MAIN SPACE EXHIBITION
MAY 5 – MAY 27, 1989
RECEPTION: FRIDAY, MAY 5, 1989 AT 8PM
LOCATION – STRIDE GALLERY
722, 11 AVE S.W, CALGARY, ALBERTA
SUSAN SCOTT’S colourful figurative paintings find their base in the narrative tradition of painting. She states, “Working in a narrative cycle challenges my painting process. It forces me to think about the evolution of a series from different vantage points: the craft of painterly concerns being one level, the interweaving of a story with connected characters, another.”
In this series, Scott’s narrative revolves around the children’s game of Blindman’s Buff. As we all know Blindman’s Buff involves one blindfolded player attempting to catch the other players. The player voluntarily enters the realm of the unknown. In fumbling darkness, the blindfolded player is subjected to the cruel elusive taunts of the other children. When adults play children’s game as they often do in Scott’s paintings, do they willingly blind themselves or do they unconsciously choose not to see.
SUSAN SCOTT’s work was last seen in Galerie Nikki Diane Marquardt in Paris, France. She has shown regularly in Canada and the United States since 1980 and presently resides in Montreal.
OF THE GLANCE AND BLINDMAN’S BUFF
“Painting of the glance addresses vision in the durational temporality of the viewing subject; it does not seek to bracket out the process of viewing, nor in its own technique does it exclude the traces of the body of labour. …To dissolve the Gaze that returns the body to itself in medusa form, we must willingly enter into the partial blindness of the Glance.” (1)
When I look at a painted image, which knows the body only as a picture, I search the relations between denotation and connotation and, as often as not, aggravate the daydream of univocal iconography: to treat the body as real. This slippery game of “naturalization” is still all too familiar and suggests that painting’s “assumptions are explored only rarely; its status has become that of a deposed order of image.” (2) If I take post-structuralism’s critique of sentimental humanism and evolutionary historicism to be valuable, I cannot appreciate painting through this historical discourse which has promoted ideas such as naturalism and the essential copy. Yet, while its discourse may be complacent and shopworn, evidently the practice of painting is not always. What happens to the illusory body if I shift my perspective from the image to the painting? Even granting its deposition, how should I recognize painting?
Painting should be problematized in a manner that is pertinent to his moment in the Twentieth Century. “ How should I recognize painting?” might therefore be bound to another question that is in the air right now: “What comes after deconstruction?” One reservation about poststructuralist theory is that the “structural allegory… cannot adequately conceptualize either communication of community” and lists as evidence its tendency “to bracket away of some questions of enduring importance”, its exclusion of “novel practical possibilities:, its entropic rationalism, and its use of irony as the dominant trop for its deconstruction of romantic organicism. (3) This reservation readily applies to painting, where these same features are fashionably evident and, contradictorily, affirmed in the humanist inflection. The discourse of painting had displayed indecision as it warms the structural allegory, as if it is reluctant to accept that painting is susceptible to the same shifting of paradigms that has unsettled theory. Bluntly, if the structural allegory has yet to come to terms with communication of community, neither has painting—a shortcoming where “How should I recognize painting?” and “What comes after deconstruction?” can be seen to intersect.
A theoretical proposition which addresses this deficiency, calls for the rediscovery of the artwork as a place fro (a) substantive that can be “articulated with principles of appropriateness that are context-sensitive and decentralized.” (4) What is seen to be appropriate is artwork that rearticulates individual autonomy and values it positively and that serves as an agency for consciousness, or the social imaginary at the same time. (The feminist perception of the personal as political and Michel Foucault’s notion that communication with the self is not an exercise in solitude, but a true social practice (5), both spring to mind.) Such a painting would employ a reconstructive strategy that deciphers at the same time as it assembles the human (not the humanist) adventure. The ambition is to problematize cultural production and to offer a fresh perspective on symbolic life through “a nonlogocentric form that does not betray its aspirations by implying certitude and that can be read a s a complex of romantic, comic, tragic and ironic modalities” (6).
This reconstructive strategy is generous. It involves an interindividual territory with more than one observer: painting’s embodiment is the presence (visualization) of an artist and a viewer. Bodily actions, such as gesture and posture, can be read as points where the image intersects the social imaginary. Or as Norman Bryson has suggested, painting not only “directs (rather than determines) the flow of interpretation across its surface”, it also activates collective forms of discourse, “not as citation, but as mobilization (the painting causes the discourse to move). …Viewing is mobility both of the eye and of discourse in the disseminations of the glance.” (7) Instead of returning the Gaze, I recognize painting as a sign as painting of the glance.
This is how I recognize Susan Scott’s work. I puzzle her paintings not as a traditional narrative fantasy, but as a mechanism fro visualizing social and individual life. And what is already visible is that Scott and I belong to the generation which experienced the social mobility of the idea of “the death of painting”. It is an experience which effected both of our practices. Whereas it seemed almost natural for me to turn away from painting in favour of more “timely” mediums, Scott had to deal with the apathy and possible dismissal of the medium she passionately practices. Consequently, we now both agonize: I look at her paintings and ask, “How should I recognize painting?”; she reads this text and asks, “How should I recognize the discourse of painting?”
This social and individual turn of events concerning the status of painting has been visualized in Scott’s work: painting is not dead, but a way of perceiving it may be. In one instance, Scott altered the painted image’s surround by using the format of a polaroid photograph. (8) In another, she tried to bend painting’s narrative tradition by adding Kafka-inspired text to the canvas. (9) Attracted to Kafka’s mythical descriptions and his multiplication of pints of view that emotionally embrace pain, vulnerability and uncertainty, this work reincarnated the idea of ut picture poesis, with all of its attendant uncertainties. Occasionally, Scott employed a point of view that strongly resembles that of a surveillance camera. In each case, a hybrid look emerged that blended the traditional codes of painting with those from another medium. I read this mediation by cross-medium signifiers as an implicit desire to direct the flow of interpretation and discourse away from the serenity of painting towards a more agonistic sociability (i.e., communication and community). The painting of the glance began to emerge:
A woman is freeze-framed in the act of applying lipstick. She holds a compact mirror in one hand, before her, but she does not gaze at the image framed in it. Squeezed into the space of a Van Gogh yellow room between a white bed and a red carpet, that are flanked by twisted grids of shadows, her body is cropped at eye level and the breastline, in the plane of the viewer. Distracted by a door-shaped shadow in the corner of the room, her eyes glance back, over her shoulder, to say: “Why should a pretty girl like myself go with you?” (10) A Poussin fragment of Aurora and Cephalus, which decorates the back of the mirror’s case, interrupts the sightline of her statement, as if to intercept it. But instead, like a jealous lover, the myth stares out of the picture to snare the viewer’s attention. The object of myth, the object of the mirror and a mental incident dissolving in a glance all compete for the viewer’s recognition.
But going back to Norman Bryson’s conception of painting of the glance, “Why should a pretty girl like myself…” goes only part way to making the myth of painting transparent again. By working à la prima, Scott tended to hide/exclude/erase the traces of her body of labour. While the durational temporality of the viewing subject was being considered, Scott’s was not. As if she sensed the lack of her technique’s signification, Scott opted for a glazing process for the “Blindman’s Buff” paintings.
The glazing technique gives Scott and the viewer much more than aesthetical luminescence. By applying glazing colours over paint that is layered over a ground on which an initial drawing has been made, Scott releases and amplifies the process of (re)constructing what she wants to say and express. Technique is brought to life in that its traces are made transparent for the viewer. For Scott, it is a procedure of heightened vulnerability and uncertainty and the Kafka-like text simultaneously disappears from the surface of her paintings – her own visual “text” can speak for itself. With glazing, Scott has begun to dispense with form as arrest and to conceive of it in dynamic terms: as matter in process, as the time-based rhythm of her own body of labour.
The body of labour is represented in two paintings from the “Blindman’s Buff” series by the figures of women. In one, the figure is blindfolded and gropes through muddy, mist-shrouded canvas. Reaching out to the corner of the picture place, the palm of one hand reflects a light whose source is outside the canvas. The figure’s head is bent, as if to better grasp the temporal reality that resonates from the viewer’s presence. In the other painting, the figure looms out of a blue and white sky-like ground. The image is monumentalized by a familiar point of view—below—but the testimonial is made in its own, ironic terms. Titled “The Blindfold”, the figure’s eyes are covered by her own hands.
Both of these figures clearly deny (qualify) their vision and in so doing, alert the other senses. The painted grounds of earth and sky serve notice on an historical vision that is both physical and spiritual. Whether the figures are willingly blindfolded or choose bot to see are readings that radiate towards the sense embodied in the artist’s technique and the viewer’s response. The two gestures reconstruct respectively those historical ones found in Goya’s “Blindman’s Buff”, 1788, and Masaccio’s “The Expulsion from Paradise”, circa 1427. These female figures introduce allegories that are in flight from the biased vision of the phallocentric Gaze.
With these paintings, Scott enters willingly into the partial blindness of the glance. Henceforth, there will be no gaze in viewing or in technique. Representation leaves the space of genre painting and with rich semantic inference, begins to visualize a symbolic life on which all of the figures in “Blindman’s Buff”, are built:
A man casually dressed in a white shirt and brown trousers restrains a woman in a red housecoat. They are set against a feathered, abstract ground that evokes an interior state of mind. The woman’s head is tilted back and the man sticks two fingers into her open mouth to examine her throat. His other hand braces her neck so she can’t pull away. The man’s eyes are lost from view in their examination; out of the corner of her eye, the woman stares away from this aggressive act. Her hands are not visible in the picture but the slope of her arms tells us they are joined. It is impossible to determine “The Examination” as either caring or threat.
A woman dressed in a not orange dress is in firm control. She tries to straddle another woman whose lime green dress clashes: this second figure does not like the other’s overtures at all, or likes them too much. She resists/swoons with closed eyes, head twisted away from contact, and arms that are entangled and contorted. Her legs and in oddly-pointed stubs that seem to sink into the park-like landscape on which she is pinned. Both figures are oblivious to a third figure sitting on a swing that seems to hang from the cloud-shrewn sky. The swinging woman is dressed in shorts and what appears to be a white labcoat. Her head arches back to the sky and her tanned-brown legs swoop up, away from the scene, and out of picture. Between what is going on above and below, there is the hint of a stone ledge that angles off into a place of surreptitious witness. In “The Swing” , the viewer catches herself or himself glancing back and forth, back and forth at rococo double-imagery. Meanwhile, the urban-pale prone figures continue to struggle/embrace.
Scott’s work presents allegories of Twentieth-century life. The situations we read seem familiar. The figures in them do not appear to be strangers to one another; they have a familial relationship of some kind. In their dress, actions and attitudes, they are clearly figures of this social epoch. Moreover, the idiosyncratic articulation of proportions and details, such as the woman’s arms and legs in “The Swing’, serve to remind use that these figures are to be read as vehicles for notation rather than as “real” bodies.
The contemporaneity of these allegories ought to make them more accessible to us than, say, Fifteenth-century generalizations about human conduct an religious experience. Michael Baxandall has shows the social language of the Renaissance painting to be startling in its directness and intention (11), and one would think it could ne so now. But this is not the case. The problem has something to do with the momentary evacuation in Twentieth-century painting of figurative notation in relation to the body of labour. We are as outsiders to the coded meanings of the gestures that arise from our own bodies. Their implications seem alien, or at least denied. To this extent, Scott’s paintings do not seem to enforce the history of painting. If it was the case that the allegory in Jacques-Louis David’s “The Oath of the Horatii” (1784-85) caused fist fights amongst its viewers, what will the contemporary allegory evoke if once we fully recognize it?
As a move towards such recognition, Scott’s figures are vulnerable and oddly celebratory. They are not involved in psychodramas, so much as they are struggling for/with human compassion. The figures attempt to represent this compassion, previously laden with humanist principles, differently. As viewers, this difference is a fine line, the only measure of which may be how we react or feel differently about what we see, I think what begins to resonate are Twentieth-century emotions and thoughts qualified by the innocence of the figures about what they are doing.
A family of five figures are in the woods. They form a receding diagonal of bodies through the natural landscape. In the foreground, a man stares resolutely out the side of the picture but the intensity of his eyes betray his awareness of what is going on in it. He lightly holds the shoulder of a small boy, nursing him to look away, too. The boy tentatively hugs a tree and complies. Ignoring this pair who are trying to ignore everything, a teenaged girl peers from behind a tree into the deep space of the scene. She is witness to the relationship of two women. One twists her head to see the other, as her torso stops defensively. The second woman seems to have appeared suddenly, like an angry animist of the trees around her. Arm is raised over her head, she holds a stick. She is intent on striking the submissive figure. A family of figures are playing a rather strange game of “Hide & Seek”. They are lost in the woods.
Using double-edged notation as a main organizing principle, Scott’s paintings supply me with fictions that enable a satisfactory transition between theory and experience. They embody, for the painter and the viewer, a rising expectation that turns metaphysical fantasies into material realities. In this turning point lays the potential to express that which is romantic, tragic and comic, as well as ironic. Considering the cynicism with which these qualifications have been lately viewed, I find this potential particularly provocative, it yet to be fully declared. Moreover, the argument against resistance to this potential is that, without (a) visual poetics and a narrative embrace of the social imaginary, painting (and the structural allegory) remain disgracefully constipated by “an ethos, an ethnos, and a pathos of disenchantment.” (12)
In this regard, Scott has also been making tiny paintings that she uses to explore her notational system and it is worth noting that she has begun to included clusters of these studies in her exhibitions. During one of my visits to her studio, we talked about them. She told me they were studies of hand gestures rendered by the old masters. I asked her if she was studying other hands and she replied that, yes, she was considering a series about the hands of her newborn baby daughter. There is a difference here that strikes me as significant. The comparative study of old masters’ renditions is a subject that is by and large accessible only to painters –privileged insiders –while representations of her daughter’s hands may relay evocations without prior justification. Perhaps the latter notation would speak more directly to viewers of what they know from their own immediate experience. The traces of the body of labour would certainly visualize Scott’s experience as a painter and a social being.
The painting of the glance is a process that never stops being an agony. The metaphysics of the glance aspires beyond the narcotic power of naturalization that was mythologized in the obsolete notion of High Art. The artist and viewer’s recognition of painting remains a process of denaturalization, a game of perpetual positioning, or a Blindman’s Buff.
(1) Bryson, Norman, Vision and Painting – the Logic of the Gaze, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), pp. 94 & 131.
(2) Ibid., p. 87.
(3) John Fekete refers to the successive waves of French theory, from Levi-Strauss to Michel Foucault and on, as the structural allegory.
(4) Ibid., p. xviii
(5) “…L’intensité des rapports à soi, c’est-à-dire des forms dans lesquelles on est appelé à se prendre soi-même pou object de connaissance et domaine d’action, …constitue, nonpas un exercice de la solitude, mais une veritable pratique sociale.” Foucault, Michel, Histoire de la Sexualité 3, “Le Souci de Soi”, NRF, 1984
(6) Fekete, John, Op. Cit., p. xxiv
(7) Bryson, Norman, Op. Cit., p. 170
(8) The polaroid format was used in severa, series, including “A Kafka Parable” (1986), which was exhibited at Galerie Michel Tétreault Art Contemporain, Montréal.
(9) Text was part of the painting in the series, “Description of a Struggle” (1983-84). (See: biography for catalogue reference)
(10) “Why should a pretty girl like myself go with you?”, 1986 (oil on canvas, 57.5” x 71.5”)
(11) Baxandall, Michael, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Painting, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972) (12) Fekete, John. Op. Cit., p. xx