Ahead of Whitney's new show, which opens 9th October at the A Foundation, here is an essay by JJ Charlesworth. It is extraordinary to see reference points such as Jackson Pollock, Max Ernst and Yves Klein. For more information go here.
Whitney McVeigh: Between Bodies and Images
Looking at Whitney McVeigh’s new work, the big monochromes and the fragile collages and monoprints on aging paper, provokes some surprising questions about what makes art contemporary, and how contemporary art deals with its own history. Because McVeigh ploughs a very different furrow from a great many artists working today. She doesn’t work with video, and she doesn’t make ‘conceptual’ art or installation art or performance. She doesn’t make ironic work about how weird it is to be an artist, or art that is to do with pop culture or fashion or politics. Her work is not high-tech, or obsessed with mimicking the high finish of design objects or luxury goods. She works with paint and ink and paper and brushes – traditional, basic materials and techniques – and her constant theme has a classical dimension to it, as if returning to first principles – making a mark in which the human figure often appears to emerge, from little more than the visible shift from black to white.
This isn’t what you tend to expect from artists working today, and McVeigh’s work seems to ask of us that we should stop to consider what it is we have grown used to in contemporary art, and how her work differs from this. Mostly, what it asks is for us to wonder whether some important ideas, that once focused the energies and arguments of artists, have been forgotten or put aside in much of the art of the moment. But given that McVeigh’s works are not a simple return to past attitudes and ideas, but cut across different ways of thinking about and making art, what might these questions be?
McVeigh’s monoprint works combine an openness to the spontaneity of fluid materials with an acute sense of attention to what they might yield, producing surfaces on which physical matter becomes image. She might say that she is not making images so much as trying to discover them, and when she talks about working with the materials she uses, she suggests that they might have a ‘life of their own’. Unlike a more conventional painter, whose mark-making is defined by the intermediary of brushes she uses, McVeigh works with a more unstable and unpredictable set of procedures, in which paint is poured onto or applied to paper, and in which a process of folding over of the paper, and the transferring of the paint between sheets, allows it to be configured in multiple layers. While McVeigh’s way of working is highly tactile, it is also distanced by the layers of paper she uses to impress the paint – she’s often pressing through the paper to the paint, rather than applying paint onto the paper with a brush. It’s a way of working that stops us from being too preoccupied with the ‘touch’ of the artist - of the sense that what one is looking at is a form of ‘writing’, in which the movement of the brush is the equivalent of the gesture of the artist’s hand; and, by implication, a sort of extension and expression of their emotional state or their personality.
Most famously, it was Jackson Pollock who did away with the touch of the brush in painting, allowing drips and pours into painting’s range of technical possibilities. Other artists come to mind: the Surrealist Max Ernst developed ways of pressing oil paint under glass to produce unpredictable, organic patterns and forms; and Yves Klein notoriously used the direct impression of naked human models onto canvas in his series of Anthropometries. Such a range of examples points to an important development in western art in the latter half of the last century – the shift of interest from painting as a carrier of images or representations, towards the painted mark as a material presence in its own right, or as the direct index of another physical presence or object.
What these earlier examples share is a fascination for how a material such as paint might be released from the codes, habits and traditions that tend to dictate how it has been used by artists in the past. They explore the potential of chance and accident in the making of a painted surface, and they partially relinquish the painter’s authority over his or her materials. In so doing, they tend to foreground the matter of the medium – the physical substance of the paint itself – emphasising its own identity and particular qualities. With artists like Klein, painting was rolled back to its most basic conditions - that of the recorded imprint of a physical body onto a surface, in which the paint acts as both image of, and one-to-one impression of, the original subject.
All of these examples reflect some aspects of what goes on in McVeigh’s monochromes, even though they are only partial affinities and handy approximations. Nevertheless, thinking about artists like Pollock and Klein allows us to think about the nature of a body and its relationship to a painting, and to us. Jackson Pollock’s body might not be ‘represented’ in his drip paintings, but they are full of the implied movement of his body. At the opposite extreme, when Klein pressed living bodies against canvas, these were not paintings of bodies, but paintings made by bodies. In the former, the need for an image has been replaced by an interest in the paint’s material presence. In the latter the image is the direct record of the object, not translated via the eye and the hand of the artists.
McVeigh’s work, by contrast, is still interested in the possibility of the painted image. Her monochromes are full of bodies; bodies made of heads, necks, torsos. They’re not ‘studies’, however. McVeigh hasn’t looked at someone and made an image of them. Instead, the bodies in her paintings ‘emerge’ in and among the formations of paint that are shaped and organised.
But perhaps the bodies in McVeigh’s works should really be called ‘figures’. What, then, is the difference between an image of a body and an image of a ‘figure’? If nothing else, this has something to do with what we understand a human being to be, as distinct from a human body. With McVeigh’s work, I’m preoccupied with the distinction between a body and somebody; between the mass of flesh and bones that makes up each of us, and the presence of thinking, living, communicating beings that are this thing we call human, which can’t simply be reduced to just a heap of dumb matter. In her monochrome works, it’s as if this distinction is the only thing that matters in the world.
Out of the formless matter of the paint emerge forms which remind us of human beings, forms which suggest the gestures of bodies that are alive with feeling and consciousness. They’re not painted as if they were at a distance – seen within the space of some visual surrounding, an image of a subject in a setting. Instead, they seem up close, almost as imprints of bodies, but still just far enough away to appear as images. This slight shift, between the bare, physical presence of the paint and the intuition of a human figure, could be seen as analogous to that slight shift that exists between the human body and the human being. McVeigh’s studio is full of portrait photographs culled from magazines. they are always of people whose faces are full of shape and incident, which are undeniably solid, flesh and bone, and yet looking at the camera with the intensity of attention one accords another human being. The question at stake in McVeigh’s images is presence; the possibility that we might recognise a presence that corresponds to our own in the matter that is in front of us.
This is undeniably a way of thinking about images of people that finds its roots in the modern art of the last century – it is this period that most vividly produced images of human beings caught between the materiality of existence and the experience of being. In more recent decades, the philosophical tendency has been to reject such metaphysics, and reduce human beings to mere matter, biological machines that have neither soul (if you are what used to be called ‘religious’) nor free will (if you are what used to be called a ‘Humanist’). But maybe what it means to be human might still add up to more than the sum of its material parts, in the way that McVeigh’s minimal, reduced forms of paint still add up to more than just paint smeared on paper. In McVeigh’s small drawings, made on the pages of second hand technical books, there is little more than a kind of black smudge – a vertical body or a whorl of knotted black energy - which nevertheless manages to say something like ‘I am here’, beyond the mechanical and lifeless information that is printed on the page beneath. One particular drawing stands out, when thinking of McVeigh’s attitude towards presence. On one side is a reproduction of a Portrait of a Young Woman, by the sixteenth-century German painter Jorg Breu. But over her face has been traced another face, of an old crone. It makes little sense, until one discovers that the origin of the tracing is to be found on the reverse of the page, in another reproduction, of a portrait of an old woman. The face of one woman is traced into the face of the other, as ‘lines in her face’. What was an image of the human body has become physical, once again, inscribed not as a reproduction or re-presentation, but as a physical inscription of a body, inscribed into another body. More than an image of a thing, it is the mark of human presence, and of the artist who makes it.
© JJ Charlesworth 2009