Reflections on the Painting of Nathalie Hunter
Thomas Zummer (USA)
Painting consists of material hellishly woven, ephemeral and of little worth, because if the superficial coating is removed, nobody any longer pays attention to it.
--Jacopo Da Pontormo, in a letter to Benedetto Varchi, dated 18 February 1548.
Painting is a most enduring anomaly. On the material axis it is not so far removed from the practice of attaching a clump of hair to a stick, daubing it into mud or excrement, and drawing it across some wall or vertical surface to leave a mark or trace of its passage. Strange, indeed, that such a practice--somewhat refined, te be sure--survives here, into the twenty-first century. Well, perhaps not so surprising in light of contemporary brutalities. Nonetheless, the persistence of painting, ‘ephemeral and hellishly woven,’ suffuses all contemporary image-technologies, indeed is permeable to those subsequent technologies--photographic, cinematographic, digital, transmissable--such that there is both simultaneity and reflection,, simulation and difference, in painting. It is within the frame of the questioning of painting that I will situate my remarks on the works of Nathalie Hunter.
What is (a) painting? What is a painting painted over and over again? Where does (a) painting take place? Or, one might rephrase the question to ask, what is the space of painting? Or perhaps better: what is the given space of painting. And this, in turn, gives us a place to begin.
It is, of course, a question of framing. Of determining limit and extent, interior and exterior, sequence and succession, one and another. At the same time it involves the inevitable questions of reference, the consistency of style, of the ostensible signs of painting, of the protocols of manufacture and consent, of the politics of interpretation.
Nathalie Hunter’s work tampers with the place of painting. Hers is a relentless, rigorous, and generous practice, a logic of entailment—an implicative structuring of the place of painting which is constantly reflective of the everyday, of life, the mute things that happen. It is a movement towards a serial outside, a folding back into the arena of painting something of the trace of life. Such traces of course are already mediations, and in one sense Hunter begins in a very traditional circumstance, with the relation of drawing to painting, drawing as a provisional securing of the trace, secured by the muscular interaction of hand and eye, inert matter and active judgement. However the ostensible topic of her labors is not the traditional postures of abstraction or realism, gesture or impression, neither is it a mere evacuation, nor completion, nor simple circumscription of the boundaries, edges, or limits of painting, but a suspension of the determinations interior and exterior, a suspension, that is to say, of the singularity of painting. There is a deferral, a play of identity and difference set in motion between her works, which brings about an abnegation of the artifact as complete, referential, or self-sufficient. It is this strange poverty, figured in a curious lack of ‘painterliness,’ ( for all of her skill, which is considerable, and for all of the subtlety or boldness of color, for all of the play of surface and line, figure and ground, there is relatively little paint employed) that sets her work in a very different sort of relation to ‘painting’ than one finds tacitly figured in abstract or representational works, and explicitly so in minimal or conceptual works. Her practice not only questions the process of painting’s ‘taking place,’ but its extent as well. When does (a) painting end? How? And how do we know? Hunter’s pluralized space of painting produces a seriality without sequence, a lateral, z-axis occlusion of painting, the performative act of painting multiplied, repeated ad infinitum. It is in this sense that her works are excessive. They exceed the bounds of painting, the strategies and habitus of contempory favor, and admit almost anything into the frame.
Nathalie Hunter’s works begin within the act of drawing, a cognitive reflection folded into itself as an act of making. More concretely, her works begin in life, drawing life, drawing from life. Often in a continuous and disciplined linear description of form, where the pen or pencil rarely, if ever, leaves the surface of the paper. An elementary exercise which Hunter has transformed into a subtle and sublime process. Anything can be drawn; the boundaries between objects, the occlusion of one object in space by another, the limit or extent of a body, the interactivity of relation, are all drawn together. At the same time the absent spaces, of what is between and what is left out, are equally important. When I used the term ‘reflection’ a few sentences ago, it was not in the sense of a metaphor, or figurative trope, but rather to call attention to the process that Nathalie Hunter engages in to produce her images. Her works begin in a form of mimesis, making something which recalls something else, which renders recognition and mimicry coextensive, patterns which in their appearance resemble other things (such other things as a spectator might harbor some recuperable trace of memory towards: bodies, limbs, trees, furniture).
At the core of depiction is the recognition of its subject, and this remains so even when the subject is radically transformed and recognition becomes correspondingly extended.
Artworks engender a complex mediation between public and private, tradition and innovation, spectator and reference. They do so with a range of liminal devices and conventions, both within and outside the work, that form these mediations. Prominent among such devices are what we might call, after Genette, paratexts—the title of a work, annotations which may appear interior or exterior to the frame of the work, signatures, evaluations, even critical accounts, or records of ownership and sale, sometimes even a certain color (such as Klein’s for example) or a certain material (felt? lard?) which marks a territoiry, allegiance or genealogy. Less concrete, and perhaps more persuasive, is the register of tradition, the narratological inscription of images/artifacts into discursive patterns: history, theme, school, movement, oeuvre, anomaly. In a sense images become the depictions they are by their traversal of a public sphere, a community of signs and recognitions. And yet, while the visual and the textual may be permeable and co-extensive, images are irreducible to mere description, and descriptions may provide but a suggestion of acceptable grounds for the visual.
Artworks address us, and they do so in part by creating uncertainty; our engagement with them involves a continuous adjustment as we scan for signs, clues, suggestions on how to proceed and for a confirmation or disconfirmation of our response. It is within the framework of such discursive fields that artworks take place as such, and we, as spectators, come into such discourse, in a sense, ready-made. That is to say that a tradition of recognition and exigesis procedes us, and the given community within which we find ourselves forms a culturally-mediated perceptual horizon, or boundary in our consumption of images. Still, it is a malleable field, accommodating many differences, and we are capable of acting with our own volition, posing our own questions. How, we might ask, is it that a medium, having it’s own rhythms and textures, seems both distinct from the represented subject and yet at the same time to embody it? It is less a matter of how depictions are made, than it is an issue of recognition, a basic relation we have to the world, a capacity that functions in a distinctive way with works of art, and even with technically reproducible copies, or variants of works.
If you look upon an old wall covered with dirt, or the odd appearance of some streaked stones, you may discover several things like landscapes, battles, clouds, uncommon attitudes, humorous faces, draperies, &c. Out of this confused mass of objects, the mind will be furnished with abundance of designs and subjects perfectly new.
—Leonardo da Vinci
In his treatise of 1785, entitled New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape, Alexander Cozens makes an intentional reference to this well-known passage in the Treatise on Painting in order to set forth the idea that an improvement has been rendered upon Leonardo’s suggestion of “a new method of assisting the invention.” Cozens proposes a refinement of the faculty of recognition, which for Leonardo was tempered by chance discovery and fortuity, by developing a method of (visual) invention through the production of artifice. One no longer had to depend upon the aleatory, on random occurrences sought in crumbling architecture or the fleeting impressions inspired by infelicities in light or shadow, but one might produce such “rude forms” artificially, with a minimal degree of conscious design. The system introduced in the New Method involved procedures for the composition of landscapes based on the use of randomly produced artificial ink-blots, allowing for a complex interplay between imitation and invention, method, chance and design. Cozens considered that the greater part of attention requisite to the act of drawing must be applied to the whole, that is, to the general design of the composition, and to this alone, so that the subordinate parts—the material marks and happy accidents—are left to the casual and unthinking motion of the hand or brush. The distinction between the marks, stains or blots which one might chance upon, and those that one might indifferently render, is therefore negligible to the process of recognition. This early method implies an almost syntactic compiling of lines, blots, stains, splashes carried out in a variety of media —ink or carbon, pigment, dust, sugar, cotton, thread— which prefigures modern disputations on abstraction, materiality and invention in contemporary aesthetic practices from impressionism to surréalism to the postmodern and transmedial. It is these sorts of distinctions that Nathalie Hunter tampers with, defers and displaces in her inversion of the ‘indifference’ of the aesthetic mark.
James Elkins, in a sustained critique of the semiotic approach to visual signs points out that what are presumed to be stable and irreducible elements of images—marks, lines, traces, edges, outlines, surfaces, textures, fields, or even relations of figure and ground, tonality and illumination—give way upon close examination to a much more unruly series of historically specific practices and discourses, which are themselves irreducible to a re-translation into signs or narratives. The graphic mark remains both mysterious (since it is infinitely variable and replete with meaning) and secondary (since it is incapable of becoming a legible sign so long as its meaning depends so intimately on its form). While such “rude” marks may be invested with meaning in and of themselves, and recast as elemental pictures or figures, these are determinations which occur almost entirely in language. Rorschach’s set of diagnostic designs are an interesting, if extreme, example of this. Rorschach’s aggregate collection of stains is a legislated and overdetermined sign-system, whose use is rigorously controlled, and restricted to psychiatric and psychoanalytical professionals. There are, in fact, some rather strict legal sanctions for misuse. At the same time it is remarkable in its normative anxieties about the proper containment of representation. A discrete set of images, composed by Rorschach, in all likelihood by a method at least congenial to that proposed by Cozens, is fixed and arrested, sustained by and constrained to very precise hermeneutic and exigetical rules. While these “blots” may remain “random,” the recognitions performed by test subjects certainly are not. Similar sorts of investments in the materiality of the mark as an aesthetic signifier are made in certain forms of abstraction or material reflexivity, such as occurs in the painting of Jackson Pollock or Cy Twombly, or the systematic deployment of marks that one finds in works by Hanne Darboven, Sol Lewitt, Richard Long or Jonathan Borofsky. There are many other examples of the reflective insistence on the material conditions and constituents of the art work that take place within the modernist framework, and persist in sometimes exotic forms in contemporary, postmodern, mediated practices. Another register of materiality and insistence takes place in artworks which appropriate, simulate, cite or mimic other works and things. Different types of paratextual formulations operate to secure an image as a specific type of depiction. The relation of contingency between (para)text and image is irregular, unstable, provisional, and plural, and extends even to the implications of the unsaid. Certain works, in fact, operate by strategically leaving the obvious unsaid, by saying something else, or by deferral to the linguistic/textual ‘outside’ of the work, as is the case with certain performative or site-specific works and processes which engage the unconscious reflexes or interaction of a given audience in the completion of the work. Some works are made or unmade in language, as has been the case with the determination of forgeries, where, as attribution (signature) changes, the status of a work, which had been a particular thing for a certain duration, is radically altered. Consider too, the difficulties that arise with technical reproducibility, where even in the simplest photographic recording of events or situations, it is imposible to make a clear determination of, for example, identity, originality, truth, culpability, causality or consequence.
Nathalie Hunter’s work, while it interacts with traditional (and anomalous) practices of representation--drawing, painting, surface, support, medium and materiality--is less about the completion and coherence of an artifact than it is about the constancy of mediation, and the supplementary relations requisite to mediation: transport, reproducibility, commodity, etc. Hunter’s use of high-gloss plastic polymers (with other polymers, such as acrylic pigment) reverses the play of figure and ground, rendering them undecideable. This is just one of the many problematizations of the work that she presents. The play of luminosity which constitutes the ‘painting-image’ are, in her case, not represented lumens, but reflected light. Such a strategy renders her works site-specific (reminding us that this is, in fact, the case with all artworks). Hunter’s works are also reflections (that word again) in a chain of reflections: a drawing, in a notebook, which is a reflection of/upon a state of affairs (like life-drawing or documentary photography), which is (sometimes) ‘re-drawn’ either prior to, or within, the act of ‘painting,’ (painting reflects drawing, such that the two are coextensive, coterminal, which requires a move to the outside--to the ‘authoritative’ statement of the artist--to determine which is which). It is this move to a referential exterior of ‘painting’ that suggests a superficial resemblance to the work of such artists as Valerio Adami, Gary Hume, or even Vik Muniz, all of whom tamper with notions of artifact, reference and mediation. Hunter’s works are almost impossible to photograph; within the frame of technical reproducibility they collapse back into a flattened image, inactive, inert (a subtle tacit critique of the ‘photographic’) or exhibit a bewildering array of blemishes of light. In this way, Hunter addresses the ‘taking place’ of painting through its deictic configurations, or parsing of time (as well as space), marked by light. Hunter’s work is a reply to the tacit question posed by ‘painting.’ Reply/re-pli, a ‘folding-back’ into painting of an originary image, a folding (pli) of perception into artifact (into perception), that is, an echo, or reply, or (technically reproduced) copy, but also a replication or replica, as in so many reflections.
In the contemporary aesthetic sphere it is a commonplace of artworks that they support a wide range of paratextual supplements: titles, signatures, inscriptions both interior and exterior to the work, critiques, rumours, price tags. The profound complicities and resistances between artwork and language are often displaced or deferred, circumscribed by a language, critical or economic, presumed to be wholly outside, which is folded in. But the space of painting is permeable and plural. It is bounded and occupied by a range of liminal devices and conventions, forming a complex mediation between inside and outside, image and spectator, inscription and mark, signature and text, title and account. These paratextual elements have an illocutionary force which constrains, and also shapes, the spaces of painting, and, while it often circumscribes their uncertainties, it also underwrites their legibility. Paratextual elements—grids, fields, armatures, means, proportions, rules of composition, perspective; inference, reference, text, intertext, paratext, style, genre, oeuvre—generate and constrain the contours of painting’s unconscious habituations. Nathalie Hunter brilliantly, relentlessly and conscientiously explores some of the more interesting and compelling of the spaces of contemporary habituations of ‘painting.’