Interview: Judith Duquemin by Charley Peters
Transcript of interview with Judith Duquemin for Saturation Point
By Charley Peters
CP How do you start a piece of work?
JD I prefer an experimental approach to painting practice, which in the conventional sense means exposing audiences to new ideas, techniques and art forms. This can be traced to the history of the avant-garde, and more recently to fields of art and science, and art and technology. It can be argued that contemporary visual art is indeed experimental, in that there is a willingness by all kinds of artists to consider and question everything, using whatever method or medium is available to them.
I don’t start with the intention that I am going to create a piece of work, the aim is more to work a new process and how it can be applied to the development of an idea or concept linked to my practice. The canvas becomes a platform for the exploration of ideas through painting in the research stage, as well as a symbolic mode for presenting ideas in an abstract and creative way. The process is open-ended and may embrace other media. I avoid style, choosing to modify my technique with each new project, meaning that my work is perpetually in a state of research and development.
In the practical sense, I generally start each process with geometry, any kind of geometry but add that sometimes this is preceded by visual and literature research.
CP What are your main influences and how are they translated into your current practice?
JD I tend to think that general influences play a greater role than specific influences. For example, childhood influences, such as geography, environment, nature, custom, and perhaps parental guidance. So I would be inclined to mention those first. Specific influences come with education and maturity, and an ability to recall and integrate early experiences.
As an Australian and British citizen, I currently live and work in the UK. Born in Brisbane, I grew up on the idyllic Coral Coast, in the sugar cane farming region of south-east Queensland. When I was young we had a sugar cane farm located just outside Bundaberg, the town of the famous Bacardi Rum. Influences from that time include the patchwork, lines and grids of sugar cane fields, which are quite compelling, especially when seen from the air. Shades of red ploughed earth and green cane have left an impression on me and help to explain my tendency to use colour fields and irregular grids. Further, the bright sunlight and contrasting shadows known to the region, fragment and deconstruct colour and form, explaining the use of tessellation. Bridget Riley identified this very same phenomenon in the countryside where she grew up in Cornwall. Ellsworth Kelly referenced the effect of strong shadow on form in his Haystack and Rouen Cathedral series.
My appreciation for colour and abstraction also came via my exposure to modernist textile designs in the 1950s and 60s. At Christmas time my Channel Island grandparents posted beautiful French and English textiles such as scarves and garments as well as other goods that contained colourful geometric patterns. Modern design came to rural Australia via international post. The textiles were quite amazing compared to the local cotton textiles made up of plain pastel shades designed for staying cool. This helps to explain my early use of pattern, albeit broken pattern.
More specific influences included exposure to geometric and op art in commercial galleries in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, when I attended art school in the early 1970s. The paintings were large and very inspiring. Aged seventeen, I had just matriculated from high school where I had passionately studied art as a subject for five years. Brisbane was a young, modern, expanding city full of Modernist-inspired architecture, perhaps feeding my taste for geometry.
Another significant influence is information technology; my professional artistic career in the early 90s grew in tandem with the digital revolution; for example, the first Macs and digital imaging software such as Photoshop. It seemed logical to interweave the visual imaging tools of digital software with the known, formal properties of abstract geometric painting. My passion for geometry progressed via a combination of these things. Below is an acrylic on canvas painting exhibited at ParisCONCRET, Paris, France in 2011. It was later digitally reconstructed and exhibited at Sincresis, Empoli, in Italy, in 2014. There are subtle differences.
Tertiary art education was very influential, and came much later, when I was a mature student following extensive training in traditional painting. At Sydney College of the Arts (SCA), a faculty of the University of Sydney, I completed a Bachelor of Visual Arts (Hons) followed by a Master of Visual Art (Research). Sydney College of the Arts promotes itself as a conceptual school. The syllabus in the Painting department mostly acknowledged American-based movements such as minimalism, post-minimalism, geometric abstraction, hard-edge abstraction, colour field art, conceptual art, all supported by self-directed studio practice, art history, theory, and applied philosophy. Particular influences on my practice at that time were the artists Ellsworth Kelly, Bridget Riley, Gene Davis, Gerhard Richter, Sol LeWitt, and Frank Stella.
But it was the work of the Australian painter, Robert Hunter,which gave me the courage to adopt hard-edge abstraction as a technique. Other Australian abstract painters who have significantly influenced me are Grace Crowley, David Aspden, Ralph Balson, Tony McGillick, Frank Hinder, Sydney Ball and many more. Perhaps the strongest direction came with the completion of a PhD in Visual Arts at SCA in 2004. Abstraction came to be viewed as a tool for articulating and synthesizing personal knowledge, within a researched approach to creating art works. The thesis argued, within a philosophy of action, art history, collected artist writings, and studio practice, that volition (or basic action), when considered as an action of painting, contributes to a greater understanding of an artist’s process of working.
CP I’d like to return to what you said about the digital revolution, and in particular digital imaging software such as Photoshop being an influence on your painting. I find the relationship between the analogue art of painting and the digital world we live in very interesting. The word analogue comes from the Greek roots ‘ana’, meaning equivalent, and ‘logos’, meaning the structure of reality. Therefore, something that is by nature analogue refers directly to the way things are in reality, or is equivalent with such reality. In her essay Being Analog, Carol Wilder wrote: “As a level of description, it [analog] is closer than digital coding to the physical world, closer to corporeality, more kinaesthetic, tactile, more - dare I say - ‘real’. How do you feel about the ‘realness’ of painting as opposed to the virtuality of the digital – are these ideas inherent in your work?
JD Whether it be analogue or conceptual reality, or abstract conceptual reality, sometimes referred to as virtual reality, we require a personal history of perceptual experience to respond to what we sense and perceive, and this can be applied to all notions of reality, with each appealing to perception in different ways.
While I acknowledge that the materiality and sensuality of painting, and the value of hand/eye/brain synchronicity, can produce convincing analogies of reality as a perceptual experience, I favour a definition of conceptual reality, an experience of reality characterized by abstract ideas and concepts. By referring to the very notion of individual free will, it could be argued that reality is more conceptual by nature. And I would fall short of saying that virtual reality can never inherit the analogue perspective of painting, simply because we do not know the potential of digital media, and also because as a human race we are adapting all the time to digital communications that require new levels of psychomotor interactivity. When I travel on the London tube almost every person in the carriage is operating a digital device. I see that digital technology, as a set of codes, provides graphic tools that can bring immediacy, variation, exactness, direction and sometimes personal meaning to the creative research process. The image above, entitled: Reconstructed Painting: Digital Gradient # 4 was first realized as a painting using gradients as striped configurations.
Therefore, I like to mix painting with the digital processes of image making, researching their potential in as many ways as possible.The down side for the observer is that one’s practice never plateaus; it keeps climbing, sometimes leaping. It is never predictable and the work becomes so complex it cannot be reviewed within popular frameworks, as it is difficult to trace the precedents. It could be said that I prefer a process of creating ‘new processes’ as opposed to ‘new works’, because in this way one is always cultivating (new) knowledge by alternating the style, the medium, the process and perhaps also the discipline.
CP How would you describe your relationship with the materials and processes of painting?
JD The process is the artefact in my work, even though works can stand alone as material entities, or commodities. I create tessellated colour fields from irregular grids, geometry and visual algorithm around a particular topic, using techniques of drawing and hard-edge abstraction. The current work starts with geometric forms that produce a type of irregular grid and results in an abstract, asymmetric composition. Recent works have taken on a three-dimensional appearance. Previous work spanning back many years started the other way round, with a grid to create common geometric forms that resulted in a flat ‘all over’ asymmetric composition. The reason for the shift was that one can become stuck in that mode.
Some of my paintings have been reconstructed as digital images in a range of digital formats, as a matter of curiosity about the aesthetics of digital media. Many have been exhibited as small or large-scale prints, projections and geometric animations. For this reason I am interested in the writing of Lev Manovich, and other contemporaries concerned with the language and aesthetics of new media.
Hard-edge geometric technique comfortably lends itself to digital reconstruction, and to researching perception within pictorial composition. I am also interested in the idea of proprioception within forms of digital imagery.
But there is one very significant point concerning the relationship between materials and methods in my work and that is: the process of conceptualization that occurs within the act of painting; and more importantly how that in turn feeds creativity. This is truly an overlooked attribute of painting and helps explain my interest in experimental processes. Silent knowledge (preconscious knowledge), is ‘knowledge we know but cannot tell’ said the Hungarian philosopher Michael Polyani (Michael Polyani. The Tacit Dimension, 1966). Artist knowledge is silent knowledge and is articulated through bodily action, process and thought. Today this is more commonly known as procedural memory.
The reductive techniques that I adopt help to articulate an artist knowledge. These include the decisive and analytical effects of creating hard edges; the structural properties of geometric form; the symbolism and communicability of colour fields; the propositional advantages of self-organizing systems and the organisational properties of grids.
CP Could you tell us how you use systems in generating your work (if indeed you do?) From what you’ve said earlier; that process rather than outcome is object in your work, you seem to be aligning yourself with a conceptual approach; I’m reminded of what Sol LeWitt wrote in Paragraphs on Conceptual Art (1967): “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art”. Rules and systems are in many ways opposed to the common notion of art as a field of personal expression. How do you negotiate your relationship with creativity within the rules you might impose on yourself when making work?
JD The short answer is - contemporary art practices embrace many genres. Sol LeWitt and the international conceptual art movement, including the Australian artist Ian Burn, had a strong influence on the development of my practice. I read Sol LeWitt’s text at art school, and later found the large scale wall works at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, to be expressive, and, dare I say, quite aesthetically pleasing. It was controversial then to speak about conceptual art as possessing beauty. With that, I would question whether Sol LeWitt’s work is devoid of personal expression! However, I went on to produce many multiples that were based on the principles of conceptual art and this is evident in some of my earlier work; for example, consider the works above: Reconstructed Paintings: DNA. Sections of scientifically coded and coloured DNA proteins interact on a grid to produce new shapes when the same colours meet at the mid-line.
My case in point is the role of volition in the formation of concepts that evolve within processes of painting to become complex ideas. We have neglected to recognize that artistic expression is mostly made up of many, many attempts to act in the mind of the artist, and that those attempts are just as important as actions in the development and critique of a work. This was the subject of my doctoral thesis, in which I argued that volition was an action of painting in addition to physical action.
In his philosophy of action, Ludwig Wittgenstein said that every action is an event of trying to act. Every action precedes a contraction of muscles and a movement of the body. “One doesn’t imagine movements and watch them happen. Actions viewed in this way are actions that are willed and lead to the habit of identifying causes…actions can be determined kinaesthetically without our observation of them happening…one can think, imagine, (and) calculate in the head without feelings associated with mental activity”. Wittgenstein’s stand influenced new volitional theories, with the ‘philosophy of action’ seeking to avoid the reductive tendency of directly linking actions to certain events. (Wittgenstein, L., Philosophical Investigations, (Trans.) Anscombe, G.E. M., & R. Rhees, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1958, p.185)
So coming back to your question, I don’t start with a concept; I arrive at one in an experimental way. Concepts can be simple and complex (John Locke b.1632). Experimental art is concerned with process because it defines an approach, not an art form. It is characterised by being highly conceptual, and it can result in new methods and forms; it is anti-market; sometimes political; sometimes anti-aesthetic; not concerned with pleasing audiences; and seeks problems rather than solves them. It forms links with history and doesn’t just include media and technology. It involves new materials or can be non-material. It produces new ways of working, new concepts and relations. (Australia Council for the Arts. How do we define experimental art; as a field or an approach?) 4 June 2013).
CP Your work is concerned with a geometric dynamic. To what extent would you situate your work within the traditions of abstraction?
JD I don’t see a need to situate or idealize my practice within past or even present forms of geometric abstraction, including the contemporary revival of concrete and non-objective art. I embrace a renaissance style of thinking to bring about a revival of activity in ‘something’ in art. Geometric abstraction is a very versatile genre; it can exist on its own in any context, and it can be a creative research tool. I like to work in either mode.
I employ abstract geometric techniques that can be traced to a legacy of modernist geometric abstraction, hard-edge abstraction, colour-field painting, systems art, concrete and non-objective painting and their precedents. I can also situate my practice within the wider field of art and knowledge that includes conceptual art, experimental art, new media art and some areas of physical and biological science.
Where does one belong in the trajectory of geometric abstraction? Possibly it is an incomplete history. One can revisit the great works and retrospectives of Wassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich, Theo van Doesburg, Piet Mondrian, and later, artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, Bridget Riley, Agnes Martin, Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland - and still be able to glean something new out of geometric abstraction. And just when we think we’ve got it all covered, we encounter new exhibitions of overlooked artists such as the female Brazilian neo-concrete artist, Lygia Clark (b.1948) at MOMA, in 2014, and much earlier, the abstract painter, Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (b.1862), dubbed the first abstract painter, preceding Wassily Kandinsky.
CP Could you describe your relationship with colour?
JD Living in the UK has caused me to completely rethink my understanding of colour through my experience of northern-hemisphere light. The atmospheric conditions here emphasize vivid colour and luminosity. I visited St Ives in Cornwall to experience the pure light of that region. The very bright Australian sunlight bleaches, warms and fragments colour. The works above involved tinting the colours of Catalan textiles by painting over them to demonstrate this point. In other works I dropped the use of white in favour of warm white to create compositions of tinted colour.
At present I am concerned with additive colour systems to support the creation of a colourful digital animation, but although I hesitate to say it, during the early experimental stages of painting, colour carries little sentiment. It is chosen more as an organiser or a research tool to differentiate between shapes.
CP What are you working on currently?
JD I am currently researching a set of geometric compositions for the creation of a digital animation. As paintings, they explore asymmetry in pictorial composition in unconventional ways, drawing upon Renaissance art and Arab science as well as recent discoveries in the field of particle physics. The project involves quite a lot of visual research, using regular and irregular polygons. My research for this project included excursions to Florence in Italy, and Granada in Spain.
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