Monday, 2 January 2012

Fathom 2009

Fathom: an art of divination

Behind our thoughts, true or false, there is always to be found a dark background, which we are only later able to bring into the light and express as a thought.
                                                                                                                Ludwig Wittgenstein  18.12.1914[1]

When artists who are showing at the John Paynter Gallery asked Lisa Slade just how much space we could expect to be given, she spread her arms widely and declared “Oh about a fathom.”  It is debateable as to whether we have adhered to this limitation but the resulting title certainly became a point of debate and its resonances mulled over for its richness and metaphor – we liked it.  To fathom implies a sense of depth, of sounding to find these depths or one could say that there is a process of divination happening here – of looking for the illusive.

This group of artists is unique in many ways.  Its initiation came about very spontaneously following a successful exhibition called Pandora’s Box at the Newcastle Art Space in 2006, which was instigated by Susan Porteous.  She had noticed that there were many women artists in Newcastle whose work with abstraction was strong and well conceived and that their work would compliment each other’s, inviting a conversation.  She then went a step further and wondered what would happen if these artists continued the debate about abstraction, ideas and the making of art beyond the life of the exhibition.  In contemporary art practice collaborations have become a norm, however the notion of a group of artists meeting regularly, discussing their work and swapping reference material is an anathema in a contemporary context.  Such groups have rarely been formed since the heady days of the Antipodeans.

Fundamental to these debates has been our finding a position, a confidence and a validation, while recognising that each practitioner has a differing perspective, and that for each artist abstraction is but one of many layers encountered when interpreting their work or as Susan Porteous put it that, “we are all on a different thread of that weave.”[2]  There will be no manifesto for with no manifesto there are no rules that can be broken, but rather there is a recognition of fluidity, not only of practice but also at times of personnel or as Lezlie Tilley put it, we have a freedom “to move in and out of things all the time.”[3]  Current debate has provided some notions that could be said to hold true for the group at the moment – all is mutable. 

Being a group of women with such an accumulation of life’s vicissitudes between us, we certainly recognised early in our discussions that we are indeed participants in a world centred around a certain phenomenology.  Each artist has been able to cogently demonstrate  through discussion and their work, that they have a deep engagement with a world that not only impacts upon them but also that this is a world of possibilities.  It is the world of Merleau-Ponty’s where the body-subject is fully acknowledged.  Put more succinctly one strand of our thinking could be explained as “the world presses in upon you as much as you press upon it.”[4]

For women artists this “pressing” is inextricably bound up with the experiential, where artists have given voice to both the concrete and the metaphysical, with each describing the world not in a mimetic sense but rather as filtered through an abstract sensibility – be it if they are dealing with memory, the domestic or the materiality of media.  Abstraction is not regarded in the Greenbergian sense with its rigid adherences to the non-referential nor is abstraction used for the cosmetic “look of the look”.  Here abstraction is used as a distillation, where one’s threads become a process of divination or “a science of essences”.[5]  as Husserl suggests when speaking of phenomenology.  There is a compulsion towards an abstraction where each artist seems to internalise, dwelling on the ambiguousness that this affords in order to extract this essence.  Problems are posed, forms ripen often after long periods of research and as if almost by implication the artworks become the fully woven fabric[6] - so self assured and with such a sense of the now revealing “that which shows itself in itself.”[7]

Likewise our art writers have brought to bear a sense of this divination when unravelling our intentions.  They have brought such perception and discrimination to the interpretation of these works adding yet another layer, another richness of texture to the debate.  Thanking them, Helen Hopcroft, Una Rey and Lisa Slade, seems too small a gesture.

Patricia Wilson-Adams
September, 2009

[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein Notebooks 1914 – 1916 2nd Edition  ed. G.H. von Wright & G.E.M. Anscombe  Basil Blackwell  Oxford, c 1962 p.36e
[2] Susan Porteous in conversation 25 October, 2008
[3] Lezlie Tilley in conversation 18 August, 2007
[4] Lisa Slade in conversation 18 August, 2007
[5] John Shand  Philosophy and Philosophers and introduction to Western Philosophy Penguin Books, London 1994 p. 239
6Sixten Ringbom  Transcending the Visible: The generation of the Abstract Pioneers in The Spiritual in Art Abstract Painting 1890 – 1985  Los Angeles County Museum of Art Abbeville Press NY 1986 p.131

  1. [7] Martin Heidegger Being and Time trans Joan Stambaugh  State University of New York Press NY 1996 (original text 1927) p.29