Judith Kentish: touching the line...catalogue essay written by Michele Helmrich
touching the line… by michele helmrich
For what we find is the ‘system’ of compulsion, of the obsessional’s unwavering ritual, with its precision, its neatness, its finicky exactitude, covering over an abyss of irrationality.
Rosalind Krauss, “LeWitt in Progress” (1)
Daily she laboured at the vast loom, weaving: but each night she had torches brought in and unravelled the day’s woof.
Homer, The Odyssey (2)
When Rosalind Krauss wrote these lines about the work of American artist Sol LeWitt, she did so to counter the view that his work concerned mathematical rationality and logic. Using as an analogy a story by Samuel Beckett, she argued that LeWitt’s modular structures revealed more “an abyss of irrationality”, a “pit of non-necessity”.(3) Krauss recalls LeWitt’s statement that “Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically”.(4) It is this very unravelling of logic within a program which appears to demand a stringent logic, that we might begin to situate Kentish’s recent work.
The two bodies of work within ‘touching the line’, one on paper and the other on cloth, share a sensibility that is infinitely patient and painstaking. These works walk a line between the minimalist grid and an eccentric or postminimal denial of formal rigidity. Obsessively detailed, obsessively ‘touched’, these works grow with a randomness which undoes their apparent rigorous plotting.
As we look at the large drawings, it is the acknowledgment of careful and infinite work which registers. The mind and the body of the viewer contains a memory of its own repetitive tasks. We feel its duration. Again, Krauss’s words are applicable here, again in reference to Samuel Beckett, as she observes “the painstaking, persistent, sadistic description of its individual rows”(p. 256). Such endurance hurts. We may learn that these works have taken months to complete; we already can perceive this temporality of process in the repetition of our looking.
Executed after the cloth works, the three paper pieces retain a semblance of fabric and domesticity. Standing back from the drawn surface of the more restrained pair, the gridded patterns assume a soft blur against the white paper, their form resembling that of a cloth mat or rug. The tighter gridding of the border at each far end further strengthens this comparison to the geometric crafts of the home environment. In the tall vertical panel, however, mutation overtakes geometry.
If we look closely at the drawing, in the bright light, the intensity of each drawn black line, as it continues in its path, suddenly reads as a stitch which pierces the surface. A needle might pierce the paper, the fabric, much as pins, hooks, razor-blades and bullets pierced the bodies of such performance artists as Mike Parr, Stelarc, Gina Pane and Chris Burden in the 1970s, testing the endurance of both artist and audience. In this instance, we are quickly pacified. Here the pain is metaphoric. With distance, the cut of the line becomes a benign satin stitch, sensuous rather than painful. But it is uncanny. We check, and yes it is indeed a drawn line on paper. Each of these rows did grow in a self-perpetuating sequence. Each a labour. Each keeping at bay. Each filling in. Each time.
In comparison to these large paper works, the cloth pieces appear easy. Superficially they may remind us of the riches of the ‘Orient’, of Thai silks and the scent of Eastern markets. Yet, the machine has generated these drawn silken lines, and they are not exotic. Drawn taut, the gridded sequences on the fabric also savour ‘error’.(5) Despite the mechanical reproduction of the sewn line, perfection is not sought. Each sewn line speedily multiplies into soft harmonic grids, orchestrated against the warm grey voile cloth. Yet even as we study the semi-transparency of the stiff cloth, the sheen of the cotton ridges, our reverie is cut by the abruptness of the field. Our expectation of a greater resolution is not met. Infinity, it is not. Instead, it is the sampler.
Such imperfection is accentuated by the threads which fall where the stitching paused, while at the end of rows, threads fall in long untidy streams to the floor. With a breeze, the threads move, like hair. They are not contained. Moreover, there are more threads than one would expect at the end of roes. Additional threads have been tied on, like remembrances or prayers. They adhere, as do our memories.
What psychological imperative do these works address? Are they a means of denial or avoidance? They mark and certainly take time. In that sense they are performative. Their implication of ‘pain’ and endurance could be read as masochism, or as Krauss suggests of Beckett, sadism. As the spectator, however, we do not endure the making – but we perceive the result in that fuller phenomenological sense of a perception felt with the body. The process of continual, endless drawing produces a surface like a snake’s skin, and like a snake’s skin, it is shed and cast off. It lives as a remnant of its performative life.
The discipline and punishment of the body, and the mind, enact scenarios in which excessive control may be irrational. Excessive policing of our bodies, for instance, may result in eating disorders. The obsessional seeks control of his or her environment, actions, body. An obsessive-compulsive neurosis may result in the endless repetition of an action, as in repetitive cleansing. Order and disorder are pitted against each other. And those obsessed in love and passion repeatedly offer signs of their desire, and may endure the endless pain of unrequited love. Ironically, in the story of Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope, awaiting the return of Odysseus, kept her suitors at bay with her loom and spindle and the endless repetition in making and unmaking the linen shroud.
The continuing currency of the strategies of minimalism in the 1990s is, in part, due to the way it allows order and disorder to coalesce. The geometric grid is the perfect image for the repetitive and persistent preoccupation, idea or anxiety. In this way, the skeptics’ view that Minimalism represents a straight-jacket, of ‘men in white coats’ policing the aesthetic and representational boundaries of art, may inadvertently come close to its psychic dimension, its ambivalence between desire and restraint.(6) For in this way Minimalism is more about disorder – about “prisons devoid of reason”.(7)
Within Kentish’s drawings, there is also an element of the ‘organic’ or the biomorphic. In the long vertical work, especially, it is as if the grid has been overtaken by mutant cells, multiplying within the constraints of their vertical ‘walls’. There is something curiously futuristic and archaic about these drawn forms, as if a hand-drawn animation of the city of tomorrow or of microscopic cell-life. Is this a derivation of Chaos theory? There is certainly a surreal transmutation of the inanimate into the animate – as if excessive touching will lend life. Yet, the distortions are infinitesimal. We know these initially regimented forms were drawn centimetre-by-centimetre, in a vertical sequence, the paper being rolled out bit-by-bit. Being drawn on a mapping paper, calque, there is a further sense of the forms being pre-existent, as if they ‘followed’ the line. While the line ‘cuts’ the paper, this is no expressionistic line, no revelation of the artist’s inner ‘soul’. The procedure is painfully slow. Yet the image evokes speed and the future. We are reminded that previously Kentish has produced large-scale computer-mediated drawings, such as Breath Carapace of 1995, which won her the 1996 Moet et Chandon Fellowship. In that work, an image evocative of the processes of the body was aligned with the processes of new-imaging technologies, namely computer-mediated photocopy imagery, which was realised in a gridded sequence of 64 pages. These concerns have found