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Beyond Language

Armacost and Burgin seed their works with words--to indicate how far artists and viewers can go beyond them.



At times, the body seems to know things the mind cannot. Psychologists studying perception have documented a bodily spatial sense that operates when vision is short-circuited: It's why some subjects consistently display more accurate spatial perception when blindfolded than when they're not. In The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes notes "that moment when my body pursues its own ideas--for my body does not have the same ideas I do."

While he's describing what could be called an erotics of reading, I have always thought the concept applies to art-making, in terms of a bodily awareness separate from what we usually think of as consciousness.

For the "conscious mind" can be partially bypassed. The hands can interact with the medium--and take on some of the perception usually governed by the visual. The eyes can become an extension of the hands, feeling their way through image and color. Of course the mind is always there, responding and guiding to some degree. But when other, physical channels are opened and attended to, the artist is freed from a "sole source" of information.

The result at times is a similar liberation from the baggage of content. The artist seems to access imagery on the fringes of consciousness; as in dreams, everyday images and obscure or even unidentifiable ones can emerge with new clarity and meaning. It is an altered state one may seek, nurture and learn to find one's balance in.

While abstract painting requires an incredible level of skill, on different levels it is about the paint, and about embracing the random and the unintentional. It's a process that thrives on curiosity and possibility: Each fortuitous collision drives the painter forward in her search towards something not known at the outset.

Though we sometimes say that paintings come out of a dialogue between the artist and the paint, it's important to note it's a conversation conducted, at least in part, beyond words. Some art comes from a particular place in the artist that is nearly wordless. In such a place, non-words and non-linguistic impressions are loosed from the snare of language. They may interact, beyond logic or rational thought, in ways that they usually cannot.

Katherine Adele Armacost
Katherine Adele Armacost's paintings come from a place where she and the paint are alone with the canvas. Her works are really about paint, and the physicality of handling it. Her current show at Chapel Hill Town Hall, on display until Jan. 24, consists of work from a group of paintings she calls the Altar Series. Armacost's work may be familiar to those who follow the Durham Art Guild, where her work has been seen in annual juried shows as well as a 2001 solo exhibition.

Her paintings utterly transcend the prosaic setting of the Town Hall. To say the least, they are worked: richly, multiply layered, with paint applied and taken off, brushed on, smeared on, stenciled on and painted over. Individual layers are often indiscernible as the paint fuses into a deeply woven fabric. This style of paint handling and the marks that surface from this mesh of color are Armacost's signature, which identifies her work more than any particular subject.

At times her paintings have the allure of a fire or a deep snowdrift, invoking the overwhelming combination of nature's beauty and power, referring to what is beyond representation.

In the small trio of paintings titled "A," "B," and "C," word fragments were dropped into the paint, stuck like flies in honey. But being so wrapped up in the nameless visual experience of the paintings, I found my mind had to shift back into language to read the words. It wasn't the easiest shift: The words seemed to come from very far away, and at first they appeared to be in a foreign tongue. It felt as if language itself were coming undone.

British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips describes flirtation as making a pleasure of instability and uncertainty. In Armacost's paintings, the abstract flirts with the representational, with the result that the usual opposition between them begins to unravel. Forms flicker between being recognizable and unidentifiable. Flirtation keeps numerous possibilities in play at once.

According to the artist, "Altar Series with Red Cup" was the first painting in the series completed, inspiring subsequent paintings. A flat red cup, with a flurry of agitated blood-red paint hovering to its left, sits high upon an alabaster-colored expanse of paint, precariously balanced. Beneath it the field of colors--ivories, golds, and arctic shades of white--shivers like a living thing.

Sometimes an image emerges hazily from the dream of paint, as in "Bedroom with Window." Without the title, I don't know that I would have seen this image as a bedroom. In this work representation outweighs the abstract momentarily, and a rosy glow radiates from the softly mounded bedcovers while a flimsy curtain of the sheerest pale green drifts across the window, its twists articulated in folds of paint. This painting reads less as a sweet recollection of a restful room than as a memory just beyond the conscious mind's grasp, despite its desperate efforts to bring it into focus. For me, this strong sense of fleeting memories permeates Armacost's work, tugging at the viewer's own mind.

As with all the paintings in the Altar Series, Armacost's large painting "The Catherine Wheel" was inspired in part by her research into the lives of saints; stories in which suffering and ecstasy converge. In "The Catherine Wheel" an undulating mass of glowing saffron and smoke spins and throws off sparks that penetrate the field below it.

Armacost cites the influence of Giotto, Goya, Velasquez, and de Kooning on her work. But when I look at it, I'm reminded of Vermeer, both for the exquisite color composition and the way the light bathes the paintings' space. In the subtly modulated white of the wall in Vermeer's "The Milkmaid" (1658-60), light caresses the milkmaid's headdress, the lip of the pitcher pouring milk, and her pale forearm.

A similar quality of light struck me particularly in the small paintings "Weather Report II" and "Weather Report III." Both feature window-like squares dominating the composition, out of which spills glowing paint while illuminating the rest of the composition. In the lower left foreground of both, a small rectangle pokes up, like part of a chair back. It reminds me of Vermeer's "Girl with the Red Hat" (1665) with its lion-head finials in the foreground.

I was surprised to find myself also thinking of Mark Quinn's controversial piece "Self" (1991) from the notorious Sensation show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999. Quinn cast his head in his own blood, froze it, and displayed the bust in a refrigerated case. Provocation aside, the work possessed a quality that surpassed the grotesque. Looking at that deep red blood with its light shroud of frost, I felt I was seeing a color I had never seen before. Perhaps the title reminded me of the frozen sculpture, but I still recognized a similar frozen red in Armacost's "Avalanche Trail I."

Ellen Burgin
Brilliant and troubling reds also permeate the work of painter Ellen Burgin, whose exhibition, "New Work," is on display upstairs at Artspace's Gallery II until Jan. 25.

Like Armacost, Burgin works intuitively with the paint. She has recently switched to oils instead of acrylics, which she had previously used almost exclusively. When I discussed her new work with her, she noted that accidents happen more easily in oil, and that her work is about the coincidences that occur during the painting process and where they lead her.

The change occurred during a residency at the Vermont Studio Center in February of this year, when Burgin realized that many of the painters whose work she loved and studied (including Terry Winters, Susan Rothenberg and Anselm Kiefer) all worked with oils. She decided to switch. It's a change that has affected her work dramatically.

In her artist statement, Burgin notes she previously worked with acrylics because their quick drying time suited her rapid working pace. She would repaint layers over layers in relatively short order. But with oils, Burgin found that she could achieve effects with far fewer layers of paint. Despite this reduction in layers, each Burgin canvas has been repainted multiple times.

Burgin's ability to find incredible depth in layers of acrylic paint testifies to her skill as an artist. In a gallery full of both the acrylic paintings and the oils, I was delighted to discern the differences between the older and the new. Where the acrylics reflect light, the oils devour it. There is a refreshing excitement to the works in the new medium. It is clear that this change has been and will continue to be fruitful.

Since she began working in oil, Burgin has become much more aware of what she described as the plastic, artificial quality of acrylic, in contrast to the more natural, purer quality of oil--almost as if oil paint were the "real" color.

The change to oils also affected Burgin's imagery. She has found that oil facilitates nuances and marks that she could not create with acrylic. The result is that more representational forms have emerged in her work.

Her first completed oil painting, "Merry Go Round," features a small, tightly coiled snake surrounded by tiny birds in the center of the image. Adrift in a field of color; it is unclear whether the birds or the snake are threatened in this encounter.

When she began using oils, Burgin also began to experiment with encaustic, a refined and bleached beeswax that is heated in a double boiler. The artist adds pigment to the wax and brushes it onto the canvas while it is hot. As it cools, the wax surface becomes smooth, losing the traces of the brushmarks. Layers of encaustic retain their translucence, with the result that light passes through the wax to the white gesso on the canvas and bounces back, creating the illusion that the painting itself is emanating light.

There are a number of small encaustics in this show. One of my favorites is "Where It Hurts and Where It's Healing." A cloud of red encaustic drifts in a sea of waxy white; on the surface of the red, opaque white marks float menacingly.

While Burgin also throws language into her paintings--collaged letters and documents cut into tiny bits--I get the sense she does so not to undo language but to plant it like a seed. Earlier paintings seem to have grown out of these fragments of meaning, like a pearl grows in the irritated flesh of an oyster. The large acrylic canvas "My Goodbye" contains some of these elements. Though its words are so buried in the paint that only their outlines are visible, still they work underneath the layers.

The more representational images in Burgin's work function similarly, setting up a tension with the abstract, and falling apart at the edges as abstraction gathers itself into legibility. In that in-between space of possibility, where the conscious mind backs off and the eyes and hands both feel and see, the viewers may drift with the artist. There they may see first hand the unfolding of the creative process, and engage in a dialogue, one at least partially beyond language, with both artist and paint.

Katherine Armacost's work is visible on the Durham Art Guild Web site ( and the Orange County Artists Guild Web site ( Ellen Burgin's work is visible on her Web site, EndBlock

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