Jennifer Letchet Paintings

My work explores fundamental elements of painting, the relationship between colour and line. I intend my paintings to affect the viewer optically with the illusion of shapes moving and receding. Colour theory is very important to my work. I use specific hues to symbolise ideas or emotions. The contained shapes on canvases seem more like objects than lines. My recent work explores natural and man-made disasters and the impact this has on our environment. I want to record the changing landscape through simplified shapes and colours.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Is process painting still relevant to contemporary art practice?

I believe process painting still has a place in contemporary art; an art practice that focuses purely on the act of making can never become invalid.

Process painting is a branch of Abstraction, which Alexander Sturgis calls, “Non Objective Painting[1]. Shama Khama defines process-based practice,

Process suggests a sense of duration, a building up of traces of information, experience, time, maybe even knowledge? …Leading the viewer to question the possible significance of a human-sized image of a gnarled, almost hairless paintbrush to anyone but the artist who used it.[2]

Here Khama seems to question the validity of process based art; how can the viewer relate and why would they want to?  These are the questions I wish to address.

Peter Bürger writes that this form of painting arose from a desire for absolute autonomy and that the goals were fulfilled in Aestheticism and therefore resulting in its inevitable termination,

The separation of art from the praxis of life becomes the decisive characteristic of the autonomy of bourgeois art...whose terminal point is reached in Aestheticism, where art becomes the content of art… It is only as a consequence of this fact that the works of art becomes its own end in the full meaning of the term.[3]

Therefore, if process painting, art about art, was concluded in Aestheticism; surely it is not relevant in contemporary art?  In addition, an art that has abandoned the ‘praxis of life’ is meaningless to the viewer.  An art related solely to the maker will not be relevant to the outside world.  According to Gilbert-Rolfe, Abstraction saw its demise in the 1970s,

In the late 1970s, artists and critics of the more literal and sentimental sort started to vociferously denounce what they called and still call ‘blank Abstraction’.  And despite its detractors’ malicious intent, it was indeed abstraction’s blankness that was at issue.[4]

Eda Cufer writes against the possibility of an art purely about process.  She believes all art has greater meaning and will always reference something beyond itself,

Can art really conceptualise and interpret itself through itself?  From where do form and content derive? Does autonomy – freedom of art and the individual – exist?  If it does, on what values is it based?[5]

In contrast, W. J. T Mitchell believes autonomous painting is something to aspire to,

This sort of ‘pure’ visual perception, freed from concerns with concerns with functions, use, and labels, is perhaps the most highly sophisticated sort of seeing that we do …’pure’ vision, a merely mechanical process uncontaminated by imagination, purpose or desire.[6]

However, Richard Leppert feels process painting is more of a grey area in terms of meaning.  The process of making is not significant in how it has been made but the human imprint that is left behind.  The sense of authorship can never be lost, however machinelike the quality may be,

Like the humans who make it, art ages from the moment of its making, perpetually receding from the viewer’s own present…it represent a different time, place and set of sociocultural circumstances of production and function.[7]

How is this sense of authorship as Leppert describes, an indicator though of the relevance of process painting?  I will examine the work of Ingrid Calame, a contemporary process painter, to determine the importance of authorship, autonomy, and the extremities of process art.

Ingrid Calame paintings appear like intricately coloured maps and line drawings, see fig.1 and 2).  In conversation with Dale Berning, Ingrid Calame describes her process of working,

I go to specific locations to trace marks, stains and cracks on the ground… I then start to trace the layers of rubbings that are beneath…with a different colour pencil for each layer, peeling back the layers one by one…The final drawings are always a surprise.[8]

James Welling commends this process for achieving the,

The impossibility of mapping…the world, but at a one-to-one scale, and the futility of that process. It’s negotiation because it’s all about visual interpretation of the stains through the transparency of the Mylar. It’s really mediated… It’s not just this idea of transferring things from one surface to another; it’s a negotiation and a decision-making process in the hand of the draftsperson.[9]

Here James Welling finds Ingrid Calame’s process paintings intriguing because they are open to different interpretations; it challenges his way of seeing.  On one hand the process is essential and the main content, but you cannot view it on that basis alone, it affects the viewer optically and visually.  Calame’s paintings are most definitely not ‘blank’ or empty of meaning.  They are not unrelated to the life or reality and therefore not autonomous.  The works do not depend upon the reference to reality, or life, they use the process to reflect it. 

In conclusion, process painting is not an invalid form of Abstraction; process painting does not necessarily need to be abstract.  This seems to be a vague and damning term in contemporary art.  Process painting can be conceptual or participatory if it so chooses to be, all art must be interpreted and giving interpretation gives meaning and thus destroys blankness.  Leppert writes,

Viewers do not wait for a painting’s meaning to arrive pre-packaged.  Viewers are active participants in determining meaning.  In order to ‘see’ (that is, to ‘perceive’), I have to know something.[10]

However, Peter Bürger writes than an art about the act of making art and the artist’s connection with the work is irrelevant.  Art distanced from reality is not to be idealised, but purged from contemporary art,

Given the experience of the false sublation of autonomy, one will need to ask whether the distance between art and the praxis of life is not requisite for that free space within which alternatives to what exists becomes conceivable.[11]

Jacques Rancière believes that art, “wants to respond to…a lack of connections.’’[12] He also believes that art about art cannot exist with meaning or a link to real life,

The singularity of art is linked to the identification of its autonomous forms with the forms of life and with possible politics.  These possible politics are only ever realised in full at the price of abolishing the singularity of art, the singularity of politics, or the two together. [13]

Therefore, I personally believe process art is still relevant today and will always continue to hold value.  Like the work of Calame, autonomous art is impossible and should not be sought after.  It is an empty goal and has no meaning to anyone but the author: it is not contemporary; it has been explored to its limits.  Art that exists in reality has relevance to viewers, abstract art can still fulfil this requirement and all painting must depend on an element of abstraction.



[1] Alexander Sturgis Understanding Paintings; themes in art explored and explained, page 243
[2] Shama Khama Movement and thought and movement an essay from Measures of Autonomy, page 19
[3] Peter Bürger The Negation of the Autonomy of Art by the Avant-garde, 2002, from Claire Bishop Documents of Contemporary Art: Participation, page 48-50
[4] Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime, page 122
[5] Eda Cufer Transnacionala; a Journey from the East to the West, 1996, from Claire Bishop Documents of Contemporary Art: Participation, page 141
[6] W. J. T. Mitchell Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, page 118
[7] Richard Leppert Art and the Committed Eye: The Cultural Functions of Imagery, page 10
[8] Ingrid Calame guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/sep/19/ingrid-calame-on-drawing-tracing
[9] James Welling frithstreetgallery.com/shows/view/ingrid_calame_step_on_a_crack_break_your_mothers, from an exhibition review 08/05/2009 – 27/06/2009,
[10] Richard Leppert Art and the Committed Eye: The Cultural Functions of Imagery, page 6
[11] Peter Bürger The Negation of the Autonomy of Art by the Avant-garde, 2002, from Claire Bishop Documents of Contemporary Art: Participation, page 52
[12] Jacques Rancière Problems and Transformations in Critical Art, 2004 from Claire Bishop Documents in Contemporary Art: Participation, page 90
[13] Ibid, page 92

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