Unfolding: David MacWilliam
catalogue essay, Robert Linsley
A Rorshach pattern may be an attractive thing in itself, but it comes with a liability, namely the required interpretation. It doesn’t necessarily have a single meaning, nor represent or even resemble any particular thing, but we know that analyst can use it to find some truth, hidden in the way we see it and talk about what we see. Of course any artist knows that such a search for truth is comically Quixotic, because all truths, certainly all truths about our psyche, are contingent. This is put very beautifully in a story by Machado de Assis called The Psychiatrist, in which the scientist is explicitly equated with the quester of La Mancha. Searchers for truth are intoxicated by a beautiful fantasy, if we may be permitted to interpret them.
I guess this means that artists are more rationalist than scientists, because they are content to contemplate forms, and find some kind of enjoyment in them, without aspiring to any important consequence, since all such aspirations are pretty fantastic dreams. Today, artists are definitely more realist than scientists, for that matter more skeptical, and their fundamentally critical attitude, not dogmatically or rhetorically critical, is witnessed above all in their matter of fact handling of materials. Or at least that is what distinguishes artists from fantasy novel illustrators, cgi masters and high school doodlers.
So images of the Rorschach type, made by folding a piece of paper over an ink blot or patches of paint, are beautiful in a way, but we know that though such an image may resemble a butterfly, or a vulva, no conclusions can be drawn from either projection because a vulva may itself resemble a butterfly or vice versa. There is no resting place for interpretation. Yet this common observation, widely repeated but difficult to really hear and feel, doesn’t entail that all interpretations are equally valid at all times. In fact, I think it’s pretty clear that in the art context a Rorschach type image is always a vulva, and there are good reasons for that.
Since its beginning, let’s say around the turn of the twentieth century, abstract art has itself always been preoccupied with origins. The origin of art and the origin of the universe have long been complementary and interchangeable tropes for the work that an abstract work does, at the moment of either production or reception. In fact, conception is the ruling trope in modern art, conception sexual, creative and intellectual. The vulva is a central image in modern art then because it is an origin both cosmic and base. Granted that all origins are fictions, for human beings it is the one that comes the closest to fact. It is body, not metaphysics; humanly universal, yet very widely found in non-human nature. It is generic yet very deeply and intensely entangled with all our emotions. I may be guilty here of reducing sexuality to the female organ, but then at this moment in history that is a (contingently) valid move. The cunt is the icon of contemporary art, and that is no accident; such a development has been preparing for a long time. The complete and dramatic change in art world attitudes toward Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party is only one symptom of the cultural shift we are living through today, a revaluation of women’s sexuality without idealization. In art, figures with explicitly “feminine” imagery, such as Fontana, Benglis, Burri, De Kooning, Hesse, Mitchell or Krasner, are newly influential. Thirty years ago Courbet’s “Origin of the World” was an art historical curiosity, today it’s a major work.
But the vulva-like quality of the Rorschach image is an effect of its pure symmetry, itself a result of the pure symmetry of its making. The paper is folded—in principle it doesn’t matter where in relation to the paint already applied—and the image prints itself equally on either side of the fold. There are small variations, but the impression of symmetry is pretty strong, from any distance. Symmetry in itself is not the important thing, what matters is the resemblance to the human body, which is bilaterally symmetrical throughout. We have two arms, two legs, two eyes, ears and cerebral hemispheres, and of course two testicles or ovaries, all frame for the single point of sex, of which it is in fact all the point. And folding itself resembles the uses to which arms and legs are put, as they wrap the other in the sexual embrace.
If the male singularity is a point, the female singularity is a line, or in this case a fold. For abstraction this is a very interesting observation, because it raises the question of why there needs to be any paint around the fold at all. A mere fold is enough to express everything, so the most reduced abstraction has the full erotic weight. Bodiless art presses out the tender button as well as any, and in fact subtends the sexual singularity within the bilateral form with that other, more traditional singularity, the invisible self or unique personality, which was always the presence that sustained the reduction of painterly means. But then that is a matter of taste; it wouldn’t be wrong to say that today we are more interested in the anonymous, generic yet unique and material sexual point than we are in the intangible, mass-culture ridden, manifold and discursive personality, so there is a validity in the delicate sensuousness of pressed and smeared stains of paint. Perhaps a bodily, sensuous abstraction is more to the point, or line, than a refined emptiness, which may in the end prove to be too much of an intellectual thing to sustain modernist abstraction. And if we are going to insist that abstraction be bodily, rather than abstract, then we have to admit that we like some bodies better than others. Taste, or preference, as it is called in the sexual realm, cannot be avoided, and reduction to the void is precisely an attempt to do away with judgement by depriving it of the means to discriminate between one work and another, and avoid the equivocations and painful decisions entailed. The coloured halo around the sexual fold of the Rorschach type image says that choice is always a matter of concrete particulars, and that is what abstract art today needs to save it from its own abstractness.
So an art based in a simple procedure, with an honest truth to materials, is certainly factual, literal and transparent to all its means and intentions, but that doesn’t mean that it is inexpressive of life as we live it today. This is representation beyond or below the picture, representation as the tradition of modernism has made it—bodily, unidealized, and truer than any interpretation.