The Ritual of Change; Mark Making During Transition
Hesperian sadness; the quiet acknowledgment of the passage from day to night, with stillness and attention. A Shabbat dinner; a meal recognizing the end of the workweek and the beginning of the Sabbath. The ball dropping in Times Square; a communal marking of the end of the year as defined by the Christian calendar. Transitions, large and small, announce change. How do we as individuals, and as community, define the space between what we leave behind, and what we step into? What ritual marks this passage? These are questions that I have been fascinated with since I began studying folklore in my undergraduate years at the University of Pennsylvania.
Judy Chicago is an artist that I share my interest in both folk culture, and ritual with. In her well-known work, “The Dinner Party”, Chicago pays homage to the folk art of talented women found in myth and history. She describes the ritual of the dinner party with her piece, and gives voice to the creative talents that enacted these labor-intensive rituals. The women Chicago references channel their creative energies and skills into acceptable forms of expression for their time and culture. Together, they form communities with each other that lead to a larger ritual of sharing and communication within their groups. Chicago recreates this communal act of creation with modern artists still well versed in the folk arts that she is exploring as she facilitates the vision of her piece (Fabozzi 320). In this way, Chicago connects the rituals of the past with her more modern creative force.
17 years beyond my introduction to folk culture, I am actively involved in the exploration of folk music and the rituals surrounding its creation and dissemination. I play in a Klezmer band (music of the Eastern European Jewry), and am enamored with the tunes and songs that different cultures use to describe and navigate transitions. The notes that I play on my fiddle are akin to the marks that I make in the studio. The music and the mark making are both holding the space for the transition between what was and what will be. They tell the story of change.
As I reflect on the changes within my own life, and the role that my artistic practice plays in it, I am beginning to understand that my studio is the space of ritual where the marks that I make communicate the personal and public changes that occur around me. While I am not interested in using my artwork as a form of therapy, I do understand that through my work I am navigating change, and defining transitions through my ritual of painting. In this paper I will explore how other artists have used the mark as a tool to navigate change, and examine the questions that their practices or opinions raise for me as I analyze my own work, and the ritual within it.
War. What a powerful word, and what an immense vehicle of change. How have artists responded to such devastating and unasked for change? I found the answer to this question in the current Seattle Art Museum exhibit, “Target Practice, Painting Under Attack, 1949 - 78”, curated by Michael Darling. The voices in this exhibit are responding in a clearly visceral way to both the world changes that are occurring during their lives, such as World War II, Hiroshima, the Korean War, the Eisenhower years, and Vietnam, and cultural changes in how artists and the public consider painting itself. What I find most compelling in the exhibit are the artists that are actively processing traumatic change through their paintings – specifically, the type of marks that they choose to make to bring themselves, and their artwork, into the future.
Lucio Fontana, was an Argentine painter that lived and worked in both his native Argentina, and Italy during the second world war. After seeing an image of Fontana standing outside of his Italian studio after it had been reduced to rubble by bombings, I understood the incisions in his canvases in both a visceral and cerebral way. Considered a late modernist “heretic”, (Morgan. 18-19) he was consistently interested in the future, and described the razor knife slashes and punctures in his canvases in terms of an understanding of what lay beyond the current moment:
“I make holes, infinity passes through them, light passes through them. There is no need to paint.” (qtd. in Fisher)
Fontana’s eloquent description of his practice and what it means to him, speaks directly to the act of painting as a passage, or portal into the future. Through destruction, Fontana is actively creating a new space, or future, for himself.
Working on the other side of the globe, but simultaneously facing destruction on a grand scale in his home in Japan, Shozo Shimamoto also turned to the mark as a way to process change and move into the future. Puncturing and covering the surface of his canvas with gestural tears and nervous pencil line, Shimamoto viscerally and elegantly brings us into the future through his process of dakai, translated as “destruction as a constructive site” (Darling 106). Shimamoto’s canvases mark the event of his creation with their aggressive confrontation to the viewer, but retain a poetic elegance and fragility that speaks to the fleeting nature of reality. Shimamoto’s work is mediated by the titles that he chooses for them. “Work”, “Ifu” (Awe Inspiring Fear), and “Mother”, are titles that all further take us into the past and future of our own life-transitions (Darling 113).
Fashion model turned avant garde artist, Niki de Saint-Phalle joined her artistic comrades ideologically through her work that used the rifle as a paint brush. Exploding containers of pigment with rifle fire, Saint-Phalle speaks to the liberation of her mark marking ritual:
“We want to find a renewal. We want to find beauty in a new way. Making my paintings is life itself. The shooting is magic. The shooting is the moment.” (qtd. in Darling 24)
How does an artist decide what marks best communicate their ideas, emotions, intentions? How is the ritual played out in the studio? Is it planned ahead of time and scripted like a Catholic Mass, or is it a spontaneous response dictated by the moment? I have only recently begun to examine these questions, but know that my practice has been largely a spontaneous response, without much analysis up until recently. My current understanding of what happens in the studio is revealing that it is actually a mixture of analysis and spontaneity, a combination of control and reaction. While I may believe that I am composing ritual and opening a space for change to enter in, I am also working within the context of many other influences that act upon me both consciously and unconsciously. My work is mediated by my imagination as I consider forms that speak to a larger meaning I am expressing. My marks are also mediated by my memory as I work from what I recall without pictorial references to guide me. Just as the artists in “Target Practice” were each affected by their times, I am only beginning to be consciously aware of the cultural mediators that form the backdrop of the world I am surrounded by.
In his essay, Post Modernism and Consumer Society, Frederic Jameson speaks to his understanding of the complexities of mark making and the influences that define them. As he reflects on the views of French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, Jameson describes the fluidity of the signifiers in language, and suggests that as meaning becomes more fluid, our grasp of reality may also become less stable. Jameson stresses that because we do not translate words into their meanings on a one-to-one basis, but rely largely on context, the connections between words form our experience of continuity and time. The relationships between words (signifiers) and their meanings (referents) allow us to move through past, present and future (Foster 118-119). Just as language creates meaning and moves us through time, so to does the ritual of mark making in artwork. The inter-relations of the references the artist provides on the canvas have the ability to work together to transition the maker, and potentially the viewer, from the past into the future by virtue of providing a space in between entering and exiting where reflection and ritual can take place.
In my work, as I process transition in my practice, I often turn to pictorial references that symbolically represent change or transformation. Although these definitions are supported culturally, their meaning changes depending on the background and life experience of the viewer, or as Jameson describes, from their context. This leaves room within my pictorial work for many interpretations. As I turn away from the pictorial image, and experiment with expressing my intention with abstract marks, how does this new language change my ritual and my understanding of the relationship of my work to the larger world? In viewing Target Practice, I feel a resonance between the vocabularies that the artists are developing, apart from, and unknown to one another, yet in synchronicity. Does abstraction, and a more visceral approach to painting, open up a less mediated form of communication, in which the ritual of painting can speak to the changes we all navigate? While any mark, form, or image has the unavoidable potential to become contrived or representational, it is the job of the artist to move through the passages of exploring them with honesty, integrity and awareness.
“…I rubbed and scratched the paper until I tore holes in it, trying to reach something else, something more profound, to grasp the very essence of things.” (Nolde, Emil. qtd. in Chipp.146)
It is evident that artists use their practice as a response to the world around and within them. Chicago uses ritual to remember. Fontana, Shimamoto, Saint-Phalle, are all turning to destructive, often subtractive marks to express the moment of change. Their choices reflect the larger cultural shifts around each of them and their personal reactions to change. My own imagery, and mark making, has a similar visual connection to the quality of change I am transitioning through. My interest with strings, seams, horizons and the breaking, severing or expanding of these references informs my work. Looking for resonance, turning to ritual – are both ways that I am navigating a shifting landscape through my practice. When the landscape shifts because bombs, literal or figurative, were dropped, the marks we make in response cannot help but be mediated by that change. As I build upon a visual lexicon of marks and images that have come before me, of course their meaning will remain fluid and over time the definitions of my marks and images will take on their own lives, dependent on their surroundings. The personal meaning that was my intention during creation will eventually be lost. This is not something that I fear, but something that I believe has value. If the creation of a painting is a catalyst for movement, how can it be expected to stop moving once the artist’s hand is still? Part of the ritual is also releasing the work to become what it will, based on what meaning is ascribed to it tomorrow.
Recognizing a place for ritual, whether it is a dinner, a holiday celebration, the destruction or the creation of a painting, will help us all maintain a space where we can reflect with integrity on the speed of change, and our individual and communal passage into the future. The change is an act of creation in itself, and through the conscious recognition of our rituals, we can release what came before and step into what comes next. Painting is an active ritual. Through our mark making we will not only pull the future to us, but discover within ourselves a place between past and future where the most radical honesty resides, and a visceral language through which to share our passage.
Chipp, Herschel B.. “Theories of Modern Art”. Berkley, Los Angeles, London. University of California. 1968. Print.
Darling, Michael. “Target Practice: Painting Under Attack, 1949 – 78”. Seattle. Seattle Art Museum. 2009. Print.
Fabozzi, Paul F. “Artists, Critics, Context, Readings in and around American Art since 1945”. Upper Saddle River, Pearson Education. Print.
Fisher, Sylvia. Target Practice. Seattle Art Museum. Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, WA. 8/25/09. Docent led exhibit tour.
Foster, Hal. “The Anit-Aesthetic, Essays on Postmodern Culture”. New Press. New York. 1998. Print.
Morgan, Robert. Lucio Fontana. Sperone Westwater. Sperone Westwater. August 25, 2009.