting the Void’ Paul Schimmel wrote: “The destruction of the picture plane was not a nihilist gesture but a call to action… , as they pierced and lacerated, layered and assemblaged the two-dimensional support to figure the void as a space of liberating potentiality.”