Decomposition to Create Composition
Even though we may believe that the act of creating beauty is what primarily attracts people to gardening I propose that it is actually the control and the lack of control that is involved in creating and maintaining a garden that truly engages the gardener. As gardeners we often feel like we have control over "our kingdom", and to an extent we do. We plant and weed, taking and adding elements to create our small paradise. Yet simultaneously and conversely, we also lack control within our gardens, plants grow where we don't want them to or they die unexpectedly, seeds spread and weeds prosper, and, despite our best efforts disease runs rampant. We seem to be always trying to exert our will over nature, yet we are fascinated, and often delighted, by what occurs outside of our control. Trying to maintain what we have determined as the perfect point on the scale between wildness and constraint is, in my opinion, what drives most of us to garden. In the garden we, at one and the same time, feel powerful yet also feel in touch with something much more powerful than ourselves. The process I use within my art, allowing photograph and canvas to be worked on by nature, speaks to this desire for wildness and constraint. I will discuss this process as well as discuss the similarities and differences between my concepts and practices with the concepts and practices of the artists Dieter Roth and Simon Hantai.
One of Dieter Roth's intentions for what he called his "decay objects and pictures (symbolic figures)" was to make time visible by letting organic matter decompose on an art surface. The mutability and chance involved in the creation of these objects fascinated Roth. Unlike most artwork which is changed and altered by the artists hand, these works were created by allowing organic materials rot alongside man made materials which did not rot. Roth of course had some control, in that he first placed the organic and non-organic materials onto the surface, but then he allowed, through biodegradation, nature to play a large part in the creation of the work. Through decomposition came composition. Like Roth I am interested in making art that involves mutability and chance. Placing organic materials onto the surface and allowing the decay that occurs to largely create the work, makes visible my concepts of wildness and constraint. These works are not fully under my control yet the work develops under the conditions that I have set in place. The abandon involved with this work also provides an avenue for surprise, and herein lies the most direct connection between what I feel when I allow an artwork to be created by decomposition and the sensation I get when I plant a seed and watch it grow. I make actions and also actions occur. I first choose the image or surface to be subjected to decay, then decay makes or alters this image. Both experiences, gardening and making the art I am making, allow for a balance between wildness and constraint.
Roth was interested in the aesthetics of the grease stains, mold formations, and the marks rotting organic material created. For Roth, these marks were evidence of the freedom that the work had to create it's own meaning separate from the meaning he may have wished to impose. When you allow chance to be a major force within a work you open the work to unpredictable results and therefore unpredictable meanings. The composition of the work is no longer solely the artists, like the creation of the garden is not fully the gardeners. The painterly effects created by mold or decay are beautiful for their own sake, they become signs of themselves and have meaning that they themselves have created while also having the added meaning with which artist as author has given them. Roth was usually trying to represent a subject; sunset or landscape, whereas my work is purely abstract. Marks are made directly by contact with the substance which I wish to speak of, elements from the garden such as flowers, dirt and water. They create their own meaning by forming themselves into groups and symbols, by being present or absent, I, as artist, attempt to decipher these meanings.
Roth allowed his work to develop and decay even after he had declared it finished. I, on the other hand, take my work from the garden and then attempt to maintain it in that state as a symbol of the garden. There are elements of preserving and display that I am attracted to, which Roth does not explore. These elements are reminiscent of the garden experience in that the best flower is picked, brought inside and placed into a vase, the seeds of this plant kept to be planted the next year. I chose the best images to display and also use as the starting point for new images. This is a process somewhat reminiscent of selective breeding. But it also again speaks to wildness and control, I exert control in that I choose the image to start with and allow for wildness when I let nature work at the image, control is exerted again when I chose to continue or end the line. Images are selected as being valid or invalid. Recording these processes allows for a semblance of understanding but I doubt that the effects could ever be reproduced from one work to another. The recording, therefore, is perhaps null and void in terms of usable information but instead allows for a further feeling of control in a process that is mostly wild.
Although my work is created by a very material process it produces an ambiguous, incorporeal quality. This effect can also be seen in Simon Hantai's folded canvas paintings. Hantai folded canvas and painted the visible folds, when the canvas was unfolded the slashes of unpainted canvas created a pattern. Hantai stated that what interested him the most in this process was "what approaches the indeterminate, as in Pollock who abandons the easel and the frame and with them all security” . To abandon security and allow for chance to determine the outcome is necessary to Hantai, it is the process and the purpose of the work. The artist makes decisions without knowing what the consequences will be. The final image is the consequence of those decisions made before any paint was applied. The artist knows that there must be an outcome and that those decisions, made first, only appear after the image is uncovered. In this process vision is dually subjugated and exalted, process and action take on meaning yet are only evident in the final visual outcome. The surprise result and the trust one has to give to the process is brought forward. It is the unknown element which strikes me as resembling the act of gardening...one plants a seed, knowing it will either grow or not, but not knowing how tall, or how strong or even necessarily what color that plant will be. One hopes that it will be beautiful.
Unlike Hantai, I have found that the process of painting added an element to my present body of work which actually distracted from the intention of the work. The very nature of painting, even abstract painting, requires one to interpret the subject first. This interpretation was removing something from what I see as the necessary accurate recording of the elements of the garden. In addition to this the painted surface was not allowing the subtle effects of decaying matter to make an impression. In his book, The System of Objects, Jean Baudrillard states that “bright vulgar colors always tend to predominate – and though they once represented something approaching freedom they now have become signs that are merely traps – they hint at but do not deliver liberation” The colors I used in painting were producing what Baudrillard speaks of, brightness and vulgarity. I had looked to paint to represent my subject but that subject was not being delivered. My interpretation was appearing vulgar and this vulgarity dominated the subtleties that I desired; nature making art.
Photography feels not only like a less interpretive way of recording the subject but in addition the photographic surface allows the effects of decaying matter to be seen more fully. My hand is removed (as much as possible) and with it the "hand" of the garden is more fully seen. The photograph is also a direct record of the light hitting a subject and being captured on the lens. This photographic image is then buried in the ground where it (hopefully) grows and develops. The element of sunlight (wildness) counterbalances the element of darkness (constraint). Another benefit of this process is that the material used to make the imagery is also brought to the fore. The earth, the water, the plant matter, the light and the photograph. The photograph may be an image of something and yet it is, by this process, also allowed to be itself, paper with an image placed onto it's surface. The materiality and fragility of the substance of the photograph are revealed, yet, though it stops being illusionistic, it still records. These works border on the edge of nothing. They occur rather than being made and because of this they risk being nothing, I do not have control over whether they occur or not. Occasionally they do become nothing and occasionally, luckily, they become something. Perhaps in that chance of their being something or nothing, lies part of their beauty.
I have, nonetheless, continued to experiment with canvas and occasionally with paint. What I have found in collecting the flower juices and using flowers pressed against canvas and paper is that I often “encounter only the pastels, which aspire to be living colors but are in fact merely signs for them. These marks which come directly from nature end up risking being so subtle that they appear to speak not of the garden but on the idea of the garden. In addition, these marks definitely run the risk of easily becoming decorative. The decorative is a complex and challenging place to have your work situated, especially when it is work about a subject which can easily slide into the sentimental, nostalgic or the fashionable. Again I looked at Hantai's work which has at times been criticized as decorative. I believe an important element keeps his work from being decorative, this element is the invisible. Within the decorative all is visible, and it is visible all at once, Hantai's interest in absence allows him to avoid this complete visibility. For Hantai the negative and unseen is as essential as the seen. Hantai's absence is within the folds of the cloth, he folds and paints only the pieces which can be seen, the absence is seen in the emptiness or invisibility of the unpainted areas. So although these folds create the illusion of the decorative, it is just as illusion, these gaps actually create a space within the picture which "refuses the modernist fiction of pure presence while avoiding the pitfall of the decorative" There is a very physical element present in Hantai's work, the folds are seen and canvases are cut and sewn back together. My photographs and canvases also bear the marks of their creation. There are stains and traces of dirt, torn edges as well as mold spots. Yet there is also an element of absence, the thing that has created the mark is no longer present, it has left an impression as a symbol of itself, with this absence I hope to allow the viewer to see the method of creation, and the essence of the creator but not the thing itself. Something is kept secret, invisible. Being able to see some of the process in the final work, but not the object itself, hopefully creates an interesting presence which overcomes the decorative, sentimental or easy.
My art has always been about beauty, but this latest body of work speaks directly to the underside of beauty. This work shows the left over or underneath of the creation of beauty; dirt, juice, decay are signs of life, signs for the beautiful. Francois Dufrene worked with the concept of underneath as an ultra-lettrisme artist. This group of artists went beneath the page to try to access the source of human emotion itself. Dufrene in particular peeled layers of posters from city walls and displayed the backside as a way to talk about qualities and the meaning of the front. His work enacts a series of reversals, it asks the viewer to contemplate the front side through the reverse, yet now, knowing the back, whenever we see the front we must also contemplate the back. My paintings, canvases and photographs are turned down into the earth, soaking up the dirt and water. Like a plant they are absorbing elements to grow. My paintings however are turned away from the sunshine, like decaying leaves and dying flowers. They are watered and displaced from their environment, yet they speak of this environment directly. Through the lack of overt garden symbology they hopefully explain the beauty and mystery of the garden. The process is slow, I have to wait to see what will happen, I start the process, I time the process, on occasion I add to the process, but ultimately I have to wait the process out. Stopping too soon will reveal nothing, going to far will also perhaps reveal nothing.
My work replicates the intimate actions of gardening and the movement within a private space. Yet I also hope that it allows one to ponder something greater than oneself, something beyond human control, much as I believe the act of gardening allows us to. The space of the garden, I would argue, might be the last place where many touch the earth with their bare hands and also allow themselves to face the awe of something out of their control. Being in the garden allows the gardener to face immanence through experience. My work speaks to this experience, the scale is human, the actions initiated by me, but the developing process is unseen, it relies on understanding and the belief that there is something beyond oneself which will transform something small, canvas or paper into something beautiful. Nature, decay and artist work in tandem to create a work of art much as nature, decay and the gardener create the garden. The garden is one place where experience meets faith, where physical work meets intellectual thought, where dirt meets air. Nothing might come from this meeting but something beautiful also might.
i Dieter Roth quoted on www.moma.org/exhibitions/2004/dieterroth/
ii Simon Hantaï quoted in Simon Hantaï's Challenge to Painting, Tom McDonough, Art in America, March 1999, page 98
iii The System of Objects: Le Syst`eme Des Objects, Jean Baudrillard, Translated by James Benedict, Contributor James Benedict, Verso, 2005, page 32
iv The System of Objects: Le Syst`eme Des Objects, Jean Baudrillard, Translated by James Benedict, Contributor James Benedict, Verso, 2005, page 33
v Simon Hantaï's Challenge to Painting, Tom McDonough, Art in America, March 1999, Page 128
Simon Hantaï's Challenge to Painting, Tom McDonough, Art in America, March 1999, pp. 96-98, 128.
The System of Objects: Le Syst`eme Des Objects, Jean Baudrillard, Translated by James Benedict, Contributor James Benedict, Verso, 2005
Hantaï in America, Carter Ratcliff, 2006
Hantaï, Villeglé, and the Dialectics of Painting’s Dispersal, Benjamin H. Buchloh, October 91, Winter 2000, pp. 25-35
Roth Time: The Art of Dieter Roth, Dirk Dobke, Bernadette Walter, Dieter Roth, Theodora Vischer, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, January 2, 2004
As Painting: Division and Displacement. Philip Armstrong, Laura Lisbon, Stephen Melville, MIT Press, MA, 2001