Vital Contents: Affective Process in Deborah Worsfold’s Renaissance
St. Thomas-Elgin Public Art Centre
Nov 9 – Dec 29, 2018
In his recent book Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature, Alva Noë argues that aesthetic experience “has exactly the structure of a philosophical dialogue.” In staging conflicts and inducing disputes, the work of art disrupts the status quo of prior conversations and confronts us with the ways we typically go about relating to the world. It calls us into question, and we “catch ourselves in the act” of struggling with our ingrained, unconscious habits of seeing, feeling and thinking. In so doing, we gain the chance to trade these habits for new ones. “The work of art, like that of philosophy,” Noë says, “is the reorganization of ourselves.”
So it is with the visual practice of London, Ontario-based painter Deborah Worsfold, who has previously held solo exhibitions in Seattle, Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver, where she founded and ran Deborah Worsfold Gallery. Her images speak through multiply-layered echoes of undepicted depths; yet as acrylic displays, they celebrate the autonomy of individual surfaces, the concatenation of distinct moments in perception. Viewing her earlier work, one is tempted to follow a characteristic trail of motifs, like a grand tour of views leading through various post-Impressionist landscapes.
One of her more oneiric, commanding canvases, Nest (38 x 76, 2015-2018), for example, displays an iconic synthesis of styles and representational motifs from these older works. We look at a reading room infused with the cool daylight from an open window, the undulations of whose long white draperies blend with the surrounding wall. A green parrot sits perched atop a stack of books – evoking the “still life,” it might also be alive – and beside a crystal ball reflected in the modernist glass surface of the coffee table. With its curious play of surfaces and reflections; of promises of depth and confrontations with likeness, the interior hovers in a hazy state between dream and hypnosis evoking early twentieth-century explorations (psychoanalytic; surrealistic; experimental) of the unconscious. An uncanny gesture of self-reflexivity abides in a blank or white-painted canvas mounted on one of the walls, an emblem of reading depth from surfaces, of games and tests like the Rorschach ink blots, 8-balls and mood rings.
But if depth here is just another form of display, a mischievous celebration in two dimensions of the vagaries (or rigidities) of perception, it is less to the deconstructionist visions of Cézanne or Braque that one ought to look when taking stock of Worsfold’s recent exhibition, Renaissance, and more to the moments or places, however we arrive at them, where vision begins to cohere into the frames of perception as such. This resonates more directly with German Idealist and phenomenological investigations. Worsfold’s new images fuse the analytical play of line and colour with a sense of the aesthetic as a deeper problem of feeling.
“We are creatures of sense before we become creatures of reason,” note the editors of an introduction to Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man. The aesthetic object comes into view when one reaches the innate, organic principles under which the chaos of affective life can be subsumed. Through a process of self-determination, aesthetic objectivity thus lays the basis for freedom in the form of a particular beauty: a unity that “seems to be determined by its own nature: when, though having a law within it, it yet appears free from every law.”
Speaking of the recent and unexpected turn towards abstraction in her work, Worsfold elevates the metaphors of departure (changing course; making an exit; setting on a voyage) and flowing water (a running river, a rising sea) into sensuous reflections on these inner processes and methodologies. Strikingly, the descriptions in her exhibition notes, which reference Audre Lorde and Picasso, often make discursive rivals of the paintings themselves. “The flow of work felt like a warm sea, rising to my reach,” she relates. In her choice of titles, too, some complementary continuity makes itself felt, like an alternate melody briefly floating above the main score – an overtonal montage hinting at the direction of motion: Dark Underneath; Light Underneath; Glide; Rise. As if to confirm our distance from the mainland, her words delineate shapes like isolated archipelagos of non-symbolic expression. As if this is how we, as viewers and artists, navigate through obscure horizons, places where one point of reference dissolves into another.
Stretched across a full wall of Gallery Two, the cut-out collage series presents what may be the most innovative turn of this departure. Five white frames contain the paper mounts of acrylic-painted cardboard shapes arranged like solutions of esoteric puzzles. While these compositions continue the formal motifs of much of her work – the play of color relations with irregular, oblong shapes and the sense of feeling immersed within action (these are titled Inhale, Exhale, Stretch, Reach, Propose) – these “puzzle pieces” reach for a higher level of autonomy, a sharper distance from Worsfold’s prior work and from conditioned, quotidian perception. As if outlining the gaps between experience and desire, they incorporate these discrepancies, giving them life and new resolve.
This self-reflexive, process-based practice is usefully understood through the metaphor of cultivation. Peppered throughout her notes are tropes of growth and regeneration; sowing and reaping; trust and patient optimism. In her own words, painting itself is made of this process; “the final work is a side effect.” Of the initial forays into this phase of her work, which began the autumn prior, she notes that she had “put these aside until I felt I knew what to do with them, if ever that came to me.” She simply accepted the new impulses for colour relations as they presented themselves, and allowed their language to develop and clarify over time.
If Worsfold’s canvases sometimes faintly whisper like signal repeaters of tones long since surpassed – reverberations of distant affects found in Matisse, Mondrian, Magritte – this is not a correspondence of mimesis but of methexis, or transpersonal participation. The large-scale works, Float (60 x 48, 2018) in particular, seem to register the affective dynamism of pre-conscious forms of attention, the turbulent weather of psychic forces and the resistance to settling into the fixity of symbolic exchange. What seems to manifest, in Float, as an ambient synthesis of temporal perceptions – the long past, the just past, the slightly distant future – unfolds through a kaleidoscopy of elongated, asymmetrical wedges evocative of fruit and celestial bodies. As in her other works, here colour and brushstrokes playfully nudge our perception of depth and surface, inciting episodes of reverie as intimations of worlds that might yet emerge.
Soul Eye (60 x 48, June 2018), another large acrylic on panel, was aptly chosen for the exhibition’s titular display wall at the gallery entrance. Congruent with the panoptic tenor of its title, it gathers a diachrony of motifs into a noble proposition, poised, with familiar wedge and foliage imagery, at the edge of figuration. Added lines and textures intimate the transformations to come (Deborah explained to me her ability to deliberately “draw her own line” with respect to the ongoing expansion of certain forms and stylistic parameters), while a hint of portraiture makes a muted appearance. Whether as the gaze of the viewer reflected or returned from within the image, a latent exchange of looks arises from the smouldering forms of partial and proto-outlines of faces.
It was Adorno’s view in Aesthetic Theory that art provides a corrective to the divisions of consciousness, enabling “the communication of all dispersed particulars with each other,” and in this, the restoration of connections to affective life and the “vital interests” from which empirical rationality has separated itself.
Beyond the agile, autopoietic play of her signature palette and habitually narrow value range, Worsfold’s images juxtapose the silent, vibrational conflicts of colour and shape that form the horizons where subjective and intersubjective meet. If these astutely self-conscious expressions are not merely traces of the personal registers of the self, as Adorno would contend, but movements within larger publics, where should one place the singularity of experience? Does it exist as anything more than an artefact of sociality and language?
While Worsfold’s Renaissance displayed only a portion of what now comprises over 160 abstractions, it gave substance to a prolific seriality, the promise of self-generating modulations that could, in principle, extend indefinitely. Her invocation of this possibility – the beautiful thought that “to continue to paint endlessly you must believe in something that you cannot quantify” – points to the continuous dimensions of feeling and affect which haven’t yet been parceled into exchangeable verbal tokens: “elation,” “curiosity,” “apprehension,” and so on.
Some have argued against the existence of such a personal or mental “inner realm” of experience, of singular contents and pre-conceptual meanings, claiming we have merely been led to believe in it through the illusions of language. Others defend this realm of private sensation, but denounce the idea that it can be considered with the same logics and grammar which we bring to bear upon our encounters with the external world. Worsfold’s body of work reminds me of the potentially underappreciated value of images here; the work they do as archives, but also catalysts, for individual as much as collective thought.
With the force of their quasi-mystical precision and minimalism, the viewer of these images seems enjoined by a hidden imperative: not “look here,” but you will see. These images intervene, if you will, acting on our perceptual and cognitive intentions, in order to show us to ourselves “in the act:” the spontaneity of filling in spaces and depths, contours and trajectories; a pedagogy of self that requires the world (and art most specifically) for its realization.
By including several of her earlier canvases, this exhibition models such transformations in self-awareness that unfold from good art as much as good philosophy, which, as Noë puts it, “leaves everything as it finds it but reorganizes the way you think and reason.” Put another way, it suggests that by remaking ourselves individually, we open paths for remaking ourselves collectively.
* * *
I visited with Worsfold in her studio recently, where we talked through a range of aspects of her full-time creative practice, cultivating intimacy with the language of one’s aesthetic process and the modulations in form developing in her collage work in the months following the exhibition. A few comments highlight some persisting features of her work.
SF: We spoke earlier about your work’s ability to develop its own formal language, within and across pieces – and the cutouts’ tendency towards this “generative grammar” – is this in tension with your interest in the abstract as non-representational? It seems you’re laying out a register of non-discursive significance, of affective forms with the power to “make sense” – to generate statements and expressions, as it were, without nevertheless being captured as symbols.
DW: In reply to your comment “without nevertheless being captured as symbols” – the language exists in what cannot be seen, but felt, so one must shut off the cognitive ability and access what they intuit or instinctually sense. It means you must trust in not knowing, and go by instinct and intuition. For that is what it is to paint. In that I trust. And the paint doesn’t argue with me about how I feel. It lets me go on and on, making sense of the language. Without as much, I would not feel understood. I don’t need someone to say so because a true language doesn’t lie, it acts or it doesn’t This is not subjective. It is a realm, a place to go. In this regard it is generative.
SF: We also talked a bit about your characteristic use of edges and non-coloured spaces – what might otherwise be viewed as a use of “negative” space, except that you have identified a role for white as a “third space,” “void,” or “space of action,” as you put it. How did you come to understand the role of non-positive, non-negative space, and what work it does in your images?
DW: It came in response to concerns I have had about the limitations of the medium and with what it is to consider a painting as an object that acts, rather than as a flat surface with a “fool the eye” perspective. I chose from the beginning to conquer this in translation, to look for ways to get the medium out of the way and let the language speak. The white spaces occurred naturally. I made the conscious decision to let them stay, as it helped the colours breathe. If removed, the colours take on no additional light or space and must be adjusted. The image would then be one plane unless a positive and negative space are created. Typically, the subject is given the positive and the negative, what is left. To do this one must consider perspective and in doing that deal with the sources of light. As I am more interested in a flat surface and the tension that offers, I think of painting as creating an object where the colours interact in more than one space. I let the image exist as well as the space it sits in by leaving white. As I continued to paint in this way, I eventually created another space by giving it form. So the negative white space, organic cracks and white forms all add to the interaction of the colour palette. What to call these spaces is not as important as that if they exist, they must function.
SF: Finally, despite the abstraction in the collage-based work from the past year, you’ve nevertheless reincorporated, or continue to incorporate, techniques of repainting and re-presentation, e.g. translating a set of forms from cutouts into acrylic on canvas, echoing an existing practice where some of your paintings include painted representations of your own prior works, as you showed me with A Clear Day (2003). It feels rare to see this in contemporary art, but it also seems to connect with motifs such as the blank canvas represented on one of the walls in Nest. What’s the significance of this explicit foregrounding of representation for you (and the calling out of its absence, as with the blank canvas)?
DW: First of all, I do not repaint or represent. There is only paint and translate. Painting is a verb and a noun for good reason. When you paint you lay down the medium. If you paint over that, it is not repainting. It is painting again. Just as the second coat cannot be the first or go on the same, a painting, whether forged or painted again is still a separate action which can never be the previous. However, I get your question. I painted a portion of A Clear Day 40 x 60 into Modern Colours at 38 x 38. It is not the same painting. It is a painting of it. Nest was a rarity with regard to the white canvas in it. It was my sense of humour to put in a white space as a canvas rather than my usual unpainted forms. It still acts and does its job, however it is intellectual as much as it is action on the paint plane.
Possibly this created another space. Including a previous work in a new painting with a different language also creates a tension and therefore acts. Applying pigment to canvas is a singular world, often with no witness. Painting the abstract work into a representational space felt like documenting its action. Modern Colours was important. Daring to paint it did much to solidify my observations. That was 13 years ago. Painting in response to collage parallels this in that they are both responding to the self. It’s like a great conversation that can be addressed with new observations, because there is content. More than mere facsimile or polite exchange, something is being said. Even if one painting shows substance, it can only speak in one space. However, the act of painting your own work into another puts it in two places without copy or manufacture. As you point out, it is seldom done.
Your observations and questions have expanded this potential even further for me. Thank you for that and the glory of feeling understood. ֍
Reviewed by Shannon Foskett
All images are courtesy of the artist.