Abstract Critical

Chaos, complexity and double vision

Written by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Rebecca Norton

Awkward X 2, The First One (2010)

Awkward X 2, The First One (2010)

The following is a partially rewritten transcript of a talk we gave to the graduate art students at the University of Minnesota on March 2nd, 2014. We began collaborating as Awkward x 2 in 2010, and explained our general approach to collaboration and to painting in a lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago that was also published in The Brooklyn Rail. Both versions are posted on our website (awkwardx2.org) and readers interested in knowing more than is summarized here may wish to refer to one of them. In Minneapolis we wanted to discuss our recent show in Bushwick, New York, and to talk about our interest in the double pendulum, which featured in that show and which we’re hoping to pursue further in a work that will take our interests in painting into video animation. 

Jeremy: Before turning to the two specific topics we’d like to discuss today, the cartoon and the double pendulum, I’ll just say a few words for the sake of those who aren’t familiar with our work. It’s important to grasp that we’re interested in pleasure and fun.   We formed our collaboration out of a number of common interests, formed out of or already manifest in the similarity of our palettes and our thinking about what we wanted paintings to be and do. We make paintings and other works together that we could or would not make individually. Rebecca made me laugh when she said on the video about our work we made for MoCA tv that she thought her use of the affine progression could liven up my grid because I had thought that they were quite lively already actually, but her comment is very much to the point.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Two (2014)

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Two (2014)

An affine space is a geometric structure or system that combines the principles of parallelism and convergence and, when drawn, produces a series of vectors. As Rebecca has said elsewhere,  “Because of the logic of its structure… it moves one in and around, shifting with and away from one to the other and from there to others, but not from or back to an origin one can determine.”  One may say that a grid similarly has no visible origin either, and perhaps this also plays a part in the interactions possible between the two. In any event the interaction between the affine progression she uses and the grids from which my works usually proceed, leads to movements and other effects that neither of us could produce or anticipate, and that is what we both saw from the very first work we made together.

We are united in an interest in sensation, or perhaps more precisely the logic of senses as much as of propositional language, and our work together involves the elaboration and mutual exploration and development of where that leads. It is what led us to put out a box of chocolates as well as paintings and works on paper. We’re concerned with sensation and are in that regard also eager to embrace, rather than evade or ignore, the charge that abstract art is a kind of eye candy. Our box of chocolates box comes with a note making fun of Duchamp’s idea about the ‘retinal’.

Rebecca Norton, Cow, Pigs, Wars and Witches (2012)

Rebecca Norton, Cow, Pigs, Wars and Witches (2012)

Having said that I should add that we take that attitude because it’s where we find ourselves, we don’t do what we do in order to be against something. We groove on abstract painting and should like to make it clear that we think that the reasons for its being dismissed by a lot of people are silly. We work with what painting is and what it can do, surface, color, movement that is felt involuntarily while literally not there at all, intensity that accumulates as one looks at it. We think about art and the visual a lot but don’t actually spend much time thinking about where we fit into the currently dominant narrative about art and art history, although as has been suggested we’re aware of it, but rather tend to think in terms of thoughts and images which come from almost anywhere else. From its beginning our collaboration has been heavily conditioned by Rebecca’s engagement with math and science and my own with philosophy. As she’ll say, I often draw different thoughts out of ideas which concern her purely (perhaps) in terms of their original and intended scientific meaning. We think that when we work together these different attitudes become complementary in ways that are both straightforward and not.

With that in mind we want today to talk about our most recent group of works and the two most important themes, to use the word broadly, that inspired and structured them: the Wyle E. Coyote and the Road Runner Cartoons, and Giuseppe Longo’s ideas about mathematics. For me, the latter have been most exciting for what he does to or with predictability, and for Rebecca that, but also several other things, as you’ll hear.

Installation shot, Into the Arcane of Animation, Active Space Gallery, 2014

Installation shot, Into the Arcane of Animation, Active Space Gallery, 2014

We called our recent group of works “Into the Arcane of Abstraction”. Our works are finished when neither of us knows who did want, to which rule there are a few exceptions of course and equally obviously we do know who came up with any given title. “Into the Arcane of Abstraction” came into Rebecca’s head quite without planning or preparation and it describes exactly what we do and how we did it in the six gouaches that make up this group. Our online dictionary defines the arcane as the mysterious or the secret and offers as an example, sweetly from our perspective, “modern math and its arcane notation”.  “Known to a few” is another definition of the arcane, but we’re not so interested in that except in the obvious way that abstract art requires an audience that wants to look at it, and is prepared to think about how to do so rather than assume that’s already known. Early in our collaboration, while we were making our first painting in fact, we settled on ‘messy thought’ as a good way of describing how we proceed, and if you read the blog we made as we went along and turned into the show’s catalog, then you’ll be ready for what I’m going to say about the cartoon and painting in the next few minutes and for the discussion of physics, mostly but not only Longo’s, that Rebecca’s going to take you through. The blog also contains all the sorts of thinking we did and could do around the topic as we made the works, both fictional and theoretical [Part 1Part 2; Part 3]. It makes perfect sense to us that we should make work inspired in large part by the impossible movements of cartoon creatures, and in equally large part by discourse about the incalculable but probable tendency to chaos of the double pendulum, because we think that while art may come from art a great deal intervenes along the way. The image or idea of convergence runs through much of what we do and how we think, and of how we describe to ourselves how forces interact in our paintings, and if one may say in a general sort of way that in our thinking the impossible and the probable are always free to converge then here I should point out that cartoons and math have much in common to begin with.

For example, in both cartoons and math space has no resistance and no limit.  This is also how we think of space in our work.  Rebecca brought to our collaboration an idea of ‘non-space’ which works perfectly well for both math and cartoons and is where we put the movements we find in both into play. For another example both cartoons and Longo’s work in particular are about unpredictability. Longo is important for showing that there is a limit to what mathematics, which nowadays means the computer, can predict, and the reason is ultimately mathematical: he shows, through a discussion of the history of astronomy, that once a third celestial body enters into or the gravitational fields of two others then the paths of all three becomes impossible to predict. He then takes that mathematical fact and applies it to evolution, and the unpredictability of that. When Rebecca introduced me to Longo’s work I was struck how this meant that he had demonstrated the incompatibility of the two kinds of sublime as defined by Kant. On the one hand the sublime of the organic and alive, which he calls the dynamic sublime, and on the other the sublime of pure ratio, infinite mathematical extension or number without end. He has shown more clearly than any other not why but how the two are incompatible.  I am pleased to say he agrees. Rebecca will get into how useful we have found his work on mechanical movement and time in a bit. I have elaborated a bit on his ideas about unpredictability because that’s what cartoons do and it’s about them that I’m now going to speak for a minute.

Installation shot, Into the Arcane of Animation, Active Space Gallery, 2014

Installation shot, Into the Arcane of Animation, Active Space Gallery, 2014

Like math, cartoons present us with unpredictability in the presence of an invariant. They do it and Longo discusses it, as far as we’re concerned. We liked cartoons and talked about them before embarking on the “Into the Arcane” group. As we’ve said they too are a kind of eye candy, which is what some people call the kind of abstraction we make, and we are moved by their vitality and also by their pure playfulness. We want a lot of their qualities and energy in our work, and we also want to find where we are through what we’re attracted to rather than through a shared idea about where we fit into art history. In cartoons, as we say in the blog, it’s important that the rules of physics only work part of the time. Gravity has to work when Wyle E Coyote falls from a great height with a resounding bang. It and the laws of dynamics have not to work when he builds a device meant to propel a boxing glove out into the street when the Roadrunner comes by, but which instead has the boxing glove stand still while the device itself shoots backwards and drives the coyote into the canyon’s wall.

In cartoons figures are made out of their outlines, they have no fixed volume and are, when one thinks of them as colored shapes, as much depths as solids. Wyle E has a fluid outline when ascending and a jagged and anxious one when falling. We went in and out of thinking about video color when we made the Into the Arcane group, but we never stopped thinking about video space. Like the space of the page, it is indeterminate in that it has no limit, no place where it stops. It does occur to me that the origin of this space is the space of the page. This is close to, or even the same thing as, our idea of non-space and also of the space in which mathematics and its diagrams take place. We think fun is always about the unpredictable. We also think the unpredictable always has a logic, which emerges as it occurs. I gave a little talk to my granddaughter’s fourth grade class on Friday and ended with Into the Arcane of Abstraction #4, illustrated below. We talked about how, in art, it’s ok to be silly. To you I should like to talk about this work in terms of a logic of forces and intensities.

Awkward x 2, Into the Arcane of Abstraction #4 (2013)

Awkward x 2, Into the Arcane of Abstraction #4 (2013)

Both have to do with the same thing, the frill on the bottom left corner. As we made the work the need to go out and come back, to not have the bottom left be what it always is, led us to do something to it that would be part of but also not part of what it led away from, but in that maybe reinforces. The edge of the paper is uneven because it’s sanded. One move beyond a limit led to another. Why not take unevenness to another but not unrelated sense, fragility? The paper is pretty tough and thick, so why not relate fragility to its most extreme condition, then, flimsiness? The work is about pleasure, which is the same as fun (in our minds at least,) so why not make fragility and flimsiness, already closely related senses or maybe concepts, complete their alliterative promise, and embody them in frilliness? That is why there is a frill made out of tissue paper stained pink around that bit on the lower left. I told the kids in my granddaughter’s class that some people might think that doing something frilly was the same as doing something that was silly but that we think that’s just fine, and that you can do anything in art. Here I offer it as an example of our interest in pursuing the logic of sense, which is here also the logic of a bundle of movements that exceeds its perimeter, and which we could not predict. Obviously there’s something funny about a work reaching out to what’s beyond it through a pink frill. We are into cartoons because they are funny and pretty and because they use movement and time in a way unavailable elsewhere. The funny and pretty are more interesting to us, generally speaking, than anything that could be said to be their opposites, and they qualify and underlie other forces while being forces themselves. Rebecca’s going to expand on how and why science and math are useful to us as sources of models of and thoughts about movement that’s pretty because they are where probability and unpredictability converge.

Rebecca: Mathematics has become an integral part of our work since we began Awkward. Jeremy will often tell others that I do beauty, he does beast. It’s not that simple, but in terms of how we work and where we begin, beauty/beast parallels our praxis. I work through idealized objects and differential equations and Jeremy goes about anywhere as long as he can make sense of it. That’s a pretty good way to understand how probability and unpredictability converge in Awkward. If you’ve read our latest blog you would see how we bring together these two ways of working. Like Jeremy said, it’s messy. But so is life. And thinking about the incalculable in life is what impressed me on to Longo’s writings.

In his discussion of a line Longo brings together Bergson’s thoughts on memory with animal instinct by conveying the complexity of a body in action.  He states “a line is not a set of points, it is a gestalt.”[1] Bodies for Longo are always in action and in his essay, The Cognitive Foundations of Mathematics: human gestures in proofs and mathematical incompleteness of formalisms,he illustrates this idea through an interaction of two animals – a predator hunting its prey. After setting the scenario for our mind’s eye of two animals in one space (through which I imagined a large cat in African grasses stalking a gazelle), Longo begins discussing activities of the hunter as it is lying in wait watching its target. Intuition informs it about what from its past could be useful for the present and no activity of the body, down to a tiny neuron in the brain, is ever acting in isolation from a network or a context of signification about the world. Biological activity, Longo demonstrates, is complex; it cannot be reduced to simple elements. Take, for example, the predator silently hiding, not moving and watching its prey. Though its body is still and poised, its eyes are moving continually, reacting to both inner and outer stimuli. The jerk (saccade), guided by visual activity or memory, precedes the prey. [the Wikipedia definition of saccade: “is a fast movement of the eyes, head or other part of the body or of a device. It can also be a fast shift in frequency of an emitted signal or other quick change.”]  The tracers of this movement, were they visible, would surely be jagged and ungrounded (like the motions of characters in cartoons). The organization of such neural and environmental networks are, Longo says, “entangled” in a “complex coupling” and lies at the basis of the living. As for perception, he has this to add; “…perception leads to signification: it depends on prevision, which is an action, and accompanies any other action. Perception is the result of interference between a signal and an action or an anticipation. In short, there is no meaning without an ongoing action.” (p.3) For a painter who, like myself, enjoys most about painting the non-meaningful play of color and space, Longo’s ideas livens the credence for an active surface.

The point is that the actions of the predator and its prey are non-compositional. They are postures and patterns of behavior that cannot be deduced from one another. The predator’s instincts lead it to pounce and its body is propelled through a calculation that cannot ultimately be measured. It’s a compelling way of seeing what cannot possibly be seen all at once. Longo’s body in action summarizes, in a way, some ideas I’ve worked through with my affine paintings, specifically (though not simply) the complexity of a (conscious) body in motion. Awkward took from his ideas this and much more. In “Into the Arcane”we thought about this idea amongst others like fun, humor and the space of the computer screen. For the idea of two bodies, Jeremy and I are two, plus the one of the painting. And so it was that we could understand three bodies creating unpredictability, two of them roaming with speed and sensation along the surface of a painting.

Awkward x 2, Into the Arcane of Animation #1 (2013)

Awkward x 2, Into the Arcane of Animation #1 (2013)

In painting a “gestalt of a line” is movement understood as a shape because it appears as such – one cannot describe any shape to oneself as static, even a square is experienced as being held in place by the gestalt made by four right angles that cancel each other out, i.e., one experiences them collectively performing an action, not the absence of one. As a shape it interacts with the colors surrounding it and in a painting it becomes an active part of a larger network. Though an artist has intention, mostly, when adding a line or shape to his or her work, as perhaps a signifier, or an affect to produce an effect, the origin of this gesture is non-meaningful. To borrow again from Longo, “…intentionality allows signification, on the basis of original intentionality: motion.” (p.4)Longo’s description of a line as a gestalt sounds quite a lot like Bergson when he insists that we see movements as durations rather than isolated instances. To Bergson, Balla’s lovely drawing of the dachshund with many legs is how film sees things.  To pick up a cup is a single movement, not a series of points in time, and the reason is that to describe a movement as a series of points is to turn time, or duration, into space, a series of isolated points or stages in progression.

Jeremy is prone to say he sees philosophical possibilities where I see the science, but this is in every way an example of how we both think about complexity both scientifically and philosophically. Another item introduced from mathematics into Awkward’s conversations illustrates a point about our work that we thought was interesting and this is the expression of space performed by a double – or articulated – pendulum. A double pendulum is made from two hinged poles hanging suspended from a point, a weight attached to the end of the under pole. When force from outside pushes the poles from a state of rest the movements of the double pendulum become unpredictable.  As the upper pole moves right, the lower pole may move left, or north, or south, or right as well. They turn around and with one another, the thrust of kinetic energy from one side to the other producing elusive suggestions of curving and angular spaces. They fracture and cut through the light in a myriad of prisms. And because they are two, they can do that. Separated the single hanging poles would demarcate a frontier that – unlike the double pendulum – is predictable in its extension, expressions and measure.

Actions similar to those demonstrated through the animation abovesometimes occur in our work. It’s not just the mapping of space similar to ours that excites us, but the unpredictability and complexity that is, we think, us (it’s funny that it should be so). We both find it exciting that Longo, and perhaps science as whole, thinks about complexity in a very similar way. Individually and collaboratively Jeremy and I work with the painting as an object for sure, but complexity comes from the relationship between that and the color, depth, space in painting, on painting, and the space around the object and which it shares with its viewer. The viewer is a complex being. What happens between the painting considered as an object and the space around it, the where which begins where the viewer and the work are and but which encloses both, is a complex event, which moves and is there as much like an organism as a thing. Jeremy will say it’s suspended between them.

pendulum635

pendulum886

Screen shots of Double Pendulum animation, collaboration with Jeremy Rotsztain, 2014

Screen shots of Double Pendulum animation, collaboration with Jeremy Rotsztain, 2014

Jeremy: Yes, I shall, thanks Rebecca, it’s suspended between them and as we’ve said this is because, as we said in our Chicago lecture, the complex event that Rebecca’s just described is more like an interaction with another being than it is a matter of looking at, or decoding, an object. I think, also, this complexity is comparable to what the double pendulum might be said to produce, to take the movement Rebecca has described somewhere more general but maybe also equally useful. If the object is the first pendulum and the space around it the second, what happens on the surface of the painting and in the mind of its viewer is likewise an as it were internal – perhaps doubly so – version of the same complex convergence between movements that the double pendulum embodies. While the work initiates a movement or realization of complexity in the viewer, it is however already surrounded by the viewer’s sense of complexity and indeed dependent on it to a large degree, grooving on the friction between the two being a big part of what it is to experience the work. This is why art needs not to be thought of as work but rather as fun, if one is to look at it in a serious, which is to say playful but not prosaic, way, and we think that’s the case with looking at what we do.

Awkward x 2, Into the Arcane of Abstraction #5 (2010)

Awkward x 2, Into the Arcane of Abstraction #5 (2010)

Rebecca: I agree. It’s best to think of all our paintings as displaying a part of something larger. The surface is a visible slice of the non-space of painting, active through the emergent properties of its own working logics playing, on the surface of a painting, a quiet conversation about it as a subject for us to stand in non-space with. When two people like Awkward are working at once, in non-space and messy thought, the convergence of two spaces with two people on one surface presents a negotiation with what has not yet come before. Something stirs and, with four or more saccade shakes of the eyes, we begin traversing new territory. 

Awkward x 2 would like to extend our very special thanks to visual artist and software programmer Jeremy Rotsztain for his advice and contribution in regard to the Double Pendulum animation, which he made for us.  We look forward to working with him as this particular project takes off.

[1] Giuseppe Longo, “The Cognitive Foundations of Mathematics: uman gestures in proofs and mathematical incompleteness of formalisms”, p. 6 [pdf]

  1. Robert Linsley said…

    Love the movie. Check out this collection of films illustrating mathematical concepts, especially from relativity.
    http://www.aip.de/~lie/Movies/Movies.html