In 1968 John Coplans, a British writer and artist best known for his photographic series of his own naked, aging body, wrote a seminal text for the trend-setting exhibition Serial Imagery. In his essay Coplans stated that serial imagery “is identified by a particular inter-relationship, rigorously consistent, of structure and syntax… a single indivisible process that links the internal structure of a work to that of other works within a differentiated whole.” Though I am very decidedly a representational painter concerned most primarily with the symbolic presentation of relational objects and human bodies, over the years I have found myself engaging in this sort of tightly defined, non-pictorial, serial procedure as Coplans defined it.
Key to my experience of the ideas present in Coplan’s text and the Serial Imagery show was the inclusion of Josef Albers’ Structural Constellation series and a number of Frank Stella’s Eccentric Shaped Canvas series. These works in particular (in tandem with my deep appreciation for Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series) inspired the direction of my periodic forays into serial artworks. In 2003 I created a body of work – and published a book containing them – entitled One Hundred Permutations. In this series I used a Minolta digital copier, the copiers manual, and my own instinctive, jarring movements of the manuals cover over the scanning element as it moved below. The 100 inter-related images were then transferred to screen prints and printed in editions of four. Some also found life through being projected onto canvases and recreated large scale in acrylic paint and permanent marker.
One Hundred Permutations originated through my musing on the shape and potential of a simple office copier. The Quintessence Series began with an ancient geometric form: the dodecahedron. I have been including dodecahedrons in my representational work for a number of years. Made from twelve pentagons, the dodecahedron was thought by Plato to be the physical shape of the universe and was the fifth – the quintessential – of his Five Solids. This Solid carries with it a number of meanings, not the least of which is the notion of a stage or arena where the machinations of reality take place.
The Quintessence Series, though it arose through a constrained aim and method similar to the One Hundred Permutations set, retained the individual actions of my hand and maintained certain aesthetic choices for me within the process that the previous series denied. Three woodblocks depicting various dodecahedron-inspired forms (some with a kind of naturalistic spatial illusion, others with a flat, more diagrammatic format) provide the basis for the works. Every individual work of the series takes the internal shapes and angles of the dodecahedrons created by the woodblocks as an abstract schematic starting point. Layering begins the real process. Each piece is the result of layered printings interspersed with monotypes and drawn or painted elements. The alternating monotyped and handworked elements are reactions to the suggestions made by the underlying states.
Part of what I enjoy about these works is the way they are pushing around my sensibility for creating flat, shallow, and traditionally plastic space. In all of my work, the sense of touch is important. I’m always playing with notions of bas-relief, of the micro vertigo of very limited suggestions of in-the-round depiction. The Quintessence works, in person, are charged with the tension between intentionally flat formalism and a structural depth. Some of this is caused by the suggestions of three-dimensional space that are inherited through the working layers from the initial woodblocks, partly counteracted by flattening subsequent working, partly enhanced by transparencies or angular effects which suggest space. There are areas of embossing, other areas of compacted material, and still others almost devoid of density at all. I find my mind constantly working over them, trying my eyes over certain areas, speeding across others. For me, the activity of making and looking at them is similar to attempting to mentally manipulate a Rubik’s Cube. There is a suggestion of stasis and implied movement there, a kind of holding of one state as given while actively conceptualizing a potential or future state. In this way the pieces seem very motile to me, shifting and changing with each viewing. I like them.
Ultimately, I always return to the figure. Does this mean that my more abstract, schematic, serial work is somehow less important? I do not think so, primarily because my very notion of composition itself is based on the same bedrock that inspired the modernists and mid-century artists who challenged representational depiction with a focus on idea, methods, and surface. Frank Stella himself testified to this reality in his Working Space lectures. While those artists cast off the themes and practices of the past, they never really abandoned the principles of visual dynamics that have informed the human understanding of art for thousands and thousands of years. When I look at my 100 Permutations Series or this current Quintessence Series, I see the same forces and dynamics that I use in my representational works. Here then is the value of my occasional non-pictoral work: to investigate the potential of composition apart from symbolic themes, to remove the coding and baggage of the human form and its presentation from primary consideration for a time. I will always return to them, my objects and bodies and symbols and narratives; but my return will be informed by a constructive visual logic that helps me understand and order what I want to see in new and – hopefully – better ways. So these serial series are not mere sidelines, but necessities, part and parcel of my creative life.