Lecture for Chicago
Awkward x 2 was formed in 2010 by Rebecca Norton and Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe out of the desire to make works in which a painting isn’t finished until neither artist is sure who did what. As they say in the lecture reprinted here (originally given at the Art Institute of Chicago, October 2011), “when you paint like we do, you tend to have messy thoughts.” Their discussion accordingly takes in lies, science, involuntary sensation, and chocolate.
Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe: We think that one way to introduce our work to you is to say that we are moved by movement. The movements that the paintings contain and set off around and in front of themselves are what we talk about when we’re making them. Movement as a condition of people even when they are standing still is something that concerns us, to the extent that we want our paintings to directly affect the body. Our paintings are meant to cause involuntary responses, to be experienced rather than read, through sensations one can’t help but have and which are sensations of intensities and speeds of different sorts.
We think it’s also important to start by saying that our work is about, or that we try to work with, beauty and the pleasurable. We do intensity, but not gloomy intensity. Also, on the art historical and critical side, we try to make works that do not begin with not being something else, but start instead with a kind of force that’s set off by putting the grids each of us works within in our own work together and seeing what happens from there. In our opinion it would be best not to see our work as a response to some other kind of work or to a given art historical narrative with which we may disagree. I will touch on that to the extent to which it is an issue, but it is a really minor aspect of the work. If our work’s a response to anything, it’s to the computer screen. The Impressionists had to eliminate underpainting so that the white of the canvas could help color to aspire to the brightness of the sky. Manet struggled to get the brightness of electric light into the “Bar at the Folies-Bergères.” We think that Mondrian’s white should be thought of in terms of daylight but also of the white of the movie projector, the brightest form that electric light had taken up until then. We work in the presence of a bright white Mondrian never saw, the white of the computer screen. That is to us what the sky was to the Impressionists, and early and later electric light to Manet and Mondrian.
“The Other Side of a Lie,” is our most recent painting. The title is from a quotation by Montaigne that we think has a relation to painting as we think of it. “If a lie, like truth, had only one face we could be on better terms, for certainty would be the reverse of what the liar said. But the reverse side of truth has a hundred thousand shapes and no defined limits.” The truth of painting is that what appears to us as being simple is, rather, an object that has a special relationship with itself and with its viewer that is not simple but rather inherently complex because of its relationship. We inevitably project our thinking into the work when interpreting it, and of course we see it as an interiority, a sensibility enacted as an exteriority, a material surface that embodies the invisible in its very visibility. To bring up interiority is to bring up the body, and interiority enclosed in a continuous surface. We will come back to our painting’s relation to that idea of the body later. But for now we are going to consider the surface of a painting, and how the truth of a painting’s surface is not simple, and how any lie about it must have many sides because the truth it misrepresents is complex.
Rebecca Norton: A critic has said of work like ours that one can see it as a simple “paint by numbers” operation. That is certainly a lie. If you wanted to think of our work like that, you then you would have to imagine each part of the painting being made out of a number of colors on top of one another in an order where that order was itself no way a matter of simple equation. That is the truth. I could now hand the microphone back to Jeremy who could tell you an elaborate lie, and demonstrate by beginning with the beginning of this painting how a relationship of parts form a logic progression of balance and imbalance. I’ve no doubt that my collaborator could attempt to do this, and may fool you into thinking what he would say could be verifiable. But because he can go on without getting tired, and because we’ve a lot to say here, I think that may be a poor way to go. Frankly, too, the absurdity of decomposing a strategy for thinking about how we “react” to one another’s brushstrokes will take us from color moves to thoughts that may seem truly out there, because, when you paint like we do, you tend to have messy thoughts. One cannot help it but have messy thoughts because the painting, at any time, is affecting how we respond to it, and this response in turn stimulates us, as bodies and as thinking subjects. Our paintings are elaborate but we can’t tell you much about how they come about. That is the truth, that is the complex other side of the lie that Jeremy is not going to tell you.
So instead of talking about logical progression we think we should discuss the complexity already proposed to us by the space of painting and the fact that color is always already active.
So, again, I think it best not to follow it through its logical progression and composition of parts as they came to interact with each other over time. Rather it’s my opinion that we should discuss how the space of painting and the activity of color already propose to us a relationship of complexity.
The operative lie for painting for a long time was the tradition that divided its space into foreground, middle ground, background, but there is one other way of thinking in—lying to oneself about painting space—the space that is never really there—at that is one that imagines painting space as a space in which the foreground, middle ground, background option is just one among many.
The white space of a painting has a tradition of being described as “foreground, middle-ground, background,” but there is also another way to think about painting’s space, one that allows for the foreground, middleground, background option to be just one consideration among many. We must understand that the white space of the stretched canvas allows for us to think of it as a surface and as space. Its surface can be thought of as metric, measurable. Its space, however, cannot be measured, thus it is non-metric. And this non-metric, non-situated non-space exists within the space of the stretched canvas, across the space of the canvas, and between the viewer and the canvas. The metric properties are formal restraints that say to us, hey there, look, a painting is an object made of these definable parts, but it’s also a space in which anything can happen. But everything that happens in the space can be thought of in respect to the object. When looking at a painting, we are engaged with a space at once continuous and discontinuous with the space we share with it and the enclosed space, which is ourselves.
Another lie of which our painting is the other side is the idea that color can be simple. Color is only simple when made to be a tool of imagery, making it do no more than decorate a message. As if a painting were a peg board or image post. And what is more is we know making color a secondary component of a painted field essentially organized by drawing can also quite simply fool us into thinking that painting’s truth is the message that we project onto it as what we see or what we know to be its author’s intentions. That’s a lie that can and has taken many forms. The truth that color is always an illusion, Jeremy would say that is what Plato could not stand; the truth about color is that it is not a truth. Its truth is that it can only be a lie. It covers up the truth of surfaces and replaces it with a lie, which detaches it from the surface that it has just obscured by making it into a space. Color fools us but not into thinking about a painting as what it is not, but into thinking with what it is. Color can only lie to the retina, always actively and sometimes subtly, and we know and we expand on that as much as possible.
We do so because we want to make complexity visible. By that we mean that we think we want to work with it as a perceptual reality or something, not as an idea of complexity that can be described but with complexity as the condition and the subject of what is happening when you look at one of our paintings. I’ve mentioned the term “messy thought” twice. We invented this term early on in our collaboration to describe the way we work and how we talk about it as we do. We think, even though beauty is not messy, that it is our idea about messy thought that makes it possible for us to work with the beautiful as a goal or theme. Be that as it may, and we’ll get back to beauty in a minute, it is our insistence on wanting to make complexity visible that causes us to want to make paintings in which there’s nothing that can’t go in there. Nothing, that is to say, is excluded in advance—anything can be added if it will help to release a force promised by what is already there. That is why our motto is “more is more.” “More” is the title of one of Jeremy’s paintings. He’s going to discuss it briefly in a minute, but it’s also an idea common to both of us, beginning if you like with the premise that two is more than one. For both of us the word is fantastically to the point because it’s got two meanings, one comparative and the other beyond the question of comparison. You can always have more than nothing, more is always more than something else. But more as a general thought or even goal reaches to the infinite. It can describe the latest stage in any development, chain of events, or evolution. So “more” is at once the limited and the comparative, and the infinite as a potential offered by the idea of time itself, in a single concept. This is a pretty good guide to what our thinking about complexity involves, we think.
Jeremy and I, in our own practices aside from Awkward x 2, have made much use of this truth about painting’s white ground, its painted field, and the space of painting. By the summer of 2010, we noticed how our general interests were similar, enough so that we began to have thoughts about how we could work with one another to produce a painting that would become more than a production of our singular selves. We decided to start with a small stretcher that was already in Jeremy’s studio, and on which he had drawn a grid. I added my grid to it in order to further complicate it. But before saying anymore about how we work collaboratively, we think we should say a couple of words each about the works we make on our own.
This is a painting of mine. Its dimensions are 70 by 26 3/4 by 3 inches and I just made it recently. I use a grid called the affine grid, which I began working with in the fall of 2009 for various reasons. One of them had to do with composing color, and the affine provides a kind of space, which has worked well with where color was leading me.
This space that the affine helps to make gives me a way of working as a result of which I have a sense from the start of a certain kind of relationship to the obvious—the structure and size of the canvas. The affine lets me find a starting point, anywhere. This is what I mean when I say the space of painting has always been available for making images other than the space of Cartesian perspective. I decided, as I developed these paintings, to try to be attuned to what I would describe as the natural laws of how we see what is occurring on the two-dimensional surface of the canvas, which includes that which is perceived as imperceptible, as occurring but in that escaping my ability to directly engage it. I know it’s there but I know it’s there as something with which I can’t engage. Both of us take it for granted that what we think about painting and especially what we think about the implications of collaboration commit us to being driven by intuition. Intuition is rather like being led by the logic of what is already there. Being in tune implies that one’s intuition is being guided by what one is being exposed to.
The affine grid not only maps a space for composing color, but, because of the logic of its structure, produces a movement that has no center. The starting point disappears, the graph moves through displaced points, losing its origin as it expands. It moves one in and around, shifting with and away from one to the other and from there to others, but not from or back to an origin one can determine. Somehow this underscores for me a thought that Jeremy and I share, which is that in principle, any painting can begin anywhere, on the canvas surface, or anywhere in the artist’s thoughts.
This painting, which is called “When Riding,” is my newest work. Movement in this painting has a lot to do with the fact that I enjoy riding on the back. I spent a large part of my summer enjoying the feeling of the road while riding on the back of my friends ktl motorcycle. The turbulence, the thrill, the unexpected, the grip of one’s body as the bike moves towards an accelerated speed, dipping between cars in traffic, feeling like the world is moving slower because one is moving faster—all these thoughts and what spawned from them were on my mind as I was in the studio, anticipating and hoping that, at some point, the painting would become enlivened and yield to me an expression of such an experience.
One gets really sensitive to circumstances when working with them and soon comes to find out that this is what it means to work with painting as a complex space. The question of how to work is not a question about struggle, nor about being clever and finding craftier ways of doing something. In being not clever it points to the knowledge of its author’s history of painting. I don’t want to make paintings about my mastering of the history of painting.
I like to think that I am not trying to make the painting do what I want it to, not forcing it to be something else, but rather letting it be more of what it already is. And that has everything to do with wanting to begin anywhere, and with the feeling of being exposed to the world while on the seat of a bike while moving fast, because being on the back of a bike means that you are not in a place but are totally open to what is already there, and metaphorically speaking that is the position from which I want to paint anywhere in motion.
In “The Other side of a Lie,” my affines work with the squares of Jeremy’s grid to create a confusion neither of us could make by ourselves. In our collaborative paintings the asymmetry of my affines contrast with the symmetry and balance of Jeremy’s squares as well as with the rectilinear shape of the canvas. So their usual tension with the rectilinearly of the canvas is doubled, perhaps intensifying their forcefulness.
But what I want to introduce here is the connection I make between the affine and the face. Jeremy will say later that paintings are a face with a skeleton. But for now, bear with me, for a minute, while I get a bit technical because it’s important to spell out for you how I came to think of the faces in connection with my affines. Let’s go about this through topology, a modern branch of geometry concerned with properties that do not change when forms lose their metric and projective properties because of continuous transformations. Affine transformations preserve collinearity and parallelism, but not areas or the width of angels because the vector is a relationship that is always opening and closing. So the invariant is the relationship. A vector is a pair of lines that ultimately converge. Whether the human perception recognizes invariants according to mathematical specifiable rules is a matter of debate, but some early lines of study seem to suggest that they are. If so then we perhaps get from that some further understanding of how and why geometry has been so basic throughout the history of painting when it comes to presenting the way we perceive the world. The way this idea of the invariant works for me, like a face, is an obvious one. I can make any expression, and you will always see that it’s my face. That is the relation between the affine and all the transformations it makes possible.
Gilbert-Rolfe: Having Rebecca show you a painting of hers and discuss it makes it easy for me to bring up here how the collaboration got started, because you’ve just heard how her own thinking works. This is the painting of mine she mentioned a few minutes ago. It’s a little bit less than seven feet high and little more than nine feet longand as you can see it has lots of differences in it. The blue angled sort of circular movement in the right middle of the painting is, by the way, an early example of Rebecca Norton’s influence on Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe. You can see from this what I mean by the word “more” and how by complicated, I, like Rebecca, mean something that is explicitly complicated. And if it is visually complicated that means it takes you through a range of sensations that almost become thoughts while you’re looking at it, and it also means that there’s so much there that you have to look at it for a while and let it unfold, rather than being too quick to make connections and sink into interpretation or anything like that.
This painting took a year to make and Rebecca worked on it with me and my permanent assistant, Julika Lackner, during the last few months. She was recently out of school and needed some work, but it was also to the point that by the time she finished school I was learning as much from her about what the space of painting can do as she from me. So I was already crazy about her work and having her in the studio already made it easy for us to get started once she’d agreed to try a collaboration. That seemed interesting to me for the same reason, thankfully, that it did to her. She has already made the point that two is potentially more complicated than one, and therefore capable of a complication that one might not achieve. When we started I think we were both more aware of, but not primarily interested in, the large critical questions that our collaboration might raise. For example, the distinction originally made by Sylvère Lotringer between the two types of postmodernist artists we actually have: those who were born during modernism and have had to work their way through it towards the postmodern, and those who were simply born after modernism and into a postmodernism that had already begun. I belong to the first category and Rebecca to the second, obviously, and there were other questions having to do with generation and gender that must be of interest in regard to how Awkward x 2 is a collective act, all of which we find especially exciting (or maybe only exciting) to the extent that Awkward allows for something a step closer to anonymity than working by oneself can. One’s signature disappears into the near anonymity of the two, its origin displaced and reordered, neither directly nor indirectly available but, instead, both.
We are able to collaborate because both of us use a basically impersonal technique and style, and once we started all the questions of an art historical or anthropological sort that I just mentioned faded very quickly in the face of what working together is like. Much more like two musicians than two art historical perspectives, and especially in regard to color, much more a matter—usually—of being on the same page than of experiencing the painting as a combination of points of view. In fact we never discuss it in those terms and I don’t think we experience it that way either. Our sense of color is where we complement as much as complicate one another’s approach. It’s very similar but working together gives both of us much greater range. That much we can see ourselves.
We make these works at the same time as far as possible, and the times I enjoy most are the moments where I respond to something she’s just done, but as soon as I look up Rebecca’s changed that to which I just responded, so my response is there but what caused it has become something else. You can’t do that working alone. This painting, which is the first one we made together, is full of moments like that. At other times one can be shocked in exactly the same way because of not being able to work at the same time. We both teach and for half the year Rebecca was teaching in Indiana, so during that time we had to ship things back and forth, and that freshened things up with quite dramatic surprises in each direction. And, similarly, as it is we can by no means be in the studio at the same time as often as would be required to get these works done in less than five years or something, so one can come in to find quite a shock sitting on the wall given what that was like earlier in the day, before one’s collaborator came in for a few hours while one taught and made several unbelievably dramatic changes, the reasons for which may not be immediately apparent. The question of generational perspective almost never comes up as either a guide to what to actually do, or as an explanation of what we’ve just done. We ourselves can’t tell who did what and it’s great, sometimes funny.
We’ll both say more about movement in our painting, which is of course informed and complicated by the movements and experiences of two bodies separated from one another by age and so forth, and about light and the idea of the body as Deleuze’s idea, anything that is a completeness made out of multiple forces is a body, whether it be the body, a language, or a painting, or a practice of which painting is a part. We shall end by talking about how we want to engage the entirety of the inside and the outside as experience and idea by way of our articulation of the possibility provided by the surface, considered as a skin, that can also only be thought of as what it is not, a space. But first we want to say something about those art historical concerns that aren’t on our mind when we work to any great extent, if they’re there at all.
This is a chocolate box we have designed, the image on the top being cropped from a painting we’re going to show you at the end of the lecture. It came about because we work with the involuntary, and it is the only thing we’ve done that was a response to the art historical context in which we find painting, and especially the kind of painting we do, placed today.
Rebecca’s going to take you through the genesis of this item, which we were going to launch in Louisville a couple of months ago. The chocolate person we were working with didn’t work out at the last minute, unfortunately, so we’ll be launching now as soon as we’ve got someone else with whom to work. We’re close to doing so. But before she starts, and the story has to do with tacos at a Los Angeles opening and coffee in a very up market coffee shop in Zurich, I’ll just mention the part that has to do with Duchamp and not only art history but generational difference. For me, Duchamp’s attack on retinal painting and its use in the service of Minimalism and its followers, Andy and his followers, and the subsequent followers and synthesizers of both followings, etc., all with a view to confirming the death of painting on which their own work and ideas about art depend, has been the dominant problem with contemporary art history through which I have worked since I began to exhibit in 1970. For Rebecca, it’s much more of a silly idea than the biggest drag in recent art history. I’ll note on that point that one of the great delights that come with working with her has to do with her being a person who is not in the least surprised that the two should be the same thing. It is another confirmation that we are on the same page. With that said, she’ll tell you how we made this, including how it came to have a brass stand, andwhy we think it informative about how we think about sensation, and about the work as an accumulation of active rather than negative—positive rather than critical, which for us means frivolous rather than serious, or something close to it—and as also being about delay, and every stage being another stage, not a repetition of an earlier one, and immediacy as a final surrender to the involuntary—you can’t help but taste what you put in your mouth yourself. As you’ll also see, the chocolate box and its stand and its not yet realized contents not only in part begin, but also lead to, all we have to say about Duchamp and the retinal, it will be on the screen.
As completely frivolous as we can make them, they are the only critical statements we shall ever make, our response to a definition of seriousness we don’t take seriously. And I’ll note this, too: Immediately we got going on the thing itself we stopped caring about the things that got it started altogether.
Norton: Jeremy and I sometimes take time off to see what is happening around town. On one occasion, last fall, we made a stop at some galleries off Wilshire Boulevard, near museum plaza in Los Angeles, to see what new work had just gone up for the night’s openings. As we were walking toward the intended gallery of our immediate interest, I noticed the usual suspect items for refreshments—a taco stand and beer—the label on the beer just stating the obvious in banal flat bold color—BEER, so basically at this opening, you had no choice but beer or taco— almost everyone can agree on beer and taco, but what about those who delight in having choices? Those who like difference and fun, pretty looking hors d’oeuvres? And what if I didn’t like beer and tacos? I had no other option but agree to it, why? Because it appeals to most of the general audience? What did this say about the work I was about to see? Was it too gonna be like another boring basic bottle of beer, and a taco—was it going to rock my taste and senses or feed me that same certainty of general agreeableness?
So I said, let’s do chocolates. Only, not just a few, but tons of them all of a different taste. And then each morsel as attractive as the next, if not more. No two people get the same bite. No two people share the same taste. No two people have the same experience. But each piece would be so unbelievably delicious, so immediately overwhelming the senses that it would not be so much the idea of chocolates, as what happens when we eat them.
So there it was, and Jeremy and I laughed, and decided to do something with chocolate.
Not but a few months later, while in Louisville. Kentucky, working on our painting for New York, Jeremy had at some point got it in his head to take the chocolates idea further. I came early in the morning to the studio to see him at the kitchen counter, overindulging in his feverishly new, mad thought. He handed me two small napkins on which he had made a sketch of what he was contemplating in his head, while addressing the topic at hand beginning with an anecdote about his trip to Switzerland, an expensive cup of coffee, and a tiny morsel of candy.
His dealer took him to a place in Zurich when he had a show there last summer, where a cup of coffee costs something like a week’s income for a medium-size Indian village. When they brought him his cup of coffee, they attached a clip made of silver to the saucer of his cup and on the top of the clip was a tiny square surface on which they placed a perfectly matched square of perfect Swiss chocolate.
We decided a chocolate box should be made and it should fit perfectly on an extravagant stand.
I took into consideration a number of things when constructing the box—its looks, its measurements, and the way a person would get from the outside to the inside of the box.
My inspiration for the box came from an essay I read by Trinh Minh-ha on a Barthes book about Japan, Empire of Signs: “A Japanese box does not function as a temporary accessory to the object it contains; as envelope it is itself an object. Although its value is related to what it conceals, “that very thing which it encloses and signifies is postponed for a very long time.” Like a rigorously arranged bouquet, which invites the perceiver to follow what the creative hand has traced, thus frustrating the simple decoding of a symbolic message, “the package is a thought.”
So I set out to make a box that would seek some of this, be a set of navigations through it as well as about it as a container and a set of surfaces. It should continually open, just as the chocolates inside our mouths open up a world of flavor. A bite of chocolate can lead us through moments of suspension—as in anticipation for what comes next, in which one’s focus is not immediately the idea of the object as much as it is about the object becoming an idea about itself through our interaction with it. So too, should be the ways of a box which works with its basic purpose, as a container and design, supporting a world of sensations in it, as much as being something which is more than an item that comes not at you directly, but through a whole host of relationships. The box contains lists of thoughts about the thing which it is.
We decided to use a cropped image from Awkward x 2: “Painting for New York” because we were working on that painting while discussing the box of chocolates. It seemed like that was the obvious next step. The stand, we thought, should also have a relationship to the box, and its height should be the one best for advertising the chocolates in a shop.
In the end, we made a sexy stand for a sexy object for sexy candies. And by sexy I mean more what Santayana says about a feeling of love and compassion that, due to our sexual organs being remotely stirred, gives to our contemplation that glow and sentimental side of beauty, without which we would understand beauty in terms of the perceptive and mathematical rather than the aesthetic.
“The attraction of sex could not become efficient unless the senses were first attracted. The eye must be fascinated and the ears charmed by the object which nature intends should be pursued. The attention is fixed upon a well-defined object and all the effects it produces in the mind are easily regarded as powers or qualities in that object. But these effects here are powerful and profound. The soul is stirred in its depths. Its hidden treasures are brought to the surface of consciousness…if the stimulus does not appear as a definite image, [as in a singular object of which we can say to be in love], the values evoked are dispersed all over the world, and we are said to have become lovers of nature and to have discovered the beauty and meaning of things.”
This is quite a profound statement to bring up in relation to our object and stand. But there is a tease that happens between a box of chocolates, whose unwrapping is like removing a garter off a leg and undressing the layers, sensually engaged by them all and what is to be found within them, and a stand, whose length and height and weight is like that of a beauty queen’s leg, but which, as we walk around it, never submits to being a static object, but instead continually reveals the intricacies and relationships that make its shape and materials into an aesthetic of more than perception and clever design.
And when you get into our box, and open the last layer, you reveal the chocolates and you also get to read Statement for 60 seconds.
Gilbert-Rolfe: We said at the beginning that we think the white light of the computer screen is important to us, and should like to return to that here and talk for a minute about our work’s relationship to contemporary technology. This painting is called “Exit Velocity Faster than the Speed of Light,” and we got the title from something I heard on NPR where it was said that that is what a black hole would have to be, a phenomenon in which light moved faster than the fastest thing we know and that’s why we can’t see it.
Our paintings draw something from the relationship between immediacy and the instantaneous that electricity and the electric signal have put in all our minds. Lyotard talked about it first in regard to satellite transmission and the sublime in Barnett Newman; Rex Butler takes me to task over my use of it in an essay about my work; the point is that they are closer to one another than they ever were before in the age of telecommunication. Messages move so fast that one cannot think of the time they take except as something too fast to be measured by human perception, which is also the case when something is immediately present to one’s perception. What is present is at once present and a movement, which must have a beginning and an end which is by definition not present now because it is a movement. Or what is present is movement as such, everything already and always moving even when still, which is the case with any living being as opposed to any corpse. To see that a person or an animal or a plant is alive is to perceive movement that one cannot perceive, the imperceptible but easily perceived signs of vitality that separate people from the chairs on which they sit—about which Rebecca has already remarked.
Light, and especially the idea of something faster than light, of expansiveness as a property of a body made up of forces, of lightness as a condition of the beautiful because the frivolous can’t be weighted, runs through everything we do and think with. We think the gouaches we make, because they’re on translucent mylar and because gouache is a more fragile material than oil paint, give us a kind of lightness with which to work that isn’t quite what we have in the oil paintings. Here are four of the works on mylar we’ve made over the past year.
The cartoon is a kind of eyecandy and it’s also pretty complicated in its own way. And we really like cartoons. And Rebecca has a couple of things to say about this one in that respect.
Norton: I want to say something about this cartoon that actually has to do with what Jeremy and I have decided to call the cell phone test. It started when we were working on “Exit Velocity Faster than the Speed of Light.” We’d take a picture of the painting at the end of the day and see what it looked like on the screen. In other words, how well did it do regarding intensity when subjected to the intense white light of the computer screen, however compressed.
Jeremy has already mentioned how we are interested in that which moves faster than the naked eye can perceive. The brightness of the white screen of the computer, or the cell phone, is an invariant. To say that a form has been translated into a vector image means, in the language of the computer screen, that it will not lose its intensity no matter what size it is presented at. A cartoon on the big screen is just as bright, the images just as clear, as those that may appear when watching the same drama unfold on an iPhone app. So when we look at our works on the cell phone screen, we look at them in the context of an invariant which they share with other images that can appear on that screen and in the knowledge that we are looking at accurate color which has survived a change of scale. In our paintings, of course, change of scale does change the way in which a color is read in relationship to its invariant. And that is because a third element has been introduced, the viewer’s body. But I said I was going to talk about cartoons, and I am. The white screen is already moving very fast, it is an electric signal, it is itself moving so fast that the naked eye cannot perceive it. It is a natural home for the colored cartoon in which figures without depth retain their color regardless of where they are in the space. And there is a thought I want to combine with that which has a lot to do with our paintings. Cartoons always have a plot that we know from the beginning and they always surprise us. You can see the structure of our paintings from the start. It’s full of surprises.
Think about the classic cartoon from Warner Brothers that involves a coyote and a roadrunner. We kind of already know what is going to happen, but what we find humorous is how something happens. We know the basic premise of each episode—the coyote wants to destroy the roadrunner. (His desire to do so not only being his desire to eat the roadrunner, but to trap him because he always seems to be getting away.) Each episode itself consists of many different attempts of Wile E. trying to get his prey—wild clever traps using explosives, trains, poison, etc. As soon as the roadrunner enters the screen, we can anticipate that he will soon be off again and out of Wile E.’s grasp, immediately followed by the coyote reacting in such a way so as to become the victim of his own ploy. Because he never succeeds, we always get a shot at one more laugh, and that’s usually because the never-ending endings result in the coyote in a ridiculous situation in a desert, disappearing into a clouded explosion, being railed by a suddenly there train, or hitting his head on an over cliff which breaks and falls on the perpetrator … the clever animal in a landscape that for him has become even more complicated due to his relationship with available technology.
A Wile E. coyote in smoke could just as easily be another way of thinking about technology’s relationship to the landscape. The burst of an Acme bomb that throws into the air a film of soot and dirt seems a bit similar to the sight of smoke emitted from a train blazing through the American landscape, a popular image recalled when thinking about the history of painting and a notable painter of the industrial age, Turner. And like Turner, instead of simply thinking about depicting technology, we’d rather move around in a language of chaos and play that, like him, we can derive in large part from the desire to embody, in the painting, our experience of the technological light that governs the period in which we live.
So on the one hand the cartoon, which lives happily in the technological light which is the intense invariant that provides a constant challenge to painting nowadays, and on the other, Turner, who re-embodied the industrially inflected natural light of his time, in which he also lived happily, in quite another way. Both are equally inspiring to us, both depend on light if not lightness, and on the involuntary in the face of the entirely predictable and in Turner’s case, the hypothetically, and actually, but certainly not visibly, all there at once.
Gilbert-Rolfe: As Rebecca said earlier, we take it for granted that intuition is what makes the work, and the collective subjectivity that is Awkward x 2 is a collaboration between two intuitions. To that I’ll add that we pay attention to what neuroscience is saying about intuition and related matters, but we think that theories that relate beauty to the pre-cognitive do not usually seem to address what concerns us. This is because they usually go to a question about organization of some sort, to the order that underlies the order of which we’re conscious. We’re not sure that such accounts, very popular in the design fields for the obvious reason that design is about organization, can deal with what interests us because our concerns are much more related to the immediate cheap thrill, beauty as what it actually is, perfection as that which is at once powerless and an overwhelming force, always taking attention away from what it’s only supposed to decorate, on its own a force that operates entirely through its capacity to invite attention. With regard to another thing that’s come up lately in neuroscience, though, before I move on, we were totally jazzed by the recent discovery that the place in the brain that registers a thing as a visual image or a smell or a sound is the same place that registers the name for it. This is of course quite a complication for phenomenology, but it is also another origin for our idea of messy thought. If the thing and the name we give to it live in the same part of the brain it is very hard indeed to know whether one is seeing a thing or a concept.
The painting on the screen is “Painting for New York,” the second painting we made. The one from which the chocolate box image is derived. The distance from the point below Rebecca’s mouth to her knees is the source of the height and the same coordinates on my body provide the width. Working with measurements derived from our bodies helps us to generally get going on works which are about the body and how one thinks with it in more than one way. A painting can’t be an object because it communicates, and we communicate not with objects but with signs, so to the extent that it is a sign it is not an object. Our paintings are held together and pulled around by sensations, expansiveness being one that concerns us a lot, that have nothing to do with things but everything to do with movement in a space that is uncertain because it is the surface of an object and a surface in itself, but surfaces don’t have depth and that is what one actually can’t help but see. The surface of a painting is in that respect as much like the inside of a body as its skin. One experiences the inside of one’s body only as a depth one doesn’t experience as measurable, even though in the body’s case we know it to be so.
As you may have gathered, a lot of our thinking about what we’re doing is influenced by Deleuze. For Deleuze, a body is any complete entity made up of a multiplicity of forces and that’s largely where we got our idea of the body. Any painting is a bundle of sensations, totalities we never experience as a totality but that we know are all there. Here I’ll mention Jean-Luc Nancy as well as Deleuze, because it’s Nancy who talks about how the senses collapse the singular and the plural automatically; what is sensed by the senses is always another body, a plurality, and the person doing the sensing does not, of course, have any sense of her body as anything but a plurality of senses, each bringing themselves to bear on what is doing the sensing at a particular time. So not just as an entity largely unavailable to the senses except as an epidermis, much of which cannot be viewed directly, that conceals an interior, but as an entity which is in that a mass of forces rather than a form. Clearly here too what is true of the lived body is true of our paintings if not of paintings as such. Nothing is standing still, everything is moving in time and not really definable except as movement. If I had the time to make a joke about it, I’d talk about our indebtedness to Bergson here. Rebecca’s description of the Road Runner gouache goes to what is true of our work generally, I think, because the cartoon is always moving the eye around in a way that could also be described as keeping the eye going. (And when it responds to paintings the eye never acts as a lens on a column but rather sets off a movement that runs through the whole body, and even that suggests a pause between seeing and responding which is clearly not quite right, watch the postures taken by people in museums.)
As Rebecca’s also said, our paintings are so varied, in terms of shapes and colors, because we throw everything at getting something there that does something we haven’t seen before. Let me link that to our concern with the invisible, by which we mean that complexity is an idea and therefore invisible, sensations are invisible and so is everything covered by the words depth as a sensation rather than an idea and also by the idea of an inside that you know is there and, as we have said, of movements you know to be happening but cannot actually perceive. That is what we mean when we say that our paintings are, not unlike most paintings surely but it’s not usually put like this, meant to bring into view what is largely invisible, sensations which maybe also are simultaneously registered as concepts but this thought is hard for us to grasp. Our thinking is a messy affair, our paintings are done when they seem to us to be ones in which the viewer becomes involuntarily involved in complexity. Involuntarily involved, because it’s an aesthetic and not a discursive involvement—seduction rather than production, not the language of contracts but the language of desire. Involved, then, in the sense of being enmeshed, prettily, without pathos, and with a lot of uncontrollable speed as well as indescribable stillness, which is at the heart of what we see when we see both a painting and a face that is not moving but nonetheless filled with life. Moreover, we try to present or work with complexity as an active field that can’t be taken in all at once because it unfolds in time, but at the same time is about being made of movements that are often going very fast. The idea of what’s going too fast to see as something the visual has to invoke seems important to us.
With that in mind we’ll conclude our talk with a note about the body that is also a note about the difference between color and drawing, and which summarizes our general thinking about what we’re doing.
We explore the world through our fingers but take it in, involuntarily, through the surface of our body. I pick something up and describe it to myself by turning it over and over in my hand feeling the surfaces and the outline. That’s different from feeling the wind in my face, in the first place the fingers can’t grasp it, in the second I can’t do anything but receive it. We think of that as possibly analogous to the relationship between drawing and color. Color is ungraspable because it is space rather than form, and drawing is all about directing through demarcating and dividing. Drawing is what may be read as structure describable as form rather than movement, color is a formless movement one cannot help but see conjure up a space that isn’t there, disrupting as much as being contained by the drawn structure in which it occurs.
We live in the world as at once interiorities we cannot describe and exteriorities we never see as a whole. We know our skin encloses us, we can’t describe what it contains except as a depth we don’t actually experience literally—to refer to a remark I just made, a stomach ache does not locate itself in our minds as being a precise number of centimeters from the nearest external point—and we never see ourselves from most perspectives except in photographic images. Nearly everything we know to be true about what we physically are is hidden from us at all times. So that’s one thing. Another is that what separates the inside from the outside is the skin, the epidermal layer that senses the world and which we know to be what we can’t totally control—the grimace, or the sudden change of posture caused by, for instance, encountering an object of desire. Behind the skin are the organs we never see and the image of thinking which we call the mind and with which, circuitously, we think we think. We look into people’s faces as much as at them. We understand that their eyes are where they meet the outside we share at that moment, but also that they are looking at our eyes at that moment too, hypothetically reaching from one interior to another within a common exteriority. What is inside is also behind. A painting takes place, says Mondrian, not behind the picture plane but in front of it and around it. We think so but we think too that it does so in a way generated by or at least in tension with the idea that what is inside is at the same moment behind. To look at one of our paintings is as much to look into it as to respond to what comes forth from it. A painting is a body which is only a face, a surface that contains expansiveness but only looks forward and has no need of physical volume since it has an involuntary illusion that serves it much better. A body which is only a face and a skeleton, if it’s a stretched canvas. A skin with a developed epidermis, produced by layering in response to a problematic developed entirely on its own surface, a surface the product of a problematic inherently about space as both there and not there. That is the sense in which we think our working with the senses brings us close to a kind of painting that can be continuous with the viewer conceived as a body that isn’t just a set of fingers.
JEREMY GILBERT-ROLFE is a painter who also writes about art who has lived in America since 1968 and since 1980 in California, having moved there to teach first at Cal Arts and subsequently at Art Center.Rebecca Norton
REBECCA NORTON is a painter whose work has been shown in Louisville and Los Angeles since 2009. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.