Ann-Marie Tully at Gordart Gallery
by Brenden Gray
Don't come to Ann-Marie Tully's 'Non Facturé' expecting to see good painting. The cold eye of the photographer and filmmaker is at work here. Paint is layered in a formulaic, deadpan way, never evoking or indexing any kind of definable feeling, exhibiting any of the flourish or sensitivity associated with that medium. My first impression of the show was that this was the kind of painting produced by amateurs with no formal training in the visual arts. But on more careful viewing I realised that this is a strategic choice on the part of the artist: the body of work explores the untraining of the painterly eye through the programme of the camera. This self-consciousness is evidenced in the title, 'Non Facturé', which is a French term that laboratories use to describe images that are not fit for printing because of optical flaws such as being out of focus or incorrectly cropped and so forth. The works capitalise on notions of flawed representation.
If painting is a medium that duplicitly encourages sympathy on the part of the viewer, often fetishising its subject matter, this body of work holds that feeling in a bland suspension. Its power lies in its refusal to engage the viewer in sense, sentiment, sensuousness or sentimentality. Tully struggles to hold the work back from what such a method can so inevitably slide into - pure banality and boredom, a style that alienates the viewer. The strongest works on the show are those that ironically resist their own programme. Unlike Koons or Warhol who banalise their subject matter through the productive technologies that distance the body from surface, Tully attempts to maintain that same distance but paradoxically within an intimate medium that stresses the subtle interplay between hand and surface.
The watercolours, those that depict minor disasters and incidental tragedies, manage to foreground this paradox of representation most clearly. In Crash I (and II), Low Res Photograph of Toyota Condor Flattened by Rock Dumper, Shishen Iron Ore Mine, Northern Cape, (2007) a violent car crash is treated incidentally, as if the artist were merely capturing the visual data of the landscape empirically. No feeling is betrayed here. Works such as these are shot through with literality, reinforced by the titles which are mere technical descriptions of sites, objects and camera settings.
Language plays a key role here in the titling of the work, demythologising its origins, demystifying artistic intentions, and denaturalising the method. What we are looking at is not tragedy, not a representation but a mere presentation or facticity. These facts are set delicately against textured slabs of whitened wood within superbly constructed glass cases that put a foot worth of distance between the viewer and the surface of the work. The mode of presentation reinforces the status of the paintings as specimens for just looking. Touch, the sense that operationalises sympathy, is removed, making the paintings even more icy. Further the paintings are based on secondary or secondhand experience, some rendered from prints made of the artist's own photographs, perhaps from imagery found on computer screens and print-based material.
The watercolours, particularly, stunningly illustrate WJT Mitchell's notion of the 'imagetext', works that are multimodal composites: '� all arts are composite arts (both text and image); all media are mixed media, combining different codes, discursive conventions, channels, sensory and cognitive modes' (Mitchell 1994:94-95). Perhaps Tully's work in television explains some of the ambivalence and distrust she may have toward painting practice. She speaks of the power of the camera to manipulate the viewer and transposes this into the domain of watercolour painting, a space usually associated with intimacy, sensitivity and delicacy. If the mechanical eye, celluloid, and images projected on the screen can ironically simulate 'real life', provoke intense emotion, is it possible for an intimate and private medium such as watercolour painting to produce programmable, automatic and mechanical effects?
For me, this sophisticated body of work speaks to a possibility that image consumers have lost the capacity to empathise, to notice or feel, in a hyper-world mediated constantly by filters: the television screen, the lens, windscreen, rear-view mirror. The show also raises questions about the fate of painting in an artistic milieu where more and more artists are being seduced by digital immersivity rather than tactility. Young artists need to make choices about how to embody their experiences in form and the digital medium seems to offer speed and efficiency in bridging the gap between conceptualisation and production, but at what cost and to what affect/effect?
Tully, with her television and camera skills, could have easily produced video work, or a photographic edition, but chose instead painting as the mode of expression. Why? The work struggles to resolve the role embodiedness and fleshiness play in contemporary visual arts production. The works seems to wrestle with the fate of painting in an age of surveillance and spectacle. Decentering a tradition of image-making with such a long and complex history is difficult terrain, and is not easy to pull off.
Opens: August 19
Closes: September 8