ABOUT THE WORK

Putting together two or more parts into an order is a narrative. Often when starting a painting I have a specific, self-righteous sequence in mind, with clearly identifiable assignations to the parts. Presuming that the baseline purpose of all critical activity is to unmake and/or make more nuanced an existing order, mine is to both answer the urge to express a particular narrative, and to orchestrate its undoing.

My work is as much a monitoring of my uses and abuses of really primitive psychoanalytic models as it is an articulation of them, and I know letting obsolete thought regimes go is the price I pay for cognitive realignment. In periods I have painted towards the comfort and confirmation of what I already know – this always fails – and in stronger times towards upending it. Which imperatives are open for analytic adjustment and which ones are temperamental are not always clear to me.

My work is a narrative retrofitted to the resistance, tempo and mess of paint. Distinctions will blur, categories bleed and pollute each other and uncover multiple complicities in their painted incarnations. The material evidence of this process is the doubleness I experience when in front of a painting, the phenomenological excess. This never-perfect-fit between image and its container is both my reward and irritant.

Painting’s analogy to skin has probably always been there, with the surface being a hide where battle-scars remain as a record of its making. That painting is more likely than not a private activity makes it all the more apt: I stroke, lick, brush, bathe to make, while I unmake by sanding, scraping and cutting. I am drawn to the dumb puns and double entendres of the body, the creases that stand in for other creases, gaps that open in place of other gaps, infantile behaviors that return as adult ones - thought games that make the intolerable tolerable. In paint I am looking at a viscous flourish that reminds me of something else, but is potent enough to keep me from naming that other thing.

If consciousness knows itself through language, it is by mining painting for its systemic/grammatical failures that I can hope to find unexpected outcomes to my narrative. In recent work I make sure to compound the collapse of the cleanly assigned polarities by pressing one still-wet canvas up against the next. The imprinted paint deposit is a predictive/interpretive filter that denies me a tidy read and leaves me with a raised, Rorschach-like scar.

 

“Balzac”

If Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece” is…., then……

In my version, the story goes as follows: the old painter Frenhofer is trying to make one last and lasting masterpiece, but his model has run away. His acolyte Poussin pimps out his lovely young girlfriend to him, and they isolate themselves for months before Frenhofer finally invites his friends to see the result.  What they see is a canvas covered by a thick network of marks obscuring everything, save for an ankle in one corner. His shock at their shock makes him see what they see, and he burns his paintings and dies that night.

If this is an allegory of Modernism, then the wall of paint that confronts the friends when they come to see the painting can be a form of willed incoherence, even when the artist claims to want articulation and spatial illusion. Despite having the girlfriend as model, Frenhofer can’t seem to penetrate the canvas. The painting becomes a repository of failed attempts, and signals frailty,  intimacy and yearning rather than spatial and conceptual control.  This is my reading of Balzac’s story - the gift of the master’s impotence is Modernism! –and works for me.

During his MoMA retrospective in the mid-aughts, Gerhardt Richter had a series of paintings made from a photograph of his young wife and infant looking like Madonna and child. Different in temperature from his other paintings, they were just as squeegeed and scraped, but seemed impatient, as if registering not his virtuosic nonchalance, but inadequacy in the face of sentiment. Scraping towards a wall of paint seemed to restore intimacy from his first encounter with the photo, perhaps, and registered the difference between his usual polemical unmaking, and what these ones were asked to contain. I loved these paintings, but got angry thinking about how he, (in his third marriage and how many kids) could process the experience of parenthood so fluently through historical painting metaphors, and how for me, who had just given birth, this seemed no longer possible.

Was this good or bad? If one function of metaphor is to make something sneak past our usual defenses against it, will it still work beyond its first few appearances? Once something is a known decoy – an historical trope, for example– won’t familiarity just be piling on the compromises for each successive use?

 

Looking to the thing itself to see if the ease or difficulty articulating it might reveal something new, I thought about how almost anything can serve metaphorically for balls (Twin Towers, head of Holofernes) while they themselves can’t serve for anything else. They seemed the closest equivalent to my essentialist motherhood. I figured this would be where metaphor would go to die, and made a series of studies of balls from life. The embryonic ambivalence of gender expression has left a scar on the ball sack, the frenulum, a vestigial instability of the categories, which felt oddly satisfying to paint, scrape and squeegee. Despite my best clinical efforts, though, the doubleness of image and the matter it was made of became impossible to keep at arm’s length, and in the end collapsed the distance that uncomplicated representation promised me. I couldn’t argue with a way-too-close wall of not-yet/already-gone articulation. The painted and scraped surface became a body up against mine.

Trophy hunt /Fur and Sheikh

I find fur a good place to start for sensory overload and incoherence, with a tip of my cup to Meret Oppenheim. I can chase representation of hair with hair, with paintbrush and fur in an endgame of literal equivalents. Also, to me it looks like what sex feels like.

Camouflage is animal rhetoric.

A stretched pelt holds its memory of a dimensional presence minus its consciousness, and a form of self-critical consciousness gets restored for me while painting its likeness.

The published image of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed upon his capture in 2003 went viral as visual shorthand for the enemy being all that was abject, hairy and debased. In the rhetoric of the War on Terror that image was esperanto, and the message was clear enough. Still, somehow, I had a conflicting animal urge that somebody ought to lick his fur down. And the brush is a tongue.

In 2009 some photographers from Red Cross were allowed access to Guantanamo to make a series of portraits of the detainees. These images were made in collaboration with their subjects, who were shown in civilian clothing or traditional dress, some of them smiling. The prints, sent to their families as alternatives to the mugshots, and serving as proof that their relatives were alive and not mistreated, were never intended for public release.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed chose flowing white robes and headdress. Slimmed down since 2003, he has a benevolent smile, a long beard and an opened Koran in his lap.

"In 2011 these photos began appear on sites that were previously used by Al-Qaeda and its sympathizers to communicate with each other", said Jarret Brachman, the former research director at the Combating Terrorism Center of the U.S. military Academy at West Point. Brachman, now an independent terrorism researcher based in North Dakota, said he fears the photos could breed sympathy for a man who has proudly proclaimed his role in the Sept. 11 attacks as well as other incidents of terrorism, while also alleging he has been tortured by the U.S.

"What is problematic for me is it really humanizes the guy" said Brachman, identifying the unmonitored release of the images as a tactical and rhetorical error by the U.S. (BBC News)

One of my many doubts is a distrust of fluency. Systems of exchange depend on it, and access to language is the first marker of subjecthood. But a passed-down representational code will by definition have been built for an earlier conception, a forgone world. Meanwhile the impulse to modify one’s present to fit the inherited format is powerful. Heeding Karen Barad’s urging to resist eloquence and instead wait for what needs saying, my yearning to articulate is held in check by competing imperatives to block certain content from being passed on.

In these paintings I accept the failure of any one system of representation to author truth, and instead dig around in the below-human-register frequencies in the unequal but complementary rhetoric of the two portraits of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.