Thursday 19 November 2015

"Suffused" by Judy Graham at NAC

The latest show at NAC, "Suffused" by Judy Graham, is not at all easy to pin down in words, and Judy herself does not make too much of an effort to describe it in words that convey and immediately accessible meaning. In her artist's statement, she says, "These images are most often a projection of memory, a memory that recalls the biological. They have taken up residence where the medical laboratorial self left off, or where research into human anatomy only exists now in the stacks. These drawings are meant to recall organic abstraction and the such-ness of biotic potential."

What really threw me in this oracular statement was the word "such-ness," which I have only come across before in a Buddhist context and is there used in a metaphysical sense to refer to what one can otherwise call "the nature of things as they are" -- the irreducible nature of reality which cannot be changed but only overcome.  We live in "Samsara," that is material existence which is characterized by suffering, and the aim of the Buddhist is to rise above it by refusing to let oneself be dominated by it.

How does that apply to lab samples, since what I suppose Judy started out with were slides of cell structures, dyed and magnified for scientific analysis?  For an answer, all one can do is look at the ink and pastel drawings on the walls of the Dennis Tourbin Gallery, since the function of the words in an artist's statement is to refer one back to the visual art they attempt to define.

These drawings are all quite large and essentially similar, since cell structures cannot vary dramatically and the colours were originally chosen to throw these cell structures into relief.  A less metaphysical term than "such-ness" would be "a given."  The given in this case seems to be a bean.  Each of these remembered and consequently simplified cell structures, reduced to an abstraction, somewhat resembles a bean.  Perhaps when I think of these cell structures as the building blocks of a human being with its potential for physical and emotional expression indicated by such titles as "Seeing Red" and "Repulsion," I might make a childish pun and call that bean "a human bean."

Each human bean or group of human beans is surrounded by a contrasting shadow which conveys in pastel much the same effect as a watercolour wash, throwing it into relief.  The word "such-ness" comes back as no more precise word can serve as a technical, scientific definition of what Judy Graham is attempting to convey.  It can only be an allusion, bearing the same relation to words as aboriginal smoke signals do the messages they convey.

In the end the words send one back to the pictures, which is what visual art is all about.  Its "such-ness" consists of shapes and colours and whatever meaning they convey directly through the eye.  In other words, are these drawings worth looking at?  And I think I can safely say that they do have that worth to a considerable degree.  What is ultimately Buddhist about them is that they can serve as a focal point for meditation.  You may ask, for meditation on what?  Insofar as meditation implies contemplation of a particular topic and not simply staring into space in order to cultivate detachment, I might say that its object is "the human condition," the state of being a human bean.  In other words, I think I have ended up saying exactly the same things as Judy, only at greater length, as I try to explain her few, carefully chosen words to myself.

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