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Research in Conjunction with my “Chimeras & Underdogs” Exhibition

Research in Conjunction with my “Chimeras & Underdogs” Exhibition

Guided Study 2017

Rachael Zur

“Ours is the age of the hybrid, the crossover, the many-splendored thing, a time when the combined force of new media, postmodern thought, and human history has made it impossible for artists to worship a single god of painting. Indeed, the practice of this ancient art may owe its continued health to its amazingly elastic nature.” -- Linda Yabolonsky

Genealogically, my work is connected to the ancient practice of painting, a medium that is currently being renegotiated in terms of ideology and materiality, due to an abundance of information and sources. Information and sources are easier to find than ever before because of our interconnectedness to technology. This is a time outside of art movements that dictate what the superior method or content of a painting should be. What materials are acceptable to paint with, or even what can be considered a painting, are subjects of rigorous debate. Materiality in my work is a hybrid of traditional materials and non-art materials. While my work is connected to the tradition of abstract painting, it departs from my predecessors in its content. In an age of biological chimeras, it should be no surprise that painting, too, emerges as a hybrid creature, mutated to be genetically fit for the world that it now lives in. The Chimera becomes symbolic for not only the materiality of my painting, but also for the content of my paintings, which centers on the gaps that written language cannot fill, that creates a void. Visual language, through the art objects I create, becomes a way of speaking through that void.

Genealogy and Materiality:

In theory, Minimalism led to reducing painting to an ultimate end; in actuality Minimalism has untethered painters from being part of any particular movement. Painters operate in spaces between art movements, in a never-ending plateau rich in possibilities. Painting is no longer moving in a tidy binary fashion. Just as paint slips, blurs, and bleeds on the surface that it is applied to, contemporary painting is free to spread in multiple directions (Lawrence). Jorg Heiser argues that innovation in art is not about finding one tiny thing that is over looked, “but about finding an innovative way of making use of that archive, or of settling into its cracks and uncharted assets.” (Heiser) In both understanding the rich tradition of painting and that painting no longer progresses in a binary manner, there is no need to wait for a movement to align my work with; my work is free to bound forward authentically without hesitation.

“Strangely (or perhaps not) neither I nor anybody else with whom I have spoken has been able to come up with a widely recognized art movement—in particular a movement in painting—that emerged after the late 1980’s or possibly the early ‘90s.”—Richard Kalina. (Kalina) In considering painting’s current phase of development, one of refining itself within the territories that it has mapped out, Kalina explains in his article “The Four Corners of Painting” that painting should be looked at not so much as successive art movements, but rather as four distinctive territories. These territories have historical arcs to them, but we need not just consider painting in terms of linear successions rather to understand how works of art relate to one another outside of a linear model of time-- related through how the particular objects operate as works of art. Kalina places painting into four territories/categories: The Mimetic, The Stylized Mimetic, Mimetic-Abstract Hybrid, and Fully Abstract. The Mimetic is “straightforward representations of the observable world.” Historical movements within The Mimetic include, Impressionism, (much of) Post Impressionism, Surrealism, Pop Art, Photorealism, and “contemporary varieties of the landscape or figure painting.” The Stylized Mimetic is a category that “pushes Mimesis toward distortion and stylization.” Examples of The Stylized Mimetic include Matisse, Fauves, and figurative Abstract Expressionists. The Mimetic-Abstract Hybrid, Abstraction and Mimesis comingle on equal footing, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns would be good examples of work that is part of this territory. Movements include Cubism, Dada-inspired paintings and the work of the Russian Constructions. Last, there is the category of The Fully Abstract “work with no overt reference to the observable world.” Within this category are four subcategories: “Gestural (freely brushed) Abstraction,” “Field or Atmospheric Abstraction,” Geometric Abstraction,” and “The Organized Organic.” (Kalina)

It is the nuance of “The Organized Organic” that is of particular interest to me as it relates to my own work. The Organized Organic is “a form of abstraction characterized by a more distanced and grammatical approach, often borrowing elements from both geometric and gestural abstractions.” (Kalina) Elizabeth Murray’s work would be an example of the subcategory. A visual component that I am very enthusiastic about in my own work is the tension between geometric shapes and gestural abstract forms. There is an appearance of spontaneity in my work, but the balance between wild application of colorful paint and the structure of the composition are carefully considered. Creating a dialog between the organic and geometric elements in the composition is part of the foundation of the image. While what motivates me to make a particular painting changes over time, this interest remains.

Combining many parts of both high and low culture, using objects that are not traditionally thought of as art materials, painting has taken on a hybrid nature that makes it difficult to describe what it is that makes a painting a painting. Robert Rauschenberg can be seen as a pioneer in creating the hybrid form in painting through his “combines,” which have led to a dizzying array of alternatives to what materials can be considered acceptable to making a painting. Contemporary painting pulls from many sources, both in content and material. Robert Storr, in attempting to define painting, says: “It’s both pictorial conventions and the material qualities of an object that make it a painting. For an increasing number of artists, the very game of stretching definitions is the substance of the work.” Through new media, painting can be a projection on a screen, or in work like Fred Tomaselli, psychoactive drugs can be paired with magazine cut-outs under thick layers of resin. The line between painting, installation and sculpture has been blurred. Making a painting cannot be narrowly defined as paint being applied on a rectilinear surface. Even the use of paint itself is not necessary to the act of making a painting (Yablonsky). The surface that I paint on is just as much a part of the materiality of the painting as the paint itself. Sometimes the paint becomes the surface, the support and the material for creating imagery. The paint in these paintings begins to take on an almost sculptural form. Other surfaces I have included for painting on are: metal screens, resin coated aluminum foil, or resin coated bubble wrap. At other times the surface of the painting is completely smooth, allowing the fluid movement of the paint to be emphasized. I use cake decorating tools to create confection-like textures with the paint. The hybrid approach in materials and paint application creates a playful appearance; the materials become necessary to the message of optimism that is important in my work.

“Beyond psychology and beyond surface, the knowledge contained with a painting is materiality: the visible record of the synergy of elements and experiences that result in (and are reflected in) the work.” –Sharon Orleans Lawrence (Lawrence). The materiality of paint is not only the paint and the surface, but it is also the proof of presence that the artist had been there, made a series of decisions—marks—on a surface. The materiality is also in the viewer’s experience of the painting. Through the different manipulations of paint, my viewer sees rhythms that I create in the image, that I later disrupt. The refractive index of light traveling through the layers of paint, from opacity to transparency, impact the viewer’s experience of the work. Through layering of colors, light’s reflection is changed, altering the viewer’s experience of these colors. The choices that artists are making with the layering of colors, how translucent or opaque the layers will be, impacts the way in which the viewer will experience the work. (Lawrence) Choices of opacity and transparency become very important to the materiality of the work not only with the refractive index for how the viewer looks at the paint, but in a more obvious way these choices also impact what the viewer is able to see of the structure on which the painting is made. In my own work when painting on a surface that is made out of resin-coated bubble wrap, it becomes increasingly important to make sure that there are parts where the paint is thin or with no paint at all, in order for the viewer to see what is different about the particular structure that the painting is on. My viewer then sees a series of choices that I made, connecting them to the reality that I was there.

The work of the Abstract Expressionists of the 1940’s and 50’s is a rich source of formal concepts for my own work, but the concepts of the sublime that are part of their work is not a part of my own. Abstract Expressionism was created in a time so different from my own in terms of art movements. My work grabbing a viewer’s attention has little to do with it being part of a specific movement, and almost everything to do with whether the painting is able to be potent enough to communicate for itself. The Terrible Sublime, in abstract painting during the 1950’s, engendered melancholy and tragedy; it was a response to the time in which it was created. “Tragedy, Sublimity, Blackness, Poignancy were very much in the air in the late 1940s and early 1950s” Eva Hess (Sandler). Now is just as unsettling of a time as the 1950s-- the threat of nuclear war is an issue again. Also, not unlike women advancing in the workplace in the 1940s only to be cast back to very narrow roles in the 1950s, ours is a time of destabilizing uncertainty with the strides made for equality for many groups of people being threatened or taken away. While these are difficult times, my own work does not try to remedy these issues through transcendence; rather my work negotiates its way through what may seem implausible with playful use of materials, communicating tenacity and hopefulness. My work is grounded in defiant optimism. The rich imagery from the art movements of the 1940’s and 1950’s is an incredible source of formal ideas, but it is important for me to appropriate those ideas into my own contemporary reality. Since my work may operate between movements, authenticity is even more critical, and the work itself must speak to what I earnestly believe to be true.

Artists today live in a time saturated in technology with such a diversity of information that innovative, new concepts in art are not treated as they were in the past. Jorg Heiser explains that art became “neo-this” or “post-that” or “pronounced crossbreed between previous movements,” art movements being reactions to art movements of the past, but not truly mapping out new frontiers. This lack of new movements can be seen in music as well, where there have not been “explosions” in musical styles since the 1980s. In the past, new ideas in art have been met with excitement, anger or disapproval, or they have been ignored. Heiser argues that the value of art can’t be immediately assessed by what its initial reception is; its value will become understood over time (Heiser). There are numerous online platforms for artists to display their artwork and to see the work of other artists. There are so many images easily available now, which changes how these images are received; there is a place for almost every type of artist, but no place for a specific art movement because attention is scattered across platforms. With diverse avenues for showing work, the reactions of approval, shock or disapproval are watered down more than they would be if all of the art world’s attention were concentrated on a singular focal point. Artists are now less dependent on the gallery model for exposure. Through the many other forms of exposure that they can access, there is not one institution that controls what art will have exposure, and the hierarchy of what art should be relevant is disrupted.

Many artists are engaging with multiple ways of sharing imagery in addition to the gallery model. Online platforms provide a way for artists to connect with other artists throughout the world to share their images with each other and to engage in dialog about the work. Museums and galleries continue to provide a space that signals the viewer’s attention to the work, limits distractions from the outside world, and places the work in the context of being an art object. (Sayre)

Paintings are dependent upon a surface: in a digital reality, it is the surface of a screen; murals are directly applied to walls; if the painting is on an independent surface, that surface needs an easel, a wall or a floor to be positioned upon. Seeing the work in person is a different experience than seeing the image flattened on a screen of a phone or computer. Textural and sculptural qualities in my work are diluted when it is flattened to a screen. The context of the surface that the painting is positioned on changes how the work will be viewed. The walls of a gallery are helpful in framing my work as they provide the context that my work is an art object, despite my work being made of odd materials and unorthodox applications of paint.

For the particular body of work that I am making, the paintings operate best when viewed in person in a sparse setting devoted to the display of art objects. I have spent a significant amount of time in the gallery that my work will be shown in and have thought about how people move through the space. These observations inform the body of work that I am making. Thinking about color and form for particular walls, my paintings greet my viewer with and invite them to carefully consider the use of nontraditional materials that have been implemented with this ancient art. Many of the pieces that I am working on avoid a traditional rectilinear format, this departure from tradition actually pairs nicely with showing the work in the more traditional space of the gallery. The objects become in conversation with the white walls, showing a way of thinking that is both aware of the long tradition of painting and excited about its future.

Painting and Language

“In the visual arts, there has been significant recent work demonstrating a preoccupation with language, particularly at the intersection of the visual and graphical, showing us the readiness within language of a momentum directed toward displacement.”—David Scott Armstrong and Patrick Mahon (Armstrong and Mahon) Since the 1990’s Contemporary artists have become more interested in bringing attention to the possible “brokenness” of language and ways in which it falls short of communicating. Language in contemporary times, with such varied subjectivity, does not always operate as a foolproof way of translating ideas. Cultural differences allow for some words to be of service to a concept and for others to be of disservice. (Armstrong and Mahon) My current body of work addresses slippage in language and the experience of trying to decode written language through my subjectivity as someone with dyslexia. The work is about capturing that moment of marveling—particularly when learning how to read—right before one understands something. My viewer has a vantage point that is similar to mine when I was learning how to read: a form in my painting seems to represent something, yet its meaning slips from understanding. What I’m communicating to my viewer is a feeling similar to almost catching an object and then feeling it fall out of grasp.

For all humans, learning to read a written language, such as English, where symbols represent sounds, is learned skill. To pre-literate children, spoken language is fluid and not all sounds are noticeable to them. In learning to read, the child must learn that words are broken into sounds and that those sounds represent a letter. For someone with dyslexia, this unnatural experience is even more daunting. (Reid Lyon)

For the series of work that I am currently focused on, the paintings are abstract, with an interplay between gestural and geometric forms, often with large gestural forms that resemble a letter, number, or character. On some of the paintings, paint is applied in such a way to look similar to cursive writing, but there are no words within these strokes. A few paintings lack the forms, looking like something to decode. However, even in the absence of forms that look similar to a letter or number, there is still a language.

There are other forms of language other than verbal and written: painting, for example, is a visual language. Impressionist painting broadened how painting could communicate rather than reproducing exact copies of reality, complex discussions on the elusive quality of light could be understood through brushstrokes that referenced experiences. By liberating painting from exact representations of reality, painters could speak precisely to more complex thinking. Rudolf Arnheim explains, “the gesture limits itself intelligently to emphasizing what matters.” A form that is composed of limited lines has been reduced to what is most essential to what it represents. Deciding what to include requires understanding what limited information will actually lead to a fuller understanding of what the image is to signify (Arnheim). To understand this visual language, we must identify where thought begins. Perception is an essential part of gathering information; perception is what must occur before ideas can be distilled to an abstract, refined thought. Traditionally, the senses have been looked at as being inferior to logic, rather than being an integral part of thinking. Perception of the visual realities around us precedes verbal language in our thinking. Before we can make generalizations about an object so that we may understand it more fully, we must first gather information about that object through our senses. The brain then sifts through sensory details to find what is most essential, thus turning the experience of seeing into an abstraction of what was observed to clearly perceive the observed object. Through sight, the brain is able to use visual memories of what it has seen as a way of organizing thought to reach logical conclusions. The brain uses imagery through memory to relate ideas to one another, in order to understand how to problem-solve in situations in the present. While we may view the act of seeing as simple, seeing followed by perceiving becomes foundational to our understanding of more than just the world around us. Through memory, we can use imagery that has been acquired through perception, to understand more complex abstract concepts. (Arnheim)

Since the second half of the 20th century, brain science has been able to add to our understanding of how people perceive and create works of art. Abstract art requires a more rigorous participation from its viewer than most viewing circumstances since it does not reference identifiable objects. Even though our eyes see the world in an abstracted fashion, our brains take the information we see from the outside world and complete it for us: experience and memory helps to reinforce images from the outside world making most objects that we see in the world rapidly recognizable to us. “While our eyes do provide information we need to act, they do not present our brain with a finished product. The brain actively extracts information about the three-dimensional organization of the world from the two-dimensional image on the retina……we perceive an object based on incomplete information.”—Eric Kandel (Kandel)

In his book, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, Eric Kandel outlines how the human brain processes art through either bottom-up thinking or top-down thinking. Bottom up thinking is more automatic, it is how our brains have evolved to process basic “key elements of image in the physical world, such as contours, intersections, and the crossing of lines and junctions.” Top down thinking is not automatic or innate; it is the functions of attention, imagery, expectations, and learned visual associations. Top down thinking takes the information that bottom up thinking cannot quickly categorize and works to find resolution. This is the thinking that is used to analyze things that the brain is not evolutionarily equipped to quickly comprehend, like abstract art.

“Indeed, animals and people have only two major types of mechanisms available for adapting behaviorally to their environment: biological evolution and learning. Of these, learning is by far the more efficient. Changes brought about by biological evolution are slow, often requiring thousands of years in higher organisms, whereas changes produced by learning can be rapid, occurring repeatedly within the life span of an individual”—Eric Kandel(Kandel)

It is through cultural evolution that a viewer may understand how to decode an abstract painting, not through mechanisms already in place through biological evolution. (Kandel)

Bottom up thinking is a low-level form of processing information; the retina detects an image which it connects to a part of the brain that has evolved to anticipate this image. Faces are easily recognizable to humans at a very young age; the brain has evolved to have several regions devoted just to for this. An enormous part of Bottom up thinking is devoted to facial recognition. Alternately, top down thinking requires the brain to use multiple regions to decode information, “the brain uses cognitive processes such as attention, learning, and memory—everything we have seen and understood before to interpret the information.” Brain imaging shows that the brain uses multiple regions to process abstract art. Since there is not region that was evolved for the task of decoding abstract art the brain must pull from multiple sources: memory, experience, imagination. Understanding an abstract work of art is aided by the viewer having already seen other abstract works of art that are similar, and thus memory becomes a tool in having a frame of reference for understanding the work.(Kandel)

Cultural evolution has allowed for the amazing accomplishment of not only abstract art, but of written language. Eric Kandel explains, “there is no strong evidence of any biological change in the size or structures of the human brain since Homo Sapiens appeared in the fossil record some 50,000 years ago. All human accomplishments, from antiquity to modern times, are the product of cultural evolution, and therefore of memory.” The top down thinking described by Eric Kandel is not just relevant to abstract art, but to decoding written language as well. “A number of brain regions are involved in reading and comprehension.”–Scott Edwards (Edwards) Reading requires a coordination of: decoding letter formations, identifying the assigned sounds to each letter, blending those sounds and then having enough vocabulary to recognize the word once decoded; each of these processes takes place in a different region of the brain. (Edwards) Much like abstract art requires the brain to use multiple regins of the brain to decode an image, reading written language requires a similar harmony within the brain of many areas working in coordination to reach understanding.

“In active thinking, notably in that of the artist or the scientist, wisdom progresses constantly by moving from the more particular to the more general.” -- Rudolf Arnheim. When something is abstract it is not just a generalization; it embodies that which is most essential of what it is representing. While abstraction simplifies it also allows for the concept to be understood more completely than it could if all of its many details were present (Arnheim). Abstracted, simplified forms that are used frequently become more easily and quickly understood by people. We remember their context, which becomes part of our thinking about the image. “Numerals and letters, for example, have evolved historically as the results of the search for sets of shapes simple enough to be easily pronounced, perceived, and remembered yet as clearly distinct from each other as possible.” These symbols that are designed by humans are made to be quickly decoded and understood. Language relies on what we have perceived from the world around us by use of imagery in speaking to articulate ideas. Analogies, which are rich in imagery, are a way of communicating complex thoughts through language (Arnheim).

In my paintings, by creating forms that look similar to letters and numbers in the English language yet do not have a meaning outside of my painting, I create an experience that is similar to what I encountered when learning how to read as someone with dyslexia. As a child, I could recognize that letters and numbers were abstracted to elegant forms of importance, but since the letters would reverse in my mind, I would become confused as to what sound was attached to a certain letter, or the value to a certain number. My viewer can identify that a deliberate abstract form should have some sort of meaning: roads and highways are full abstracted shapes that stand in to give drivers direct and important information. In contrast, my forms represent an experience perceiving but not yet understanding. My work captures the moment of marveling and wanting to understand. I see this as a positive experience. Wanting to understand, not being able to, and continuing to try is a virtue I greatly admire. The conjunction of an abstract painting and the experience of trying to decode written language becomes a celebration of top down thinking: my viewer is encouraged to dig through their memory of both abstract painting and legible forms to engage with the image. It’s not just the playful use of materials that is optimistic in my work, but the value of tenacity involved in learning, which allows humans to adapt more rapidly than biological evolution will allow for. My work places value on cultural evolution.

Perception is a way of thinking. Perceiving what is taking place in a painting is a way of reading. I can reference written language in my painting through forms that look analogous to letters and numbers, but regardless my viewer is still working to decode an image. Verbal and written language, even in the hands of the most skilled scholars, is still a reduction of reality. Rudolf Arnheim describes the dilemma that philosophers and scientists face with verbal and written language in that they “constantly struggle with the verbal shells which they must use to package their thoughts for preservation and communication.” (Arnheim) Meanings in words shift over time; words mean different things to different people. The words that contain carefully articulated thoughts can fracture over time or as they travel to different people, the information that was contained in those words becoming lost. The way that verbal language operates is in a binary format. I am not advocating to avoid written language, but to accept its limitations and to encourage the addition of more holistic methodologies in communication. Written language in all of its elegance and complexity is still a reduction of reality. In abstract paintings forms are simplified to emphasize what is most essential. Both written language and abstract painting become reductions of reality, both require that the brain use multiple regions for decoding; however, they differ in that written language moving in a linear sequence while when looking at a painting the viewers gaze may roam the image. In using multiple formats of communication, just as the brain uses multiple regions in top down thinking, there is greater probability for understanding.

Chimeras and Underdogs

An underdog can only hold its status as such for a limited amount of time. At some point in the trials it faces, it will: be defeated, give up, or perhaps be victorious. There have been times in which it seemed that both the discipline of painting in the contemporary art world, or myself as someone with dyslexia, were underdogs; I now see that we have each morphed into chimeras. Contemporary painting, untethered from art movements, with freedom in use of materials, has allowed for this mutation to become a hybrid creature. The mishmash of learning strategies that I have adopted in order to succeed academically turned me into a chimera as well. Perhaps it is the appreciation of this odd couplings of learning strategies that has allowed me to seek out other odd couplings of materials in my own paintings. The way in which the brain uses multiple regions for reading written language or viewing an abstract painting is similar to the way that I, as a painter, draw from many sources and materials to create an image. Just as there is not one particular region the brain devoted to reading or abstract art, there is not one material I can use to make a painting. Through the harmonization of traditional painting materials with odd objects, I can make paintings that can be both a chimera in the biological sense as well as in the metaphorical, mythological fire breathing sense. The materiality and genealogically of my paintings become part of a rich vocabulary that I use to demonstrate my thoughts. Instead of selecting “verbal shells” to place my thoughts in for safe keeping, I gather color, texture, and odd materials and make them into a painting. I trust that that is the safest place to keep my ideas so that they may be read at a later time.

Armstrong, David Scott, and Patrick Mahon. "After the Grave: Language and Materiality in Contemporary Art." Visible Language 42.1 (2008): 4-13, 109-10. Print.

Arnheim, Rudolf. Visual Thinking. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969. Print.

Edwards, Scott. "Reading and the Brain." On the Brain, The Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute Letter 2016. Web. October 19, 2017.

Heiser, Jörg "Torture and Remedy: The End of -Isms and the Beginning Hegemony of the Impure." e-flux 11 (2009). Print.

Kalina, Richard. "The Four Corners of Painting." The Brooklyn Rail. 2012. Web. 9-27-17 2017.

Kandel, Eric R. Reductionism in Art and Brain Science. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. Print.

Lawrence, Sharon Orleans. “How the Materiality of Paint Is Intrinsic to the Work of Art. New York2013. Print.

Reid Lyon, G. "Why Reading Is Not a Natural Process." Web.

Sandler, Irving. Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience: A Reevaluation. New York: Hard Press Editions 2009. Print.

Sayre, M. Henry. Writing About Art. 5 ed. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006. Print.

Yablonsky, Linda. "What Makes a Painting a Painting." Art News 104.4 (2005). Print.

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