In explaining a series of her printed images by means of analogy, artist Mary Simpson draws upon an unlikely example: a fragment from In the Land of the Headhunters, a silent film directed by Edward Curtis in 1914. The film uses the indigenous people of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe, on the Pacific Northwest Coast, as its cast, who, at the request of Curtis, act out a fictionalised narrative of cannibalism. At one point in the film, an authentic Eagle dance is performed by a member of the tribe. He dresses in traditional Eagle costume and dances against a black backdrop. Simpson notes,
It’s the only moment in the film where a character is separated from narrative context, thus allowing for the gesture of the performance to step forward and become visible. In this coming forth, the gesture is resilient and maintains its authenticity even in the face of violent decontextualisation.1
Simpson’s reference is compelling, not merely for its suggestion that gesture can compete with representation, but because it implies that the fleeting appearance of a gesture can, in a flash, take the place of meaning. Through a momentary physical flare, a gesture’s affect can create a lingering impression of its origin.
Simpson’s practice, which variously employs paint, print, film and performance, takes as its primary interrogation the abstraction of bodily gesture.2 She compares her method of abstraction in her various media to ‘lingering and leaping’, an American folk music technique that borrows from traditional British Ballad forms to focus on a single scene with great intensity and then suddenly flits to another entirely different incident. As a process, lingering and leaping emerges and operates across literary traditions. Most notably evident in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (1798), Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) as well much Imagist poetry, for example, the technique works to drastically contract and relax the pace of action and moves between its respective modes without explicit motive or causality.3 Producing scattershot narratives that appear both vertiginous and darting, lingering and leaping treads a tightrope between narrative storytelling and the abstract. It also decontextualises moments of affect, and see-saws between external context and interior monologue to create an inferential flash of a story that denies any attempt at any objective or holistic analysis. Simpson’s practice follows this pattern of abstraction, where abstraction is embodied as a process rather than presented as an aesthetic.
In Simpson’s series, Please look behind you (2010–11), gestural daubs of paint form a circle on paper, appearing in one work as an emphatic ring, and in another as a faint corona; here, an eye, there, a face. There is also a spatial distinction between the works in the series, where the heavy lines of compressed impasto imply a close-up on one work, while on another, the faint strokes appear as a regression. These echoes and repetitions are the product of the work’s process, which begins with the application of oil paint to paper, quickly spread with a palette knife. A second blank sheet is applied to the surface of the painting, and the two papers are sandwiched together and rolled through a printing press. This process is then repeated with each subsequent ‘print’, where further embellishments added by hand are once more put through the press with another fresh sheet of paper.
The series, comprising in its most basic essence the collapse of the physical gesture with the singularly repeated imprint, recalls Paul Klee’s technique of oil-transfer, where Klee would use a blank sheet of paper applied with paint as an impression block for another laid on top.4 For Simpson, the ghosted image is an imperfect impression; it possesses a Janus-faced indexicality, pointing to both ‘what is present (the mark) and what is absent (what made the mark)’.5 Simpson’s series employs more mechanical technology than Klee’s: the former combines paint and the printing press, while the latter is more greatly indebted to the relationship between drawing and the hand etching. Consequently, Simpson’s work appears as a thwarted version of Klee’s preciously perfected Wunderblock: her images constantly display the gestures that have gone before it, while also admitting the recession of this past act.
But unlike Klee’s oil-transfers, Please look behind you suggests a cinematic advance. There is an accrual of new movements, a fading of those past. With each new sheet of paper, the work travels through the structure of a bodily expression, just as a celluloid image clicks through the gate of a film projector. Sheet by sheet and, by implication, frame by frame, the successive images abstract the original movement of the hand into a gesture that stands as a consequence of its loss.
Within this corporeal cinema, the movement between Simpson’s original painterly gesture and flawed imprint also leaves a remainder, a psychological residue. The exchange of touch and impact, is traded for partial repetition. Reduced to glyphs, the successive marks transfer the immediacy of the original action splintered into an off-likeness. And despite its gradual obliteration, there is nonetheless the resilience of the original gesture. Please look behind you thus presents both the presence of the mark as surface aspect, and the glimmer of an afterimage. The series title's allusion to Orpheus is a tacit acknowledgement of this.
In cinema, leaping and lingering appears in two ways: the close-up, and the cut away from a close-up. The defamiliarising cut (in either direction) unveils the close-up as an image of sustained reflection an abstraction of the camera’s subject. The images of Maria Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) are, for Deleuze, the epitome of the close-up. The film holds both the tension of the external historical content and the inner psychological and spiritual torment of its protagonist. We observe a trial, but we witness the passion.6
The close-up’s intensity of focus consciously seeks to lose perspective, to embrace a psychology of the image, to become pure affect. But aside from imbuing of mental interiority in a filmed subject through its lingering intimacy, cinema’s accumulation of close-ups allows something else to occur in parallel: the construction in the image beyond the frame, constructed by the mind of the observer. Beyond the close-up is not a void but the presence of imagination. As Deleuze notes, the image has a legibility beyond its visible function.7 This is the point where the affective cinema image comes into contact with myth.
Simpson describes her four-minute film R.R. (2011) as a time-based portrait at rest’.8 The 16mm film presents views of a cast iron Vulcan stove, once the centrepiece of Robert Rauschenberg’s kitchen.9 Capturing the object from different angles, her shots linger on the abstracted surfaces of the stove, summoning up an interior psychology so hard-wired to the close-up, thus revealing the stove in possession of an unlikely subjectivity. Leaping into the abstracted surface (the image) of the object to find a consciousness or agency within, R.R. seeks out a subject that might return the gaze of the camera. Indeed, this is an image that desires the eye of the viewer.
Where the films of Rosalind Nashashibi present the camera as a transformative eye that conjures desire within the objects it looks upon, R.R. concurs but with a small inversion of the Pygmalion myth: desire is not created by the camera (or indeed by the viewer), but is already latent within the chosen object a desire that surfaces at the point where the object becomes an image, a close-up.10 For Simpson, then, the camera is not a transformative tool; it is, as Godard argues, an instrument that receives what is already there.11 The drama of the close-up endows the object with mythic potential; it detects an image in possession of a mental reverberation. This is a collaborative working between gazes, a leap from the external into the internal. The gesture of the close-up, a gaze where neutrality or objectivity is intentionally discarded, wills the object into image, and in that image finds a mental state that meets our gaze. R.R. claustrophobically re-creates Baudelaire’s forest of symbols that look down upon us with familiar glances.12
From Simpson’s combination of painting and print techniques that produce carefully imbricated patterns of repetition and refrain, to the selective framing devices of her 16mm films that imbue the image with a psychological interiority, lingering and leaping produces forms of gestural abstraction that vacillate between the internal potential of the image and the external production of that physical contemplation. As Lacan writes,
'In the depths of my eye, the picture is painted – something that is not simply a constructed relation, the object on which the philosopher lingers but something that is an impression, the shimmering of a surface that is not, in advance, situated for me in the distance […] It grasps me, solicits me at every moment.13
Mary Simpson, email to author, May 2011.↑
For further definition and illustration, see Guido Hermann Stempel, A Book of Ballads, Old and New, New York: Henry. Holt, 1917, p. xvii. And Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Blue Studios: Poetry and its Cultural Work, Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama, 2006, p. 157.↑
For a thorough analysis of Klee’s oil-transfer technique and its relation to Sigmund Freud’s Wunderblock, see Tamara Trodd, ‘Drawing in the Aarchive’, Oxford Art Journal, no. 31 (Autumn, 2008), pp.75–95.↑
Gilles Deleuze, The movement-image, Continuum, 2002, p. 87.↑
Ibid., p. 15.↑
Mary Simpson in conversation with author, May 2011. Additionally, R.R. is also a component of a collaborative installation work made with artist Tom Burr, Only Mirrors Make Eyes at Mirrors, 2011.↑
The kitchen is part of Rauschenberg’s old studio building on Lafayette Street, New York, that the artist purchased from an orphanage in the 1960s. Simpson thus refers to the stove as an ‘orphaned object’ in situ. Ibid.↑
See Rosalind Nashashibi, Mark Sladen and Solveig Øvstebø’s discussion of Nashashibi’s films and photographs in Rosalind Nashashibi, Ed. Isla Leaver-Yap, London: ICA, 2009, pp. 87-90.↑
Kaja Silverman, ‘The Author as Receiver’, October, vol. 96, (Spring, 2001), p.26.↑
Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil (trans. William H Crosby), New York: BOA, 1991, p. 203.↑
Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis (ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan), London: W.W. Norton, 1998, p. 96. And Slavoj Žižek helpfully summarises in more analytical terms: ‘When I look at an object, the object is always already gazing at me, and from a point at which I cannot see it.' S. Žižek, Looking Awry, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1992, p.109.↑