Pyx Sutherland: Transmission in Interval

The sound, “urgent, unique, uninformed about history and theory,” does not exist as “one of a series of discreet steps but as transmission in all directions from the field’s centre.” Essence merges with performance, doing with being. The sound, creating itself as it comes into being, is its performance.

- N. Katherine Hayles [1]

Standing in front of one of Roberta Pyx Sutherland’s large drawings from her Spanda series – this one on soft, vaguely resinous Italian ‘table paper’ that bears suffused fold-lines like an old nautical chart – one observes rows of inky circles laid out in a grid. They yield a palpable impression of the abstraction of data through the lens of scientific instruments both from a micro- and macro-cosmic perspective. But closer inspection reveals the physicality of the circular shapes, in part a by-product of the time and restraint needed for a mark made in India ink to settle. This combination of elements lends depth to the spread of the circles: the resoluteness of the ink, the patience of the air-dried mark; the resistance of the paper meets the astringency of the kitchen.

Sutherland began the dot/stain/circle motif during an artists’ residency in Southern Italy in 2012. Working in an old stone tower in a castle on the Adriatic Sea, she dropped the first dot by accident. Fascinated with its appearance, she developed successive rows of point. Overnight, the ambient damp shifted the points, and their drift was tracked in the texture of the handmade paper as smoky aureoles. The circular motif struck Sutherland as emblematic of a longstanding interest in comparing traces made by the hand – a calligraphic brushstroke or the leathery patina of a scraped, saturated canvas – with the implied absolute of geological time; erosion, desertification, tectonic shift.

Sutherland’s earlier work, such as folded collages made using recycled drawings, likewise capitalized on chance. Their subtle, foggy grey-scales suggest the pulverized essences of old art, the vestiges of diaries or journals. Though often actually presented as books, they were less linguistic calligraphy than the patina of travel: frottage, rubbings, sketched impressions. When Sutherland studied as a print maker in England, she made collagraphs by running found materials like grape stalks and folded drawings through the press. This is reminiscent of German printmaker Dieter Roth’s experiments with pressing foods like cheese or chocolate, whose mold blooms the artist harvested in prints that, with their halos of finite decay, were simultaneously curtly Minimal and abjectly Romantic. In Sutherland’s work, too, there is the sense of something simultaneously consumed, preserved and recycled.

The ink circles morph in fascinating, suggestive ways: black edges dragged over Venetian rose-tinted kitchen paper with blushing, creamy undertone of burnt sienna milked with white, fringed or fuzzed like the lithographic eyes or spiders of Odilon Redon. Think of Leonardo’s prescription for divining faces in the stains of a dirty marble wall. Though the circles hover on the hazy edge of pareidolia, they are never fully liberated from their phenomenological origins as telling mark.

The dots or circles are perhaps best related to the heritage of Abstract Expressionist automatism, expediting at either end that movement’s courting of chance and potent virtuosity. This is a complex inheritance, further compounded in Sutherland’s case by the influence of Chinese brush painting, producing a connection to the natural world that is both dialogic and lyric.

The networks of daubed points at the start of her Intervals series can be read as both acting out in a free space and the exercising of a pictographic language tactfully aware of its history, limits and prospects. Read in a grid, Sutherland’s points court an expanding territory that undertakes repetition, rhythm and play.

The Interval series seem both deliberately schematic and situationally improvised. Sutherland has noticed that small, unexpected events, even peripheral to or liminal to the studio space, were registered in discernible irregularities in the line of points, forming subtle responses to alterations in the environment.

These observations resonate with Sutherland’s training in Zen meditation undertaken in Hawaii, California and Japan. She explicitly relates rhythmic breathing, a fundamental technique of meditation practice, to the alternating act and interval of mark making. Read Sutherland’s characters aligned in rows, as a series of terminal punctuations, each marking an exhalation in a continuous rhythm without modification or erasure.

The connection between automatism and Zen has a precedent in John Cage’s influence on music, poetry and visual art, as well as the ‘Zero Group’ of postwar European artists; Sutherland encountered the work of the latter while travelling through the Netherlands, shortly after making her discovery in Italy. Other parallels include Pat Steir’s Waterfall series, Brice Marden’s Cold Mountain paintings, or Yayoi Kusama’s ongoing, decades-long practice of making white calligraphic compositions, all entitled Infinity Net. In common with Sutherland’s work is an explicit east-west connection with projections relating the intentionality manifest in the culture of painting and the underlying structures inhering in natural phenomena. Steir has said, "the paint itself makes the picture…. Gravity makes the image." This might well describe the process Sutherland employs, belying the intense focus, even virtuosity, required in her handling of fluid media. Jackson Pollock, for instance, insisted that it was not accident, but control, that lay at the heart off his ‘drip/splatter’ technique of allowing paint to drop from a stiff brush to a canvas on the floor; he was not merely dribbling with a stick, but drawing in space. Interval is everything.

What occupies the interval is intentionality, the initiating of pattern and language. Looking over Sutherland’s sketchbooks and studies, there are not easy cues as to how we are to interpret that language. Some pages present orderly grids hinting at post-and-lintel classicism, while on others seem to sprout out of the paper like mold spores. Even the ordered groupings are executed without measurement. This free play invites viewers to keep searching for evidence, registering and comparing; a curiously pleasurable search. The mineral richness executed by layering gouache over collagraph, for instance, seems to reorchestrate the senses of sight and touch, while in others we marvel at how a loaded or dry-dragged brush could produce such lush species of difference. All of this cognitive dissonance seems to reward one again and again with the renewed possibility of signification, even as the spiraling circuit of the stroke would seem to simultaneously produce and obscure this promise;

Sutherland’s early heroes had been mark-making artists like Antoni Tàpies and Mark Tobey, abstractionists whose approach to automatic drawing was –literally- grounded in their attention to both surface and place. But this is something different: still fundamental, yet more conceptual, more drawing than painting, the end of the work in its beginning. Spanda, is a Kashmiri Shavite word, meaning 'the initial tremor of the heart.' It was suggested by quantum physicist Lothar Schafer, who likened the circles to the, 'field of potential', a term for the state from which all things derive their origins and design.

So what are we to make of Sutherland’s paintings? The translation from the energy of drawing into the tactility and tradition of painting places stress on the object-propositions the paintings must become. For Sutherland, a dogged, conscientious layering and excavating of the painted surface cultivate the unaffected nowness and existential gravitas of an ink brush breaking out onto white paper. Her series Ibridos (the Italian for ‘hybrids’), combines the pattern of structured mark making from the Intervals drawings with colour, texture and patination reminiscent of her earlier work, notably the geographic topologies of the Terre Memoire series (2006-2011). Inscribing the points or circles onto and into densely painted grounds invokes a dialogue with nature that summons to mind the effects of industry on the land: rows of points could show a bird’s eye view of a geological survey site; spiraling stroke-circles resemble the stacked tree rings of freshly harvested logs, or core-samples bored from arctic permafrost. In all cases, there is the moment at which the calligraphic elements (point or circle) – break free from their respective ground and achieve an independent scale, as both abstract signifier and access to a dense, occluded terrain of built-up painterly wilderness. The “body-breath-time” that Sutherland cites as her mark-making meter become a means of reading the microcosm/macrocosm of geological or cosmological reference points. In this sense, the Ibridos recall the works of geologist-turned-artist Per Kirkeby, or the landscape-history tableaux of Anselm Kiefer. The land becomes a metaphor for painting itself, as proving ground for languages lost and found.

The notion that nature is inexorably allegorized in the engagement of painter to process to surface is perhaps best exemplified by Jackson Pollock’s terse declaration, ‘I am Nature.’ His contemporary heirs are less associated with ‘process’ as an end to itself, than ‘processes’: patterns of weather or wear great and small, communities mapping themselves within the social landscape, cells multiplying or synapses firing.

Contemporary painters working out of the heritage of abstract composition, like Pyx Sutherland (or Terry Winters or Ross Bleckner, for that matter) invoke processes in densely layered repeats as a means of suggesting data networks wherein the biological and technological mingle. For Sutherland, a seminal recognition occurred while she was riding on a train in India, and, noticing the heavily veined hand of a fellow traveller, saw a resemblance to a view of the Ganges River seen out the window. The connections – between self and other, inside and outside, bloodstream and river, travel itinerary, sacred calendar and geological memory – were everywhere.

In studio conversation, Sutherland and I discuss the blur that occurs in many of Gerhard Richter’s paintings that simultaneously invites inquiry into the painting’s making, yet closes this intimate history off from view; a frozen moment that patient gazing might unthaw. Part of the work’s mystery lies in the revelation of something being actively unseen, like lapsed passages of saccadic blindness. Something similar takes place in Sutherland’s circles, as the turning swirl of the brush invites a dialogue about origin and then curtails it in the completion of that most satisfying of shapes. An irreducible quantity in both the circle’s lure to viewers and its resistance to signification is the physical beauty of its execution, and the way that that beauty both relies on and denies the artist’s hand. Sutherland acknowledges this contradiction, summed up perhaps by a statement from John Cage: “a painting is not a record of what was said and what the replies were but the thick presence all at once of a naked self-obscuring body of history.”

Sutherland’s series Game Plans is, of all of her recent work, ironically, the most diverse and surprising. As Sutherland notes on her web site, Game Plans documents the impulse of marks or dots when arranged in structures to move, reconfigure and have direction. As a play or game there appears to be an organizing principle at work.” The irony of the title Game Plans is that Sutherland herself does not plan. Though her drawings seem to be corollary to her paintings, neither provides a blueprint as such for the other. What method there is emerges from a culture of doing, in tacit resistance to planning’s rationale.

The essence of Sutherland’s practice is the repeated creation of active fields of visual experience giving rise to inherent patterns. She has recently found a parallel to this visual research in the mathematical principles governing Ergodic theory, a branch of mathematics that considers the varying states of dynamical systems, such as the flow of water in a river or the population of fish in a lake in springtime. If the works in the two series Spanda I and II invite a meditative gaze as they place the viewer at a distance from the evidence of process, then the Game Plans open up ruptures in the presumably dialogic character of strokes, shapes and surface. Between these poles, the more succinct Intervals paired with the densely registered Ibridos conduct a not always steady travelogue from point to plane but also from instance to memory. Collectively, the series compose a gesture that moves from the particular of brush tip, circle and viewer settled in space, to a decentralized wandering, inviting viewers to search and respond.

Sutherland’s progressive repetition of the turning hand recalls William Butler Yeats’ analogy of life experience as a spiral staircase, repeatedly covering the same ground, going up but always looking down. Or Robert Smithson’s celebrated earthwork Spiral Jetty, not only turning, but rising and falling on an ongoing basis within the waters of the Great Salt Lake, ever more itself as an instrument for rendering climatic shifts both natural and invented. The transmission effected by Sutherland’s perennial point and turn instrumentalizes chance in order to ensure a constant drift in our perception of the gesture as it oscillates, like quickening life, from tremor to interval, unceasingly experiential and reflective.

[1] N. Katherine Hayles, “Chance Operations”, John Cage, Composed in America. University of Chicago Press, 1994. 230