Here is one way a painting can be made. A painter makes a gestural mark on a surface. This is reflected upon for a moment, and then another mark is made in reaction to it. This process is elaborated upon until the painter is satisfied in some way. A point is reached where the painter decides to leave off. This method of working owes a great deal to the refinement of painterly composition that Henri Matisse pursued in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1908 he wrote that ‘a moment comes when every part has found its definite relationship and from then on it will be impossible for me to add a stroke to any picture without having to paint it all over again’ (1). In describing his particular approach to the construction of a painting he had formulated the definition of when one was ‘finished’. A great deal of post-war gestural abstract painting, from the ‘Abstract Expressionists’ to recent work – such as that of John Hoyland and Mali Morris – has its antecedents in this active-reflective-reactive method and is allied to practices that can be described as process-based and intuitive.
Another way of making paintings, which can be described as a more deterministic and conceptual approach, is to plan them in their entirety – even before any colour is mixed and made ready for use. Michael Craig-Martin and Bridget Riley are two artists who work in this kind of way. Paintings made like this are deemed to be ‘finished’ when the final work matches up satisfactorily to the preconceived plan. The art practice of Lisa Traxler increasingly seems to be gravitating towards the midpoint of the spectrum between process-based and intuitive on one hand and deterministic and conceptual on the other. This is unsurprising. Her most recent work follows the same principles that she uses in producing abstract paintings and assemblages, but employs industrial fabrication processes and techniques. This work, I think, is a logical extension of the way of thinking that Traxler refined in her previous career as a fashion editor and costume designer. She has an instinctive grasp of patterns: not just in the sense of a configuration of shapes in a picture or design, but also in the way a three-dimensional object such as a garment can be cut, formed and shaped out of jointed flat materials.
Traxler’s art is manifested in a number of ways. Her conventional studio practice of making works on canvas sits within the English tradition of lyrical abstract painting that has its roots in the modernism that was established in St. Ives in the 1940s. The rectangular vitreous enamel plates she exhibits are part of this approach to making pictures and are displayed in arrays that appear to float in front of the plane of the wall surface like a series of ossified sketchbook pages. She makes stitched collages that intermix found images or archive material with drawing and painting, using the lyrical active-reflective-reactive compositional method. More importantly, she has produced a major series of Memory Vessels and Dreamscapes. These are made from paper (or paper objects) and red thread and they solve the problem of composition in a subtly different way from the paintings and collages. Found imagery is collated, collaged and reprographically manipulated. It is also, sometimes, deformed into a three-dimensional shape. The manipulated imagery on these paper constructions form the basis for ‘line drawings’ made from stitched rows that follow their contours. Often the red thread is seen from the reverse side, or makes a linear foray out into the space in which the works are installed, anchoring them to a site-specific location. The tension set up between the intuitive images, the edges of the paper, the stitching and the plumb-straight course of the installed threads, which delineate points in space, provides us with a way of considering another important strand of Traxler’s practice.
Her most recent body of work consists of large-scale steel and vitreous enamel sculptures. These begin as delicate paper maquettes that are constructions of small clusters of individual sheets that are deftly cut and torn, coloured with paint and delineated with graphite. There is a lightness and poise to these objects that suggest they capture a fleeting, transitory moment of vision. Traxler has glimpsed the possibility of a composition, and has tried to give it a stable, concrete form. These three-dimensional shapes are then deconstructed and re-drawn as computer files for the fabrication of separate steel plates of various thicknesses and with particular curvatures. She individually paints onto these with vitreous enamel colours – chemical glazes – that are then fired in large-scale industrial kilns. Only when all of these procedures have been successfully completed in the appropriate sequence (and any one of them has the potential to go disastrously awry) is the final piece assembled for display.
These Volume Sculptures visually resemble lyrical abstract paintings, but they are at several removes from such a practice. Firstly, there is the initial set of impulses that produce the original maquette. Then there is the process of re-drawing each panel for the fabrication of the steels. Next comes an enamel base colour, which is fired onto each steel plate. Traxler then has to hand colour the individual plates. This is an intense and nerve-wracking procedure. She has to retain the spontaneity of her original gestures, but she cannot simply make copies of them. If she intended to do this, it would be a straightforward enough process to make photographic images of the marks on the maquettes and screen-print them in liquid enamel onto the steels. She has chosen the far more demanding method of re-making the gestures. This requires the same sensibility that was brought to bear on the maquettes. However, if she wishes to avoid mannered and hesitant mark making, she has to approach the sculptures with a newly open mind. This is a very difficult action to perform, but she has confidently and calmly achieved it a great number of times. The steels are then fired for a second time. Paradoxically, the resulting marks that she has permanently fixed onto the sculptures – the newly re-made versions of the maquettes – are the opposite of gestural painting. Perhaps they are not even paintings at all. During a recent interview for the online Tate Channel, Sir Nicholas Serota suggests to Gerhard Richter that his glass panes are objects that are also paintings. The artist is emphatic in his response: ‘Paintings not, no. This is… [pause] Painting is flat. Paintings show what isn’t there’ (2).
The work of Henri Matisse managed to embody something that ‘wasn’t there’ and is relevant to this practice for another reason than the definition of a ‘finished’ painting. Matisse’s paper cut-out technique allowed him to ‘draw straight into the colour’ instead of colouring in an outline. Used almost exclusively for five years until his death in 1954, the cut-outs were his solution to the conflict between drawing and colour. The junction between two colours could function in the same way as a line in a drawing, even though there are no ‘lines’ at all in the final cut-out collages. In Traxler’s approach to compositional sculpture the cut edges of the steel are able to function as ‘lines’ in space that interplay with those on the surfaces of the various panels. They change their relationships to one another as they are revealed or obscured whilst you move around each work. These lines are often the physical limit of a base colour or brushstroke.
The revelatory nature of these compositions in space embodies Traxler’s journey from the canvas to the factory and echoes the journey that she has embarked upon in her own life. She lives in an environment where anything seen in her surroundings can trigger an imagistic, compositional or painterly response. Her image-making is partly informed and inspired by the outdoor spaces near her home, in which she regularly walks throughout the year. ‘Here’ is an important concept for Traxler and it is intrinsic to her investigations into the ‘lives’ of spaces. I would suggest that the ‘here and now’ is also an important factor in her drive to make challenging work for herself and for others. It perhaps originates in her past life experiences and she often feels like ‘disturbing the surface of the millpond – stirring up the mud with a stick’. She has talked about how, when she was young, art was seen as being a soft option, that she was lumped in with ‘the plasticine gang’ (3). Of course, art is the toughest option of all and the best artistic enquiry is completely, sometimes painfully, honest; it is about being true to oneself and true to others. Honesty gives statements and actions authority. The problem with this is that people who wish to conform to a social expectation or present a mask of totally consistent unwavering certitude – such as political spokespeople or certain careerists – find it very uncomfortable to acknowledge difficult or challenging realities. Thus encounters with art can be dismissed, even by highly intelligent people, as ‘rubbish’ or artistic practices characterised as ‘mad’. Such dismissals have no authority. The remarkable thing about the art of Lisa Traxler is that she has made the significant recent developments in her work rapidly and autonomously, one might even say courageously. There is almost no requirement of her to acknowledge the history and development of recent abstract painting and construction. Some contexts for her work that I would suggest are the constructions of Peter Lanyon, Frank Stella’s Baroque and convoluted wall pieces, even Alison Britton and ‘the new British ceramics’ of the late 1980s.
When Serota spoke about the exhibition Howard Hodgkin at Tate Britain in 2006, he stated: ‘A picture is the observed world’. I believe that a constructed, painted picture is a way in which seeing can be demonstrated. An artist observes the picture as it is being made and sees when it is satisfactory to their purpose. The final presentation of the picture to an audience reveals something of the nature of that seeing. For Traxler, a picture is the experienced, felt and intuited world – a connection with her own immediate surroundings and way of life. It is a spiritual pursuit that embraces all the implicit ambiguity inherent in visual art and is bound to the capricious fluidity of vision. Traxler’s practice is in a constant state of flux, transformation and development. For her, the serious matter of painting and picture-making, of creating images and delineating space will never be entirely ‘finished’.
Jonathan Parsons 2011
- Henri Matisse, Notes d’un Peintre, La Grande Revue, Paris, 25 December 1908
- Gerhard Richter: Panorama, Tate Channel, 2011 (http://channel.tate.org.uk/#media:/media/ 1212905262001&list:/channel/playlists/45927933001&context:/channel/playlists)
- From the author’s conversations with the artist, October 2011
essay by Jonathan Parsons from the book ‘Lives of Spaces’
The book accompanied the exhibition ‘ Lives of Spaces’ Lisa Traxler, West Gallery, Quay Arts, 2012
Jonathan Parsons Jonathan
Parsons is an artist, writer and lecturer active since 1990. His flag work ‘Achrome’ was selected for the British Art Show 5 and he was one of the youngest artists to be included in the notorious Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, which toured to Berlin and New York. Recent exhibitions include: The Art of Mapping (London), A Dialogue on Landscape & Constable (Salisbury), The Golden Record (Lincoln), Shifting Ground (Nottingham) and The Jerwood Sculpture Prize (London). He is currently visiting lecturer in Fine Art at UCA, Farnham. His work is represented in public collections in the UK and private collections around the world. See:
Photographs: Steve Thearle & Ben Wood