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Seeing and Feeling

Telling it like it is
 
Let me start with an anecdote.  In 1993 I went to a talk by American artist Kiki Smith.  I
had been both excited and disturbed by her work at the time paper mache body casts
that often depicted women in positions of bondage or pain.  At the talk I asked her how
she felt about exhibiting such images of women and whether she felt some responsibility
for a viewer’s pleasure in the spectacle of their suffering.  Very clearly she stated that her
responsibility as an artist was to make work from her experience - she was just telling it
like it is.  Now, not all artists make, or want to make work, that reflects their subjectivity
so graphically, but Smith’s statement does represent something of a dilemma, particularly
for a woman artist.    How can one make work that represents or originates in experience
whilst attempting to be responsible for an audience’s engagement with the work, planning
how it might communicate and whom it may address?  Recent years have seen the term
‘audience’ become an important part of the artist’s vocabulary, and not just on grant
application forms.  Of course the work of the ‘new art history’, to examine and dismantle
the political beliefs and ideological values inherent in cultural works, affects all artists
working today.  But for women the stakes appear somewhat higher, absent as they are in
all but image from art history until very recently.  Depicting female subjectivity then
becomes both imperative and extremely problematic.  What if, as in the case of Smith,
this expression can provide misogynistic interpretations? Must ‘self expression’ be in
‘quarantine’ for women artists (as feminist critic Griselda Pollock has said)? (*1)   As an
artist, is it either possible or desirable to police one’s own experience?  Should work by
women artists only offer pure interpretations either critical or celebratory?  As artists must
we take on more responsibility than we truly want, secretly sympathising with the art
student’s plea when first called to account for their work - ‘You can read anything into it
you like, I just made it’?  
 
This essay examines how artists deal with the politics of their work.  It looks at the work
of three women artists, all members of a generation inheriting a Feminist art movement
that claimed the ‘personal’ as ‘political’, to consider how their experience relates to their
artwork.   Whilst Feminism or Feminist Art may have had varying degrees of influence on
these practices I feel it is important that its presence is acknowledged, for it provided a
pathway where experience was not only valid as subject matter but also offered the
possibility of opening out beyond the self, of having wider political implications. I have
chosen to explore the work of two British women artists; Jane Harris and Sam Taylor-
Wood alongside my own to draw out concerns that are similar but articulated very
differently.  Jane Harris (b.1956) is a painter who has been at the forefront of discussion
about the viability of painting in the UK.  Sam Taylor-Wood (b.1967) is an artist with an
international reputation who principally uses photography, video and film.  For Sam
Taylor-Wood and myself this investigation of subjectivity explores the ‘truthfulness’ of
human emotion.  For Jane Harris the study is more oblique, ascertaining the limits of
formalism as a vehicle for expression of many types of sensory and intellectual
experience.   With both practices I look at how their response to this notion of subjectivity
collides with issues of artistic responsibility in relation to audience.  I examine how the
viewer becomes the site of activity, where dilemmas (ways of seeing & understanding)
are played out.     I have deliberately chosen to place an artist using lens-based media
alongside those using paint.  Too often art works are defined by media rather than
content and in making connections between supposed ‘new’ and ‘traditional’ media,
which in these practices at least, undoubtedly influence each other, I hope to challenge
this perception.  Indeed it is interesting to investigate how different media can be used to
explore similar areas of enquiry. It seems to me that ‘denunciations of painting as a
corrupt bourgeois commodity’ (*1A) still linger uncomfortably at the margins of any
discussion regarding the viability of painting as well as unsubstantiated notions that time
based work is in itself radical.  It seems to me all mediums have the potential to be
critical.
 
Incidentally, I would argue that what Kiki Smith was doing in the works described was
indeed radical.   As a woman artist she was occupying the position of both subject and
object simultaneously, something largely unrepresented in our history of art.  Although
interpretations of her work may be many and varied her figures are significantly different
from male sculptors of the contorted female body such as Reg Butler or Allen Jones.  
For example the body type depicted, the materials the work is made from, the context of
it within her oeuvre all lead away from these depictions of women as ‘the scenery on to
which men project their narcissistic fantasies’ and towards  ‘exhibiting [women’s] own
fears and desires’ (*2).  Smith may indeed feel rage against women, even against her
own body, and should those feelings be censored?
 
getting ‘into’ the work

What is the relationship between an artist and their work?    This is fraught ground for the
art historian or critic for whom the ‘death of the author’ has meant resorting to biography
only to contextualise historically or socially.  Difficult for the artist too, who often talks in
terms of ‘giving away’ or ‘covering up’ information and explanation as if this were a
possibility.  Sometimes an artist may be aware of autobiographical readings of a work, at
other times they may be oblivious to any ‘personal’ connotations.  I see no point in trying
to investigate the notion of subjectivity by attempting to clumsily psychoanalyse these
artists via their work, tempting though it sometimes is.  A more fruitful approach might be
to examine how the artists under scrutiny subvert accepted forms in a way that includes
the personal, the idiosyncratic and the particular.  What interests me is the way these
artists set about injecting ‘known’ genres with unexpected moments; moments of
pleasure and pain, recognition and rupture.
 
These artists do not make work purely for their own gratification or catharsis.  For them
the emphasis is on how the viewer assimilates and understands the work.   To return
briefly to the art students’ plea for multiple interpretations of their work one must
recognise it is based on certain assumptions, namely i) an audience exists for the work
and ii) that this audience will invest time and energy constructing an interpretation.
However for these artists the relationship between artist, artwork and audience is a
considered one as they recognise that ‘meaning’ is something constructed by both artist
and viewer in the collaborative venture of making and looking.  There is an understanding
that whilst an artist’s intention is not necessarily the same as its meaning, the viewer/critic
does not have absolute autonomy in dictating what something might be reasonably said
to ‘mean’.  Rather in these practices the artist seeks to set in place a number of possible
viewing experiences, through which the viewer will not passively uncover meaning but
will actively construct interpretations. Indeed these artists set out to court, if not control,
the viewer, placing her at the ‘centre’ of the work, attempting to enact meaning through
her experience of the work.  Lets look at the ways this happens.
 
The choreography of the viewer   
 
I should now like to look at the choreography of the viewer, that is the journey or
movement of the viewer’s body around the artwork as they look at it, their physical and
perceptual relationship with the work.  What becomes apparent during any reflection on
this subject is that this ‘choreography’ operates on both temporal and spatial dimensions
and, further, that these two aspects are complexly interwoven.  The viewer examines the
art-work over time (however short our contemporary viewing experience!) and in space
as their investigations draw them to, fro and around the works.  These thoughts began as
a reflection on my own position as a viewer and have been substantially helped by
Norman Bryson’s writings on ‘The glance and the gaze’ , a discussion of the different
types of looking Western painting has employed. Although his work deals specifically with
representational painting his reflections on the physicality of both the reception and
making of painting are extremely pertinent to the medium’s more recent past.   For
Bryson the thrust of the history of Western paintings has been from what he terms ‘the
gaze’ to the ‘the glance’. To simplify, ‘the gaze’ as demonstrated in early
renaissance????work, such as that by Alberti, organises its image around a fixed
‘founding perception’ in which the laws of perspective are obeyed and the viewer
occupies the same position as the painter, sharing their fixed view point of the
proceedings.  Bryson describes it thus,
    "the gaze of the painter arrest the flux of phenomena....in an eternal moment of
disclosed presence....in the moment of viewing the viewing subject unites the gaze [with
the founding perception of the painter] in a perfect recreation of that first epiphany" (*3)
    The gaze is "prolonged, contemplative, aloof and disengaged" (*4). Interestingly it
relies on the viewer’s bodily engagement with the work, it positions her if you like, even if
its intention is to focus on the nature of the spiritual.  Bryson again,
    "the vanishing point is the anchor of a system which incarnates the viewer,
renders him tangible and corporeal". (My emphasis) (*5)
 
The physical nature of the artist’s activity, their own movement around the canvas, also
becomes concealed as Western painting develops.  Traces and reworkings of brush
marks overpainted so that the palimpsistic nature of the process is rendered invisible and
the body of the artist becomes further removed from the artwork.  The subsequent
developments in painting lead Bryson to outline his notion of the glance that he
demonstrates in the work of Vermeer.  In work that employs the glance ‘the bond with the
viewers physique is broken" for "there is no single distance [where] the spectator
discover[s] [the image’s] global intelligibility".(*6)   Throughout the work different parts of
the painting are rendered with different levels of focus and are subject to differing
treatments, some meticulously detailed, other areas rendered with sketchier broader
brush strokes.  The labour of the artist, his body as an extension of his brush is implied,
yet the viewer’s body is now not placed so tangibly.  In the case of the glance ‘the
spectator is an unexpected presence" rather than a "theatrical audience". (*7) The
viewer’s gaze is intermittent, broken, hence the word "glance", her body is not placed so
concretely in space. Because the painting "is conceived...as a plurality of local
transcriptions" "the viewer can try any number of points and distances away from the
canvas, but the image will never cohere, singly or serially around them".(*8)

These distinctions are pertinent to the works of Jane Harris. In the UK the work of Jane
Harris has been at the forefront of discussion about the viability of contemporary painting
prompting the painter and writer Nick de Ville to write an "appreciation of Jane Harris’
painting (which is also a dispute with Douglas Crimp’s The End of Painting in which he
asserts the codes of painting are bankrupt.....".  Harris makes deceptively simple
paintings, within strict parameters, of ellipse(s) with fluted edges using two colours and
consistent brush strokes.  However what is exciting about these paintings is that on
examination their ostensible simplicity gives way to an unfolding complexity.  The
paintings carefully balance an interest in process and surface with an investigation on the
spatial possibilities of the image of the ellipse. They may initially appear to offer spatial
recession and yet the insistence of the material nature of the work, for example the
carefully repeated brush strokes that almost ‘knit’ a surface, often contradicts the
possibility of illusionism.   In printed image the paintings become static, singular, but
standing in front of them, walking around them, these are works in a constant sate of
flux.  As the viewer changes positions the light shifts and the paintings move through a
series of subtle optical transformations.  Charting the position of the spectator of her work
one not only realises how well it demonstrates the characteristics of ’the glance’ but
interestingly, that it also tempts us with the possibilities of ‘the gaze’.  Indeed it initially
proposes the straightforwardness of 'the gaze' with its simple shape and evenly rendered
surface that gives no hint of the layers of other colour beneath the surface.  The paintings
might at first be understood as meditative, perhaps to be viewed with the same static
relationship that say, a Rothko proposes (hence the gallery seating often arranged in front
of his paintings).  However, as I have pointed out, a sustained viewing offers us instead of
the uncertainties ‘the glance’ at its most extreme.  They require a moving spectator, as
Harris herself has said, "you have to physically respond to them, they demand that you
do that". (*9) However this movement means we simply cannot pin the image down, in
Bryson’s words it ‘will never cohere’.   In conversation Jane Harris reflects on the original
inspiration for her work, which gives us insight into her deliberate exploration of this
mobile viewer.  On completion of her postgraduate studies Harris took up a scholarship to
Japan to study formal gardens.  She said,
    "I learnt that there are two main types of gardens. In one you sit statically and
contemplate and in the other you are guided around in a specific way coming across
viewing points.  I think that is something that is really connected to my work, that you can
sit in front of it and you can walk around it.  I wanted those two things to combine, gel."
(*10)
 
The mechanisms in Harris’ painting that ensures this mobility are several, most
importantly there is the ellipse itself.  The ellipse is the circle as sphere, rotating through
space, hovering between two and three dimensions in a state of ‘becoming’.  It proposes
a spatial possibility away from the flatness of the painted surface and thus becomes
extremely problematic when subjected to the gaze.  Martin Henschel explains when
writing of Harris’ most recent work 
    "Because the ellipse has two focal points we are prevented from fixing our gaze
on a certain spot".(*11)
    The viewer’s eye is constantly drawn to and fro between these points or axis from
which the ellipse appears to pivot, searching for a privileged vantage point where the
image can be seen as a whole.  This refusal to provide a resting place for the spectator’s
vision continues to be explored within the paintings, both inside and outside the ellipse
itself.  In some works this means a repetition of up to four ellipses and in all works it
means that the ellipse is given a fluted edge, each ‘petal’ of which is part of a much
smaller ellipse.  The repercussions of the repeated larger shape are interesting as it often
draws on this sense of more than one focal points, that the ellipse has already brought
into play.  This is particularly evident when two ellipses are employed side by side either
vertically or horizontally.  Geoffrey Worsdale has written (in relation to Harris’ drawings)
of their inability ‘to function as a plausible, singular and unified composition" and for the
viewer this rings true - there is a strong sense of the bi-ocular, almost as if viewing one
ellipse with one eye while simultaneously viewing the other with the second eye and then
trying to compare notes!  Harris herself says of these works,
    "They are ostensibly the same, the same repeated, but they occupy different
spaces on the canvas, so however much one tries to look at them as the same, they
never are". (*12)

As with the ellipse itself one is aware of an almost physical to-ing and fro-ing
between the images, adding to the paintings’ sense of movement and inability to be
viewed as a whole.  In addition the fluted edges, which often appear outside the ellipse on
one side and inside on the other, enforces this sense of movement.  The edging is no
‘decorative’(* 13)flourish but intrinsic in forming the ellipse itself.  It provides the edge
between figure and ground.  Often because of the shift in the size of these smaller
ellipses and the way they are made with the brush, some positively, some negatively,
from one side of the ellipse to the other, what appears to be a stable figure/ground
relationship can be optically reversed i.e.the ellipse ‘sitting’ on the coloured ground
becomes a ‘hole’ in that surface.  The way the surfaces are built with small uniform brush
strokes, also allows this to happen.  As the light hits the brush marks, particularly in the
works where both ground and ellipse are close in hue and tone, the figure ground
relationship can alter.  As the body moves around the canvas the eye is constantly
moving between shapes, between sides of the ellipse, judging symmetry and spatial
placing.  One is made supremely aware of the activity of looking, of making visual
distinctions.  On a more subjective level, this sense is further enhanced by a figurative
reading of the ellipse as an ornate mirror.  Its reflection disturbs, a non-reflective pool it
erases the viewer who stares into its blank surface vainly.  It appears to offers the
possibility of recession, escape, a meditative confirmation of the viewer yet its   mutable
materiality both denies and insists on the viewer’s physical presence, caught between the
gaze and the glance.
 
In this work one is made aware of looking as a serial activity.  These pieces unfold over
time rather than being simultaneously exposed as we may expect from works on canvas. 
Here painting is a material object existing in the same material space as the body of the
viewer.  We are made aware that the spectator’s transaction with the work is active as
well as passive and more, that the work operates on a finely tuned balance between the
two.  What is remarkable is that Harris achieves this fundamental questioning (which
perhaps might amount to iconoclasm in certain Greenbergian quarters?) with such
precise concision.  Although the paintings initially propose a notion of formal purity they
cannot be contained by it and instead reflect on Harris’ empirical knowledge.  Her work is
fed by exchanges with the world, both visual and verbal, as her interest in formal gardens
demonstrates.  Harris mentally catalogues colours she sees and words read and heard
for future reference in the making and titling of her paintings.  By refusing the standard
categories available to her Harris makes works that constitute radical rather than
pragmatic statements.  In the same way that the ellipse fluctuates between being
perceived as figure or ground and the paintings alternate between abstract and figurative
categories, they are also neither purely formal nor only conceptual.  The painted canvas
is not a stable object, rather it forces the audience into an interpretative act and and thus
acquires a political dimension.  The work aims to ensure the audience exercises their
viewing responsibility.
 
The body of the artist
 
Sam Taylor-Wood’s work also deliberates around engaging the body as well as the eye. 
Her photographic and video work’s debt to painting is obvious, from her use of the
narrative device of the pradella and her photographic transcriptions of Old Master
paintings to the painterly eye employed to compose her sitters, which appear with the
sense of stillness required by an observational painter rather than a documentary
photographer. I’d like to begin by examining a very early work, Gestures Towards Action
Painting, that tackles this relationship to painting directly and in doing so explores notions
of time, the body and performance that she returns to in greater depth in subsequent
works.  The series of colour photographs were made in 1992 when Taylor-Wood was an
emerging artist, and recreate the famous Hans Namuth photographs/film (1950/1) of the
abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock making huge dripped canvasses, with herself in
the title role.  In doing this Taylor-Wood recognises the significance of Pollock, not only
his position of influence on succeeding generations of artists, but his image as an icon of
‘modern’ genius.  Perhaps the most obvious interpretation of this work revolves around
issues of gender.   As has been discussed elsewhere these images attribute Pollock
strength, virility, masculinity (*14).  To reposition the body of a female artist at the heart of
this creative production implicitly refers to this reading of the image. The work is both piss
take and homage, a cheeky bold statement of ambition, the artist assumes the place of
the modern master whilst undoubtedly questioning his authority.   What is also interesting
here is the use of the artist’s own image in this and other early works which suggests a
personal engagement or sense of disclosure that never fully materialises. Although
Taylor-Wood has said of the early ‘self portraits’ -“I wanted to expose myself in all my
ugliness and discomfort” (*15) - for her, like Cindy Sherman before her, the self-image
becomes a way of questioning, rather than revealing, identity.  This excitingly ambivalent
stance is surely made possible by early Feminism’s investigation of gender roles and
stereotypes.   But this interesting set of photographs goes further in its critique of painting
and its history whilst examining the roles of artist and audience.
 
One of the exciting aspects of Pollock was his break with the thrust of Western painting
towards (to use Bryson’s useful terms again) ‘the glance’ in favour of returning to ‘the
gaze’.  Indeed this painting, as a self-revealing tracing of the movements of the artist’s
body, demonstrate Bryson’s definition with startling accuracy.  He describes it thus, “it
addresses vision in the durational temporality of the viewing subject; it does not seek to
bracket out the process of viewing, nor in its own technique does it exclude the traces of
the body of labour”.  (*16)  The viewer tends to step back to allow a large canvas into her
sight, to view the work as a whole and although she may step forward to examine areas
more closely the paint drips and marks gain no great clarity on closer scrutiny, there is no
‘plurality of transcriptions’ or sense of detail, in this self explanatory process, where all
marks require the same focus.  Standing in front of these paintings, walking along them,
the viewer yearns for the same epiphany the artist undoubtedly experienced during their
making. 
 
There is little doubt that knowledge of Pollock is framed by the Hans Namuth film (even if
that knowledge comes via Tony Hancock!). The vision of energetic (male) bodily
engagement with abstraction is perhaps one of modernism’s most enduring images.  The
film/photographs naturally propose themselves as secondary to the experience of being
there, watching genius unfold over a blank canvas. Even the painting itself appears as a
relic of the performance, a recording of the moment when creativity happened.  The
‘real’ artwork is the theatre of Pollock’s movements and marks, the primary event and
any debate around the works is usually eclipsed by discussion of this process.  But this
event is elusive.  Just as Pollock himself found it difficult to perform for the camera,
history intervenes and we move further and further away from the moment we hope to
capture.  The photographs then give us a hint of the immediacy and directness of the
activity. The paintings engage us physically as we stand or walk infront of them we re-
live their making, whilst the photographs hang suspended in time, forcing the works
outside ‘the somatic time of their construction’ (*17).  This dilemma seems to be what
Taylor-Wood responds to.  Her set of photographs reinforce the predicament Namuth
places us in.  They acknowledge Namuth’s tantalising hint at the genuine, albeit
transitory, physical engagement they appear to document yet accept that the artist and
his work are subsumed in the re-creation, ultimately the fiction. Taylor-Wood’s interest is
in what the works have come to mean rather than in what they may have been at the
moment of production.  She accepts that the photographs withdraw from the ‘physical
continuum’ (*18) of painting and embraces that sense of loss as an emotional truth.  All
Taylor-Wood’s work pivots on such a dilemma between the physical and fictional
showing us how fiction can sometimes feel more authentic than reality.  As Michael
Archer has written,
    “[the early works are] the laying bare of herself and her desires in front of art’s
and the world’s operational dynamics prompted by the need to investigate the limits of
such concepts as intention, responsibility and effectivity.” (Art Monthly 93/4)
 
In later works she investigates these ideas more dramatically.  Often the pieces have an
overt emotional content depicting human interaction at moments of extreme experience. 
For example a recent exhibition (Mute, White Cube gallery, 2002) contained a projection
of a girl crying and another of a contemporary Pieta scene.  This highly charged content
allows Taylor-Wood to directly address her audience, questioning how they relate to such
material. Do we engage with the emotions of others with compassion, empathy or
sympathy or do these emotions slide into a compelling voyeurism for others’ pain and
distress? Indeed is the notion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ viewing an irrelevant concept, as
‘looking’ is an amoral activity? These are timely questions for a society that currently
indulges extensively in ‘reality’ TV’s confessional, “Oprah” and “Big Brother” type
programmes.  Taylor-Wood uses a number of strategies to draw her audience’s attention
to their part in the viewing process.  For example the status of her ‘characters’ is
unsettling.  The use of trained and untrained ‘actors’ in her video works blur the line
between fiction and reality.  This is also seen in the film Method in Madness, where a
method actor emotionally breaks down for the camera.  These strategies create a similar
sense of disturbance a viewer might feel if, on switching on the TV, they were unable to
distinguish between a documentary and a drama (a nicety becoming harder to perform). 
Taylor-Wood capitalises on the moral confusion this engenders - should we watch
differently, feel more, if we are watching real, rather than acted, trauma?  She appears
doubtful of our ability to make such distinctions with our emotions, of making a
responsible response.

Another strategy is the use of celebrities to pose in both video and photographic works,
for example the ‘Christ’ figure in Pieta is the actor Robert Downey Jr (Taylor-Wood is
‘Mary’) and other works have included well known singers and actors such as Kylie
Minogue, Ray Winstone and Elton John.  In these works there is none of the obvious
moral dilemmas that accompany looking at the images of ‘ordinary/extraordinary’ people
such as those taken by Diane Arbus, or more recently Richard Billingham. These are
people whose job it is to be looked at and we are encouraged to do so with the same
moral impunity, or at least distance, as a reader of OK magazine.  But what is interesting
here, as tabloid exclusives continually remind us, is the desire to find the ‘real’ person
within the celebrity public or ‘fictional’ persona.  Indeed Robert Downey Jr is a good
example of this dramatic slip between the glittering ‘public’ acting career and the
catalogue of gossip column inches picturing a ‘private’ life of despair and addiction.  This
perception of a truthful, ‘inner’ self is useful to Taylor-Wood as it is deliberately unclear
which of their identities is being performed in her work.  Are these celebrities acting or
being themselves or is it futile to attempt such a distinction - perhaps they can only act at
‘being themselves’?   These strategies of disruption allow Taylor-Wood to draw her
audience’s attention to their part in the contract - the act of looking and the responsibilities
it may or may not carry.   
 
Taylor-Wood, like Harris,  ‘choreographs her viewer’, making her physical placement vital
to the experience of the work.  She opens up the space of photography and film to the
possibilities of painting, most specifically the gaze, which, as the  Gestures....
photographs show, is simultaneously longed for and debunked.  The video projection
installation Travesty of a Mockery quite literally places the viewer ‘in’ the drama as the
viewing space becomes the distance between the warring couple who occupy two
separate projections.  In Pent Up the viewer must walk from character to character in
order to hear their speech and thus physically make sense of their dialogue.  Different
ambulations will result in different experiences of this dialogue and it is unlikely that any
two people will experience the work in the same way.  Like other types of performance,
most particularly dance, the audience has to make choices about where to look resulting
in endless permutations to the audience’s experience.  Similarly her panoramic
photographs require the viewer to walk the length of the image, experiencing it
sequentially.  Although it is difficult to register the work from a single vantage point - at
twenty-five feet in length one is forced to move to examine it - the image itself very
precisely situates the viewer as the central point from where the activity depicted occurs
in a 360 degree revolution.  In this sense the audience is embodied, occupying the
position of the ‘founding perception’ where the artist’s body (her ‘I’) and camera’s ‘eye’
converge.    Now Taylor-Wood disrupts the notion of photography as outside the ‘physical
continuum’, and expands it to function ‘in the somatic time of [its] construction’ as the title
Five Revolutionary Seconds demonstrates.  Indeed a clue the importance of the artist’s
body is to be found in the many photographs that document her physically making her
work, directing or behind the camera(*19). Her published iconography shows her as
active, ‘in’ the work, rather than directing from the sidelines.  It is through this
reinstatement of the body, both the artist’s and the viewers’, that the theatre of
performance can be punctured, however slightly.  Pieta occupies the place of a painting -
a silent, two dimensional wall based image.  The audience is positioned in the scene at
the foot of the stairs, gazing up towards the figures as one might with the Alberti altar
piece.  Yet its muteness, the inscrutability of the passion depicted, is challenged by the
smallest of slippages, the breathing and slight bodily adjustments of the artist and her
‘model’.  I believe it is in these slight physical awkwardnesses, where the ‘performance’
breaks down, that we find the longed for intimate, yet elusive, authentic experience.
 
seeing and being
 
Lastly I would like to write about my own work with reference to the ideas explored
above. When writing about my own work many anxieties present themselves. Foremost
of these is a sense of ‘talking for’ the work, rather than allowing it to ‘speak’ for itself. My
fear is that intention will conflate with meaning and the art’s possible autonomy will be
lost.   For me there is always a sense not being able to write 'enough' as it were; for every
aspect 'pinned down' another floats away, unarticulated. However, I have found it useful
to site my own work amongst other practices as a way of engaging in a dialogue with the
concerns of other artists, creating an exchange which I feel allows the work a certain
currency for me as a practitioner.   But I am in no way a disinterested critic and imagine
that my prejudices will become most apparent in this last section. I write from within the
practice about the works in the order they were made, explaining developments as they
occurred and I noted them.
 
Born in 1963, I am placed between them chronologically and the work shares concerns
with both practices.  As a student I became interested in how an art-work might bridge a
cultural producer’s politics and experience, that is the conflict between what an artist
wants and knows to be.  Drawn to Feminism I soon realised that the making of a
coherent polemical work required a far more analytical approach than I was interested in
developing.  I used my art as a way of reflecting and understanding my place in the
world.  I forfeited its didactic possibilities for what it could teach me.  That is not to say
that I don’t have a clear intention for the work, its just that I enjoy the fact that art has the
ability to surprise even its maker. Making is a curious process, the idea and its physical
realisation are in constant dialogue, often shaping each other in a mutual interrogation.
 
Early interest in women’s writing and contemporary dance led to imaging the corporeal,
close up and subjective. Paint was worked to form a ‘skin’, colours, most particularly
‘blood’ red, referenced an internal body.   Later works lost these overt references and
substituted a muted palette of grey, white and black yet retained an interest in the
materiality of both the painting and the body.  Now the body of the viewer became
important.  These were large-scale painting (between seven & eight feet in height) and
the viewer came to physically orientate themselves in front of them.  Grid-like structures
echoed the gallery space, forming spaces, doorways and columns whilst the impastoed
paint surface required the viewer to walk in close and examine the sense of detail.  John
Gillet writing in the catalogue for Contra Diction, a show at The Winchester Gallery,
described them thus,
“Apertures appear, suggest opportunities for entry, exit, illumination, enlightenment,
escape; hair lies cross, locking the scanning inner eye on its target, and simultaneously
barring the way forward or out of here.  For this is what and where we are.”
Here was a sense of bodily engulfment, where it seemed language was muffled to the
point of silence.  “Black is perhaps the most difficult colour to articulate....Here it suggests
both depth and silence with a richness of underlying colour which spills through in cracks
or lines that open up the painted surface” (Rosemary Betterton, WAM, Jan/Feb 94)
 
In 1996 I exhibited a number of works under the title Third Person (Kapil Jariwala Gallery,
London). In these works hand-written texts were inscribed into the columns of impastoed
paint.  These texts were edited versions of diary entries, unwanted or unconsidered
writings that sprung from joy and despair, representing several male and female voices
of different ages and social positions. They were placed alongside fields of colour,  ‘dyed’
into the surface of the canvas that contained minimal perspective lines.   Of these
‘spaces’ Greg Hilty wrote, “They forcefully convey psychological space as a counterfoil
to the activity implicit in the texts: a space that is naked, sketchily rendered, flat and
uninflected, contradictory, semi-rational, mysterious, banal, infinite in its implications and
totally restricted in fact.”  (Third Person, NSAD Press, 1996)
    These works anticipate how a spectator might receive them.  I imagine how at
first glance the viewer will see the work as a whole yet be enticed to walk in to examine
the surface, being rewarded with the detail of their making and the text that becomes
readable.  Viewing the painting up close fills all peripheral vision, this nearness creates a
sense of intimacy, enhanced by the reading of ‘private’ words.  The act of looking has
been superseded by the act of reading, both of them quite different experiences. The
viewer would then draw out, balancing what she has read with what she has seen, which
will be different for each viewer.  As with both Harris and Taylor-Wood, the spectator is
the site where the work happens, in which the different elements coalesce or are held in
balance as discreet entities.  The moving to and fro, in and out, in front of the canvas is
important; the text can’t be read from far away nor can the whole text be read close to.  
This means a mobile and engaged viewer. The slowness of the text’s making (they are
built up with layers of paint and washes) contrasts with the immediacy of the text’s tone
and calls into question their ‘truthfulness’ - they seem written from the heart but perhaps
they are fictions?  They share with Taylor-Wood the problem of depicting ‘genuine’
emotion.  These ‘spaces’ often shift vanishing points from one side of the canvas to the
other and thus draw “the viewer’s space into the equation, as if they must consciously
reorientate themselves” (*19) as they walk around the work.  Like Harris’ paintings the
relationship with the work changes as the viewer moves. The theorist Diane Hill argues
this further, when she talks of the viewer's experience of the textual content leading her
to re-orientate herself,
       "'within' each work - that is, within the duration of experience of that work…... 
Thus, the experience of art becomes plural and emphatically durational - shifting but
emphatically situated - both physically and conceptually.  Here we have a situation where
we seem both to be beyond time, drawn into a contemplation of visual particularity and
specificity in an engagement reminiscent of modernist, indeed Kantian, notion of
contemplation beyond time yet simultaneously drawn back into temporality…….These
works could be said to re-embed the act of visual contemplation, which is traditionally
conceived as transcending time and place, into the complex matrix of lived raw
experience." (Diane Hill, The Real Realm: Value and Values in Recent Feminist Art,
Interpreting Visual Culture, Routledge 1998)

The most recent body of work, Solipsist (Angel Row Gallery, 2000) is more explicit in the
investigation the earlier works sets up.  In this series of large works on canvas lyrics from
Indie band songs are inscribed in the columns. The ‘spaces’ are also retained are now
more obviously rooms; the home, studio, gallery.  These hugely popular bands,
Radiohead, Manic Street Preachers, Everything but the Girl, The Charlatans and The
Verve, perhaps write more considered lyrics than the average pop group.  They are both
meaningful, to those that listen to and love the music and meaningless being played
incessantly in shopping malls and radio stations throughout the country.  They allude to
emotions, perhaps even provoke memories of heightened experience yet, when written
down, stripped of the melody, diminish to bad poetry.   The poverty of the experience, or
at least its lack of uniqueness is also increased as we are aware how quickly such songs
‘date’.  Often they are associated with certain memories, set in the particular time of the
recording's release. Because of the physical effort of looking at a large painting it had
become clear to me  the earlier paintings were usually only partially ‘read’.  The use of
lyrics thus seemed appropriate as we often only hear or remember snatches of words
when listening to songs, yet they still evoke memories and feelings.  The song's
emotional content, coupled with the emotion the song produces in the listener hovers
between private and public worlds.  As with Taylor-Wood the performative nature of
feeling is alluded to - do emotions exist if we don’t ‘perform’ them to another?
 
The rooms are drawn on a scale that encourages the notion of walking into the works,
testing the body against them.  The fields of colour that in earlier works offered escapist
possibilities, are now 'real' places, although the marks of the painted surface still
contradict this spatial depiction.  In the two largest paintings (“It’s a bitter sweet
symphony....” and “Just when you’re thinking things over.....”) it is the gallery that is
reflected in the work.  Like Harris’ ellipse the painting becomes a mirror that fails to
reflect.  As the lyrics evoke an absent melody so the viewer is implicated but fails to
materialise.  The rooms are free from habitation.  In the catalogue Kirsty Ogg describes
them thus, 
    “The sense of absence is a significant aspect of these works.  The paintings show
practically empty rooms.  There are no people represented, but there are traces of
human occupation.....Sometimes they show the corners of rooms, places to take refuge
and wallow in your misery.  Some are domestic settings, where you can still feel the
reverberations of angry voices and slamming doors.  Some are the Angel Row Gallery
itself.  These works were devised to be hung opposite the spaces they represent,
mirroring the venue.  The image continues across the panels of the painting, broken up
by the text, with slight jumps and discrepancies in continuity.  These paintings become
representations of a memory of a space - that never quite accurately remembers a flow
of details - rather than an accurate record. The human presence is again absent, in this
case the viewer.” (Solipsist, Angel Row Gallery, 2000)
 
These paintings propose a gaze, where the viewer searches for the right spot - i.e. the
‘founding perception’ where the perspective mirrors what she sees behind her.  But the
perspectives shift and so the viewer moves too, perhaps becoming agitated as she tries
to make sense of what she sees.  Walking to and from, shifting focus between reading
and looking, trying to see, as it were, ‘round’ these textual columns, it is now the glance
that is implicated.  The title Solipsist is a challenge to the notion of the artist, or indeed
anyone, living an internalised life. The painter in particular exemplifies this existence,
alone in her studio, perhaps listening to music and experiencing emotion which is then
transmitted to her canvas (as Pollock).  Yet the paintings reach out to a common
experience that the audience can relate to - surely everyone has had these feelings,
sitting in rooms, indulging certain emotions?  The viewer may substitute her experience
as a way of putting herself ‘in’ the picture.   Ogg concludes her essay,
    “The joy of these works is that they prompt your own connections between
memory, images and music, creating your own personal back catalogue of songs.” (ibid)
Like Harris and Taylor-Wood, in their very different ways, these works set out to involve
the viewer in the making of their ‘meaning’. 
 
For all these artists then their work exists in deictic time, at the moment when and
wherever it is viewed, engaging the viewer directly, both physically and emotionally.  This
reinvestment in the here and now, this ‘interactive’ viewing experience, revitalises the
idea of the personal, removing it from any notion of the confessional.  In these works ‘self
expression’ allows space for others to enter, and acknowledges that this is a dynamic
relationship; the artists are the first spectators of their work and the spectator is  creative,
involved in ‘making’ the work’s meaning.    And in telling it like it is, or at least how we see
and feel it, we begin the important job of communication and so connect with the world.

1.      See Rebecca Fortnum, Sindy the artist, Artists Newsletter, April 1991
1A    Katy Deepwell,  In defence of the indefensible: Feminism, Painting and
Postmodernism, Feminist Art News, Vol 2 No 4, 1987
2.     Laura Mulvey, 'You don't know what is happening, do you, Mr Jones?' in
Framing Feminism, Art and the Women's Movement 1970-1985 Ed Parker &
Pollock,  Pandora Press 1987
3.     Norman Bryson, Vision and painting: the logic of the gaze,Macmillan,1983
4.    ibid
5.    ibid
6.    ibid
7.    ibid
8.    ibid
9.     Jane Harris, unpublished interview with Rebecca Fortnum,
       12 September2001     
10.    ibid
11.     Martin Henschel, Transforming geometry and ornament - on the paintings of Jane
Harris, Southampton City Art Gallery, 2001
12.     Geoffrey Worsdale, Jane Harris, Southampton City Art Gallery, 2001
13.     "I prefer the word ornamentation to decoration; the work is ornamental I think, but
it is there for an intrinsic purpose, not as an afterthought". Jane Harris,
unpublished interview with Rebecca Fortnum, 12 September 2001
14.     see Shirley Kaneda, Painting and the Feminine, Arts Magazine 199? and Jill
Morgan paper given at Hysteria Conference, Tate Gallery Liverpool, 199?
15.     Sam Taylor-Wood interview with Germano Celant, Sam Taylor-Wood, published
Fondazione Prada, 1999

Publication title: 
UNFRAMED Practices and Politics of Women's Contemporary Painting edited by Rosemary Betterton