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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-Bergeres." 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, 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. Deconstructing our 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, 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-and that is one that imagines painting space as a space in which the foreground, middle ground, background option is just one 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 % 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 spent a large part of my summer enjoying the feeling of the road while riding on the back of my friend's ktm 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's not about pointing 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 human perception recognizes invariants according to mathematical specifiable rules is a matter of debate, but some early lines of study seem to suggest that it is. 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 long and 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 Sylvere 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, and why 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.

The second half of this lecture is available at http://brooklynrail. org/2012/10/artseen/.

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 is a painter whose work has been shown in Louisville and Los Angeles since 2009. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.
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Title Annotation:ARTSEEN
Author:Norton, Rebecca; Gilbert-Rolfe, Jeremy
Publication:The Brooklyn Rail
Date:Oct 1, 2012
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