Jemima Wyman and Catherine Brown

A sensorial abstraction

The after-effect of Jemima Wyman’s exhibition Catastrophe Theory: Earthquake Girl and other stories was a mild feeling of nausea. This was in no way induced by the content of the exhibition which was quite playful in tone, but rather a kind of side-effect of the discordant resonating frequencies of colour, too much for the eye to assimilate visually, so passing through to the gut. This physiological tremor was exactly what Wyman was attempting to paint—to paint and not only to represent. What I experienced at Bellas-Milani gallery in February this year may be described as an attack of chromophobia. I resisted a desire to purge.

David Batchelor in his book Chromophobia (2000), argues that colour has been the...

object of extreme prejudice in Western culture. ... Chromophobia manifests itself in the many and varied attempts to purge colour from culture, to devalue colour, to diminish its significance, to deny its complexity. More specifically: this purging of colour is usually accomplished in one of two ways. In the first colour is made out to be the property of some “foreign” body—usually the feminine, the oriental, the primitive, the infantile, the vulgar, the queer or the pathological. In the second, colour is relegated to the realm of the superficial, the supplementary, the inessential or the cosmetic. In one, colour is regarded as alien and therefore dangerous; in the other, it is perceived merely as a secondary quality of experience, and thus unworthy of serious consideration. Colour is dangerous, or it is trivial, or it is both. (It is typical of prejudices to conflate the sinister and the superficial.) Either way, colour is routinely excluded from the higher concerns of the Mind. It is other to the higher values of Western culture. Or perhaps culture is other to the higher values of colour. Or colour is the corruption of culture.1

Wyman confronts this sublimated prejudice and makes our experience of colour primary. However her project is not simply to legitimise colour but rather, like Op artists and Pop artists before her, to take the ‘bastard child’ off its leash and to explore its free reign in the house of Culture. The paintings installed in the first floor gallery were large-scaled abstracted landscapes, all entitled ‘Scapeologies’. Wyman tackles the landscape, as a core subject of Western painting, and brings its romantic otherness to a point of rupture. So, far from the soothing and contemplative, the viewer’s eye worked hard to perceive the subject landforms, such as Open Cut Mine, Grand Canyon, Japanese Garden, etcetera. The works were magnetic and the viewing exercise simple (almost a paint by numbers patterning), but their large scale surrounding the viewer in the small gallery was overwhelming and one became conscious of the effort of looking, of the (well worn) practice of pictorial formulation. It was impossible to get back far enough from the works, to establish that proper viewing distance.

Wyman made these works in a shed, when staying on a rural property. The canvasses were laid flat on the ground and great drips of enamel paint, singular colours straight from the can and applied with a turkey-baster, were pooled into their individually mapped out areas. Wyman was able to climb up high over the top of the works and look down to assess her progress. However the visual mapping of these works, the application of colours and their contiguous patterning, defy the notion of a proper viewing distance. Traditional colour theory, with its principles of harmony and contrast and relations of complementaries, triads and adjacents, works on the premise of ‘optical mixing’, where the eye blends the colours in order for the brain to perceive depth, form, solid matter, open space, and so on. The Impressionists (and particularly the postimpressionist Seurat) worked to this method and this is thought to account (at least in part) for the very pleasing quality of the paintings—a condition which I would also argue promotes the voyeuristic ‘othering’ of the landscape in these works, the ideal no-place. Wyman’s works, on the other hand, have an even level of brightness (it is a real visual effort to get some of the colours to recede in order to perceive the landscape image) and the areas of singular colour are far too large to be blended by the eye—hence the nausea.

Another way of thinking about the act of optical mixing and the translation of blobs of paint to pictorial image, is as a translation of the actual into the virtual. Wyman’s paintings seem to hover between paint and picture, vibrating, repulsing and attracting at once. In their vibrational resistance, her works draw attention to that space/moment of (visual) collapse. This is Wyman’s idea of ‘catastrophe theory’, where the solid landscape, during episodes of earthquake, blasting, or even slow erosion, turns liquid, the ground giving way beneath our feet. The virtual, as it operates in her paintings, is an active dimension of the real, a translatory space between physical properties and psychic states of mind. Abstraction, for Wyman, is also not (or not only) a process of ‘othering’, of making an ideal no-place. Of course her works do achieve this, as all artworks in the Western tradition our bound to, but her methodology reserves a ‘reply’ for the bodily experience of viewing. This (nauseating) experience renders the artwork material again—an object, a construction, the painting as readymade—resisting discourses of representation.

Batchelor describes a shift in the attitude to colour in the art of the 1960s. He quotes Frank Stella, from a radio interview as saying,

I knew a wise guy who used to make fun of my painting, but he didn’t like the Abstract Expressionists either. He said they would be good painters if they could only keep the paint as good as it was in the can. And that’s what I tried to do. I tried to keep the paint as good as it was in the can.2

Industrial paints, or just plain house-paints that Wyman has used, have become a commonly preferred medium for contemporary artists and this choice brings with it a relationship to mass manufacture, to commercial design and to industrial technology. Paint from a tube is designed to be mixed up on a palette in the small space of the studio. Paint from a can is liquid architecture, plastic skin, moulded furniture and highway billboard. Wyman’s scapeologies are straight from the can, laid out in a designer formula, as various iterations of a singular sequence, hand-made in execution but mechanic in value.

On the second floor of the gallery, the exhibition undertook a further translation. One painting featured as a background for a floor-based installation of a sickly sea of draped lime green plastic, upon which were poised three video monitors. Here Wyman further explored her works’ relationship to popular culture, technology, the readymade and virtual space. In the video works Wyman, dressed and made-up as a clown, danced and wandered in a field of daisies. This ‘figure in a landscape’ composition whirled and twirled with hypnotic, psychedelic colours. Like kaleidoscopes, the video monitors acted as portals into a moving, multi-dimensional field where picture-planes dissolved into one another. The clown character (as fool, trickster and always ‘other’ to the civilised mind of Reason), evoked the aesthetic of Carnival with its subversive discourse of parodic mimicry. Kristeva, following Bakhtin’s work on Rabelais, described the rupturing of official texts through the mockery of Carnival. She later linked the aesthetic strategy of carnival to the use of colour when she described the chromatic clashes of Giotto’s frescoes as a sublimated jouissance of liberation, evoking the carnivalesque excess of the masses.3 It is this point of rupture and excess which Wyman attempted to capture—though not through representation as much as through (visual) sensation. There are no pictorial representations of rupture in the exhibition—no explosions, destructions, wounds, etcetera. The works themselves are not chaotic in style, but quite highly visually organised. Catastrophe Theory is to be read as Carnival, where, according to Kristeva, prohibition (the monologic) and transgression (the dialogic) co-exist. Thereby Art (as language in Carnival) both parodies and revelatises itself, repudiating its role in representation.

On this upper level of the gallery, Wyman created visual chains of equivalence through her materialist approach to colour. The pulsing video screens reflected off the lime green plastic, which in turn swamped the larger visual field and led back to the painting, which also refused to be a still point. This chromatic vibrational ‘noise’ operated between and through and hovered above the dimensions of the visual which we usually find so natural to navigate—space, time, surface, depth, pictorial representation, texture, form, outline, tone. In this manner, Wyman manifested a sensorial abstraction—an abstraction which did not define itself in opposition to figuration, or representation; nor define itself positively as ‘purity of form’.

 

CATHERINE BROWN: WHITE LIGHT AND THE FORCE OF THE INVISIBLE

If abstraction is not pure form, or form withdrawn from matter, how then can it be considered? John Rajchman, in his reading of Deleuze, articulates a new conception of abstraction, one which is based upon immanent force rather than transcendental form. Things then, or matter, are not pieces from a unified whole (the movement from object to concept), rather they are potentia in a world that is disunified, incongruous and composed of multiple divergent paths.

One starts to see the force or potential of things for which there exists no abstract concept, since their effectuation would go off in too many directions or “senses” at once. Deleuze calls such potentia virtual...’4

Through the post-object based practices of multimedia and installation, now decades old, we see artists attempting to utilise this abstraction of immanent force—to forge connections or express virtual pathways between media and matter, through dimensions of space and time, and ‘around’ representation. Catherine Brown has attempted to trace these pathways in her art practice, encompassing swirls of plastic tubing, living/ dying/ flowering plants, and most recently computer-generated visualisations of plant forms.

The common elements across these disparate media, and what becomes obvious as Brown’s central concern, is light. Light, not as dispersed chromatic vibrations of colour (as for Wyman), but white light—the invisible. Brown’s by now well-known surface constructions of patterned plastic tubing are works designed to catch the light. Their slippery, oily, often monochromatic surfaces, punctuated by nails dimpling a further pattern of bright metal pin-points, create a play of reflections. Though very different from Wyman’s work, it is apparent that the history of Brown’s concerns, particularly as evident in these works, can be traced back to similar art historical origins as those of Wyman’s—namely Optical artists such as Bridget Riley, the ‘surface’ concerns of Frank Stella, and the advent of Pop with its understanding of paint, colour, and industrial technology as readymade. Angela Goddard, in her writing on Brown, elaborated these connections and made a further connection to Minimalism with its use of light reflections, urging the viewer to move around the works, creating spatial and positional awareness.5

What is perhaps equally interesting in these works is their formal ‘narrative’ or journey of making. When examining their formal patterns, it is obvious that each work has a beginning or a couple of beginning points from which the larger patterns emerge. Decisions are taken along the way to shape the overall design, but the plastic tubing itself and the chosen method of application dictate much of the outcome. Brown’s works are as much about the ‘nature’ of her chosen material, how it will behave if applied to a flat surface, as they are about that end surface. Our act of looking at these works is not simply another layer of formal gloss, but an active re-tracing of this experimental narrative. Like looking at Wyman’s paintings our gaze becomes trapped between virtual image and actual object. Our vision hovers, not due to the optical noise of colour, but to the dual play of light as media for seeing into (‘reading’ the works as narrative, light from behind) and media for visual resistance (reflection, glare, shimmer, light from in front). As with Wyman, a sensate optical experience drives Brown’s projects of abstraction.

More recently, Brown has made installation works with plants—ephemeral narratives which cannot be re-traced, only (partially) observed. In 2004, the upper level of the Bellas-Milani gallery was filled with brightly coloured plastic pots holding water and small succulent plants known as Impatiens which have simple bright flowers of many different colours. The plants grew and flowered over the period of the exhibition, dropping leaves and petals over the gallery floor. Above them hung a bright light. Here, Brown explored light as energy, and the patterns which emerged from the ‘nature’ of her chosen media were continually changing. She employed abstraction as immanent force rather than transcendental form, light as heat and food, colour as signal and product both industrial and organic, and gallery as incubator and canvas.

Still more recently, Brown has undertaken a residency at the University of Queensland in a Research Centre which develops computer modelling of plant architectures. The software programs, based on mathematical algorithms, are used to model the three-dimensional dynamics of growth by individual plants in their environment, the physiological and genetic mechanisms underlying this development, and the activities of organisms that live on and around plants. Researchers are also using the modelling to investigate how environmental factors modify plant structure and how structure relates to ecology and productivity. This research is providing biologists with capabilities in computerised analysis and design, that engineers and architects have long taken for granted, to help pioneer a new discipline of ‘plant architectural ecology’.6

During her residency, Brown used these softwares to conduct her own experiments in plant growth and formation. She treated the program as if it were plastic tubing or an actual plant, that is, she selected its basic beginning or point of entry and then allowed the form to unfold over time. These various time-based movements, these animations (which may correspond to real months in the life of a cotton plant for example) are electronic schema, appearing in virtual space. In this work Brown reveals an understanding of form as complexity rather than geometry—the image as data, numerical code, electronic signal, experimental device and result.

In particular, Brown has become interested in those programs able to model wind, through its effects on plant formation. Wind, like light, is an invisible force, engaging with form as potentia, matter as reactive behavioural properties or ‘sensations’. Virtual wind cannot be felt, but becomes the invisible ground (the virtual) through which float visual effects or residues of form. One of these animations was exhibited recently at the University of Queensland Art Museum as a large-scale projection. Accompanying this work were collages which Brown had made also based (quite loosely) on plant forms. Using a straw and the wind of her own breath, Brown blew water-based paints across paper, causing it to run and branch in multiple directions like the stem-branch-leaf structure of plants. Overlaying clusters of small coloured rubber bands, she created visual clouds, conjuring form as complexity.

Both Wyman and Brown employ a sensorial abstraction that is productive and propulsive—iterating across media, between matter and form, and hovering in the space of the virtual. ‘This requires a change in the presumed motivation of abstraction: not to strip everything away in self-referential abnegation, but to offer sensations of things that can be seen only through the experience of “the collapse of the visual” or the “blindness” of painting. In that sense, what one paints is always otherwise unseeable abstract forces.’7

Jemima Wyman, Scapeology (Trees and Lilly Pads), 2005. Poured enamel paint on canvas, 320 x 180cm. Image courtesy the artist and Bellas Milani Gallery, Brisbane.

Jemima Wyman, Dazey Girl, 2005. Detail digital video still. Duration: 3:50mins. Image courtesy the artist and Bellas Milani Gallery, Brisbane.

Catherine Brown, Wind Branding (Navy and Lilac), 2005. Acrylic paint, mixed media, 36 x 42cm. Courtesy the artist and Bellas Milani Gallery, Brisbane.

Catherine Brown, Shifting Form detail, 2004. Plastic tubing and glue on MDF. Courtesy the artist and Bellas Milani Gallery, Brisbane.

notes: 

1. Batchelor, D., Chromophobia. Reaktion Books, London, 2000, p.23.

2. ibid., p.98.

3. ibid., p.104.

4. Rajchman, J., Constructions. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1998, p.65.

5. Goddard, A., ‘Dancing Light—the work of Catherine Brown’, Eyeline (special critical writing issue), Brisbane, 2001, p.8–9.

6. ACMC Plant Architecture Informatics Website (2005), University of Queensland, http://www.cpai.uq.edu.au/, (accessed 06.05.05).

7. Rajchman, op. cit. p.72.

Jemima Wyman and Catherine Brown are Brisbane-based artists.

Beth Jackson is a writer and freelance curator living in Brisbane.