A square of cloth pinned to a support, a wall. Its shape, proportions, colour, the pins, the wall, the gallery; these are the only inducements to regard it as a picture, as art. Otherwise, it’s just a square of cloth, the bare minimum really; a threshold at which some thing, first appearing in our peripheral vision, and then quickly relayed to the back of our minds, begins to cohere and emerge into consciousness as an image, and as a work of art.
By reducing content to this near-zero degree, and laying bare the materials and context, Elizabeth Newman has been looking for the very origins of pictoriality, that first dawning coalescence of space, colour and form, where appearances and matter rally just enough to begin to speak a language, comprise a code, become a symbol.
It’s not surprising Newman first looked to elementary modernist geometry for the purpose. Kasmir Malevich’s cross, Josef Albers’ square, Mark Rothko’s rectangle, Barnett Newman’s stripes – a modernist alphabet, really – have all been reprised by Newman in a rough, sketchy homage to fundamental artistic forms.
Then text appeared in her paintings – ‘I believe in other possible worlds’; ‘An extreme openess’; ‘Members only’ – as if basic shapes had morphed into written language and complex ideas, just as the first pictographs became ideograms. So too Newman would inscribe these found phrases on her monochrome canvases with a tentative penmanship, like the first words ever written.
Found objects too were directly attached to the canvas or support – a pair of kids’ pyjamas, a packet of tree seeds – so the thing-itself might also be a kind of picture, redolent of an absent child, or a forest of trees, indexical traces from elsewhere which summoned another order of (mental) image within one genre or another (portrait or landscape perhaps).
Newman remarked, “I was reducing further and further the means of art to indicate the parameters of painting.” And these earlier works do itemize some of the minimum, necessary conditions under which something might function as a painting or a picture. Indeed, in working the seam between art and non-art there’s always a risk or thrill that these things will remain meaningless shapes, words out of context, or random stuff stuck to a board. And perhaps it’s no surprise that all this reducing and questioning led Newman to stop making art in 1992 when she commenced training as a psychoanalyst.
Psychoanalysis and American modernism share an aversion for reference and illusion. Both look to the concrete origins of language (whether its spoken or painted) for signs of the real world and our real selves, that is, before we developed words and images to deal with our inchoate origins.
The most loquacious modern, Frank Stella, summed it up years later: “what is not there, what we can’t quite find, but which at the same time we can’t stop looking for”. As did psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan when he suggested Cezanne’s apples are “designed at the same time to encircle, to presentify and to absentify.”
Arguably, Cezanne’s apples sets in train a reduction of painting to its conditions and materials that culminates in American modernism (nothing but flatness, shape, and pigment by Clement Greenberg’s account), which certainly does seem to bring us closer to a material truth about painting.
But no matter the reduction or distillation of painting to its essence or its irreducible means, we can never close the gap between reality and representation. As real as paint and canvas may have seemed in the 60s, it was still pictorial. It turns out, the disposition to paint, and the impulse to look and see, are species’ reflexes that constitute us in a perpetual and impossible task to reconcile our being with language. The work of art is ultimately a receptacle for this profound emptiness or void, a trap for the gaze as Lacan famously said of painting.
In light of which, Newman returns to art (and commences as a practicing analyst) in 2002 “more interested in creating a gap or an absence” with large squares of coloured fabric, some stitched together and pinned to a wall (or a stretcher), or suspended in space, and others with squares cut out of them or slashes, revealing what’s behind them and often framing nothing.
Rubber inner tubes, interlinked and deflated, hanging from the ceiling or lying flat. Found timber, a worn veneer, a small hole in the middle. An empty black 44-gallon drum. A timber shelf with nothing on it, an empty vase painted orange, an empty jug painted white, fluorescent lights illuminating nothing. So many permeable, holey, worn-out frames presenting, ‘encircling’ nothing at all.
Or swathes and swatches of fabric combined with others in primitive collage, as if a fledgling god were matching colour and form from found samples at the beginning of the world (or the end of an old one), testing her palette, her aesthetics.
Otherwise, a retinue of mute or dumb objects, resolutely sitting in space, up on chocks or a basic shelf; things which may conform in outline to a work of art, or approximate a painterly texture of effect.
These materials hardly bother to get up when we enter the room, they are barely touched or arranged by the artist (most found or provided by others), simply tacked up on a wall, left sitting or leaning thanks to gravity, or to flail and flap hanging in space, and they only just stay up from falling down by virtue of an obvious nail or a half-hitch, a staple or a spot of glue, with the wall or the floor the only firm, resolute picture-plane in sight.
These filleted signs – reduced, almost haphazard materials emptied of content – signify along the fine line – a knife-edge – between image and object; in one moment a gallery of pictures, in the next junk strewn about the place. All that is ultimately figured is the inclination to speak, not even the words, just the innate bearing of things towards language of some kind, the low distant rumble of sense forming out of the morass.
Elizabeth Newman is represented by Neon Parc gallery, Melbourne