The Artworks of Nelleke Beltjens, Lisa Corinne Davis, and Emma Langridge
Just can’t stop obsessing about flow (or more technically, “flow state”). I’m clearly not alone as it has garnered considerable attention since it was conceived in the mid 70s by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihály. He coined the term to designate “a mental state of total immersion and focus in an activity.” More recently flow has morphed into a veritable secret sauce of well-being, affording any number of highly sought-after states of mind that promise seamless, uninterrupted sequences of thought and action.
It seems that almost everyone wants to inhabit this flow thing, especially me. I’d do anything for more flow. But truth be told, for most of us, managing our harried lives outside the monastery, it’s not an easy thing to sustain, especially in our hyper stimulated environment. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that an ideal of sustained focus would gain prominence just as our electronic technologies were ramping up their delivery systems of distraction and multitasking. In fact, Attention-Deficit Disorder was first introduced in the 1980 edition of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), a mere five years after Csíkszentmihály’s “invention.” I suspect that flow, like so many things we take for granted, began to rise in value in response to its felt diminishment—like how we are inclined to appreciate oxygen just a little bit more as we begin to suffocate.
For artists, flow states are well worth the effort, especially considering their ready association with creative processes. Yet I wonder if, like the current rage for CBD, flow’s creative properties may be a tad oversold or at least over simplified. Seriously, how often and for how long is anyone actually experiencing deep flow states? And yet plenty of creative types manage to, well, create. We’ve all done our share of flowing, but the fact is that most of our hours are given over to various bouts of distraction, hesitancy, diversion, procrastination, or what I’ll just refer to, more generally, as non-flow. Perhaps flow is just one of a handful of critically important tools from a larger tool box and has only limited utility when used in isolation. Crazy thought: what if those decidedly non-flow moments are equally integral to our creative process, and what if one’s ultimate success lies in the artful balance of these two seemingly irreconcilable mental states?
Enough with my expansive and admittedly highly speculative musings. As this is ultimately a discussion about visual art, it’s time to swerve—time to transpose the psychologically inflected flow/non-flow binary to the more graphically accessible opposition of continuity/discontinuity. I’ll spare you the full lecture, but I feel I need at least to mention that the continuity/discontinuity binary has enjoyed a very long history of debate and speculation, going back at least to the pre-Socratics and followed by centuries of lively argumentation in the fields of mathematics, physics, and philosophy. So consider this posting as my contribution to the field of visual art.
Ostensibly I’m writing about the artworks of three artists, focusing on how the implicit movement in their compositions is alternately continuous and discontinuous. But far more than a formal analysis of compositional strategies, I am attempting to disclose instances of how meaning is generated in decidedly non discursive, or non pictorial visual art (for our purposes, “abstract” art). It’s not the kind of meaning readily available to verbal exposition, but it’s no less meaningful; it’s whatever that “something” is that motivates the artist and, relayed through an artwork, attracts and holds the attention of its viewers. Yes, I realize that abstract painting appeals on many different levels not least of which is a pure delight in form, color, material, and composition. Often that’s all there is, and that’s perfectly fine. But here I’m suggesting that these components can also body forth ineffable meanings for which even the artist is often unaware and rarely able to articulate. It’s not so much a register of meaning that the artist communicates, but rather one that is performed—performed in the very making of the artwork, the physical manipulation of the material and the unique sequences of seemingly inadvertent decisions to arrive at the point where it’s “just right.”
And what makes this “just right” just right? Certainly this varies with different artists, but I’m proposing that, in some instances, an artist’s most elemental, sensorimotor interactions with the world are re-enacted, as it were, in a material form and process we call art. If this art feels “just right” for someone else, it may be eliciting similar bodily/cognitive experiences for them.
Now I will turn my attention to these three artists and focus on a single artwork of theirs that displays an exceptionally innovative balancing act between continuity and discontinuity as manifested in their unique visual lexicons. Although I’m discussing only one piece per artist, I’ve added other works of theirs so as to present a larger context of their current practice.
Nelleke Beltjens (The Netherlands)
In alphabetical order, I begin with Dutch artist, Nelleke Beltjens’s Road To Travel #2. Here I’m focusing on just one of its many intriguing features—its movement. I’m seeing here not just movement in the singular but multiple movements—micro movements nested within more all-encompassing movements. But first: what do I even mean when I say “movement” when looking at this static artifact called a drawing (or still images more generally)? I don’t hesitate to deploy this term, as would many others used to looking at and talking about art. But what compels me to assign the word “movement,” to patently unmoving images—the same word I use to denote what is most elemental of my actual bodily movement in real space? Clearly some kind of metaphorical transfer is taking place—some pre-reflective linkage of my sensorimotor experience of moving in space to what, in this drawing, are patterned sequences of marks and shapes spanning its surface.
So if artists and viewers alike partake—even enjoy—these kinds of vicarious experiences of movement, what are we to think when that movement is interrupted, detoured, or intermittently occluded from view? Indeed, this is precisely what is happening in this drawing which becomes even more obvious upon closer viewing. When I first saw it I instantly responded to what I perceived as a sweeping, “swoosh-like” form “entering” from the top right and exiting at the bottom right (although I could just as easily reversed its implicit direction). But on both closer and longer inspection I realized that what seemed a continuous, unidirectional flow was composed of a patchwork of separate, contiguous shapes, each containing arrays of mostly parallel inked lines running in multiple directions. And with even closer inspection I discovered that the lines themselves—the ultimate graphical elements signaling continuous, directional flow—were in fact blatantly discontinuous, as each line is broken up into a series of extended, discrete marks—what Beltjens describes as “staccato lines: tiny marks, vertically placed next to each other.” And if all this weren’t enough to scramble my expectations of flowing, uninterrupted movement, I soon discovered that the very ground itself—the paper substrate—is anything but continuous; rather each rectilinear section of paper is a separate insert—cut from another drawing—expertly placed into a perfectly matched cutout. She characterizes this process as “creating a topographical upheaval between the surfaces of several drawings, which are now indelibly linked. (See Figure 1)
So far I’ve avoided any mention of the variously saturated red and blue forms applied with watercolor. As basic compositional devices these operate on many levels. Regardless of their varied degrees of color saturation, each of these appear to randomly punctuate the larger visual field. As fully fleshed out 2D shapes they set up a dynamic contrast to the less graphically prominent rectilinear outlines and the welter of broken lines. Although these forms are subjected to the same ruptures as the other components of the drawing, they seem to play a more complex and dispersed game of continuity/discontinuity. As I scan back and forth across this drawing, I wonder if these seemingly fragmented forms participate in some hidden, interconnected network.
All this brings to mind a fascinating concept called object permanence which comes out of developmental psychology (specifically early childhood development) and refers to the human cognitive ability to know that objects continue to exist even though they momentarily cease to be seen or heard. Of course, anyone reading this would take this for granted, but let us not undervalue its evolutionary benefits. Just because that lion suddenly turns invisible behind that rock doesn’t mean it ceases to be dangerously real. Yet another example presented in Figure 2: Just because the road ahead appears intermittently occluded by the rolling hills, it doesn’t mean it’s not in fact a continuous ribbon leading to grandma’s house. Turns out that continuities and discontinuities are inextricably interwoven in the very heart of our experience; and this very paradoxical state of affairs is a primary driver of this body of Beltjens’s work.
In fact, long before Beltjens and I began to converse about this project, I assumed (as is often the case) that I would be pushing my own interpretations—essentially reframing—her work in accordance with my investigation. So I was pleasantly surprised by how this theme of continuity/discontinuity so closely aligned with her own intentions. And I was even more impressed by how intelligently and poignantly she’s integrated her formal strategies with her deeply felt philosophies of life more broadly. Thus, I want to conclude this section with a few of her own words that resonate so powerfully with this remarkable work.
“I don’t believe in any life without interruptions. I often call this a necessary interruption, an interruption as a possibility to take another turn. So the interruption commences as a discontinuity which then becomes a start/beginning to a new yet different continuity—perhaps a new flow until the next interruption comes.” “Nothing is stable nor solid that continues. Nothing ever stays the same. And if nothing ever stays the same, then there is always discontinuity within continuity.”
Lisa Corinne Davis (USA)
Before turning to this painting—Miraculous Measure—by Lisa Corinne Davis, I’ll say that I’ve no intention of reducing her rich and varied body of work to my singular focus of continuity and discontinuity. Rather I’m interested in teasing out this one compositional feature to highlight its critical importance to the overall impact of her painting. Even the briefest viewing of her work reveals staggering degrees of complexity with its multiple, overlapping patterns and movements. And, of course, there’s the color. But if I were to single out a single diagrammatic feature consistently present in her work, it would be the grid. Or I should say multiple grids—compressing grids, expanding grids, puckering grids, distorting grids, and more. As my eye incessantly winds its way over, through, and around these gridded grounds, I feel it may be illuminating to contextualize their unique and subversive deployment.
I highlight subversive because that’s precisely what I see going on in light of the grid’s more extended history. Certainly the grid has a storied past in art-making beginning in the early 20th century and continuing to this day. Much has been written about this, not least of which was Rosalind Krauss’s seminal essay, Grids. No need to rehearse this here, but I feel it may be instructive, as a counterpoint to Davis’s work, to recall the grid’s functionality in math and science. Briefly, I’ll just point to Descartes’ famous coordinate system with its now familiar x and y axes that, explicitly or implicitly, graph a gridded space underpinning countless mathematical operations and information visualizations. Regardless of the application, this is a space characterized by perfectly regular and measurable extension—a space in which the interrelationships and progressions of its various elements are, in theory, fully ordered, mappable, and rational.
So back to the word “subversive.” The gridded space(s) of Davis’s paintings could not be more opposite in their visual display and tone. More crucially, I feel that this very subversion of the “classical” grid fuels the highly distinctive interactions of continuous and discontinuous movement animating her paintings. Her painting, Miraculous Measure, practically convulses with its densely packed, overlapping grids. Let’s start with the more conventional grid-like array of the white squares distributed across the entirety of the painting’s surface. Yet even these, with their more predictable regularity, are frequently disrupted by numerous obstructing forms and meandering lines. These white blocks seem to lie simultaneously atop and within a teeming field of linear grids—in some areas these adhere to a more concentric organization, yet in other zones they resemble, to my eye, wire mesh modelings of invisible 3D forms.
As a common feature of topographical mapping, the grid (think lines of latitude and longitude) underpins an expectation of orientation and way-finding—the possibility of continuous movement over a terrain. Whereas in Miraculous Measure, the combined effect of overlapping and often dissonant grids and patterns is one of profound disorientation, albeit one that is curiously fun and exhilarating.
Again, it’s over, through, and around this gridded space that the more prominent movements make their way. So what are the key visual elements that signal those movements? There are many, but I want to highlight those relatively thick, reddish brown, angular forms that seem to snake in and out of the painting. To me, they play a similar game of object permanence that I discussed above with Beltjens’s work. At first glance they present to me as separate fragments, but I quickly reconstitute them as a hidden continuum. Upon closer inspection I see that they echo similar but much thinner linear progressions scattered throughout the painting. Thick or thin, both versions simultaneously function as conventional lines and as linked, daisy chained series of boxlike enclosures; but either way, my eye can’t help but ceaselessly “move” along their meandering trajectories. However (and this is a big “however”), unlike the continuous path lines running through our Google maps, any expectation of smooth, uninterrupted flow is thwarted at every turn.
I want to conclude this examination of Miraculous Measure by returning to the question: “What is making it just right for me?” Why is this particular painted rectangle meaningful in a way that is unlikely the case for the latex-painted wall where it hangs? I suspect I might answer this differently depending on my mood, but I know I bring to this interface my own life experiences of negotiating all kinds of spatial situations—forests, plains, and cities; rational spaces, labyrinthine spaces, and so on. Usually I’m barely conscious of my spatial surround, but occasionally space itself emerges as an unavoidable protagonist, especially when I’m lost or disoriented—when the paradoxical interpenetration of continuity/discontinuity suddenly ceases to be a mere compositional exercise. Sometimes it’s fun and sometimes really scary, but one thing’s for sure; my most elemental sensorimotor faculties are roused to consciousness in stark relief to my usual, day-to-day sleepwalk. So, is it possible that this painting, with its alternations of movement and interruption (flow and non-flow), is provoking a similar arousing? I strongly believe the answer, for me, is yes.
Emma Langridge (Australia)
Last but not least I turn my attention to this piece of Emma Langridge titled Lodestar. Upon first viewing, it’s clear that, unlike the other two works I’ve discussed, this painting adheres more exclusively to a geometric and relatively paired down visual lexicon. I generally prefer to minimize what I call “how did they do it?” explanations, but I suspect many viewers are perplexed by how this piece was actually made. No different than the artworks of Beltjen and Davis, the material procedures undergirding Langridge’s paintings are crucially integral to her highly distinctive oscillations of continuity and discontinuity. So without revealing too much (some mysteries need to be maintained), I’ll say this: Here she started with a circular wooden panel covered with a flat coat of acrylic paint. She temporarily affixed tape onto the surface, section by section, into which she incised sets of thin, closely spaced, parallel lines, using an exacto knife. The remaining, uncut strips of tape were now temporary stencils upon which she applied a thick layer of black enamel paint. Before that paint completely dried, she delicately removed the thin strips of tape and thus exposing the black lines and the larger, irregular black shapes.
I always place a lot of stock in my very first impressions and associations when I encounter an artwork for the first time. This one immediately evoked the art of marquetry (or intarsia) which entails highly precise inlays of variously colored and shaped materials (often wood) to construct an illusion of a unified surface—sometimes conveying regular patterns for decorative purposes and sometimes creating pictorial illusions. I suspect this association is not shared by Langridge, but I cannot help but sense how her piece captures both the “spirit of” and a “counter spirit of” that ancient art form. Clearly Langridge’s piece was constructed much differently, but I feel that it’s assemblage of light and dark fragments similarly exhibits a provisional unity contained within its circular format (that’s the “in the spirit” part). And yet, from a strict marquetry perspective, it would fail miserably with its blatantly imprecise joins (that’s the “counter-spirit” part). Similar to how I described Davis’s painting as subverting the constancy of the “classical” grid, I see this piece simultaneously offering up yet frustrating any expectation for a unified, unperturbed fill within what is the ultimate signifier of wholeness—the circle. I know this painting is essentially a continuous substrate (aka painted wood), and yet what I perceive is a disjointed arrangement of shapes. Ultimately it’s this arena of jostling, tectonic shifts where the synergies of continuity and discontinuity play out.
Viewing Lodestar solely through the lens of its composition, I see that the painting’s surface is largely composed of those tightly packed, angular shapes, each “filled” with thin, parallel lines (or “stripes” as Langridge would call them). Most of these lines move straight up and down, as they pass from shape to shape. This brings to mind the topological concept of invariants under transformation; the parallel lines (the “invariants”) appear to be continuous, top to bottom. Yet their tracks are repeatedly interrupted and sometimes slightly redirected (the “transformations”) at the edges of the contiguous, yellow shapes. As well, these lines are simultaneously performing movement (Langridge’s slightly more sober rendition of Klee’s “line going out for a walk”) and yet also functioning as static fillers of the varied yellow forms.
Complicating things further, are those regularly spaced diagonal lines crossing the field of vertical lines. Similar to the verticals, these diagonals only appear continuous. On closer inspection, these too are frequently interrupted, but unlike the verticals, different segments of these lines seem to be constructed by entirely different “stuff.” Some segments appear similar—albeit fainter—to the incised vertical lines, while other segments are wider, darker, and read as the negative spaces between the shapes. At the junctures of their shared trajectories, the two species of line sometimes align perfectly and are sometimes slightly askew.
As academic as this kind of analysis may come off, I feel it’s worth the effort to grasp the compositional infrastructure manifesting Langridge’s more wide-ranging intentions. Regrettably I’ve not the space here to do her justice, but I was especially intrigued by her turn to digital imaging technologies and their discontents—more specifically to that all-too-familiar teetering of computer functionality referred to as the glitch. Langridge succinctly characterizes the precarious moment of the glitch as “all about the half-crashed file at the midpoint between perfection and complete destruction.” It’s precisely at these “midpoints” where, for better or for worse, the currents (flows) are momentarily stalled if not thoroughly broken. And so it’s in the spirit of the glitch that we see in this painting innumerable lines simulating continuous and discontinuous currents persistently in a state of interruption.
In conclusion to this writing, I have no conclusion—only to affirm the distinctive synergies of continuity/discontinuity so ably performed by these remarkable artists.