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.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Does chance detract from the autonomy of Process Painting?

Process Art, also known as Action Painting or Gestural Abstraction, is about the construction of the work, the methods and materials used.  Ad Reinhardt (1962, as cited in Harrison & Wood, p. 806) wrote,

The one thing to say about art is that it is one thing.  Art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else.  Art-as-art is nothing but art.  Art is not what is not art.

Therefore, it is in short art about the act of making art.  Pam Meecham (2000, p. 168) writes that critic Harold Rosenberg coined the term Process Art and offers a definition,

The creative process is as engaging as the actual work itself.  This fascination with process raised an interesting set of questions for the American Art Critic Harold Rosenberg writing in the 1950s, the most pressing of which concerned the very ‘essence’ of a work of art.  Rosenberg’s theory of what he called ‘action painting’ hinged on the belief that the instinctive and spontaneous action of painting is the truest expression of an artist’s individuality.  Rosenberg was transfixed by the idea that the process of making the work of art is more important than the extant work of art.

Action painters included Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock (fig. 1).  The emphasis in their work was upon the physical act of painting, instead of the finished article.

Ian Davenport is an example of a contemporary process painter (fig. 2).  Ian Davenport experiments with the materiality of paint, his work is about “paint and nothing but paint” (Tony Godfrey, as cited in Watkins, Ian Davenport, p.14).  He uses unconventional tools to apply paint on to canvas, such as, watering cans, syringes and pins.  Ben Tuffnell (2003 as cited in Nesbitt & Watkins, 2003, p. 70) writes about the importance of Davenport’s process,

While making these works, loading his brush from the can at his feet before raising it to make contact with the canvas and leaving a trail of dripped paint as a trace of his gesture, Davenport realised that the process of what he was doing was more interesting than the image he was making.  Or rather, that the aspect of the image that interested him was that derived from the process.

Therefore, his work becomes about the painting; the substance of paint and the manner in which he applies it.   Tony Godfrey (as cited in Watkins Ian Davenport, p. 9) writes,

Ian Davenport’s paintings present us with unexpected paradoxes: they look deceptively simple, but turn out to be complex; they look as if made by chance, but are in fact made with great precision; they look so immaculate but come out of an implicitly messy, gloopy process.  It would seem as you look at them what you see is what you see, but in fact there is a whole gamut of meaning, emotions, responses lurking already off-stage.

Godfrey writes here about the impact of chance on process, how an erroneous drip could completely alter Davenport’s work.  Can the use of chance fulfil the goals of process art?   Process painting is a form of art concerned with the act of making, the materiality of the paint.  The use of chance is surely a process in itself, a mechanism for the creation of autonomous work?  Can chance, with the removal of the author, further enhance the importance of process? 

What is chance?  Georges Brecht (1957, as cited in Iversen pp.34-35) defined chance,

The word ‘chance’…can conveniently be taken to mean that the cause, or system of causes, responsible for a given effect it unknown or unlooked for, or at least that we are unable completely to specify it… There is no absolute chance or random event, for chance and randomness are aspects of the way in which we structure our universe…In connection with art, and the affective image…where images derive from mechanical processes not under the artist’s control.

Brecht believes chance can be used as a process of making art and a process of removing authorship.  Therefore, chance is a concept in line with the aims of Process Art.  I am going to examine the work of Kenneth Martin and Boyle Family to evaluate chance.

Kenneth Martin pursued ideas about chance within abstraction (fig. 3), to create geometric drawings. Andrew Forge (1973, p.5) wrote,

What we are watching is a process in which the rules are being invented and played and modified and played and so on, each stage, the intellectual invention and its consequence, challenging and enriching the other.  The full meaning of the series cannot really be seen in the drawings alone.  Nor in the rules alone.  The two interact and the quality of any single drawing is as much in the thought that lies behind it as in its visible features.

Therefore, Martin uses a strict framework of rules and order in which chance is allowed to play.  The drawings and the rules are very much intertwined, without one of these features the work could not exist in the fullest sense.  Without the rules, the drawings would appear a geometric Minimalist exercise, and without the drawing, the rules would be meaningless.  Forge (1973, p.6) believes the use of chance enhances the drawings,

An unpredictable chance can have an insistent beauty… Everything depends upon the framework, the area of known from which we view the unknown…chance in art can be viewed in two ways, first as method (the surrender of choice or judgement as a chosen point, judgement being in various degrees subjective and cultured), and second as material for aesthetic consideration.

Therefore, chance creates a pure autonomous art, art about the manner in which it was made.

However, does chance divert from art purely about process?  Are the two intertwined or does chance detract from the intention of Process Art?  Forge (1973, p.6) believes chance removes authorship and gives work self-referentiality,

If I choose to spin a coin fifteen times, I might arrive at the following sequence: ABBABABBABAABAB. It happened. So what? But if each throw had determined fifteen actions, one not following from another but from what the coin had said, it would be a momentous series, for the chance falling of a coin would have taken the place of my judgement, prejudice, common-sense, in a word, of my habitual self.

However, is chance really a denial of authorship?  Is the removal of authorship contradictory to the ideas of Process Art? Allan Kaprow (1966, as cited in Iversen, 2010, p.56) agrees that chance purges art of the author,

At this point the ‘artist’ as such is no longer a real entity.  He has eliminated himself…. But its great poignancy is that it can never be a total act, for others must be aware of the artist’s disavowal of authorship if its meaning is not to be lost.

Process painting is about the act of making, how the artist himself made the work from the structure of the frame, to the weave of the canvas, and the brush-marks of the paint.  The evidence of his hand is of supreme importance.  To remove the author is an antithesis of the core aims of Process Painting. 

Does the intention to use chance and the structure in which it is contained contradict the denial of authorship?  It is surely “a harvesting of chance to an already formulated area of decision” (Forge, 1973, p.6).  Therefore, is it not another from of intuition or “process of aesthetic judgement” (Forge, 1973, p.7).   The use of chance is a decision from the artist, and the manner in which it is used and constraints upon it are all controlled by the artist.  To eradicate the author is therefore impossible.

Boyle Family have used randomness and chance to determine their works (see fig. 4). They are not from the genre of process Painters, but offer an insight into the use of chance in relation to process as subject.  Sue Hubbard (2010, p.150) describes the turning point in their work,

When the Boyles chanced upon a discarded grey television surround, it was radically to alter their working methods.  Throwing it like a die they decided that whatever portion of site it framed would become the subject of their next work… Chance…was to become a major component in their work.

Subsequent works were created where they lived by throwing darts at a map and then a right angle to pinpoint the exact area.  The darts would therefore select sites in a completely random way.

Once a site was chosen, they would make a rubber mould of the surface to create an exact replica.  Then using resin and other found materials they would make a perfectly realistic copy.  Bill Hare (2003, p.83) states,

Chance is not an anarchist, but a terrorist.  It does not simply wish to destroy, but to create an alternative to the logical, orthodox order of things.  Instead of a man-made selective system operating to predetermined ends, with chance, selection and intent are replaced by the totality of natural possibilities.

However, the Boyle Family’s works are not simply about process, it is a large part of their work but not the sole subject.  Mark Boyle (1965, as cited in Hubbard, 2010, p.149) said,

My ultimate object is to include everything in a single work… In the end the only medium in which it will be possible to say everything will be reality.

Sue Hubbard (2010, p.150) affirms this in her statement on the political subject within their work,

This use of detritus fitted with their ‘inclusion-of-everything’ aesthetic.  It also acted as a potent anti-art, anti-establishment metaphor.

Relaying their political inclinations wasn’t the sole intention within their work either.  Boyle Family wanted to represent surface.  Their art is mostly figurative,

Primarily they are about surface: the surface as earth, the surface as skin, the surface of a mundane object that was once horizontal but now hangs vertically.  (Hubbard, 2010, p.150)

However, Patrick Elliott (2003, p.9) disagrees.  He believes that their art is solely about process; the representation is just a bi-product,

(Boyle Family) Make art that represents the world with the minimum of artistic intervention.  They do not want to exclude anything.  They do not choose their subject matter, they do not have a style, they do not think in terms of composition.  Their work is neither ironic or metaphorical and it offers no social comment or allegory… The aspect of authorial choice…is almost entirely absent from their work.

In contrast, Bill Hare (2003, p.81) offers a revelatory interpretation of their work,

Another generic possibility of classification might be portraiture…‘portrait’ ultimately derives from the Latin, ‘protrachere’, meaning to pull or single out one individual from the masses… Similarly the Boyles, through their random means of selection, extract an arbitrary spot from the mass of Earth’s surface and present it to us…as a ‘warts and all’…portrait.

On the whole, Boyle Family use process and chance as elements to construct the final image.

In conclusion, is chance as a concept or process viable within the realms of Process Art?  Does it not contradict the ideas of Process Art to the very core? In letting chance, possibility, randomness or accident direct art, the artist is not deemed necessary or the individual maker. The work could have been made by anyone other than the artist, or possibly by nobody, as the same laws of chance would have been applicable.  By using chance to determine work, the artist has unwittingly denied authorship.

Painting can never be purely about process.  I don’t think you can separate art from everything else.  The viewer cannot edit out all information given and see only the process.  The process is part of the artist, it conveys his intuitive thought, he has controlled the sphere in which the process has taken place and to some extent the image created.  

Jacques Rancière (2007, pp.105-6) believed that art and life were not that separate at all, and once realised autonomy or pure art did not need to be sought.  He believes all art consists of the same fundamental elements, that art does not have one singular concept or meaning, and that this should be embraced,

Pure painting and ‘corrupted’ painting are two configurations of an identical surface composed of shifts and melanges.  This also means there is not an autonomous art on the one hand and a heteronomous art on the other…. It is a break with a regime of art in which imitations were simultaneously autonomous and heteronomous.

By using chance as a process in itself, it has shifted the subject from purely about making, to ideas about accident and authorship. W. J. T. Mitchell (1986, p. 118) wrote that the ideals of process painting were still something to aspire to,

This sort of ‘pure’ visual perception, freed from 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.

However, there is always another subject and influence, the works cannot exist alone, and without these things the works would surely be utterly blank.

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