Kicking Away the Crutches in Bullet Time: Day’s Long Journey into Now

 Pulse (Between/Beyond) Untitled No. 08  (2008)

Pulse (Between/Beyond) Untitled No. 08  (2008)

 
 

Doug Harvey

I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of paintings as mechanisms. I recently met the eccentric visionary artist Paul Laffoley, who insists that many of his two-dimensional mixed media works are, in fact, interactive devices capable of distorting local space-time – with a variety of effects including time travel, group telepathy, and contact with alien consciousness. Form follows function. 

Of course, this way on thinking isn’t entirely alien to contemporary discourse about more mainstream art – albeit couched in somewhat less specific and more academically respectable terms. Mark Rothko’s signature abstractions are said to “function” properly only under certain lighting conditions, viewed from a particular distance. Ad Reinhardt, Bridget Riley, Robert Irwin, and many others have been identified as technicians exploring and manipulating the relationship between an artifact and the viewer’s consciousness. In fact, any artist statement or review referencing phenomenology is basically pointing at the same territory. 

But why stop there? It isn’t really a stretch to imagine the cave paintings of Lascaux as DIY virtual reality simulation rides, to see medieval icons as self-hypnosis eye-fixation objects, or to consider the Renaissance obsession with perfecting perspectival trompe l’oeil as the quest for a better retinal mousetrap? Tibetan, Australian Aboriginal, Navajo, and other non-Western traditions are open about the sequential, psychologically operative processes encoded in and triggered by their visual art traditions.

What really got me thinking along these lines are the recent paintings of Linda Day, whose elaborately composed 2003 digital glitchscape Pulse series I characterized at the time as “intricate stripe paintings saturated with the spectrum and perceptual idiosyncrasies of the Southern California landscape.” While these works still bear up to that reading as analogous representations of a localized sensorium, in retrospect they seem less illustrative, and more like – well, mechanisms. 

Oddly enough, this interpretive shift was triggered by a reduction in the compositional complexity of the Pulse project, from the information superhighway boogie-woogie of the original 2004-2005 paintings to the striated freeze-frames of the recent Flesh and Between/Beyond series. The effect is similar to the cinematic special effect known as “Bullet Time” where a flurry of action is suddenly slowed down drastically, or frozen entirely, but the viewer’s perspective – as mediated by the camera of course – continues to move through the virtual pictorial space, allowing for careful detailed examination of events and processes that were previously only a heady blur.

Of course the key phrase there would be “as mediated by the camera,” which puts the finger on the point where these technologies of visualization diverge: at the exact juncture where the creative participation of the viewer becomes a possibility. For whatever special effects are being offered up by a painting – optical, pictorial, spatial, kinaesthetic, spiritual, what have you – depends enormously of the volition of the viewer to establish and maintain contact between the artifact in question and their own perceptual systems.

Much of Linda Day’s work is directed toward the activation of this co-creative feedback loop, and her aesthetic decisions can be traced in part to the gradual tweaking of the parameters of this relationship. The shift from the streaming grid of the first Pulse series (via passage through the architectonic Chime and Coronaseries) involved the disappearance of the hovering, interwoven vertical rectangular tab shapes which – while articulating the complex and ambiguous spatial characteristics of the horizontally striped “ground” – also suggested a horizontal (though not necessarily left-to-right) reading. 

Although this quasi-informational signal pattern added a further layer of dimensional complexity to the already intricate and subtle effects created by the bands of luminous saturated color along which it was arrayed, it also triggered the narrative centers of the viewer’s mind as well. Hardwired (and continually conditioned) as we are to surrender ourselves to the most linear and teleological of entertainments, the prodding awake of our brain’s storytelling subroutine often has the effect of derailing less privileged and more contemplation-dependent modes of perception, persuading us that we have had a physical experience that we have not.

I would venture that Day’s intention in eliminating these modular units of punctuation from the vocabulary of the new Pulse paintings lies in the desire to direct the viewer away from passive engagement with sequential narrative tropes, kicking away the conceptual crutches so that these subtler visual mechanisms move to the foreground, and empowering the viewer to determine the durational parameters of their engagement with the painting less encumbered by a framework that suggests a beginning, middle and end to the experience.

I find the question of political content in art somewhat perplexing, since it tends to emphasize verbally encoded content almost exclusively over the artwork’s impact on the human body -- which is, after all, the actual battleground where any political discourse must be put to the test. For the artwork itself to require the viewer to take greater co-creative responsibility for its operation is to direct human consciousness towards an awareness of its own operation, and to awaken it experientially to the potential for divestment from habitual, ethological, and culturally imposed behavioral scripts. 

Whether this is Day’s intention or not, it is how the paintings function has shifted in my experience. The Between/Beyond series still contain horizontal bands of rich and subtle color – though considerably less hard-edged and increasingly transparent than in earlier incarnations. But without the suggestion of periodic interruption, their horizontal scan extends to a hypothetical infinity, effectively disabling the narrative imperative. Instead, the striations slowly begin to undulate forward and back, oscillating between sumptuous surface and atmospheric depth, like a rhythmically flickering spectrographic analysis of a Turner landscape. 

This hovering, cyclical mode of temporal engagement is not without parallels in experimental cinema, music (Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel springs to mind), and assorted avant-garde media – all of which have explored some form of disruption to linear narrative structure as part of their respective attempts to awaken from the Nightmare of History. 

Minimalism – particularly in its visual art manifestation – generated a plethora of object lessons manifesting the incremental stripping-down of the art/machine to its bare-bones phenomenological gearbox. What is harder to come across is artwork that, on the one hand, dispenses with prescriptive durational framing altogether, while committing to the responsible representation of the innumerable permutations and combinations of sensory variables arising within any set of aesthetic or conceptual parameters, however narrow. 

It’s a question of good faith in the co-creative capacity of the viewer, and of optimum engineering. There’s been a lot of metaphorical techno-fetishistic art world discourse about cyborgs over the last couple of decades. Linda Day’s Pulse abstractions demonstrate that the most efficient cybernetic hybrids of human perceptual mechanisms and technological artifacts are not some far-off sci-fi endpoint, but as old as the species itself. All you have to do is plug yourself in.
 

Since graduating with an MFA in painting from UCLA in 1994, Doug Harvey has written extensively about the Los Angeles and International art scenes and other aspects of popular culture, primarily as the art critic for LA WEEKLY, the largest circulation free weekly newspaper in America, and Art issues, the highly respected LA-based journal of art and contemporary culture, which ceased publication in 2002. His writing has also appeared in Art in America, The New York Times, Modern Painter, ArtReview, and numerous other publications. He has written museum and gallery catalogue essays for Jim Shaw, Jeffrey Vallance, Camille Rose Garcia, Tim Hawkinson, Don Suggs, Lari Pittman, Georganne Deen, Rick Griffin, Gary Panter, Margaret Keane, Big Daddy Roth, Thomas Kinkade, Basil Wolverton and many others.

Harvey’s curatorial projects have ranged from many traditional gallery exhibitions (including the First (2005) and Third (2007/08) Annual LA Weekly Biennials at Track 16 Gallery in Los Angeles, Don Suggs: One Man Group Show at OTIS (2007 - co-curated with Meg Linton), Heart and Torch: Rick Griffin’s Transcendence at Laguna Art Museum (2007 - co-curated with Greg Escalante) and the recent Aspects of Mel’s Hole at Santa Ana’s Grand Central Art Center) to CD compilations of sound art, programs of found and experimental films, performance events, experimental radio, artist’s comic books and zines (including Less Art which continues to be published sporadically, and is currently being transformed into a cable access television series), and an LA solo gallery exhibit determined by raffle. He has also been part of the curatorial collective creating the exhibition content and design at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, CA. Mr. Harvey also continues to maintain an active art career, exhibiting his visual art (painting-based multimedia) locally and internationally, and participating in international experimental sound, radio, and film communities. His diverse oeuvres were recently the subject of the survey exhibition ‘Untidy: The Worlds of Doug Harvey’ at LA Valley College. He lives and works in Los Angeles.