For over two decades now Judith Brotmanâ€™s practice has hinged on relationships built between people. This has taken several forms over the years, and hopefully youâ€™ve had the opportunity of seeing some of her recent work at Bike Room in â€œI Dozed, I Napped, I Writhed, I Dreamed (reviewed here by Bad at Sportsâ€™s own Caroline Picard); at Slow Gallery with â€œNew Wordâ€; or at Gallery 400 in â€œWhisper Down the Lane.â€
For the exhibition â€œNew Word,â€ Brotman used the Jewish Kabbalistic prompt of finding a word to follow for the rest of your life as an impetuous to generate 1000 new words, including some of the following examples:
Brotman relinquished some control over the pieceâ€™s manifestation by â€œnot touching the work,â€ tasking the organizer of the exhibition to fabricate the piece by inscribing the words on the wall for her. Although many of the words are humorous sounding, and the project on the whole involves a certain amount of playfulness, it forces a certain obligation and responsibility on the viewer as well.
In her piece â€œ93 Dreams of Summerâ€ from â€œWhisper Down the Laneâ€ she generated several texts, related to koans in both their brevity and enigmatic nature, and created a sound recording of her reading them which viewers were invited to listen to over headphones. The phrases, while often absurd, are also witty and poetic, reflecting the skill and comfort with which Brotman writes:
Dream 6. You invent a machine that can play the violin, devein shrimp, and shred documents all at the same time.
Dream 27. You live in a world where there are restrictions to saying â€œGood job,â€ to your children. Saying it too often leads first to fines, then imprisonment, and ultimately the death penalty. You breathe a sigh of relief.
Dream 55. You are twelve years old, and God comes to visit dressed as a lawn chair. You say hello and sit down.
Dream 87. You legally change your name to â€œTater.â€
In both these exhibitions, Brotman engages languageâ€” either via the written word, or words read aloudâ€” and they also both feature words or texts generated by her. Although she has stated sheâ€™s as influenced by visual phenomena as she is by literature, Brotman also views both works as engaging with that same, singular, overarching concern that continues to occupy her regardless of the medium she is experimenting withâ€” relationships.
Her interest in relationships has translated into a focus on narratives, especially love stories. Brotmanâ€™s tastes run the gamut from day time soap operas to tales of unrequited love, or unconventional, odd ball works that, while theyâ€™re well known pieces of literature, may not typically be thought of as love stories (take Frankenstein for example, one of her favorites).
The pivotal moments, or moments of drama that these stories often hinge on, draw Brotman to them, and while she can appreciate the tension and theatricality that arise from their seemingly unending series of climaxes, sheâ€™s as equally taken with â€œthe possibility that things will go wrongâ€¦â€
In a cruel example of life imitating art, Brotman had just such a pivotal moment this past summer, in the form of a hand injury; â€œâ€¦(I) lost the use of my wrist and I couldnâ€™t make anything and I didnâ€™t know if it was going to come back, and it was very depressingâ€¦ and people were saying to me, this is going to be an opportunity, and Iâ€¦ wanted to punch them, with the good hand (of course).â€
This did lead to an opportunity however, and it took the form of a long-term project that, although she claims to have no idea how it may develop over time, imagines it going on, â€œfor the rest of (her) life.â€
The parameters of the project involve Brotman visiting the homes of friends and near strangers alike. She asks them to read to her aloud for forty-five minutes to an hour while she audio records them and takes some still photographs. Thereâ€™s a certain amount of latitude in what they may choose to read, but Brotman requests that it be a text of meaning.
â€œCareful what you say, becauseâ€¦ when I started at the School of the Art Institute in the late eighties I said there is one thing I will never, ever do, and that is performance,â€ jokes Brotman. And while her artistic overture is somewhat fluid in this project, she is still interested in the same kinds of dramatic tensions and relationship cultivation.
Generosity seems inherent in the act of inviting someone into your domestic space, thoughtfully selecting a text of meaning, and then sharing both your time and energy in reading it aloud, but the work is complicated by some of the quieter, darker reasons for Brotmanâ€™s impetus for the projectâ€” a cultural critic of a fast paced, compartmentalized, multi-tasking society that listens to books on tape, reads off a tablet, and texts or emails instead of making face time.
Although the project is only newly underway, Brotman has noticed that it asks a lot of her as a listener as well, and requires a heightened level of â€œfocus and presence.â€ The project seems to repay careful, thoughtful and active listening, but Brotman is honest about stating that, â€œâ€¦pivotal moments may or may not happen.â€ Although the action of being read to is repetitive, thereâ€™s so much variation within each discrete event that itâ€™s difficult to generalize. She does go on to say that, â€œâ€¦many of the readings have been exquisite and some have not been. Sometimes I canâ€™t wait for it to endâ€” and thatâ€™s usually when the reader canâ€™t wait for it to endâ€”â€¦. And then sometimes it really is like a little love storyâ€¦ I have this feeling of being carried away, thereâ€™s this falling in love moment, that, I donâ€™t know what else to call it, Iâ€™m inspired, Iâ€™m excited, Iâ€™m curious, I leave feeling like I have 300 times more energy then when I came in.â€
The act of reading aloud to someone is usually an intimate affair, but Brotman is experimenting with performing the readings publicly, and recently had the opportunity of being read to for part of â€œThe American Dream: (W)holy Grailâ€ in Edgewater. And although previously her site-responsive installations constructed largely from objects crafted from paper were exceedingly fragile and ephemeral, she is deriving a certain amount of pleasure from Â the act ofÂ archiving, cataloguing and retaining these readings. It’s clear that the performance itself, rather then it’s mere accumulation, is still what’s most compelling to her though; â€œit has stripped down to the core what I care about most.â€ Perhaps as the project marches on, she will find herself generating love stories instead of merely listening in on them.
Interview conducted in October 2013.
The author would like to thank Judith Brotman for her assistance.
All images courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted.
October 3, 2013 · Print This Article
This summer I visited slow gallerys’ group show,Â Rehearsal Attire.Â It was an exhibit about painting and something about what slow’s Director Paul Hopkin said has stuck to my ribs. Hopkin talked about how many Chicago painters created flat canvases, with a picture plane that stands parallel to the viewer, suggesting this predisposition might have something to do with our immediate landscape â€” the way we live in a flatland, on urban streets crowded with buildings. By comparison Â Southwestern painters are prone to pictures with expansive skies and topographical landscapes Â stretching indefinitelyÂ out. Hopkin admitted that conversations like that â€” about horizon lines and abstraction â€” led Fischer and Hopkin to organize Rehearsal Attire together. In this case, however, landscapes were not expressly present, nor limitless topographies. Rather, Fisher’s abstract paintings hung alongside Meg Duguid, Mindy Rose Schwartz and Charles Fogarty. Duguid disassembled a wall in the gallery and packed it in a suitcase. Fogarty removed a wall from his studio, on which he had painted a gingham cloth and re-situated it insideÂ slow,Â beside a pile of campaign-like baseball hats that read “LUNCH”. Mindy Rose Schwartz sculpted a figure out of plaster cast with an unprimed, and partially stitched canvas face; in another work a delicate series of hoops reach off the wall at variant angles. Between the hoops’ bounds, flowers and thread weave in abstract, figurative compositions. I was drawn into these works with many questions â€” questions about limits, deconstruction, assembly and abstraction, questions that brought me to Andreas Fischer’s studio, where we discussed his approach to painting, and howÂ Rehearsal AttireÂ came about.
Caroline Picard:Â How do you think about horizon lines in paintings? Can you have multiple limits operating at once in the same piece?
Andreas Fischer:Â Things like horizon lines and spatial boundaries come from Â conventions embedded in the images I have been using. Â The starting points for all of my recent work are what I would call conventional everyday image types -the kinds of images that are so present that they often get taken for granted or ignored. Â At the same time, though, they have a problematic status because they are completely Â contested territory even though they might look stable.
On Â one hand I am using various aspects of the conventional states of these images, which are socially determined. On the other hand I am Â materializing a reaction by trying to reconstruct these images, which I see as an example of how any individual might react. So, yes there are definitely multiple limits and they are directed by moving changing negotiations that I see as a kind of intersection of one idea of what is social and another idea of what is individual. Painting in this sense is a kind of materialization of reception or reaction â€” action painting in a sense, but not as a statement â€” maybe more like the way an electronic instrument might monitor a changing environment.
CP:Â Wait â€” that’s exciting. How is a painting like an electronic instrument? Is it responding to you or the viewer?
AF:Â Well, I think of painting as decidedly not static and that is a big reason I am interested in it.Â I do think that so called fixed images are different from what we more clearly accept to be in motion.Â Paintings are moving perhaps more slowly and can be understood as attempts to visualize actions in a heightened way.Â Literally and chemically paint is Â moving and changing over time from the moment pigment is ground, through the gesture of applying paint, to the drying; shrinking; aging and cracking that paint undergoes over time.
More importantly, though, a painting is an Â action or gesture that begins to happen under certain circumstances and changes as the context around it changes. Our perceptions and interpretations of paintings change as the changing chemical compounds intersect with worlds that are always trying to figure themselves out. In this sense painting is like an electronic instrument in that it is a kind of sensor and feedback system that outputs interpretable data as the world moves â€” the meaning of the painting (or its output) changes as the stuff around it changes.
I am interested in the act of painting as a way of thinking, sorting or Â diagnosing.Â Both painting and electronic instruments come into being in a sense because of what they need to be able to do with their environments.Â Electronic instruments are programmed to track, calculate, and relay data based on socially developed criteria or perceived need.Â Maybe we do a version of this too as individuals Â and if so I think painting is likely a materialization of this kind of reflection of a larger social environment.
CP:Â Â How do you think about the logic of a single composition?Â
AF:Â The operating functions for composition and formal relationships for me are negotiation and process. In a sense each work is compositionally and formally its own activity. The kinds of reactions and procedures that an image seems to provoke on a given day especially as these bounce off of different patterns of thought and expectation floating around in the world vary quite a bit. This part of the operation Â is not a logical progression â€” it is more preformative, maybe a bit like the way a player responds to the action in many kinds of sports.
CP:Â But in that case are you playing against yourself? Like a soccer player bouncing a ball against a concrete wall with static, physical and predictable qualities? Or do you feel like the canvas/paint/medium brush are less predictable and somehow capable of responding to you, like â€” say â€” another player on the field?
AF:Â I definitely experience it as the latter. Â What I was thinking about was the way a body navigates and responds to various barriers and desired outcomes in real time â€” the spontaneous interaction of it all is so much like the act of painting for me. Â Maybe the ingredients of painting are not quite like another player, but more like the entire context of the game.Â So yes, the medium is not predictable for me.Â If I could control it I wouldn’t paint. Â Furthermore, Â I suspect that I am deciding or acting and reacting coextensively with social interactions I have had or might anticipate having in the future. Â I think this is where the distinction between Â what is social and what is individual falls Â apart in an interesting way because each of these determine the other and maybe there is not really even a distinction in the end. Â Maybe we are really post-individual.
CP:Â How did your recent show “Rehearsal Attire” come together?
AF:Â Paul Hopkin and I have been talking about doing something for a while and when we started to think seriously about what a project might look like we started trying think of way to Â acknowledge conversation as a generative tool. I was making work that was in many was the product of specific conversations I was having with a few people and was very interested in a group show as a way to extend that dialogue. Â I think Paul had been on that page for a while before we started working on the project.
Much of art history is really the act of watching very particular materialized conversations between a surprisingly small group of people. One could argue that the real content of much art is the function of conversation or relatively intimate social interaction. I wanted to start acknowledging my work as a set of Â indexes of Â lines of conversation. Â I wanted to take that system Â into a gallery and mix it with a different group of people Â having different conversations so that one conversational context would bounce off of a few others to see how they would co-mingle and resisted each other. Â There are so many amazing ways that groups or specific conversations out in the world intersect with other groups. Â There is something fundamentally fascinating about a semi closed circle bumping into another semi closed circle. Â Â That vibration, that negotiation is incredibly exciting to me and has been a huge motivator for my work over the last several years.
CP:Â How do you see that fitting into the more general dialogue of painting at the moment?
AF:Â I see a great deal of coolness of one kind or another in painting right now. I might be interacting with that characterization in the sense that, even though I kind of love much of the work I would characterize this way, I am much more interested in a state of being thoroughly tangled in the messiness of thought, struggle, material, and process. Â I am probably not anything like cool in my interaction with painting.Â I think I embrace a kind of sloppy affirmational complexity that has more of a diving-into-the-muck quality to it.
CP:Â How do you think about deconstructing frames? Is that something of interest to you in painting?
AF:Â I love deconstruction and the expectation that it will yield different layers of meaning. But I don’t think of my work in those terms right now. I think the negotiations that I see the work enacting are more like a struggle to bring things together. There is the familiar idea about early modernism that at a certain point painting became more opaque, more interested in its own materialism as a way of enacting skepticism toward unified illusion and its ability to function as a vehicle for certain idealisms, perhaps dangerously so. This is a way of seeing materially oriented painting as engaged in negation, criticism or the act of taking apart to an extent. Now that the idea of a unified illusionistic painting is historical and the more usual way for painting to function is through assertions of materialism over illusion, I think materially active painting has executed one critical task that maybe does not need to be rehearsed as insistently anymore meaning that materialism is a kind of free floating signifier that can attach itself to a much wider range of potential functions. Â The range of possibilities for material activity has opened Â up.
One of the possibilities can be a link between opacity and the act or struggle to form an image or to produce rather than take apart. Painting can be expected to Â create a narrative construction relative to images we know to exist or not. For me the act that is most important is the act of framing in a sense, or getting an image to grow and take shape inside a frame, on a surface, or within a field. Â In that case when we watch a painting we are watching something grow.
CP:Â One of the things I often struggle with in abstract painting is how to understand the meaning, or what is at stake in a given work. Taking what you said into account, I wonder if this idea of emergent order (is that an accurate paraphrase for “getting an image to grow and take shape inside a frame”)Â isÂ at the heart of the matter. Namely, whether or not a painting succeeds and/or fails at that â€” whether it makes the pursuit of that order interesting, and â€” if you’ll allow a sentimental tone â€” heartbreaking (again, because it succeeds, or almost succeeds)?
AF:Â I totally agree with what you are suggesting at least in terms of how I would like my work to live or die. Â Heartbreak could very well be a part of it all.
I like that you use the term emergent order as well.Â I understand that to be a bottom up kind of growth based on a kind of exchange and growth where no one entity is in charge, is designing or directing the process or even knows what is going on, but great innovation or development takes place anyway.Â I think social interaction that flows beyond individual intent or understanding (or maybe just determines it in the end), but operates none the less is totally fascinating and it might be that many kinds of paintings are symptomatic of this kind of function somehow because they happen through a group of impulses, gestures, thoughts, urges, curiosities that just move around an individual Â kind of unknowingly.Â There is an argument about Cezanne, for example that his supposedly individualistic innovations in paint handling are really just marks that anyone could make, which means that Cezanne is not an old fashioned modernist genius, but a kind of repository of commonality and his brilliance is really in his assertion of a shared, common, everyday kind of simple mark that anyone could make.
In the end if all of these interactions somehow reflect something valuable Â then they work.Â And as you suggest, maybe if this kind of thing is true then it establishes a different way for painting to function than relying on what we might have called meaning in the past. Â Maybe it is not really about the question of where or even if it ends up, but a kind of empathetic struggle to move toward something.