Visual Intelligences Research Project

Seminars : Artists' Seminar : Beth Harland

Zone 9
Oil on canvas
152 x 117cm

Oil on canvas
152 x 117cm

Oil on canvas
61 x 36cm

BH: I have tried to structure this in terms of the questions, although I haven’t managed to answer all of them, partly because of time but partly because some of them I find pretty unanswerable.  I’m just going to show three slides from a recent and ongoing series of work called Zone and one of an earlier piece just to make a particular point.   These paintings begin with a digital image that I’ve manipulated from photographs of objects on a table-top which were a series of photos I made for an earlier series of paintings but I wanted to re-address them in a completely different way.   The painting begins with a digital image but the final result is open to change and there is a sort of dialogue between the screen image and the painted surface.  I’m interested in this shift between surface and screen that I think is a critical field that hasn’t been explored as much as it could be, yet.   I’m interested in the impact of contemporary visual technologies on our experience and perception of the world but also on the space of painting as a practice.   I find the digital realm fascinating because it’s a fluid structure and oppositions of figure and ground, which are so key to the practice of painting are dispersed and it also allows a multiplicity and a kind of slippage to go on.   In the process of the work I’m also thinking about the notion of prosthesis, in relation to the use of the digital image but also projection, which I use a lot in the process of making the work, is a kind of absence of the body.  I see this notion of prosthesis as a way of expanding the topography of painting.

In terms of how I negotiate and develop my process that is another of your questions I think that one of the things that’s very important for me is the notion of Factura, which is from the Soviet avant-garde.  It’s a kind of emphasis on the mechanical quality and the materiality of procedure that I think is obviously quite pertinent to this discussion.  For me the linking of form and content is crucial so that painting as a practice signifies subject just as much as the found or constructed image that I choose to work from.   So in other words, although the image is important I want to resist making a representation of something in the world, so that the matter of painting itself is a mode of address and a site of critical thinking that goes beyond the image.   In that sense narratives are becoming less and less important to me because I want to resist the kind of subject being circumscribed by those personal and historical narratives.  I’m interested in what the painting does, how it addresses the viewer, so that the viewer finds a relation to her or himself as well as to the work.  This is something that Lyotard calls a face-to-face relationship with painting, to quote him: “transporting me to the place where I am, to see it again”.

My approach to making is strategically and mechanically defined but I’m also interested in the meaning engendered by the material and its behaviour, the kind of moments of spill that occur in the process.   This is a slide of an earlier series, a series called After in which the process is a very mechanical application of paint.  You can’t really see from the slide, but each mark is made with a drop of oil from a pipette.   By re-inscribing the image I was looking to reflect the subject that I wanted the work to deal with, which was the fluid and fugitive aspects of memory so that the process making itself, like the memory mechanism as described in neurological exploration starts from the point of view that memory is not stored in some kind of representation but it is a dynamic system moulded by re-categorisation and degeneracy of information so this is something that happens in the material’s behaviour even though the process is mechanical.

Going back to the current series, I am using print-outs from the digital image and what interests me is how I can work with that as a sort of copying process.  I follow the image on the print-out, actually in this case on top of a ground that’s made much more fluidly initially, but the original image is very fragmented in the first place so it’s very difficult to follow.  The process is a kind of mapping which goes on and I kind of lose my place and then I find it again and that’s very appropriate I think because of the experience.   I want the viewer to have a sense of finding some point of recognition, some identification and then being engulfed again or losing it and always being in flux.   I find that working with a digital image and painting is a way of combining elements from different sort of strata of thinking and experience so that you resist the order that’s imposed by one strata.   This is something that Deleuze writes about when he’s talking about cinema and archaeology and he speaks in terms of a discourse that’s established but at the same time the need to break away from that and the change that’s effected through what he calls a ‘dance between  sedimented historical discourses and lines of flight’.

Another of your questions refers to “How much non-visual matters or thoughts are part of your working process?”  For me making is thinking and I can’t separate them so just as in the same way as I don’t want to separate form and content, it doesn’t really make sense to me as a question. 

“How and when do you reflect on your work?”.  I think this is a continuous process, reflection happens in considering the aims of the work, the audience and throughout the making process, a sort of moving into the work and then coming back  out  to look at it that goes on constantly.   I think reflection is also, for me,  to do with connecting my interest in theoretical and historical research.  For example, when I was making these paintings I was interested in Chardin’s still life paintings.  I was looking at the fluctuating focus in his work, the kind of moments of clarity and then indistinction that go on and I discovered that he followed the optical theories of his time, looking at tracking eye movement and notions of peripheral vision.  So that’s another way for me of reflecting on the process of making my own work.

The question of how the work evolves in relation to other works I’ve made, I always work in series so I develop a body of work which is evolving constantly but is placed within the framework of a series, which clarifies and positions the work.    When I feel that a series is exhausted then I re-frame the question and move on although there is often a link between different series, a sense of returning to something, returning to an earlier idea through a different approach.

“How do I choose titles?”   The titles are defined after the first few pieces in the series.  I usually start with a working title in mind,  which refers to the specific idea or set of references that I’m using.  For example,  the working title for these pieces was Stalker which is Tarkovsky’s film which I was really interested in at the time and I later used the title Zone for this series, although this still comes directly from the film it’s a title I felt was open to lots of different associations in the sort of territory that I wanted to suggest.

Specific skills that I’ve developed, well obviously working with digital manipulation, using a computer as a tool and the screen as another mode of thinking and a different way of configuring painting.   Jon Thompson talks about ‘Learning how to make a space for yourself in which to act, sometimes  painters have to do something else to find this’  and this kind of rang true with me in a sense that sometimes you need to move away from something or to work with another process or medium to find that space. I think new mediums bring with them different ways of looking and thinking and they sort of disturb your habits. 

The scope for unforeseen events in the work, this is something that I’m increasingly getting involved in.  I do find it an uneasy prospect when making the work but I think with the sorts of thing that I’m interested in doing in relation to the viewer, unsettling the figure ground, unsettling the subject/object relation, it’s important to allow those unforeseen events to take place.   Moving towards something that is unknown is, I think, (and somebody mentioned this earlier on) important as well.  Foucault calls it ‘working at the edge of an un-thought, slowly building a language in which to think it’ and I for me that describes quite well the sense of making the painting from start to finish.

Writing statements and talking publicly, what sort of things do you write, how does it affect the work?  I do talk about the work, I do write about the work and I usually frame it in terms of my theoretical interests, so recently I’ve been thinking about Deleuze's writings, particularly on machinic assemblage and territorialisation.  I am also interested in notions of haptic visuality and these things do feed into the work.  They help me structure the practice and situate it in a broader context and I’m really intrigued by the relationship between practice and theory and the sort of dynamics that it sets up.  

One question that I really couldn’t answer was choosing one work to represent me. I think it was quite telling for me that I couldn’t do that because I see the work as a whole, as an on-going project.   And what does visual intelligence connote?  This is very difficult but maybe it’s linked to some of the qualities that I admire in other works which are a strong conceptual basis, an interesting execution, a kind of complexity but at the same time a specificity and a sense of purpose.

PK: You said you had an interest in the relationship between practice and theory and I just wondered to what extent that helps solve the problems of  making a painting or to what extent that might just make the problems even bigger?

BH: Well I find it really helpful because I think a lot of the time you’re struggling to decide what you’re not making work about and what you’re not actually doing in your work .  I find that sometimes being able to identify a theoretical debate and the sort of terms in which somebody might write about a particular subject can help me to give myself a framework.   It is a problematic relationship and I’m not suggesting that it’s all very happily ongoing all the time. It is something that creates a jolt when there isn’t a relationship between one and the other but eventually those things seem to come together for me. I don’t assume that the viewer needs to have any notion of that, actually.   The reason I’m probably talking about it now is because I read the project as being about how we arrive somewhere, rather than standing back and trying to produce an articulation of the work that we see.  In fact a lot of the theory I’m looking at is about vision and perception.

RF: Is it a two-way street?  Do your paintings teach you things? Can they create the theory for you?   Because we’re talking about it as if you read the theory, you make the painting.  It’s not that kind of relationship is it?

BH: No.  I mean the example that I gave about the research into Chardin was something that came from the paintings.  I was seeing a relationship between the way the objects were operating like some of Chardin’s, not stylistically obviously, but in the way in which you see precision and then blurring and those sort of changing, shifting elements of focus. That then made me want to go and find out more about that, via Chardin but also via other theories. I go and look for something that relates to the issues that are coming up in the studio.

PK: So in a way does it gives you a license to make things that actually are just visually stimulating and concerned with other kind of things, like pattern or maybe just visual playfulness ?

BH: A license? I don’t think I think of it in that way.   Do you mean that it brings an extra gravity to what might seem merely a visual practice?

PK: Possibly, yeah.

RF: Maybe you could look it a bit more as a kind of jumping off point? That’s the kind of basis and from there you can take the flights?

BH: I don’t know. I’ve never really thought of it in that way. I can’t really answer that.

MG: Can I just ask you, it’s really clarification.   The source of all these paintings, the starting point was objects arrange on a table, apart from the one you did with a pipette that is.   The pipette one didn’t have that kind of origin.

BH: No, that was from a series based on archival photographs at the Imperial War Museum of destroyed, war damaged landscapes and crash sites and so on.

MG: So these other ones, these very intensely coloured ones are all, the starting point is all objects you arranged on a table and you took a digital photograph of?

BH: No, I took an analogue photograph of them and used them in an early series but then I reprocessed them over and over digitally.

MG: I know these are only slides and I haven’t seen the paintings of them but they have a very strong landscape connotation, so that the scale is changed and the fact  the plane of the picture is tipped backwards so that one can almost start to read the black here as a river, or something like that and one’s in a semi-urban environment. I can project quite a lot into the slide when you’re looking at it.   Can you say something about that shift there then, from a table top which is definitely one genre, namely still life, and landscape which is definitely another genre?

BH: Yes, that was very much intended, that I would collapse those two genres and that’s partly to do with unsettling the relationship between figure ground and the viewer and the work to become an unstable set of references.   You’re not quite sure what the space is and also that comes through quite naturally from working in a digital plane as well.   You don’t have that same sense of space, there’s a very different configuration of space.  Those earlier pieces, which were very much landscape based, I still see a sense in them that they might suggest destroyed landscapes, war-scapes, and so on and those other references that I was using when I started these pieces. I was also referring to those images that we were getting through satellite technology of the war in Iraq and the kind of colour and the sort of destruction we were getting at that time.

MG: Just a sort of technical curiosity, what size are they?

BH: They vary enormously.   This one’s very small, this is about a foot across and this one’s (changing slides) six feet by five and that one’s about three feet, so they vary quite a bit.