Painting by Limited Means

Architect and critic Jason Whiteley in response to the Network Series 2006-7.

If somehow we’ve inherited an historical split between what a painting ‘is’ and what it is ‘of’, then in Ruth Thomas-Edmond’s intense series of drawings, the ‘of’ part of the ledger is an oscillating mesh hovering within the picture plane, coincident with the physical sheet of paper. The mesh is built up from an intricate and labour intensive network of hand-drawn cells, each conforming to a basic generative rule, for example, that each line connect to four others; and each attempting a loose consistency in the distance between adjacent cells. Taken together, they form neighborhoods of similar tonal value, which allows Thomas-Edmonds to modulate the surface of the sheet as a kind of oscillating topography – here inwards, there outwards. Prior to finishing each drawing, the sum of this topography is carefully balanced back to zero, so that the drawing never skews or permits any all-over perspectival impression of depth.

While clearly the ‘subject’ of the work, the meshes are more like the curious by-products of a process that Thomas-Edmond’s puts into play than anything conceived a priori. This clear emphasis on process: the generating matrix, repetition and labour, ultimately checks any attempt to ascribe a purely optical reading to the works. While the drawings explicitly engage with the optical – in other words pictorial dimension of painting, this optical-ity is always closely paired with the material ‘facts’ of the drawings.

The drawings operate in a way that is analogous to Rubin’s famous face/vase diagram, a structuralist visual cipher that ‘snaps’ between figure or ground – face or vase – holding the viewer unable to reconcile both within the same optical experience. In Thomas-Edmond’s drawings, a similar snap should occur between the oscillating picture plane of the drawing – in other words the tonal relationship between adjacent regions – and individual lines that make up the networks of tonal patches. However, whereas the face/vase diagram cannot settle the structuralist opposition between figure and ground precisely because, as an image, it remains both scale-less and material-less, by carefully controlling both scale and material, Thomas-Edmonds’ is able to subsume both picture and process within a broader schema that brings to the fore the fundamental linkage between the two.

Where abstraction would seek to negate the image of the mesh by equalising the limits of the ‘pictured’ mesh surface with that of the physical paper, here the scale of the image is carefully modulated through a compositional strategy more akin to portraiture – effectively defining a pictorial ‘face’ centralised within the paper frame. At the same time, individual cell networks are scaled to the dimension of the printed stroke, a legible, calligraphic dimension that leads the eye from one line to the next, to the next. The power of the work, then, comes from the precise way that Thomas-Edmond’s renders an image via a technical process that refuses to recede in favour of the picture it makes.

In terms of her practice, this is important, because Thomas-Edmond’s drawings represent a squaring-off against that fundamental bogey of abstract painting: the picture plane itself. Within this trajectory of painting, Thomas-Edmond’s takes a different tack to, for instance, Donald Judd, who remained unable to work past the constant threat that his paintings might ‘look like something’, ultimately abandoning painting for sculpture. And different from Frank Stella who built wall-hung ‘painterly’ objects from the conventional materials of painting (canvas, pine, paint).

Since abstraction is the serious desire not to arbitrarily picture some ‘thing’ (cats, for instance, or daisies), Thomas-Edmond’s drawings work by occupying the pictorial field with a ‘subject’ (the meshes) developed fundamentally through the means of painterly production. In doing so, they short-circuit abstraction’s drive towards flatness and all-over ‘object-ness’, without denying the drive itself. Thomas-Edmond’s follows Judd and Stella to the degree that both dial back visual complexity in their work, but splits with them by also saying ‘yes’ to the pictorial. This recalls Yves-Alain Bois’ description of Matisse’s late drawing practice as ‘a kind of painting executed with limited means’. Although vastly different in execution, Thomas-Edmond’s drawings limit their means as a way of enabling the viewer to simultaneously perceive painting’s material and pictorial surfaces. In doing so, her work suggests a dynamic and intelligent kind of painterly practice, one productively able to ‘precede’ the opposition between both terms that lies at the heart of abstraction.

Jason Whiteley, 07 09 05