I am originally from the central Appalachian mountain region in northeastern Pennsylvania. My ancestors on both sides were immigrant coal miners from Eastern Europe. The area I grew up in now rests over flooded and burning mines and is surrounded by abandoned coal breakers and shake piles. This industrial world that had once meant so much for so many people was, to me, a dead metaphor—all around and underneath me—meanwhile life went on.
This intermeshing of worlds and realities continues to inspire me. I am specifically interested in how people internalize and pass on socio-historical traumas through generations, such as the Knox coalmine disaster in 1959. In a single day, illegal mining broke through the riverbed, wiping out the local anthracite coal mining industry. Decades later the consequences of that single day are still palpable- in the landscape as well as in the people who once inhabited it. Through the paintings in this body of work, I create a visual language that depicts the complexity of perception—how historical and internal experiences interweave and intertwine.
In this blog entry I am going to explore three thoughts on representation and abstraction and address how I see these categories as changing in the digital age; a conversation that greatly affects my work.
1. Excess and Overload as Abstraction
Typically, abstraction has been associated with reduction or abbreviation—reducing something to its “essence”. However, I am interested in a different kind of abstraction. When there is an overload of information as with media saturation we do not process a “whole” or “essence” at all. The sheer quantity of images and objects creates a type of pattern-based processing, making it more difficult to focus on individual components and promoting more of a time-based processing. This is explained by Jeffrey Rian in the article, The Generation Game:
A child born into the electronic age learns his or her way into the world under the influence of disembodied voices and images, piecing together a world in collage pattern that absorbs ‘everywheres’ and everywhens’ into a cacophonous present. With electronics, sensory life is made more complicated because of the abundance of unrelated sounds and images… Experiencing free floating and unanalyzed images, which are integrated as tactile experiences, may offer a level of familiarity, or low level stimulus that engenders a variety of memories…
-Jeffrey Rian (The Generation Game)
2. The Visibility of the Invisible
Spaces that once only existed as imaginary are all over the Internet—from hidden corners of the Amazon, live broadcasts of acts of terrorism, webcams of outer space, to videos of surgeries showing the intricacies of the internal body.
After the advent of photography, painting began to explore the notion of the “unknown”—internal worlds, complex and amoebic states, and images of the “otherworldly and surreal”. Since almost everything can be “seen” online, it has become more and more difficult to imagine the “unknown” as a singular image.
In my work, painting becomes a way to envision relationships that are seemingly impossible to imagine (even and especially on the internet), because they involve time, different perceptual and sensory information, and the subjective. Ultimately, I am interested in making an image that captures how internal experience and memories are projected onto the external world—which becomes personal and involves both recognizable and non-recognizable imagery.
3. Legibility of Illegible
In his book, Six Stories from the End of Representation, James Elkins contrasts the use of the blur in art to what it means in astronomy. Where artists often intentionally blur to obscure an image, astronomers look at skies full of blurs that have never been seen “in focus”. In fact, the paradigm of being “in focus” or legible vs. “out of focus” or illegible does not apply when looking at the sky, as sharpening can cause a loss of information. By moving pixels closer together or turning the lens to focus on one area, contours and shapes that exist in the spaces in between are lost. In this case, the quality of being out of focus leaves the register of human perception all together, and clarity does not necessarily mean seeing something better. I am interested in the paradox of making information less legible, less recognizable, and less reliant on gestalt principles in order to expand on ways of seeing.
See our previous post: A Studio Visit with Sarah Sutton