The Strip Suite – Jacqueline Millner
Some of the most exciting painting today is not about images but about the materiality of paint and the embodied process of making. Even those painters who take inspiration from images they find in popular culture and the net are not working with the meaning of the image and certainly not with the significance of transcribing a photograph to a painting: these were questions that were key to an earlier moment, that moment dominated by questions of appropriation. To be concerned with the materiality and process of making is to be concerned with the phenomenology of paint as an organic substance grounded in the physical world and everything that this brings forth: about the liveness of the human body as much as the matter it is working with; about the materiality of bodies; about the intricate, real time interdependence of material, emotion, intelligence and hand that brings the process of painting close to the process of thinking; about the always developing, never resolved nature of being in the world that is echoed in the infinitely plastic nature of painting. As American art historian Richard Shiff has suggested, because its mechanics are so simple, painting allows for tremendous inventive freedom.[i]
These material concerns serve to save painting, and us, from the rhetoric of radical pluralism — the catch-cry of that all practices are possible in the post-medium state of contemporary art. To focus on the intimate, sometimes modest, but always contingent and unresolved nature of painting is to evade calls for the definitive ‘next big thing’: there is no need for a new neologism that essentialises what period we are in, or that names what is the most ‘advanced’ way of working.
With its sensuality and ambiguity, paint, an organic substance grounded in the physical world, can evoke a material connection between viewer and image, inviting us to be physically involved with the image, to touch it and to be touched.[ii] But paint, in particular abstraction, also evokes the viewer’s imaginative involvement. Painting strategies that heighten material presence and ambiguity echo more generally the processes of human perception and memory: we focus in and out of images and sensations as we strive to construct a coherent narrative of our existence, but our experience of reality remains ambiguous, with memory and imagination at times indistinguishable. American curator Alison Gingeras argues that painting corresponds more closely with the brain’s mnemonic functions than photography, the medium most commonly used to ‘capture’ our memories. And American art critic Raphael Rubinstein suggests that while much contemporary art ‘comes with its interpretation pre-packaged’ and caters to viewers who ‘prefer the backstory to what is in front of their eyes’ — as artist David Salle has put it — many paintings require that the viewer spend time examining the picture’s internal logic: a mental effort that parallels that of memory.[iii] As Salle recently wrote, the focus required to look at or make a painting is the opposite of the internet’s ‘frenetic sprawl’.[iv] It may be that ‘in our image-saturated culture, digital technology has given painting and its slow, full-resolution images a new lease of life’.[v]
Julie Harris’s recent acrylics on polyester — exhibited as The Strip Suite in Blue Mountains City Art Gallery in October 2017 — elicit this slower pace, sustained looking and material immersion. Installed in a wraparound strip at eye level, the paintings hold us with their acute balance of formal constraint and process-induced looseness, of sharp saturated colour and soft wash. The base layer of the paintings is free, emerging from a collaboration between art and nature. The artist in effect distresses the canvas, allows time and site to make their mark as she pools and swirls pigment, exposes paint and support to rain, heat, dust and wind. The resulting surfaces are textured like tree bark or river beds, riven with activity and continually evolving. But what most accentuates the freedom of these forms is the overlay of narrow strips of vivid, even iridescent colour that rather than restrain actually amplify the energy the paintings radiate. This interplay between the flowing, chance-like poolings of paint that in places appear to thin out into pure light, and the dense, sharp lines, asserts that these are works in progress, ever moving. In The Strip Suite, Harris has extended her material explorations beyond the canvas, leveraging off collaborations with master craftsmen in glass and ceramics to add to the dynamic interplay between stripe and wash in the painted surfaces.[vi]The carefully colour calibrated blown organic forms, rectilinear steel structures and vertically balanced ceramic spheres all heighten the painting’s formal aspects.
Harris has honed her craft over several decades of experimentation, observing the discipline of painting even as it was many times declared by critics, theorists and curators incapable of speaking to contemporary concerns, or blighted by its association with the expression of narcissistic personality and toxic masculinity. Such commitment to practice — the continual return to familiar problems, the repeated attempts to yield different answers even as many ended in failure — underpins the integrity of Harris’ work. It is what has allowed her to develop a distinctive pictorial style which, unlike easily forgotten art made within an economy of short attention spans and instant gratification, serves as guide to the artist’s private feelings and emotions.
Harris’s art demands to be experienced with actual physical proximity and duration. The way she has installed this body of work invites us to walk closely alongside it, to look and keep looking, but also to keep moving, and as we do so to take up the repeated opportunities to see how qualities of surface and texture reflect deeper impulses. We get a sense that the surface has been constructed piece by piece over time, the result of a subtle dance between chance and intention: a response to personal worry or preoccupation is balanced by the weight of hard-won skill; an almost automatic mark-making process impelled by music is tempered by specific commitment to care for the natural world; a desire to leave imperfection be is in equilibrium with the aesthetic impulse to manage and arrange. In this way, Harris’s painting remains ever responsive, if not necessarily provisional in the sense that some critics have recently attempted to resuscitate the legitimacy of contemporary abstraction.[vii] While Harris’ work is concerned with its own materiality and process of making, focused on structure and on discovering and moulding pictorial form, it comes from a place of deep commitment over many years. Her painting retains a certain ethics, a certain politics that is grounded in the material relations between paint and body — both of the artist and the viewer.
As American artist David Salle wrote recently: ‘Painting may no longer be dominant, but that has had, if anything, a salutary effect: not everyone can paint, or needs to. While art audiences have gone their distracted way, painting, like a truffle growing under cover of leaves, has developed flavors both rich and deep, though perhaps not for everyone. Not having to spend so much energy defending one’s decision to paint has given painters the freedom to think about what painting can be. For those who make paintings, or who find in them a compass point, this is a time of enormous vitality.’[viii]
[i] Richard Shiff in Hunter College roundtable reported in Patrick Neal, ‘Enduring Meaning in an Old Medium’, Hyperallergic, 18 January 2013
[ii] Barry Schwabsky’s observation in ‘An Art that Eats its own Head: Painting in the Age of the Image’, catalogue essay for Triumph of Painting, London, 2005. Available online: www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk/current/essays.htm.
[iii] Ralph Rubenstein, ‘Provisional Painting’, Art in America, 97 (5) 122-128, 2009
[iv] ‘Structure Rising: David Salle on “The Forever Now” at MoMA’ Artnews, 23 February 2015
[v] Marc Valli and Margherita Dessanay, A Brush with the Real: Figurative Painting Today, London: Laurence King, 2014
[vi] Her collaborators include Simon Reece, ceramics artist, and Keith Rowe, glass artist.
[vii] For example, Ralph Rubenstein, ‘Provisional Painting’, Art in America, 97 (5) 122-128, 2009
[viii] ‘Structure Rising: David Salle on ‘The Forever Now’ at MoMA’ Artnews, 23 February 2015
Dr Jacqueline Millner
Associate Professor, Visual Arts
School of Humanities and Social Sciences
La Trobe University
Visual Arts Building, 2.23 Bendigo Campus
+61 3 54447481