Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Nicole Wiener, Flight and the Figure: The Paintings of Alison Van Pelt
“Dialogue With Chance”
by Nicole Wiener
Published in Flight and the Figure: The Paintings of Alison Van Pelt. Los Angeles, CA
For more than a decade Alison Van Pelt has been locked in a dialogue with chance, pushing its limits, challenging its nature and in turn asking questions about the order of things. Having studied classical technique at the Florence Academy of Art, paired with her technical ability of precise, realistic, factual execution and rendering, Van Pelt searched for a way to create a more complex dialogue in her painting. Looking for new information and inspiration she went to Paris on a search for something more. It was there she saw paintings of Francis Bacon and became interested in his technique and handling of the paint. Bacon’s approach of “moving the paint around until it takes on a life of its own” served as a starting point for Van Pelt’s formal investigation into painting as a practice. Returning home to her native Los Angeles, Van Pelt had every intention of creating a picture informed by what she had responded to in Bacon’s work. This oil applied to canvas was initiated with the idea of making a concrete image and moving the paint around until something else began to happen. What happened was something entirely unexpected as Van Pelt recycled accident and chance with her intentions and facts. Van Pelt became fascinated with the natural order of things that began to unfold on and in the micro-surface of the painting. From these experimental beginnings Van Pelt has continued this project working within the parameters of intention and chance, exploring what happens when, inside the restricted space of a painting, fact is obfuscated by the physical manifestation of her personal ideology.
Van Pelt’s practice and process of production, the recycling and deconstruction of the image, happens in two parts. The first part of her process and of this discussion becomes about Van Pelt’s finding and treatment of the fact/object/subject of her paintings; the second part of the discussion and her process centers around the ideological physical deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction of the fact/image. To begin, Van Pelt works from personal drawings, historical reference, as well as photographic information collected from different sources. Van Pelt’s interest in the passage of time, the science of light and the nature of energy inform her choices to work with the human form, portraits and most recently figures in motion.
When working with the nude subject, photographic information is often recycled from many disparate origins. Occasionally, the original image has an art historical or Classical beginning, as she draws from old masters and her continuing interest in painterly tradition, looking at such artists as Holbein and Rembrandt. In thinking about composition, light, shadow and color Da Vinci and Del Sarto are often references. The figurative image, that she often morphs into a sculptural bust, once a quasi sculpture and a living body, at times comes from contemporary pop cultural sources and the printed media. In terms of the pop culture genesis Van Pelt re-uses, re-interprets and re-presents the popularly available female image in such a way that it is often uncertain if the recycled image is from pop print media or referenced from an old master.
The image, whether the human form, a portrait or a body in motion for Van Pelt becomes a vehicle for the exploration into the passage of time and the relationship of light to matter. With the nudes, she finds their opaque stillness a result of “the lack of time within the perimeters of the picture… time seems nonexistent”. The nudes, frozen forever in an infinite moment, recall and represent the nature and function of light as a tool in photography. The same can be said for the figures in motion, which are inspired by the work of Etienne-Jules Marey and the serial photography of Eadweard Muybridge, both working with photography in the late 19th century to understand the nature of motion. It is through light that an image is known and made available to the human eye and therefore to the brain for consideration and consumption. As Leonard Shlain points out, “Light always carries with it the frozen moment of an image’s creation”*, as a wave/particle of light burns the reflected image of an object into the eye of the viewer. This theme of motion and the trapping, freezing and capturing of an image lies at the heart of the factual investigations Van Pelt seeks. It is this notion that holds her close to the work of Edgar Degas, as both photographer and painter. The trapping of an image/moment and the fleeting presence of mood captured by the camera’s ability to record a brief instant was again explored by Bacon in the recent past of our own 20th century. As Van Pelt comes to this tradition and action of harnessing time, her own lifetime overlapping Bacon’s, she creates a double project of trapping the serial system of art history’s interest in motion and the artistic recording of it.
The chosen fact-images become tools of communication as they are contextualized through the deconstruction and reconstruction of the physical motion of her ideology. The physical motion of blurring a tightly rendered painting opens a dialogue with chance. In the action of moving the paint, setting the molecules of the subject into motion, the play between intention, expectation and accident begins. The permutation of chance challenges the somewhat systematic deconstruction of the fact she has set up. Van Pelt says, “it is hard not to have expectations, but the magic is in the accident,” as she blurs a concrete form, watching the paint take on a life of its own and in many ways making its own choices, bringing in question the creator’s control. Van Pelt watches as the paint erases the subject’s own recent past to uncover its present, its current state of being – breaking down the picture to discover its essence, thus divulging the subject’s psychology. When the paint begins to make its own decisions Van Pelt ahs a strange relationship with her work. In one way she was relinquished all control as producer, yet always retains the decision when to stop. Van Pelt’s interest in painting lies in uncovering the essence of a thing, be it in human form or the intellectual idea of movement.
By starting with a solid painted form and moving the paint around, Van Pelt is at once creating new layers and destroying old ones. The process sets into motion the deconstruction of the physical/skin/matter layer and exposes the less tangible layer of energy. One of Van Pelt’s ongoing concerns has to do with human perception of physical objects. Our minds read the things that surround us as a solid form however, in this century quantum physics has allowed us a deeper scientific understanding of the nature of our physical universe. The discovery that an atom is largely made up of empty space tells us that our physical world is merely illusion with electric energy transmitting sensory information. The interest in universal energy that unites matter has been at the center of eastern studies for thousands of years and a major impetus in Van Pelts investigations. By re-constructing the image Van Pelt wipes away the structure which creates the illusion of a tangible thing.
However perception is not always “truthful” and the closer one looks at the surface of her paintings, the more the image breaks down. In this way Van Pelt’s painting is part of the dialogue of the technology of communication using the oldest form of image production, the placement of pigment on surface. Baudrillard considers the progression of communication from the reflective mirror surfaces of paintings to the projective screen surfaces we interact with today. Mass communication via television in our private space happens through “…great screens on which are reflected atoms, particles, connections.”** The inner, expansive space of Van Pelt’s paintings contain this same deconstruction in order to pre-construct an image as do the screens of technological communication.
The contrast lies in the specificity of the transportation of the television image and the fluid, chance construction of Van Pelt’s images. This relationship creates an interesting dialogue between the old and the new, history and technology. Van Pelt’s images act as much like screens as they do mirrors to the viewer. The viewer plays an active role in the experience of the inner space of the painting, as each piece has no final reading or dictated message. What becomes recognizable in each piece varies with individual interpretation.
The act of deconstructing and representing a form, a moment or a movement becomes frozen in the space of the painting forever when Van Pelt feels the redefining of the image is complete. The re-cycling of time and motion that began with the moment the camera first stole comes to rest in infinite space. The final product and the photographic surface qualities of some of her pieces recall Richter’s work from the 1960’s. Although visually similar, their concerns are quite different. The comparison is interesting in that Van Pelt’s investigations are directed by chance, although the intention of making the work is quite different from Richter’s. The frozen moments trapped in Van Pelt’s canvases communicate the essence and fluid nature of the subject she chooses to construct and present. The viewer completes the painting by playing a role in the cycle of communication, with the topic of conversation being the nature of serial existence, motion and the essence of our common experience.
*Leonard Shlain, Art & Physics Parallel Visions in Space, Time & Light (New York: Morrow, c 1991), p. 122
** Jean Baudrillard, “The Ecstasy of Communication,” in The Anti-Aesthetic Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (New York: The New Press, c 1988), p. 130