Costruzione Legittima: a creative response to the world

Lynne Green, 2003


Art…comes from the life of the artist – out of his [or her] own life, his [her] own environment. (1)

Jenny West is extremely meticulous as an artist. Everything that catches her attention, engages her imagination, attracts her sympathy, challenges or delights her is recorded in a series of notebooks. Her 'Notes on Works' are an equivalent, but so much more expansive than, the once-ubiquitous Commonplace Book, in which notable passages and thoughts were set down (mainly, it has to be said, by women) in an age before electronic text. Few artists are as careful in collating and retaining the sources of their inspiration. Nor are they so transparent in revealing their process of creativity – as though in doing so, appreciation of originality in their art might in some way be diminished. West gives access freely to these journals in which her aesthetic, emotional and intellectual engagements with the world are assembled and anchored. They record the workings of an eclectic mind that is always open to new, potentially productive encounters. Her 'Notes' consist of pages from kitchen utensil catalogues; newspaper cuttings (recording for instance, the phases of the moon or the restoration of the Basilica of St Francis at Assisi); images of instruments (scientific, astrological and alchemical), of palmistry, of work by other artists ancient and contemporary, of architecture from all periods and cultures; interspersed with quotations from all manner of texts, lists of key words, thoughts, ideas and photographs of her own work in progress or completion. What holds all these in common and provides the unifying thread is the life and imaginative response of the artist herself. We each are an amalgam of our experience, of a life lived. West is a busy mother of two with all that that implies of domesticity and daily commitments. She is also a practising artist. The two are not divisible – the sum of the parts is the work she creates. In the former she is a 'multi-tasker', the latter requires concentration and single-minded application. In the evolution of ideas and in the making she seeks to make sense of her life.

In the creative act, the artist goes from intention to realization through a chain of totally subjective reactions. His struggle towards realization is a series of efforts, pains, satisfactions, refusals, decisions which also cannot and must not be fully self-conscious… (2)

My will to do something is greater than my knowledge of what I will do (3)

Artists function within a tradition. Some reject the past, others like West deliberately embrace precedent and build upon it. She actively uses her creative inheritance and is sustained by its familial nature. Individual artists, historical periods and cultural styles to which she is drawn act as directional indicators (even spiritual guides) on her personal artistic journey. In this sense the concept (as well as the effect) of influence is central to West's process, as is the condition of receptivity, of openness to coincidence and serendipity. The intuitive association of ideas, filtered (that is selected, assessed and interpreted) by her evolving intellectual and emotional position, drive her creative direction. From the general to the specific (from ways of working, to particular shapes or elements in relationship), West consciously echoes her chosen exemplars: absorbing and making what she borrows, her own. She is particularly engaged by the experimental, the explorative and the broadly scientific: by artists, events and cultures that have profoundly influenced human as well as art's history. Pioneers of pictorial space, like Giotto, Masaccio and Piero Della Francesca, share equal status in her personal pantheon with that master of subversion and metamorphosis, Marcel Duchamp. Ancient Egyptian and Japanese aesthetics (in architecture as well as in art and design), sit equally well with the gigantic astronomical structures of Jaipur in India.

West's interests are wide, yet there is a literal thread running through them all: line – as edge, as delineation, as outline, making evident, specifying form, describing trajectory, tracing interval and conjuring space. The development of her own practice has echoed the activity of drawing through the history of art: first making two-dimensional marks on a flat surface, then creating with the aid of mathematics and geometry an illusionistic space beyond or beneath that surface, and most recently extending line into actual three dimensions as she draws with cotton or nylon in space. Line itself is not a neutral device. West is conscious of its traditional use in the conveyance of profound meaning throughout the history of art, and is fascinated by the idea that something so quick, slight and delicate can convey, say, the Word of God to the mind of man, or deliver the pain of stigmata to an outstretched hand.

'Drawing is the most direct, closest to the true self, the most natural liberation of man – and if I may guess back to the action of very early man, it may have been the first celebration of man with his secret self – even before song.' (4)

'The characteristics of drawing, whatever the period or culture, '…include spontaneity, creative speculation, experimentation, directness, simplicity, abbreviation, expressiveness, immediacy, personal vision, technical diversity, modesty of means, rawness, fragmentation, discontinuity, unfinishedness, and open-endedness… No other form is so flexible, responsive, or revealing.' (5)

As a student Jenny West thought drawing was boring – most art students go through this phase. Drawing can be fiddly, time-consuming, and requires patience and skill. It is also associated with the past, with what art has already achieved, while the job of an artist is to invent, to do something new, to express the current age not a past one. When she started to make sculpture West discovered a conundrum: she needed the process of drawing to explore her concept, to express the options for how the final work should look. Moreover, in order to think her way into the sculpture, she needed not simply a 'flat' sketch, but a two-dimensional illusion of the three-dimensional object she held in her mind. Thus she turned to the venerable tradition of perspectival drawing as a means of projecting imagination, her idea, onto paper.

The birth of pictorial (illusory) space in Renaissance Italy revolutionised art and provided the foundation upon which its subsequent history is built. The discovery was not entirely new (the use of spatial design is evident in classical antiquity and, arguably, long before that), nor was it singular: a number of perspective theories spawned a variety of spatial systems, with varying degrees of success in achieving the goal – realism. There was more than a hint of Alchemical fervour in the desire to turn the base materials of art into pictorial gold. It's evolution was the result of the 'interaction of the artist's growing desire to portray the world of space about him and …his feeling for the individuality and essential flatness of the surface upon which he works.' (6) As with all innovation in art, the dialogue was between the desire of artists' to express their experience and the feeling for the materials with which they worked.

Perspective: a method of representing three dimensions on a two-dimensional (flat or nearly flat) surface, as in drawing, painting and shallow relief. The Renaissance invention of precisely calculated recession and diminution is indebted to a study of medieval optics. All types of linear perspective depend on the illusion of parallel lines at right angles to the picture plane (orthogonals) meeting at a 'vanishing' point in the distance.

Linear perspective: uses real or suggested lines converging on a vanishing point or points on the horizon or at eye-level, and linking receding planes as they do so. One-point perspective: architect, artist and author, Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) evolved a version of mathematically constructed perspective – costruzione legittima – in which a single vanishing point…usually but not necessarily in the centre of the composition, corresponds to the spectator's viewpoint in front of the picture. [This] allows the depiction of a measurable environment. It serves to clarify narrative, to help focus the viewer's attention, and to mobilize his or her empathy by making the viewer an eye-witness to the event or scene depicted. It can also be used to make symbolic points, either through application or by disruption of the laws of optics. (7)

While providing a practical means of achieving accuracy of form, scale and relationship – as well as an illusion of three dimensions on a flat plane – perspectival theory confirmed Jenny West's sense of art as a process of exploration and discovery, of the artist as scientist. Leonardo da Vinci, the greatest exponent of this position, is another of her heroes. West's own practice is developmental and organic. Her studio is a place and a space of enquiry, a laboratory in which experiment is intrinsic to the work made, not simply a means to an end. The interest in drawing at first instrumental, as a prelude to making sculpture, West found its practice held a potential that far exceeded this ephemeral role. The intrinsic qualities of drawing, its fluidity, economy, immediacy and uncertainty (in terms of feeling one's way tentatively) allowed for a largely spontaneous, open-ended dialogue between idea and medium. Mathematical perspective provided the armature (a stable, predetermined system) within which to explore and experiment freely.

Whenever space is represented, the same fundamental problems of the relationship between the two-dimensional surface and the three-dimensional world inevitably recur beneath the iconographic surface.'

At the beginning West's measured drawings were contained by the paper's edge. As their scale grew, the sheets were pinned to the wall: the paper stretched to make a pristine "beautiful surface", the wall painted white to create the equivalent of a continuous surface. Then the boundary between art and its environment was breached as she followed the trajectory of her line out onto the wall. Line itself became three-dimensional as it was traced in cotton or nylon thread. In the latest development, West liberated line (converging, diverging or paralleling) still further, taking it across actual space in both studio and site-specific place. From the constructed environment of illusory space she has moved her activity into the real space that we inhabit: she plots it as one would on a piece of graph paper. Our essentially abstract concept of actual space becomes tangible and perceptible as interval and relationship (formal configuration) is made evident. Risk is central to the work (this is a brave endeavour). The process is one of natural evolution over time: of trial and error, of success and failure, in which thought and image evolve, change and move on, simultaneously. West prefers to "work fluently with the space and see what happens", rather than to plan, prepare, then simply carry out.

In West's work, the alchemy of art transmutes ordinary, prosaic items – primarily domestic and culinary, with the sieve a current favourite – into vehicles for ideas, objects of metaphoric meaning. Only clarity and simplicity of shape appear to link the chosen items. Their form is plotted on paper and / or directly onto a Plaster of Paris ground: the geometric skeleton of the object is then projected into space. The plaster itself carries layered meaning. West likens its preparation to that of making a white sauce (you have to get the lumps out): such analogies with domestic tasks please her. That the process and its application are a scaled down, simplified equivalent of fresco is crucial. A favoured medium of Renaissance art (and of ancient and classical civilizations), by definition fresco painting is site specific: created in and for a particular architectural space. The formal configuration of imagery produced in this way – in the Renaissance this includes its perspective – is dictated by that space, as well as itself being instrumental in how that space is experienced or read.

The connection with West's own interests is obvious – as she draws in space she also responds to and is constrained by the architectural environment in which she works. Moreover she is attracted by the essential contradiction at the heart of the fresco technique. The laying down of colour over damp plaster (the Italian word means fresh) is one of the most durable forms available to painters; as opposed to the fugitive nature of drawing and the essential vulnerability of pigment on canvas. Yet few if any fresco masterpieces have remained untouched by age, by the passage of time and environmental degradation (damp is a particular scourge). West is attracted by this evidence of the intervention of time in the evolution of an image. She deliberately echoes in her own drawing, the pentimenti of age: the worn, faded quality of fresco where chemical change creates transparency (with the consequent re-appearance of the under drawing). Time is an active partner in the unfolding of her work. In the guise of technological invention time has introduced an artificial contradiction into the nature of fresco: one that has provided West with further food for thought. In the interests of conservation or collecting policy it is now possible to remove frescoes from their original inter-dependent environment, and to translate them into a very different space and social context. West's current practice explores the changes in meaning and experience inherent in translating a discrete piece of art from the place of its making to another space of exhibition.

Calculation, line, space, duration – all elements of perspective – underlie Jenny West's art. The diversity of her interests is matched by the complexity of her intention. No singular reading of her work suffices. This is as it should be. Art seldom lends itself to being tied to a limited (and limiting) interpretation. This is undoubtedly true of West's Renaissance progenitors in whose art seeming realism embodies a multi-layered, often arcane, symbolism as complex as the artist's own. West's position as an artist is most simply understood as that of researcher. The states of unknowing and uncertainty are intrinsic to her process. Drawing (in all its manifestations) is particularly conducive to this attitudinal stance and way of working. It allows for the tentative and for changes of intention (you can always rub it out or change the position of a thread). The idea of art as ethereal, the object as yet undefined or finalised is something West embraces.


1. David Smith, sculptor, lecture on drawing 1955

2. Marcel Duchamp 'The Creative Act', Convention of the American Federation of Arts, Houston, Texas, April 1957. Quoted in Marcel Duchamp, Robert Lebel, Grove Press, Inc. New York 1959

3. Jenny West Notes on Work Book 10

4. David Smith, lecture on drawing 1955

5. Michael Craig Martin, introduction to Drawing the Line exhibition catalogue, The South Bank Centre, London 1995

6. The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space John White, Faber and Faber (1957)1972

7. Definitions extracted from the Yale Dictionary of Art & Artists, Erika Langmuir & Norbert Lynton, Yale University Press 2000, and Dictionary of Art Terms, Edward Lucie-Smith, Thames & Hudson 1984

8. White, introduction, ibid