What do you do? What sort of things do you make? Or select?
I engage with materials in a collaborative and emergent way to make art. I use a combination of traditional art-making materials, unconventional materials and objects, as well as the body through movement as co-creator. I am drawn to materials that are malleable, adaptable, have transformative qualities and, or, capture my attention in relation to a current feeling or inquiry. Materials are typically readily available and often reused such as cotton thread; fabric, paper; canvas; and repurposed elements from other projects, in combination with paint, glue and other mediums. There is usually a hero material that I explore in the process. Individual art-pieces emerge from playful encounters and these typically contribute to a larger cohesive work or works as the project progresses. The sort of ‘things’ that emerge at the end of an art-making project are abstract mixed media works or collages. At the moment these artworks sit somewhere between painting and relief sculpture but I am very open to following the lead of the materials into other art areas.
To further explain my emergent and collaborative art-making process: by emergent I mean that the work is not pre-planned, the outcome is not predetermined. John Holland in his book EMERGENCE From Chaos to Order , describes a complex, adaptive, emergent system. It is the ‘organic and dynamic’ interplay that occurs within an ‘emergent system’ that I am relating to, in the art-making process. The ongoing potency of this interplay informs the direction of a creative project as works unfold in a improvisational way, with one creation leading to the next, interrelating and co-existing. By collaborative I refer to a perspective on materiality in art put forward by practice-based researcher Barbara Bolt In the introduction to Carnal Knowledge: Towards a new materialism through the arts , that positions the ‘matter’ of things as vital to the art making process where matter is given agency as a ‘co-responsible element’. In relation to my own art-making practice ‘matter’ includes materials that I gather and use in the process as well as the matter of my body through movement as I interact and move with these materials, and of course my humanness which brings emotions into the frame (emotion being the experience of energy moving through the matter of the body). Together we are responsible for the emergence of ‘art’ so in this sense, I engage with materials in a collaborative and emergent way.
These are the sort of things I currently do and make and this may change. I feel as though what I am doing now, is contributing to a more comprehensive understanding of my practice as an artist. The learning I am taking from my discoveries now, inform how I approach and produce work in the next phase. This is a larger exploration of practice and praxis, and I am at the very early stages.
What is it you’ve been trying to do to make the work relevant in relation to ideas, cultural circumstances or contemporary issues?
I’m trying to language what I’m doing in the studio, in an articulate and relevant way — I’m still finding my voice in relation to the artworld. To help me in this I have been slowing down and trying to ground what I am doing in existing contexts, such as 1) a contemporary art context; through a lens of new materialism embracing the agency of materials in the creative process, 2) personal and social contexts; regarding ideas, themes, my relationships with materials and why I am drawn to them, and how this is translated into a dialogue between myself and an audience, 3) cultural contexts; as a maker in New Zealand and my relationship with the land and the environment, and how my practice is influenced by the current national and global climate, and 4) gender; I am a woman, mother, there are references to womanhood – fertility, growth, emergence, that exist in my practice.
I have been developing an artist’s integrity that is in service to the planet, trying to work sustainably and ethically. I try to be attuned to my surroundings, to be conscious of the spiritual, physical and mental well-being of all inhabitants in the space and spaces that I travel through — trying to tread carefully with my size 10 footprint. I have also been researching and connecting with the histories of the land that I live and work from.
I am acutely aware of COVID-19’s rapid movement through our global body and bodies. I am conscious that this will be contributing to my work in ways that are known and not yet known but that paying attention is vital and relevant right now. From a practical perspective this ‘event’ puts limits on how and what we produce as artists and, how and where art will be viewed, and this has generated deeper reflection on my creative output. The adaptive and responsive nature of my practice is an advantage while working in unstable conditions. As my work has a tactile quality and invites up close curiosity, how I exhibit the work in a virtual space becomes an important consideration.
How do you make decisions during the course of your work? How and why do you select the materials, techniques, themes that you do?
The art-making process evolves through a sort of relational materiality, an authentic relationship of co-discovery. In a recent collection of edited essays on approaches to Materiality , Petra Lange-Bernt introduces the notion that materials “become wilful actors and agents within artistic processes” (18). In my studio I engage with materials like companions, other bodies like my own that carry and hold emotions, and that are by nature transformative. The way that I relate with materials holds the potency of an archaeological dig as I move in close, treating emerging artworks like artefacts that have been re-discovered – brushing away physical debris (this may be paint pigment or glue residue from a previous process) much like an archaeologist uncovering a hidden truth. There is an embodied element to my practice that allows me to be in the process in a different way: through movement, presence and attunement. This occurs throughout an art-making project. During the pre-research and data collection phase there is a process of getting to know the materials by moving with them and I continue to use movement as part of an ongoing creative conversation with the emergent work; sometimes responding to it through gesture, and sometimes selecting part of a work and moving it as if it were a body part, through an arm motion for example. This is helpful in the decision-making process as it invites another perspective on the work. The emerging ‘thing’ organises and reorganises itself until there is a feeling or sense of ‘belonging’ for the artwork – an emergence as such. If an area is altered, either through a layering or removal of medium or material, any change leaves an imprint or trace and this becomes part of the story of the image, remnants of the sticky conversation.
A project may stem from an attraction and interest in a particular material or it will grow from an underlying feeling-state, something that I am curious to know more about. In the studio, I gather materials that are congruent with what I’m feeling. There is a creative conversation that happens as a material’s various states of: ease, flow, tension, transformation manifest such as glue attaching to cotton to discover tension, paint and water creating an unpredictable soaking, or spilling, running or chasing effect. Meaning and story also typically emerge as part of the process. There is a sense of ‘coming into being’ or sense of belonging for the artwork in this tangible world when it is finished. A work is complete when it feels like it has arrived with some sense of purpose or completeness.
Why have you created the work you exhibited at seminar and what is its history?
The work created at seminar was the outcome of an exploration into the concept of ’emergence’ as described by Jan Verwoert in his article Emergence: On the Painting of Tomma Abts . In Verwoert’s article ‘emergence’ alludes to the complex relationship between ‘reason, process and result’ and the interaction of ‘production and reception’. This concept replaces intuition and intention with reason, this reason being the ’emergence’ of an artwork, as it comes into being. Time is not a restriction and outcomes are unplanned and unknown at the commencement of the process.
I wanted to set myself a project over Summer that invited materials to create parameters to work in, without predetermined outcomes. I found this concept and approach to art-making really freeing as it allowed me to fully engage in the art-making process, and to participate in a spontaneous way until ‘the thing appeared as what it was’.
What are you trying to say in the work? What are you valuing in the work?
In the work I exhibited, I was saying that this work exists in a context for making, in relation to the concept of emergence, as described by Jan Verwoert. It is a concept that I felt might align with my own approach to making, one that I did not know in practice until I engaged in the project. I embrace emergence as a system for making, allowing something that is organic and dynamic to evolve. It is improvisational and honours the potency of the materials in collaboration. I do appreciate the stage of ‘interaction of production and reception’ that Verwoert describes, as it relates directly to how the works might be received, without interfering with their emergence in the making process.
What I’m valuing in my current work is the materiality experienced in the act of making and also the materiality in the resulting artworks. I’m valuing the connection with materials especially – the ‘wet contact’ as Lisa Samuels describes in her essay Membranism, Wet Gaps, Archipelago Poetics , navigating the gaps, the “oceans of uncertainty, [and] change” (160). There is messiness and wetness in this space. The artwork behaves almost like a transitional object, it can tolerate the weight of thick wet water and clotted paint, and it can also handle lightness and play. In Petra Lange-Bernt’s, edited essays on Materiality, she talks about ‘making materials laugh’ in the art-making process, and it is this kind of relational connection with materials in my practice that I value.
How is the way you are saying it, with the materials, techniques and themes, the best for the idea you want to present?
I embody a respectful curiosity with materials, and engage with them as if they were an extension of my body, responding and relating together in an authentic way. Materials contribute to, and nourish the process and the outcome. They are chosen specifically for a project and so If the materials don’t feel right, don’t contribute to the sense of aliveness in the process I’ll stop using them or will use them in a different way. I may also have a real urgency in my body to work with a particular material such as wire and welding, and so this choice of material will likely activate the idea rather than following an idea.
How does your current work relate to your previous work?
I’m defining my current work as that undertaken during this MFA. Previous work is for this purpose, the work I exhibited in February. My current work is very conscious of where it sits contextually as was my previous work. The work I exhibited in February, highlighted for me the value of working in a way that is open and responsive to materiality in the process. The materials I am using are similar. I have continued to use thread as a primary material, enjoying its flexible; receptive; adaptable qualities, and use water to induce fluidity with paint pigment. I have been using a variety of grounds including canvas and watercolour paper and am finding new ways for materials to cohabitate and speak to each other. I have introduced glue; as a binder, gloss, and also use it as a skin-like layer when it’s dry. Although I continue to restrict the materials I use, I am really enjoying stretching the capabilities of media, using them in new and different ways.
What influences your work? What are your sources or inspirations?
I’m influenced by everything that is happening inside me and around me. As a kinaesthetic person who needs to feels things in order to understand them, my feelers are always out. The experiences held in my body become a source and inspiration for future work.
I’m hugely influenced by nature – its life cycles mirror our own human cyclic patterns, its emergent system full of matter, adaptions and lively conversation. Ecologist and writer David Abram in his book Becoming Animal , talks about a philosophy of ecology and presence that encourages a sense of being in synch with the world – through sensory presence and human entanglement with nature. In my practice I try to become part of a space or environment to feel its rhythm. Recently I have been drawn into my backyard, moving with this space’s growth – using a camera and canvas as companions I document my experience by recording the ‘breath’ of plants by capturing their expanding and convulsing shadows on a responsive canvas. This experience feels intimate and sacred and is a reminder of the revitalising properties of nature and the energy that I draw from it, and this can be tapped into in future artmaking.
I’m influenced by spaces that I physically move through in my everyday life and the people that move through these spaces bringing with them different energies and stories. I’m interested in Henri Lefebvre’s perspective on space, discussed in his book The Production of Space, 1991 . He describes a complex social construction driven by relational tensions and the production of a space that “is its tomb as well as its cradle.”(34) I notice these paradoxes and opposites in my surroundings. Sometimes I stand still on the boundaries of spaces that don’t let me in, noticing what moves on the edges, under, over and between. Other spaces invite me in and I move in close. My body records the energy of these spaces as I move through, or ‘be’ at the edge. I am drawn to contrasting shapes and textures that randomly or intentionally cohabit a space. I am inspired by the potentiality of materials and the interaction of materials in these spaces, and this interplay is a source for my creations. There is a gathering phase that occurs in these sites that informs my practice: I take photos and videos of my experience, noticing textures, growth, erosion, elements in harmony and disharmony and document my response to these spaces through writing and prose and sometimes I make art onsite — these become inspirations for my work.
I’m also influenced by mind and body practices such as Tai Chi. This practice refers to the dance of opposites drawing the energy of the opposites through the centre in order to locate a state of balance. I apply this body practice in preparation for creating to bring myself into balance, as well as during the process as I tap into a feeling, or am physically moving with an element of an emerging work so as to better understand its meaning.
I’m curious about the relationship between materiality and maternity, the womb – my place of coming into being. Ko wai koe? (Whose water do you come from?). My mother’s womb being the first body of water and space that I moved in. Water represents and activates flow, I use the fluid properties of water in my art-making. From Taiarahi, which is the creek that runs along the base of my backyard to where it meets Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa (The Pacific Ocean), water is all around me. There is a stickiness to my current work, influenced by my response to the arrival of COVID-19 in our lives. It feels like there is glue in the water and this is effecting the flow. The glue attaches to the paper or ground and pulls parts of the surface up with it. To balance the stickiness, I am appreciating the maternal and comforting properties of cotton during this time of isolation, taking me back to childhood where thread was used to mend and keep things secure.
I am also very inspired by accidental alchemy, when matter collides in the art-room.
How does this work fit into a larger body of work or overarching project of ideas (if it does)?
I feel as though what I am doing now is contributing to a more comprehensive understanding of my developing practice as an artist, and establishing this practice would be my overarching project. The learning I am taking from my discoveries now, will inform how I approach and produce work in the next phase. Grounding my research in the interplay of matter and materials feels like a helpful anchor for the work right now.
How did your ideas change (if they did) to this point? Or, how are your ideas changing (if they are)?
My ideas are always being reshaped by my peers, colleagues, supervisors and my own changing and morphing perceptions. I allow the art to lead and in doing so find my way to ideas or concepts or movements. As I further ground my work in context, the more I see that speaks to me, and so my work seems to narrow in and then zoom out again — this seems to be a cyclical process as I find my way.
Has anyone done this kind of work in the past?
Regarding my relationship with materials and the canvas, and how this relationship can hold the potency of the time, I sit in awe of the post-war artists 1949-1962 who drew out the properties and human-like aspects of materials, creating analogies of skin and references to the body. These artists used unconventional materials in new ways, inviting the viewer into a story of materiality in action. In relation to my own work, I do this on a very intimate and small scale but would like to experiment more. Curator Paul Schimmel’s exhibition Destroy the picture: painting the void, 1949-1962 (2012) is an amazing record of this type of work in this era. There is some amazing video footage of Yves Klein creating his Fire Paintings (1961) at the following link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRb4qFCA5JA
The work of Alberti Burri (1915-1995) — The retrospective exhibition: The Trauma of Painting is also particularly intriguing, his works blurring the boundaries between painting and sculpture. https://www.guggenheim.org/exhibition/alberto-burri-the-trauma-of-painting
The soak-stained applications of American abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler speaks of a relationship with materiality in the creative process. Frankenthaler talks about being in relationship with the canvas and paint, moving together. She also reveals an expression of feeling in the work, influenced by the current climate.
Does anyone else do it now? Who are the artists that occupy this terrain?
At this stage of my practice, I feel like I am just getting to know myself and what I do. In this very emergent stage of contextualising what I am doing, these are the artists that I am noticing:
Although our aesthetic output is quite different I really admire Sarah crowEST’s approach to arts-making. There seems to be a metaphorical and literal thread that runs through her work, anchored by her focus on materiality and sustainability. Her work is described as being energetic, fluid and potent — this I value. https://issuu.com/heidemuseumofmodernart/docs/453.sarah_crowest_catalogue_final
Bianca Hester describes her practice as being motivated by means of engaging with the world, materially and immaterially. There seems to be an open-ended exploration of the “connection between space, materiality and embodiment” https://ocula.com/artists/bianca-hester/ that has the pace and vigour to dwell and thrive in a plethora of modalities, mediums and exhibition spaces whether these be collaborative public evolving artworks or site specific ‘infiltrations’. Her work is dynamic and alive and not tied to a specific discipline, and this is a quality that I aspire to in my own work.
Gretchen Albrecht embodies a sense of spirituality, meditation and presence in her work depicting a relationship with materiality that is present and tender. I visited her recent exhibition of largescale collages at Two Rooms Gallery Collages 1988–1989 5 March – 9 April 2020 https://tworooms.co.nz This was the last live exhibition experience I enjoyed before lockdown. Remembering the hues; the cascading arches; gestural, rhythmic movements; the extension of the body in rotation — enables for me a sense of spaciousness within my current bordered bubble. Albrecht’s collages reminded me of Lee Krasner’s collages of 1976 and the potency of fragmentation and cohesion together on a page. Both Albrecht and Frankenthaler allow the watered-down pigment to ‘come into being’ and follow its own path. I value this ability to sit with uncertainty and trust in the process.
There is a resonance with Nicola Farquhar’s paintings and her exploration of the relationship between the human body, biology and the natural world. Her abstracted figures have such a presence and strength of character.
Reflecting on my own current work, and the mutant creatures that seem to be emerging, I am really curious about Elizabeth Thompson’s work in particular her Moths. I appreciate her awareness of the harmonies and disjoints in the natural world and how her artworks reflect this. In a very crude way, my cotton creatures are whispering to Thompson’s bronze emergent plant-life. I will need to move in closer to hear what they are saying.
Who are the writers on these subjects? What specifically have they said, which motivates your own thinking for your work potentially?
New materialism in contemporary art invites an expansion of interpretations. The abstract for the book Carnal Knowledge  describes the necessity of a new materialism as it “ allows us to map the complex relations between nature and culture, between the body, language and knowledge” (Back Cover). This is an area that is perplexing and complex and suggests to me that the discovery is in the journey of inquiry.
There is more writing by Danielle Boutet that taps into an appreciation of embodied knowledge that I am curious to explore. Artist, composer and writer Danielle Boutet situates her inquiry into art, ‘as a way of knowing’, determining that as artists and people we have embodied knowledge . Her relationship with art-making in studio practice, grounded in phenomenology, relates to my own studio approach where the process of artistic inquiry and action forms a knowledge base for reflection, reflexion and the basis for further work.
I want to read more of Petra Lange-Bernt’s edited essays on Materiality, that discuss approaches to art-making that enable materials as ‘wilful’ participants in the creative process.
Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter : A Political Ecology of Things (2010) is another text that is on my list. Her discussion on the vitality of all ‘things’ is really interesting to me. I feel as though I plug into some of these ideas in my practice now but need to spend more time with Bennett’s concepts and theory to know it better.
I really enjoyed reading Lisa Samuels Membranism, wet gaps, archipelago poetics reminding us that we are in fact bodies of water and if I am to explore the matter of things, this watery mass makes up a large part of the physical world. This existence of fluidity, moisture and excretion is evident in my current work as I contemplate ‘wet contact’.
I’ve also been reading Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Painting, 2003, which highlights for me the subjective nature of Contemporary Art and the importance of creating a solid contextual base for art work.
Daniel Belgrade’s The Culture of Spontaneity: Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America, 1998, is another text that I am curious to explore, in consideration of how spontaneous improvisation informs my practice.
Is your field an established one or did you have to invent it? What histories are you contributing to?
I feel as though I am working across fields as I find my way, and I trust that patterns will become more obvious over time. I hope to contribute to the recent histories of materiality and new materialism.
- Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt, Carnal knowledge: Towards a ‘New Materialism’ Through The Arts (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013).
- John H Holland, Emergence: From Chaos to Order (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010).
- Petra Lange-Berndt, Materiality (The MIT Press, 2015).
- Jan Verwoert, “Emergence: On the Painting of Tomma Abts” in Tomma Abts, (New York: Phaidon, 2005) 41-48.
- Lisa Samuels, Membranism, Wet Gaps, Archipelago Poetics, (Reading Room: Liquid State / issue 04.10), 156-167.
- David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York: Random House Inc, 2010).
- Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (USA : Blackwell, 1991).
- Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt, Carnal knowledge: Towards a ‘New Materialism’ Through The Arts (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013).
- Danielle Boutet, “Metaphors of the Mind: Art Forms as Modes of Thinking and Ways of Being” in Carnal knowledge: Towards a ‘New Materialism’ Through The Arts (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013) 29-39.