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The Painting Center: Repetition in Discourse

The Painting Center | Repetition in Discourse

In Freud’s famous analysis of the repetition compulsion, obsessive repetitive behavior is a disguised reenactment of a repressed trauma. But repetition has also been cultivated as a technique for the spiritually meditative: Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have all used the repetition of gestures, sounds and words to draw the mind inward, away from the contingencies of ordinary life. In the history of art, the repetition of uniform marks has been a way of providing a reductive analysis of perception, as with Seurat, and in cubism and futurism, repetition reflects the increasing mechanizations of life. By comparison, the types of repetition which dominate our scientifically and technologically driven world are as microscopic as they are demonic: the circuits stamped onto the surfaces of silicon chips, the endless iteration of symbols in a computer program, the mathematical code in a strand of DNA. The 19 artists participating in Repetition in Discourse explore the myriad dimensions, literal and metaphoric, of repetitive mark-making, from the spiritual to the scientific.

Jesse Pasca,"Breath Piece," Collection of Lorinda Ash.

Influenced by calligraphy and Eastern philosophy, Mark Tobey is an essentially meditative artist. The layered webs of marks that cover his paintings and drawings allude to visionary landscapes. But, unlike Pollock’s volatile all-over canvas, Tobey’s work is intimate and serene, and his language is an attempt to unify an otherwise fragmented world. Brice Marden’s ink drawings are notable for their coolly elegant and restrained lyricism. Both Franz Kline and the Pollock of the late drawings in black enamel on raw canvas were inspired by calligraphy, but the flowing rhythms of Marden’s drawings, like their Chinese and Japanese antecedents, are emotionally disciplined and deliberately controlled. Henri Michaux’s drawings, on the other hand, are in the tradition of surrealist automatism. Fascinated by the Southwestern Indian shamans’ use of peyote to induce trances, Michaux was interested in the metrical frequency of mark-making itself, and in the way the mind, the hand, the ink, and the page, the inner and the outer, blur together. Whereas both Tobey’s and Marden’s work has a self-conscious style, Michaux’s drawings are the traces of intense and private experiences.

Jesse Pasca inscribes literary texts and lists onto sheets of paper in a script so minute it is indecipherable. Pasca’s all-over text drawings evoke an infinity of useless, unreadable information, but his work, like Agnes Martin’s, is meticulously handmade, and even in his densest drawings, the discrepancies between words and rows accumulate into uneven lines, cracks, and gaps where the white of the blank page shines through. Jacob El Hanani’s repetition of names in vanishingly small Hebrew script refers back to the Jewish tradition of microwriting on the Torah scrolls inside Mezuzahs, to the incantatory repetitiousness of prayer and the sacral weight of the word in Jewish tradition. El Hanani literalizes the concept of touch by writing with the tips of his fingers, as though simultaneously marking and blessing the page. Whereas both Pasca and El Hanani press the hand to its visible limits, Lee Etheredge IV deploys the clunky, archaic technology of the manual typewriter, filling the page with random, unspaced letters, which hover somewhere between Russian constructivist typography and an alchemist’s esoteric formulae, and outsider artist Richard Gorcoff has invented an eccentric private alphabet and language to ward off personal demons. Etheredge’s and Gorcoff’s work is not refined or scholarly; it is blunt, driven, and emotionally urgent.

Simon Frost builds constellations of shapes out of layers of fine lines, creating intricate surfaces and imploding galaxies. Mary Judd draws ethereal, nested shapes by rubbing powdered pastel through a sheet perforated by a needle, the traces that result resembling fossil prints or geological formations. Robert Jack’s faint conflagrations of burn marks, as well as Taney Roniger’s grids of darkly ringed punctures, are like the mysterious burns and stains left behind by some remote physical process. Frost, Judd, Jack, and Roniger all allude to landscape, to the natural, physical world; Andrew Forge’s luminous abstractions, on the other hand, are more directly in the tradition of landscape painting.

Geometric abstraction is characteristically an austere,  reductive idiom, but its basic forms have often been combined with complex surfaces and nuanced lines. Don Voisine’s overlapping rectangles are made of surprisingly casual, irregular hatch marks, forming screens of varying density which frame and focus the mind in on a central and unrepresentable darkness. The patchwork of playful rectangles in Andra Samelson’s ink drawings resemble a cut-out fragment of an old piece of cloth. But the strength of Samelson’s drawing, and this could be said of Ruth Lauer’s work as well, rests on the tension between the awkward shapes and the rhythms and textures of the finely scored lines with which they are filled, sometimes densely hatched, other times aggressively diagonal or curving, modulating light and dark, giving the surface a sense of conflicting motion. In contrast to Voisine, Samelson, and Lauer, James Siena’s nesting spirals, whiel alluding to the pop-influenced, psychedelic geometric art of the late 1960s, depend for their effect on their slightly uncertain, bent, handmade lines, which make the drawings intimate and oddly lyrical.

Yayoi Kusama is among the most authentic and transcendent of obsessional artists. Kusama’s proliferating dots, cells, and honeycomb nets are a desperate effort to impose an order on her smoldering cosmic orbs and the menacing, luxuriant spaces that surround them. Terry Winters’s fierce knots of vectoring lines define deep, congested spaces which are in continuous transformation. Winters’s earlier work is lyrical and biomorphic, but his most recent drawings seem neither organic nor inorganic, but are an attempt to capture, in cyberspace perhaps, a reality that resists the stasis of representation. Like Winters, curator Phong Bui’s drawings articulate complex, almost architectural spaces, their flexible lines not so much ornamental as structural, but the sensuous movement of Bui’s line is meditative.

The concept of repetition, and its close twin, variation, reaches to one of the fundamental features of most visual art: the making of marks on a surface. Consider the minute hatchings that make up a drawing by Dürer or Rembrandt, the obsessive asymmetries in the daubs in one of Monet’s haystacks, or the blurry accumulations of points in Seurat’s charcoal drawings. Repetition is an order always threatening to proliferate into madness and chaos. In the works on paper exhibited in Repetition in Discourse, the complex personal and aesthetic aspects of repetition are investigated: Marden’s trained lyricism, Gorcoff and Kusama’s pathological efforts to control a demonic world, Winters’s furious topologies.


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