Catalogue for Stepping Stones, 2011
Preamble: Complex Pleasures
I first wrote, with admiration, about Tricia Gillman’s paintings in the mid-1980s. At that time I was deeply impressed by her ability to create a sensuous pictorial world, crowded, colourful, at once complex and simple in its vital representations of space and light, and to demonstrate at the same time a critical self-awareness, a reflexive play with surface and image, image and sign, sign and symbol, without any tiresomely jejune having-your-cake-and-eating-it irony. It was a brilliantly celebratory art, aware of its sacramental origins - she had studied Fra Angelico at San Marco, for example, and modelled spatial arrangements on Bellini’s mysterious Sacra Conversazione in the Uffizi - yet intelligently recognising that the semiotic terrain of post modern abstract painting was strewn with problems of presentation and uncertainties of mood and meaning.
What is remarkable about the work she has made since then, and is here partially surveyed (an important body of work, much discussed at the time of its making, between the mid-‘80s and the early ‘90s is omitted) is that in the constantly increasing sophistication of its playful deployment of mark, image and sign, and its varieties of formal experiment and invention, it has constantly retained that signature tension between the emotional and the intellectual, the risky poise - if that is the right word - between the problematically linguistic (so to speak) and the joyfully hedonistic. Like all truly gifted artists, she cannot escape from the determinations of her creative predispositions and critical preoccupations: her painting is essentially philosophical.
Of course, the truth is that Gillman, though conscious of their differences, is happy to live with the diversities of experience, sensory-physical, mental and psychological that the world provides with such prodigious abundance. Indeed it might be truer to say that her painting seeks nothing less that the visual representation of that phenomenological variety and complexity in all its necessary and immediate simultaneity. The very relation between the thing experienced and its signifier is part and parcel of that heady plural reality which Louis MacNeice described:
‘World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.’
In this I would disagree with the emphasis of a remark of Andrew Lambirth’s (who has written with great acuity of Gillman’s work) that her ‘paintings are more about the experience of looking than about the objects she is looking at’. For it seems to me that those ‘objects’ in the paintings which seem to represent (in various modes) objects in the world (usually leaves, flowers, seedpods - natural things immediately close to hand and eye in her studio and garden) are not merely pretexts for visual propositions but central to the poetic experience of reality the painting offers.
The painting extends this illusionistic ‘making present’ of natural objects to its own material manifestations (colour, texture, mark, stroke, blur, smudge, scratch, etc. etc.), to the graphic signs and symbols that proliferate on its surface, to familiar recurring geometric diagrams (diamonds, triangles, chevrons) and to decorative colour stripes, rudimentary figures and elaborate historical symbolism etc. etc. All of these ‘objects’ are painterly components of the intoxicating world realised by the paintings: without such objects present to the eye, there can be no reflections on their reality and its mediations.
This seeing of them in the paintings is a metaphor for all the other senses that combine to create the conditions for our apprehension of the real things in real spaces of which these painterly and graphic features are representations and surrogates. We step, imaginatively, into the space and light of the paintings, and move within it and around it as we might do into the world itself, at once conscious and self-conscious, our presence of mind in space-and-time inflected by memory, our reality continuously modified by recognition and discovery, past and future held in the immediacy of now. A reflexive apperception cannot itself be separated from the creative actions of the comprehending mind and the informing imagination, with all their complex joys and confusions. Our sense of making sense is part of making sense, and part of the pleasure of doing so.
The paintings of the early mid-80s, as their titles - White Walk, Como, Pink Place - suggest, not only represent (enact might be a better term) an illusion of ambulatory space into which the eye enters and moves around, but present impressions of that more specific spatiality of place with all its connotations of atmosphere, colours, temperatures and weathers, a characteristic vegetation, and shadow and light, in which one thing is perceived to be behind or in front of another. ‘Where the Old Masters created an illusion of space into which one could imagine oneself walking,’ wrote Greenberg in Modernist Painting, ‘the illusion created by a Modernist is one into which one can only look, can travel only with the eye.’ Well enough aware of Greenberg’s famous strictures (as was any serious abstract or semi-abstract artist of her generation) Gillman was working, however, with an attuned and heightened awareness of the magical space of the early Italian masters, and was insouciantly happy to invoke a three-dimensional landscape and all that that entails: intimations of the finite world whose objects are actual, tangible to the senses.
The intense blues of Como are elements of a dream of brilliant light, sky and water, of bright flowers and plants, of variegated things that fly, float and swim; inCarambola the location evoked is sub-tropical, the light and colour - close-toned magenta, scarlet and crimson - is harsher on the eye, its shades and shadows modulating the chromatic into a humid tonal intensity; in Ugu the deep shadows and darker tones of its chaotic brushwork have the lush vitality of an claustrophobically enclosing jungle glade. In each of these paintings of 1982 there is a characteristic atmospheric optical vibrancy that is a function of the painterly combining of intense hues and close tonal values in open loosely painted structures which seem to radiate a kind of joy.
There is, of course, no suggestion of perspective, linear or aerial, in these paintings; there is no fixed point of view. The eye is free of the responsibilities of Cartesian command as is the imagination its perceptions stimulate. We may make of these presentations what we will, but there is no escaping the sense of a specific place, the sensation of being somewhere. This is not in any way the same as surveying objects and events in perspectival space, as through a window. ‘The world is round around the round being’ wrote Gaston Bachelard, whose Poetics of Space was much in evidence in artists’ studios in the early 1980s. The critical obligation, so to speak, is to act imaginatively within the non-realist space of these paintings, the imaginary ‘place’ it represents, in a manner analogous to our actual being in a world.
Gillman is a painter strong enough to resist anxiety of influence: in the exercise of a personal aesthetic and a philosophical mind robust enough to resist any temptation to ironic appropriation, she has thrived on a conception of art as continuous discourse, of assimilation and exchange. In the paintings of 1985 such as Pink Place, Phoenix and Red Boudoir our eyes move freely around the space rather as they do in the first great colour abstraction of enclosed space in modern art - Matisse’s Red Studio of 1911(to which the title of Red Boudoir pays deliberate homage). The dramatic mystery of Matisse’s great painting, and its revolutionary spatial device, has haunted Gillman’s imagination ever since, through radical shifts and changes of manner and style over the years. Paul Klee has also been a constant presence in her imaginative procedures. His freedom from pictorial rules and perceptual pre-conceptions, his love of the arbitrary sign, his deployment of diverse signifying in the same picture: these are aspects of his art she has turned to artistic purposes entirely her own.
The paintings from the later ’80s and the turn of the decade elaborated the conceits of place astableau, ceremonial, almost hieratic, in their arrays of objects (flowers, leaves, birds, fish, figures) mysteriously held in temporal stasis. We step past them to encounter the paintings of the ’90s and enter what Gillman has called the ‘middleground’, by which term she seems to indicate a space between one kind of imagery and another, representing one kind of experience - shall we say, personal, emotional, psychological - and another - as it might be symbolic, semiotic and metaphysical. The first is sensuously grounded in the body and its sensory experiences, the other in thought, abstract speculation, meditation and imaginative projection. (Both may culminate in ecstasy.)
The surface of the paintings may be seen to act as a kind of screen between these distinct modi operandi, or (better, perhaps) as a blackboard or whiteboard whose ambiguities of space allow for the implication of multi-dimensional figurings, presentations and diagrammatic markings: a space for remembering, registering and noting, musing, positing relations; a spatial arena for the play of feeling and thought. (One of her paintings in this period is actually entitled Blackboard.)
Of course the painting is itself a real thing, sensuously apprehended (beautiful we may wish to say) but, inevitably, and immediately, it invites our entry into the universe of intangibles - whatever it is that occurs between the external and provocative, evocative object of contemplation and the spaces inside our heads. At times this simultaneity of sensory, mental and psychic effects can be vertiginous, as the title of Cliff Hanger (1992) suggests. These paintings invite just such a play between ways of looking, being and signifying as they themselves present in pictorial terms. We are pleasurably caught up in a problematic, intriguing set of relations.
This complex game (which has the most serious implications) would seem to demand the spatial indeterminacy which is the first and most immediately striking aspect of such pictures as Middleground (1992) and Underworld (1993) in which the plane of the picture surface is at once a complex of richly textured brushwork, variegated colour tones, with smudges and shadows compromising glorious chromatics across which are scattered a variety of diversely sourced signs and symbols.
The term ‘middle ground’ refers to the spatiality of both classical realist painting and photography, although Gillman’s use of it is purely metaphorical, as is clear from a statement she made in 1993: ‘The imagery … deals with different kinds of focus, through different means of representation; symbolic (the spiral), the diagrammatic (the house and child), the illusionistic (the drawn leaf, the pansy).’ To this inventory we might add geometric signs, zigzags, colour bands, rectangles, stripes, chevrons and diamonds; symbols such as the ladder, the chequer board, the stick man, the wheel and the eye. There is much work for the eye and mind to do. Gillman does not herself mention the crucial part colour and texture play in these paintings. But textural colour is the key to their differences of mood, and mood is quite obviously central to their effects, aesthetic, emotive and philosophical.
And there is a further feature common to the earlier paintings in the ‘Middleground’ series: each painting has a physical division between an optically complicated upper section, where the multifarious fragments of the signified world float in ambiguous space, and a lower section which (in most cases) is flatly dumb, thematically opaque, simply and ‘blatantly’ what it is. This dividing device is a means to what the artist required of these paintings, and succeeded in creating: ‘I wanted these paintings… to deal with the intangible and the blatant. I wanted space to feel yielding and encompassing, like mist, and encounters with it to be intimate, interactive and speculative.’ Space in the lower sections of these paintings, however, is generally planar; it is comparatively obtuse and un-evocative: its surfaces are set against the intangible ‘yielding’ spaces of the upper sections in a manner that is essentially propositional.
3: Dark Light; Day Night
At the turn of the century it seems that Gillman felt the need for a clearing of the decks, an elimination of some of the complexities of relation between surface and deep space, and the lay and over-lay of the diversely sourced imagery of motifs, signs and representations within and between those key dimensions of the paintings. Light is a function of space; colour complicates both light and pictorial space. A drastic simplification of colour to either a pale opalescent white light or a shadowy black was accompanied by a reduction of image-types and signs to specific motifs and a corresponding simplification of the spatial relations between them in the deep space behind the surface, on the surface itself, and floating, as it were, in the space in front of it.
Colour had brought to the earlier paintings atmosphere, phenomenological density and varying intensities of mood, especially when combined with painterly surface turbulence, scratching and scribbling. (Look again, for examples, at Middleground, Black Magic, and Underworld.) By taking vivid colour, close-tone optical reverberation and moody shadowing out of the equation, in short, by un-complicating the picture surface, Gillman stripped back her work to essentials. ‘[It] was important’ she wrote at the time, ‘to go back to the surface, to confirm it as surface and as space and to eke out a rudimentary illusion.’
This rudimentary illusion is of shallow space-light or space-dark: that we are looking at a painted surface is emphasised by a variety of self-conscious devices. In the ‘white’ Bedrock paintings of 2001, for example, there are blocks of black and unambiguous bars of colour laid on the surface, over-laying both the pale ground and exquisitely drawn botanical specimens; in the black paintings and Dark Light 1 and2 there are similar but pale blocks, their painterly substantiality confirmed by trickles and runs, and arbitrary motifs superimposed on the dark ground. My earlier invocation of the demonstrative possibilities of diagrams and other simplifying signifiers, and of their dynamics of relation, on the tabula rasa of the blackboard or whiteboard seems even more apt to these paintings, and reflects their thematic purposes.
These underlying themes - of a return to essentials, getting down to the bedrock of things - have deeper implications than those to do with personal artistic impulse and stylistic re-direction. The primary imagery of this series is drawn from representations of plant life, primarily those of botanical illustration and structural abstraction. They are beautifully drawn and disposed across the canvas with an arbitrary grace that recalls (without imitation) the demonstrative effectiveness of the insouciant mis-en-page of the best botanical artists. These specimens - flowers, leaves, fern fronds, petals, buds and sunflower seed-heads, and the occasional mushroom cap - constitute an imagery of generation, growth, fruition, regeneration and rebirth. These processes turn through winter and spring to summer and autumn, through night dark and day light. The dualities of positive and negative, the silhouette and graphic reversal of naturalistic leaf and bud, diagrammatic seed-head and frond enact this implied natural cycle. Through these turnings and changes, every living thing carries the dark light of living energy.
4: Whispers, intimations
In 2003-5, after an hiatus in output following the grand and gravely alternating sonorities and clarities of the ‘Dark Light’ paintings, Gillman made a series of small-scale works whose scale, methods and manner departed radically from anything she had done hitherto. These small canvases are primed with gesso-like plaster, and their imagery created by pencil scribbles and spirals, some so fine they look like thumb prints, repeated lines and dots, pastel crayon lines, doodles, markings and squiggles, pitting and scratching, imprints, smudges, violations and defacements. These evocative little messages from inner space have the look and feel of diaristic, poignant graffiti, automatic markings on a tiny cell wall, traces, deposits. They are whispered signals rather than signs. But signals from whom to whose eye and ear? They are clearly legible as registers of a plight, mysterious and poetic indicators of a condition unspecified and undefined: it might be distress, or it might equally be an unfathomable joy, a delight in simple creation; they might be essays at a register of identity.
We may think of them as quasi-surreal oneiric traces; or we may more likely see them as fragmentary projections on to a small screen of reveries, indescribable until they are brought into visibility by the very procedures that summon them into being. Their titles encourage this reading: Chanson d’Automne, Pastures Green, Allegro Vivace, The River Sang Softly. Other titles, such as Whisper and Chinese Whispers, suggest an unassertive revelation, or subtle transformations of meaning as more people enter the space of interpretation. Whatever may be the case, it is clear that Gillman’s art is on the edge of change, that she is moving into new and deep waters.
The automatism and formlessness of these seemingly personal little paintings (as objects, most of them can be held comfortably in the hand) and their openness to different readings (opposite, even, in spirit, one to another) are aspects carried over into a series of spectacular medium-scale paintings made by Gillman in 2006. These, which include Muscari and Viola, declare their origins in the indexical traces of dripped, scattered, splattered water-thinned acrylic (they have the appearance of watercolour splashed on paper), the outcomes of semi-chance procedures being allowed, as Gillman describes it, ‘to provoke associations’ that might lead to more conscious manipulations of the paint, in order to ‘conjure these phenomena into image.’
It is an apt metaphor for the creative procedures that discover in the indeterminacies of a natural chaos of bright coloured matter the intimations of an aesthetic (i.e. ‘cultural’) emergence of order. Artistic deliberation - a kind of prestigitation not unlike that practiced by that great conjurer, Patrick Caulfield - plucks out of the air images with unexpected symbolic, psychological and semiological resonances. In certain respects we are back in a familiar garden, with the weather of surface blot and speckle against an atmospheric space: across the canvas plane (in contradiction to this ambiguous spatiality) we are surprised by arbitrary images and signs of diverse kinds: little groups of generic colour-silhouette ‘butterflies’ and ‘birds’; startlingly naturalistic and beautifully-individuated trompe l’oeil butterflies, leaves, foliage, flowers, botanical seed labels; inexplicable fragments of flat repeat-pattern wallpaper; raised-to-the- vertical chequer boards and geometric diagrams; a blurry graveyard angel.
5: Whereabouts? Within/ Without
It seems to me that the paintings of 2005-07 may be seen as messages from within a prolonged crisis in the artist’s work. I mean simply that these works mark a turning point in Gillman’s artistic journey, signal a process of creative determination and critical judgment the outcomes of which could not be foreseen, but which made possible, as it happens, a remarkable breakthrough to a new level of imaginative achievement. It might be noted that the English usage of the term ‘crisis’ has its origin in early medical terminology for a decisive moment, a critical tipping point, and that it shares its root with ‘critical’ in a Greek word denoting ‘separation’ (a parting from), ‘decision’ and ‘judgment’. Gillman used the procedures that came to hand to find her way into new spaces and new places.
A fanciful narrative of this creative-critical process - part intuition, part consideration - might take us on a walk to a cross ways in a park of branching paths (twilight throws shadows of the railings; there are plants, leaves, butterflies, flowerbeds) and to the surprise (crisis indeed!) of an annunciation. The angelic messenger (aetherial almost to the point of invisibility) is none other than the visitant to Mary in cell 3 in the Convent of San Marco. Gillman has returned to her earliest sources, or rather, memories of those sources are returning to her as clues to (perhaps announcements of) a new direction, new possibilities of revelation. In the late paintings - 2007 to 2010 - an extraordinary plethora of visual images and signs from across cultures and time are brought together in a marvellous simultaneity.
In Messenger (2007) and Twilight (2008) we may feel that the organising device is somewhat akin to the tableau of the still life. (The recurrence of park gates and railings in the latter is evocative of aplace; and of course there is something in the artful arrangement of paths, flower beds, etc. that makes any park a place where nature is rendered as artificial as a table-top setting; unlike, for example, the arrangements of things in a botanic garden.) But these paintings unequivocally announce with new emphasis of composition another modus of presentation: the collage, in which visual items of diverse types from diverse origins are arbitrarily brought together on the same plane.
Like the aleatory walk, or the unconstrained line on paper or canvas, the collage is a quintessential modernist strategy; It is also a reflexive postmodernist ploy that challenges our certainties of ‘the real’: in both cases, juxtaposition is all.But in these late paintings, something else, taken from the surface excitements and the spatial atmospherics of free painting, is added to the collage combinations. It is first decisively apparent in Roundelay (2009) on the right side of the picture in the poured veil of grey and pink thinned paint behind which Botticelli’s springtime dancers can be discerned. This surface manifestation has a painterly reality which is immediate in the here and now of our encounter with the painting.
If collage deliberately distances the viewer from the action (introducing detachment, contradiction and irony) this surface of actively present pigmented matter is directly affective. In Roundelay it brings its own kind of poignancy and beauty into a picture in which a Celtic motif from Owen Jones’s Grammar (!) of Ornament, a fragment of William Morris wallpaper, a stylised Egyptian figure with ideographs, a detail of Léger’s stylised women, a splatter of blots, poured colour lines and a stroke of running paint consort against a glimpsed ground, or sky, of stars.
In the magnificent paintings of 2010 these and other motifs, including parts of an Assyrian lion relief, leaf patterns, details of Mayan eagle carvings, fragments of archaic wall friezes, a transparent brick wall, chequers, stripes, dots and colour columns, usually reduced to diagrammatic flat or linear signs, are deployed across the surface. Their variable conditions, here fresh, here fading away and abraded, suggest layers of time and history now revealed, now concealed. The resulting transformations dissolve into each other as if in a mirage, where visual and mental certainties are illusory. We look past them or through them into a space-time continuum in which nothing is fixed or stable and the formal architectonics are intangible.
In Tide and Spill the space is created by the wash, pour and spill suggested by their titles; in Whereabouts and Mirage by pouring and dappling on a day-light ground, by rubbing down and a cloud-like smudging; in Filigree by the splash and spatter of such earlier paintings as Viola and Muscari of 2006. Time and memory, space and sensation, what has been and what is here present; culture and nature; inner world and outward reality: all contract, in a simultaneity of sensation and reflection, to the span of a single canvas! Painting enacts the vertiginous reality of consciousness.
Catalogue for Stepping Stones, 2011
Notes and references
Louis MacNeice is quoted from his poem, ‘Snow’. Andrew Lambirth’s feature on Tricia Gillman A Walk on the Wild Side appeared in Contemporary Visual Arts Magazine Issue 14 in November 1996. My quotation is partial, in that Lambirth recognises that there is always ‘an air of naturalness’ in her paintings, that the objects depicted ‘do leave a residual evidence of their reality on the canvas.’ Keith Patrick, who has also written with great insight on Gillman’s work, makes a remark similar to Lambirth’s in an essay in 1993: ‘Her concern lies with the many possibilities for describing, more than with description itself.’ Clement Greenberg’s essay ‘Modernist Painting’ written in 1960, appeared in Art and Literature, Spring 1965