In Paul Valéry’s words, a poem is ‘a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense’; a gap between form and content.5 The gaps are both formal breaks and spaces where previously fixed signifiers have detached from their chain of referents. This unmeeting, which Giorgio Agamben calls an ‘endless falling’ and Valéry named his ‘starting point’, is silent potential. Newman re-opens appropriated imagery in a constant return to means rather than ends.
Like Jean Arp dropping shreds of his old collages onto a sheet of paper and fixing them where they fell, or Twombly and De Kooning working blindfolded, or Brice Marden drawing at arm’s length with a crooked stick, Julia Gorman has allowed a touch of chance to animate this new series of screenprints. Working in a loose, improvisational way with cutout pieces of coloured vinyl, Gorman arranged them onto large sheets that were then used as the basis for screenprints, areas of which were then cut out and worked on as individual compositions. This method results in works that generate compositional surprise through the delicate balance Gorman creates between incompleteness and resolution, arbitrariness and order.
Look, for instance, at Free Expression 2, where, in the manner of a Mondrian painting, a dynamic compositional balance is achieved without recourse to simple symmetry or centering. Seemingly thrown off-balance by the emptiness of the bottom left corner (an emptiness accentuated by the vibrant patch of red that fills the upper right corner), the image miraculously manages to right itself through the curves of the blue linear form on the lower left, which mirror those of the red and blue forms toward the upper right (suggesting a series of implied circular and ovoid forms). Perhaps because the lower blue form, unlike all the other forms in the image, is not interrupted by the edges of the sheet, it occupies its space more definitively, managing to give the sparse lower left diagonal half of the image an equal weight to the busier upper right half, seeming almost to pull the image down into the empty space.
Gorman has used adhesive vinyl extensively in her work in the past, using it to create site-specific wall drawings of colourful looping lines that spill out from the wall to the gallery floor (or rise up from the floor to the wall). This direct engagement with the exhibition space stands in contrast to the self-enclosed density of much of her recent painting, where lumpy worms of colour are often packed together into airtight biomorphic jigsaw puzzles. Borrowing a compositional device from Jasper Johns and Mary Heilmann, Gorman often sharply divides the canvas into areas of different patterns, which often suggest radically different scales. This internal division of the canvas submits these roughly consistent repetitions of looping lines and irregular grids to a compositional logic that owes as much to collage as to painting: the sections of the canvas read almost like random cuts out of preexisting sheets that have been crudely forced together. Importantly, this simple compositional tool emphasises the role of the picture as a unifying force that manages to hold together disparate forms in a coherent work, a formal autonomy at the furthest remove from the site-specificity of her installation works.
Gorman’s new screenprints sit between these two poles, suggesting a dynamic interaction with the world outside the picture without literally leaving the frame. In following the lines that are cut off by the edge of the page, we cannot help but see them as carrying on into the surrounding space. Thus, much of what we see when we look at these prints is not strictly visible; and it is the contrast between lines that shoot off beyond the edge of the page and completed forms that sit more simply on the surface of the page that creates much of the dynamism and energy of these pieces. Here a comparison with Mondrian is again justified. Meyer Schapiro pointed to how the frequent interruption of the geometric lines of a Mondrian canvas makes them appear ‘as parts of a virtual object in larger and deeper space’, and suggested a comparison with the seemingly arbitrary cropping of depicted scenes by Manet and Degas, which plays on our ability to imaginatively ‘fill in’ what we do not see in the painting. In a sophisticated riff on this same idea, the forms actually present on the surfaces of Gorman’s prints seem to spill out not only into the empty space outside them, but also into the pictures they hang next to. Particularly in Free Expression, we can follow lines from one print to the next because the three parts of the series were cut from a much larger single sheet. However, these forms refuse to flow seamlessly from one part into the next, as we can see from the triangular point of red that sits at the far right of the first part of the series, which clearly carries on from a red line interrupted by the left side of the second but is actually too wide to be the pointed end of this line. By means of these subtle adjustments, Gorman not only establishes the formal coherence of the individual parts of the series; she also nudges her work from literalism into a gentle suggestion of illusionism, ensuring that, contrary to Frank Stella’s famous dictum, what you see is not simply what you see. Rather than the reduction of the artwork to a mere material object, Gorman’s abstraction is a playful exploration — characterised by dynamism, paradox, and ambiguity — of the minimal conditions for making a picture into something more than colours on a flat surface.
Francis Plagne is a writer and musician from Melbourne.
1 Meyer Schapiro, Mondrian: On the Humanity of Abstract Painting, George Braziller, New York,1995, pp. 33–34.
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