I thought posting my MA proposal would better illustrate my aims and objectives, as well as helping to situate how I see my work sitting in a wider context.
Exploring the potential of surface patterns as a method for communicating the sublime
The concept of the sublime is a theme that, until now, I have primarily explored through my paintings, producing large-scale, immersive works. Originally, I viewed my ‘fine art’ painting and ‘commercial’ surface pattern as two very distinct and separate endeavours; with this investigation I seek to reconcile my two practices.
My primary aim is to develop a new visual language that uses repeating ‘all-over’ imagery as a means to communicate the sublime. I am interested in the possibilities of variable or unlimited scale offered by a repeating format, as well as the challenge of creating images without one fixed focal point. Throughout my investigation I intend to utilise and combine a range of traditional and contemporary image-making techniques and processes, opening a dialogue between painting, digital image generation, printmaking and digital projection.
‘The sublime’ is a troublesome term known to have concerned Western society since at least 1AD, where it appeared in a treaties on literature and rhetoric by Longinus. The sublime has morphed throughout history, with successive generations adding to the discourse. In his book The Sublime, Simon Morley summarises these shifts:
“Broadly speaking, four main approaches to the sublime can be identified within contemporary art and theory. These derive from Longinus, Burke, Kant and Schiller. From Longinus comes an emphasis on the transcendence of reality through the heroic act; from Burke, the idea of the sublime as an experience of shock and awe and as a destabilizing force; from Kant, the notion of the sublime as revealing a reality that is fundamentally indeterminate, undecidable and unpresentable; and from Schiller, a reading of the sublime as ecstatic experience.” (Morley, 2010, p.19).
To qualify my interpretation of the sublime in art, I see it as a transcendental connection; on a preconscious or preverbal level, an understanding through feeling, a moment of deep connection, being held, immersed, submerged, captured – an experience of the non-definable. Within the arts, this is felt through the immediate aesthetic response a viewer can have to an artwork, which could include a range of qualities, not just those of beauty or ugliness.
“Aesthetics is often assumed to be concerned with judgements of beauty or ugliness, but it actually taps into a much wider range of response. This includes not only such qualities as the awkward, the garish, the bizarre or the kitsch, but even the apparent absence of any quality, as in the dull or indifferent”. (Maclagen, 2004, p.10).
I see the initial preverbal response to an artwork’s aesthetics as a powerful and deep-rooted connection; successfully evoking a scene of sublimity is therefore directly tied to the viewer’s first engagement.
“Gaston Bachelard (1969)’ a pioneer in the investigation of the creative reception of literature, famously asserted that ‘…the image has touched the depths before it stirs the surface’. He meant that we do not need to know the context from which it originates, nor to have shared the poet’s suffering, in order for an immediate response to a poetic image to make itself felt” (Maclagan, 2004, p.44).
I regard this immediate connection as a spiritual one, not to be confused with a religious belief but a belief in the ‘other’, something that can’t be proven and is known through feeling.
“The essential claim of the sublime is that man can, in feeling and speech, transcend the human. What, if anything, lies beyond the human – God or the gods, the daemon or Nature – is matter for great disagreement” (Weiskel, 2010, p.12).
If I were to situate my practice within an historical context, I would link it primarily to abstract expressionism, my work being a contemporary interpretation of its aims and methods. However I am not looking back at abstract expressionism / modernism through cynical or ironic lens which a post-modern approach often implies.
My work is not a reaction against but an open dialogue with its techniques, practices and principles. I am still producing non-representational work but doing so by using the format of repeatable ‘all-over’ surface patterns. I see this as a logical development to continue the abstract expressionist experiment. I think the link between abstract expressionism and surface pattern can be seen in this statement by Clement Greenberg.
“ The eye has trouble locating central emphases and is more directly compelled to treat the whole of the surface as a single undifferentiated field of interest, and this, in turn, compels us to feel and judge the picture more immediately in terms of its over-all unity” (Greenberg, 1989, p.137).
Like the abstract expressionists, my inspiration comes from within; colours, marks and gestures speak of my internal response to the external world. In his seminal text The Sublime Is Now, Barnet Newman asserted that:
“Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or life, we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings. The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation.” (Newman,1998, p574).
I see Newman’s paintings as limitless, banal and near empty spaces in which the mind is free to wander. Like Newman, I intend to make images in which the viewer is free to explore, however, this is not 1950’s America: the context in which new artwork is made and will be engaged with has changed. In his essay Beauty & the Contemporary Sublime, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe questions whether the contemporary artist must adapt his subject matter in light of our technological age.
“The image of the tundra, which, as an idea of emptiness and freedom to move, inspired Newman, might be seen to have been replaced with the knowledge that invisibility itself, the air, is filled with electronic signals. An, as it were, geographical image of limitlessness has given way to a technological one.” (Gilbert-Rolfe, 2010,p139).
For me this shift is not an explicit one, I am not trying to force a reference to the technological world. I work within the technological age; the context in which I create work is different to Newman’s. In expressing my internal response to the external world, I cannot help but make work which speaks of and references the contemporary environment.
I would regard artists such as Fabian Marcaccio as a postmodern abstract expressionist. He combines painterly marks with digital copies of painterly marks, oversized images of canvas textures stuck onto canvas; the painting surface itself may be stretched, warped, It speaks of a sublime of excess. His work explores how painting can persist in the technological age. This fusion of the traditional and digital, as well as his experiments creating painterly environments, makes Marcaccio a key reference for my own investigation into a contemporary sublime.
Further to my proposal I have identified a series of key questions relating to the sublime, which my investigation will have to consider…
The concept that art is an idea and is no longer tied to process has been long won, however I believe there still persists a hierarchy of processes, an inherited afterglow of cultural associations that still affect our perception of artwork.
A painting demands our attention as a work of art because it speaks of the intellectual authority of the gallery; however, wallpaper has no such pretensions and alludes to domestic decoration. In his book Ways Of Seeing, John Berger asserts that “the meaning of an image is changed according to what one sees immediately beside it or what comes immediately after it” (Berger, 2008, p.22). I believe the context with which we primarily associate a process preloads our reaction to it, even when that very context is later altered. So, will this make some processes more problematic than others?
Another way in which painting and wallpaper differ is in their exclusivity. The handmade object is the ultimate expression of the unique; it has an exclusive material authenticity. Where there is no ‘original’ or the work is designed for reproduction, the very authenticity or genuineness of the work is called into question. In Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the writer explores how uniqueness, or ‘aura’, is affected through reproduction:
“The genuineness of a thing is the quintessence of everything about it since its creation that can be handed down, from its material duration to the historical witness that it bears. The latter (material duration and historical witness) being grounded in the former (the thing’s genuineness), what happens in the reproduction, where the former has been removed from human perception, is that the latter also starts to wobble. Nothing else, admittedly; however, what starts to wobble is the authority of the thing. We can encapsulate what stands out here by using the term ‘aura’. We can say: what shrinks in an age where the work of art can be reproduced by technological means is its aura.”
(Benjamin, 2008, p.7).
The question I see posed here is: is the uniqueness, or aura, of a work important to its effectiveness at communicating the transcendental or sublime? And, if so, can the concept of ‘aura’ be shifted from the object to the idea? This could free us to view the reproduction with the lens we have hitherto reserved for the ‘original’. The sublime is a metaphysical, transcendental experience; can we have a sublime experience with a reproduction or does a work need to be ‘genuine’?
I intend to experiment translating my artwork into different formats, therefore, could a so-called sublime image be conceptually robust enough to survive reproduction into different platforms? Or, within the framework of a technological reading, could “networks of reproductive processes thereby afford us some glimpse into a postmodern or technological sublime, whose power or authenticity is documented by the success of such works in evoking a whole new postmodern space” (Jameson, 2010, p.145). Essentially, could the very act of reproduction lead to a postmodern sublime?
Reproduction affects the monetary value of a work: the less unique, the less value there is; thus, the value of a work may also affect its aura. This raises the question: is monetary value needed to create or reinforce the aura of a work? If so, it makes processes of mass reproduction more problematic for me as a method of communicating the sublime.
In the same way a vibrant colour becomes dull the longer we look at it, prolonged or repeated viewing can diminish the emotional response to a work. “What once was illuminated can become deadened by familiarity” (Crowther, 1996, p.208). I will explore methods of altering or reinventing the image to sustain the viewer’s engagement, and have already begun to test this by randomising layers of digital paintings. This may lead to experiments with animated projections.
However, do modern digital processes such as Photoshop make a work less accessible to the viewer than more traditional ‘hands on’ processes? In my initial experiments I am using scanned gestural brush marks to build digital images, which allude to the handmade. Further in my investigation, I will consider whether vector-based artwork, which speaks more of a direct digital process, can alone evoke the sublime; or, do we need that direct evidence of the artist’s involvement? Is it possible to have a spiritual or transcendental connection to computer-generated artwork?
“Emotions cannot be excluded from our responses to paint: these thoughts all happen too far from words to be something we can control. Substances occupy the body and mind, inextricably” (Elkins, 1999, p.98).
A direct connection to the physical process of making a work has always been important to my practice. The use of digital processes could create a disconnection or layer between the artist and artwork. In this way, the use of digital media could be described as a ‘secondary’ process. I will consider how the relationship between artist, processes and artwork can affect/influence the viewer’s response.
My thoughts, ideas and critical observations throughout this investigation, reflecting on my own practice, will be recorded in sketchbooks. Within the same documents I will analyse and comment upon relevant artists, theories and processes, conducting reflexive research to build a wider contextual framework. I have also begun using Pinterest to create libraries of related historical and contemporary artwork, which is a source of visual inspiration. Digital work is currently being archived, and I intend to create a blog so this work in progress can be better reviewed. Through open critical debate with peers, I will seek to clarify my position and receive feedback regarding my ongoing experiments.
My investigation at this stage is speculative and as such I don’t have a clear end product in mind. I see the opportunity to present my work in using various formats and arenas, “It doesn’t make much difference how the paint is applied as long as something is being said. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement’’ (Pollock, 1998, p.578).
The sublime is centred in us, a personal response to the undemostratable, its true understanding is attained in the moments you experience it. ‘The role of the contemporary artist is to “question the nondemonstratable’. That question is, to me, the only one worthy of life’s high stakes, and the world of thought in the coming century” (Lyotard, 2010, p.135). I believe that as long as we continue to be human, and to engage in the world around us and within us, the sublime as subject matter will persist and be relevant.