This essay was written by curator and writer Sara Muthi to accompany my solo exhibition ‘Meet me on the astral plane’, showing at the Alley Arts Centre, Strabane, from the 29th November – 22nd December 2021.
The visual arts are a twofold process. Step one concerns the artist, their intention to create. Making. Step two concerns the viewer, without whom the work remains unfinished. Unactivated. With this framework in place we can begin to consider Co-, the latest body of work by the contemporary painter Natalie Pullen.
Abstract painters like Pullen do not take for granted what it is to make a painting. There are no givens. At every level of production there is a reconsideration of what it means to make marks on canvas. Alas, the canvas is not even a given. Pullen employs a particular surface, that of stretched and clear-primed linen. This admittedly stiff material provides the necessary grounding for drawing with oil paint. The drawing and dragging of oil bars allow for a particular and perhaps unorthodox application of colour on surface. Contrasted with this oil paint drawing, battling between artistic intention and material guidance is the staining of surface by watercolours. Dancing between intention and chance, care and spontaneity, surface and paint, Pullen unpacks and repacks the tradition and expectation of painting. This, however, does not need to break new ground. There are few new techniques and materials with which to paint, a fact known to all painters. In truth the ambition of the artist is more subtle, more considered and more profound. To quote David Joselit, every artwork is inherently indescribable. We cannot capture a painting neither in experience, nor in language. A single painting perceived a thousand times is a thousand different paintings. To quote Joselit further:
Here is a strange fact, which is both so obvious and so threatening to art-historical analysis that it is habitually overlooked: every artwork is indescribable. And since we can neither grasp a painting in language nor exhaust it in experience, how can we assign it a meaning? Indeed, the value of modern painting lies not in its meanings or even its actions, but rather in its unlimited potential for staging meanings and actionsJoselit, D. (2016) Marking, storing, scoring and speculating (time), in I. Graw and E. Lajer-Burcharth (eds.), ‘Painting Beyond Itself: The Medium in the Post-Medium Condition’, Berlin: Sternberg Press, pp. 11-20.
In the same way that we cannot exhaust painting in perception nor in language, we cannot exhaust it in possibility. Put another way, there are no un-original paintings (note that ‘recognisable’ is not synonymous with unoriginal). There is also a tension within the artist that is echoed throughout history; that between their intention and the will of materials. The choice of substance through which the artist abstracts marks on surface is intentional, the rest is up for grabs. When faced with a blank canvas of infinite possibilities the materials begin to generate their own logic. Almost immediately, the act of painting moves from anything being possible to only certain things being possible. This is the luster and motivation of painters like Pullen as echoed by Joselit; the vast realisation that there is an infinite amount of images to generate in infinite materials on infinite surfaces. Every image is worth making, each and every image marking a new point in time, a new possibility; materialising consciousness.
Co- as a body of work takes this process seriously, addressing the weight of the task at hand, standing firm through the turbulence of uncertainty and possibility. Allowing the artist to be ‘Co-’ to material possibility. However, the work does not stop there. Co- acknowledges the second step in the everlasting life of painting. That of perception. Abstract painting remains unrealised and un-productive in the absence of audience. Pullen leans into the absurdity of creating labour-intensive abstract paintings and requesting an audience to appreciate the realisation of this labour. It is in the deep realisation of this request that Pullen rewards the act of looking and grants it as a valid form of participation. In the same spirit with which we are, today more than ever, encouraged to listen-actively to each other, Pullen encourages the spectators of her work to perceive-actively. This is no easy request, but when one takes Pullen up on her offer, both the viewer, the artist and painting become ‘Co-’ in an indescribable yet worthwhile experience, bound up in the absurd yet vulnerable act of looking. In this second step, the work ultimately finds potential, as opposed to meaning. It is meaningful only insofar as it is Co-.
Sara Muthi is a former painter, writer and curator based in Dublin.