Working on the Intangible
Jane Tormey. 2003
Jenny West's work presents a singular investigation into the particular characteristics of the drawing process. It demonstrates drawing as a concern to respond to and to develop relationships between elements, as opposed to progression towards a more definitive statement such as 'sculpture'. West pursues the more dangerous, ambiguous area of drawing, which signals points in the process of thinking with marks on surface, and extends it by ordering and evolving the space in which the surface appears.
During the period of West's AHRB Research Fellowship at Loughborough University, her work has evolved from fabrication in the studio - which West terms laboratory - towards an increasingly reactive process determined by the architectural space in which she is situated. West exploits the immediacy and responsive nature of drawing, the tensions inherent in its cognitive function, and presents its process as the resolution itself. Leaving behind more pictorial references to imaginary space, and making space instead more tangible, somewhere between perception and the imaginary, her subject matter is the careful tempering of impossibility. Her work chases the ephemeral, seeking meaning through infinite reference, courting and celebrating 'the process of uncertainty', rather than definitions confined by line and gesture. West embraces a fragility of dualities that create unease; of tensions between opposites; of appearance and erasure; of incidentality and certitude; of precision, control and chaos, raised in the qualities of material substance and metaphor.
The elusive, ambiguous qualities that West seeks in outcome can be confused with her method, which by contrast, is precise and unambiguous. This contradiction ironically parallels the ambivalent criteria defining what may constitute research, and her visible working process challenges the wider debate around 'practice research'. Conferences at the Universities of Hertfordshire and Bristol(2) ask questions such as: Can an artefact do more than simply illustrate a concept?' 'Do artefacts merely stimulate linguistic reasoning' and remain data only? Similarly, discussions within the Loughborough Drawing Research Group and the Drawing Research Network have repeatedly returned to issues concerning research and practice; the legitimate dissemination of that research and the sufficiency of the artefact as both data and explication. Art practice satisfies the generic definition of research, which West's process exemplifies, as the 'systematic investigation toward increasing the sum of knowledge'. But are results of that research transparent enough to be understood without contextualising it linguistically? Is it necessary to analyse and interpret art practice using methodologies borrowed from the humanities and science, or can we evaluate its contribution without linguistic amplification and purely within its own terms of reference? Logic persistently suggests that the activity, but can research be effected through drawing rather than research of drawing?
Perhaps the crucial issue is that of transparency; the 'readability' of that knowledge and whether it is dependent on 'textual commentary' to 'highlight the research elements of practice(3). AHRB Research Fellowship criteria focus on the definition of research processes rather than outcomes and require the articulation of questions, objectives, contexts and methods in advance, making the whole process accountable. The difference between art practice for its own sake and research practice by an artist is 'fundamental to an approach(4), which moves criteria away from the notion of commentary and report, toward the work being both the process of reporting the research and the research itself. It distinguishes individual professional art practice from the promotion of questioning, evaluation and feedback and provides a formal mechanism to frame the process of making, which develops insights, and is communicable. Michael Biggs(5) emphasises the 'communicative aspect' of new data and identifies the key question to be the relationship between the roles of research and theory; what 'connections with knowledge and imagery' the meaning refers to, outside itself. This determination can be applied to art practice such as West's and positions definition of such research as residing in 'the qualities attached to the object', where it is unnecessary to list the qualities of the object to appreciate the nature of the overall concept.
West's working practice centres on a series of interconnected qualities and conditions that reoccur both in evocations within the wok itself and in references and texts with which she inter-reacts. Her scrutiny is persistent, obsessively particular and significant in the way it offers a different perspective to research via visual logic. Her notebooks demonstrate extensive reference and form a visual commentary that tracks and amplifies the drawing process. Her series of associations hypothesise and extend meaning, generating a 'process by which information or knowledge is passed on successively'(6). Connections are visually obvious but non-linear, defying translation into argument by means of 'textual commentary'. It is the sort of commentary that intimates another sort of methodology, another order of investigation and which approaches a different solution to what may constitute evidence of experimentation, data and new knowledge. West's process suggests a way in which practice and theory can address each other equally in a way that does not reduce the visual to illustration.
West's visualisation of thinking and process is in effect her outcome and presents a visible example of where research meets making. Certainly her practice means 'the engagement of the inherent processes of questioning. Contextualisation, experimentation, evaluation and dissemination as a whole process'(7). Just as 'oppositional tension' animates her spaces, so her process of working and attitude demonstrates an ironic tension between approaches to research founded in practice and those assimilated from other disciplines. What seems clear is that West's data and the findings of that data are best read visually, within hr own terms of reference, her own mode of reasoning.
West's stated research question 'is it possible to effectively communicate personal sensibilities such as strength/delicacy; vulnerability; warmth; coldness; permanence/transience in order to transform the atmosphere of the environment?' is answered without the need for verbal amplification, as one is simply affected in direct response to each re-constituted space, prior to any linguistic translation.
1.'Working on the intangible puts great pressure on the thought forms.' In Bill Viola Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House, Writings 1973-1994 London, Thames & Hudson 1995. Cited in Jenny West Notes on Work Book 2, 2001
2. Calls for papers for Research into Practice University of Hertfordshire, 2004 and Practice as Research and Performance University of Bristol, 2003
3. 'Defining Research' in Guide to Awards, Arts and Humanities Research Board available from www.ahrb.ac.uk
4. Anne Douglas and Carole Gray Artesign and the project series Room with a View: a case study of practice-based research in Art & Design 1999 [cited 12/8/03] available from www2.rgu.ac.uk/criad/cgpapers/matrix4/matrix4.htm
5. Michael A R Biggs Knowledge and Advancement Through Models [cited 10/8/03] available from www2rgu.ac.uk/artdes/research/papers/wpdesign/vol 1i.html
6. Jenny west Notes on Work, Cascade, Site-specific Installation 2003
7. Douglas and Gray, ibid.