Systems for Abstraction is an exhibition at the James Watrous Gallery featuring three Wisconsin artists who use abstraction as a way to organize and present their views of the world. The work of Jill Olm, Beth Racette, and Leslie Vansen builds on the work of earlier artists in the Abstract Expressionist and Color Field movements of the twentieth century.
Whereas Abstract Expressionists were interested in the materials and physical process of painting, regarding the finished painting as an “object” which recorded the artist’s struggle to create, these three artists turn their conversation with abstraction toward the exploration of systems. While Olm, Racette, and Vansen are each deeply interested in the formal elements of composition and color, they are also interested in synthesizing information gathered from fields beyond the visual arts.
Jill Olm of Eau Claire is interested in the activity of mark-making as it pertains to social, geographical and anthropological systems. In her paintings, Olm creates complex, repetitive patterns referring to the “exponential growth, abundance, and multiplicity produced by industry, technology, materialism, and consumerism.”
Do you consider yourself an abstract artist, or are you a visual artist with a specific body of abstract work? What role does your chosen media play in making this distinction?
The majority of my work operates in the gap between abstraction and representation. In some regards, all drawing can be considered abstract as it translates information from one space (the external or internal world) into another space (a flat surface).
Drawing can also be representative of abstract concepts—as real as math, a dream, or a fairy tale. The act of drawing provides a distance from the subjects by placing them in different frames, yet I am physically closer to the drawing than I am to the ideas that I reference. This gap, then, is full of possibility.
In my work a circle is a circle and a point represents a point. These elements function as both pure form and signifier. I do not necessarily understand or find interest with any one element in particular. What makes them fascinating to me is the combination of all the parts into one single being. Their violation of perceived natural orders can be both comforting and terrifying.
Ink and pencil are used for their recognizable and consistent traits. On a technical level, these tools can provide a constant release of material, providing uniform size and color. On a social level, these materials are common; they are used in many contexts for a variety of functions. This removes the specialness or preciousness of the art material, thereby connecting the imagery to non-art documents such as doodles, letters, and notes. The marks and lines I make with these materials can be recognizable as individual units, but through layering they become collections of information reacting to unique occurrences.
These materials also acknowledge the handmade and embrace the flaws. In a world that is becoming more and more dominated by the flawless deception of technology, I find it reassuring to see the slips and the mends. These materials allow me to react to the process, which is integral to the generative quality to the work. Working with a limited range of possibilities (shapes, marks, and materials) allows me to reveal the process in all of its precariousness.
Your work seems to reference discrete systems. How do you communicate or suggest these elements to viewers? What role does science or social science play in informing your work?
Both the natural and social sciences can use quantifiable research to generate data that can then be looked at through a variety of statistical and analytical approaches. Within this process is the acknowledgement of human error, anomalies, and the miscellaneous. Here lies much of my interest.
The systems and structures that I reference in my work mimic established means of classification, categorizing, and counting. Although the specificity of these sources are never revealed, I borrow the illustrative qualities of organization: grids, grouping, connections, and delineations. Charts, graphs, diagrams, and maps provide the look of structure and possibly fact (not to mistake this with truth). I then contradict these structures with mutations, ambiguities, and overlaps.
The same visual vocabulary that signifies order can be rearranged and used to reference storytelling, magic, and myth (grains of sand can be sorted and counted by size/color or lumped together to make a sand castle; either way the individual units are the same). On the surface these entities seem to contradict logic and reason, when in fact they are the way that humans understand, communicate, and grapple with big questions (e.g. Einstein’s metaphor of riding alongside a beam of light as a way to understand the theory of relativity).
These works are artificially constructed in a way that can read as both fact and fabrication. Drawing takes me out of the immediate reality where I am no longer obliged to obey the rules of nature. I continually extend and update the meaning of the formal elements that I explore. The work takes from everything that I experience and have learned historically and culturally and creates spaces for all these different beings and mentalities to coexist.
I do not attempt to make this space perfect, but rather embrace the friction, tensions, and conflicts. Perfection only exists in the imagination.
On a more personal note, my work is often a record of how I get myself out of trouble for messing with too many things at the same time. I think this is obvious.
Abstract art is enjoying a resurgence in Wisconsin and across America right now. Do you feel allied to particular artists past or present?
My personal interest in abstraction holds strong roots in art historical developments beginning with the responsive nature of materials and gestures of the abstract expressionists combined with the mathematical and phenomenological nature of minimalism and process art. (Here again is my interest in what can be perceived as contradictory or divergent.)
The process works of artists such as Robert Ryman and Robert Morris, and the wall drawings of Sol LeWitt, expose the activity of drawing/making itself. Simultaneously the works of artists such as Tara Donovan and James Siena use repetition and compulsive activities to generate mass. Contemporary storytellers such as Ernesto Caivano and Sandra Cinto inspire the imaginative aspect to my thinking.
And it is no surprise that I take interest in artists who explore systems and structures: Julie Mehretu, Mark Lombardi, and Matthew Ritchie, to name a few.