There is a double sense of the sense of touch. It is both a physical interaction and an affective encounter. It’s not just the interaction but the investment which comes with touch. It has the power to move you, to (metaphorically) touch you.
I feel that there is a lack of affective touch in the way that we encounter art. In the following pages I will begin to contextualise why our sense of touch is slipping away; the relationship that touch has to our other senses; how we can re-frame our cultural understanding of the five distinct senses as one sensory perceptual system; and finally how touch, when incorporated into art spectatorship, can begin to overcome the object-subject dichotomy allowing you to experience the work in a more organic and sensory way.
In the first half I will then explore how we can touch without touch: replacing the disembodied eye of spectatorship for an embodied, participative encounter with artworks. The second will examine the extremes: the experience of a physically tactile participation with artworks, and a psychological sensory experience with an artwork which extends beyond the visual into the mind’s eye.
Interspersed through the text are a number of quotes and an interview. Dip in and dip out as is useful. Think of them as images, as signposts. I hope they add feeling. Prière de toucher…
A LACK OF TOUCH
There is a strange friction, a misalignment, a discrepancy in our contemporary condition. Against a culture of excess, there is a poverty of touch. We are in a sensory overload from over-stimulation: As I write from my flat in Peckham I am distracted by a constant stream of images from emails, texts, Instagram, and adverts which bound and rebound around me; the resounding noise of Rye Lane drifts in through my window (so I play music over the top to deaden it out); various candles, diffusers and perfumes compete with the faint hum of the street; and while my hands swipe and tap at the screen or keyboard I’m surrounded by a tactile sensorium of soft sheets, squishy pillows and the cold metal surface of my desk. It is as though everything is up in the air and a little out of reach. My subjectivity is fading in the sea of information and excess. There is a loss of indexicality, and with it authentic, affective encounters are slipping away.
Apart from (sexual) intimacy, explorative touch is increasingly repressed by society. From early childhood we’re told: Don’t touch that! Don’t put that in your mouth you’ll get sick! Don’t pick your nose! Don’t play in the mud! Francis McGlone, Professor in neuroscience and a forerunner in the field of affective touch research, highlights how ‘we have demonised touch to a level at which it sparks off hysterical responses, it sparks off legislative processes, and this lack of touch is not good for mental health.’ Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami and author of Touch (2001), coined this predicament as ‘touch-hunger’.
Real interactions have fallen by the wayside, superseded by digital communications. New media gives emphasis to novelty over compassion and comprehension. We often miss meaningful messages and hardly ever connect with ourselves or our bodies. We no longer go online, we are online. And despite constant connectivity streaming to the palm of our hands, we are statistically loneliest generation to date… So much for instant gratification. Our fleeting brush with visuals seem inauthentic, intangible. As Mark Greif states in his critique on contemporary life, we live in ‘dishonest times’.
“Today people feel insecure… Insecure financially, in terms of identity, of place. Sometimes politically insecure or disembodied in the digital world they experience.”
– Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev
The connection between individuals online is synthetic: disembodied and physically distant. There is a specifically digital anxiety and loneliness that pervades the occupation of virtual space over real space. Without physical encounters and social touch our sensory perceptions atrophy. Our deprived bodily sensorium craves nearness and touch.
There is a contemporary feeling of detachment – a void – a separateness. This psychological and physical distance is reflected in the way we engage with art. The rift between the viewer and the work is symptomatic of the gap between our actual experience and the theoretical culture which explains it away. This distance widens and solidifies with each white cube presentation, every barrier and each indecipherably dense gallery text. As we fall out of touch with each other, we fall out of touch with our subjectivities, and with the artworks. How we can reclaim, or even re-learn, how to experience artworks through touch? Not simply by touching with the hands, but touch with the eyes, and even feeling beyond the visual.
Our lack of touch is often pitted against visual excess. Constance Classen speaks to the imbalance of visual overload and touch-hunger stating, ‘while there are many representations of touch, there is often nothing actually there to feel’. The streams of images from advertising, television and the Internet readily appeal to our sense of touch, yet the lack of physical presence means the appeal is ‘unaccompanied… by actual tactile gratification’. Our distance from the images makes us alienated and out of touch with the visual world.
By its very definition ‘visual culture’ has sidelined all other senses. And yet to call out this imbalance, or this lack, presupposes that the senses were ever in harmony. They weren’t. In Western traditions this bias dates back to Aristotle who declared that ‘I see’ constituted ‘I know’; this was upheld by monotheistic religions; Descartes championed the mind-body division; the Enlightenment privileged sight over touch; and in Capitalism, lived body experience is replaced by the passive act of looking. Concurrently, as the power of sight is celebrated, the perceptual abilities of touch are encoded with primitivism. ‘Tactile’ becomes synonymous with ‘unsophisticated’ or ‘non-rational’. But in spite of the negative connotations, touch is a deeply ingrained and intimate sense and that is what makes it authentic. In his tactile experiments, Jan Švankmajer notes that ‘instinctive experiences of tactile perception will always throw us back to the deepest layers of our unconscious’. Touch is phenomenologically connected to our emotional understanding of the world, touch allows us to feel (physically and psychically), and it refutes the Cartesian dualism of mind and body. After all, the notion that vision is truth is a little hard to digest in an age of virtual realities and digital fakery.
The balance of touch and vision needs to be redressed, the relationship should be more symbiotic, employing both senses to benefit the fruition of embodied perception. The union of touch and vision is critical to our perception of art: as a blind visitor of Tate’s Touch exhibition in 1980s expressed, ‘I couldn’t relate to the touch exhibitions… if you have no vocabulary you cannot relate to [sculpture]’. Lets expand and pluralise our perception of art to include the full sensorium. Let the non-visual redraft the visual. Vision is a distance sense, let’s pull it closer.
THE ARBITRARY DIVISION OF THE SENSES
Considering the helpful symbiosis of vision with touch, is our division of the senses even necessary? It seems senseless to delineate our sensory system into five distinct senses – touch, sight, hearing, taste, and smell. We could argue the division in innumerable ways.
Our term ‘touch’ doesn’t cover a single sense so much as an entire somatosensory system. A system which can perceive the distinct touch-feel of pressure, pain, texture, vibration, weight, or temperature. On top of this, the somatosensory cortex is further mapped with a point-to-point correspondence with our body map, which establishes the sense of proprioception, the sense of one’s body position and movement. This division is still simplistic, our somatosensory system can establish balance, both crude touch (a feeling of touch which can’t be localised) and fine touch (which can), and affective touch (which enmeshes sensory information with coded emotional reactions).
To put it simply, the five senses are never sensing alone, at every moment we are processing information through a complex perceptual web. Consider taste: as we eat we perceive sweetness and saltiness, but also texture, pressure, and heat, sensations we would normally subscribe to touch. It goes without saying that eating is imbued with emotional sensations, we might be thrown back into happy memories of being covered in sticky, melted chocolate when baking as a child, or uncomfortably reminded of a horrible memory of throwing up on something with a similar taste. The smell of food tempts your tastebuds before it has reached your mouth. Even sight is a part of taste, reportedly the blind restaurant in London, Dans Le Noir, is incredibly tasteless.
To divide the senses is arbitrary, small children don’t comprehend or need this separation. They have a sensing body, and they interpret and perform with objects and the world instinctively – children do not even know the parts of their bodies until they are taught it by naming each piece. Without these labels the body is what Jean-Luc Nancy designates as a ‘body of sense’. ‘An open space’, he writes, a space or place then that, ‘isn’t full or empty, since it doesn’t have an outside or an inside’, it just ‘makes room for existence’.
SUBJECT BECOMES OBJECT BECOMES SUBJECT
Our highly symbolic, ocularcentric world is by-product of the Capitalist disposition to make meanings easily consumable. This has encouraged a clear subject-object hierarchy where a spectator perceives and consumes the translatable signs of foreign objects. Touch is both objective and subjective. As we touch we project a sensation outwardly, outside of our bodies but we also perceive sensations internally and feel it on the skin. A heightened sensitivity to touch can begin to overcome the dichotomy of object and subject, paving the way to cultivate feeling.
An alternative to symbolic representation prevalent in capitalism could be mimesis. Mimesis originates from the Greek mimeisthai, meaning ‘to imitate’. Mimetic perception shifts the relationship between subject and object and, as Laura U. Marks states, provides an ‘immanent way of being in the world, whereby the subject comes into being not through abstraction from the world but by compassionate involvement in it’. Mimesis is a model for embodied perception and is important to Marks in relation to film. The audio-visual media of film lends itself to mimetic perception as the viewer is fully immersed in spectatorship. This embodied immersion can be replicated with primarily visual art forms too.
In relation to painting, it is by Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei’s concept of the ‘third’ or ‘ideal dimension mimesis’ which we can realise full immersion. This is where the painting projects a ‘unique stratum of imagined being that, though borrowing from the world of ordinary experience, is irreducible to it’. To be mimetic, this ‘unique stratum’, or the projection of the painting must have an authentic rub, it must be believable. A painting must not be objectively analysed and inscribed with academic meaning, but must be perceived as a thing which means in itself, its physicality and presence are sufficient and valid. The mimetic representation then is not just an image, but an experiential threshold to evocations of other sensory and cognitive experiences.
Our ability to understand a the unique projection of a painting hinges on the complex relationship between our psychic and corporeal sensations. Jean-Paul Sartre addresses in his essay Being and Nothingness, observing that from the time they learn to talk, very young children are able to understand the value of tactile words, such as ‘soft’ or ‘slimy’, when applied to the descriptions of feelings or to people. It is in this phenomenological way that we can grasp, appreciate, and empathise with the unique projection of an artwork.
i) SEE LIKE A SYNAESTHETE
‘Sense itself will float, in order to stop or start at its limit: and that this limit is the body, and not as a pure and simple exteriority of sense, or as some unknown, intact, untouchable matter, thrust into some improbable transcendence closed in the densest immediacy… not then, finally, as “the body,” but instead as The Body of Sense.’
– Jean-Luc Nancy
In the hope of challenging a gaze of mastery, I look through the lens of mirror-touch synaesthesia. A neurological condition, where the physical sensation of touch is experienced through the observation of touch to others. Mirror-touch was discovered at a conference in 2003 when an audience member announced, ‘I think I have synaesthesia, I can feel touch just by looking at someone being touched’. As the boundary between what is internally felt and externally encountered blurs, the traditional subject-object dichotomy collapses. Mirror-touch synaesthesia offers us a model for a more empathic, holistic mode of art spectatorship. Substitute the disembodied eye of the spectator for a fully engaged synaesthetic subject who co-constitutes the artwork.
The word synaesthesia derives from the Ancient Greek word syn meaning ‘together’, and aesthesis meaning sensation. This translates as perceiving together, evocative of a commingling of the senses. The complex cross-wiring of the senses manifest in synaesthesia offers us rich and exciting models for engaging with art (and the world). Artists have often been inspired by and appropriated synaesthetic aspects in their work; two examples being Wassily Kandinsky’s experiments with translating sounds into colour, and Martin Kippenberger’s playfully titled work, Put Your Eye in Your Mouth. These conjure a vivid, cross-modal sensorium.
Synaesthetes profess their unusual mode of seeing with pride. The phenomena is now considered socially significant, even gifted: homogeneous perception is passé. The growing recognition of synaesthesia in the Information Age can in part be attributed to our growing digital communications. Social media and internet forums connect us and provide a platform to discuss personal peculiarities. However, as our synthetic online communications grow, so does a feeling of digital isolation. An irony: this feeling of isolation has been the basis for increased neurological and social interest in synaesthesia. With regard to our relationship with art, I focus on the most social and newly discovered synaesthesia: mirror-touch.
1.6% of the population is thought to experience mirror-touch synaesthesia, though this extreme form of empathy manifests at different degrees. It is triggered by an over activation of the mirror-neuron system, a system present in all of us. It’s the reason we ‘catch’ a yawn, mirror the mannerisms of a friend, or flinch if we see someone slam their hand in a door. The touch felt by mirror-touch is not general or vague, it’s real. Mirror-touch synaesthete Fiona Torrence actually passed out from the extreme pain felt from a punch to the face as she observed a mugging from the safety of her car. People with mirror-touch do not need to have experienced a feeling (a gunshot/ a broken bone etc.) to feel the pain. Some suggest that mirror-touch is an explanation for ‘old fashioned squeamishness.’ Each shared sensation is coloured by emotion, synaesthetes are hyper-empathetic and are finely attuned to micro changes in facial expressions as a result. Artistically, mirror-touch invites new perspectives on embodied spectatorship and empathetic modes of seeing.
Generally mirror-touch synaesthetes only feel physical and emotional sensations of other humans. However, a small minority feel embedded empathy with inanimate objects and this offers us the most vivid metaphor for perceiving art. To most of us mirror-touch is just that, a metaphor. But what would it be like if this was your norm, with no means of shutting it off? Artist filmmaker and researcher Daria Martin has conducted extensive interviews with synaesthetes to unearth what is it like to live this embodied reality:
‘Eyes touch… When I look outside at the trees it is like the physical veins and muscles of my eyes extend like a stream into the branches of the trees. I feel like I become the veins of the leaves and move with them as they blow in the wind. As I go through the experience it becomes more like touching, like I am the branches as hands extending out into the air and sky.’ – Fiona Torrence
In one of Martin’s surveys, Torrence writes:
‘Patterns engulf me. A patterned carpet at a hotel can be overwhelming as the way the colours and lines and shapes are combined makes parts of the body feel pulled out of shape. By stepping on particular shapes or on specific colours you can keep a better balance. My entire body, physical sensation and movements are affected by patterns. Some are calming and rhythmic, while others are divisive and disturbing depending on the objects and the angle of the walls in the room.’
Another synaesthete wrote of his self-other misalignment,
‘I oscillate between absorption in which the body opens up to the objects and sensations coming from outside, I genuinely believe I am part of the world. And moments in which I begin to understand that this blurred state is my own internal property and I become aware of being an individual. This detachment can be politically empowering creating an understanding of the human condition, of being social, collective, but also alienated, individual and lonely.’
Joel Salinas, a neurologist and hypersensitive mirror-touch synaesthete, describes his own sensations of embodying various inanimate objects: how a lamppost will make him feel elongated with his head really high up; the curvaceous form of a bell swells his own face, mapping to its bulbous form; A glass of water, he feels partially submerged, the edge of the water tickling the sides of his mouth. Salinas also discusses how sensation often map onto his face: he describes how with patterns, for instance a screen door, he feels the undulations pressed against and imprinted on his face, and how colours similarly feel very prominent on his cheeks.
To experience this level of mirror-touch synaesthesia is an entirely overwhelming reality. It’s often so intense that many interviewees report strategies for dampening the effects of the sensory onslaught: for instance stoking the velvet of a chair, or appealing to logic to control of cognitive framing, such as watching a gruesome horror film and having to remind yourself that scenes are fantastical.
Mirror-touch is an intensification of our potential for engaging with art. As Martin outlines, ‘Images seen at a distance are brought close and felt right on the skin. The space between themselves and others collapses through this mapping of touch.’ We have moved radically beyond the Cartesian split, for the synaesthete, self literally becomes other. If we view this fusion of self and other as a model for art spectatorship then, rather than as a ‘foreign body’, an artwork is absorbed onto the body. It is mimetic in the absolute. Mirror-touch synaesthesia is mimetic in the extreme. It has been proven that the mirror-neuron system is active not only when observing action, but also when reading about, listening to or looking at accounts of action. As such, mirror-neurons are evident in our active imagination. Even without experiencing mirrored touch, we all have mirror-neurons and so we fall on the spectrum which makes it possible for us to truly imagine the experience, and to empathise with a more nuanced world. We just have pay real attention and hone in on our psyche.
While this synaesthesia is involuntary and largely occurs on a preconscious level, there is still a slippage – a misalignment – a gap. A synaesthete will always be ingrained with her own specific cultural framing and personal emotions. Our neural circuits cannot function independently of our context: the mirroring will never be a perfect reflection. Our subjectivities are important, they colour our every encounter and deserve recognition, the slippage makes it personal and provides a space of productive tension. When examining touch and art in the following chapters I will consider what it means to feel empathy, how images can reflect in us, and how our personal emotions and experiences can colour an encounter.
ii) TO PAINT WITH FEELING / TO FEEL IN PAINT
‘Seeing is touching. Images move us’ – Daria Martin
“the hands want to see, the eyes want to caress” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
When reading a really good book you experience full immersion: the words become your world and you are fully captivated by the authenticity of this ulterior reality. The novel is no longer an object to you, you participate in its narrative, and lose yourself in the pages. I want to experience this level of immersion when I encounter a painting. I am bored of paintings that feel thin. So many paintings look as though they are designed to be viewed on instagram or printed in magazines. It is not compelling when it is that flat. There is nothing to move you, nothing to pull you in, rile you up, and make you believe.
Mirror-touch demonstrates that our eyes can touch, and that an image in the distance can be brought close and felt on the skin. With this potential in mind, I will explore what is it about painting which appeals to our skins potentiality and how images can move us.
‘Feeling like an abstract line means letting go of the judgements that create meaning for a little while and allowing sensations to affect you. Let the lines’ rhythms move you. Feel Languorous, exhilarated, dizzy, frivolous. Put up with the lack of meaning. Postpone interpretation.’
– Laura U. Marks
It is generally conceived that there are two types of vision: optic and haptic. Optical vision privileges the representational power of images, it is objective, distant, and still. On the other hand, Haptic vision encourages a bodily relationship between the viewer and image, a co-existence which privileges the sensory presence of the object. The haptic eye does not stay still, it wanders, grazes, caresses, and mulches the image always seeking an affective touch. And touch is reciprocal: to quote Marks, ‘when vision is like touch, the object’s touch back may be like a caress, though it may also be violent…’
Haptic spaces and abstract lines twist and turn through figurative traditions from Renaissance to Rococo, Impressionism to the Psychedelic, Minimalism and on. Yet time and time again precedent has been given to the optic, representational meaning of an image over its plastic qualities. I would like to champion the reverse: I will specifically touch contemporary abstract painting (and I use the term painting loosely).
In Painting Abstraction, Bob Nickas reasons that, ‘if a representational picture offers an image of how the world looks, then doesn’t it fall to abstraction to provide us with an image of how the world feels?’ Abstract painting, liberated from replicating the visible world, has a greater capacity to articulate our bodily experiences. The problem is that we cannot properly describe the invisible – be it our first-hand sensory experiences or what is felt when visual perceptions affect us. Linguistically, our vocabulary to describe sensations is so limited that it is difficult to convey how we feel. Paintings however, tangibly recreate our invisible experiences, activate our tactile and sensory memory outside of language. It’s just a shame that in order to discuss this we have to make do with metaphors, partial translations that will never truly equate to our prelinguistic experience.
All we can do is try. Artists are particularly well attuned to a free way of translating their feelings of experiencing paintings into words. Perhaps this is because they really understand the very substance of paint. They can see the surface, the brushwork and and the movement and can picture themselves working through its very creation. Painting has its own innate visceral materiality: its liquid, captivating and sexy. It’s slippery. Gestures, materials, forms, colours, and emotions constantly slide in and out of reach.
Willem de Kooning likened Larry Rivers’ paintings to ‘pressing your face in wet grass’, a juicy metaphor that conjures a wealth of sensations that can be felt from looking at his work (if we succumb).
“Is empathy generated by the self or other? Is empathy actually a projection of my own mood? A cognitively puzzled out or less consciously leapt to imagining of what it might be like for me to be in your shoes? Or is empathy really about the other, and a resonance perhaps through a magical medium such as mirror-neurons with your mystery?”
– Daria Martin
Projecting your own experience is an intrinsic part of subjectivity. The perspective of the artist is almost always different to that of the perceiver. The disparity between your own experience and that of another, and our ability to comprehend what we have not experienced, is what makes life interesting. Our
mood and experiences affect how we perceive paintings, just as our experience of the world is embedded in coded emotional and sensory memories. David Salle muses on this: ‘We often describe certain paintings as old friends, for good reason. What is this thing about art that speaks to us? How to account for the feeling of recognition we have with art, almost as if the work were waiting for us, anticipating our engagement with its deeper music? It has to do with something you can intuit, as you would with any person you meet.’ What matters is that we allow ourselves to feel, even if the mind wanders from the objective meaning and you plunge face-first into the dew.
To look at a painting should be to absorb it, map its forms onto your body, and to pay close attention to how it makes you feel. Feels is a compelling word, a contemporary colloquialism which translates as, ‘a wave of emotions that sometimes cannot be adequately explained.’
We can know more than we can explain. Merleau-Ponty states that ‘our experience of the true’ is not reducible to what we can see or already know. He expresses how ‘the child knows well beyond what he knows to say, responds well beyond what he can define’. This is as true of painting as it is of language. In the same way that ‘a genuine conversation gives me access to thoughts that I did not know myself capable of’, so can we inherit sensory experiences from a painting. As I project my subjectivities onto a painting and the painting projects back, perception and proprioception merge on the surface. Velvety, prickly, solid weight, light as a feather, viscous or fluid, slimy or rough, gelatinous, agile, frantic, serene, sharp, bulging… You can touch with your eyes.
By examining recent works by Donna Huanca, Eva Lewitt, and Mary Ramsden I will explore how contemporary visual art can induce a sense of touch at three volumes. Huanca’s work as the most fervent sensual stimulation, Lewitt as a sweeping caress, and Ramsden a tickle. The work discussed here gives me the feels.
Donna Huanca’s work is the antithesis of flat. She seduces us with ‘live, visceral experiences’ and encounters with works in flux. An ambitious combination of large-format paintings, painted performers, assemblage sculptures, responsive sound works, architectural interventions, and scent infusions readily involves Huanca’s audience. These installations vibrate at a molecular level and reverberate around our full sensory spectrum. In resistance to experiencing the world on-screen, Huanca is fascinated by the ‘potential of scarring the brain with human smell/scents and the approximation of physicality.’ With this physicality and closeness, Huanca hopes to revive her audiences’ ‘empathy for the human body.’ A motive perfectly in tandem with my raison d’être for this exploration into touch.
‘Skin has been coded in Western thinking as a plural sense of closeness, intimacy, and eroticism.’
– Claudia Benthien
Huanca’s paints her models with soft hues of thick latex, partial skin suits, healing clays, charcoal, thick pigmented cosmetic powders, foundations and spices. Her palette of minty greens, lead white, cobalt, lemon yellows, and peachy pinks is inspired by geology and birds of paradise, but floats somewhere between the organic and cosmetic-synthetic. As the durational performances unfold Huanca’s semi-naked models glide around, occasionally brushing against the walls or structures, leaving a residual trace of their presence. It feels ritualistic and projects a profound energy which is deeply relatable. Relatable and yet strange: a trance-like microcosm occupying an abstract, otherworldly aesthetic. The experience is intended to be a meditation and the meditation is on skin: as Huanca expresses, ‘skin is a universal tissue that connects all humans’.
‘Painting is the art of bodies, in that it only knows about skin, being skin through and through.’
– Jean-Luc Nancy
While the performances are specifically engineered to illicit sensory encounters, I am caught in an embodied encounter by perceiving Huanca’s paintings alone. Close-up photographs of the performers’ bodies are blown up to huge proportions on canvas and enveloped with painted material. Both surfaces, skin and canvas, are covered in the same ritualistic way. A raw energy pulses through Huanca’s work, I can feel the vitality of her painterly marks and material, while an aura of presence exudes from the strange essence of flesh and the tactility of skin beneath. These works are heavy with memory.
And as I stand in front of Brugmansia (Toé) my vision is entirely consumed, the painting extends beyond my peripheral. I am drawn towards the surface and feel close. Hidden behind Huanca’s pulsating painterly marks, the encrusted flesh enlarged to the point where the body becomes entirely unrecognisable, abstracted. Yet the texture of skin, crumbling under layers of pigment peeks through. Familiar and uncanny. The image is sensuous and alluring, I want to reach out and run my hand across this bodily form – yet there’s something alike skin-tights and talcum powder which repels me, shivering.
I experience a sensation on my skin which is at odds with the soft cotton of my t-shirt against my body. My surface feels taut, as if the tension of drying paint has stretched it out. Cracking. I can feel the weight of the materials which cling to the canvas’ externally and congeal on the amorphous expanse of flesh internally. Looking at Huanca’s paintings induces a feeling of doubleness: while I know and understand how my own body is, and as my haptic eye rolls around the curvaceous, vibrant forms in the painting, I feel almost like I’m looking in a fun house mirror. And while my skin assimilates the strangeness of this borrowed sensation, my body feels fluid.
These paintings are the epitome of haptic. While the performers movements are almost imperceptible, the paintings are full of life. The uneven surfaces encourage my eye to graze the surface. The intensity of the cobalt palpitates along the swirling clouds of Huanca’s energy. I cannot stay still or focus: my gaze sweeps and rolls around each curve and every abstract line, soaking the image in. I feel like I am being carried along by a stream, my speed changing with the current. Slumping, languorous, slouching, floating swiftly, rapidly spiralling: I rise and fall with each unpredictable twist and internally repeat them.
Let’s take a breath and settle. Eva Lewitt’s wall installations are more delicate and quiet than Huanca’s effervescing masses. Composed yet playful: Parted Plastic is not a painting in a traditional sense, but the gentle curve of the line and the sensitive interaction of colour has definite painterly qualities.
I am filled me with a very particular tangible feeling. I don’t feel as physically close to Lewitt’s material as I did to Huanca’s vibrating figure ground. Rather, I’m held in suspension – caught in an interplay between weight and weightlessness. Mesmerised, my eye glides across the latex bands, sweeping with the steeped curves, catching slightly to collect at each plastic cylinder, then meandering to the floor. I feel as though Lewitt has swept these streams aside as though she were tucking my hair behind my ear. Or like I am brushing a full-length curtain to one side with both hands to peak at the view, but just momentarily, and the folds will swing back and fall straight with the pull of gravity – both sensations collide in Genesis Belanger’s anthropomorphic curtain piece.
Folding and unfolding. Poised. Lewitt’s interaction with materials is palpable and full of duality. There are so many rich and surprising narratives in Lewitt’s recent material language: porous/ impermeable, industrial/ handmade, density/ lightness, sturdy/ fragile. Yet, without physically handling the piece, there will always be an element of mystery. The latex is as lightweight as the lilac and lemon hues appear, fleshy, flexible and thin, like a gym resistance band. But as the streams come to rest across the more concrete plastic obstacles, gathering and slackening slightly at each punctuation, they almost appear to have mass. This illusion is shattered by the support of the sculpture: foam blocks arranged in a line, weightless themselves, are all that keeps Lewitt’s fragile balancing act suspended. It’s effortlessly elegant. As I realise just how weightless this piece is, I feel like I am caught at the peak of a really deep breath. Suspended there, spaced in harmony with and between each strand. It is oh-so satisfying. A caress to my eyes.
Now for the tickle: the paintings included in Ramsden’s 2015 show Swipe do not depict everyday objects and surfaces but inhabit them. This is what makes them so tactile.
“Illusion is a difficult word. I find it playful to describe different surfaces with paint where they don’t represent an object pictorially but just appear made of that stuff, so they just ‘do’ table top or pavement but it’s a reminder of a finish not an illusion. Sometimes the sanded layers of paint when excavated, appear to mimic denim or a pixelated image but this isn’t about any kind of trickery”
– Mary Ramsden
There is no interplay of metaphor, Ramsden gets directly into the essence of her objects experience. One-Two is particularly interesting as it captures the very thingness of a digital screen. In itself, the pristine, reflective, glowing interface, the object blamed for our tactual deficit. The screen is not usually considered a tactile object but Ramsden treats it like it is. The gestural painted surface mimics our interaction with the screen. Overlapping swipes and smears cover the surface of the boards like the greasy residue left on the surface of my iPhone. These gestures feel so familiar and as I stay with the painting, my eye follows the trace of each mark, repeating them. As I map my way across the surface I am affected by the passing of time and movement in the work. It’s unusual to capture a proprioceptive feeling on such a small scale, each panel is hardly bigger than A4. Yet this is so effective because of its honesty to the scale of the screen that this piece is ‘just “doing”.’
This mode of treating the surface of the painting in the way one treats everyday objects – particularly when this involves tactile actions – is especially interesting. While it brings painting closer to sculpture, it also paves the way for painting to directly remind us or recreate those tactile relationships and experiences which we are losing in the everyday. Painting in this way doesn’t need to rely on metaphor, it becomes a map, jogging your memory of how to move in your body.
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